If one understands design as the socially responsible reallocation of resources for the benefit of humanity, successful approaches to teaching design centered in the community can have a deep and positive effect on the lives of others (Architecture for Humanity 2006; Bell 2004; Bell and Wakeford 2008; Fuad-Luke 2009). Design can speak to the value of healthy spaces, buildings, neighborhoods, and cities; for the integrity, authenticity, innovation, fair exchange, and kindness in our design processes and interchanges with diverse others; and in simple responses, thoughtful actions, and decisions grounded in the human experience—all lessons we should teach in higher education.
I see a need for a philosophy of design with community-centered projects embedded in programs at all scales free from the usual disciplinary limitations we place on one another. At no time has the need for good design reached such a critical mass as now, as we face extreme environmental challenges and resource limitations around the globe. Nor has design been more sorely needed anytime before now as we face the outcomes of disconnectedness and diaspora from the suburbanization of the nation in the last five decades (Putnam 2000), inheriting buildings and landscapes that ate up significant resources in their construction and now face an uncertain future. In terms of interiors and furnishings within households, we face a parallel crisis in the burgeoning of the stuff of everyday life (a problem with us since the industrial revolution), countless possessions and mementos that force us to create whole rooms—and places—for their storage (Attfield 2000). All these issues call designers to shift societal attitudes toward seriousness of purpose from the practices that over time resulted in such disastrous human environments, dispirited places disconnected from human need, comfort, and delight.
I hope young designers will counter the perception portrayed in the media that good design can be achieved quickly (within a 30-minute time slot on television) and is a service available only to the wealthy. Making a difference in our community represents the best thing I can do as a designer/faculty member—using my resources and experience to improve our local area and to help students see the efficacy of such actions. I propose that every design curriculum include not just sites in the community for projects but community-centered projects, an approach that, while growing in popularity, has not reached a critical mass in institutions of higher education. A community-based approach with reciprocity as its key characteristic provides not only excellent educational opportunities for students but is a way of connecting laypeople with the value of design as a necessary strategy for good living.
Community-based projects provide students with the opportunity to apply their work as they train and learn in situ. Working with real people with real challenges helps students develop their own sense of social responsibility. This notion rests at the core of who we aspire to be as humans and signifies the very essence of American democracy: all citizens sharing in the responsibility for an environment that serves everyone. As beginning designers develop their social consciousness through community engagement projects—and in so doing, become more aware of the impact of their actions on others—they can, and will, make a difference. If we engage one another in dialogue and make decisions through design, then others will experience the intentionality that designers can bring to our cities, schools, homes, and workplaces.
The opportunity to work in the community lends credence to the idea that design does not happen in a vacuum. Clients, users, code officials, contractors and suppliers, politicians, community activists, nonprofit leaders, and many others inevitably have issues from the outset of a project to its conclusion. The earlier students recognize that engagement (and design itself) represents a fundamental practice about others, not only the designer, the greater the chance we have to dispel the characterization of design as a frivolous activity.
Because engaged scholarship is a contemporary direction in higher education, I call on design educators to consider the critical nature and importance of community-centered work in design. If not the universities and the designers teaching and learning within them, then who?
The literature on publicly engaged learning provides a useful frame for design in social practice. In A Crucible Moment, the National Task Force on Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012) challenges higher education and its stakeholders with "new intentionality on the role that education should play in helping all students prepare for their roles as citizens in this globally engaged and extraordinarily diverse democracy" (29), indicating that higher education should "build a broader theory of knowledge about democracy and democratic principles for an age marked as it is by multiplicity and division" (31). Outlining four broad recommendations (foster civic literacy, make civic literacy a core expectation, practice civic inquiry, and advance civic action) and articulating a series of objectives to ensure the adoption of the recommendations, the task force provides a blueprint for administrators and faculty.
