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Designing a Brighter Future: The Brand-New Design for Social Innovation Program at SVA

SVA launched a new MFA program in Design for Social Innovation.

With this post, we're launching a new column from the faculty and students of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation. DSI was born of the conviction that design is a powerful integrating process for moving all our disparate efforts to solve the world’s challenges toward fulfillment. Our mission is to prepare the next leaders in social innovation, and to be a global resource and inspiration for learning how to use design to solve the problems we face.
At DSI we have become, in a short time, a community—of remarkable faculty who have helped to form the program, the first cohort of pioneering students from around the world, extraordinary advisors, speakers and our networks of global supporters. And we’ve learned important lessons well beyond the ones we planned.
The idea for DSI began eight or nine years ago, when Richard Wilde, Chair of SVA’s undergraduate Design and Advertising departments, asked me to create a class for his students—and said to make it about something that would interest me. That class is called Design for Good; its purpose is to introduce young designers to the practice of designing to affect an intentional impact, since that’s rarely something they have ever thought about how to do. In 2008, Richard suggested evolving that class into a graduate program.
The process has been a designer’s dream: translating a sketchy idea into something with a life of its own, just waking up to the almost unlimited potential influence we have, through what we learn and teach, the clients and projects we take on, and the graduates who leave to exert their own influence in corporations, non-profits, governments and as entrepreneurs around the world.
Three years ago there was no curriculum, faculty or space. One year ago, we didn’t know the names or faces of the students who would join us on this quest. Now we know we’re on a journey together that will change many lives, including our own.
Upon this first semester break’s reflection, one thing I’ve learned has relevance for collaboration everywhere. The plan to include diversity of interests, cultures, talents and experience proved prescient and exciting; the unintended diversity of maturity and the ability to self-direct, not so much. What I knew and have seen played out in stereo is that this is not a program for those who want to be led, but for those who want to learn to lead.
The biggest surprise, which I guess shouldn't have been much of a surprise at all, is how much we all care about each other. We have a sense of being together on a big adventure, not so much due to the newness of this program, but the newness of design’s role in this field of social innovation that is still being defined with every new attempt to further it.
Whatever we have accomplished so far could only have been done at a place as entrepreneurial and enlightened as SVA. My admiration for President David Rhodes and the school have only grown with time and exposure. How many of us can say that about the institutions where we work?
Over the months to come, we’ll do our best to deliver lessons here that have value to anyone looking to design a brighter future than the one we’ll get if we don’t try. We’ll do a bit of catch up from the first semester, then post what we’re learning as it comes to us—from all the various roles, perspectives and cultures involved. Not to the point of “reality education,” of course, but with truth, humility and joy.
Cheryl Heller is the Chair, MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA, and a partner at CommonWise.

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