Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Teaching Philosophy

I am engaged in something right now that is making me re-read my teaching philosophy.  I wrote it last year, but it still feels right.  It goes like this:

Teaching Philosophy

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.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Death: Before and After.

We only had a couple of days in Paris before we moved on again.  Paris (like any major city) is impossible to "do," in the sense that you hear sometimes ("Well, we did London last year and this year we are going to do Paris).  There are so many layers; so much history, so much present, so many cultures, so much much much that I think you could live there for years and never “do” it all.  I lived in New York City for almost ten years and never made it to the Statue of Liberty, after all.

We happened to be staying a stone's throw from Notre Dame de Paris, and almost accidentally the trip became (mostly) about this structure.  Of course it is art-historically significant and I studied it just a bit in college, and of course I was roughly familiar with it as a structure, but truly photos can never prepare one for actually inhabiting a building.  What a breathtaking space.

It is a Gothic cathedral (perhaps the Gothic Cathedral) that is vast: Vastly wide, impressively long, and tall in a way that quite successfully makes a human feel tiny in the presence of god, which is what that space was meant to do after all.  The builders employed a brand-new architectural conceit that we call a “cluster column,” that is, on the face of the piers that hold up the distant roof are carved delicate, tiny columns, one next to the other in a cluster, almost like a handful of asparagus, or maybe like holding a bunch of drinking straws of various sizes.  The effect of this is to draw your eye up up up to the vaulted roof, you almost can’t help but follow the columns up to the heavens and there, peering up at the roof in awe you realize you are gazing heavenward and feeling small.  Success in architecture. 

This is a building that was begun in the 11th century and took a couple of hundred years to build.  Thousands upon thousands of stones to be dressed and put in place, tons of iron to be smelted and cast and forged, beams to be hewn out of trees.  It is a representation of millions upon millions of labor-hours of work across generations.

I was particularly smitten by the hinges.  There are of course three main doors into the western end of the Cathedral (this is normal for cathedrals, especially of this style).  Each entrance had a pair of doors and each door had three hinges.  “NBD,” as my students say.  But these hinges are something else.  Large in scale, as everything is large in scale in this structure, and strong, but visually delicate, almost spidery.  They are massive pieces of forged iron, but have an æsthetic identity that is almost light.  Knowing as I do a little bit about blacksmithing made me appreciate these hinges even more:  the idea of forging them, even in parts, of getting that intricate detail without deforming the steel, of achieving that level of symmetry again and again really is a staggering thought.  To look at these hinges was to look at the work of a true master, a person who is so comfortable with their hands and their tools and their material that they can make things that no other, or few other, humans on the planet can make.  This person or these people lived a thousand years ago, and not only does no one now know their names, there is probably no way to even find out what their names were.  All we have is their work which stands still, a thousand years later, as testament to lives lived in service to making things with their hands that are of use and that are beautiful and that are made in a way that with care they will still do what they are intended to do a thousand years hence.  What in my life does the same?

Which brings me to the Paris Catacombs.

Different from the Roman catacombs in almost every way, the Paris catacombs are a series of tunnels that started as an underground quarry for that white stone that is ubiquitous here.  In the late 18th century they started to collapse, and engineers were sent down to shore them up.  At the same time, several cemeteries were being emptied, and all of the bones were brought down into the tunnels and stacked down there, since there was nothing else to do with the space.  This resulted in a spectacularly creepy environment deep deep underground.

We have to a certain extent become inured to skulls and bones, I think.  We see so many toys and Halloween decorations that are skulls and bones that I thought this would be more of the same: slightly creepy but mostly cool, and a fun afternoon.  I was wrong on all counts.

As a starter, walking down a continuous stone spiral staircase some 9 or 10 stories underground is enough to creep me out.  No elevator, so no quick escape if needed.  No landings, either, just a relentless spiral down down down into the clammy darkness.  The monotony of this part of the walk is meditative in its way, though the meditation is less than relaxing.  At the base of this stair is a hallway, about 6 feet wide and maybe seven and a half feet tall in the center of the gently arched ceiling.  Electric wall sconces light the way every thirty feet or so on alternating sides, meaning that the light is patchy, yellow, and barely lights the floor which is sloping, pitted, and, as my wife pointed out, “not something you would ever find in the States.”
The depth of this tunnel is almost palpable, you are keenly aware of the hundreds of feet of stone above you.  Every so often there is a tunnel off to the right or left, dark as dark can be and locked off with an iron door like a prison door.  I always find that not knowing evokes feeling considerably more than knowing, and the mystery of the dark tunnels with locked doors intensifies the already heightened feeling of extreme creepiness.

Then you get to the bones.

It is almost like some Disney exhibit, there are so many.  Like the entrance to some ersatz “pirate cave.”  But these are real.  And there are thousands upon thousands of them.  Six or seven foot retaining walls have been built out of femurs, with courses of skulls either facing in or out.  In some places the skulls have been arranged in a shape, like a heart or a cross.  In others they just continue in a long row, face after fleshless face staring forever across the hallway at face upon fleshless face staring back.

