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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

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