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Sustainable Design Initiatives Driven by Academy of Art Students

As we celebrate Earth Day this year on April 22, which also marks its 50th anniversary, we are called on to bring to mind one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today: climate change. There are many ways and forms to tackle the challenge but “sustainability” takes one of the bigger roles. 

As a part of the creative and innovative San Francisco community since 1929, Academy of Art University has consistently put emphasis on sustainability in our art and design education. Most importantly, we are proud to have our students leading the conversation on sustainability in design themselves.  Our initiatives are driven by students and we are here to support their passion. 

Let’s explore how schools and students at the Academy incorporate sustainability into their design in order to reduce environmental impact as artists and designers.

School of Fashion

As a fashion school in San Francisco, sustainability has been in the DNA of the Academy’s School of Fashion since the ’90s, even before it became the everyday concept that it is today. In fact, it can be said that sustainability, at that time, was a concept that was not necessarily popular or favored in the industry. 

Meanwhile, the courses taught at the School of Fashion are built upon this concept, precisely, and all students learn the ways to exercise product sustainability. Making a sustainable design comes in many forms, and here are a few techniques students learn from the industry experts. 

  • Minimize waste: Cutting fabrics with expertise allows designers to have minimal waste. Students also learn to use CLO-3D, a 3D virtual prototyping software that allows designers to sew garments virtually, enabling them to adjust silhouettes and change fabrics and colors, and make design choices more efficiently.
  • Choice of material: Students learn various ways to source sustainable materials, such as utilizing high-quality fabrics upfront. This promotes sustainability as the garments last longer and don’t require replacement. Using organic and recycled materials is another way, which is something that MFA Fashion Design alumnus Eden Slezin applies to his work. He is known for using locally sourced organic cotton and recycled bicycle inner tubes, among other sustainable products. His sustainable efforts were showcased in his collection and turned heads recently at the FW 2020 New York Fashion Week Men’s Day.

“Very often the designers drive the conversation because they’re very much part of a generation that wants to instigate change,”

Simon Ungless, Executive Director, School of Fashion

As a pioneer of sustainable fashion, the school has been offering courses to teach sustainability but what really makes the school come to the forefront in sustainable fashion is the students. Academy students drive the conversation and the school is here to support their passion.

Milijana Delic, MFA Fashion Design

Milijana used CLO-3D software to fit her looks in the collection that she created with her brother, Milos Delic, BFA Industrial Design. CLO-3D allowed her to quickly see the looks, adjust silhouettes, change fabrics and colors and make design choices without being wasteful.  Also, she often goes to the shop at the school and picks through students’ garbage where she finds interesting forms or molds that students get rid of.  She looks for ways to incorporate these shapes into her clothes. 

Photo credit Danielle Rueda (@danielle_rueda)

Yaryna Zhuk, MFA Fashion Design

Yaryna’s graduate collection, which she presented at the New York Fashion Week in September 2019, was an exploration on how to make the design and creation of clothing as eco-friendly and minimal-waste as possible.

From “Blooming in the Shadows.” Photo by Randy Brook

Her excellent cutting skills enable her to reduce fabric consumption and she takes her minimal-waste design to the next level by constructing ruffles and drapes from single fabrics without making any waste as you can see in the image below.

From “Reducing Fabric waste project” – Yaryna Zhuk Design Studio

School of Industrial Design

Industrial designers create everyday products from shoes to phones and cars, and sustainability is extremely important in the industry. Industrial designers used to design with the cradle-to-grave mindset (Creation to Disposal) but now they design with the cradle-to-cradle approach, making sure that designs can be recreated into something else at the end of their lifecycle (Up-cycled).

While our imaginations for creating new products are infinite our natural resources are finite.

Antonio Borja, Director, School of Industrial Design

Throughout the curriculum of the School of Industrial Design, students are asked to make sure they are designing things that are really necessary, design with materials that can be recycled and or up-cycled, and use sustainable materials whenever possible. Here are a few examples of skills students learn and resources available to them to design products in sustainable ways. 

  • Students learn and use Virtual Reality and Augmented reality in the creative process, which allows them to arrive closer to the final design with fewer iterations of physical models. 
  • Industrial design students are using additive prototyping technology like 3D printing, which only uses the material necessary to make our design prototypes.  
  • In Materials and Processes classes, Materials ConneXion Library is used to keep students informed on the most up to date sustainable materials.  
  • Students are learning to use Generative Design, which is a design exploration process. This allows designers to further optimize their designs to use fewer materials to manufacture with the required specifications. By inputting design goals into the generative design software, along with parameters such as performance or spatial requirements, materials, manufacturing methods, and cost constraints, the software simulates all possible permutations of a solution, quickly generating design alternatives.

“Our efforts are driven by the understanding that sustainability is the best way for us to ensure a better tomorrow for all mankind,” Borja furthered.

Our jobs as Industrial Designers is to improve people’s lives through solving problems with great design using sustainability as one of the core tenets.

