Eric BensonApril showers are already watering the flowers. The climate is quite unsteady, and among our many brilliant members that assist in regaining balance, there is one who is taking a unique approach. Does the spring chicken in you want to know how? I thought so. This month I asked some questions of Eric Benson. He is a Sustainability Design Partner at Re-nourish, where they advocate awareness & action for sustainable systems thinking in the communication design community

SB: Thanks for representing our Featured Member for April 2013, Eric.  Let’s start with the elevator speech on Re-Nourish and one project that the organisation is currently working on.

EB: Ok, here goes…. Re-nourish is a one-stop, open-source, online resource for graphic designers who are looking to start being more sustainable in their craft and a place for those professionals who need a set of tools in their daily job to make responsible design decisions for themselves, the economy, and the planet.  Whew!

In terms of the newest project we are working on, I’d have to point to our alliance with the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP). This organisation certifies sustainable printers, which is something we don’t have the person-power to do here at Re-nourish. Having them as a partner will allow us to introduce our design audience to more up-to-date information on greener printing, and open more doors for SGP to connect greener printers with the design community. We’re excited for what may come of this project!

SB: I’m also really intrigued by your Fresh Press paper and the Agri-Fiber Paper Laboratory.  Can you tell us about that and how it’s going?

EB: Fresh Press is my newest baby. My research partner Steve Kostell (a printmaker) and myself started this back in 2011 with the hopes of creating more sustainable paper and packaging material through agriculture waste and indigenous prairie grasses. We feel that this concept could help create new recipes for industrial papermaking and a new revenue stream for regional farmers that could sell their crop residue for additional income. It’s a grand scheme, but one we are determined to see through.

We haven’t changed the world (yet), but it is going well to-date. We’ve raised around $112,000 to purchase papermaking equipment, hire part-time workers, filter and use rainwater, and set-up solar panels to take part of the project off-grid. We’re working with an organic farmer, architects, landscape architects, a botanist, chemical engineers, painters, and graphic designers at the University of Illinois on this project. It really blows my mind to think something as ubiquitous as paper could connect together so many passionate and smart people around this project. I could go on forever about this as there is so much to say, but I’ll refrain, as I know there is a limit to what people want to read online! I would just point you to our Facebook page, as usually we’ll update what we’re up to weekly there.

SB: So you’re currently an Associate Professor of graphic design.  Do you ever have students come up with groundbreaking design ideas?  What are students excited about right now in the world of sustainability?

EB: Yes of course! Being an educator is quite a challenge but rewarding at so many levels. I get excited talking with students about their goals and ideas and what those could mean for the project at hand and also my own work. Not all their concepts, of course, are mind-blowing, but I would argue that my students make smart work that challenges expectations of the assignment. 

Your second question is a good one. It is also one in which you’ll probably get many answers from different professors. In my experiences, undergrads usually don’t approach me about the topic unless I introduce it to them in class first. Most simply want a great portfolio and the skillsets to succeed. They connect with the idea of sustainability once I use examples from their own lives that relate the concept to them. When they recognize how everything is connected (their goals and the planet) they seem to get motivated. I’ve had the best luck with percolating excitement for sustainability in my assignments through packaging design. Graduate students, on the other hand, seemingly are a lot more aware of current events and we have great conversations about the topic.images

SB: I was going to ask what inspired you to be a part of Re-nourish but then I researched your tools and watched your TEDx video. Now I know. The video led me to wonder how it is you calculated the numbers in your presentation.  How many trees you saved, how much water you saved, etc. with your new and improved catalog.

EB: Well, I guess the simplest answer to that question is math! How glad we are that we paid attention in high school algebra! However doing these calculations isn’t something we do in our head. We rely on data we have collected from paper companies, environmental groups, scientists, and the brains of one Brian Weber who constructed our behind-the-scenes database online that displays our environmental savings in real time. It has been a very useful tool for users of our site and one Yvette and I use in our projects – including the BFA catalog from University of Illinois, which you mentioned

SB: I really like the tools you offer. They’re all incredibly user-friendly. The paper finder tool especially interested me.  Who do you think is your main audience for the website and how do you reach them?

EB: Thanks! We definitely try to make usability and practicality our goals for all of our tools. Our main audience has always been professional graphic designers. We have no budget for advertising, so we rely heavily on social media tools and surprising opportunities like this interview to get the word out. Yvette and I also have been invited to give lectures for organisations like the AIGA, which has been a wonderful way to meet many of our followers face-face as opposed to @insertname on Twitter. Being a part of those events is our favorite way to speak with graphic designers of all experience levels.

SB: And finally, my self-serving question is why is Re-nourish a member of the Environmental Paper Network?

EB: Whenever we partner with a person or an organisation, it’s important that that we all share similar goals and mindsets. The Environmental Paper Network is a great example of a group that matched up on almost every key aspect of our mission. They are a great partner. 

Thanks for getting to know Eric and Re-nourish.  Please keep an eye out in May for our next featured member.