I had a real “poor Yorick” moment as I walked through the cool damp semidark:  All of these bones had been a person, had been a child, had grown up, might have been a parent or a sibling or a grandmom or a granddad.  They probably loved and were loved, they might have sung songs or played with their children, or enjoyed a sunset.  They had birthdays and holidays, they celebrated and cried.  There was a human life attached to each of these tens of thousands of femurs, each of the tens of thousands of these skulls.  No one will ever have any way of finding out who these people were, where they lived, or what their favorite food was.  We won’t know who their first kiss was or what they did as a job, or what was important to them.  These people have been dead for hundreds of years.  All we have are their bones.  Which of course is where the rest of us are are all headed in time.

Which brought me back to Notre Dame de Paris, and to the door hinges.

The people who made the door hinges are long lost in time (“Lost in time like tears in rain,” as Roy Baty says in the Blade Runner movie), but those hinges remain, and they keep doing the work they were intended to do.  Every morning the doors swing open and every evening they swing shut, and the hands of the people that put those doors on the hinges and the hinges on the building, though long decayed to bones, are accessible to us. 

We are so temporary, so fleeting, so small in space and time.  What the Catacombs and Notre Dame made me think about is the import of making my short time here really mean something, and of how much I want to make some things that live longer than I do, even briefly.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


"There are many things that can be learnt from [master carpenter's] skills and spirit to be applied to contemporary organizations and the making of things."

The last time we were here I raved about The Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum.  It was a central stop last time and was so again this time.  This time around they are in a new building, one that has been constructed using ancient techniques but applied to a lovely and thoughtful contemporary building.  There are more exhibits, there is a workshop where you can take classes, all the furniture is by local craftspeople, it is crazy.

I won't go back through what I wrote last time, that does not seem to make sense.  And I do want this blog to be more than a travelogue, so just posting some photos does not seem to be the right thing either.  Why bring a group of architecture and design students to a craft museum at all?  None of them want to go into woodworking, so why bother even if it is a stunningly thoughtful and well-designed space?

Well, one answer to that might have been raised by Howard Risatti in his book "Theory of Craft."  It's a good book and one that has particular relevance in much of my work.  He writes:

When we look at craft objects from different societies...it is clear they all share common functional traits, what we would identify as functional form.  It is also clear they have formal differences, these we would identify as their different stylistic forms or styles.  Style, or stylistic form in craft objects, always exists along with functional form; but unlike functional form, stylistic form springs from the realm of culture and the intention to meaning, to signification.  Moreover, because craft objects are an embodiment of both functional form and stylistic form, they must be understood as having a life as both physical objects and as social objects.

So a historic hand plane has an existence as an object, a tool, a component in a carpenter's tool kit.  But it also has relevance in a conversation about resources and resource usage, and about what a style of work or a style of workmanship communicates about a particular culture.  And my hope is that by exposing our students to the style of making in another culture that it will underline for them the stylistic and functional choices and assumptions that they are making in their own work.

Japanese traditional carpentry, like Western carpentry, dictated (in part) the æsthetic that we think of as "Japanese."  The mix of wood and clay and stone, the intentional asymmetry, the floor plans dictated by tatami mats, these have their root in how the spaces were made and used. 

As we walked around the museum yesterday and I talked about tools and methods, about materials and the way we treat them (they still have the bins full of shavings from different woods so that you can smell the difference between hinoki and oak, for example.  IT'S SMELL-O-VISION!  WITH WOOD.  OMG.)  I am hopeful that some of this resonated with the students.  I am hopeful that as they move forward in their own design practices some gossamer memory of attention to not just materiality but also the ways that materials are used will have clung tot heir perceptions.  Here are some photos and drawings from my favorite museum on the planet.

The workshop.  We did not have a chance to use it, but next time for sure.

A huge plane and the shaving that came from it.

Looks like a simple joint, right?

Here's how that joint goes together.

A really amazing display that is sort of a 3D exploded view of a timber framed structure showing all of the joints.

A shouldered sliding dovetail bridle (kyorogumi) joint.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Urushi (漆)

One of the things that one sees a lot of here is lacquer-ware.  The beautiful deeply lustrous black and red (and clear) lacquer is a finish that is unparalleled and iconic.  So much so that you can also buy black and red plastic objects like rice bowls and spoons and trays that purport to emulate the finish, though there is really no comparison.  The only thing that is like urushi lacquer is urushi lacquer.

The binder for this lovely finish comes from the Japanese Sumac tree, which looks not unlike our own sumac trees back home.  This is a very different tree, however: the sap of the Japanese Sumac contains a compound called urushiol, which is the same toxin that is found in poison ivy.  The highly skilled craftspeople that work with urushi lacquer go through a period of extreme discomfort during which they are pretty much covered with the painful and highly itchy rash that any sufferer of poison ivy can relate to.  I have heard anecdotally that if someone who works with urushi takes a break from it for a week or two they have to build up a tolerance all over again when they come back to it again, that no  matter how long one has been working with urushi one still has to get re-acclimatized.

