It’s a design school at least 15 years in the making, an idea that simmered in the back of Jon Kolko’s brain. The interactive designer (an associate creative director at Frog Design in Austin, Texas) and one-time Savannah College of Art and Design instructor had long wanted to create an environment that could help designers find more meaning in their careers. It was a concern of many of Kolko’s former students, who were working at what were considered dream jobs, places like Nike and Starbucks.
“They’re doing the things that everyone was led to believe one does in design school, and now they’re questioning it,” he says. “They feel that they’re adding to the consumptive nature of the world.”
Kolko, 32, adds that a shifty economy has made the idea of job security seem obsolete. To help bring meaning back to that term, and to his profession as a whole, he is opening the Austin Center for Design, a school that teaches design for the public sector and is loosely based on Denmark’s KAOSPilot program. Students in the center's year-long program will learn to apply design thinking to solving complicated and chronic social ills, such as homelessness, educational disparity and poverty.
The Austin Center’s launch comes at a time when designers and their toolbox of skills — divergent thinking, ideation, visualization, prototyping — are increasingly called on to tackle problems from sustainability issues to disaster relief. Business schools have added design-thinking classes. Art and design schools are pushing their curricula beyond the needs of consumer clients to those of social service agencies, too.
But Kolko says change in design education isn’t happening as fast as is needed. The Austin Center will focus solely on solving social problems while making a career path in humanitarian design financially viable. He points out that new funding models are emerging for socially minded work, from local venture capitalists hungry for inspiring projects to microlending websites and even donations to personal web pages. More than ever, a design career can be developed in multiple ways to “be lucrative and also feel worth doing,” he says. In fact, Kolko envisions a day not too far off when design consultancies will be formed to work exclusively for nonprofits.
The Austin Center will concentrate on problems at the local level, in communities across the United States. As an example, Kolko refers to former SCAD student Ashley Menger’s M.A. thesis project to build self-esteem in teenage girls by using an “inside-out” research strategy in Savannah, Georgia. After collecting teen magazines, working with teen writers, photographing high school lockers and leading a Girl Scout troop, Menger, who is now an interactive designer at Frog, created a “Fearless Girl” brand of products — gum, pillowcases, journals — that help girls identify with strong female characters and develop positive senses of self.
The one-year program’s focus is on interactive design, though Kolko takes a broad view of the discipline, defining it as design that brings about behavioral change. As in traditional design programs, the curriculum, which will be taught by a faculty of three, will address method, theory and application, but with three points of emphasis: empathy (ethnography, immersion, human interaction), prototyping, and abductive, or intuition-based, reasoning,
The school is a registered nonprofit into which Kolko has sunk upwards of $20,000 of his own money. Its campus is a rent-free space provided by the Austin venture capitalist firm thinktiv. Prospective students don’t have to have a bachelor degree or even a design background but some professional work experience is needed. They can even keep their day jobs to help defray tuition costs ($8,000 per year); classes will be held evenings and on Saturdays. The goal, however, is for students to pick up the design and business skills that will propel them to full-time employment in the nonprofit sector. Kolko imagines the school will work best with 10 students, but is prepared to run it with as few as 4 or as many as 18.
Ultimately, he says, the Austin Center is not a referendum on corporate design work. But he hopes it will free designers to entertain different expectations for their careers. “I think taking the long view is required when you’re talking about social problems like poverty and health care," he says. “And the long view is almost impossible to hold onto in a giant corporation.”