Can Schools Teach Designers How to Solve the World's Problems?

Aspiring designers want to build a brighter future not make more product: Can these new design programs help them realize their dreams?

When the first students arrive next year for the School of Visual Arts’ new MFA program in Design for Social Innovation, they won’t find themselves in any old classroom. As befits a program that encourages students to deploy design to improve society and the environment, SVA is investing in retrofitting one of its existing buildings in Manhattan into a LEED-certified learning space that features a playroom “where action, play and creativity reign” and an auditorium “wired to hear from and be heard by the world,” says Cheryl Heller, chairperson of the new department. "We want it to be a window into the world instead of a place in academia," she adds.

Academia is the place, however, where a new generation of socially engaged designers is being trained at a time when the vaguely defined field is still in its infancy. That hasn’t stopped schools from joining the trend with certificate and degree programs that range from examining "wicked" problems like climate change at Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of art to focusing on “designing for social impact around communications, technology and public policy” at Art Center College of Design in California. Other programs can be found at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Parsons the New School of Design. For its part, SVA is hoping to attract up to 25 students for the inaugural two-year program that will cost budding social designers more than $67,000.

What students get for their money is an immersion in society’s large messy problems (usually in collaboration with local organizations) and insight into how designers can help solve them. The programs are based on the kind of questions that Mike Weikert, director of MICA’s MA program in Social Design asks: "As designers we can wield a big stick, we have influence, and so what is our responsibility? What do we give back to society?" The answers center on “design thinking” and “human-centered design,” popular buzz phrases that underpin a new design process not only for commercial products but also designer do-goodism.

That is, expanding design beyond the craft of creating beautiful and highly marketable artifacts to being directly involved in the process of change. Or as Jamer Hunt, Director of Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons The New School for Design puts it, "We have evolved beyond making MP3 players out of bamboo." If you’re a product designer, talk to rural Chinese about flat-screen televisions and design and market one with them in mind. If you’re a social designer, live in a Chilean slum and experience going without clean water—and then design a water delivery system (like the Safe Agua project, designed by Art Center students below.)

Social design education helps develop “character, empathy, cultural awareness and flexibility,” says Mariana Amatullo, vice president of Designmatters, a decade-old social design organization at Art Center College of Design that now has a concentration and an MFA in the field with the Graduate Media Design Program. The programs envision themselves as a sort of design Peace Corps, tackling real world issues like food distribution (a Parsons project) or engaging with local communities (as MICA is doing in its low-income east Baltimore neighborhood).

But even an expensive Masters degree might not help you land a job in the field. The pitch to potential social design students is that they might find work at foundations, nonprofits, NGOs and design consultancies like IDEO and Continuum that are engaged with social design. Or perhaps at Apple in an emerging market, or in non-traditional design places like government agencies, boards of education, or in corporate responsibility positions. If not now then later, reckons SVA’s Heller, who believes that "opportunities will expand as awareness expands."

One stumbling block for the future of social design is that nobody has figured out how to make it a profitable or self-sustaining enterprise. Many firms are experimenting with business models, including for-profits and nonprofits, foundations and hybrid formulations, but for the moment social design efforts play more to building a firm’s brand and reputation while pursuing the admirable goal of helping humanity.

Still, students are gravitating to the field as social issues move to the top of their agenda. Becky Slogeris, a 22-year-old senior at MICA majoring in graphic design, is considering the school’s social design masters program because she wants to be a designer who "doesn’t just clean things up" with a new logo or brand but who makes organizations work better.

As the schools enroll their first students, it’s still unclear what social design programs can really teach and how effective they will be. For her part, Slogeris is weighing whether she could become a social designer on her own or if the MICA program, with its excellent faculty, connections, and commitment would accelerate that process. And then there’s the extra $30,000 in student loans.

Perhaps a better definition of social design is needed and a better way to evaluate the success of projects, suggests Sergio Palleroni, a professor at Portland State University and a senior fellow at its Center for Sustainable Solutions, which is launching a certificate program of its own in public interest design. "We have a clear idea of what a doctor or lawyer is,” he points out “but not for architects and designers and how they serve the public."

-Safe Agua Design Outcomes, illustration by Ping Zhu, Safe Agua book, 2010.\n
-Safe Agua Research Cards, Liliana Becerra, Penny Herscovitch, Daniel Gottlieb, Lead Faculty.\n
-Safe Agua Exhibition Installation, Environmental Design Department, Art Center College of Design.\n

The global climate change strikes on Friday are said to have been the largest protest for climate change in history. An estimated four million people participated in 2,500 events across 163 countries on all seven continents. That included an estimated 300,000 Australians, but a total of zero were in Hyde Park in Sydney, despite a viral photo that claims otherwise.

Australian Youth Coal Coalition, a pro-coal Facebook page, posted a photo showing trash strewn across a park after what appears to have been a large event. "Look at the mess today's climate protesters left behind in beautiful Hyde Park," the photo was captioned. "So much plastic. So much landfill. So sad." The only problem is, the photo wasn't taken after a climate change protest. It wasn't even taken in Australia.

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via GOOD / YouTube

Last Friday, millions of people in 150 countries across the globe took to the streets to urge world leaders to enact dramatic solutions to combat climate change.

The Climate Strike was inspired, in part, by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who has captured worldwide attention for her tireless work to hold lawmakers responsible for the climate crisis.

The strike gave people across the planet the opportunity to make their voices heard before the U.N. General Assembly Climate Summit in New York City on Monday.

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The Planet
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

As world leaders meet to discuss new ways to tackle climate change at the U.N. Climate Action Summit, they might miss one very big part of healing nature – nature. In a new short film, youth climate change activist Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot, a writer for the Guardian, talked about how we need to use nature as a solution to climate change.

There's a huge push to curb emissions, but it's not the be all end all of handling climate change; we also need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. While we don't have technology to do that for us, there is another solution. "There is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air, costs very little, and builds itself. It's called a tree," Monboit says in the film. Researchers found that we could get rid of two-thirds of the carbon dioxide that we've emitted during the industrial era just by growing trees. That amounts to 205 billion tons of carbon. Right now, deforestation of tropical forests is responsible for 20% of current greenhouse emissions.

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Climate Action Tracker

In 2016, 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to combat climate change by taking action to curb the increase in global temperatures. The Paris Agreement requires countries to report on their emissions and what steps they're taking to implement those plans. Now that the countries are coming together again for the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City, it's worth taking a look at what kind of progress they've made.

The Climate Action Trackerkeeps tabs on what each country is doing to limit warming, and if they're meeting their self-set goals. Countries are graded based on whether or not their actions would help limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.

According to a recent article from National Geographic, The Gambia, Morocco, and India are at the head of the class. "Even though carbon emissions in The Gambia, Morocco, and India are expected to rise, they'll fall short of exceeding the 1.5-degree Celsius limit," the article reads. Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States, on the other hand, get a big fat F. "Projected emissions in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States are far greater than what it would take to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius."

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Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

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