Design students Ramon Coronado (Graphic Design) and Diane Jie Wei (Product Design) interview a family in the Campamento San José outside Santiago, Chile, as part of field research for the Safe Agua studio. Lead Faculty: Liliana Becerra (Product Design), Penny Herscovitch and Dan Gottlieb (Environmental Design).
Core 77: Why does design for social impact belong in design schools?
Mariana Amatullo: Design for social impact is undoubtedly a piece of an art and design education that is exploding with enormous force across the top institutions around the country and internationally. What's exciting to see is that it's positioning design at the center of the global issues affecting us today. It's a space that's inviting collaboration with other disciplines outside of the art and design world, disciplines like: science, business, engineering, and policy, to name just a few. This is great for design, and beyond that—it's also great for the world. There's a potential for solving some of the big problems that confront us because designers have the ability to seek opportunities and see solutions where others can't. It's part of their education and training, a training that pushes them to search for meaningful ideas that can become actionable.
C77: How is Art Center, where you head up Designmatters, incorporating design for social impact into its curriculum?
MA: This September, Art Center is launching a Designmatters Concentration in art and design for social impact. For us, it's a great chance to educate artists and designers to think about becoming involved in local, national and global issues right at the strategic and leadership levels, the beginning of the life-cycle so to speak of an issue, instead of coming at it at the end to simply style or package a cause. For our students, it's a great chance to connect academic practices to design-based explorations of real world issues. They have the opportunity to step into this space while still a student; at the same time, they're also asked to step up in the way they look at, confront, research and address real world issues.
U.N. agencies, NGOs, industry and non-profits are looking to them as partners, as collaborators and as creative problem solvers. This bold approach is what has characterized Designmatters since it began in 2001. We don't hold back. We use the same rigor that's taught here at Art Center, and to that we combine idealism and aspiration, add nurturing by faculty and guidance by experts. It's that diverse mix of pedagogical "ingredients," along with student project outcomes that get implemented in the community by our partners time after time, that allows our students to emerge with a profoundly transformative experience.
Until now, Designmatters has been comprised of a highly curated portfolio of projects for students, both undergraduate and graduate. Now, as we become a "concentration," we'll be able to map further curricular directions that will provide them with a clearer trajectory while they are here at Art Center, whatever major they are pursuing. The goal is to engage our students more deeply with an expanded set of assignments, courses, and internships, and offer them a powerful articulation of career options they can access; through the significant network of partners and alliances we have forged over time. The vision behind the learning outcomes of the Designmatters Concentration is ultimately to also ensure they gain a richer awareness of what it means to be a designer and play a part of this vibrant and evolving professional space for social change.)
C77: How has Designmatters evolved over the past nine years?
MA: In 2001, Designmatters was originally created with a two-year task force at Art Center College of Design. That task force included department chairs, faculty, students, staff and alumni; all were brought together to establish a framework to operate internally and externally, and to conceptualize a mission. That mission remains the impetus behind the projects we seek out today, as it did when we first conceived of it then: "through research, advocacy, and action, Designmatters engages, empowers and leads an ongoing exploration of design as a positive force in society."
And while our projects are constantly changing, the common goal of all Designmatters projects does not change. They're still about art and design education as a catalyst for change; they're still about imagining and building a better and more humane future for all.
Over the nine years we have had many successes and many "firsts." Art Center is the first design institution to be formally affiliated with the Department of Public Information at the United Nations, as an NGO. It's also the first to be a civil society organization member with the Organization of American States, (OAS/OEA.) The Designmatters Concentration marks a very important step forward fo us, we are designing an exciting platform in partnership with all of the departments at Art Center. The idea here is to not carve out a concentration in art and design for social impact in one single discipline, but rather create one that will, over time, cut across all our majors.
C77: What are the goals for the new Designmatters Concentration?
MA: Our first responsibility is to serve our students. We want to give them as broad and immersive a skill set as possible, one that will impact all the professional touch points in their future careers. To do this, we need to continue working at expanding their toolbox of competencies, so they are ready to go into the professional situations that await them when they graduate. With the rapid speed in which the world is moving, there will absolutely be opportunities that are unforeseen now, but may be awaiting them down the road. Our goal is to give them the capacity to recognize and grab those opportunities, as well as have the confidence to create new ones.
We've found that more students are choosing Art Center because Designmatters is one more layer, one more differentiator when making their choice. So for us, that means giving them more opportunities to engage in, which is exactly what we are doing with the Designmatters Concentration. Looking ahead into 2011 and 2012 we are also mapping graduate level offerings that will be very exciting as well.
