AIGA Studio of The Future

It seems more than a little ironic that on the day I sit down to write about the studio of the future, I have received from storage a delivery of the contents of my home studio from three years past – things that were once precious enough to pack and store and move to a new home are now foreign objects – a one ton time capsule of the things I once felt essential to my work, yet have happily worked without. Over these three years, I have ventured from my home studio, to lead the development of a new MFA program, Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York. To say that it has changed me, the way I work, my view of the future, and of education is a gross understatement.

Design was once all about things; making things, printing things, carrying things around the studio on the way to their production. The artifacts of design were always ephemeral, now they have become inessential. But the process of design is one that I believe the future of the world depends upon.

In my world, design has transitioned from creating things to creating change. It has become invisible, and in doing so, is more powerful than ever before. What social innovators recognize is that the change we need to design is in human behavior. Designing things, no matter how clever, will never create the seismic transformation we require. We need to shift the way we treat the planet and each other, the way we view our right to natural resources, money, and in America in particular, things.

That essential transformation – from designing form, to content, to process, to behavior and finally to an intended outcome – has enormous implications for the way we practice, and for the way an educational program, like ours at SVA, can help develop the future leaders of change.

Traditionally, our culture rewards individual genius, in the arts, science, politics, sports and design.  We honor singularity, those that stand apart from the crowd, and we tolerate the ego required to attain and maintain a position above the simply excellent. Looking forward, real individual genius is the ability to help creativity and hope emerge in others, working from the inside of communities, companies, cities, countries or tribes. It is the ability to synthesize from a group a common vision for a different future, to make it compelling enough for the entire community to rally behind. To hold up a mirror to individuals and organizations and reflect to them their higher selves – creating an identity for them as people capable of thinking differently and being in the world in a sustainable way. When the goal is to design change with people, there is no hiding away, creating masterpieces that win awards. The “studio” is the world, and design education must include the world as well.

Designing change in our societies requires new skills and craft. It requires deep understanding of human nature, of change models, systems of every type, skill in leading conversations and facilitating co-creation. It takes broadly curious people, not narrow experts, no longer relying on our own brains and eyes and instincts but learning to fully engage and excite and motivate those of others. It uses traditional skills as well – making complex information accessible and exciting, bringing clarity to chaos, delighting with form and elegance –but they are used as part of a larger system with far-reaching impact.

Not long ago some students came to interview me, as part of a project called Educate 20/20. They were traveling across the country researching innovative educational programs. Their last question was what I thought the future of education might be. Since I have no capacity for predicting the future, I can only imagine it, and in doing so, hope to help bring it about. For me the future of design education has nothing to do with physical spaces or equipment or technology. It has to do with beauty, not the “designery” kind, but the profound beauty of our planet. It will develop leaders who inspire by using all of themselves, being fully human, exploding the definition of design and designer, moving beyond brains and intellect, becoming citizens of the whole world and understanding our place in it. The footprint we leave should be not detritus, but a renewed connection to nature, to responsibility, to hope, and to a real conviction that we can again live with confidence in a future that looks rosier than our past.

Matt Klein, Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Foundation, came to speak to our cohort not long ago, and gave them perspective on their place in history. He said that everyone needs, and will seek out, problem solvers with interdisciplinary skills like theirs, that it’s an advantage now, but will soon be a requirement.  All around us, we see organizations and communities that need to change. The job for design is everywhere. I would like the people who come through our program to become embedded in thousands of places in the world that we can’t even imagine yet, like seeds of change and hope, helping our species evolve from selfish users of resources to expanders and creators of resources. And for that, there is no studio required at all, but don’t let that stop you from joining us in it.