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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.

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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.

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