In a white paper written in a partnership between Imagining America and the Columbia University School of Law's Center for Institutional and Social Change (Sturm, Eatman, Saltmarsh, and Bush 2011), the authors use an architectural metaphor: "Campus organizational culture fosters disconnection and fragmentation . . . expressed in the siloed nature of academic organizations, reflecting an internal manifestation of the well-known Ivory Tower metaphor" (10). Citing community-based teaching and learning as a high-impact educational practice, Sturm et al. (2011) advocates for building an "architecture of full participation"—an institutional transformation strategy that sustains ongoing improvement and integrates publicly engaged scholarship, diversity, and student success with one another and with core values and priorities, a co-creation of spaces, relationships, and practices. Enabling institutional mindfulness, such integration and innovation requires an orientation toward understanding how practices and programs relate to a larger system (Saltmarsh, Hartley, and Clayton 2009; Saltmarsh 2010) in "communities both local and global" (Sturm et al. 2010, 13). Continuing with these themes, the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America's Promise (LEAP) recommends "an education that intentionally fosters, across multiple fields of study, wide-ranging knowledge of science, cultures, and society; high-level intellectual and practical skills; an active commitment to personal and social responsibility; and the demonstrated ability to apply learning to complex problems and challenges" (2007, 4). Clearly, design helps achieve such an education for its own students.
The LEAP National Leadership Council envisions an education that "lies not in the memorization of vast amounts of information, but rather in fostering habits of mind that enable students to continue their learning, engage new questions, and reach informed judgments" (2007, 30). Design educators, working across all scales, should be poised to do just that. Recommending multiple opportunities for students to engage in inquiry-based learning both independently and in collaborative teams, the LEAP report indicates that students "should learn how to find and evaluate evidence, how to consider and assess competing interpretations, how to form and test their own analyses and interpretations, how to solve problems, and how to communicate persuasively" (30). All of these represent the same values design faculty highly prize and teach in the design studio, and on the streets of our own communities through sited design projects. The LEAP Council notes "the advent of new technologies [which] has created unprecedented opportunities for students to take part in collaborative inquiry, creative projects, and research" and yet laments that "few departments and institutions have developed curricula and pedagogies that incrementally foster and assess students' skills in inquiry and innovation as they advance through a course of study" (31). Interestingly, two of the 11 high-impact practices espoused by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (i.e., collaborative assignments and projects and community engagement) directly bear on the design studio. Design projects that take shape on drawing boards, in models and computer renderings, and in the community suggest pathways recognized by assessment gurus toward meaningful retention of students in college, an issue of much currency in higher education (Kuh 2008).
Arlene Goldbard (2008) hypothesizes that excellent community cultural development projects rely on three interdependent elements: "a balance of community engagement, training in artistic craft, and scholarship focusing on the field's history and animating ideas, as well as the economic and policy environments for it" (2). Characterizing the difficulty of fostering reciprocal, meaningful community engagement, Goldbard indicates the lack of an "archetypal or definitive community cultural development project, no manual that dictates practice" (7), seeing this as a freeing, rather than restricting, aspect of community-engaged work. Key principles that guide community work include active participation in cultural life by its participants, diversity and equality in all aspects of engagement, process- rather than product-centered work, and responsibility for transformation shared by all partners (8). According to Goldbard, "with no central body awarding credentials or offering an imprimatur" (27), community-engaged scholarship and practice remains free from restrictions often imposed through accrediting bodies, making it a fertile pathway for pursuit by faculty, students, and community partners.
Unfortunately, many faculty as the key change agents feel hampered by the size of the bureaucracy and limitations imposed by the university on such work. To counter these roadblocks and challenges, Goldbard advocates for precommunity experiences in curricula to prepare students for community-based work, for bridging programs involving multiple departments, and for deep and sustained partnerships in the community that take advantage of hybrid pedagogies (51).
We are in an experimental phase vis-à-vis advancing creative work, research, and teaching in the community, particularly in light of uncertainty about the valuing of community-based work in promotion and tenure practices (Jordan et al. 2009). Moreover, achieving consensus among faculty in a single department regarding this approach represents a critical issue for success. Kecskes (2006) advocates for engaged departments, ones that focus on common values and approaches, a transformative collection of the diverse interests of its faculty and students. At the same time, Zlotkowski and Saltmarsh (2006) suggest that department chair leadership, faculty leadership for improved teaching and learning, collaborative curricula, and incentives embedded in promotion and tenure can all create an atmosphere conducive to community engagement. All of these structural and tactical issues indicate changes in thinking from within the academy about design and design engagement.