When I was young poison ivy was not of great concern.  I had a small case of it once or twice, but mostly I ran through the woods with abandon and very little repercussion.  In my early teens I started going to the local YMCA summer camp for a week or two each summer.  Camp Hanes taught me a lot of things: it taught me how to be responsible for younger people as a councillor in training (a lesson I put in to practice now in my work life) about rock climbing and backpacking, about how to sneak cigarettes and about power hierarchies and inequities.

One year I was art of a group called the Rangers.  It was not as militaristic as it sounds: it was sort of like a work/study program.  We went to morning workshops and then in the afternoon we did a few hours of work for the camp.  I quite enjoyed it, actually, as even then, when I was thirteen or fourteen or whatever I was I liked to be on the inside, to be part of the workings of a place rather than simply attending the place.  It was that same tendency that would lead me to start working backstage on shows, which would take me out of the great outdoors and into large dark rooms and the world of the entertainment industry.

I don't know if Camp Hanes still does the ranger program, I don't know if they would be allowed to.  We swung axes and used saws to prune trees, we clipped shrubs, we drove the golf carts around hauling trash, in general doing stuff in the eighties that would probably be looked at very differently in the litigious 21st century.

I can't for the life of me remember who the guy in charge of us was, but I remember what he looked like: skin swarthy form day after day in the North Carolina summer sun, leathery from years of being a Camel smoker.  He would smoke cigarettes while we worked, which always made us as campers (who were not allowed to smoke, officially) highly jealous and greatly desirous of a cigarette.  I remember him as tall (though in retrospect he may not have been) and I remember he had what we used to refer to as "Dunlop's disease:" his belly done lopped over his belt.  He had the thick, slow, round accent of the North Carolina hills, and a parsimony with words that will be familiar to people who have hung out around farmers and country folk at all.

One day our task was to clear the weeds from a small hill side next to the tennis courts.  This is probably almost 30 years ago and I remember it vividly.  Having been raised baby my mom to recognise plants by their leaves, I immediately spotted that the bulk of the weeds were poison ivy.  The boss man handed me a swing blade (a sort of horizontal blade set on a long handle) and told us to get to it.

"But that's poison ivy," I piped up, thinking maybe he had not noticed.  "Yep."  "And you want us to cut it with these?" "Yep." "Can I at least go up to my cabin and put on jeans?" "Nope.  Y'all can shower when yuh finnish." So we got to work.  To this day I remember the smell of those huge leaves as the swing blade cut their stems, the baking, sultry heat of the North Carolina summer sun, the sunburn starting to make my scrawny back pink.  I did shower, but to no avail, by the next morning the first welts started to form.  Then more.  Then more yet.  All the way up both legs and on both arms the poison ivy rash stood out.  I remember how painful it was, how terrifying as it kept spreading.  A couple of weeks later I went with my dad to his little home town in Michigan to visit my grandparents and I remember walking up the street with one of those curved chopping knives that I had found in the attic.  It reminded me of a battle axe so I was carrying it around.  The poison ivy was so itchy I remember stopping on the sidewalk and using the chopping knife to scrape at my legs, bent over and crying in frustration as the welts were torn away and the yellow pus inside them oozed down my legs.  Ever after I have been extremely sensitive to poison ivy and have mostly kept well away.

A few days ago, in Kyoto, we took the students to a sushi making experience.  We sat at long tables while the sushi chef (who was also the architect of the space and the owner) showed the students how to use the long sushi knife to cut slices of very fresh fish, and how to ball the rice and shape the sushi.  It was a fantastic experience and left us all stuffed full of sushi.

After we had eaten, Aki (the sushi chef) told us how the building we were in had been a factory where urushi lacquer was made and applied to rice bowls and spoons.  He talked about how he had bought the building and turned it into this beautiful ryokan, or Japanese style hotel, and showed us some lovely and quite old lacquer ware that he had collected, some of which had been made in that factory when it was still a factory.  We all listened and learned and generally had a good time.  He told us about the big slab tables that we were sitting at and about how he also loves to work wood, and how he had hand planed them and applied the urushi lacquer finish to them himself.  And he told us all how the space had only been open for three months but that he was very proud of it.

The next morning when I awoke my wrist was itching.  Not a normal "my wrist itches" sort of itch, but a deeper, more painful itch that I have come to know well.  Somewhere in that lovely space there must have been some urushi lacquer that was not fully cured.  And I found it.  And that is how I came to have poison ivy in Japan, and how I now know that the Japanese for "calamine lotion" is "cadamine."  And that is is really hard to find anti-itch stuff in a drug store when you can not read or speak the language.

The sushi was fantastic though.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Engawa (縁側)

As he showed me my room on our first night here, the tall, blonde, German (?) guy who works the desk at our hotel pointed out the lintel above an alcove in my room that leads to the bathroom.  "Be careful," he said, "in Japan it is painful to be tall."

A sketch of the engawa space leading into the bathroom
Now, I am not a tall guy, being as I am several inches south of six feet.  On the other hand, I am in a country in which I routinely find myself talking to or walking past adult humans who do not even come up to my shoulder.  So I crack my head on that lintel almost daily and every time I do I think to myself "In Japan it is painful to be tall."  We leave tomorrow and I wonder if I will even then be trained to duck as I step up into the little alcove.

