ENERGY, Eco-Icons that Electrify!

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Graphic Design

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Language Arts
  • Science

Lesson Time

1.5 hours


Helping your community “go green” can oftentimes be a question of communication and design. Many of the environmental problems we face are abstract or difficult to understand right away. Designers that use graphic arts and visual mediums help to simplify and effectively communicate these issues in unique ways. From logos, to signs, to print media and online visualizations, designers help to organize and communicate vital information to the public in many ways.
Bright, green, leafy trees are frequently used to graphically communicate information about environmental concerns. In this lesson, students will become designers for the day. They will be challenged to design a new symbol or “eco-icon” to explain the need to conserve energy, promote renewable energy and/or make the connection between energy use and climate change. Students will design icons in teams and present to each other. The winning icon should be easy to read.  It can be placed around the school to promote energy conservation and awareness. This lesson promotes the application of language arts standards, helping students think critically and use design strategies to communicate and evaluate vital information.

National Standards

Common Core English Language Arts
Grades 6-8
Common Core English Language Arts
Strand Writing
Grades 6-8
Common Core English Language Arts
Grades 6-8
Visual Arts Level III (Grade 5-8) Standard 1. Understands and applies media, techniques, and processes related to the visual arts  Benchmark 1. Understands what makes different art media, techniques, and processes effective (or ineffective) in communicating various ideas Benchmark 2. Knows how the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes can be used to enhance communication of experiences and ideas Standard 3. Knows a range of subject matter, symbols, and potential ideas in the visual arts Benchmark 1. Knows how visual, spatial, and temporal concepts integrate with content to communicate intended meaning in one’s artworks Benchmark 2. Knows different subjects, themes, and symbols (through context, value, and aesthetics) which convey intended meaning in artworks  

Common Core State Standards

English Language Arts Standards: Speaking and Listening

Grade 6-8

Comprehension and Collaboration:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1.A Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.2 Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.3 Delineate a speaker's argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and relevance and sufficiency of the evidence and identifying when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.4 Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.5 Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See grade 8 Language standards 1 and 3 here for specific expectations.)

English Language Arts Standards: Reading Informational Text

Grade 6-8    

Key Ideas and Details:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.2 Determine two or more central ideas in a text and analyze their development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.3 Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.5 Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to the development of the ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.6 Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author distinguishes his or her position from that of others.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.7 Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium's portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.8 Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-7.9 Analyze how two or more authors writing about the same topic shape their presentations of key information by emphasizing different evidence or advancing different interpretations of facts.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

English Language Arts Standards Writing 

Grade 6-8

Research to Build and Present Knowledge:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.


  •  Students will design a sign and icon to help their school community reduce energy use and connect energy consumption to issues of climate change.
  •  Students will make signs in other languages.
  •  Students will learn about graphic design, arts and communication.
  •  Students will understand the value of communication and easy to understand design in achieving effective communication.
  •  Students will understand the role of designer as a communicator and shaper of ideas.



Poster board, old magazines, Sprout Eco-Icon set (link above)


Graphic Design - The term graphic design can refer to a number of artistic and professional disciplines which focus on visual communication and presentation
Climate Change – Refers to changes in long-term trends in the average climate, such as changes in average temperatures
Carbon Dioxide – One of the major greenhouse gases. Human-generated carbon dioxide is caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels.
Greenhouse Gas - Greenhouse gases are gases in the atmosphere that absorb and emit radiation within the thermal infrared range.
Energy Efficiency – The practice of using less energy to provide the same level of energy service.
Energy Conservation - Energy conservation is the practice of decreasing the quantity of energy used.


