William Drenttel and Julie Lasky | Event-Education

Winterhouse Second Symposium on Design Education and Social Change: Final Report

Winterhouse Studio, 2011

The Winterhouse First Symposium on Design Education and Social Change, held in October 2010 in Falls Village, Connecticut, brought together 13 representatives of undergraduate or graduate institutions who taught social design in isolated courses or built programs around this area. The goal was to share insights, strategies and concerns about a discipline that has experienced dramatic growth in recent years, yet remains, in its teaching, research and community-oriented practices, inchoate if not chaotic. It was agreed that the first symposium’s participants formed the kernel of a valuable network, and that any subsequent meeting should increase the number of attendees while drilling down on several dominant themes.

Ten months later, the Winterhouse Second Symposium on Design Education and Social Change was convened at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, August 14-16, 2011.

This symposium’s 28 participants included seven members from the charter event; the chairs of two new graduate programs in social design; the co-founder of an international NGO; a leader of K-12 design education; an emeritus dean of architecture who is building a consortium of international design schools focused on social urbanism; two administrators of grant programs for design and social change projects; key educators at institutions or programs that had not been represented at the first symposium; a design journalist specializing in business innovation; and the headmaster, dean of faculty and summer portals director at the Hotchkiss School.

The themes that carried over from the previous event and served as a springboard for conversation were:
•  Charting new academic social-design programs and initiatives
•  Forming partnerships between educational institutions, foundations and NGOs
•  Establishing metrics for the efficacy of social design programs
•  Navigating educational requirements and goals while contributing to social welfare
•  Exploiting media platforms for disseminating information about social design
•  Defining social design
•  Outlining opportunities for meeting and collaboration
•  New ideas and proposals for collective action

1. Charting New Academic Social-Design Programs and Initiatives

The diverse membership at this meeting reflected not just Winterhouse Institute’s effort to expand the number of participants and reach into a broader pool of expertise; it also related to the objective quantity and breadth of new social design education initiatives. These range from Design for America, a cross-institutional organization founded in 2008 by Northwestern University assistant professor Liz Gerber that is composed of undergraduates seeking to effect change in their communities, to the newly created College of Design+Engineering+Commerce at Philadelphia University, which brings together 18 existing programs to “address big, messy complex problems” such as access to water and energy, according to assistant provost Heather McGowan. Also present were Cheryl Heller, chair of the Design for Social Innovation masters program at the School of Visual Arts, which begins in 2012, and Mike Weikert director of the Master of Arts in Social Design program at Maryland Institute College of Art, which started this fall.

In addition to news of these fresh initiatives, the symposium offered returning participants the chance to brief the group about progress made since last year’s meeting. Jon Kolko, founder of the Austin Center for Design, an entrepreneurial postgraduate institution for designers seeking remunerative jobs in the social sector, reported that three new companies emerged out of the school’s first year. Now Kolko was preoccupied with issues of recruitment and the questionable benefits of accreditation “for programs that don’t have a traditional art school foundation in 50 percent studio, 20 percent lecture and 30 percent liberal arts.”

Terry Irwin, head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University since 2009, described her continued efforts to “redesign an entire graduate program to be more focused on design for the society and environment.” About the symposium, she added. “I think change starts this way. Just since last year, I’ve been able to connect with many people in the room.”

Debera Johnson, academic director of sustainability at Pratt Institute, discussed her direction of the new Pratt Academic Leadership Summit on Sustainability (PALSS), representatives of 35 art and design schools in the U.S. and Canada that meet monthly online, and in person annually, to “build a strategic plan for sharing and leveraging our resources to better integrate sustainability into art and design programs,” as the website describes it.

Not all of the new initiatives emanate from the academy. Charlie Cannon, an architect and Rhode Island School of Design faculty member, described his involvement in the Alabama Innovation Engine, a project that grew out of the 2009 Aspen Design Summit sponsored by the Winterhouse Institute and AIGA (with support from the Rockefeller Foundation) and is now part of a joint venture with the University of Alabama and Auburn University. The Alabama Innovation Engine encompasses four projects dedicated to regional concerns, such as boosting the natural endowments of river and forest as a way to engage “activist tourism.”

