Designmatters: LEAP Dialogues

From Beyond Social

The Designmatters department of the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena has the same ambition as the WdKA: to foster a strong connection between education and practice. We are 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. I will briefly explain here how we connect to practices in the field and how we perceive the future role of designers in society.

Author: Susannah Ramshaw

Vibrant hub for strategic collaborations

'Designmatters' is an educational department (non-degree granting) that engages all majors taught at the College with a dynamic, entrepreneurial and experiential approach to design education. 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. For more than a decade, the department has built a broad network of innovative collaborations with social, public and private sector organizations that are striving to design a better and more humane future for all.

Human-centered and immersive quality

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 multimedia 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.

The LEAP Dialogues

The role of design and designers in society and the marketplace is changing. We wish to anticipate upon that. Recently we published The LEAP Dialogues about why these changes are happening, which skills are needed to stay relevant, and how new practices are emerging. The focus is on career pathways for designers in social innovation. Below you will find two excepts from these LEAP Dialogues, which we hope may inspire you in your own development.

Excerpt 1: Overcoming Limitations in Social Design

A Dialogue between Valerie Casey, Founder and Executive Director, and the designers Accord & Barry Katz, California College of the Arts

VC: To designers looking for ways to actively engage in these nearly intractable challenges, I would give three pieces of clear advice:

Creativity in itself is not novel; it's the execution of creative ideas that matters. All ideas sound brilliant and life-changing as they roll around inside our heads. But as designers, that's not enough. We are uniquely equipped to make things: to build, code, draw, write. My definition of a successful idea is one that can change people, at scale. In social impact, there is no room for vanity projects. Focus on making and reaching.

Study your subject. This is no place for the beginner's mind. There has been a prevailing belief in the design community that designers we will be less capable of expansive, creative thought if they are tainted with too much information about their subjects. The designer's conceit is to view the world with fresh eyes, unencumbered with context and knowledge. When trying to make a meaningful impact on large social problems, this is a failing strategy. It is critical to do deep preparatory work in order to really understand the complexities of the systems that shape these areas. It is just naive and limiting (and offensive) to try design an intervention in an impoverished neighborhood with the same method used to design a bicycle helmet.

Learn math. The healthcare system in the United States is built on an accounting system. Venture capital investment is dictating the pace of technology. Data and predictive science is fueled by advertising platforms. Regardless of skill-set and discipline, no one can engage in making social change without understanding the economic conditions that govern these systems. Financial fluency is the biggest advantage designers can have if they truly want to have impact.

Do you agree, Barry? Any sacred cows in design that you think we need to kill in order to unlock new thinking and capabilities?

BK: Our thinking is very closely aligned here. In fact, I am inclined to amplify some of your key points and explore some of their implications. I have done my fair share in promoting the idea of 'design thinking', but I sometimes fear that we have created a monster that has taken on a life of its own. The core concept, in my mind, was always the notion that the methods and techniques – and what you very rightly emphasize as the 'craft' – of the designer can be applied on a vastly expanded scale: from discrete electromechanical devices to integrated socioeconomic systems; from symptoms of dysfunction to the causes of dysfunction; from products to processes. But it was never my belief that this principle could be reduced to a five-part methodology that could be taught in a three-hour workshop, and voila! everybody is now a certified 'design thinker'! There's some evidence that this misconception has already begun to take a bite out of the practices of some of our local consultancies, as former clients scramble to deploy Design Thinking units within their organizations. I think it was Winston Churchill who said, 'However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.' There is a positive note to this, however, and in this respect I absolutely share your sense of optimism and (if I'm not mistaken) excitement: I believe that the extraordinary popularity of design thinking, and the growing recognition that the skills, thought processes and craft of the designer can be applied not just to solving problems but to identifying opportunities, and will create a receptiveness to the level of professionalism that is really required if we are to address the truly 'wicked' problems of our time. I brush and I floss, but I still go to the dentist.

I am reminded of the crisis that beset the design community when MacDraw and MacPaint seemed poised to turn every secretary, middle-school student and scrapbooker into a 'graphic designer'. For a moment there was panic across the land, but the unexpected result was to press the professional community to articulate with clarity and precision the value that it added. We are perhaps at such a point today: The example of Apple, the incorporation of design into the operations of venture capital firms, hospitals, nongovernmental organizations, financial institutions – even the military – has given the design community the opening it has dreamed of literally for decades. Designers need to stop complaining and learn to take 'yes' for an answer.

So what are we to do, now that we have gained the credibility we have sought for so long? Where will we start? How should we begin to apply our craft to problems that matter?

Excerpt 2: Learn Before You Leap? Lessons from Design Educators.

By Allan Chochinov, Chair, MFA Products of Design, School of Visual Arts & Partner, Core 77

Below you will find an assortment of answers from some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in American design education. They were asked a couple of questions: 'What are the essential qualities or skills to master in order to thrive in the potential professional roles available to them?' and 'What are your aspirations for the kinds of professional roles and career pathways you wish your students might be able to access in the future?' The answers were diverse in content, yet singular in profile – they were humanistic and they were ethical. And no wonder: since social design is fundamentally social, words like 'empathic' and 'conversation' and 'listening' and 'confidence' appear repeatedly. But even more ubiquitous were notions around responsibility, criticality, values, meaning and positive change. Indeed, there is an underlying desire for fairness and equity that distinguishes this kind of design work.

Furthermore, where most of design practice these days prides itself on being 'user centered', social design educators include the planet, other living things and all of the intermingled systems that bind them as protagonists in their work. It is this holistic approach that is perhaps most urgently needed in schools, along with the time and space for students to develop an individual moral compass.

Finally, they were emphatic. Repeatedly, educators talked about leadership, about impact and about transformation. These are big terms demanded for big challenges, and each seemed confident in a better future.

As an illustration we end this expert with some answers from Educators looking to the future. We asked them: what are the essential qualities and/or skills your students should master in order to thrive in the potential professional roles available to them?

Elizabeth Gerber, Northwestern University

Three E's: Empathy, Experimentation and Enthusiasm.

Shalini Agrawal, CCA The single most important skill today's creative practitioner should master is the ability to listen. Listening is the foundation of collaboration and should be developed as a core competency. It places new professionals at the nexus of discovering innovative opportunities and redefining the face of leadership.

Mike Weikert, Maryland Institute College of Art:

Students must be lifelong learners and purposeful questioners, committed to gaining a higher level of social literacy. Add a combination of inherent qualities (creative, intuitive, humble, empathetic, optimistic, respectful, collaborative, fearless) and acquired skills (design research, process, systems, storytelling, visualization, facilitation, entrepreneurship) and future designers will thrive.

Debera Johnson, Pratt Institute:

Mastery in curiosity, listening, empathy, respect and the patience for allowing for things to evolve within a system will be critical for making change. My favorite quote lately is a Chinese proverb: The time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.

About LEAP:

LEAP is available for sale from Distributed Art Publishers. For more information visit


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