Archive for the ‘Designmatters’ Category

Prominent theorist Ezio Manzini to discuss new book connecting design culture to social change

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015


Ezio Manzini

Ezio Manzini

Ezio Manzini, a leading force in social impact design and founder of the DESIS (Design for Social Innovation towards Sustainability) network of university-based design labs (including Art Center’s Designmatters department), will present a lecture based on ideas addressed within his new book, Design, When Everybody Designs, published by MIT Press. The event, which begins at 7pm in Art Center’s Ahmanson Auditorium, will include an hour-long talk about design culture’s role in driving the future of social change and a book signing at 8pm.

The following excerpt from Manzini’s book, which was originally published as part of Mapping Social Design‘s Expert Workshop, offers an enticing preview of the innovative and deeply-considered ideas Manzini will address in his presentation at Art Center next week:

In the 21st century social innovation will be interwoven with design as both stimulus and objective, indeed it will stimulate design as much as technical innovation did in the 20th century. At the same time, it will be what a growing proportion of design activities will be seeking to achieve. In principle, design has all the potentialities to play a major role in triggering and supporting social change and therefore becoming design for social innovation. Today we are at the beginning of this journey and we still need a better understanding of the possibilities, the limits and the implications of this emerging design mode, but what is already clear is that design for social innovation is not a new discipline: it is simply one of the ways in which contemporary design is appearing. Therefore, what it requires is not so much a specific set of skills and methods, but a new culture, a new way of looking at the world and at what design can do with and for people living in it.

Design for social innovation

Given these examples and the reflections on them, to help frame a discussion on what design for social innovation is and what it does, I will propose a rough, but in my view, already meaningful definition: “Design for social innovation is everything that expert design can do to activate, sustain and orient processes of social change towards sustainability.”

By giving this definition I simply mean that in order to talk about it we do not need to introduce new models or new definitions, in addition to those we have already seen when discussing design in general and the way it appears in the networking world. Design for social innovation (writer’s note: from now onwards this expression will be used to mean social innovation towards sustainability) is not a new kind of design: it is one of the ways in which contemporary design already functions. However, since it requires a special sensitivity and a few conceptual and operational tools, it seems to me useful to give it a name and focus on its peculiarities.

From the above definition it appears that, when talking about design for social innovation, we are referring to a vast field resulting from the intersection of the entire range of social innovation phenomena (outlined in Chapter 1) with expert design in all its contemporary shapes and forms (outlined in Chapter 2). It is therefore a constellation of activities, each characterized by a different acceptation of these two terms.

In conclusion of this part, we can say that design for social innovation is the expert design contribution to a co-design process aiming at social change. In practical terms, it is a blend of different components: original ideas and visions (from design culture), practical design tools (from different design disciplines) and creativity (which is a personal gift), within the framework of a design approach (deriving from previous reflexive design experience).

Design for social innovation vs. social design

The question of similarity and difference between design for social innovation and social design has been much discussed within the design community and has created no few misunderstandings outside it. To my mind it all depends on the double meaning commonly attributed to the adjective “social” in many languages. Although, strictly speaking, it refers to the ties between people and to the organizational forms that characterize a society, it is very frequently used to connote particularly problematic situations, such as extreme poverty, illness or exclusion, and circumstances after catastrophic events. In other words, when used in this way, “social” becomes a synonym for “highly problematic condition”, which poses (or should pose) the need for urgent intervention, outside normal market or public service modalities. It is precisely in this acceptation that the term “social” made its entrance into the design debate several decades ago, generating the term: social design (BOX 3.1 Social Design).

BOX 3.1 Social design

The application field for Social design is that of problems which are not normally dealt with by the market, and its interlocutors do not normally have a voice there (for the simple reason that they do not have the economic means to generate market demand). From here arises the ethical, noble nature of social design and also, traditionally, its limit: if these socially sensitive issues do not express an economically receivable demand, neither can they sustain the costs of design. In some cases, the work that a design expert can offer to a charity organization that proposes to deal with such problems, is also considered social design. In this case the designer may even be paid. However, this occurs within the framework of initiatives that, on the whole, are charitable in nature. It is exactly for this reason that, until now, social design has been professedly marginal. In fact, in this conceptual framework, we assume that there is “normal design” that operates for the market and, alongside it, there is another activity, the social design that we should operate to bring into being and that should be based on ethical motivation: a well-meant design, to do in one’s free time.