Cannon and William Drenttel, director of Winterhouse Institute and president emeritus of AIGA, also gave notice of Design for Good, a soon-to-be-launched AIGA initiative for which the organization’s 22,000 members will be asked to dedicate five percent of their time to social design projects. Quoting current AIGA president Doug Powell, Cannon said the program is “not about design for free; it’s about design for good.” (The project was unveiled by Powell and Drenttel at the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation Transform Conference in September 2011, and launched at the AIGA Pivot Biennial Conference in Phoenix in October 2011.)

The AIGA’s activities in the social realm also informed descriptions of major projects by participants: Phil Hamlett, graduate director of the School of Graphic Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Marcia Lausen, director of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and William Drenttel of Winterhouse Institute. Hamlett is co-author of the AIGA-sponsored Living Principles, “a comprehensive framework to guide the development of sustainable design solutions,” while Lausen has collaborated with the organization on her eight-year-old “Design for Democracy” effort to reform the electoral process. The initiative, Lausen said, continues to be pursued at the national level through AIGA-recruited designers working in governmental offices in Oregon and Washington State. In the same vein, Drenttel discussed the Polling Place Photo Project, a Winterhouse partnership with AIGA and The New York Times, which sought to document voter experiences at polling places during the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Indeed, the extent of AIGA’s activities prompted some symposium participants to caution about redundancy in new efforts. What territory might Winterhouse define that meshes rather than overlaps with operations currently in place?

2. Forming Partnerships Among Educational Institutions, Foundations, and NGOs

A decisive feature of this symposium group is its grounding in the academy — an environment Debera Johnson described approvingly as “moon gravity versus earth gravity,” lighter than the commercial sector, with “less economic baggage” because there are “no paying clients.”

At least not clients in a commercial sense: social design education is rife with partners that define and fund projects and have played a vital role in the discipline’s growth.

Such relationships can be productive for both sides. Scott Boylston, professor of sustainability and graphic design at Savannah College of Art and Design, introduced a course in systems thinking that takes the entire city of Savannah as its subject and addresses urban problems in collaboration with the municipal government. Mariana Amatullo, of the Designmatters initiative at Art Center, recruits an interdisciplinary mix of students and faculty to attack global misfortunes, such as inadequate access to water in South American slums. For this, she has adroitly solicited the aid, expertise and legitimacy of local community groups and government organizations. She is currently working with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and UNICEF’s Tech Innovation Team on a social design master’s degree track within Art Center’s graduate Media Design program, chaired by Anne Burdick.

When it comes to building connections, not all projects evince the same sensitivity. Cameron Tonkinwise, associate dean for sustainability at Parsons the New School for Design, alluded to “the way universities sometimes dump students on not-for-profits” as part of their social design training, and proposed “a kind of best practice model to scaffold not-for-profits so they can take this onslaught of ignorant, naïve and ambitious students.”

3. Establishing Metrics for the Efficacy of Social-Design Programs, Particularly as an Engine for Funding

In summarizing a breakout conversation about partnerships in which she participated, Mariana Amatullo enunciated a concern to establish better connections with NGOs. “What are some of the lenses and criteria we should be thinking of to look for alignment and success?” she paraphrased. “That of course led us to a discussion around metrics.” The subject of adopting or establishing ways to measure the impact of social design dominated the first Winterhouse education symposium and returned as a motif in the second. This time, however, eagerness for tools that measure progress and thereby provide built-in rationales for funding was offset by skepticism regarding their value. Scale, a concept beloved of so many funding agencies seeking to create conspicuous impact, compromised a hopeful quest for metrics. Was it always valuable to extend the range and volume of a social design initiative? Jon Kolko said no. “I have such a personal kneejerk reaction at the idea that the contextual research I do about the homeless in Austin would have a connection to the homeless in Ghana,” he observed.

