What is an Environmental Design Degree?

The best answer to this question is found in the dual definition of ‘environmental.’ For the environmental designer, the word refers simultaneously to two commitments – ecological sustainability and livable and inviting human spaces.

Degree programs in environmental design are focused on the interrelated variables that impact our natural environment and the built structures that we add to it.

The curriculum explores the four elements that drive environmental design:

  • Architecture – buildings and other structures
  • Landscape – parks, gardens, courtyards, public squares, and recreational spaces
  • Interiors – spaces inside buildings
  • Environmental Graphics – signage and information boards, exhibitions, public installations and interactive experiences, and identity and placemaking (creating a sense of place)

In addition to learning the architectural and design foundations of the field, students of environmental design take courses in math, physics, and applied ecology.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Design – Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s programs in environmental design are largely pre-professional programs, meaning that graduates with the degree typically go on to further study in the field. Some employers, however, may hire undergrads for entry-level roles.

At many schools, the first two years of study for students pursuing a Bachelors’ Degree in Environmental Design can be made up of courses in essentially any subjects, as long as they include English and geography. The final two years of these bachelor’s programs focus on the core topics of environmental design. Here is a sample curriculum:

  • Architecture in Context – examination of the historical transformation of the built environment; social, political, and economic elements that impact formation of the built environment
  • Design, Media, and Representation – development of skills in drawing and digital imaging, use of CAD and graphic design applications
  • Themes in Architecture and Design – from the broad geographical context to urban design, architecture, interior design, and industrial design
  • Experiential / Environmental Graphic Design – wayfinding/signage, exhibition, interactive experiences, public installation, place-making and identity
  • Geometric Modeling – use of digital tools and media, graphic design and CAD software, 3D modeling, geographic information systems (GIS), animation applications
  • Technology and Technique – the history of technology and technique in the history of building, the evolution of design concepts into built objects and structures, material selection, fabrication methods
  • Materials and Methods of Construction – the appropriate use of materials and construction methods, the impacts of design ideas on the environment
  • Landscape Technologies – techniques used in grading and drainage for landscape design and construction, functional and aesthetic issues
  • Architectural History – the relationship of architecture with its environment throughout history, how thinking about the natural environment has influenced architecture, how ideologies influence how space is conceptualized
  • Landscape Architectural History – examination of designed landscapes from Europe, Asia, and the Americas, from medieval times to present
  • Site Analysis and Planning – how to read and interpret terrain, how to describe site features including physical, living, and cultural elements, how to formulate a site plan
  • Environment and Urban Form – case studies related to environmentally oriented, sustainable urban design
  • Design Studio – studio projects may include commercial, residential, retail, hospitality, and/or institutional design

Master’s Degree in Environmental Design – Two Year Duration
At some schools, this graduate degree is offered as a master’s in architecture or urban planning with a concentration in environmental design. Generally, admission requirements to a master’s program in environmental design include a digital portfolio of the applicant’s design work, research, and visual communications know-how.

Compulsory coursework at this level varies from program to program, but typically includes classes in theories of environmental design and research strategies.

In their master’s studies, students immerse themselves in their chosen context, on which they will base their thesis. Much of their time is spent on developing, prototyping, and testing proposals based on how people use and feel about their design. Areas of focus may include:

  • Community Development
  • Design for Sustainability
  • Experiential / Environmental Graphic Design

Doctoral Degree in Environmental Design – Four to Six Year Duration
At some schools, the Doctoral Degree in Environmental Design is offered as Ph.D. in architecture or urban planning with a concentration in environmental design. The degree program is research-focused and is geared toward individuals pursuing a research and/or university-level teaching career.

Sample core areas of study, in preparation of a Ph.D. dissertation, are:

  • Social and Behavioral Science in Planning and Design
  • Ecological and Natural Resource Science and Planning and Design
  • Humanities and Arts in Planning and Design
  • Built Environment and Health Sciences in Planning and Design
  • Landscape Engineering in Planning and Design

Degrees Similar to Environmental Design

A degree in architecture will appeal to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for both the sciences and the arts. This is because architecture is itself the art and science of designing and engineering structures and buildings. It is a field with a foundation in creativity, technology, and social and cultural trends.

Civil Engineering
This degree field is focused on the processes of design and planning of civil infrastructure like roads, tunnels, bridges, dams, railroads, and airports. In their work, civil engineers are concerned with such things as how much weight a structure can support and the environmental issues presented by construction. The emphasis of civil engineering degree programs is math, statistics, engineering systems and mechanics, building codes, and statistical analysis.

