Terry Irwin

Before looking any further, no, she’s not the naturalist wife of the legendary crocodile hunter. Trust me, it was my first thought too (and apparently every search engine’s as well). Terry Irwin is an esteemed graphic designer who has made a name for herself in her over 40 years of experience in the field. There isn’t much out there about her early life, in fact, all I could find about when she was that she was a “child of the ’60s.” Though there isn’t much to reflect on a personal level, her professional achievements are boundless.

Irwin started out on a pretty straightforward track: got experience in design, worked in branding (and actually cofounded her own firm, MetaDesign), and taught at a University level for many years. Her work as a Creative Director for MetaDesign in San Francisco spanned from 1992 to 2002, and ranged from projects based in computer software and interface design, to brand identity for clients as esteemed as Nike, Sony, and Apple. While it is impressive that she found so much success, especially by helping to create and run such a large and renowned international design firm, it wasn’t anything revolutionary to the field of design. In 2001, she realized that their work was a bit cookie cutter in their approaches and decided she wanted to explore a new perspective. She had an epiphany, which she jokingly stated happened to coincide with her midlife crisis, that design should examine the direct and indirect connections between what they were designing and “those big wicked problems” that the world has and designers aim to fix. While taking a break from her company, she pulled a book off her shelf, “The Web of Life” by Fritjov Capra, and happened to flip open to a chapter relating to system thinking. Looking at this, she was sure that she would find that the way the company approaches a system design would parallel the natural systems described in the book. However, the more she read, the more Terry Irwin realized that much of their work was designed in opposition to the natural world. This was the start of a design revolution.

Terry Irwin immediately wrote a letter to Capra explaining her dilemma and imploring that he give her guidance on how to remedy such a flawed system. Fritjov Capra was teaching a course on ecological design at Schumacher College in Devon, England and urged Irwin to attend. While there for the three-week course, Irwin learned the importance of interdisciplinary knowledge and decided to further her studies there, going so far as to pursue a Master’s Degree in Holistic Science. After receiving her degree, she joined the faculty and taught sustainable design thinking and design process to students of varying backgrounds, particularly those involved in natural sciences. Her experiences here are what shaped her industry-changing views on the design approach. Irwin realized that the design industry focused greatly on competition, and rarely ever on collaboration. There was this idea perpetuated that a designer had to be the absolute best at something: they had to specialize in one area of expertise and master it. Terry herself had thought and taught this ideology to her students in her past experience. When speaking about it at an AIGA conference, she said to imagine the graphic design industry as this pose: she then hunched over, stared at one particular spot on the floor and began to coo phrases like “oooh, typography, yes. The letter spacing is not quite right.” While obviously a dramatization, it really was an accurate reflection of the problem at hand. Graphic design was conceptualized as such a narrow and precise skill set, and even today you still get a lot of people who think the same thing when pondering the industry. At Schumacher, Irwin started to branch out and focus on the importance of a more well-rounded knowledge and skill set. Collaborating with different disciplines makes for a more efficient designer, and it helps let designers know that there is a need for. Terry Irwin wanted to engineer a design process that focused not on profit or recognition but boiling it down to the real essentials: the quality of life. The view she was exposed to through transdisciplinary work showed her that transitional and sustainable design was going to be key to this motion. Around 2006, she helped program the National AIGA Conference in Vancouver and greatly stressed the importance of sustainable design in the industry moving forward.

Her personal quest to better equip herself for the task at hand led her to move to Scotland in 2007 and pursue a Ph.D. at the Centre for the Study of Natural Design at the University of Dundee. She taught for some time there as she went about her own studies, and in 2009 she moved to Pittsburgh with the position of Head of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. She has remained at CMU as Head of the School of Design ever since, and her impact there has, and continues to be, tremendous. Essentially from the point, she was instated as Head of School to 2013, Terry Irwin worked with faculty to reexamine and reconstruct the Carnegie Mellon curriculum to uphold principles of transitional design for society and the environment. In 2014, the curricula and programs were approved and enacted.

While this is the story of Terry Irwin’s professional life, I feel like it’s important to reflect on the other people who had a profound impact on her life, and who she in turn influenced.  Terry Irwin is married to Gideon Kossoff, whom she does a great amount of work with, as he is also a social ecologist and design theorists. Obviously, it’s pretty clear how there could be some overlap in their careers. In fact, Gideon Kossoff even attended many of the same institutions Irwin did, including Schumacher, Dundee, and is currently employed at Carnegie Mellon. The key difference is that Kossoff has been involved in sustainability for the entirety of his career, so it’s clear to see how his years of experience could, in turn, help Terry Irwin in her own pursuits in sustainability. But Terry Irwin’s influence on others is what really inspired me to dive into her career and learn more. When I initially searched her up and discovered that she was the Head of School at Carnegie Mellon, that immediately struck a chord of recognition. I had just attended Stuart Candy’s lecture and was still fascinated with the projects he discussed, and the mention of the University he works with sparked my curiosity. Candy’s work all seemed so innovative. The focus of his research was to design the future: transitional design. I wanted to see if the University he taught at upheld the same principles he did. After reading more about Terry Irwin, it’s all so very clear how she paved a way for designers like Stuart Candy to dig into the speculative design. Carnegie Mellon University has done so much to revolutionize the way design is taught, and it owes a great deal of that to Terry Irwin.



“Gideon Kossoff.” Schumacher College, 28 Feb. 2018, www.schumachercollege.org.uk/about/gideon-kossoff.

Irwin, Terry, et al. “Transition Design: Re-Conceptualizing Whole Lifestyles.” Head, Heart, Hand: AIGA Design Conference, Oct. 12, 2013, AIGAdesign, Jun. 24, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGpNqfsucn0  

Irwin, Terry. Pivot: AIGA Design Conference, Oct. 13-16, 2011, Phoenix, Arizona, AIGAdesign, Nov. 3, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=vPLAttMnJQ4.

Irwin, Terry. “School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University.” Terry Irwin, Carnegie Mellon School of Design, design.cmu.edu/people/faculty/terry-irwin.

Irwin, Terry. “Terry Irwin | Carnegie Mellon University.” Academia.edu, Mellon University, cmu.academia.edu/TerryIrwin.