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.