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Blow Up the Design School!
Part 1

by DK Holland

Canniffe, 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 director.”

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.”

MICA 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.”

On 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. 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.