Image courtesy of MCAD Sustainable Design        


Course Materials

Welcome to Whole System Mapping for Delivering the Good Life 
[2 min]
by Denise DeLuca, Director of MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design Program


Whole System Mapping [5–10 min]
Created by Jeremy Faludi for the VentureWell Tools for Design and Sustainability website.

This article describes Whole System Mapping in a step-by-step guide you can use in your own company, with design teams, and when envisioning new products. This is the same process used in the workshop and in MCAD’s masters-level class Collaborative Product Design.


Whole Systems Design: Introduction to Life Cycle Thinking [7 min]
created by Jeremy Faludi for Autodesk

This video summarized how Whole System Mapping makes life cycle thinking a creative and visual activity, not just analysis.  From manufacturing to disposal, the things we make create environmental impacts throughout their life cycles. You'll discover that opportunities for saving resources (like materials and energy) can often be uncovered early in the design process, by identifying the right problems to solve before engineering begins. 

Questions for reflection:

Spend some time reflecting on these questions and consider writing about what emerges for you. You can also use these questions to prompt discussions with your colleagues, friends, and family.

  • How might Systems Thinking contribute to Delivering The Good Life?
  • Do you consider yourself to be a systems thinker? In what ways?

Taking action: How might you use what you learn?

Take these actions to help solidify and make use of what you've just learned. You can also use these questions to prompt discussions with your colleagues, friends, and family.

  • List 3 ways that shifting your perspectives to systems thinking could help you and/or your organization contribute to Delivering the Good Life.
  • List 3 specific actions you (or your organization) could take to begin reaping the benefits of systems thinking.

Try This

Jeremy Faludi created this Whole System Mapping exercise for MCAD’s Collaborative Product Design class, and it is now also available through VentureWell. Try this 4-step process to help you explore how systems mapping can help you Delivering The Good LIfe.  The exercise can take 1 to 4 hours, and is great to try with a team.

Whole System Mapping - Exercise

There are four steps in the Whole System Mapping design method:

  • Step 1: Visually map the product’s (or service’s) system.
  • Step 2: Use estimated life cycle assessment (LCA) to set environmental priorities, then balance with business or other priorities.
  • Step 3: Brainstorm on the system map you created (helps ideation be more thorough and radical).
  • Step 4: Choose winning idea(s) based on your priorities and your estimates of idea performance.

Downloadable "cheat sheets" are available for each of these tools.

Additional Resources

A Sustainable Design Method Acting as an Innovation Tool [article]
by Jeremy Faludi
Product companies generally see sustainability as a burden limiting their design process, similar to cost or safety limits. A method for sustainable design was created, attempting to turn sustainability from a burden into an innovation tool with inherent business value. The method combines creative whole-systems thinking with quantitative sustainability metrics. It facilitates innovation by the creation of visual whole-system maps that encourage more thorough and more radical brainstorming. It facilitates sustainability by using quantitative measurements, such as life-cycle assessment or point-based certification systems, to set priorities and choose final designs. The method has been anecdotally tested in classes at four universities, and many of the companies partnering with these classes have said the students provided both sustainability and feature /functionality benefits. This paper also compares the method to Lindahl’s nine recommendations for being useful to engineering designers. Thus there is at least anecdotal evidence that the design method may turn sustainability from a burden into an innovation tool. Future studies should compare the method against industry-leading innovation and green design methods.

012: Natural Systems with Curt McNamara of MCAD [podcast]
by John Ackley | Feb 3, 2016
Curt McNamara, P.E. is a practicing designer with 30 years experience in medical, commercial, and industrial markets. An active Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers member, Curt received the IEEE Millennium Medal in 2000 for his ongoing work in education. He has worked with the Biomimicry Institute to create content for the Biomimicry Toolbox, is a Biomimicry Education Fellow, and helps with the Biomimicry Education Network. Curt created and teaches the Systems and Innovation courses for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) Master of Sustainable Design, and works to ensure that every student gets a grounding in the techniques of biomimicry and systems thinking.

Factor Ten Engineering Design Principles [article]
by Rocky Mountain Institute
Designers often assume that radical efficiency is too expensive. Yet RMI’s Factor Ten Engineering initiative demonstrates that very large energy and resource savings can be very profitable across a wide range of applications. Factor Ten Engineering uses such innovations to transform design and engineering practice, via whole-system thinking and integrative design. This document outlines the design principles of Factor Ten Engineering.

Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System [article]
by Donella H. Meadows, Sustainability Institute

Thinking in Systems: A Primer [book]
by Donella H. Meadows
In the years following her role as the lead author of the international bestseller, Limits to Growth―the first book to show the consequences of unchecked growth on a finite planet― Donella Meadows remained a pioneer of environmental and social analysis until her untimely death in 2001.

Thinking in Systems, is a concise and crucial book offering insight for problem solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global. Edited by the Sustainability Institute’s Diana Wright, this essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life.

Some of the biggest problems facing the world―war, hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation―are essentially system failures. They cannot be solved by fixing one piece in isolation from the others, because even seemingly minor details have enormous power to undermine the best efforts of too-narrow thinking.

While readers will learn the conceptual tools and methods of systems thinking, the heart of the book is grander than methodology. Donella Meadows was known as much for nurturing positive outcomes as she was for delving into the science behind global dilemmas. She reminds readers to pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable, to stay humble, and to stay a learner.

In a world growing ever more complicated, crowded, and interdependent, Thinking in Systems helps readers avoid confusion and helplessness, the first step toward finding proactive and effective solutions.

About MCAD’s Master of Arts in Sustainable Design program

MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design Program

Change your perspective. Change your designs. Change our world.

MCAD’s fully online Master of Arts in Sustainable Design program was created for busy working professionals who are passionate about sustainability. The program enlists a global community of students and world-class instructors working together to push the sustainability envelope forward across a variety of disciplines and industries.  

This program is ideal for students who are seeking a deep understanding of the cutting-edge theories, practical applications, and leadership strategies of sustainable design in order to forge new paths in this continually evolving field.

Just 30 credits and 5 semesters stand between you and your master's.

Complete the fully online program anytime, anywhere.

The MA in Sustainable Design blog page

Includes weekly blog posts; profiles of students, faculty, and alumni; and links to all past thesis project presentations.

Apply Now