Sustainable Design MA Program Director Denise DeLuca
Sustainable Design MA Program Director Denise DeLuca
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Growing out of a 2002 lecture series, MCAD’s fully online Master of Arts in Sustainable Design—the only one of its kind in the nation—launched in 2013. 

Created for those who want to make a positive impact on people and the planet, the MA program enlists a global community of world-class instructors who teach cutting-edge theories, practical applications, and leadership strategies that are relevant across a variety of disciplines and industries.

NEXT, the magazine of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, spoke with Program Director Denise DeLuca about finding answers in nature, solving the right problems, and marrying creativity with purpose.

NEXT: What exactly is sustainable design?

Denise DeLuca: The most simple definition is designing products, processes, and policies that are sustainable, and ideally regenerative, for humans and the environment, now and into the future. It’s also looking at both sustainability and design from a holistic, systems-based perspective. Nature has its own rules for sustainability—when they are violated, species go extinct. So, sustainable design also follows the principles of biomimicry, which applies nature’s rules to everything from manufacturing processes to organizational structures in order to make them more efficient, effective, and resilient.

Jazmyne Geis ’19, MA, is working with PueoKea Farms, her family’s enterprise in Kula, Maui, Hawai’i, to develop olive products with conscious packaging that aspires toward a waste-free, cyclical production pattern of reusing material known as cradle to cradle design. Art direction by On Any Given Monday; Photo by Mike Meyer Photography.
Jazmyne Geis ’19, MA, is working with PueoKea Farms, her family’s enterprise in Kula, Maui, Hawai’i, to develop olive products with conscious packaging that aspires toward a waste-free, cyclical production pattern of reusing material known as cradle to cradle design. Art direction by On Any Given Monday; Photo by Mike Meyer Photography.

 

What makes MCAD’s Sustainable Design MA Program unique?

This is the most holistic online sustainable design program I’m aware of. We integrate theory, practice, and application, which is really unique. Other programs focus more on specific skills and technologies, which is great—we need those kinds of practitioners—but we also need higher level thinking. As an engineer I’m a bit biased, but I believe it’s easier to learn how to apply technical methodologies, like how to make an energy efficient building, than it is to learn how to ask questions like, “Where does the concept of this building fit into this community, and do we even want this?”

One thing I often see missing in sustainable design is the ability to step back and see the big picture and challenge assumptions. If you don’t do that, you might be solving the wrong problem and actually make the problem worse. The analogy I use is to say there are people who are trying to make cars more efficient but not many people are rethinking transportation. In the program, students start with the biggest system we know, the universe, and then work down until it starts to make sense for whatever they’re working on.

“Nature has its own rules for sustainability—when they are violated, species go extinct. Sustainable design follows the principles of biomimicry, which applies nature’s rules to everything from manufacturing processes to organizational structures in order to make them more efficient, effective, and resilient.”

In addition to high-level explorations, sustainable design students learn problem-solving approaches and tools that are universal across their different design disciplines as well as associated disciplines like business, architecture, communications, and environmental science. I have seen a lot of neat benefits from students from different disciplines working together. Sustainability is a global and an interdisciplinary issue—you have to be able to work across departments, across countries. Our online program allows students to learn with and from each other around the world in real time. You can have someone in St. Paul talking to someone in Copenhagen working for someone in Brazil. This equips students to deal with the modern work world.

The program is also very customizable. Almost every course allows students to bring their own projects into the course. Some people will try a different project for every single class so they can explore all these things they’re interested in potentially doing. Other students already know what they want and they take their one project through all the different courses.

A material manager for apparel at Reebok, Kelly Wilcox ’17, MA, educates employees to integrate sustainability in all areas of product development. Reebok’s recent Guresu shoe, in collaboration with Thread International, utilizes recycled plastic purchased from women entrepreneurs around the world. Image courtesy of Reebok.
A material manager for apparel at Reebok, Kelly Wilcox ’17, MA, educates employees to integrate sustainability in all areas of product development. Reebok’s recent Guresu shoe, in collaboration with Thread International, utilizes recycled plastic purchased from women entrepreneurs around the world. Image courtesy of Reebok.