Social innovation design starts from quite different premises. The first is that it concerns the “social” in its general sense: the way in which people interact together generating social forms. The second is that what it is proposing is not to meet an urgent need, but to produce an innovation. In other words, it seeks to produce a change as a local discontinuity: as a step towards sustainability. The third, deriving from the first two, is that design for social innovation is to be seen as a new field of action for expert design.

As a matter of fact, design for social innovation is related to the role that behavior and social forms play in the sustainability field (environmental, but also social, and touching on questions of equity and democracy). It follows that, in this perspective, questions concerning social groups that do not appear problematical under the first acceptation of the adjective “social” become interesting. An obvious example concerns the behavior of the new middle classes in the emerging countries: how they will decide to live (meaning their choices in terms of food or type of home and transport) will impact heavily on the environmental future of the Planet. Therefore it is of great importance to social innovation design. Furthermore, we can and must add that, in the spirit of social innovation design, the choices and behavior of the wealthy classes is of great interest since, as we have seen in the past for issues such as food, homes and mobility, their orientations (or at least those of certain social groups who are prosperous but culturally and socially open-minded) may open the way to the feasibility of innovative solutions. This is not only because they make it possible to create the first prototypes, but also because they contribute to their visibility and positive connotations.

Given that, it follows that the fact that today it is an activity practiced and requested by few, is not a structural fact. The hypothesis is that it may become an important, if not actually dominant, component of design in the future. The fourth premise, deriving from the previous one, is that design for social innovation has an ethical base that lies, or should lie, at the basis of all design activities (where the well-being sought after is the well-being of the people for whom and with whom we are designing and of the Planet on which we live, and on which our children will have to live). Having said this, it requires no further addition on ethical ground. What it does require however is to translate these “normal” design ethics into practical and aesthetic choices that contribute to the quality of people’s “normal” everyday lives in a connected world, while grappling with this discovery of the Planet’s limits.

Post scriptum

Having made this schematic differentiation between social design and design for social innovation, we should say that in contemporary reality the criteria on which it is based become less and less easily applicable. This not only because those who talk about them often mix the two meanings of the term “social” (this would simply imply a banal question of terminology). It is also, and more substantially, because the fields on which social design and social innovation design have so far been working are moving closer and creating areas of objective (and very productive) overlap. In fact, social design is increasingly oriented towards social innovation, recognizing that this is the only possibility for solving the problems it traditionally deals with. In turn, facing the extension of the economic crisis, design for social innovation is more and more frequently involved in initiatives that invest socially sensitive issues.

Social entrepreneur Nathan Cooke’s Fresh Life Toilets offer a fresh start to locals in developing countries

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015
Nathan Cooke

Nathan Cooke

When Nathan Cooke (BS 08 Product Design) was first approached by a group of entrepreneurs to help start a new venture centered on building toilets in developing countries, he wasn’t terribly taken with the idea. But seeing their determination, he decided to help them build a test toilet.

Five years later, Cooke and his colleagues are still working together.  Cooke is co-founder and creative director of Sanergy, a social enterprise based in Nairobi, Kenya, with the mission of making hygienic sanitation affordable for everyone. Through Sanergy’s local brand, Fresh Life, the company franchises its Fresh Life Toilets to entrepreneurs in informal settlements. Franchisees, called Fresh Life Operators, make a profit by charging market rates for use of the toilets.

We checked in the Cooke during his most recent visit to campus for an update on lessons learned from launching this unique venture.


Art Center student mentors help invigorate local high school’s art club

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015
Illustration student Ashley Pinnick shows off some appreciation by Blair High School's Art Club.

Illustration student Ashley Pinnick shows off some appreciation by Blair High School’s Art Club.

Illustration student Ashley Pinnick helped initiate the leadership exchange program between Art Center College of Design and Blair High School in the Pasadena Unified School District, along with students Cassie Zhang (Illustration), Tom Eichacker (Illustration), Martel McCornell (Film), D’Angelo McCornell (Graduate Film) and Vanessa Shababzadeh (Product), with guidance from Illustration faculty member Esther Pearl Watson. Below is her account of the experience.