Lee Davis, co-founder of the social enterprise organization NESST, questioned the scale mantra as well. Not only was the science of metrics hopelessly complicated by the different formulas required for the different entities measured, but encomiums to scale were misguided: “I think you mess up a lot of stuff if you try to make it big,” he said. “Scale has to be defined in a very different way. You can scale things by making them bigger, or replicating them in different places. It’s not just about bigger is better.”

4. Navigating the Different and Sometimes Conflicting Requirements of Educating Students While Contributing to Social Welfare

Participants at both Winterhouse symposia were equally preoccupied with the question of how to best train students while performing the community-oriented tasks that form the basis of many social-design curricula. Or as Lee Davis succinctly posed the question: “Is it the job of this group to be the agents of change, or to prepare the agents of change?”

In a breakout discussion on students and curricula, for example, it was noted that school calendars are fragmentary while the needs addressed in social design practicums are ongoing, leading to problems of continuity. (A suggestion was made of partnering upper- and lowerclassmen to facilitate the handing down of long-term project knowledge and ongoing relationships with NGO partners.)

The amount of varied information that must be shoehorned into a social design education if students are to rigorously and thoughtfully carry on the work requires an act of curricular triage, and may not always find a receptive audience. According to Terry Irwin, “How do you make students eager to learn the necessary skills that go into working in social innovation spaces that are not exclusively designcentric?”

Even when students accept seemingly unorthodox training, there is the concern of preparing them for viable career paths. Phil Hamlett lamented that “although there exist some opportunities to move in actionable space, I think a lot of students take commercial jobs because those career paths are more sharply delineated.” Natacha Poggio, an assistant professor of visual communication design at Hartford Art School, and the founder of Design Global Change, a consortium of students and faculty who design educational messages for international causes, said simply, “What I would like to try to get from these projects is opportunities for students to get jobs.”

Charlie Cannon concluded, “Last time we may have confused the conversation about the impact we have on students in the period of their engagement.” The more important concern is what kind of designer they evolve into. Cannon aspires to train students who can work interdisciplinarily and master multiple languages, particularly that of business. “The production of my studio,” he noted, “is students who are citizens.” This idea of designer as citizen was raised at other points during the symposium, and is a ripe topic for future meetings.

5. Exploiting Existing Media Platforms, and Developing New Platforms

Helen Walters, the former Bloomberg BusinessWeek editor and current writer and researcher at Doblin, part of Monitor Group, lamented a dearth of media channels for broadcasting the triumphs and instructive failures of social design. “The design industry as a whole needs to get its story straight and communicate it,” she said. “I saw this first-hand at BusinessWeek: We pushed really hard to get design covered at a deep level — to talk about systems thinking and process. We did it as best as we could. But too often, editors in the mainstream media think about design in terms of shiny objects — products. I want to convince them of the viability of the other process — and designers need to help in providing these stories, with metrics and proof of impact playing an integral role.” Addressing the group, Walters added, “There must be a way to talk about this intelligently, with the proof necessary to show how and why design matters.” 

Vera Sacchetti a recent graduate of the Design Criticism MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, articulated a different problem: the absence not of information outlets but of stringent evaluations that isolate genuine accomplishment. According to Sacchetti, a lack of critical rigor among cheerleading journalists has distorted the true track records of social designers, drawing attention and dollars to potentially ineffective causes while neglecting worthier projects; making the work look easier than it is; and reinforcing imbalanced relationships between contributors and recipients. (Sacchetti had just completed an MFA thesis titled, “Design Crusades: Critical Reflection on Social Design.”)

6. Defining Social Design

What perhaps should have been the first mission of this symposium ultimately turned into the last, and lengthiest, point of discussion: the question of what social design means. And yet, given the diverse body of participants working in a variety of institutions, not all of them academic, it made sense that the conversation should chisel itself down to this fundamental point over two full days, and still leave room for refinement.

