Designing the Future

Allan Chochinov explores the challenges and opportunities of creating a master’s program in product design at SVA.

School of Visual Arts MFA in Products of Design

New York City

In March, the School of Visual Arts in New York City announced that Allan Chochinov, a partner at Core77 and the editor in chief of, would chair the school’s new MFA Products of Design program. With classes slated to begin in the fall of 2012, Chochinov and cofounder Steven Heller have already assembled an impressive faculty: Paola Antonelli, Ayse Birsel, Carla Diana of Smart Design, Sigi Moeslinger of Antenna Design, and many others. (Work from some of the faculty is shown on the following pages.) Although a good deal of the two-year program has been developed, Chochinov considers it a work-in-progress. “I still don’t have my elevator speech yet,” he confesses. Recently, Metropolis’s executive editor, Martin C. Pedersen, sat down with Chochinov in New York to help him with that. They talked about the new program, Chochinov’s ideal student, and the changing landscape of objects.

How did the idea for this program start?
When Steven Heller first approached me about starting a graduate industrial-design program at SVA, my response was, “I don’t know if it would be an ID department, exactly, but it would certainly involve artifacts, their purpose, making, sustainability…” And he said, “Great! Write it up.” But the challenge was to figure out what the landscape for artifacts will be in the year 2014—when we’d graduate the first class. An interaction-design program a few years ago would have principally been about the Web, for example; now it’s a completely different landscape: iPhones, apps, tablets, a mobile revolution.

For now.
Exactly. We don’t know what the next revolutions will be. In product design, we’re seeing an explosion of making, technology, and participants. The return to the hand, the maturing fields of rapid prototyping and manufacturing-on-demand, the number of people who use the tools and vocabulary of design plus the number of designers using the tools and vocabulary of making, hacking, modding, and crafting. It’s an amazing time for the artifact.

I’ve come to believe that designing the process that creates the product is way more important than the object itself.
Well, not just the process, but the ecosystem. I think the old definition of designer-as-problem-solver is a little bit limited: here’s a problem over here; there’s the solution. You solve the problem. Next problem please.
It’s just unbelievably naive. The problem isn’t static. It’s moving. It’s a living organism. It’s fundamentally systemic. To think you can actually simply “solve” it is ridiculous. Rather, you need to negotiate it. What’s also limiting is this notion that designers alone can provide coherent, resilient solutions. It’s a team sport. And it seems to me that today, all design is kind of all design. Certainly there are fundamentals like research and problem framing and iteration, but what’s interesting about artifacts is that they’re a place where several design vectors intersect—the touch points, embodied experiences, participation of the senses beyond the visual. Artifacts are the props or portals into designed experiences and services—a sort of storytelling device that literally holds your hand through the narrative. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s a better point of departure than a designer waking up and saying, “OK, I’m going to design some stuff today. And if my client is good and my marketing department is really good, we’re going to make hundreds of thousands of this thing. Now, what should we make?” We need to shift the question from “What do we want to make?” to “What do we want to do?” Then, what we make—the products of design—will surface in ways that are truer, more sustainable, and more grounded in rigorous intention. Currently, there’s a lot of creating a thing and then creating a demand for that thing.

You use the word artifact instead of product. Why?
The products of design have really exploded in recent years. It’s everything from a set of instruction cards to a plane interior. It’s custom manufacturing, short runs, ready-mades, mass-produced objects, advocacy campaigns. You have design fiction, speculative objects, design art. And we’re just beginning. People love stuff. Stuff is not going away. But if we agree that we can’t keep making stuff the way that we’re making it—because we’re starting to really understand the systemic consequences of production and consumption—then we also have to agree that we need to stop teaching people to make stuff the way that we’ve been teaching them. That calls for a new program and offers us a new opportunity to try and improve the systems currently in peril—and to ennoble the great things that are happening around us.

What, or how, are you going to teach that’s different from object-based industrial design?
The program won’t start from the beginning. It will be making-based, but we’re looking for students who are experienced and skilled. I want to be open to people who have been practicing for a couple of years and might be disillusioned by what they’re making every day but haven’t given up on the power of design. We want to introduce them to notions of scale and systems and consequence so they can do more with their superpowers. And when you’re talking about design—even if it’s a brochure or an ad campaign—as soon as you make more than one of a thing, you’re no longer in the artifact business. You are in the consequence business. And that’s how we want students to begin looking at their work.

In planning the program, do you have a kind of ideal candidate in mind?
The ideal candidates are passionate, fearless, and believe they’re on a mission to take back the promise that design originally gave them when they first entered school or professional practice. We’re also looking for unbelievably creative people who have deep skills in a couple different verticals and who ought to be in design.

Why start a product-design program now?
Everyone is looking for more meaning in their artifacts. There was a time when we really did want everything mass-produced, identical, and machine-made. Now we’re moving into a period where we’re more interested in local, in artisanal, in personal. Unfortunately, a lot of this work, as with a lot of sustainability, is still considered a luxury on one end and fringe on the other. So putting something out into the world often boils down to economics. Part of the challenge for our faculty—many of whom work around food, sustainability, environment, and health—will be to ask not “How do we make a successful business plan out of this?” though there will be lots of course work around that, but “How do we create value beyond economic value?” This is really at the heart of the program. I believe designers have the power to create value. But the presumptions of what that value is, so far, have been de facto commercial and mass-produced. And you see where that’s gotten us. But there are other types of value, other types of currency that can be created. The value, for instance, of belonging to something like Zipcar. How do you convince someone to give up the power that a car has to represent their identity? If you shift people to a car-sharing system, you need to offset that satisfaction of owning a car with the gratification of belonging to a group of people who want to share and be more environmentally friendly. That involves design. I was just in London a few days ago looking at their bike-sharing system; all of the design elements are very considered. You can’t just say, “Come on, everybody, let’s share things.” It requires the generous hand of the designer.

What you’re talking about, really, is a complete redefinition of product design?
No, that’s overstating things. Product designers today provide a unique kind of connective tissue, but they seldom acknowledge it, and they too rarely use it. Designers translate between stakeholders, they redefine problems, they make the invisible visible, and they provoke and provide narratives of a better world. They’re systems thinkers—or they ought to be—and they have a ton to contribute. But they need to do it in deliberate ways. And because we’re defining the products of design so broadly, these talents require two critical ingredients: confidence and fluency. My greatest wish is not necessarily to graduate “great designers.” Rather, I’d like to help nurture people who will do great things in the world of design.

Recent Programs