An excerpt from my 2016 Student Perspective interview after the Leap 2: Value of Design Symposium with a few awesome social impact designers
As an economics major turned design student, Chris Kasabach realized there was a disconnect between his newfound passion and the big, wide world of people who excluded from it. Taking a page from Victor Papanek’s seminal text, Design For The Real World, a young Kasabach didn’t want to design for a “thin subset of users that didn’t take into account cultural context.” As an inspired designer, he needed a way to bridge innovative theory to practice.
“Here I was staring at a discipline I loved and a profession I disliked, and wondering what to do in between,” Kasabach said. “And there was social design.”
Decades later, as the director of the Watson Foundation in New York, Kasabach is still defining how new designers can arrive at a successful social design practice. I sat with him and 29 other innovative practitioners attending the LEAP/2: Value of Design Symposium held at MICA in April. The conference, which continued the momentum of 2013’s LEAP I: The Professional Frontier, attracted international designers and related professionals to discuss obstacles to viable career pathways, and articulate the value designers have in addressing the world’s complex social challenges.
Kasabach is certain “the path will be meandering and that’s OK.” The pathway is based on a personal journey rather than prescription. “Your interests will change,” he said. “The field will change and you’ll find your unique way.”
This might be disconcerting for some looking to find parallels to a corporate ladder approach.
“There isn't a pathway into the field,” said Christine Gaspar who is executive director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn, New York. “Everyone is shaping their own path.”
The design discipline “is not like law or medicine,” which has standardized, explicit steps for advancement. Gaspar, who started as an undergraduate student interested in policy, debunks the idea of a linear, clear-cut career trajectory, and views a “successful career” as relative. Instead, she encourages people to pursue work in many sectors, from government work to traditional design to enrich a career .
“I think if you just follow your passions, and do different things that are interesting to you, [your career] is going to meld together in a way that’s coherent eventually,” Gaspar said. “Follow things that are of interest to you and know they’re going to lead somewhere really awesome.”
Design Lead of emocha Mobile Health, Inc., Amanda Allen, is more absolute about entry points for practitioners. “You’re not going to get a job as a ‘social designer’,” she said. A 2013 alumna of MICA’s MASD program, Allen previously worked at a global design firm in the Baltimore area.
“Make sure that you have other solid hard skills that get your foot in the door hopefully somewhere that you’re passionate about,” she said. “Then bring in the social design through the back door.”
However scary that may sound, Kasabach finds “it’s very refreshing and it reduces the anxiety in students to know that it’s not a linear or vertical path, and that there are many ways to enter the [design] field.”
As daunting as an organic path might be for students and new design professionals, Kasabach’s approach was echoed by others as the symposium continued through mid week.
Courtney Spearman, a design specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., recalled her own “circuitous path” through landscape architecture before considering design. Based on her experiences, she cautions people “not to worry so much about exactly what your path is going to be.”
“You may have a very specific way of working that you want to do, that you want to achieve, but I don’t know that that always translates to a very specific job,” said Spearman, whose current work supports community-engaged designers.
Instead of looking for job titles to bulk up a resumé, students should craft fluid careers based on opportunities that develop the unique process and values social designers possess.
“Being open, and trying to be less anxious about exactly what the ‘thing’ is” are what Spearman advises. It’s “more the ‘how,’ not the ‘what’” when thinking about career development she said.
Finding your ‘how’ of social design should be individually tailored, but there are common characteristics that define the practice and the best of professionals.
- Empathy: “The value of design is this humanistic quality that designers bring to key societal issues,” says Mariana Amatullo formerly of ArtCenter in Pasadena, Calif. If a projects starts getting too complicated, take a step back and take Studio O principal and founder, Liz Ogbu's advice: "Be Human."
- Simplicity: “What design enables us to do is to take something that is really intractable and really abstract and, I think, boil it down to something very concrete, to something that is solvable and actionable for people now,” says Sonia Sarkar, Chief Policy and Engagement Officer at the Baltimore City Health Department.
- Critical Curiosity: "Design as a field for me is meaningless unless one is able to articulate clearly the questions that one’s trying to address,” says Sanjit Sethi, director of the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in Washington, D.C.
- Transdisciplinarity: Having experience across sectors is helpful because, as associate professor of industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, Charlie Cannon says, “we are trained to solve for more than one thing at once” and “we are asked to create solutions for things that address lots of different pieces.”
- Humility: Robert Fabricant, Co-founder of Design Impact Group and partner at Dalberg Global Development Advisors, says a great design practice is built on the very “fundamental human quality of trust and engagement.” Understand that and "if you've got that down, and you know how to create that with people, there’s no end to the sort of direction you can take the work,” he says.