Rob Corser (2008) posits a design engagement rather than a design assistance model for faculty, students, and community partners, noting that "the very terminology of design 'services' perpetuates a hierarchy between the design 'professional' and the 'client' to be served" (18). He suggests that, in the design fields, typically designers recognize buildings and spaces for their formal qualities rather than the "intangible effects of the design, or of the design process itself, on the community's quality of life and the larger public good" (19). Citing difficulties in gathering, quantifying, and assessing data, he indicates that "many community-based projects struggle to engage their clients as real collaborators, and rarely include adequate post-project analysis or reflection" (20), often materializing projects that lack depth and reciprocity in service of the public good.
Corser advocates for five principles and practices between designer and erstwhile "client" to advance a design engagement approach: acknowledging mutual value and values; redefining problems and opportunities; mutually defining success, failure, and risk; creating and renewing structures for communication; and getting serious about feedback, evaluation, and reflection (23–24). Calling for a fresh approach to design in the pursuit of greater social good—emphasizing process along with product—Corser (2008) indicates that longstanding notions of professional status, privilege, and social responsibility, while useful in maintaining minimum standards and keeping the risk of public harm at bay, do not adequately serve the intense need in our societies for greater inclusion, participation, and collaboration in working toward social justice and the public good. (30)
Emphasizing the human dimension as part of the design process seems a sure pathway to take toward renewing the social compact of design in higher education. My scholarship and studio practice, particularly, have been grounded in the particularities of the local scene in which I live and work, an agenda that, while not unique, provides an entrée for students to see the transformative nature of design in real circumstances. I echo approaches followed by many educators and practitioners across the nation; my contribution does not suggest an earthshaking strategy. Grounding work in the realities of "the local" represents my own response to tether what we all do in the real circumstances—grimy or glamorous—of who we are.
In the quest to understand the interrelationships between global concerns and local ones, I have looked—and encouraged students to look—within, just beyond, and far beyond themselves to discern the best means to transform the world into a better place—one design at a time. Including group dynamics, institutional and nonprofit culture, politics, social issues, and societal concerns in my design studio work helps students to see that design connects many things. From the position of design, this critical glance at the world begins from a very personal place but connects deeply with the universe beyond (Bachelard 1958; Eames and Eames 1977).
For successful community work, designers as teachers must examine the nexus of practical strategies for identifying projects and partners, putting together teams to undertake work, seeking financial support, managing human relations on campus and off, using proven methods for achieving results, and communicating about the project to varying communities and constituencies.
I share here the collaborative endeavor of 23 students, a teaching assistant, a faculty member, and a host of community volunteers largely over the course of a single semester. I thus provide a concrete example of how design studios can be transformed into ideal sites for community engagement. I also show how students training to be designers can undertake meaningful work that positions them as advocates for community and results in the unfolding of democratic practice from within the design profession. As a means to provide evidence for the seriousness of design in our community, the work of this single interiors studio demonstrates the impact of meaningful teaching practices within the various design disciplines in twenty-first-century higher education. Even colleagues in architecture, with its longer lineage of social practice, might benefit from this engagement example as one working with clients rather than for them.
In the 2011 fall semester, second-year design students examined the identity of three local Greensboro institutions—the Weatherspoon Art Museum, the Greensboro Historical Museum, and the Industries of the Blind—to explore design opportunities that reinforce coherence through their entry spaces/sequences. The studio name riffed from the fifteenth-century phrase "cabinet of curiosities," or wunderkammer (wonder-rooms), an encyclopedic collection of artifacts from natural (animal and plant specimens, geologic wonders) and human-made sources (painting, sculptures, and manufactured items). A number of important museums began with these collections as their core. This practice of collecting and presenting continues in the present, especially in the context of our consumer society.
Over the course of the semester, students worked through wayfinding and circulation exercises, lighting explorations, and selections of material, color, and texture for these sites. They addressed issues of analysis, historical precedent, function, accessibility, legibility, information transmission, human comfort, and conceptual development. They took on both team and individual work in collaboration with one another, community partners, guest critics, a teaching assistant, and a faculty member. Students dialogued with a wide variety of community members to better understand the place of cultural institutions in our world as well as the impact and import of design within and near those places that define our humanity.
Students began with the Change Styles Inventory to gauge how they accept or resist change. During the first two weeks of class, students visited the three institutions and explored their organizational structures, physical spaces, personnel involved, and issues of identity expressed institutionally and individually.