Over the course of the Fall 2014 term, I had the privilege of being one of the students who forged a connection between Art Center and Blair High School as a student mentor.

Being a Designmatters Concentration student, it was a great opportunity for me to be thrust into a position where I could make a positive impact somewhere just down the street from Art Center’s South Campus.


Designmatters student Adriana Crespo hones her human-centered design skills in Nigeria

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015
Designmatters student Adriana Crespo

Designmatters student Adriana Crespo

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to be part of an incredible team of creative people with backgrounds in business design, interaction design, industrial design, engineering and writing, to mention a few. This multidisciplinary group of people make up, a non-profit born from design consultancy (IDEO). saw the power and success of design thinking and human-centered design, and decided to apply these methodologies to solve pressing issues of poverty around the world.

Being a Designmatters Concentration student, I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to start exercising my design skills in the social impact field. My title of “graphic design intern” only partially describes all the tasks and challenges I was asked to take on.


Conjuring the magic of art and design for kids at the Boys & Girls Club

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014
Alvin Oei teaching at Pasadena Boys & Girls Club.

Alvin Oei teaching at Pasadena Boys & Girls Club.

Be passionate about what you do. Be thorough and thoughtful doing it. Be a leader. Make something. Make a difference. These are core Art Center values and Environmental Design student Alvin Oei embodies all of them.

Oei’s enthusiasm about art and design drives his desire to share his knowledge and excitement for the disciplines with kids, most of whom attend schools with no art curriculum. He accomplished this in a big way for the children at Pasadena’s Boys & Girls Club when he conducted an intensive two-week workshop. The mini-Art Center boot camp challenged the youths to design different stores in Diagon Alley from the film “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” through storyboarding and physical model making. The project was designed around the popular book and movie series to help make it resonate. Kids “have this unabashed no-limit imagination” says Oei, who is inspired by their energy.


And the Gold Award goes to…Safe Agua Colombia Team Calientamigos at IDSA International Conference

Monday, November 10th, 2014

Team Calientamigos™ had a very busy summer. The Designmatters team members Mariana Somma, Della Tosin and Safe Agua Assistant Instructor Stella Hernandez returned to Bogotá, Colombia, for another informative field research trip. Around the same time, Tianyi Sun and Kevin Chang visited Austin, Texas, to attend The Exchange, IDSA International Conference, and to accept a Gold Award for Calientamigos™. Commenting on the students’ winning project, IDSA jury member Oscar Peña, global creative director for Philips Design Lighting, described it thus: “Authentic, inventive and playful solution to an everyday need. Good understanding of the value of doing daily rituals together.”

The following three-part post was written by Mariana Somma (Grad ID student), Stella Hernandez (Environmental Design BS 11) and Kevin Chang (Product Design student), on behalf of the entire Safe Agua Colombia Calientamigos™ team.


mariana_headshot-300x300I recently had the privilege of joining the Calientamigos™ Team, which began through the Designmatters Safe Agua Colombia project. Through very tenacious last-minute efforts, I flew to Bogotá, Colombia, with teammate Della Tosin, with efforts to take with us five new Calientamigos BOMBA™ heater prototypes to the families living in the settlement of Altos del Pino (ADP), as well as check in on the first two rounds of prototypes left with the families over six months ago.  The experience was incredible, and meeting the families of ADP is one I will never forget. It was amazing to see the families using the Calientamigos™ system to heat water for bathing, cooking, cleaning, and even washing their family pets! For example, a family of 10 uses the BOMBA™ heater on a daily basis to heat bath water, saving them hours of time heating on a conventional stove, and with significant reduction in their gas bills.


The creativity of environmental and social accountability: Q&A with artist Amy Balkin

Friday, October 17th, 2014
Amy Balkin

Amy Balkin

Complex questions about our relationship and responsibility to the physical world we inhabit lie at the heart of Amy Balkin’s creative process and the work itself. Balkin, who studied with Fine Art Chair, Vanalyne Green while attending Art Institute of Chicago, recently visited Art Center to speak about the ideas that inform her creative practice, which explores issues of environmental justice, legal borders and the geopolitics surrounding the land we inhabit and the air we breathe.