Introduction to Graphic Design (10 Minutes – Review)
Talk to students about the field of graphic design. Graphic design is a form of visual communication. Designers use text, images, sounds and experiences to communicate a story or a message. In this lesson we are going to use the tools of graphic design to communicate about energy efficiency and conservation.
  •  Energy conservation is any behavior that results in the use of less energy. Turning the lights off when you leave the room and recycling aluminum cans are both ways of conserving energy.
  •  Energy efficiency is the use of technology that requires less energy to perform the same function. A compact fluorescent light bulb that uses less energy than an incandescent bulb to produce the same amount of light is an example of energy efficiency. However, the decision to replace an incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent is an act of energy conservation. (Department of Energy)
What are some major energy problems facing Americans?
  •  Cost of Energy – the cost of energy has skyrocketed in the past few decades because of limited resource availability.
  •  Environmental Impacts – many environmental impacts stem from energy use, production and consumption including: air quality, water quality, land-use and climate change issues.
Next, focus each students’ attention to their school building. Explain that we are going to create an eco-icon or symbol to help reduce energy use in the school. Talk with students about what kinds of things in the school consume energy and what kinds of energy. The two most basic forms are heat energy (fuel oils, natural gas) and electricity (natural gas, coal, oil). Ask your school principal to supply you with energy bills to see just how much energy is consumed and from what sources it is being produced.
Past and Future Icons (10 minutes – Investigate)
Transition to a discussion about commonly found symbols that concern the environment. What are some common symbols that address environmental issues? For instance:
  •  The globe
  •  Recycling symbol
  •  A tree or leaf
  •  No littering signs
  •  No fishing/dumping
What about for energy?
  •  Energy Star
  •  A plug or outlet
  •  Electric bolt
  •  High voltage
How do these symbols convey anything about energy? Do you feel they communicate a story about impacts of energy consumption or the ways that energy use relates to your life?
Discuss some pros and cons of existing eco-icons.
Technology Connection
A large number of consumer technologies are helping policymakers and communities alike understand their energy consumption.  These help to visualize when and how we use energy. Consider some technology applications below.  Some of these objects can be found in the National Design Triennial:
  •  Ambient Devices - Energy Joule: Helps you save money by showing the current price of energy and level of consumption in the home. The data is updated continuously from your energy company. You just plug it into an outlet.
  •  DIY Kyoto – Holmes and Wattson: The Holmes and Wattson devices help homeowners keep an eye on their energy use through real-time measurements that connect to a simple program on your computer and a real-time display that looks like a clock.
  •  Power Aware Cord: The Power Aware cord helps make the invisible visible. Designed by Anton Gustafsson and Magnus Gyllensward at the Interactive Institute in Sweden, it signals the amount of energy that flows to an appliance through glowing pulses and intensity of light. The design is based on our intuitive notion that light symbolizes energy use, and gives people direct feedback and the feeling of both seeing and interacting with electricity.
  •  Energy Aware Clock (pictured below): Electricity is invisible, and for many of us, it is something we take for granted. The Energy Aware Clock, designed by Loove Broms and Karin Ehrnberger, in collaboration with Sara Ilstedt Hjelm, Erika Lundell, and Jin Moen for the Interactive Institute in Sweden, shows electricity use in real time: if the dishwasher is turned on, the energy surge appears immediately on the clock’s display.
School Icons (10 minutes - Frame/Reframe)
Now focus on your school. Conduct a field study to identify all the major signage and icons found in your school.  Common school sinage may help us find:
  •  Bathrooms
  •  Garbage/Recycling Bins
  •  Lunch Room/Auditorium/Gym
  •  Office/Teacher Lounge
  •  Sporting
While students are investigating evidence of graphic design in the school, they can also conduct a visual energy audit. Encourage students to notice where a lot of electricity is being used; where are the light switches and thermostats?  The students should estimate which areas use more electricity than other.
To incorporate the development of writing skills, have each student compose a short essay about the impacts of graphic design. Read examples from Project M Lab’s project such as “Buy A Meter” – a graphic design program that helped residents in Hale County, Alabama fundraise for water meters in their community. Ask students - does graphic design affect you in your daily life? How could better graphic design affect your community in a positive way? For instance, what if it were easier to find the local park, a place to hang out or a place to skateboard? Where to buy good ice cream or how to find a bike route to school?
Use questions such as these to discuss the role of graphic design in your school community and local area.
Graphic Design Lab: Part One (20 minutes - Generate Possible Solutions)
After investigating your school and how graphic design impacts students, it is time to design! Divide students into graphic design teams or students may work individually. Challenge each team or student to design an eco-icon to communicate something about energy in his or her school. The icon should be clear and connect the need for conservation/efficiency and relate to environmental and health impacts. The icon should encourage action.
Provide students with scrap paper and magazines for collage. Print out examples of eco-icons from Savio Alphonso and find more information at
Each student or design team should develop 2-3 icons to share with the rest of the class.
Graphic Design Lab: Part Two (20 minutes -Edit and Develop)
After 20-30 minutes, students should fine-tune their icons and each student should choose 1 or 2 to share. Pass the symbols around the class and have each student guess what the icon is trying to communicate. Each student should write down the message or meaning of the design on the back of his or her sketch pad/notebook.
Pass the students' icons around and have peers guess what the icon is encouraging. Can others easily read the message? (Share and evaluate)
Choose the top 3 symbols and as a class decide where these can be placed in you school. Post the most successful designs around school to encourage green consciousness from others in your academic community.


Reflection Questions
  • Over the past week, have you seen any inspiring “go green” logos?  Will you pay more attention to green design in the future because of today’s class?
  • Would having a way to monitor your energy consumption make you more likely to reduce the amount you use?  Why or why not?
  • If you had never seen your own design, would it encourage you to become more energy conscious?

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • To facilitate the design process, give younger students stencils of commonly used energy and conservation icons, as well as stencils of people and animals. Ask students to pick from the icons and modify them, put two together in a unique way, or manipulate them in some creative way to relay their message about energy conservation. Some samples you might use are here and here.
Differentiation for High School:
  • Invite a graphic designer to the class to speak about his or her design process. The designer can show an example of his or her work, and the steps taken from the initial consultation with the client, to concept, to final design.
  • Students can interview the school's principal or facilities manager about the building's energy use and where they would like to see more energy conservation and energy efficiency. The interview should also address the challenges the school faces in energy use and conservation. Students should use this interview with their "client" to focus their design of eco-icons. The "client" can also help the class identify which final icons should be used in the school.
  1. This is a great interactive lesson and challenges students to become more aware of the design and construction of the school and how energy is utilized. I appreciate the audit portion of your lesson. I encourage you to incorporate more the design based process more clearly. Invite the students to determine what issue or potential issues identified post-audit. Utilize the How might question as part of your guiding or essential questions.

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