Founder and Executive President Dr. Jorge Rojas Zegers (center) of COANIQUEM reviews a 3D environmental student project laid out on a table, as students, faculty and others listen.
Founder and Executive President Dr. Jorge Rojas Zegers (center) of COANIQUEM reviews a student project.

feature / college-news / designmatters / fall-2021
October 21, 2021
Edited by Brenda Rees

Why Designmatters Matters: ArtCenter's Pioneering Program Celebrates 20 Years of Social Innovation

Since 2001, ArtCenter College of Design's social innovation program, Designmatters, has led an ongoing exploration of art and design's ability to act as a positive force in society. Through Designmatters courses, ArtCenter students tackle a range of local, national and global issues head-on, everything from preventing youth gun violence in the U.S. to developing clean water solutions internationally. 

Thanks to Designmatters pioneering efforts, in 2002 the College was designated a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) with the United Nations. This prestigious classification helped the program build a broad network of innovative collaborators—mission-driven nonprofit organizations, industry, and national and international development agencies—that are like-minded in designing for a more humane and equitable future for all.

Designmatters' studio-based offerings engage students across all majors, and are taught with an entrepreneurial and experiential approach to design education. And, since 2017, the program has offered a minor in social innovation, a boon for undergraduate students interested in navigating the complex dynamics of working with communities and designing for social impact.

On the occasion of Designmatters' 20th anniversary, we reached out for reflections from 20 students, alumni, faculty, staff and partners who helped turned the pioneering program into the force for change it is today.

Associate Professor of Illustration Esther Pearl Watson, who has taught several Designmatters courses, lectures in a classroom.
Associate Professor of Illustration Esther Pearl Watson, who has taught several Designmatters courses.

Provost Karen Hofmann: “Designmatters is a cornerstone at ArtCenter; it’s giving definition to the future of what design can do. It’s about transformation and not just about the aesthetic. We as a society need designers to not just be at the corporate table, but also at the government table. I hope for a future where artists and designers become more engaged in politics. We are just starting to see Chief Design Officers in cities. Wouldn’t it be great if one day if our country had a Department of Social Innovation led by a designer or an artist? Perhaps that is the scope of influence Designmatters will have in the next 20 years.”

Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Aaron Bruce: “Whether local, international, nonprofits or municipalities like the Aquarium of the Pacific or Los Angeles Recreation and Parks, partners are a vital anchor for Designmatters. Strong partners legitimize the work of Designmatters, provide valuable funding and resources and guarantee that a lot of the work will potentially be implemented. Many partners hire students as interns or full-time employees to implement or continue the work that began with the Designmatters. Our partnership model is more than a one-time, feel-good, check-the-box and then move on. Numerous partners continue to work with Designmatters and help us build stronger relationships within the community.”

Humanities and Sciences Chair Jane McFadden: “For 20 years, students who have been driven by creativity but not sure how their talent can intersect with the world have turned to Designmatters to find new forms of engagement and meaning for their work. As Designmatters heads into the next 20 years, I see it firmly anchored in the community and growing as an educational department by expanding faculty, building a curriculum, and leading the college into the future of art and design education. The Humanities and Sciences Department and Designmatters have always had a strong productive partnership; we are excited to continue this working collaboration.”

Associate Professor of Illustration Esther Pearl Watson: “Teaching a Designmatters class is witnessing that sense of joy and achievement the students get when they realize what they did was bigger than something they could have done by themselves. Also there’s a discovery of their talents and strengths that weren’t evident or reflected in their portfolios. In the beginning, students are overwhelmed and nervous, they cannot see the complete picture; it’s not clear what the solution could be. They just have to trust themselves. And then they emerge. The shyest person becomes group leader; others nurture a new talent or new-found confidence. I see this happen time and time again.”

Professor of Graphic Design Tyrone Drake (BFA 96 Graphic Design), who has taught several Designmatters courses, lectures in front of class.
Professor of Graphic Design Tyrone Drake (BFA 96 Graphic Design), who has taught several Designmatters courses.

Dr. Jorge Rojas Zegers, founder and executive president of COANIQUEM Nonprofit Burn Center, Santiago, Chile: “Designmatters is a window in which we at COANIQUEM can touch the future, create the future and shape the future. I look at what we have built with Designmatters over the years; it’s amazing. The students and teachers have been extremely careful with the ideas of COANIQUEM; they respect our culture and do not insert their point of view. They get to know our families, our staff, our community. I feel our friendship is more than just professional. This friendship is possible when I accept who I am and I know who you are—and I know together we can do amazing things.” 