Illustrations of the Safe Agua studio outcomes, including a system to bring running water indoors through gravity, a kitchen workstation, designs for a community laundry, a water purification device, a catalogue for shared innovations produced in the campamentos, and a portable, hot shower system. Excerpt from upcoming Safe Agua Book, to be released spring 2011.
C77: Tell us more about Designmatters and Graduate Programs ahead.
MA: The first one out the gate is being conceived by our award-winning Media Design Program, led by Anne Burdick. We are calling it the "Media Design Matters" track and we will begin accepting applications next January for the first entering class in Fall 2011. At the core of the students' experience in this new curriculum will be a year-long project that will allow each new cohort of students to be immersed in the field, with real people, on a real-world issue in partnership with stakeholders and organizations that are effecting societal change. The emphasis will be on the role of communication technologies and infrastructure in people's lives, particularly where issues of agency and access intersect with politics, health, and education. The spontaneous use of Twitter in the Iranian uprising or the need for real-time mapping in crisis situations such as the earthquake in Haiti or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans are examples of the kinds of issues these graduate students will address.
C77: What kind of designers does Art Center endeavor to cultivate?
MA: "Responsible designers"—this implies first and foremost ethics and integrity. They're people who look at a project in a very comprehensive way...not just form and function...but with a systemic view. At the same time, they have a deep awareness of how the object or message being crafted will impact end users, so they tend to be extremely aware of how consequential they and their work can be. Above all, they know that they can touch human beings in a very unique way, and they understand that with that comes great responsibility.
With the Designmatters Concentration, we are striving to redefine and expand the role of the artist and designer into one who is a catalyst for social change and innovation. One of the students who has been involved with Designmatters is Nubia Mercado Ramirez. She's a Transportation Design student who went to Chile for field research on one of our projects and reflected on her experience recently in a very eloquent way. She said:
Being on the Designmatters project, Safe Agua, in Chile, helped me really see that design can go so far beyond just selling and making aesthetically beautiful products; it can be used in ways that change lives. I'm designing in new ways now. I'm involved in using my skills to enhance someone's life who might not have been considered before.
Transportation Design student Nubia Mercado Ramirez on the front step outside one of the homes in the Campamento San José outside Santiago, Chile.
C77: Can Art & Design students really be agents of change?
MA: Yes, they can and they are. I think it's the way creative people are wired, how they see the world. They're very open to ambiguity and complexity; they understand that trial and error is necessary and they're comfortable with the idea of rapid prototyping and confronting the unknown. For them, the process does not imply a linear, intellectual pursuit—for them it's about taking convergent influences and ideas and moving them forward to a tangible outcome. People who see the world through a multiple set of prisms can hit an issue with a lot of force and ingenuity, and I see artists and designers as exactly those kinds of people.
Excerpt from a Designmatters introductory panel at the Cumulus 20th Anniversary Exhibition, Tongji University, Shanghai, September 2010.
C77: How does knowing that these projects are going to be implemented affect Art Center's students?
MA: It's very empowering! We look at the world as our classroom, with an eye toward changing it for the better. When our students see that even a small measure of change has been accomplished because of what they did, they themselves are changed. Suddenly, the notion that small changes can have a big impact has moved from an elevated idea, to a potent reality. That's powerful.
Some of the big markers of progress in social change, things like: tobacco laws, seat belt laws, the women's movement, have been driven not by powers-that-be, or political entities, but rather by advocacy and grass roots movements. Our students have the gift of creativity and the skills to execute a vision, and when applied to real world problems, they can make a difference.
Students Radhika Bhalla (Graduate Industrial Design) and Denise Diaz (Product Design) conducting field research in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala as part of the Creating Social Value through Design studio. Lead Faculty: Steve Montgomery (Graduate Industrial Design) and Liliana Becerra (Product Design).
C77: What accounts for Designmatters' successes to date?
MA: There are different levels that have contributed to our success. The first is the institutional level, which centers on Art Center and it's remarkable 80-year-old history. It's turned out some of the top artists and designers of our time, and in many ways, it and they have shaped the fabric of our culture. So when Art Center took a leap of faith and said, "Yes, we'll bring that same rigor and level of excellence and apply it to large world issues; and yes, we'll invite complementary but very different organizations to partner with us," we grabbed the opportunity and ran with it. Another level of our Art Center success is the very broad institutional commitment that we've garnered from our president and department chairs, to staff and faculty. This commitment has made our growth and success possible.
Then there's the level that focuses on the driving role our students and our alumni play. Over these past nine years, the program has matured and evolved. Now we have alums that have successfully applied what they learned in here out there, and they are helping to lead the way and are opening new doors in industry, with social enterprises they are starting, and in international NGOs and development organizations such as the U.N and convener social innovation organizations such as Ashoka.
