"Peace" by Daniel Chang, Graphic Design, a final poster from a transdisciplinary studio, instructors Martha Rich and Esther Watson, Illustration
Social impact projects that come into the classroom and burst out into the field are thrilling. The rush of creativity and the synergy of many minds working together can result in purposeful design projects to great effect: generating tangible solutions that make a lasting difference in people's lives.
Historically, designers have always strived to create positive social change, and many celebrated efforts--think back to the Bauhaus--started in schools. Both of those things remain true today. In fact, design education has a larger role than ever to play in challenging the status quo around the wicked problems of a crowded planet. Despite, and perhaps because of, the world being in such turmoil, this is a very exciting time for design and designers. I firmly believe that with an expanded tool kit, designers can be instrumental contributors to a conversation about the future that it is getting increasingly layered and multidisciplinary. If we are ever to reduce or curtail dire societal ills and achieve sustainable development--by definition, prosperity that is globally shared and environmentally sustainable--responsible design needs to be front and center as part of the equation. (For an engrossing state of the world report, see Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, by the economist Jeffrey Sachs.)
Educational institutions are vital labs for creative inquiry, entrepreneurial force and experimentation. As such, they can act as a powerful nexus for projects about critical issues that engage students in meaningful work. I have a front row seat in this dynamic field as the lead of the college-wide program Designmatters at Art Center College of Design. At the college through Designmatters, we constantly challenge ourselves to instill in our projects an empathetic approach, and to deliver "real-world" outcomes that have a killer aesthetic. At the root of the process, I am guided by a frontier-like impetus to create unusual alliances that cut across traditional boundaries between development and non-profit agencies, government and business sectors.
Camel Convoys in Kenya and testing of camel saddle and solar panel system for Mpala Community Trust with Bronx Zoo personnel
What does it look like? What does it all mean? The projects below are a few salient exemplars--the voices of some of the individuals who make them happen offer a good starting point to draw an action list from.
It's Not About You
In northern Kenya, nomadic herding communities travel through the dusty terrain of the bush under glaring sunlight. Mpala Community Trust (MCT) operates mobile clinics of local counselors and camel convoys that provide the sole reliable source of health services in the region. Thanks to our collaboration with the Undergraduate Engineering Department of Princeton University, and the design of an ingenious saddle supporting flexible solar panels to power portable refrigeration units, the camels will soon be carrying vaccines and other medical supplies that currently spoil under the heat conditions in the area.
The Mpala Project is the outcome of a seemingly unlikely initial partnership between MCT and Designmatters. The collaboration made it possible for us to participate as a 2007 finalist in the World Bank Development Marketplace competition, and subsequently became the premise for a studio class of illustration students, who designed a series of visually-based health education materials for the clinic that promote HIV/AIDS and family planning. The prototypes were sent back to Kenya, and a recent snapshot from the field shows counselors using two of the student products: a canvas flipbook of images promoting safe sex, and a fabric viewing device with pictures illustrating the benefits of family planning.
These exciting outcomes started with a realization by our students that they had to transcend their ingrained preconceptions.
Instructional fabric book to teach HIV/AIDS prevention, created as part of the Mpala project: from the studio to the field
"If your goal is to design something for someone else, you have to work with them, not for them," says Wendy MacNaughton, Campaign Director at Underground Ads in San Francisco and one of the advisors of the project whose field research in Kenya informed the student team. "This means giving up your ego, your assumptions, your biases, and stepping into another person's shoes."
When you are setting up complex projects that demand a considerable stretch in cultural bridging, relying on human-centered research methodologies, a participatory mode, and a sense of self-awareness are essential. It may be a humbling point of entry, but it is critical. In such circumstances, the balancing act is to inculcate the educational process with the rigor of real-world constraints while maintaining a nurturing and stimulating environment in the studio. This give-and-take is at the core of our practice through Designmatters. Another fundamental characteristic of the program is its reliance on a network of distinct partnerships.
In finding partners, complementary expertise is a primary requirement. The other essential is the capacity to maximize the design outcomes. Creating such alliances empowers you to have a greater impact through design and add value to your own exploration. In this sense, I often equate partnerships to finding a space where you can break loose from the confines of your own frame of mind, and find ways to achieve more progressive solutions. Say no to silos.
Don't Accept Things at Surface Value
Advocacy in the classroom starts with the faculty. Teachers are the primary agents of the transformative journey students undergo during these projects, abandoning their comfort zones and exploring new paradigms. "As a class we have a specific goal to accomplish," says Esther Pearl Watson of Art Center's Illustration Department. In challenging and guiding students through a real-world assignment, "we cannot create work that is simply good enough."
"This is My Home" by Cindy Chen, Graphic Design, a final poster from a transdisciplinary studio, instructors Martha Rich and Esther Watson, Illustration
Fundamentally, with the increased complexity at stake in the content of social impact projects, a radical shift occurs. Along with a requisite set of tried and true problem-solving methodologies and a design process that faculty will access no matter the topic--getting students to crystallize concepts and arrive at the kernel of their "big idea" in order to articulate meaningful interventions--the range of inquiry inevitably expands. "Students experience how things work outside the bubble of school," says Martha Rich, who often co-teaches with Watson, "learning how to deal with clients, criticism and to see the power of their work. It is enlightening."
I would also argue that these projects trigger a heightened motivation. Ultimately, the real learning may lie not in the problem solving though, but in the problem seeking.
