We talk a lot about sustainability and design here at Inhabitat, but something we’ve never talked about before is the sustainability of life as a design student. Design school is intense and competitive, not to mention full of noxious chemicals – and it can often be trying to lead a sustainable, balanced and healthy life while in design school.

Core77 recently put together a great “Hack2School Special” — full of tips and tricks for getting through design school. Because my focus is sustainable design, I decided to contribute my thoughts on how to make the design school lifestyle more sustainable. Here’s what I wrote…


I’m currently an architecture grad student, and despite my sincere passion for being in school, I can tell you that I’ve never seen a more unhealthy, more unsustainable environment than that of architecture school. Do any of you out there recognize this picture: students routinely spending 10-15 hours per day sitting in one place, glued to flickering computer screens, while toxic chemicals are mixed and handled all around them. I’ve often found myself in this exact position: eyes straining, back sore, trying to finish a project at 4am, under flickering fluorescent lights, while someone next to me melts acrylic with a cancer-causing chemical, the person on the other side of me hacking up toxic blue foam with a small saw, and the person behind me snoring in a sleeping bag underneath their desk. I know its completely unhealthy, yet there’s this pressure and this feeling that if one doesn’t keep up with the grueling life of the students around you, you’ll never make it through school. Its hard to walk out of studio at 10pm to go home when every other student is still dilligently working, coffee in hand, clearly planning to be at their desks until the morning…

Architorture, Archtecture School Torture, Design studio torture

Why do we pay tens of thousands of dollars to subject ourselves to this kind of life, when most other professional schools (including law and medicine) seem to have evolved out to a more reasonable understanding of live/work balance? Even medical schools, which used to be famous for torturing their students with grueling hours and unreasonable deadlines, have wised-up to the fact that red-eyed, sleep-deprived, pill-popping students can’t learn effectively or make smart decisions. I posted a similar article to this on Archinect.com – and the answers from other students are pretty interesting…

We do it because it’s the culture of design school – this is what is expected of us, and what everyone around us seems to accept as ‘the way things are”. This type of uber-competitive, insanely unhealthy atmosphere will only change when we decide to stop putting up with it, so the change has to start with you.

Design-students, here are 5 steps I composed for taking back your life, and demanding a sustainable, healthy and productive experience as a design student: (I’m trying very hard to take my own advice these days…)

1. LEARN HOW TO ORGANIZE YOUR TIME

A healthy lifestyle starts with you. The biggest cause of all-nighters is procrastination; so getting a jump on your work ahead of time will enable you to balance your life more effectively. I’ve found that setting internal goals and deadlines in a calendar can really help fight the creep of procrastination. My favorite procrastination fighting tool – Google Calendar.

2. SEEK OUT HEALTHIER MATERIALS

It seems to be expected that design students will happily live in a pile of blue foam and off-gassing plastics – but why subject yourself to that, when there are plenty of natural model making materials that are healthier and cheaper too. The next time you start to reach for blue foam, try balsa wood or corn-based foams instead. Cardboard and chipboard are plentiful cheap and healthy alternatives to plastic and foam-core. Stay away from the “Zap-a-gap” and nasty super-glues and try hot glue guns instead. (But be careful not to burn your fingers!) Finally, on those days when you just can’t find an alternative to clear acrylic, open the window or go outside.

3. TAKE BREAKS & GET OUTSIDE

You may think that all you need to know can be found within the confines of your studio (or even your computer monitor) – but this is simply not true. Most often the best ideas, intuitions and breakthroughs will come to you you’re your mind is relaxed and open – when are walking down the street, jogging or even sleeping. Good designers have lives. They go see movies, have lunch with friends and find inspiration in the world around them. You will never find inspiration in a computer screen. It is imperative to both creativity and your sanity to take breaks.

4. CREATE A PRODUCTIVE WORK SPACE
Its difficult to concentrate and work effectively when you are uncomfortable or distracted. Keep your desk clean and uncluttered, invest in a good LED desk lamp (they are energy efficient and don’t heat up), and adjust your chair and desk to ergonomically appropriate heights so you can sit (or stand!) in an upright and alert position. (I prefer to working standing up). Its also crucial to keep a refillable bottle of water on hand at all times as well as an mp3 player and a pair of headphones, so you can tune out the world around you.

5. KNOW WHEN TO EAT, EXERCISE AND SLEEP

Its hard to be mentally alert and productive when you are hungry, sleep-deprived or tired. Your body needs sleep, food and exercise to stay on its game. Get into a regular exercise routine (like jogging or karate classes), stock up healthy snacks to keep at your desk (fruit and nuts are a good bet), and know when to call it a night. Believe me, that idea you came up with at 5am after 5 cups of coffee won’t hold up in the light of day, and your project really will be that much better after you’ve had a full night’s sleep.

6. LEARN HOW TO SAY ‘NO’
A healthy lifestyle starts and ends with you. Learn how to stand up for yourself and don’t succumb to the pressure of unhealthy attitudes around you. You are smart – you made it to design school, and you are smart enough to know deep down what is and what isn’t good for you. Your teachers may pressure you and your fellow students may compete to see who can go the most hours without sleep, so ignore them. Being a sheep won’t get you anywhere in real life. Look for support in your friends and in more enlightened faculty-members. It is only when enough people in design school realize that there is a better alternative that things will actually begin to change. Until then, hang in there and take responsibility for making the most out of your time in design school.