The alcove is worth noting (and I have been since I got here not just because I keep rediscovering the top of the entry with my skull) because it represents a very Japanese space: engawa.  Transition is important in traditional Japanese architecture, and passage from one space to another, though fluid, is also often tightly composed.  An engawa space is one of the ways that this happens.  Typically it refers to a sort of veranda on a traditional Japanese house that is either open to the elements or enclosed with screens.  Here's a photo I took of a traditional house in a town called Takeyama last time I was here.  You can see the tatami room and then, beyond the screens, the engawa.  The user of the space does not walk out from the house into the garden, but has a period of adjustment, and interstitial space that eases the transition.  The other thing that this space does is that it allows for very deep eaves on a traditional house, which is good since shoji screens are mostly paper and those eaves protect the walls of the house and the paper screens form the elements.

Rough floor plan of my room.   
I don't have a veranda on my third floor room, of course, but this idea of "in between" space is so strong here that in a "Japanese style" room that is not very big to begin with I have not one but two of them.  I have been thinking about them as my own little engawa spaces.  They both have hardwood floor, and they flank the tatmi room, one inside the door and the other in the headbanging space between my room and the bathroom.  In fact, to come into the room, there is a little entry, maybe 3'-0" by 20", then a little step up to an engawa space which is where the closet for my futon is, and then you finally step onto the tatami.  The whole of the entry is maybe 36" x 60", so not huge, but there are several transitional spaces, utilising changes of level as well as changes of material and color.  The hardwood helps protect the tatmi, of course, but it also allows for an entry into a space, it compresses the user into a small space before opening them up into a larger, brighter space.  This has the effect, among other things, of making the space feel bigger than it is, because the user is experiencing it in contrast to the very small transition space.  The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright used this kind of transition quite often, and I think he learned it in his travels here. 

Being aware of this and experiencing it has been reminding me about the importance of transition, and of honoring the need to allow for transition.  So often in my life I do not build in time to process, time to enjoy, time to reflect.  So often I go from one thing directly into another.  Maybe there is value in emotional engawa. Temporal engawa.  Even in this small space "transition" is important enough that space has been set aside for it.  Maybe I would do well to take that lesson and apply it elsewhere in my life. At the very least I will tell myself this is why it was so important to put that lintel where it is.  Not just to make it painful to be tall.

Though in Japan, it is painful to be tall.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Hohai (Pray-Respectfully)

On the ridge in the eastern mountains above Kyoto there is a series of temples and shrines that are linked by a narrow street called Tetsugaku-no-michi, the Philospher's Path.  It is mostly a gravel path with square flagstones set in it that meanders along the side of a canal that runs the ridge for quite a while.  For a good portion of it there are gnarled and twisted cherry trees on one side and the canal on the other, and occasional views across the valley of Kyoto stuffed in between the mountains.  It is a beautiful walk.

The canal is lined with stone, and though the water at the bottom is only maybe a foot deep, the stone-lined ditch is about ten feet deep, and maybe fifteen feet across at the top.  The clear water running along the bottom is home to some gigantic carp who lazily face upstream with their mouth open, eating away and generally living the life of Riley, it looks like.

We started on the path at Ginkaku-ji, the "Silver Pavillion," which is a Zen Temple and garden that was finished in 1482.  The dates here are arresting for an American, of course.  There is a completely different time frame for a lot of the structures in Kyoto than the one we are used to, and it is helpful to me to be jogged in this way.  The things that I have been learning and thinking and wanting have been learned and thought and wanted for centuries (millennia, actually) of human experience.  This does not make them less real or less important (more of both, actually), but it does help to contextualise my own life to look at it against the backdrop of all of the lives that have come before me I think.
On the right is my drawing of a small waterfall in the garden.

The temple garden is just incredibly stunning.  There is a meandering path that takes you around the gravel bed that has been carefully raked, across some small bridges, past a little waterfall.  The trees are quite old, some of them, and twisted in ways that are precarious.  Many of them are propped up with these gorgeous posts to protect them and keep them standing. 

After you meander through the garden there is a path that leads up stone steps and across the ridge and back down, giving the walker views of the temple from above swimming in a sea of leaves.  Beyond the temp,d buildings is Kyoto, jumbled and stacked in between the eastern mountains and the western ones, looking for the all teh world as if thousands of toy houses were laid out on a quilt between your legs and then you raised your legs, making them all fall into the valley.

One of my top 15 trees in Japan and the calligraphy for Ginkaku
As the walker comes back down into the garden past a forest of ruler-straight conifers of some kind (cypress?  Juniper?) one of my favorite trees in all of Japan comes in to view.  Twisted like the muscles of my forearm and propped up and an unbelievable angle, it really is so lovely and so obviously ancient that I had to spend a few minutes drawing it. 

The garden is so full of tourists like us following the path that it is hard to get a sense of what it must have been like during the Shogunate in which it was built.  A place of peace and contemplation and refuge, the quiet must have been almost alarming.

