Written by Noamme Elisha, Photos by Elaine Li
The Chicago Designers Accord Town Hall Meeting took place on March 10, 2011, in the beautiful ballroom of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Organized by SAIC AIGA and sponsored by SAIC's Student Association, there were four presentations by local designers and architects: product designers Sharon and Ted Burdett from Strand Designs, designer Antonio Garcia from GravityTank, Architect Michael Newman from SHED Studios, and Erin Huizenga, founder of EPIC. All of the speakers focused on the theme of designing for social change. It was fascinating to see this trend of recurring topics including sustainability, the value of design, and pro bono work. Following the presentations was a Q&A session lead by the AIGA student leader, Vrinda Bhageria, and finally, there were the round table discussions that enabled the public to engage in a more informal discussion with the speakers.The first speakers were Sharon and Ted Burdett from their studio Strand Design. People are genuinely becoming more interested in incorporating sustainability in their life, and as such, Sharon and Ted seek to make the products we use and consume in our daily lives more sustainable. Building high quality, affordable and sustainable objects, that all meet a certain criteria for materials, local scale, modularity, and affordability. Their designed objects are all made from locally sourced materials, a particular example they use is urban lumber from Chicagoan trees that have overgrown or been infested by insects. They are also advocates of diversity between different areas; just like they only use local Chicago materials, they also only sell their products in Chicago. Local manufacturing is employed by working with people from the community in order to support Chicago's economic employment and growth. They seek to minimize waste with their products, often using waste materials as raw materials and designing products according to the scrap materials they already have, such as their Dog Spotlight. All of this also enhances the affordability of their products, and in turn, the key to sustainability in products.
The second speaker to grace the podium was GravityTank's Antonio Garcia, who works in a multidisciplinary innovation consultancy in Chicago that focuses on research, strategy, interaction design, industrial design, and communication design. He talked about the important ways to communicate information, and transferring dense knowledge into something more agreeable by means of design. He believes that in this area, design can do the greatest good, and so he seeks to make designs more easily digestible by only providing information that is meaningful and relevant to people, as well as designs that are replicable and adaptable. He mentioned three projects with non-profit organizations: A children's trust, ROCA (a youth outreach program), and Mission-Driven Investing. He highlights taking action that is specific to your community, and building project sustainability that, after the initial grant, can sustain itself.
Architect Michael Newman from SHED Studios also focused on non-profit and community based work, and the impact that those have on the community. He presents a project of an urban farm in the south side of Chicago, and comments on the fact that sustainability has dramatically moved to the forefront of designers' agendas. He also mentioned pro bono (non-paid work for the public's good) design, and how it is edging on a dangerous line of not valuing design, stressing that the ways to avoid it is having the designer take initiative in pro bono work and have a mission statement. This way, the design is the most important part and the designer is part of the entire lifespan of the project.
The last speaker was Erin Huizenga from EPIC (Engaging Philanthropy, Inspiring Creatives). EPIC is an organization that gives creative professionals a place to utilize their talents by serving small and non-profit organizations, and to empower creatives to make social change happen. They also work pro bono, and work with underfunded organizations that focus on women, children and education. They do various design work, such as designing websites, posters, photography, and even stickers. By using the power of design, they can help these organizations achieve their mission statements, whether it be working with Chicago public schools to try and get organized goods into schools, increase adult literacy, or educate teenagers about HIV/AIDS. Erin even pointed out that after EPIC's work, one non-profit had an increase in funds by 106%. She stressed that the most important aspect of the process is that the organization is completely involved with the creative processes, and that their core principles is to educate the client about the value of design.
During the panel discussion, Erin Huizenga highlighted the importance of collaboration as an educational tool. Michael Newman elaborated on this point by saying that group work is always a mandatory way of approaching things, because there is always someone else who will have something interesting to say. Antonio Garcia promoted multidisciplinary groups and innovation, and that working with other people is more effective and efficient. The second question dealt with ownership of ideas in an unknown future. The concept of open source technology was discussed between the presenters, and the fact that designers need to be aware that permanence isn't applicable in a world where technology is constantly getting more advanced. With that mindset, designs need to reflect a continuous evolution.
Finally, the speakers were led into individual round tables where the attendees were invited to engage in dialogue.