Her major projects include This is the Public Domain, an ongoing bid to create a public commons from a piece of land she purchased in Central California; Public Smog, a clean air park she opens periodically by purchasing carbon emissions; and A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, a collection of items from places under threat of disappearance due to political, physical and economic shifts.

Just prior to her talk at Art Center, Balkin sat down with Dotted Line to discuss her approach to these ambitious works.


MDP + UNICEF: make AND break designs empower Ugandan youth

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014
Peer-to-Peer Mentoring: VJs Shafic, Venas, and Bashir learn basic circuitry in a workshop facilitated by a peer mentor. Photo credit: Tina L. Zeng / 2014.

Peer-to-Peer Mentoring: VJs Shafic, Venas, and Bashir learn basic circuitry in a workshop facilitated by a peer mentor. Photo credit: Tina L. Zeng / 2014.

The following story, by Media Design Practices post-grad fellow, Tina L. Zeng, was originally published on UNICEF’S Stories of Innovation blog. The inspiring innovations reflected below are the result of the independent graduate work she began conducting in Kampala, Uganda in September 2013, supported by the UNICEF Innovation Lab.

What if technology was made to break?


I recently wrote a post about a project that disrupts the current product-oriented mentality for designing technology for development. This project, weDub, is a set of platforms for youths in a slum area named Kamwokya in Kampala, Uganda to make, instead of consume, technology. weDub is a locally developed audio mixer and preamplifier that youths make to perform live improvisations of media content they reinterpret to an audience; this is locally known as VJing. I talk about the three key outcomes of the project here.


The Toyota Lecture Series presents Anne Elizabeth Moore on labor, gender and culture with The Ladydrawers Comics Collective

Monday, September 29th, 2014
Anne Elizabeth Moore

Anne Elizabeth Moore

Art Center’s 2014 Toyota Lecture Series kicks off on Tuesday, September 30, with a talk by Anne Elizabeth Moore entitled: Our Fashion Year: Labor, Gender and culture with The Ladydrawers Comics Collective. The event will begin at 6pm in The Wind Tunnel Graduate Center for Critical Practice at 950 South Raymond Avenue. For anyone even contemplating missing this enlightening and entertaining evening, the following self-penned primer on Moore’s life and work should provide more than enough incentive to make room for, um, Moore in tomorrow night’s calendar.

Anne Elizabeth Moore is an internationally renowned cultural critic, Fulbright scholar, UN Press Fellow, USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellow and part of the team behind The Ladydrawers. She has written and edited several award-winning books: Cambodian Grrrl (Cantankerous Titles, 2011) received a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for best book from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation in 2012. Hey Kidz, Buy This Book (Soft Skull, 2004) made Yes! Magazine‘s list of “Media That Set Us Free” and Reclaim the Media’s 2004 Media and Democracy Summer Reading List. The first Best American Comics made both Entertainment Weekly’s “Must List” and Publishers Weekly’s Bestsellers List. Unmarketable (The New Press, 2007) made Reclaim the Media’s 2007 Media and Democracy Summer Reading list and was named a Best Book of the Year by Mother Jones. Her recent book, New Girl Law (Cantankerous Titles, 2013), the follow-up to Cambodian Grrrl, was called “a post-empirical proto-fourth-wave feminist memoir” by Bust. Moore herself was recently called a “general phenom” by the Chicago Reader and “one of the sharpest thinkers and cultural critics bouncing around the globe today” by Razorcake.


Graduate studies at Art Center: Art and design for a changing world

Friday, September 26th, 2014
Media Design Practices students Kristina Ortega and Jenny Rodenhouse's Wearable Services, created in the Intel-funded Connected Bodies course.

Media Design Practices students Kristina Ortega and Jenny Rodenhouse’s Wearable Services, created by the Intel-funded Connected Bodies course. Photo by Stella Kalinina

From business ventures to social justice, cultural research to experimental mediums, transportation systems to spatial experiences, Art Center’s renowned graduate programs offer designers and artists exceptional opportunities to create unique and personal career and life paths.

For the recently released 2015–16 Viewbook, Art Center Provost Fred Fehlau invited leaders from the College’s six graduate programs—Art, Environmental Design, Film, Industrial Design, Media Design Practices, and Transportation Systems and Design—to offer their perspectives on the current state of their fields, and what it means for prospective graduate students.