Q&A: Tom Fisher Talks Public Interest Design Week

Tom Fisher talks about the role and impact of PID in the Cdes curriculum

PID Week participants and students.  Photo credit:  College of Design

The University of Minnesota’s College of Design (Cdes) hosted the premier Public Interest Design Week (PID Week) from March 19-24.  Attracting approximately 500 participants nationally and internationally, the conference was organized by a tireless team led by conference chair, John Cary, of PublicInterestDesign.org, who is also a research fellow within the Cdes.  If the many issues and problems percolating at the intersection of design and service were not addressed or resolved in 5 short days it was not for lack of trying – PID Week was a blazing success because it put a critical lens on many design challenges from macro to micro, urban to rural, economically rich to poor, from the United States to Africa. What struck me as singularly inspiring was the keenness and enthusiasm brought by the keynote speakers, the session leaders and participants to the PID conference’s platform. It seemed highly unlikely that participants were hanging out in the hotel bar due to lack of content.


More from Metropolis

PID Week participants, L-R: John Cary, PID Week Chair; Liz Ogbu, designer, social innovator and Keynote speaker;  Laura Marlo, Reed Construction Data, a PID Week sponsor; and, Tom Fisher, Dean of the College of Design, U of MN.  Photo Credit:  College of Design

Central to PID Week’s success is the role of Thomas Fisher, professor of architecture and dean of the College of Design (Cdes) since 1996. Fisher is recognized as a catalyst in the design world as a university educator (John Cary is his former student), an advocate for good design from freeway bridges to football stadiums to healthcare, and a provocative intellectual force. He’s authored numerous books including Designing to Avoid Disaster: The Nature of Fracture-Critical Design (Routledge, 2012); The Invisible Element of Place: The Architecture of David Salmela (U of MN Press, 2011) and Ethics for Architects: 50 Dilemmas of Professional Practice (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).  His expansive mind and professional acumen is buoyed by a sense of humor. He is approachable. Even funny. Grass does not grow beneath Tom Fisher’s feet.


Tom Fisher, with Public Interest Design Week participants at a reception at Rapson Hall, home of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. Photo credit:  College of Design

Fisher’s increasing integration of PID practice into the Cdes curriculum has attracted national attention; the launch of Public Interest Design Week a case in point. For the record, Cdes serves 1,382 undergrad students and 313 grad students, of which 5.9% and 15% are international, respectively.  Cdes offers 10 programs of study: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Product Design, Housing Studies, Interior Design, Apparel, Retail Merchandizing, Museum Studies and Human Factor. It also oversees The Goldstein Museum of Design and runs an exhibition program in Rapson Hall, the home of Cdes. Fisher returned the day before PID Week after several busy days in Istanbul where Cdes has a program of study.  He texted me about PID Week details while waiting in airport customs – a prohibited act as many travelers have found out- for which he was roundly admonished. Surfacing everywhere during the conference, Fisher did not look like a man who had just returned from an overseas trip. By the time I caught up with him, the day after the conference ended, he had succumbed to a severe case of respiratory grunge. Consequently, our interview on the role and impact of PID in the Cdes curriculum took place both over the phone and email chat.


Thomas Fisher, architecture professor and Dean of the College of Design, delivering opening remarks.  Photo credit:  College of Design

Mason Riddle: Dean, will you tell us how you’ve integrated public interest design in to the Cdes curriculum? Thomas Fisher: It’s really a work in progress. We have a number of students working on public-interest design projects as part of undergraduate or graduate studios, as directed-study courses, and as thesis or capstone projects. We also have funding from the university to support faculty and staff to grow the public-interest design work we do here, and a group of colleagues have begun to develop a public-interest design introductory course likely to start next spring. Eventually, I’d like us to offer a public-interest design certificate or degree program of some sort that might be both in person as well as online, depending upon market demand.

MR: How does PID cut across disciplines within Cdes at the University of Minnesota? TF: Although a lot of the faculty and student interest in this work initially came from architecture, I think public-interest design is the right term for it because we have faculty, staff, and students in a number of our fields – landscape architecture, graphic design, housing, interior design – passionate about this work. We see this when we work in communities. The interdisciplinary learning that can be so difficult to achieve on campus happens much more naturally and almost effortlessly off campus because the challenges that communities face almost always cross disciplines and require a multi-disciplinary response. I just got back from Istanbul where we had architecture and landscape architecture students and faculty, along with faculty in graphic design, political science, and sociology, among others, looking at a range of challenges there.

MR:  Is public interest design impacting how you are looking at the structure and effectiveness of higher education? TF: I think public-interest design points us in a new direction in higher education. The current generation of students seems eager to make a difference in the world and to address problems that are meaningful and important. At the same time, they seem understandably impatient with the academic exercises and made-up problems that have too often characterized design education in the past. Public-interest design enables students – and faculty – to address issues of real value to communities and within the constraints of time and money that can lead to innovative ideas. This work also forces us to set aside our disciplinary biases to the effect that, if I am an architect, the solution must be a building. Instead, when we work with communities with humility and openness and truly listen to what they need, we often discover that what they require may not be at all what we thought. This puts design students and educators in the position of organizing the teams and facilitating the skills needed to address the real problem, rather than, as happened too often in the past, foisting on a community some “design” that had no relationship to what they needed or could afford to maintain.

MR: You brought up a pilot program that focuses on challenge-based learning.  Can you elaborate? TF: We are doing a pilot project at the university with funding from the Bush Foundation (Saint Paul, MN) to develop a “challenge curriculum” in which students major in a discipline and minor in a “challenge.” Students will learn how to apply their discipline to a societal challenge in partnership with a range of other disciplines that also have something to bring to the table. Students will also learn, in the process, how to work with colleagues in other fields, how to communicate across disciplinary lines, and how to look holistically at problems that all too often go unresolved because of the myopic and silo-like way in which we tend to look at things. I think this approach aligns well with public-interest design thinking, which has to look at issues creatively, holistically, and resourcefully because of the lack of funds typically available to poor communities.

MR: To date, can you gauge how well the public interest design strategy is working within Cdes? Can you elaborate on successes and challenges? Does this bring increased expense to both the college and the students? TF: The number of students, faculty, and staff involved in Public-Interest Design Week events shows how much this has emerged as a major area of activity in our fields. At Minnesota, student groups such as “Students for Design Activism” have formed and faculty and staff members have begun to develop courses and discuss curriculum. We have also had books, exhibitions, and various publications come from the work we are doing in this area, so public-interest design has successfully launched here. The challenges lie in creating a pipeline for our graduates who want to make this their career. There are still too few internship opportunities and no clear route for those who want to do this work for a living. I do think we can solve this problem – in part because the demand for this work remains enormous – but we still need to figure out the educational requirements, the career path, and the financial support for public-interest designers. Although, as long as we stay focused on the work that the world needs us to do, I do believe that the rest will eventually fall into place.

Mason Riddle is a writer based in Saint Paul. She covers the visual arts, architecture, and design. Her reviews and articles have been published in Architectural Record, Architecture MN, Artforum, Dwell, The Star Tribune, Public Art Review and Rain Taxi, among others.  Her article, Game Plan, explored the textile work of, Alighiero Boetti in the Italian conceptual artist’s MoMA retrospective and appeared in the winter 2013 issue of Surface Design. She is former director of The Goldstein Museum of Design and MN Percent for Art in Public Places program.

Recent Projects