Mari Nakano (MFA 09 Media Design Practices): “In the next 20 years, it would be radical to see Designmatters embodied in every corner of ArtCenter, so it’s not just a nice program for some select students, but more a school-wide policy that pushes the boundaries of social impact and design across all majors. It’s not just one course everyone has to take; infuse Designmatters thinking into all faculty and classrooms. How are the things we make impacting the people we make them for? For example, how can we support illustrators or filmmakers who want to create work that represents underrepresented communities? How can advertising and car designer majors hone their critical thinking to focus designs that are more accessible? How can we bring the Designmatters lens into everything?”

Professor of Graphic Design Tyrone Drake (BFA 96 Graphic Design): “Designmatters, (is) a state of mind, an attitude, it’s a psychology and methodology that can be used to create societal change and help solve social and cultural problems. The classroom becomes an incubator for problem-solving and ideas to flow and flourish. Students gain a better understanding of the true power of design and their responsibility to use that power to help make the world a better place. As ‘Lead Faculty’ my job is to get the best out of everyone. I enjoy seeing how the students collaborate with one another and their insights. It’s also gratifying when the results are successful for our clients.”

Ana-Paola Laveaga, current Environmental Design student: “I learned about Designmatters while taking an [ArtCenter Extension] class; I read the Safe Ninos project and even though I didn’t participate in the project it greatly inspired me. Now Designmatters is helping me understand that my design is not just going to come from my ideas, but from the people I’m co-creating with, the end users of that space. When I first started ArtCenter, I thought I had to come up with all the ideas on my own. No! Because of the emphasis on interviewing skills and one-on-one research, Designmatters is also helping me be empathic and a little more courageous in social situations.”

Current Illustration student Amanda Oesef, who is also pursuing a Minor in Social Innovation, presents a project in a Designmatters course.
Current Illustration student Amanda Oesef is pursuing a Minor in Social Innovation.

Dr. Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, associate professor in preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at USC: “Designmatters offered us alternatives in health education we couldn’t come up with by ourselves. Our partnership was transformative. We needed creative ways to reach the Hispanic community to increase cervical cancer screening and HPV vaccinations. The students used results from focus groups, and immersed themselves into the culture and community; a visit to LA County Hospital introduced them to the realities of health care for indigent communities. The students didn’t create just a nice-looking poster; it was a full-blown successful campaign that we use annually. Our partnership was a chemical reaction of the student’s creativity and our foundational research. BOOM! We can’t wait for our next Designmatters partnership.”

Grace Lynne Hayes (BFA 17 Illustration with a Designmatters Minor in Social Innovation): “Today, after all these years, Designmatters is still with me. I try to practice empathy and understanding people where they are, which is a hallmark of the program. To be a good designer, you have to travel the world – even if it is in your own community – and be exposed to people from different backgrounds, cultures and economic upbringings. That experience makes your work more meaningful and gives it more depth, richness and authenticity. In 20 years, when this pandemic is behind us, other world events—political, cultural, science, health-related—will call on designers to help. That’s where Designmatters will be; right where they are needed.”

Amanda Oesef, current Illustration student: “I wasn’t planning to attend an art and design school, but researching the website I discovered the Designmatters program which made ArtCenter my first choice. I love Designmatters; it reassures you that what you create matters—and it empowers young voices while amplifying our impact. Working in teams, especially with other majors, can be a humbling experience. For one studio, I designed a great poster that worked well as an illustration but would not be effective in the overall campaign. I scrapped it. I realized that I can’t be too precious with my work. There are other people and design goals here; this isn’t just about me.”

Timothy Kordic, project manager for LAUSD HIV/AIDS Prevention: “The whole point of our projects with Designmatters has been access—to provide our LAUSD students with access to medically accurate and inclusive information about health and their bodies and especially sexual health. That was the key component for everything. Working with Designmatters has been very special and professional. I felt I was around experts who knew what they were doing. The Designmatters students have diverse skill sets and access to information and knowledge that I don’t. They knew how important it was for young people to feel comfortable, and how to reach diverse learners, those with different orientations and identities.” 

Environmental Design Chair David Mocarski (right), who has taught and overseen many a Designmatters course, goes over a project with two students.
Environmental Design Chair David Mocarski (right) has taught and overseen many a Designmatters course.

