CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Fueled by a constant flow of ink, paper, CDs and other materials, the graphic design field hasn’t been the greenest profession on the planet.
A logo is among the materials created by Eric Benson's students for the new U. of I. Sustainable Farm. | Image courtesy Eric Benson
But University of Illinois graphic design professor Eric Benson is on a mission to change that. His ultimate goal in educating designers, design studios, printers and other business owners and operators through a variety of means – from his classroom teaching to a Web site and advocacy effort promoting new graphic-design standards – is to recast the graphic design field as one that will be dominated by more sustainable practices in the future.
Along with colleagues Jess Sand, a San Francisco-based freelance writer and designer, and Yvette Perullo, a teacher at the New England School of Art and Design at Suffolk University and a designer at Sage Systems, Benson has been promoting the development of sustainable design standards and practices through the group’s “Re-nourish” Web site. The trio also is working to assemble an advisory panel to write the standards, which he envisions as a tier-based system that allows anyone to immediately place a given printed piece into a sustainable context – including the studio that produced it.
Benson envisions the panel as including interested parties from an array of sectors, from independent designers, paper manufacturers and printing companies to non-profit and government organizations.
“We don’t want to control the outcome, but rather, facilitate it,” he said.
While Benson and the others still have a fair distance to go before they succeed in revolutionizing the field, their showing in a recent competition confirms that they are headed in the right direction. The group’s sustainable design research site recently placed among the top three in the Cooper Hewitt People’s Design Award competition.
The site also was selected as the “Web pick” of the week by Communications Arts, one of the graphic design field’s top publications.
On the Re-nourish site is an essay by Benson, in which he explains the epiphany he had one day a few years ago when he noticed that several of the “beautiful direct mail pieces” he had devoted countless hours to designing had been unceremoniously deposited in a trash bin near a bank of apartment mailboxes.
“It dawned on me that warm summer evening that everything I had previously created and in the future will design would end up in the landfill or be incinerated into our atmosphere,” he writes. “During the seemingly innocuous process of choosing a nice weight/color of paper and burning a CD of files for the printer, I was helping to destroy the forests where I love to wander, breathing in their wisdom.”
Benson’s “awakening,” as he describes it, led to a series of soul-searching exercises, followed by some intensive research, then feelings of disappointment and disillusionment with his profession. In the end, the experience resulted in his current efforts to transform the field and its prevailing practices.
Another prime target for his reform campaign is his own design students. On the Web site, Benson discusses the results of a project with senior graphic design students who chose to support more ecological practices by contracting with a printer that agreed to procure 100 percent recyclable paper for the students’ paper-intensive assignment. The students also specified that the job be printed using soy-based inks. In addition, they employed an electronic process for delivering data to the printer, saving both paper and CDs.
This semester, Benson is teaching a course in which students are creating materials to promote the U. of I.’s new Sustainable Student Farm, located south of the campus.
“We’ve worked with farm manager Zack Grant, the Office of Sustainability and chefs in the residence halls (who are beginning to cook meals using produce grown on the campus farm) to create an entire branding and awareness campaign to promote the farm on campus,” Benson said. “We’ve made a Web site, posters, planned events and created two films about the project.”
On Dec. 8, the students – along with others from a course taught by new-media professor Ryan Griffis – will exhibit posters, games, information graphics and other materials relating to the topic of food and sustainability in the auditorium and mezzanine area of the Activities and Recreation Center, 201 E. Peabody Drive, Champaign. The exhibition will be on view from 6-8:30 p.m.
Also planned at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 8 in the same location is a screening of the film “Fresh,” which Benson said focuses on the growing trend of consuming food that is locally produced.
Benson said the screening is the first in a film series supported by the university’s sustainability office, the Design for Energy and Environment Laboratory and the Student Organization Resource Fee. The series will resume in spring 2010.