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Make Something Awesome: Design Thinking and the Ivory Tower


How can designers contribute to the critical assessment of urban heat islands, or the reduction of obesity rates in homeless children, or the development of a more effective assimilation process for refugees in the United States? To answer these questions, practicing designers and students must be able to effectively communicate and demonstrate the value of design in addressing social challenges and there must be a structure in place to support those seeking opportunities in this emerging space. So how and where should this happen? Design education is one place to start, and this is exactly what a group of eight graduate students in Baltimore are doing. They are part of the Master of Arts in Social Design at Maryland Institute College of Art and are working at the intersection of design and the social sector; re-imagining solutions to the challenges facing society.
MICA has a long and significant history of socially responsible and issue-based art and design initiatives and strives to be a leader in social design education and thought leadership. Now more than ever, creating contexts for students to engage in real-world challenges and develop deeper skill-sets, beyond the visual and aesthetic must be explored in education if we expect to influence and create new roles for the designer in practice. Transformational, interdisciplinary, project-based learning is vital for design education and MICA continues to encourage and support the development of new frameworks for accommodating these opportunities.
Six years ago, I founded MICA’s Center for Design Practice, a multi-disciplinary, project-based studio engaging students and outside partners in socially conscious projects using design and creativity to translate ideas into tangible outcomes with the goal of making a positive impact on society. Each project receives external funding, partners with an outside entity, focuses on a specific issue or challenge, engages undergraduate and graduate students, and utilizes a faculty project manager. The CDP has engaged more than 125 students and faculty across 10 disciplines and majors, and partnered with more than 20 outside organizations and entities, including non-profits, government agencies, other institutions, centers, and businesses.


After completing several projects, it was clear that the designer’s involvement could extend beyond the defined project. More importantly, there was a need for critical reflection and evaluation upon completion of a project, a way to learn from successes and failures and acknowledge intention versus actual impact. This inspired me to develop a separate, intense project-based program and, in 2011, the Master of Arts in Social Design (MASD) was launched. The first program of its kind, MASD is a 1-year, interdisciplinary graduate program that explores the designer’s role and responsibility in society, challenges conventional ways of thinking, facilitates new institutional collaborations, utilizes design and the design process to bring about social change, and strives to create contexts in which ideas and solutions can be sustained.
MASD offers a human centered, experiential, creative, and optimistic approach to understanding and addressing the challenges facing society. From a foundation rooted in visual communication and design thinking, the program delivers its content through a variety of curricular and project-based learning opportunities in conjunction with visiting faculty and scholars from different disciplines and backgrounds. Students are challenged to understand the social, cultural, political, and economic factors surrounding social issues and are encouraged to work towards tangible solutions in collaboration with other institutions, organizations, and community members. Students with various backgrounds and interests emerge from the program with the relevant and individualized skills needed to affect social challenges, while benefitting from MICA’s strong design reputation and supportive, collaborative, community based environment.

In its inaugural year, with support from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, MASD launched a post-graduate fellowship program as well as a visiting scholars program and lecture series.
Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Social Design Fellowship\n
The goal of the post-graduate Fellowship is to create opportunities and incentives for the most innovative graduates of MICA’s MASD program to stay in Baltimore to implement and measure the impact of their thesis work. Each year two graduates are awarded the 1-year Fellowship, which includes a stipend, studio accommodations, and access to MICA’s vast resources. The Fellows also serve as a resource and mentor to the incoming class.
Follow current Robert W. Deutsch Social Design Fellows, Becky Slogeris and Briony Hynson to learn more about their process and work.
The MASD program relies on input from a variety of disciplines and experts. In place of traditional credit bearing, semester-long courses, the core curriculum is presented in intense, short-term learning opportunities from a variety of visiting scholars. During their stay, scholars present specific content, work alongside the students, and give a free, public lecture. This initiative is designed to benefit the student, while also promoting MICA as a leader in social design education.
Currently and for the duration of the spring semester, MASD students are immersed in thesis work, examining urban heat islands, obesity in homeless children, assimilation of refugees in the United States and more. They are exploring research methods, problem definition, idea generation, and implementation/evaluation strategies, while working collaboratively, building stakeholder trust, and ultimately designing a sustainable intervention and context for their ideas. For the next eight weeks, MASD students will each share their personal thesis journey on this site, providing access and insight into their process. Our goal is to provide an open and transparent experience, learn from each other, and define the future of social design together. I have no doubt these students are the future design leaders and they are poised to implement bold, progressive ideas that will manifest in a better future for all of us.
Mike Weikert is founder and director of the Master of Arts in Social Design (MASD) and Center for Design Practice (CD) at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). He also runs Weikert Design, a Baltimore design studio, and serves as an advisor to Project M, an international social design initiative committed to helping young designers use their skills to create positive change in the world. \n
Images courtesy of the MASD Program at MICA.\n

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