Gardeners at work pruning a tree.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Konnichiwa (Coming/Coming Back)

It is 6.27 am on day three of my return visit to Japan, and I have been trying to think about how to write about this and what to write about it.  Coming back, it turns out, is different from coming here.  Sort of like a second date, you know you will be exhilarated and excited, but you also know how you will be exhilarated and excited.  Which does not lessen the experience at all but it does give it a different flavor.

The difference in flavor is one that I have been trying to parse over the last couple of days as I settle into our routine here.  The first trip of course everything was a learning experience, everything was new, everything was exploration.  This time I knew exactly how to get to the good ramen shop, which streets lead to the knife store.  I know what to expect when I walk into the Imperial Palace to get our permits to visit Katsura Villa.  I am not just now finding out about propped-up trees, I am re-visiting old friends.

This has been true for a lot of things, and I have to admit to being a bit crestfallen as this process was revealed to me.  Like a lot of people I wanted the continued first flush of newness that I felt last time.  Of course that is childish, but the only other time I have been to Japan everything was so very new, so very alien, that the excitement of discovery actually started to wear me out by then end.

So I am taking stock and recalibrating.  We walked the students to Kiyomizu-dera, and I got to re-visit it, which, it turns out, was quite lovely.  Although familiar, it is no less stunning.  The massive beams and columns, the hand cut joints, the views of the city and the Western mountains beyond it, none of this is at all less enthralling.  But because I already have the photos of these views and these things, I felt released from the need to obsessively document, and was able to sit in the gloom of the temple and just smell the incense and feel the worn wood under me and listen to the big bell ring and the people swirling outside and just sink in to the experience itself.  How lovely.

I did do a little sketching, which I have decided I need to do more of in my time here, which reminded me how little I draw these days.  I hope to get better at it by the time we leave here.  And I did take a couple of photos.  But mostly what I did was sit and listen and smell and feel the place, and sit with my students, cajoling them to do the same.

Seems like that may be the flavor of this trip:  That instead of experiencing it through a little black plastic box I experience it the way that people have for centuries, and then relate it back through stories, which will have a different flavor this time.  Here are some sketches and photos:

Some sketches from today.

I love these baby Buddhas with bibs.

I took a photo of this last time, fun to draw it.

This is the big gong the sound of which reverberates throughout the temple.

Every temple has calligraphers, who will do calligraphy specific to the temple.  The three characters down the left hand side of this page are "kiyo,' "mizu," and "dera."
Just a dad waiting for his kiddos to come out of the temple.  Some things are familiar across cultures.

Just because you are in a stunning kimono doesn't mean you don't like a good selfie.

Some really nice CNC-cut planters for the side of a steep hill.
I love the way the curve of this maple tree accentuates the three dimensional grid of the columns and beams.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Designing Change

This is the text of a paper that I wrote with my friend, colleague, and mentor Dr. Lucinda Havenhand.  We wrote it for the 2015 LearnXDesign conference in Chicago, mostly I am putting it here so I can find it again if I need to.

 Designing Change: Teaching Social Responsibility Through Design

Lucinda K. Havenhand Zeke Leonard

Embedded within the idea of design is the inherent notion that we design “for the greater good.”  From its origins in the reform movement of the mid 19th century to the institution of design education at the Bauhaus that subtext has been clear.  As historian Paul Greenhalgh points out in his Introduction to Modernism in Design:
Design was to be forged into a weapon with which to combat the alienation apparent in modern urban society.  It was therefore construed to be fundamentally a political activity, concerned with the achievement of a proper level of social morality.  It was meant to improve the conditions of the population that consumed it.1 
As design educators we know this story of our history and professions and  still adhere almost

intuitively to the notion that every design project strives to make things better.  However, the answers to the question of “whose better” or “what actually constitutes better” has become less clear recently as issues of budget, time, function, and aesthetics, style and trends often modify our definition of making things better, leaving social justice lower on the list of our priorities.
This is especially true within this context of our financially affluent times, when the demand for luxury and designs that respond to commercial needs take precedence in the market. Can a high-­‐end office building or luxury apartment complex possibly serve a social good? And with that in mind we must ask the question: regardless of our continued idealized linkage of design and good in our understanding of ourselves and our professions, has design in

reality separated itself from its roots in social justice because the demand is not there?  Have our original ideals and our current realities separated?
It is interesting to look at our discourses about ourselves in that regard. The Interior Design Educators Council web site states: “We believe the foundation of interior design education is grounded in ethics and encompasses environmental, cultural, social, global issues,” clearly still making that connection of design and social justice as part of a list of many things the field identifies with.  Such claims by the American Institute of Graphic Designers and the Industrial Design Society of America on their web sites are less visible with no specific language  of greater good or social justice finding a place on theirs.
In the larger discourses of the design disciplines, we of course can find the continued discussion of social justice and its links with design.  Proponents such as Victor Papanek who was a  life long champion of design for social change has his  book Design for the Real World now considered a classic in design literature. Papanek claimed that
Design had become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments. .  . This demands high social and moral responsibility from the designer. .
. .As socially and morally involved designers we must address ourselves to the needs of a world with its back to the wall.2
Papanek’s treatise is still considered as and referred to as the watchword of design and social good. Current efforts such as David Berman’s Do Good Design and Noah Scalin and Michelle Taute’s call to design activism continue Papanek’s charge.  Nonetheless all these efforts are still are often considered as “in addition to” but not the core of design teaching and practice, which still for most part centers on aesthetics, formalism and market forces.
And so this observation begs the question: Are design and social good still linked? Is there still an inherent charge in design to make the world a better place?  And further should we