Wendy MacNaugton (BFA 99 Fine Art): “Fair warning: Once you start creating things that make a positive social or environmental impact, you’ll get addicted. When your creation impacts others in a positive way; you’ll be shocked how good you feel. You want to do more and drag your friends along and get them hooked, too. I don’t know anyone who has gone in the social impact direction then returned to the corporate for-profit world. There's nothing more satisfying than creating with deep purpose and connection. And if you’re not imagining radical solutions, you’re just creating more of the problem. Let’s get real: it’s the only future we got.”

Jonathan Goldman (BFA 10 Advertising), chief curator at the B&O Railroad Museum, and first student to graduate with a concentration in Designmatters: “Design thinking is a mainstream buzzword these days. I’m not sure people really know what it means. Sending your staff to a creative thinking workshop doesn’t mean they are suddenly innovative thinkers. People get degrees and spend their whole lives perfecting that mode of thinking. There is a huge need right now for really sophisticated trained professionals in the workplace. Throughout my career, my bosses tell me that what set me apart from other candidates is the skill set that I learned thanks to the Designmatters program. That layer of intentionality to know and to always keep my audience in the fore front.” 

Environmental Design Chair David Mocarski: “The large portion of the success of Designmatters goes to faculty members who are seriously dedicated to make a difference. Their level of commitment and integrity spreads to the students. They feel it.  So when students meet face-to-face with people in need, and work with them on a solution, they realize an impact. They realize they aren’t designing an idea; they are designing for real people. This experience has helped many students grow and discovery their personal voice and understanding of the world. This has been the hallmark of Designmatters since the beginning.”

Dillon Chi (BS 21 Interaction Design with a Designmatters Minor in Social Innovation): “Designmatters is that lens you need to look at your project from the eyes of others. Co-creation. As a UX researcher, I am often trying to learn about people’s mental model; our task is to balance how things actually work and communicate what is really happening to people. So many decisions happen quickly; co-creation is breaking down my individual biases and assumptions of what other people need and what they want. Co-creating is allowing people to be designers, democratizing them to take power. It’s up to me as the designer to listen, analyze, distill their pain points and find solutions.”

Dr. Robert Haile, director of the Cancer Research Center for Health Equity at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, provides feedback following a student presentation, while seated and surrounded by ArtCenter students, faculty and staff.
Dr. Robert Haile, director of the Cancer Research Center for Health Equity at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, provides feedback following a student presentation.

Mariana Marroquin, program manager at Trans Wellness Center, Los Angeles: “My organization serves the transgendered community which often gets left behind. The Designmatters students worked on a campaign that involved our community as one of their target audiences. As they learned about us, I saw their humility and curiosity. They asked sensitive questions, were very open for feedback and kept us a part of the process. It was refreshing to see this new generation of creative minds who are fighting for their future but who also are using their talents to fight for those who have been left out of the conversation and those who have been underserved for so long.” 

Ibby Day (BFA 21 Illustration with a Designmatters Minor in Social Innovation): “One of the more unexpected lessons that I got from Designmatters was learning how to stay rational, consistent and optimistic in an often pessimistic world. Social impact designers are working to improve the lives of others, but we often run into a lot of pushback. The amount of sadness, anger and frustration I feel at the world can be exhausting. The unexpected lesson I learned is how you can address that attitude within yourself and push yourself to keep going even when the world is trying to push you down.  Designmatters gives you a lot of practice learning how to navigate this dichotomy.” 

Dr. Robert Haile, director of the Cancer Research Center for Health Equity at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles: “I originally heard about Designmatters when I was at USC; the Es Tiempo campaign we developed with Designmatters had a goal of increasing cervical cancer screening for Latinx women and, when deployed, was highly successfully. Now I’m at Cedars, but our projects have similar goals: awareness and impact. I reached out to Designmatters because I believe that scientists benefit when we see a health issue through their design-thinking lens. Designmatters knows how human beings react to their environment. I love projects that involve people with different perspectives and professions that pull everyone out of their silos to see a broader world. Working with Designmatters is refreshing and fun. It’s been a mind-expanding collaboration.” 

Michelle Kim (BFA 18 Illustration with a Designmatters Minor in Social Innovation), user experience research lead at Scanwell Health: “Designmatters assignments are never boring. To me, there is a running theme in every Designmatters class I have taken: designers and artists must constantly struggle with two polar opposite emotions as they create -- humility and courage. You have to have the hunger and confidence to enter the unknown and the uncomfortable, but also be receptive to knowing that you will always succeed with a great team surrounding you.”