I believe that design and making are active not passive. We must be present, committed, thoughtful and directly involved in the world in order to become agents of positive change. To this end, I believe that a solid design education has three parts: inquiry, making, and aspirational thinking.
When I Socratically ask a student why they made a particular choice, they must unpack their own motives and assumptions. This helps them to be more critical, more aware and more thoughtful as they engage in the design process. So often we can be unaware of the questions we are really asking, and this is especially true in young designers. Students in our senior thesis class (a two-semester required course), determine for themselves the subject of their individual projects. The only stipulations are that the thesis must be applicable in Syracuse NY and respond to a demonstrable need in this locale. This encourages them to directly engage local communities, to research existing social and cultural conditions and to think critically about their response to those conditions. Students guide their own studio work through discussion with each other and with the other stakeholders in the project.
One process that I began implementing three years ago as a research tool is a volunteering requirement. Each student is required to volunteer for at least 25 hours with a group or organization in Syracuse. This gets them “out of the bubble” of our University and into the community that surrounds us. For many of our students this is the first time that they have spent any time with people from a socio-economic background that differs from their own. By adding this set of first-person experiences to their academic research, they are able to create richer and more responsive designs as a part of their thesis work. One student wrote in an end-of-semester evaluation “I had no idea about the assumptions I was making until I spent time with [a client at the Food Bank]. It really changed my design and it also changed my life.” This is slightly grand perhaps, but this student’s ultimate design did shift from a relatively shallow redesign of a community center/soup kitchen into an examination of food systems in Syracuse and an exploration of food inequities.
This act of asking, this process of inquiry is not an isolated step in the design process or the learning process. All the way through it is imperative that we step back and look critically at the questions we are asking. I create opportunities for our students to present their questions to their peers, to me as a faculty member, and to visiting lecturers as a way to ask, “are the questions I am asking really the questions I should be asking?” This process of research and evaluation is carried through the entire design process.
Making is important and relevant, and irrespective of discipline everything we design must be made by someone somewhere. I love making of all types, and I am vocal about that. The deeper each student’s understanding of which making, manufacturing, and building processes can be drawn upon to realize their design, the more complete their design approach is. To this end, whether it is in my interior design first-year studio, my senior thesis studio, or my furniture design classes, making is built into the syllabus. There is an attention to detail and a respect for precision that is taught better through the end of the finger than through the eye and the ear. Though cutting cardboard may seem trivial in the grand scheme of a design education, there is a patience and precision and response to material that is learned by doing that can not be adequately communicated with lectures. In the process of making models in first-year studio the students learn these skills (patience and precision) as well as learning that there are limits to and possibilities provided by each material. These limits and possibilities are a part of our design lexicon, they enable us to do the work that we do and to do it beautifully and well.
This process of practice extends beyond objects and spaces and into relationships. Every design is about relationships, and cultivating those relationships is an important part of our job as a designer and as a teacher. When the students are doing their volunteer work, they learn by experience this first-hand: They must listen respectfully and critically, often having to go to great lengths to tease out information that they can apply to their design. This making of relationships is an important skill that is (like cutting cardboard) best learned by practicing, inside and outside of the classroom.
In my own work I have spent years learning to be keenly aware of the material I work with, its origins and its story. It is important to me to put that story into the finished piece somehow, and to communicate it to the clients or users. I believe that this helps the user connect to the finished piece and gives it a higher personal value, and it is my hope that a higher value leads to a diminished chance that the object will be cast aside and added to the waste stream. This awareness of our place in the cycle of creation (as users and waste creators) colors every design decision I make, from materials to processes. It drives me to seek out methods that have the smallest possible negative impact environmentally, economically, and socially, and the greatest positive impact. It also drives me to communicate this thought process to my students. This method of thought spills over into my teaching of course: There is no shred of knowledge, no bit of experience that cannot be utilized as an educational tool. The way that leaves fall off of a tree in autumn, the way two people pass each other in a hallway, the relationship of bone to muscle to skin in our hands, all of these are clues to the way the world works. We can use these as signposts when we engage in our creative process; we can let them lead us to a more thoughtful, appropriate finished piece.
I believe that what we do as designers and makers is important; it will change the world. Even something as simple as making a mark on a piece of paper changes the world from a world without that mark to a world with that mark. If this is true, if every design perforce changes the world, I believe we have a responsibility to do that in a positive way. I believe that by teaching students the art of inquiry and the craft of making I am able to help widen what I call the student’s “field of view.” We can easily fall into the trap of thinking too narrowly, of ignoring the interconnected nature of the world around us. But every choice we make has effects that ripple outward, and choosing one material (for example) over another or one construction method over another can have profound impact on all manner of other disciplines and industries. To this end, I pursue projects for my students that respond to that agenda, seeking out socially and environmentally responsible real world clients like e2e Materials (a local sustainable-product business), or community gardens and other community centers.
As field of view broadens, as we become more aware of the interconnected nature of the things and processes and people in the world around us, we are able to identify and mitigate the relationships that we are working to improve in a much more sensitive way. Sometimes this process is simple: Critiquing a first-year student’s drawing and noting the lack of crown and base molding in the drawing can lead to a discussion about the role of molding in an interior first as way to keep out the cold, then as a status symbol, then (by doing away with it altogether) as a Minimalist statement about æsthetics. Other times it is more complex: a discussion with a thesis student about generational poverty leads to insights about the role that government-built housing (built cheaply and often with little thought about the relationship of the residence to the end user) can play in underlining and even creating attitudes about class-identity and self-identity.
These three components (inquiry, making, and aspiration) are not steps in a process, rather they are twisted around each other like strands in a rope: they start together and support each other and run concurrently all the way through the process arriving together at a student who graduates engaged with the world, looking critically at that world, and ready to make positive change within that world.