as educators be teaching our students to always consider the great good and social justice as priorities? Is it our responsibility as design educators to imbue our students with a concern and respect for issues of social justice? The authors of this paper are two designers and educators who still believe that it is or that it should be.  Although separated by nearly a generation in age and diverse in our experiences we both share the same strong belief in the moral imperative of design and our charge to transfer that belief to our students.
These questions and concerns form the crux of this paper, which asks  “How  do we  teach the imperative of social good through design?”  Particularly, how do we teach this in an  age and environment where students are often both economically and socially privileged and have little or no direct experience with social injustice? In an attempt to work our way through these questions we present here both description and analysis of our efforts in attempting to do this as a case study or roadmap about how to do this.  The main vehicle for this work has been in senior-­‐level thesis prep and thesis courses in a BFA interior design curriculum but these ideas could be applicable to students at all levels in all projects.  Our methods for doing this have been multivalent and in some case experimental. Over the course of three years these methods have included: story-­‐telling and collecting; mandatory volunteer experience; mentorship; situational analysis; library research; reflective exercises; and peer sharing and collaboration.
This paper will outline how we have embedded considerations of social justice through these methods in our teaching and will share our evaluations of these techniques, as well as our reflections about our difficulties, second-­‐thoughts, push-­‐backs and successes in using them. We hope that by bringing this topic to the forefront it will lead to a candid discussion of what it means to be a responsible designer and design educators in today’s world.

Part 1 -­‐ Discovery

As design educators most of us work in programs that attract a variety of students.

Since design education does not reach back through the K-­‐ 12 system, most students find design only through research or unique educational experiences (summer camps, workshops) or by means of someone who knows what design is. Generally this leads to attracting only students to the profession who are able to know and appreciate design through their parents, mentors, media or public culture.  Therefore, not all potential students find design, and aspiring to be a designer is not generally  an accepted role (such as a doctor, lawyer, or architect) except to  those who have the opportunity to know design.  Furthermore the historical trend and insistent reality of most interior design and fashion programs is that they attract young women and usually young women from middle to upper-­‐class backgrounds.
The first step that must be taken when teaching social justice to this demographic is understanding how socially conscious the students already are.  To this end, we back out to a larger discussion of empathy and aspiration.  Our first exercise is an assignment that asks  “What is your passion?”  Within this exercise students consider this question and answer it as succinctly as they can. We encourage them not to pre-­‐judge themselves and to just express. We tell them that everything is fair game and there is no right or wrong answer, but to take their time and be thoughtful and honest. They are then required to write a paragraph about their passion using “analytical, professional language explain what your passion is and why you feel drawn to it.”  Our goal in this exercise is to open up an emotional door, to allow the student to understand what it means to feel strongly about something and to commit to it.  We then ask the students  to see what possibilities are presented by looking at their passion critically.  We ask them to explore how their passion expresses itself in a concern, an effort, or a project that is happening  in the real world.  Students are then required to expand on this by writing  three additional paragraphs, each explaining ways that their passion is related to issues or situations at a local,

community and national or international level.  In this exercise, for example, a revealed passion about “eating healthy” led to a consideration of  university food service, then to the local Food Bank, then to international hunger.  Passions as obscure as “makeup” led to a discussion of artistry and precision, to a consideration of teaching art to local children, then to the position of art as a positive tool to promote self esteem.   The centering of this project in things students feel passionately about creates a strong link between the student and the project and positions them personally in it. We feel that this personal positioning is essential to teaching an affinity to social justice.
Another tool we use during this introductory phase is foregrounding the concept of empathy as an important part of design by asking students complete an empathy questionnaire. The Empathy Quotient test is an assessment tool developed by psychologists which has been used primarily to screen for autism spectrum disorders in adults.  In our case, we are not so  much concerned about how the students score but how the sixty questions on the test open the student’s mind to the idea of empathy and how it is demonstrated in their own actions.     The end result is that the students are far more aware of empathy as a concept and part of the  design process as they move forward in their projects. We believe that awakening a student’s understanding of passion and empathy are essential if we want them to adopt a social conscious stance in their design work.

Part II Immersion

After we have introduced to the topics of empathy and passion and hopefully awakened an understanding of the position of these in design, we then send the students out from the classroom to experience human needs first hand.  This happens in two ways:  The first is by using local sites and agencies to provide design problems that need to be solved and which             allow students to directly engage with them.

