Mariana Amatullo talk – report

Social design implies a number of features that seem to run counter to the mainstream commercial practices that frame much of design education. Getting graduates ‘industry ready’ often dominates. If design also encompasses developing services and artefacts that make public services more effective, engaging user communities in development and stewardship, taking on more open-ended timeframes and various levels of clients at the same time, then surely social design in the curriculum is another route to getting students ‘industry ready’, albeit, perhaps, a different kind of industry?

But there are tensions between the institutional structures of design education and the inclusion of social design on the curriculum. Embedding social design into the educational curriculum of design schools has wide implications. Whilst Mariana Amatullo largely gave an overview of her work with Design Matters at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, a number of challenges emerged through her talk. Reflecting on it, these go as follows.

1)     Design education is often structured around modules or projects that exist within (often tight) timeframes. A social design project can be open-ended. A student design project usually has to be completed by a deadline. How do you align the iterative and often long-term engagement with partners with the more structure schedule of an educational institution?

2)     This brings me on to the question of evaluation. It’s a thorny issue in any case. In commercial terms a design might be measured in terms of increased sales or footfall. In social design, different criteria for assessment are present. In the professional practice of social design, this might be measured over time, eg. how a project has reduced crime or improved health. You can probably assess the care, attention and rigour a student has applied to the development process and research for a social design project (and, indeed, any design project). But the effectiveness of an outcome is harder to judge without a longer-term evaluation method, I would argue.

3)     Social design, as our respondent Professor Lorraine Gamman highlighted, involves social skills. Students need to be good at listening, relating to unfamiliar people and diplomatic while keeping an eye on the project objectives. This involves a set of capabilities that need to be taught. How do you teach these? Does this add further demands onto a social design curriculum?

4)     Where should the social design curriculum take place? Design Matters roughly divide its projects 50:50 between ‘local’ (ie. Pasadena) and ‘foreign’ (eg. Uganda) locations. Travel is an enriching experience. But ‘parachuting in’ to an exotic place, doing a project and then going home can have questionable effects for those on the receiving end.

5)     At times, the work that Mariana showed from Pasadena looked similar to pro bono work that is undertaken in the commercial domain. A United Nations Population Fund campaign to encourage youth ‘voice’ appears a bit like a public broadcasting service ad. (And I wonder if, since ‘youth’ is a culturally specific term and has differing meanings and usages in different locations, this is really a brief worth taking up.) That aside, it seems to me that social design in the University should be looking to develop new methods and outcomes that do not overlap with commercial pro bono work. But that’s a challenge, particularly at undergraduate level and particularly when undergraduates want employability skills. Some of Mariana’s graduates go on to work with design consultancies like Ideo and Design Continuum who engage parallel processes with those to be found in social design (eg. participatory appraisal, anthropological or ethnographic work, co-creation etc.). But are there new fields of employment that these graduates can move into on the edges or beyond design?

6)     Why do we need designers in these situations? This is a perennial question that keeps many creative awake at night and one that Lorraine raised again. What is it that a design student delivers that is beyond what, for example, an anthropology or health development student might undertake? Universities and colleges have internal marketplaces. Design courses have to vie for the attention of the senior management of higher education establishments and make their case for existence. This can be done but how do you do this without over-aestheticizing the results? A brochure extolling the do-gooder element of student projects can be rather cloying sometimes…

7)     Can student learning be linked to staff research in design? How do you manage the different timeframes and expectations in these two domains?

Design Matters is not alone. In the UK there are several design courses that explicitly or implicitly do social design. These can be found at Central St Martins, Leeds Metropolitan University, Glasgow School of Art and the University of Northumbria to name a few. Perhaps the above questions can be further debated between them.

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