William Drenttel led the discussion with a call for greater subtlety in employing the term “social design,” which is too often used interchangeably with “social innovation,” “social change” and “social good.” Likewise, he argued that “social enterprise” and “social entrepreneur” too often presume “social innovation.” “To truly innovate means something different from change,” Drenttel said. “We could all get up and change seating order, but that doesn’t mean changing the way we act.” Drenttel noted that “social enterprise” is indiscriminately applied. An organization worthy of that label “tries to provide a livelihood for workers, still makes a profit, but is not driven exclusively by shareholder value. It brings social values to a business enterprise. Most of the organizations operating in the social sector are not, in fact, social enterprises — and don't operate with this kind of complexity.” He described “nonprofits” and “NGOs” as another class of enterprise.

Cameron Tonkinwise provided lexicographical clarity by invoking Ezio Manzini’s distinction between “problem solving” and “social change.” In the former, a manifest problem is corrected through the introduction of a new design. In the latter, an existing system is reorganized in a nondesignerly way to redress an unacknowledged condition with the potential to reshape the culture. Initiatives are mapped along continuums in a simple four-square grid that establishes the scale, geographical context, impact and designer’s role as ideator or facilitator. In this way, as Tonkinwise demonstrated by mapping several participants’ projects, the cornucopia of mixed social design contributions can be evaluated and rationalized: apples compared with apples. Goals also can be revised, say, by shifting emphasis from quick fixes from outsiders to strategies that allow a target community to effect its own changes.

A long discussion centered on the question of how designers, with their growing emphasis on strategy over products, differ from management consultants at companies like McKinsey or Monitor. It was agreed that there was an added value described as “McKinsey-plus.” But of what did it consist? “What we bring as designers,” Tonkinwise insisted, “is material thinking that McKinsey misses: an awareness of physical objects, space, tools. The awareness is of not just capitalizing and monetizing but also enabling. There is also a fundamental commitment to open source.”

7. Outlining Opportunities for Meeting and Collaboration

Attendees of this symposium are indefatigable organizers of their own networks, conferences, exhibitions and initiatives. Symposium group members were invited to participate in the following:

•  Mayo Clinic Transform Symposium. This multidisciplinary conference sponsored by the Center for Innovation at Mayo Clinic focuses on innovation to transform the experience and delivery of health care. Programmed by William Drenttel around a theme of design innovation and solutions, the symposium featured over 50 speakers and 700 participants — including Symposium participants Mariana Amatullo and Helen Walters. Transform was held September 11-13, 2011, in Rochester, Minnesota.

•  Partnership for Academic Leadership in Sustainability Summit (PALSS). The second convocation of representatives from 30 art, design and architecture schools discussed means for integrating sustainability into academic programs. Organized by Debera Johnson, the summit was held September 29-30, 2011, at Pratt Institute in New York City.

•  Design with the Other 90%: Cities. The second “Other 90%” exhibition organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum opened October 15, 2011, at the gallery of the United Nations Visitors Center in New York. Focusing on innovations within informal communities throughout the globe, this exhibition will be complemented by programs produced under the auspices of symposium participant Caroline Payson, the Cooper-Hewitt’s director of education.

•  Design Ethos: Vision Reconsidered Conference. The second Design Ethos conference will feature noteworthy social designers, as well as workshops re-envisioning the city of Savannah. April 19-21, 2012, Savannah College of Art and Design; organized by Scott Boylston.

•  Social Enterprise World Forum. Hosted by Lee Davis and NESsT, this yearly event focuses exclusively on building a social enterprise movement worldwide. This will be the Forum’s first time in Latin America, and the first time it will include an entire program and track around social design. October 16-18, 2012, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

•  Design Ignites Change. An initiative of Worldstudio and its founder, symposium participant Mark Randall, Design Ignites Change recently announced that it will profile “participating college and university design programs that are integrating a socially responsible agenda into their curriculum and dedicate resources to support students as they use their creativity to make a positive impact in communities around the world.” The site also profiles the projects of Design Ignites Change awardees.

•  Art and Design for Social Impact: New Professional Frontiers. Through a cross-disciplinary collaboration between Designmatters at Art Center, USC’s Marshall School of Business (Society and Business Lab), and Winterhouse Institute, this invitation-only conference in November 2012 will explore the future of careers in the broadly defined social design space.

