Art Center’s “Activist Design” Program: A New Model for Design Education

How to provide useful design solutions without being culturally reductive

Agility and adaptation are central to any professional field. Those about to enter a profession must learn practical and intellectual skills. But the days when specialized and narrowly defined skill-sets guaranteed a steady and reliable “living” are gone. Today’s practical skills need to be accompanied by rigorous and critical modes of thinking. One case in point is the graduate program at Art Center College of Design’s Media Design Practices (MDP). In conjunction with the school’s initiative, Designmatters, which provides a blueprint for design education, the Field track of MDP provides students with a unique foundation of theory and on-the-ground training. Faculty member Sean Donahue describes the program as structured around “Investigation and intervention—how designing can be an inquiry and mode of knowledge production to inform other disciplines and issues in a unique way. Also, how can these be combined with work being done in areas of ‘good’ and social impact?”

While “activist” design has been around for years, the Art Center model unites critical analysis with design skills. The goal is to provide useful solutions for people locally and abroad without being culturally reductive or condescending. Too often, designers try to reinvent social intervention in their haste to be in the vanguard of a “new” approach and school-based design projects. These can be equally misguided. The result can waste material resources, human capital and money, while reinforcing cultural assumptions about the “other.” This is especially true of built interventions. These can be unnecessary, unusable, and often are left to decay. Wasted resources and human effort that fail to correct culturally essentializing narratives have been well documented in ecotourism and voluntourism. These consumer-based activities exemplify the perils of modern cultural colonialism. And while there are many defenders of the “good” they do, the fact remains that they, educational institutions, and even NGO’s like Oxfam struggle with their long histories of colonialism hidden yet still entrenched in many current activities.

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Organization chart displaying the roles and structure of the [anti-NGO] NGO, image via mediadesignpractices/filter/field/mlamadrid/Planification-and-Self-Evaluation-Guide-for-Social-no-empowerment

To avoid producing solutions based on invalid, often fantastical cultural projections, proposals must be rooted in a deep understanding of the culture, people, economy, and politics of the places chosen for intervention. This is, after all, an intervention. The key, according to Donahue, is “to start not with what has been created by others to ‘solve problems’ but instead start with the realities of lived life. This more holistic and community-led approach develops an understanding of the conditions as they are now—not as they were 50 or even 20 years ago. These social conditions are a set of ongoing and changing situations that are embedded in social contexts.” The hope is that Art Center’s MDP Field Track model will influence other design programs. Anchored by three core faculty members, the program has an anthropologist, professor Elizabeth Chin; and two design faculty members, Chris Csikszentmihaly and Donahue who provide a design perspective. Together, the team creates an educational framework that allows students to explore intelligent interventions. What’s more, these interventions are proposed within existing structures such as UNICEF. The results are intellectually rooted, design-oriented solutions spanning a range of class, economic, and political issues.

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Diagram of factors involved in food production/consumption, image via mediadesignpractices/filter/field/betsykalven/Reductive-Food

The students, guided by professor Chin, establish a solid intellectual foundation by exploring ethnography, ethics, social history, as well as develop research competencies. This type of approach is not often embraced by designers, as Chin says, “Thinking through making immerses students in works about ethnography, colonialism, and post colonialism. They also delve into political economy, feminism, structuralism, post structuralism, and other theoretical perspectives.” This, in addition to “exploring related social theory, design projects, research studies from a variety of disciplines, and the development of students’ own arguments and points of view,” she adds,“Key to this approach is taking the time to immerse ourselves in the culture and context as much as possible, rather than coming in with an idea of what needs to be done.” After this immersion comes the first six-week trip. When they return to the states, the students develop their proposals. Then they return to the site for another three-to-five weeks to present their proposals to the community. The program is structured for inherent flexibility: students explore their own interests within a larger discursive field but that are contained by the project’s parameters.

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Diagram, land ownership, image via mediadesignpractices/filter/field/mlamadrid/Balloon-Mapping

This year’s program is working with UNICEF in Kampala, Uganda. This is not intervention by “helicopter” in which students drop in, make some arbitrary “innovations,” document them for their blogs, and then leave. Nor is this styled as a work-for-hire mediation. Instead, MDP Field track requires more than one trip to the community site. As Donahue explains, “Students work with groups supported by the UNICEF country office. Equally important is that they work directly with CBO’s [Community Based Organizations] groups and families outside of UNICEF. Our students find that even though our partners’ mission may be about supporting children, addressing and providing that support requires engaging a range of actors from grandparents to teachers to local council members.” The program provides a useful model for other design programs, whether they are associated with academic or other NGO’s and charity organizations. It offers an example of how to begin a productive exchange with communities who need help without replicating cultural colonialism, either intellectually or in practical interventions. Surely the time has come for restructuring the way we engage each other and divesting ourselves of the condescension that has for too long dominated our interaction with people less materially fortunate than ourselves.

Sherin Wing writes on social issues as well as topics in architecture, urbanism, and design. She is a frequent contributor to ArchDaily, Architect Magazine and other publications. She is also co-author of The Real Architect’s Handbook. She received her PhD from UCLA. Follow Sherin on Twitter at @SherinWing

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