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NMSU graphic design, industrial engineering departments team up for sustainable design

Students in New Mexico State University's art and industrial engineering departments team up during the fall semester each year to design more sustainable packaging for familiar products in Art 355: Sustainable Packaging Design.

Four NMSU graphic design students, a graphic design professor and an industrial engineering student pose with the packaging they designed, called Infuse.
The College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering team up each fall semester for Art 355: Sustainable Packaging Design. Pictured on final presentation day are Bryan Smith, Anita Martinez, Peter Fine, Bryan Howell, Abigail Ortegon and Elena MacBride. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)
This is a photo of a packaging project called Infuse, which was designed and created by NMSU graphic design and industrial engineering students.
Graphic design and engineering students on Team Infuse designed more sustainable packaging for spices as part of Art 355: Sustainable Packaging Design, taught by Peter Fine. Pictured is their product, called Infuse. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)
NMSU students gather in a classroom to watch final presentations for a class called Sustainable Packaging and Design.
Students in Art 355: Sustainable Packaging Design present their final project, while classmates observe. The graphic design students in the class teamed up with industrial engineering students to design more sustainable packaging concepts for common products. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)

The graphic design class, which has been offered for four years, examines products designed for disposal after use, like tampons and razors; many of these items depend on packages that also are largely tossed out.

Last week, students in the class gave their final presentations, offering greener redesigns of their selected products.

"Typically, the graphic design student would only deal with redesigning the label of a product," said Peter Fine, NMSU assistant professor of graphic design and Art 355 instructor. "I started working with engineering and rapid prototyping to create more sustainable packaging. Our students go to Target and pick a product that comes in contact with the body in some way - so it could be clothing, makeup, food and mouthwash. A lot of the things from the pharmacy and toiletries section get redesigned in this class."

The class was originally a multi-color production class, but Fine opted to change the class, tying his research and interest in sustainable design into the coursework.

"I'm looking at what's happening at NMSU, but also the broader discourse of what's happening in sustainable design - not just graphic design, but larger systems of design," he said.

Fine began collaborating with Delia Valles-Rosales, associate professor in the industrial engineering department, who was working on creating plastic from canola oil and using post-consumer plastic mixed with red chile stems and leaves. This prompted Fine to require his students to use a major material like plastic in their products, but to make the product more eco-friendly, whether it is made from post-consumer waste, is biodegradable or recyclable. These interventions can help change the cycle of waste.

"I noticed that because I was pushing the students to look at the lifecycle of not just the package, but the whole product, they started thinking about the product more," Fine said. "This semester I was a lot more explicit and required they look at redesign of the product as well."

This year's class formed into four different groups, each rebranding a product that has retail presence and that comes in contact with the body somehow. They chose a brand of birth control pills, cotton swabs, allergy medicine and a culinary spice combination pack.

Team Infuse, composed of graphic design students Bryan Smith, Bryan Howell, Elena MacBride and Abigail Ortegon, along with Anita Martinez, industrial engineering student, redesigned the McCormick Recipe Inspirations package, a spice combination pack with spices premeasured for completion of one recipe. Their new product is called Infuse.

The redesign process begins with an in-depth research and analysis of the packaging of the selected product. The group determined that the McCormick packaging was made of a crude oil-based plastic, aluminum and cardboard. Their redesigned Infuse product is made from clear corn oil plastic with labels printed with soy ink on recycled paper. Once the spices have been used, the hexagonal Infuse container lives on as a stackable storage container capable of holding craft items, hardware, office supplies, jewelry and other small items. If not repurposed by the consumer, the container can be composted at commercial composting facilities located throughout the U.S.

After the graphic design team developed their project, their work with Martinez began. Martinez turned their vision into a measured drawing and used SolidWorks, a 3-D computer-aided design software program, to create the product and send it to a 3-D printer for production. The printer created the actual label-ready Infuse package.

The general consensus of graphic design students is that working with engineers to develop their product provided experience that they will find beneficial to their future careers; the engineers agreed.

"It was pretty awesome seeing the way we think and they think," Martinez said. "We will all have to do this type of collaboration in real jobs, so this experience was very beneficial."

Valles-Rosales was awarded an IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and access) Grant from the Provost's Office in March 2011 to develop an education program focused on a sustainable future in renewable biomaterials. This grant allowed her to train several students and an extension allowed her to begin training freshmen, who also worked with Fine's students.

"By working on this collaboration, we believe students are developing skills that they wouldn't get in a class lecture," Valles-Rosales said. "Working in this type of environment and developing the teamwork skills are helpful when they join the workforce. And, for the engineering students, at least, this type of work is very useful when applying for summer internships, co-ops and jobs. It is truly helping them prepare to succeed in the workforce."

Fine said that while the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system has been around to rate sustainability features of buildings since 1998, and Okala rating sustainability of industrial design, the graphic design field has been far behind in sustainability efforts.

"I got together with some people who were interested in it and I realized that there weren't any standards, there was nothing online at the time, but that has really changed," Fine said. "My principle interest is in the pedagogical, in changing the way design itself is taught. There wouldn't be a single class on sustainable design or sustainability, but it would be infused with all of your classes in some way."

Integrating sustainability themes and lessons into more of the NMSU curriculum is a goal that the NMSU Office of Sustainability is pursuing, with the help of the NMSU Sustainability Council, students, faculty and staff.

This specific class, however, has been eye-opening for the students who complete it.

"We look at 30 percent of the landfill being composed of packaging, then that's a place graphic designers can maybe look to get at little leverage between production and consumption," Fine said.

Fine has just finished writing a book called "Graphic Design: Sustainable Principles and Practices," which will contain case studies from his class. Berg Publishers will publish the book in 2014.

For more information about the class contact Peter Fine at fine@nmsu.edu.