Students might design for a local elder-­‐care facility, for example, and in that process have to meet and spend time with residents-­‐-­‐ getting to know them, asking them questions and trying  to understand their perspectives and their experiences.  Another project might concern itself with developing strategies for the city to deal with littering and recycling, allowing students access to a different group of constituencies from politicians, to work crews, to citizens on the street. These specific community based projects are always designed for the students to have to meet real people in real situations.  In many cases students are introduced in these projects to scenarios and populations that they have had no experience or contact with.  The required one
–to-­‐ one experience of interviewing and dialogue provides a place where empathy can be developed.
Students are then required to collect “the stories” of the interviewees and clients and to also write stories about their experience.  We find that the use of narrative over simple note-­‐ taking allows that experience to be filtered through personal perception and empathy.  The stories told and written become the basis of how the design should go forward.
The second method we use in this phase is volunteering.  All seniors working on their thesis projects are required to volunteer for twenty-­‐five hours over the course of the semester for an agency that has some relation to their thesis project.  This experience allows the student to not only observe an experience or population but to actively engage with it.  In the role of volunteer, the students are often exposed to their first experiences as agents of change, which positions them as participants (and not distant observers to) the world.  The idea that one must be personally involved and situated within and not outside of a design problem is an essential understanding for designing for social justice.

Part III –Aspirations

From the experience of awakening self-­‐awareness and empathy as well as first hand experience of social conditions, the students are then ask to look outward for inspirations, precedents and role models.  They are asked to consider who in the greater world is also concerned with their chosen issue; Who as designers are working in a socially conscious framework; Who writes about issues of social justice; What do they say; How can it be applied to design?  Students are asked to cast a wide net to gather the answers to these questions and hopefully find those who can be considered “heroes” in design for social justice.  Here we are purposely asking students to find those they can emulate or projects that reflect what could best practices.    In this effort we are purposely taking advantage our society’s interest spawned by popular culture of creating cults of stardom and heroes by putting in front of the student an alternative kind of hero related to design.  In this effort, students sometimes become “obsessed” with their new design heroes, following their work and achievements closely and often applying for mentorship and internships with their offices.  In this end we feel we have manipulated a cultural tendency to a more productive and substantial end.

Part IV Insistence

All this said we cannot underestimate the role that our own insistence about social justice plays in this process.  As educators, like it or not, we are always role models for our students.  Students learn early what we like or dislike and often play to those preferences for better or worse.  We are labeled as “hard,” or “easy,”  or “good to talk to” or “open to ideas”  and on and on.  Our insistence on the relationship between design and social justice labels us to the students as well. Ultimately we are hoping they not only will admire us for it, but in fact look at it as important because we have made it important.  In a way we are trying to imprint students with this importance, in the same way that we might imprint on them the proper way to draft, set up a proposal, or present their work.  Making our own concern for social justice

visible is as  important a  tool in trying to teach design for social justice as any of the methods that we have listed above.  Demonstrating commitment to an idea or set of values becomes as important as learning to draw in this scenario.


Over the past three years over one hundred students have passed through our program of study that employs these techniques to teach social justice.  The impact of this training has exhibited itself in various ways.
First and most directly is the type of thesis project that began being produced.  Students who turned their attention to social issues began producing more thoughtful, interesting, and well-­‐considered work. A student, for example that has directly worked with disabled children demonstrated in her work her larger understanding of a body moving (or not moving) space and other scenarios.  Spatially the project was more challenging to status quo, more innovative and more successful.  Everyday items such as bathrooms, kitchens, stairs, halls all are thoughtfully re-­‐conceptualized. One can assume that this emerging designer would never take those spaces for granted.
But more importantly the students come out of their projects committed to understanding how design can facilitate larger changes in society.  In the  documentation of a project about creating an accessible sports facility for differently abled children  the  student, Cassie P. concludes:
Overall, this project presents many opportunities for engagement via interactions between the users, the site and the Near West Side community. The goal is to expand the dialogue about disability and sport on a local level so that the issue is better recognized. For this reason, I plan on showcasing the talents of the children, adolescents and adults who will be the stars of the space as a symbol of positive reinforcement.

Most importantly, the implications of this project relate to social justice because it will inspire future generations to accept one another regardless of appearance or ability.
Another student, Chelsea S. says in reference to her creating of an Art Center for underprivileged  students:
Finding a solution for creating a positive and welcoming reputation with the community is extremely important. My method of presenting the ideas and values behind what the center represents to the community will help me get my audience to join me in my efforts to make a change. Helping to make
the community more inclusive and progressive for the generation now and the next to come is the focus that will drive this solution.
Across the board students’ statements and design solutions embody a new sense of understanding and commitment to use design as a tool for social change.
For many the volunteering experience was the turning point in their understanding of a design problems and social responsibility.  Students often described their experience as having personal and long-­‐range impact on themselves as designers. Cassie P., a student studying and designing an adapted sports clinic stated:
I have completed 25 hours of volunteering at various adapted sports clinics and conferences sponsored by the Fitness-­‐Inclusion Network, a subsidiary project of the Burton Blatt Institute. They are a collaborative, cross-­‐institution initiative that...develops innovative ways to promote and support inclusive recreation for children, adolescents and adults with disabilities in Central New York.
Through their events I spoke with community leaders in this field, participated in adapted sports and experimented with the equipment. This volunteer work challenged me to take a “roll” in someone else’s shoes in order to really understand the difficulties

