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Blow Up the Design School!
Part 1

by DK Holland

A willingness to take a risk, to go off the road and explore, leads to innovation. But Tonkinwise sees a deficit, “Since we’re not even teaching the importance of research in many schools, designers aren't thinking beyond the space of the design brief. They are only dipping their toes in the problem.” They are being taught to be vendors, not complex thinkers. Parsons is one of the only design schools that offers a business degree as well as a design degree at the undergraduate level.

We are all painfully aware that the Internet has changed the playing field for many professions, including graphic design. Tonkinwise says, “American designers will get annihilated by Chinese designers who can create a brochure faster and do it far cheaper–and good enough.” Designers must be needed as part of the team, on site, valued at a higher level to survive and thrive.

Schools have historically set themselves apart from community. Students and faculty seem to parachute onto campus, oblivious to the larger community's day-to-day reality. But some schools are connecting to their neighborhoods in remarkable ways including SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) and MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art and Design).

Scott Boylston, an energetic and deeply engaged professor of sustainable practices in design at SCAD, says, “Sustainable design is bumpy, sweaty and uncertain, but I do believe that wicked problems are called such for a reason–and someone has to deal with them.” SCAD’s Design for Sustainability program encourages the formation of multidisciplinary teams to take on local projects relevant to their studies. During the design thinking8 process, teams consider all angles, solutions and consequences plus the possibility that they may not be able to finish what they start.

While still suffering from some historic economic inequities (the poverty rate is 22 percent), Savannah is otherwise an economically healthy city. Thrive A Carry Out Cafe is in a small, dreary, one-story strip mall, a throwback to another era, off two four-lane highways in a part of town surrounded by marshes. Owner and chef Wendy Armstrong thought some outdoor seating might help improve the mall and bring customers into her store and it was with that idea that she approached SCAD for help. A team of nine zealous scad students and Boylston descended on the area to scope out the problem, identifying several dilemmas: 1) The mall is an eye-sore; 2) Thrive, working with local farmers, was promoting healthy, organic, delectable food in a city not yet embracing sustainability, much less the farm-to-table concept; 3) the outdoor seating couldn't interfere with parking in front of the store; 4) after heading to the rear of the mall to consider alternate locations for parking, the team discovered a veritable swamp, resulting in wasted space and substantial runoff threats to the surrounding tidal marshes. All these conundrums, combined with the mall's highly visible location, presented welcome opportunities to SCAD’s team.

The team figured there would be big energy savings (and a way to control runoff) if they built a green roof on the entire mall, a plan that was later embraced, not just by the tenants, but also by the landlord and the county planning commission, which went after a grant on behalf of the project with Boylston's help. SCAD’s extensive research resulted in a holistic plan that would turn the location (the roof can be seen from the two intersecting raised highways) into a model to help green coastal Georgia. Parking could move to the rear of the mall once they solved the drainage problem (again, the county would help) so outdoor seating (to be constructed from reclaimed materials from a nearby public housing redevelopment project) could indeed be up front and center. An effectively designed campaign using strong and appealing graphic tools was planned to promote Thrive's food philosophy and to educate and excite Savannah residents about the store’s healthy, delectable offerings. Thrive’s commitment to work with local organic farmers and fisheries to create world-class offerings also became the centerpiece of a reception and food tasting for 400. Held in a vacant store in the mall, walls were transformed with informational posters designed by the SCAD team. This event resulted in a PR bonanza for all involved.

Team member and industrial design (MFA) and design for sustainability (MA) candidate Charisse Bennett, who looks to make Savannah her home, says, “The community connections were an encouraging glimpse into a level of participation and recognition of green issues within the community that none of us had been aware of. This involvement was highly contagious.” Bennett’s poster, a graphic presentation of the farm to table philosophy, won the poster design contest organized by SCAD.

Students are, by their nature, transient while on a path to learn, so Boylston created “Pass it on,” a document that provided the dynamic team with a record of the strategy, accomplishments and as well as the future goals of the project.

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health wanted to start solving the challenging health problems of hard-scrabble East Baltimore but they did not have a way into that community. So Hopkins formed a partnership with MICA. While Bernard Canniffe, graphic design chair of MICA when the MICA/JHU Design Coalition was formed, was clearly daunted by the prospect he also realized the opportunity for his students to understand what it’s like to work as a designer. He says, “When you get out there and start doing graphic design, if it’s not what you expect, it’s going to be a disappointment if the gap between design school and the real world is too wide. So when Hopkins came to us, I developed a design class that could bring the students out into the community in need.” Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.