From Beyond Social

I. What is the program about?

Designmatters is an educational Department at ArtCenter College of Design that engages all academic disciples taught at the college with a dynamic, entrepreneurial and experiential approach to design education and social innovation. Designmatters serves as a vibrant hub for strategic collaborations near and far from ArtCenter’s campuses in Pasadena. In 2002, Designmatters established the significant and pioneering affiliation of the College as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) with the United Nations as part of its international outreach strategy. For more than fifteen years, the department has built a broad network of innovative research and project-based collaborations with social, public and private sector organizations regionally, nationally and internationally.

Designmatters is at the helm of a diverse set of educational initiatives, special projects and publications that demonstrate the power of design for social innovation: an emergent field of design inquiry and practice that is oriented toward new possibilities for action and human progress.

Designmatters collaborates closely with partners, faculty, and students to use the power of design to address complex challenges in the areas of Sustainable Development, Public Policy, Global Health and Social Entrepreneurship. Designmatters facilitates an exploratory, lab-like environment where the expertise of multidisciplinary faculty guides the fresh perspectives of students to uncover nuanced insights that lead to unexpected, creative and viable solutions.  

The Department helps conceive an average of three original transdisciplinary elective courses (signature Designmatters projects open to undergraduate and graduate students from all disciplines) every academic term; manages the Designmatters Fellowship program; oversees the Designmatters Concentration for undergraduate students who choose to specialize in social impact design; and collaborates with the Graduate Media Design Practices Field Track in managing the UNICEF Innovation partnership that informs the field experience offered within this MFA curriculum.

Designmatters is equally committed to offering students a unique set of learning outcomes that come from the constraints of working collaboratively at multifaceted levels of complexity and community, as well as to acting as a guarantor with organizational partners for project implementation.

II. What should we (not) teach students within social practices? 

Through the Designmatters studio experience, students are taught design methods and tools that support social innovation outcomes. These can be categorized in approximately 3 key areas that represent pillars of the innovative pedagogy offered:
1) Co-creation and collaboration through participatory research methods:
Design briefs are structured within a very collaborative framework that includes field research and multiple touch-points for critique and feedback with external stakeholders and potential beneficiaries of the design intervention(s) at hand. This process is central to the learning offered and exposes students to the perspectives and expertise of actors from various sectors and disciplines. There is an emphasis on unique participatory research methodologies that build empathy with the end-users; the objective is to address the needs and aspirations of individuals and communities in a holistic way that engages participants in cooperatively informing the design research and creative problem-solving process as much as possible throughout the overall arc of investigation and development of the project(s).

2) Trans-disciplinary and team-based project approach to collaboration:
This is an important hallmark learning of Designmatters studios. Students from across design disciplines form teams to solve real-time/ real-world challenges in a “reflection-in-action” mode of inquiry that enables them to actively experiment and incorporate experience-based insights, judgment and intuition. Each student brings individual life experiences, diverse cultural upbringings, and varied strengths in design skill-sets from their core academic design discipline. The collaborative process facilitates dialogue, feedback, critical thinking, delegation, leadership and, ultimately, teamwork. This is also a process that gradually promotes flexibility, adaptive learning and confidence building to work with the kinds of interdependent and complex challenges of the social design briefs that students encounter in Designmatters studios.

3) Integration of the college’s liberal arts curriculum into studio instruction.
Designmatters trans-disciplinary studios expose students to broad-learning opportunities that are the hallmark of a vital 21st century liberal arts education, allowing them to connect their questions and concerns with a sense of ethical and civic responsibility and a critical understanding of the social issues that they are tackling. Depending on the nature of the design brief that is being addressed, domain experts from various fields of the social and hard sciences are invited as guest faculty and/or in advisory capacities to inform students’ research and inquiry and prepare them to make relevant connections and apply this knowledge to their design ideation process.

III. In what way is this education different from education for traditional creative disciplines?

The most singular and distinctive aspect of the educational model offered in the trans-disciplinary Designmatters studios is their human-centered and immersive quality—one connected to the real-time/real-world framework of this experiential and project-based model of learning. Furthermore, because there is always an aspiration to collaborate with external partners to create novel and useful solutions that may be implemented after the educational engagement is over, students often receive training and support to incubate projects beyond the confines of the initial development of the project in the studio.

Since its inception in 2001, Designmatters has produced over 100 social innovation design projects, including print and multi-media campaigns, documentaries, public service announcements, educational toolkits, products, installations, and more. Over 90% of these projects have moved forward to real-world implementation by our strategic partners. In this way, Designmatters students are able to see their current work in action and recognize the positive impact their designs have on different levels of scale, from the local to the global.

IV. Include a student project as an example (of co-creation and collaboration)?

In partnership with Coaniquem, a non-profit pediatric treatment facility in Santiago, Chile, that cares for young burn victims free of charge, the Spring 2016 Designmatters studio, SAFE Niños, challenged students to co-create with stakeholders to reinvigorate the 6-acre campus with engaging indoor and outdoor environments that would be welcoming and therapeutic for patients, their parents, and medical professionals.

Empathic co-creation was paramount to the success of SAFE Niños: the studio included multiple opportunities for students and faculty to conduct ethnographic research and field-testing in the setting of the clinic to ideate, prototype and validate design solutions. The basis for the studio syllabus was co-creation, with all decision making and learning happening in the form of carefully orchestrated opportunities for students to interact with patients and their families of Coaniquem as well as medical staff and incorporate experience-based insights to the ongoing creation and refinement of possible solutions. Observation, sense making and a wide array of participatory design research methods allowed students to develop concepts based on a reflective understanding of Coaniquem stakeholder’s needs and aspirations.
Students were inspired by the holistic nature of working together as a unified team for a common good, and they advocated to create one overriding concept with interconnected elements, featuring the students’ individual talents. This innovative approach to collaboration enabled students to function like a real-world studio, acting as a cohesive unit and approaching a problem from many different angles.

Mariana Amatullo, PhD, Co-Founder and Vice President, Designmatters

A practitioner-scholar, Dr. Amatullo oversees the award-winning portfolio of Designmatters educational and research collaborations in art and design education and social innovation. Amatullo serves on a variety of advisory and executive boards of organizations engaged in the arts, design education and social innovation, including, the Cumulus International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media, the DESIS Network, the Winterhouse Institute, and the University of Southern California’s International Museum Institute. Amatullo is the recipient of the inaugural 2012 DELL Social Innovation Education award, was named to Fast Company’s Co. Design 50 Designers Shaping the Future, and the Public Interest Design 100.  Amatullo conceived and hosted in 2013 the now biennial LEAP symposium series investigating emerging career pathways in design for social innovation and is the lead editor of LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation published by Designmatters and available through Distributed Arts Publisher in 2016. Amatullo holds a PhD in Management from the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, where she is a Scholar-in-Residence.  Her research focuses on the impact of design in social innovation and organizational practice.  She holds an M.A. in Art History and Museum Studies from USC and a Licence en Lettres Degree from the Sorbonne University, Paris. 

The Designmatters Department

Mariana Amatullo, PhD, Co-Founder and Vice President
Jennifer May, Director
Susannah Ramshaw, Associate Director
Carolline Kim, Coordinator
Steven Butler, Media Manager

Co-creative brainstorming sessions enable SAFE Niños, students to understand and prioritize key challenges with Coaniquem stakeholders, and envision opportunities and creative solutions together.

Co-creative brainstorming sessions enable SAFE Niños, students to understand and prioritize key challenges with Coaniquem stakeholders, and envision opportunities and creative solutions together.

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