How did you enter this field?

My background is in civil engineering. My master’s work focused on developing a computer model to look at how agriculture, fisheries, and hydropower all manage—and fight about—water. I learned early on to consider the human element. We learned that we could use objective numbers to talk about impacts and interrelationships. We could then discuss different motivations—for example, the fisheries people want water to support fish, but more water doesn’t always mean better fish habitat—and then work together to devise mutually beneficial solutions. It was about getting different entities to communicate and optimize together instead of assuming there’s a fight to win.

I was an independent consultant for a long time, investigating more holistic frameworks and philosophies, and it dawned on me that something was missing. When I came across biomimicry, I became fascinated with it but wanted to make the field more rigorous, practical, and logical. I began applying biomimicry principles to organizational structures and leadership models.


DeLuca’s book was illustrated by Stefanie Koehler ’13, MA

Based on the work I did with colleagues in the UK, I wrote a book, Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, illustrated by 2013 program alum Stefanie Koehler, that lays out the basic paradigm of how we view the world. The human element became so important. I realized that aligning humans, nature, and human nature just might be the key to sustainable design. I was asked to develop courses in leadership and biomimicry for the program at MCAD in 2012 and became the director in 2017.

In addition to directing the program, I've partnered with the Amani Institute to teach a course called BioEmpathy to leaders of social innovation organizations, which is held in Bagaluru, India, and Nairobi, Kenya. The course combines what I teach in the Biomimetic Design and Creative Leadership courses of the MA program. Koehler also joined me this spring in Kenya, very much using what she learned during her time in the MCAD program.

Stefanie Koehler ’13, MA, launched Green Crane Innovation, a studio that provides clients with sustainability-focused design and visual thinking services to solve business challenges. Through critical listening, rapid sketching, and real-time synthesis, she has led strategic design sessions for clients like Chrysler, the Nike Foundation, and others.

Stefanie Koehler ’13, MA, launched Green Crane Innovation, a studio that provides clients with sustainability-focused design and visual thinking services to solve business challenges. Through critical listening, rapid sketching, and real-time synthesis, she has led strategic design sessions for clients like Chrysler, the Nike Foundation, and others.

Talk about the importance of educating sustainability professionals and the future of the field.

It’s growing. More and more employers are recognizing the need for sustainability, in particular at the leadership level. Students often enter the program thinking they’ll get a job after graduating and then leave wanting to change the world by creating their own enterprise. They also often want to teach because they feel more people should know what they have learned.

“We desperately need creativity to achieve sustainability.”

I was excited to join MCAD because the tagline, “where creativity meets purpose,” is exactly what I think the MA program is about. I’ve learned over the years that we desperately need creativity to achieve sustainability. People are innately creative, but over time that gets trained out of them. When you wake up the creativity in people, they literally fall in love with themselves and they fall in love with who they’re with. I’ve done biomimicry workshop after workshop where participants say, “We should do this every weekend!” They are filled with this joy and sense of hope and possibility.

This graphic from a thesis presentation by Tim Coffin ’18, MA, depicts an outdoor fitness trail with nature-inspired obstacles and a space for stretching and meditation, which he designed to help strengthen the mind-body-nature connection. Coffin is now working to implement the project at FortWhyte Alive in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
This graphic from a thesis presentation by Tim Coffin ’18, MA, depicts an outdoor fitness trail with nature-inspired obstacles and a space for stretching and meditation, which he designed to help strengthen the mind-body-nature connection. Coffin is now working to implement the project at FortWhyte Alive in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Learn more about the Master of Arts in Sustainable Design on the program’s blog

 

This story originally appears in NEXT, the magazine of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Want to receive the next issue in your mailbox? Join the NEXT mailing list.