Environmental Planning
Degree programs in environmental planning teach students how to balance human needs and wants with environmental sustainability and protection. Classes span the principles of general architecture, landscape architecture, interior architecture and design, and urban and rural development. The curriculum may also include coursework in sociological concepts in environmental planning. Topics addressed in this area may include poverty and the environment, population and environmental planning, and social policies that shape environmental planning.

Graphic Design
The goal of graphic design is to produce visual concepts to communicate messages. The discipline uses layout, color, and other creative concepts to design logos and branding packages that inspire and captivate consumers.

Industrial Design
Industrial designers design the way that we live our lives, by creating, innovating, and styling the common mass-produced items that we buy, use, and consume. They research, build, and test prototypes to maximize the functionality and desirability of products, from cars to food packaging to consumer electronics. Students of industrial design study the history of the field, design conceptualization, drawing, dimensional and computer-aided design, materials and processes, and model making.

Interior Architecture
The focus of interior architecture is interior construction versus interior design. An example of the work of interior architects is the transformation of a centuries-old church into a residential building. The goal is to preserve the heritage exterior while creatively adapting the interior space. The field of interior architecture is more technical than interior design. It involves design analysis and collaboration with builders and contractors.

Interior Design
Design degree programs in interior design teach students how to apply both technical/scientific and creative/artistic solutions to produce functional and attractive spaces within a building.

Landscape Architecture
Landscape architecture students learn how to apply both the creative and technical skills of architecture to plan outdoor spaces and landscapes, such as parks, gardens, playgrounds, residential areas, and college campuses. The curriculum includes computer-aided design (CAD) and courses specific to landscape architecture, such as horticulture, hydrology, geology, environmental design, and landscape design.

Urban Planning
Degree programs in urban planning teach the processes involved in designing communities, towns, and cities. Students learn how to make decisions about the need for and placement of infrastructure like roads, highways, tunnels, bridges, airports, railroads, dams, utilities, parks, and other urban projects. Coursework includes environmental planning, which considers environmental, social, political, and economic factors.

Skills You’ll Learn

Attention to Detail
Creating precise drawings with correct measurements that can be used by contractors and sub-contractors is a critical skill developed in environmental design school.

Drawing Skills / Computer-Aided Design (CAD)
Students of environmental design develop an appreciation for graphics and graphic design and the ability to present an idea in a manual or computer generated drawing.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS)
Environmental design students learn how to use GIS technology to gain detailed perspectives on land and infrastructure that helps them and environmental planners make decisions regarding land use and project development.

Innovative ideas are meant to be showcased and shared. This is a skill that environmental design students learn throughout their professional training. It is also a skill that is useful in multiple occupations.

Problem-Solving / Research / Design Thinking
Problem-solving in the environmental design field is often referred to as ‘design thinking.’ Early on in their education, environmental design students are taught to consider a problem from multiple perspectives before arriving at a solution.

Project Management / Leadership
The work of environmental designers involves leading teams, site planning, and complying with standards and regulations.

Relationship Building / Teamwork
Early on in environmental design school, students are required to work on projects with fellow students. Once they begin practising in the field, they become aware of the need to communicate and collaborate with contractors, subcontractors, engineers, and clients. The capacity to build relationships and work in teams is applicable to virtually every walk of life.

Spatial Reasoning and Visualization
The skill to think about and visualize concepts in three dimensions is fundamental to environmental design.

What Can You Do with an Environmental Design Degree?

In each of the sectors listed below, environmental designers focus on the twofold objective of their work. They design to protect natural ecosystems and to enhance human spatial experiences in built environments. Their expertise, therefore, is sought both by the design world and by businesses seeking the services it offers:

The Design World:

  • General architecture
  • Landscape architecture
  • Lighting architecture
  • Restoration architecture
  • Urban planning
  • Graphic design
  • Industrial design
  • Interior design
  • Furniture design
  • Production / set design

Entrepreneurship / consulting to:

  • Governments – community revitalization programs
  • Educational institutions
  • Hospitals
  • Hotels
  • Museums
  • Office buildings and corporate spaces
  • Park boards
  • Real estate development firms
  • Restaurants
  • Shopping malls and retail stores
  • Sports and entertainment complexes and amusement parks
  • Trade shows
  • Transportation systems

Teaching and conducting research at:

  • Colleges
  • Technical schools
  • Universities


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