8. New Ideas and Proposals for Collective Action

•  Defining and Supporting Social Design. William Drenttel agreed to use the resources of Winterhouse Institute to begin to create frameworks defining social design, as well as developing future agendas for the collective efforts of symposium participants. Additionally, Design Observer will continue to use its Change Observer channel to collect and publish articles and resources relevant to this work.

•  Design and the Social Sector: An Annotated Bibliography. William Drenttel noted that Winterhouse Institute had been working to develop the first extensive annotated bibliography spanning the design disciplines into the social sector — and focusing on the intersection of social design and social innovation. Drenttel proposed that the group collectively expand this annotated bibliography of articles and books about social design and innovation, building on a research project developed by Courtney Drake, a graduate student at Yale School of Management. The bibliography will be published on Design Observer in October 2011, and will be open to new contributions by symposium participants and others. It will be published under a Creative Commons license, enabling its broad dissemination and use. To jump start this project, symposium participants agreed to contribute on new entry each before November 2011.

•  Case Studies. Any new discipline requires a shared body of knowledge. Case studies, of the type Winterhouse Institute has generated in collaboration with Yale School of Management (and with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation), were again discussed as important documentary and pedagogical tools. At the last symposium, William Drenttel unveiled the first case study on SELCO, a solar energy company in India. Since then,  the Design and Social Innovation Case Series at Yale School of Management had published two additional cases: one on the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, and another on Project Masiluleke, the HIV prevention project jointly developed by Frog Design and PopTech. A fourth case study is currently in the works around Teach For All, the international education network.

•  Book Club. David Mohney, architecture professor at the University of Kentucky and founding secretary of the Curry Stone Design Prize, suggested a social innovation book club based on Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne’s model.

•  Creation of Editorial Content to Expand the Field. Lee Davis recommended that the group collaborate in writing an article for the Chronicle for Higher Education that positions the evolving field of social design.

•  Manifesto. Helen Walters proposed that the group pen a version of the First Things First Manifesto to define the new social design movement.

•  Association. David Mohney suggested that the group consider modeling itself on the Congress of New Urbanism, which released a charter clarifying its principles, established a lexicon and evolved into a public annual meeting.

9. Future Meetings

The group agreed that future meetings are worth the significant investment in time by participants and agreed to a Winterhouse Institute plan to convene the Third Symposium in August 2012. The location and sponsors will be decided separately.

Credits and Sponsors

This symposium was curated by William Drenttel and Julie Lasky. Sponsored by Winterhouse Institute with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Additional support was kindly provided by the Hotchkiss School and Sappi Fine Papers.

This symposium is a part of a larger Winterhouse initiative around design and social innovation funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Other symposia have been held in Aspen, Colorado, and Bellagio, Italy.

Posted in: Education , Social Good

Comments [2]

Great article and wrap up of the Symposium, I have been thinking about the defining of Social Design as a term for the last year or so through my own research and thought I would offer my perspective on what I beleive Social Design to be.

I have developed this working definition of Social Design based on my personal experiences as a graphic designer, academic and researcher. As my body of research evolves this definition will be refined and expanded upon.

Social Design is the practice of design where the primary motivation is to promote positive social change within society. The focus of Social Design practice is to facilitate behavioural change and the promotion of Social Change, rather than the selling of a product or service (as is the primary motivation in commercial design practice).

Social Design should, address social needs, have an engagement with community, be grounded in the real world, be a collaborative process and have a meaningful connection to society.

I believe Social Design should be thought of as a way of working, or Design Ethos, rather than a specialised practice. A Social Designer aims to apply Social Design principles to situations rather than creates Social Design artefacts.

More of my project can be found at designforcommunity.net.
Design for Community

Great Synopsis--Thanks for posting this. I hope that the collected faculty record where their students end up after their 'social design' focused educations. It seems like most of the success stories involve start-ups, but where are the other graduates landing? Are they able to find employment with a social focus? Does this educational focus also prepare them for other roles?
Ramsey Ford

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