Finally, there's the partnership level. When Designmatters first began, we knocked on the door of the UN system, World Bank, and the American Cancer Society within our first year; we reached out to remote and very diverse communities, and this outreach process continues today. Additionally, we don't work with our partners only once, it's year after year—and nine years is a good amount of time to build strong relationships.
We've made inroads within other seemingly disparate groups, bonds have been formed and trust has been established; more and more these partnerships have blossomed into long-term alliances. There's a credibility that has developed for Designmatters that we are very proud of.)
C77: Do for-profit businesses see the advantages of social impact and design?
MA: Today, in the business world, we are truly seeing an embracing of the concept: "Doing well by doing good." And more than ever before, we are seeing designers playing a critical role in making that concept an actuality. They're being asked to apply their unique vision and skill set to find solutions to some of society's most pressing problems. And because they're succeeding, designers are impacting the triple bottom line: environmental, social, economic. That means our graduates need to have an additional set of tools in order to be better prepared to contribute in the arenas of both for-profit and not-for-profit. We are also living in a moment in time where there is recognition that a stepped-up rate of innovation will be the essence of making progress. This entails collaboration across sectors, and new hybrid models that are questioning tried and true rules about what constitutes value and what return on investment might mean.)
Creating Social Value Through Design studio field research and student team visit at a community garden in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.
C77: Can you talk about the value of "purpose" in design? Why is this so important to Designmatters?
MA: When you create something from a personal place of introspection, purpose reveals itself in a different way. This touches upon being more aware and empowered by how consequential that purpose can be. It also encompasses the nature of the process as it unfolds in these projects, and that is so important, too. The process is about bringing problems to the surface and seeing that the answers to them can be attainable within real world constraints like: timelines, deadlines, partner needs, cultural, social and economic considerations.
For our students, purposeful design gives them a whole new view of themselves as designers in a world where their skills and insights are needed, and that insight starts a shift in them. They suddenly understand that they have to get to the finish line, and that shifts them farther. Ultimately, they come away knowing that the way they saw the project/problem through, the way they translated it, followed the brief, and absorbed the research, made a difference. And when they are successful they see why what they did matters. One of our students, Jonathan Goldman, worked on the "Creating Social Value through Design" project in Guatemala where we partnered with several communities on the ground through a local NGO. His experience led him to say this:
One of the outcomes of Creating Social Value Through Design is a branding system for the multi-stakeholder initiative Atitlán Azul that engages and mobilizes the Lake Atitlán community toward sustainable environmental practices. The mark was designed Jonathan Goldman (Advertising) and Mariana Prieto Di Colloredo (Product Design).
C77: What is the power of Designmatters?
MA: First and foremost, we are a hub and a resource—and power lies in that. Within Art Center, Designmatters is a platform for students and faculty to engage and connect. Outside Art Center, I'd like to think we serve as one effective model for relevancy in art and design education. For many "disparate" organizations who do not typically embrace design, Designmatters shows them that there's a way in now. What I mean is that not that long ago, so much of the public and international development sectors didn't know to look to designers and design schools as potent collaborators, but now they do. Now they see these collaborations as a highly rewarding two-way street.)
C77: What is your role in all this?
MA: I see myself as a conduit and a mobilizer. Maybe it's because I have a multidisciplinary background: literature, art history, museum studies, maybe it's because I grew up living around the world, that I tend to see myself as a bridge builder between people, issues and different levels of inquiry. And so today, I find myself advocating for an engaged mode of education, one that's about being out there in the world, with the world. It's an education that's not passive, but is action oriented. So looking at it that way, I seem to be an advocate for uniting educational objectives, with highly effective advocacy and action-oriented outcomes.)
C77: Looking down the road 5 or 10 yrs, who do you think will be in leadership roles?
MA: Down the road, I imagine our leaders as people who have the capacity to be flexible, curious, open and experimental. This bodes well for leadership coming from creative people who excel in those areas. I believe that we'll be seeing more leaders emerging from backgrounds in transdisciplinary education. There are great benefits that spring from there, like teambuilding and teamwork, and that's in addition to a strong and broad body of knowledge. Altogether those talents have the potential to create the kind of person that inspires others to follow.
Looking even further down the road, I think that as we continue living in a world that's more interconnected, more global, the leaders who will thrive will be those with the ability to understand and respond to change that champions our shared humanity.)
Mariana Amatullo, is the Co-Founder and Vice President of Designmatters at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California. You can contact her through Art Center.