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Blow Up the Design School!
by DK Holland
whose thick Welsh accent recalls the rural coal country of Wales from
whence he came, is well aware that “When you are paying $30,000 a year,
that's about privilege. It’s a bubble.” He recalls, “Entering East
Baltimore was like meeting my demons.” He says, “East Baltimore is
$12,000 annual income, sixth-grade reading level, murder rate of 600 per
year. It’s high syphilis and heroin addiction; 9/11 didn’t even
register to them. They were disassociated.” Canniffe instinctively
gained access through building trust relationships with the community
leaders he met in the heart of East Baltimore. They related to his
accent and his working class roots. He observes the effect the class had
on students, “Normally when you force students to work on teams, they
rail against it. There was a seismic shift when we formed the Coalition.
There was no ‘I’ there was ‘Us’ (MICA) and ‘Them’ (Hopkins). I’d create
roles for each student–funder, project manager, junior designer, art
Canniffe took students to meet, not just the community
leaders, the drug addicts and dealers where they lived. He says, “It
was risky. The police would stop the students assuming they were after
drugs.” He says, with some modicum of pride, “Eventually students would
come from other countries just to take this class. Some students took it
out of social conviction. But all students came to learn about business
(including budgeting, fundraising) and community. By being involved in
real projects, they knew they would learn skills they could apply when
they graduated and got real jobs.”
PRETTY PICTURES AND BEYOND
graduate Alex Pines tried working for an ad agency, but got burned out.
Now he’s an in-house graphic designer at Housing Works, an
international organization that fights AIDS, a job he was able to get
partly because of his experience with the Coalition. He says, “They want
to enact social change and that’s my background because of MICA.
They’re also oriented to team project development and I know how to
implement a really good solid idea on a team. At MICA, I also learned
not to focus on making a pretty picture. And, since Bernard was very
hands off, I learned a lot.” Pines recalls meeting his Coalition “client” saying, “Ted Sutton was a former gang member in East Baltimore
(the HBO series, The Wire, was based on his gang). He went on to
college, became a minister. Mr. Sutton showed us the drug corner he had
worked, and we spoke with current gang members. The challenge was
getting kids out of gangs. Our team created a newsprint piece that was
the story of Ted Sutton and incorporated a brand identity for him. MICA
funded the printing.”
Pines, who took a pay cut to take his job
at Housing Works, is very clear about his values, and is now applying to
graduate school to study social innovation, which will add to the debt
he has already accumulated to pay for MICA. He hopes to continue at
Housing Works, which is in New York, if he gets accepted at a local
school. When asked about his family’s awareness of the danger involved
in his activities at MICA, Pines says, “I didn’t tell my parents much,
but I knew I had their trust.”
Canniffe, who left Baltimore for
the colder yet gentler environment of Minneapolis in August 2009,
reflects on education in general, “What’s the value students are getting
for tuition? Very little. Very little. We are getting them to mortgage
their education.” We must narrow the gap between the haves and
have-nots. He urges, “We need to invest in access to education for
everyone. It’s better for all of us.”
moving to Minneapolis, Canniffe, now design department chair at MCAD
started learning about the very large community of Somali refugees in
Minnesota who are culturally isolated. This resonated with his desire to
expand the MICA experience of connecting students with communities in
need. Could students do the kind of work he did at MICA without a
partner like Hopkins? Canniffe’s new class encourages students to use
design in the broadest possible way.
He asked each student to
identify disenfranchised communities, to note where there was social
injustice in the vicinity. One student group reached out to assist a
nonprofit organization to help prevent bullying, another to the Japanese
community to teach their language to non-Japanese and another connected
to the local Somali community. Canniffe says, “They are selecting the
issues they really cared about. It’s the same phenomena of Us not I. Now
Somali kids are getting interested in visiting MCAD. MCAD students are
going to the Somali community. They are bringing this desire to do real
community projects into their other classes.”
Tousue Vang studies
with Canniffe. He says, “Expect the unexpected is Bern’s attitude. It
was intimidating at first but ultimately exhilarating. We started with a
design blitz that lasted till 5 a.m., a fourteen-hour marathon; talking,
researching, creating a mission statement about the needs of the Twin
Cities. The idea was to learn more, and attempt to create conversations
between the diverse cultures of Minneapolis and MCAD students. Bern
said, ‘Go out and find some stories in the community. Come back and
share.’ We went to the multi-cultural markets and spoke with
shopkeepers. We learned firsthand just how diverse our community is. We
found a bike enthusiast named Robert Mitchell who helps
African-American kids in high-crime areas repair bikes in his garage. He
has become a positive role model for the kids. He is improving his
environment. We approached him to ask him if he needed our help.
Mitchell wanted to reach out to as many people as possible to say ‘you
can make a difference. Anyone can.’ But he personally wanted to stay low
key. We were hoping Bernard would tell us what to do, but he put the
responsibility back on us.” Vang explains, “We decided to share Robert’s
story. That was what was compelling to us. So we made a video. We were
challenged to understand this media, which was totally new to us. After
finishing the class I wondered why this class has not always existed?
It’s the solutions that drive the design. Using research to improve the
process was an eye opener. It changed how I viewed the role of design
and me as a designer. I felt transformed.”
There was a sense of
idealism that led to despair in the 1960s. This shift caused a
generation to disengage—to tune in, turn on, drop out. Forty years
later, the current generation is tuned in, excited by reality, has faith
it can affect change. Or at least, that is the hope. CA
Editor's note: Part 2 of Blow Up the Design School! will appear in the May/June issue.
1 Tuition for the design schools included in this article is currently around $30,000 a year.
2 Aquent/AIGA Salary Survey 2009.
3 Wicked problems, a term used in planning since the late 1960s, describes seemingly unsolvable problems.
4 Users topped 250 million, according to Facebook, in July 2009.
5 According to Technorati, there were 35.3 million blogs as of April 2006.
6 MIT Open Courseware offers 2,000 programs online.
7 Project Runway has been filmed at Parsons School of Design for all but one of its eight seasons since premiering in 2004.
8 "Thinking in Systems, Design and Otherwise," Design Issues, Communication Arts July/August 2010.