Entering the Transdisciplinary Design MFA program at Parsons, I arrived in New York City with a certain quest in mind. My original intent was to investigate how design and design thinking can play a role in instigating social innovation, thereby shaping human experience within a cultural context.
I have learned that we, as designers, have the opportunity to take both a step back and a step forward; to look both up-close at communities and individuals, while observing the relationships, interconnections and function/purpose of the system as a whole. (Meadows 2014, 11–15) A designer can assist in crafting a common narrative for all participants in the design process to see, ensuring that everyone is one the same page. As we mediate these experiences however, one question that arises in this process is: whose story does this tell, and why? How can design allow room for dialogue within the narratives that are being shared?
As part of our Transdisciplinary Seminar class, we had the pleasure of hearing from Professor Nidhi Srinivas, who put forth his own definition of social innovation: “the transformation of an existing circuit of social relations through a combination of ideas, materials, and politics, into a new circuit of social relations.” (Srinivas 2013, 36–37) In his presentation, he raised the idea that it is through sharing our diverse (often conflicting) stories in a neutral space, and going through the process of assent and dissent—of politics—that people can learn, reflect on and form the consensus required to instigate change.
Arriving at my apartment that evening after class, I began to reflect on the points Professor Srinivas brought up and how they related to my worldview as a graphic designer. I questioned what opportunities my previous work (especially during my design education) allowed in terms of space for assent, dissent, and feedback. A project would be developed through critiques with other designers until it was ready to be added to your portfolio. That became the stopping point at which you could enter the project into competitions. For many of these awards, creative directors were the ones who determined the winners. Unfortunately, the process often excludes feedback loops that do not account for potential users and other voices to be heard in relation to the project. In the end, opportunities for iteration and implementation may not even come into play. To quote George Aye, the founder of Greater Good Studio and an assistant professor at School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC): “It’s not just designing the artifact; you also have to design it for adoption. Otherwise, you’ll design something that no one uses.” This was a red flag for me, a point of contention that I came back to in relation to the original query I carried with me to graduate school. Where is the room for feedback and dialogue in the stories that I have authored thus far?
As Borja-Villel states regarding his views on the changing art landscape, “There is no longer a single voice issuing its narrative from a privileged platform; instead, we are immersed in a multiplicity of micro-narratives that has produced a new cartography…” (Borja-Villel 2010, 32) Similarly, designers today are challenged to address this realization, creating spaces through which politics can occur. It is imperative to reframe the artifacts and experiences we synthesize as avenues for ongoing interaction and discussion, rather than as final products. And in doing so, designers can craft narratives in spaces of co-authorship, collaboration, and most importantly, change for the better.
Borja-Villel, Manuel J. 2010. “The Museum Questioned.” Relational Objects: MACBA Collection 2002- 07. Barcelona: MACBA.
Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. 2014. Thinking in systems: a primer. White River Junction, Vt: Chelsea Green Pub.
Srinivas, Nidhi. 2013. “Critiquing social innovation: what is it? Does it matter?” 36–37.