A Decade That Matters:
Leading the Way in Social Innovation
Ten years after its founding,
Designmatters is making a
difference within and beyond
By ALEX CARSWELL
“This University is not maintained...merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle. There is certainly a greater purpose, and I'm sure you recognize it.”
—John F. Kennedy / October 14, 1960, speaking to students at the University of Michigan.
As he campaigned for the White House, John F. Kennedy challenged America’s younger generation to use their talent not just to better themselves, but also to somehow make a difference in the world. Shortly after taking office in 1961, President Kennedy formed the Peace Corps, a transformational government agency that celebrated America’s core values, galvanized our national will and has facilitated service in support of that “greater purpose” for more than half a century.
Forty years later, Art Center students were surveyed on their desire to have some sort of curricular “Peace Corps-type” opportunity. The overwhelmingly positive response set the wheels in motion for what would soon become Designmatters at Art Center, the College’s innovative social-impact initiative. In addition to the Peace Corps model, the brain trust that conceived and developed Designmatters also had other influences. Erica Clark—then Art Center’s senior vice president of International Initiatives—had investigated a number of socially engaged design programs at European institutions. And here at Art Center, “Community Workshop” was already a popular graphic design class that engaged students in projects with local social-impact objectives.
“There had also been a film class that made public service announcements,” says Mariana Amatullo, who along with Clark co-founded Designmatters. “And there was a particularly inspiring product design class that had engaged with the Centers for Disease Control to design water containers that would help stem the spread of cholera in developing countries.”
Amatullo was tasked with conceiving educational programming that embraced social impact design and “connected the College globally.” With the support of then-Art Center President Richard Koshalek, a task force with College-wide representation was convened to explore how to formalize and integrate this new curricular emphasis. “Early on,” notes Amatullo, “the task force proposed that we work locally, nationally and internationally, and defined the mission of the program—which remains the same today: To engage, empower and lead an ongoing exploration of art and design as a positive force in society through research, advocacy and action.”
Four thematic pillars were proposed and evolved as a framework for study and outreach—Sustainable Development, Public Policy, Global Healthcare and Social Entrepreneurship—and in Fall 2002 the first two Designmatters projects (addressing homelessness in Los Angeles and colon cancer prevention) were incorporated into the curriculum. In the decade since, Designmatters has participated with dozens of local, national and international partners in more than 50 projects that seek to effectively improve the human condition, and create better designers in the process.
That decade also saw Designmatters grow from offering two funded projects per term to as many as five per term today. Additionally, many more projects are somewhere in a pipeline that starts long before a class is offered, with incubation and coalition building, and finishes long after, when documentation of the process is published. What was an initiative became a standalone educational department in 2009. And in 2010, with ever more incoming students citing the initiative as, according to Amatullo, “a clear differentiator” in their choice of school, Art Center launched a formal Designmatters concentration.
“Hearing that from students provided strong motivation to serve them with a robust set of educational offerings and to build a curricular trajectory toward careers in these important areas,” says Amatullo, now Art Center’s vice president overseeing Designmatters. “And this year it laid the groundwork for our introduction of Artmatters—a complementary and parallel concentration in the Fine Art Department that will add a new dimension to questions of art and social engagement.”
The Designmatters Department also is overseeing a joint curricular Field track in Media Design Practices, built around a yearlong project conducted in the field. “Students in this track will design in a real-world context where social issues, media infrastructure and communication technology intersect,” says Media Design Practices Chair Anne Burdick. The inaugural project partner is UNICEF’s Innovation Lab in Uganda, where students will do their fieldwork.