Recognized for her vision and enduring provocation to shape design education and philosophy through Transition design—the need for societal transitions toward more sustainable and plural futures.
For many graphic designers the pinnacle of the field is leading teams filled with some of the industry’s best designers, and working alongside celebrated typographers to brand Fortune 500 companies like Apple, Nike, Bank of America, and Hewlett-Packard. To be at such great heights in design, is to be assured that you’ve done everything right—and to know that there could scarcely be a reward for looking too closely at the system that helped you achieve that success. But for designer Terry Irwin, critical examination of herself and the field was foundational to becoming the change agent of design that she is today.
Despite Irwin’s clear commercial and academic success in the American design community, what made her into one of the most influential American designers in the twenty-first century so far is her mid-career turn toward sustainability. With an education in ecology and embrace of the interdisciplinary, Irwin has built a practice around confronting the societal problems that have come to define the modern era. In the process, she introduced a new movement in design education that is still underway. As the climate crisis and social inequality eclipse the future for younger generations of designers, Irwin’s Transition Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon University has created a new educational framework that encourages designers to apply their skills to better address “wicked problems” and cut design’s ties to the economic culture that has catalyzed those problems.
Image mosaic courtesy of Terry Irwin. Rows 1–5 (captions below).
Irwin’s defining achievements are in the field of sustainability and systems-thinking, but her entry into the design world was rooted in classic graphic design. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1954, Irwin would eventually start her career as a commercial artist for the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette. After gaining some practical experience, Irwin received an MFA in design from the Basel School of Design in Switzerland, where she studied under some of the twentieth century’s most influential graphic designers like Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart.
It was shortly thereafter that Irwin began to formulate her own vision of design. “I guess there was a little bit of a bifurcation after Basel,” she says. “I started gravitating more to being the problem-solving person, the one that was dissecting it, and planning out how to go about it.” Following Basel, Irwin worked briefly as a project manager for Landor Associates and began her teaching career as an adjunct professor at Otis College of Art and Design, Parsons School of Design, and California College of the Arts in Los Angeles. In 1992, Irwin’s aptitude for using design as a tool for problem-solving eventually led her to becoming a founding partner of the international design firm MetaDesign, working alongside typographer Erik Spiekermann and designer Bill Hill.
For nearly a decade, Irwin brought a systems approach to MetaDesign, where she worked with influential clients in the fashion, infrastructure, and technology industries. For Nike, Irwin’s team created a comprehensive retail brand system for signs, graphics, packaging, and product advertising, and even curated product installations that could be easily scaled and applied to stores around the world. As a partner, Irwin served as creative director on projects for other major clients like Sony, The Getty Center, and Steven Spielberg as the firm became known for its “systems approach to design, and co-designing with clients to develop flexible, modular systems.”
While this prestige helped to establish Irwin’s influence on the West Coast, she found herself confronted with the ethical costs of that international success. Irwin recalls a moment near the end of her time at MetaDesign when she was leading a project for a big-name client who revealed mid-project that they needed a rebrand to counter bad press. “It was the classic, ‘Don't look over here, look over here at this new rebrand.’ And we, of course, were really astounded and outraged,” says Irwin. “But the reality was, we couldn't afford to resign. We had built a machine that needed so much revenue coming through it that it would not accommodate ethics.”
In late 2001, Irwin left MetaDesign, marking the beginning of a decade-long process that would eventually lead her to focus on Transition design, a field of study and practice that seeks design-led societal transitions toward more sustainable futures. This career shift led Irwin to examine her own value system and dig deeper into the “wicked problems” that she had enabled through her connection to the design world.
Irwin served as the program director of the 2003 AIGA Design Conference, The Power of Design, where she took the opportunity to invite critical social and ecological perspectives into the discipline by curating a lineup of sustainability-focused speakers, including environmentalist David Orr, Michael Braungart, one of the authors of the influential manifesto on circular economy Cradle to Cradle, and influential ecologist Fritjof Capra. Irwin made it her goal to expose young designers to ideas about sustainability from outside of the discipline. “If it wasn't for that conference, I wouldn't be where I am today,” says designer and professor Eric Benson, who has since made sustainability a key focus of his practice. “That changed my whole direction in life.”
The Power of Design conference prefigured a major cultural shift in the design industry and helped to create a foundation for bringing critical ecological and social thinking into design. It also served as the launch point for Irwin’s most influential work. After befriending Capra at the conference, Irwin went on to study with him at Schumacher College, where she received her Masters of Science in Holistic Science. The two began working together to create interdisciplinary approaches to ecology and design. “[Irwin] has greatly influenced my thinking about the interface between ecology, design, and the systems view of life,” says Capra.
Image mosaic courtesy of Terry Irwin. Rows 6–9 (captions below).
Learning from, and teaching design to ecologists, biologists, botanists, physicists, sociologists, and activists reoriented the mindset of the Swiss-trained graphic designer. By the end of the 2000s, Irwin had become a force in sustainable design, undertaking five years of doctoral studies in the Center for Natural Design at the University of Dundee in Scotland, and co-authoring a major report from the Design Council on the state of sustainable product design in the UK, using systems thinking as an analytical approach. In 2009, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) approached Irwin to head their design program in Pittsburgh, where she began to synthesize her experience as a designer and her socio-ecological approach to systems into a new school for sustainable design.
Irwin and a team of junior and senior faculty overhauled all CMU’s curricula at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels—starting by adding 500 books on ecology and transition to the school’s library. She immediately set about improving the facilities, adding new furniture designed by CMU grad students. She also addressed inequities in staff salaries and began to embed social and environmental sustainability teachings into the curriculum. “It was just such a clever way of signaling to the school that change is coming, and it's a big change,” says Cameron Tonkinwise, collaborator and former head of the PhD for Design Studies at CMU.
Working with Tonkinwise, the philosopher and social ecologist Gideon Kossoff, and the rest of the faculty at CMU, Irwin was able to lead a redesign that created a robust design studies thread throughout curricula and launched a new doctoral program in Transition Design. The term “transition” refers to a cocktail of different ideas, from Rob Hopkins’s “transition towns” to concepts relevant to biodiversity transition in ecological systems, carbon infrastructure rhetoric, and even contemporary design theory. All of these ideas inform Transition design’s aim of reimagining infrastructure and design-lead societal transitions through deeper study of social, economic, and natural systems.
The problems Transition design aims to solve have only grown in their extremes, and the relationship between design and socio-ecological issues have become more apparent, but there are still people who criticize Transition design as too political, too complicated, or for simply not looking like design. But even the most staunch graphic design traditionalists are willing to listen to Irwin. “They have respect for her,” says Tonkinwise. Threatening as the ideas behind Transition design may sound to established design and industry leaders, Irwin’s ability to bridge traditional design practice and contemporary social discourse has enabled Transition design to gain momentum as a new approach to sustainability in the design field.
The expansive and evolving program that Irwin has helped to build at CMU reflects her own path in design. Transition design requires designers to question their own beliefs and ideology about the world and the systems they occupy, and to use design as a tool for change. In thinking and design, Irwin made a radical change in her career when she was already comfortably at the top. Since then, she has collaborated with some of the most celebrated thinkers in sustainability and design from around the world to create a new way of changing design that might imagine a better world. “The distance between her beliefs and actions is zero,” says Tonkinwise. “It's a very infectious thing to be around.”