Sketches of a solar water purifier to provide access to clean water in rural Guatemala, by Gabriel la O'and Armie Pasa, Product Design, with advisor Tony Luna; "Leucocita" health campaign for Project Concern International, student team: Raymond Dang, Armie Pasa, Michael Tam, and Jack Wittbold, from a transdisciplinary studio led by Robert Ball, Environmental Design; Igor Burt, Product Design; and Allison Goodman, Graphic Design
Armie Pasa and Gabriel la O' (product design) are a case in point. They are tackling entrenched problems caused by poverty, and developing measurable solutions, whether it is a water filtration system for rural Guatemala, or a campaign for community-based healthcare interventions in Tijuana in partnership with Project Concern International. Armie characterizes this community-focused work as both challenging and fulfilling: "These projects are beyond our scope of vision," says Armie of the challenging and fulfilling community-focused work. "I think every design student should see what is on the other side. It opens the door to making the impossible a possibility of hope."
As leaders of design-education institutions, it is clear that the yearning to address socially relevant explorations is not just percolating down from our desks; it is bubbling up from our students' expectations.
"One of the most remarkable changes in the work and thinking of student designers in the last five years is that socially responsible design has become an assumption--it's built in from the start, in the projects students select and in the people they want to design for," says Mark Breitenberg, Art Center's Dean of Humanities and Design Sciences and Icsid's President Elect. "So when I'm feeling optimistic I imagine the next generation of designers seeing their professional work primarily as an opportunity to change the world. A lofty thought, I know, but that's the way the generational wind is blowing."
When you unleash the energy, enthusiasm and unique ingenuity and optimism of design to effect change, the results are empowering. "It is very inspiring," says Justin Cram, a recent graduate of the Graphic Design Department, and a summer fellow with Doctors Without Borders, where he was immersed in a team with global reach to craft campaigns with potentially critical consequences. "Especially to be part of this network."
Mari Nakano, Graduate Media Design student
"The goal is not to make something acceptable, but something memorable," says Mari Nakano (Graduate Media Design), a Designmatters Fellow this fall in the Communications office at the UN Population Fund. To that end, she is unapologetic about espousing controversial ideas. "If we are fierce, and inspiring, we can instill social change from the grassroots on up."
Turn Heads, Change Minds
Effective advocacy depends on enabling people to learn more about the issues that matter so that they can become part of the solution. "Once in the ether," says the film student Alice Park (The G.G. Meeting), "the easier and more willing people are to have an open forum on the subject, and take action."
"Today the most endangered natural resource is not oil or fresh water," says Professor Nik Hafermaas, Graphic Design Chairman and Acting Chief Academic Officer at Art Center, "it is the human attention span." The designer's job must be to grab and hold that attention in order to focus it on areas of critical need through what he calls the white noise of ubiquitous media. "Successful communication designers have become visual engineers--their tools are surprise, empathy and beauty."
Design intervention by Gavin Alaoen as part of a Graphic Design studio, instructor Sean Donahue, Graduate Media Design
In other words, the act of persuasion has never been tougher. Designers have to operate amidst the current flux of emergent technologies, user-generated media and the very obvious end of the "one size fits all" broadcasting paradigm. Tanja Diezmann, who leads Art Center's Interface Design program, recently guided a team of students through the development of "After Shock," an interactive, on-line simulation of the individual and social impacts of a major earthquake on the communities of Southern California. The simulation, a joint project with the Institute for the Future that is in turn one communication component of "The Los Angeles Earthquake: Get Ready" project launches next November 13, and should be an interesting experiment that applies the social media phenomenon of "alternate reality experiences" to the pressing problem of local community disaster preparedness. So when it comes to social-impact messaging, the key advice is don't be drab; make it intriguing and make it look as fabulous as the new beer commercial. Generate mileage by utilizing the same attention-grabbing strategies you would for a consumer-based product.
It also boils down to not being afraid of acting a bit of a provocateur--while keeping a good grip on your understanding about the issues at hand. And by all means, be real. If there is no authenticity in the message you design, folks see right through it.
Some of the success we have experienced in this vein at Art Center have been led by our undergraduate Film Department, which houses a studio for students to conceive and shoot public service announcements that are distributed widely by the commissioning agencies that Designmatters brings in. A few recent examples include campaigns on the topic of obesity, climate change and the global water crisis.
Blowing Smoke, directed by Jonas Mayabb
The GG Meeting, directed by Alice Park
Apathy, directed by Hugo Stenson
Circle, Directed by David Beglin
Sweaty Man, Directed by Jason Kim
Fat Lane, directed by Jonas Mayabb (Film)
A Shifting Emphasis
Designmatters is one of many design programs, and a design community at large, where the DNA is evolving toward a strong emphasis on imbuing the educational experience, as well as design practice, with critical content and a sense of contemporary relevance and commitment. And I believe this evolution can easily become a tipping point for the future of design and design education.
Let us seize this opportunity to advance design's potential for social impact. Let us seize on the optimism of a new generation of students by providing them with more choices for real-world exposure. Let us envision and embrace this vision of the future by providing a collaborative framework and the right tools and methodologies to put forward-thinking designers in the driver's seat of social change.
Octavio Paz, the Mexican writer, poet and diplomat, once famously said: "Deserve your dream." These words resonate simultaneously with a sense of hope and responsibility. They also represent fundamental advice and inspiration that I take to heart with the start of each new project, as we seek to achieve our most important dreams through design.
Mariana Amatullo, co-founder and director of Designmatters, is the Vice President of the International Initiatives Department of Art Center College of Design. Through her leadership, Art Center is the first design institution to be formally affiliated with the United Nations as an non-governmental organization (NGO) and has become recognized with numerous public and private agencies as an exemplary effort uniting humanitarian, social and educational objectives. Mariana, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and raised around the world as a diplomat's child. Mariana holds an M.A. in Art History and Museum Studies from the University of Southern California; a Licence en Lettres Degree from the Sorbonne University, Paris. Mariana can be reached at mariana.amatullo[at]artcenter[dot]edu.