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The Value of Design: MICA’s Social Design Fellowship Program

June 3, 2014 / by Joseph Anthony Brown with photos by Jennifer Marin

Traditionally the designer’s role was to communicate someone else’s vision, however as the practice has evolved designers are now using their well honed design thinking skills to provide solutions to problems that affect our society on a larger scale. You may know it as Social Design, yet when asking people what the definition of social design is, you tend to receive a varying number of answers.

In April, AIGA Baltimore joined Maryland Institute College of Art’s Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Social Design Fellows to hear from Director for Design Practice and MICA Master of Arts Social Design (MASD) program Mike Weikert and MASD fellows; Mira Azarm, Briony Evans Hynson, Jonathan Erwin and Becky Slogeris. Providing insight into what effective social design is, why designers deserve a seat at the table in social initiatives and, more specifically, how MICA’s Social Design program and Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Social Design Fellowship cultivated and propelled their passion for social intervention.

After a brief introduction by AIGA Baltimore’s Jami Dodson and Jennifer Marin, Mike Weikert opened the presentation by giving us an idea behind the thought process that brought about the MASD program and the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Social Design Fellowship. The impetus for this fellowship came as Weikert realized that upon completing the intensive 1-year MASD graduate program, students were ready to translate the knowledge they had gained into real world applications. With this understanding, Mike decided it was time for the students to get out in the community and start utilizing those skills.

The Robert W. Deutsch Social Design Fellowship

Working with Jane Brown and Neil Didriksen from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, Weikert built a fellowship that provides two graduates a stipend, accommodations, and support to stay an additional year continuing the research and implementation of their project.

The program emphasizes four key components: (1) Keep innovative ideas and talent in Baltimore. (2) Demonstrate the value of design in addressing social problems (a core objective of MASD). (3) Focus on significant real world challenges facing our communities. (4) Provide a foundation to generate additional support and a sustainable context for the program’s work and its graduates. The fellows are also encouraged to build their own social design practice and context by creating new work, networks, funding resources as well as advocating for the discipline and practice of design.

And build their practice they did, as we heard from multiple fellows who shared the impact they made and continue to have, in part due to the MASD program and Robert W. Deutsch Fellowship. They also expressed just how important a role design plays in spurring social change, using design thinking to create sustainable solutions to communities of need.

Mira Azarm

The first MASD fellow of the evening was Mira Azarm, AIGA DC President, who revealed that after spending over 10 years as a communications designer her knack for getting involved behind the scenes and constant hunger for professional change led her to the MASD program where she began to “unlearn everything I had learned up until that point”.

With her focus in the fellowship pertaining to food access, Mira worked with Gather Baltimore (a group that collects unused and unsold food to distribute it to those around Baltimore) in an effort to help them expand their outreach efforts. This experience led her to one of the most resonant lessons of the evening: the design shouldn’t be bigger than the problem you’re attempting to solve. Or, as Mira so aptly put it, “Maybe your design is not that important,” a sentiment echoed in the fellows’ presentations.

In her post-fellowship work with Gather Baltimore, she continues to attack food access issues around the area, currently working to reduce food waste in DC schools. She also teaches in the MASD program and advocates the value of design thinking teaching the creative process to students in “non-creative” disciplines through the UMD Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Mira wrapped her presentation with 4 keys learned in the fellowship, “Change whenever you can. Grow wherever you can. View design as a change maker. Facilitate innovation.”

Briony Evans Hynson

Briony shared her social design initiatives and insights from the past ten years, whether at MASD or otherwise. In speaking of her experiences she emphasized the need for collaboration in social design, allowing for personal expertise of the people involved and possession, or lack thereof, of a college degree shouldn’t limit one’s input.

Striving to work across disciplines and focused on directly impacting people, Briony believes that the creative process can provide new avenues for intervention. With her knowledge of sculpture and 3D media, she takes a hands-on approach to many of her projects, including teaching carpentry in Anacostia. This ultimately led to the development of a community arts center that acts as an international artist exchange program and community arts hub. She credits this experience with opening her eyes to the broader needs of underserved communities.

Several social initiatives later and Briony found herself in a similar spot as Mira described, looking for a way to change her perspective, which led her to the MASD program. At MICA she jumped right in and got hands on, working to provide kids in low-income areas of Baltimore with access to the basic human right of play. While her thesis work provided a design strategy and theory to transform a vacant lot into a place for kids of the neighborhood to play, being awarded with the Deutsch Fellowship grant allowed her to successfully implement her plan: turning an eyesore into a point of pride within the community.

Jonathan Erwin

The next speaker, Jonathan Erwin, stressed the need for collaboration and transparency throughout the social design process. Driving the point deeper, Jonathan shared an early initiative to remove a community garden that had degraded into a neighborhood dumpsite, impacting residents’ health and community pride. He showed how poor collaboration from a previous initiative becoming a blot on the community, a social-design-gone-bad scenario, and resulted in him undoing what should have been someone else’s social good. “On the bright side” he said, “I got a nice home-cooked breakfast from appreciative residents.”

With the belief that it’s the people that matter, Jonathan sought to further improve social capital of residents in the McElderry Park neighborhood in Baltimore. He demonstrated the power of design by creating a community newsletter that works to open dialogue amongst residents and restore a sense of ownership to the people living in the area.

Becky Slogeris

Wrapping up the lecture portion of the evening was Becky Slogeris whose roots in education and art run deep, providing a primary focus area for her social design practice, centering on changing apathy in school children and the backlog of teachers. Researching deeper into the issue, she found that students didn’t see a real-world connection to their schoolwork and teachers were concentrating on curriculums with no time to focus on the students themselves.

She worked with Franklin High School in Baltimore to develop a plan where the lessons were relevant and useful to the students. Using a service learning program, students revitalized a vacant lot, taking stock in their community while seeing real-world uses for math and science. During her fellowship she did curriculum design, providing professional development tools to save teachers time in their workday. Since the fellowship Becky remains active in a host of other social design causes, including developing behavioral management tools using movement to calm students in moments of conflict and energize them to learn.

Each fellow demonstrated how design instincts and an understanding of the creative process are invaluable assets in social design. Complex social issues require meaning to have impact and designers are, at the core, developers of meaning.

Following the presentation, attendees went into the main lobby to see thesis presentations from current MASD students.

Joseph Anthony Brown is AIGA Baltimore’s Programming Chair and is a partner/designer at Rogue Squirrel, Inc. Check out his portfolio at www.behance.net/abcreates.

Jennifer Marin is Co-President for AIGA Baltimore. Follow her @hungry4design.

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