Antonio Borja, Director, School of Industrial Design

Santiago Bastidas, Industrial Design Student

Santiago used the VR sketching and visualization tool Gravity Sketch to design a new automobile that extends users’ experience beyond a physical journey: an emotional and personal experience. He explains ”As an upcoming creator, the process of developing new products always has to be conscious of sustainability. It has become a foundation for all design. In school, we have learned to develop new processes that significantly reduce the use of physical iteration. Programs that push for sustainable development in every stage of a product’s life cycle.“

Elisa Payer, Industrial Design Student

Elisa also used Gravity Sketch to design Yeezy “RN FR SL”, a performance running collection. With Gravity Sketch, she was able to create what she envisioned beforehand, which allowed her to make less physical prototypes. 

School of Communications & Media Technologies

The impact of media communications on the environment is harder to see than in other industries with tangible products. However, it does not mean the impact isn’t great. In fact, one hour of broadcast TV generates 12.9 tonnes of carbon emissions from production through to transmission, on average. The School of Communication & Media Technologies at Academy of Art University incorporates green production practices into their daily education to align with the initiatives led by the industry leaders, such as NBC Universal.

Lights, Camera, Climate Action

In the production studios of Communications and Media Technologies, incandescent lamps and nearly all fluorescent lights have been replaced with LEDs. This technology saves energy in two ways. LEDs use less electricity to begin with, and they radiate less heat, which means the studios require less air conditioning.

Take Charge

All batteries used in production, inside and outside of the studio, are recharged or recycled. It’s no small effort, because more than a hundred batteries are used every month, from AAA to Zinc. (20 to 50 million metric tons of electronic waste are generated worldwide every year. Only 11.4% of that is recovered for recycling.)

Clean Sheets

The shows go tree-free. The COM 210 Video Production class pioneered the migration of scripts from paper pads to iPads. In the past, one show could consume as much as a foot-high stack of sheets. 

Tablets and phones are reducing waste in the classroom, too. Instructions written on dry-erase boards are photographed by students to supplement written notes. In the office, unused printed sheets are repurposed as scratch paper for all to use. Also, students are encouraged to share required textbooks. 

Schools of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Interior Architecture & Design

Instructor Michael Sammet, who has taught sustainable design at School of Interior Architecture for almost 10 years, commented:

You can’t have [students] graduate without understanding how to reduce energy, water, materials and toxic chemicals in the environment and the environments they build… For 10 or 20 years, the field of architecture has been moving to this concept of net zero.

Michael Sammet, Instructor, School of Interior Architecture

Students from the School of Architecture, School of Landscape Architecture and School of Interior Architecture & Design are learning the basics of sustainable strategies in their fields, and there are many hands-on opportunities for them to apply what they learn in the classroom to solve real-world challenges. Here are a few samples of student projects: 

Sustainable Design and Practices Studio  (LAN 350_OL1)

In this online class, students are introduced to the principles of sustainable design and strategies of green infrastructure, as well as to dozens of case studies where these have been applied. After that, they must then identify specific sites within their neighborhoods, cities, and towns that would benefit by applying sustainable practices.

Not only does this provide an opportunity for students to analyze their community in a new light, but it also gives each student the ability to propose viable ideas to improve stormwater retention, reduce and slow stormwater runoff, reduce the effects of the urban heat island effect, and so on. Going beyond conceptual learning, students actually take their proposals to the local planning boards as a point of discussion. We are hoping that this will encourage more positive environmental activism.

Net Zero Competition

Net Zero is a competition launched nine years ago by the California Public Utility Commission, which promotes the commission’s goals for all new residential and commercial construction to use net-zero energy by 2020 and 2030. 

Students, alumni, and instructors from Interior Architecture & Design, Landscape Architecture, and Graphic Design, and members from two Taiwanese universities, won the Net Zero competition in 2019.

Its main challenge was for architects, landscape architects, and interior designers to create a zero net energy recreation center at the campus of California State University, Monterey Bay. The interdisciplinary collaborative project named “Changer” provided five major design challenges, such as heating, preventing water evapotranspiration, collecting water, collecting electricity, and introducing reflected light.

PARK(ing) Day Project

School of Landscape Architecture undergraduates Francisco Mendoza and Felix Torres created the parklet with 20 wood pallets on PARK(ing) Day in 2019, an annual event that encourages landscape architects, community members, and students to transform metered parking spaces into temporary parklets. The wood pallets were upcycled materials, originally meant to be either ground up into wood and made into sawdust and compacted, or used for raw material or fire. 

“If we can give a new life to it in the form of PARK(ing) Day or what have you, we try to continue that upcycling and continue to renew resources that way,” Mendoza commended.


Feeling inspired? There are just very small samplings of schools and students’ initiatives towards sustainability. Regardless of the field of study in Art and Design, you can find ways to contribute to the Earth. Academy of Art University is here to support your passion. Request information about our degree program to learn more about the school you are interested in or if you are ready to commit, apply today to be part of the sustainability initiatives.

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