and limitations associated with physical and mobility impairments. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to play outside of my comfort zone and meet para-­‐Olympic athletes because it changed my point of view as a designer.
Katie, a student designing a retail operation for underprivileged women reported about her volunteering  experience:
As a volunteer at Rescue Mission in the Clothing Outreach program, also known as the Thrifty Shopper, I was able to observe firsthand people below the poverty line and what kinds of apparel they were choosing for themselves and their families. In 2012, the Rescue Mission in Syracuse gave away over 70,000 pieces of clothing to those in need. Each person that comes in is allowed to get 4 free items of clothing each month for each person in their family. I grew to learn certain people by name and they got to know me so it was a very meaningful experience that I’m happy to have been a part of.
For the most part student evaluations revealed that students appreciated what were trying to do even in the most pragmatic sense.  One student said:
This process of coming to my thesis topic was very helpful. Beginning discussing our passion and then issues with that passion made it easier for me to decide on my topic.
While at the same time others ultimately felt frustrated by being pushed to design something that was not really of interest to them.  “Can’t I JUST design a restaurant?” one student asked.  In this interaction we had to admit to ourselves that our approach to teaching social justice could actually be seen as oppressive and limiting.  Another student, Emily W. came to the thesis process knowing that she wanted to design a high ropes interactive exercise course for college students.  For the first several weeks she struggled with ways to make this accessible to other demographics, finally asking if we had to “change the world with our designs,” her implication being that she did not mind serving only the single demographic.  While acknowledging the

privilege inherent in her demographic, she asked “what’s wrong with helping to empower them?  A lot of them don’t know what their potential might be.”  Through continued conversation we also came around to the idea that the ropes course could of course be opened to school groups from the surrounding city school district, which would enable different demographics  access.
This kind of questioning helped us see two things:  First, that assumptions about demographic are dangerous in both directions.  If the privileged college students that Emily wanted to engage could learn lessons about mutual support, leadership, and teamwork in her facility, should they not have access to that? Second, that even when the students push back against our ideas about socially active design their work ends up being infused with it.
This was a good lesson that provided great insight for us. We were also happy to understand that this opinion was not held by the majority of students, who seemed to embrace sincerely what we were offering.
At the same time we have to acknowledge that there are obvious shortcomings to this type of design education.  The most obvious limitation is the temporal one:  a fifteen week semester does not give a student very much time to find a volunteering opportunity, do the twenty-­‐five hours of work, and then incorporate them into their design. One student wrote in an anonymous evaluation:
I felt like the volunteer requirement was a little tedious for this project. We didn't begin the volunteering until the second half of the semester which made it harder to find the time to complete it. I felt like I just chose a place to volunteer at because we had to, not because it was valuable for my topic. It was very hard to find a place that had enough hours for me to work, or even wanted a volunteer in general.
Grading necessities in our institution made it imperative to impose the limitation that the

students finish their volunteering by the end of the semester, which in some (but not all) cases also limited the depth of their experiences. Another possible shortcoming comes from the point of view of the community:  at the end of their twenty five hours of work the students stop volunteering, which impacts the organization they have been working for.  There is not currently a method in place to fill the hole that the student leaves behind.
Success for any teacher is indicated by the success of their students. Watching and tracking our students entrance into professional life and seeing what kinds of firms and projects that choose to work with reveals that we have impacted their perspectives.  One student , Clairanne P., graduated and chose to pursue a job at the U.S. Green Building Council rather than work for a design firm so that she could deal more directly with issues of sustainability.  When she left USGBC a few years later to join a design firm she was hired partially for her sustainability expertise and her grounding in social consciousness.  Another student Maureen B., worked on a project for a school in Central America for under privileged kids outside of her office’s work and invited current students in the program to participate in the project.  By doing so students could see how her commitment to social justice carried beyond her thesis project into her professional life while affirming its importance and relevance from outside the classroom.  Two recent graduates, Katie M. and Michelle P., were so impacted by what they had learned in their thesis process that after graduation they stayed local to the university and worked to maximize their contact network to provide design services on a sliding scale to local non-­‐profits.
Surveys taken of our students both while in school and out in their early careers reveal that they are aware of and carry with them their linking of design and social justice.   “As a designer I realize I see the world differently,” one ex-­‐student reported, “and see how I can use design to improve it.  I feel very empowered by the skills I have as a designer to try to ‘change the world.’”  As educators we realize that we are in a crucial position for framing social justice

and bringing our students to an understanding of how they as designers can contribute. Although not all students embrace social justice as a theme as they go forward as designers, many do.   In that alone we feel we have had great success.

1  Paul Greenhalgh, ed. “Introduction,” Modernism in Design, London: Reaktion Books, 1990, pg. 8.
2 Victor Papanek, “Preface to First Edition,” Design for the Real World, Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1984, pg. xiii-­‐xiv.