By Alyssa Schoeneman, AEL Intern
Graphic Design Professor Eric Benson never thought of himself as an entrepreneur – until a student pointed it out to him, that is.
A University of Maryland sociology doctoral candidate had contacted Benson for an interview in 2010, he explained, and he agreed to participate without understanding how he fit into her dissertation about social entrepreneurship.
“The watershed moment for me [in considering myself to be entrepreneurial] was when the woman was talking about my site, Re-nourish, as being a perfect social entrepreneurial venture,” Benson said. “The income for my site was nonexistent, but she was interested in the research going into it and in the tools it provided people with to help them make responsible environmental decisions. [The site] was promoting social good through providing an awakening.”
Re-nourish is an “online tool advocating awareness and action for sustainable systems thinking in the communication design community,” the company’s website says; Re-nourish combats the trends of overconsumption, excess waste production and environmental ignorance that currently plague the design industry.
Benson founded Re-nourish in 2006 as his graduate thesis at the University of Texas. It was this life experience and Benson’s concern for people and the planet that led him to develop his Academy-funded course, “Ethics of a Designer in a Global Economy,” in collaboration with College of Art and Design Lecturer Steve Kostell.
“When students leave this University, from a design perspective, they have the skills necessary to work in a firm or for a company. But that is only one way that a designer can function in the world,” Benson said. “When I was forced out of that, I wasn’t prepared to be entrepreneurial.”
Benson explained that he wanted design students to know that they have another career choice when they leave the University.
“Just having that awareness will give them a jumpstart over other students,” he noted.
Benson’s course is broken down into three different projects, each of which is meant to inspire innovative thinking, he explained.
“The first project was meant to get the designers considering how they can impact the community through their own creations – by creating their own startups, in a sense,” Benson said.
The second project allowed groups of designers to create their own agencies or studios, keeping in mind that they were working with a limited number of resources and a changing media landscape.
“The student groups had to consider a quadruple bottom line,” Benson said, “which includes culture, environment, economics and society.”
The third project in Benson’s course merged the two previous projects, allowing students to create entrepreneurial ventures on an individual basis.
In addition to the course’s three-project design, Benson was able to incorporate Chicago-based guest speakers into the curriculum; speakers unable to attend in person joined the class for lecture/discussions via Skype.
“In the class, the funding from the Academy was instrumental in bringing in people who were able to share how they practice in their own studios, and in a social perspective. [The guest speakers] ran through their processes and their stories,” Benson said. “It was helpful for the students to see that what they are learning about isn’t just people in a book; people are really doing this.”
It is Benson’s hope, he explained, to make his course accessible across disciplines at the University of Illinois. He would like to see the course as a general education elective in the College of Business or in the College of Communications, he said, and to see it become open to more art students.
“Designers work with people from different fields and with the community…They don’t often work with other designers,” Benson said. “Our students need to get that education here so they don’t have to get a second education when they are designing out in the real world.”
Benson won’t know if his course has been successful, he said, for at least five years or so.
“I am hoping that one day I get that e-mail from a student that says that he or she completely understands the course now, after working for a while in the design world,” Benson said. “I am hoping that just one student becomes interested in it…that, to me, will mean I have succeeded.”
Though Benson taught the course for the first time in the Spring 2011 semester, its viability is strong. Benson and his students videotaped and recorded the guest speakers and Skype conversations, and an Academy-funded research assistant is currently turning “Ethics of a Designer in a Global Economy” into an iPhone app.
“[The app] packages the course so another faculty member could teach it, if needed. The syllabi, the readings, the projects, interviews, examples of past projects – all of the resources are online,” Benson said. “The course could be offered at atypical times like during the summer, and it could even be offered without funding now.”
Sounds like sustainable design at its finest.
Entrepreneurial project developed by Professor Benson
Ethics of a Designer in a Global Economy (in collaboration with Professor Kostell)
This course examines entrepreneurship, including social entrepreneurship, as a change strategy for sustainability. Partnering with the new Agri Fiber Waste Materials Lab, this course focuses on creating a self-sustaining Sustainable Design Lab for the campus.
Visit Course Catalog website for course availability
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About Professor Benson
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