As the students completed their fieldwork, they presented their analysis to one another. As part of this process, they continued self-examination of their own identity and organized themselves into three working groups. These subgroups each addressed the design issues for one site through the remainder of the semester. Tying back to their initial observations and recordings, the baseline data the students gathered provided useful touchstones at critical points of reflection and action in the studio and in the community. As individual students came to know one another in these early stages of the constitution of their groups, they found themselves challenged by views of the world other than their own, both from community partners and from their peers. This struggle to maintain their own identity within the larger group provided a textured backdrop against which the groups moved forward.
Needing to see a series of museums and their entry spaces in a short period, the class organized a field trip to the National Mall in Washington, DC. During a two-day reconnaissance visit, students encountered ten museums and analytically assessed their entry spaces, bringing these design precedents back to Greensboro in photographs, drawings, and writing. The precedents deeply informed the design process and products the students produced. By immersing the students in the various museums of Washington, they rapidly gained insights to the expression of institutional culture in entry sequences, but only on a limited basis. As a result, some of the students felt challenged by the lack of time to digest appropriately all that they could on these field visits.
For the Weatherspoon Art Museum, five students interfaced with the museum's executive director and the gift shop manager to address the issue of visibility for the shop in the context of the entrance lobby. Located 500 feet from their own studio space, this quintet of students took a previously existing design for a shop cabinet on wheels and modified it. They built the cabinet in the department's woodshop, working in both conceptual and practical ways, and with an actual budget and deadline for delivery of the cabinet to the museum.
Although successful in delivering the cabinet on time and within budget, the team encountered difficulties in their process, mostly due to external factors. Balancing the needs of many students working in the woodshop, the team often experienced delays in the queue of priority for the project. Their greatest challenge resulted from the dynamics of the executive and shop directors, each of whom had different visions for the cabinet and for the shop. As the detailing part of the project developed, negotiating the exacting demands of the client within time, space, and skill constraints represented the greatest lesson learned. Since the installation of the finished cabinet in proximity to the shop, sales have soared, as much as 50 percent in some months, giving the students a sense of satisfaction that their hard work paid off.
By contrast, the team of seven working with the Greensboro Historical Museum (GHM) encountered some 35 museum volunteers, Greensboro city code officials and property managers, and designers assembled to meet with them over the semester. During six formal sessions, this student team examined the identity of a city museum with a diverse collection and a mid-1980s lobby space in dire need of updating. They undertook research and uncovered inspiration from trains, gates, and textiles—all elements of Greensboro history—for their design. Whereas the Weatherspoon team delivered a product, the GHM team produced a model and design development drawings to aid the museum in conceptualizing changes to the space and in seeking funding to make those changes.
One of the greatest successes for these students was the opportunity to work with a wide range of people and a formal, public process of negotiation and information delivery. The particular dynamics of the team, however, undermined the energy of the whole at critical points during the semester, not surprisingly at deadline times for presentation at the museum. Both the faculty member and the teaching assistant intervened to help, but one of the community committee members taught the team the most by telling them her perception of their dynamics, first through the faculty member but, ultimately, to the students themselves in the reflection session at the end of the semester.
Students also experimented with full-scale models of the proposed wall they envisioned for the lobby space. They used a wall of similar size and scale on campus in the studio building to express their design scheme. Several review groups from within the department helped them to improve their scheme. The Industries of the Blind team recorded great success at producing a large-scale installation of design ideas, one bigger than life, on the same wall. Thus, the lessons of the class group assigned to one project helped inform another.
At the final session with the community review group, students shared their design process and key products requested by the museum. To accommodate the community partners' schedules (and those of all the committee members), they worked past the semester for this presentation. This student team worked tirelessly—in large part to overcome their own difficult interpersonal dynamics—to present work in and with the community in a variety of expressions to be sure that their design ideas were understood.
One community partner in particular—the Industries of the Blind (IOB)—brought to bear the true impact of community partnerships on student work. The dynamic leaders of this nonprofit organization asked students to display the IOB's history and accomplishments while creating a design that would make visitors ask more questions about what they do. Students interviewed management and employees to get opinions on what needed to be done, including questions about length of employment, employee satisfaction, and opportunities afforded to them in working with the agency.
As a starting point, students focused on the study of braille as a way to establish relevancy in the design. They made sketch models of textures in different scales, often translating braille, while at the same time maintaining fluidity in form and materials. As they moved throughout the texture studies, they abstracted ideas and explored angular shapes and textures to manifest a repetition of geometric shapes, which, when tiled together, expressed a buildable form. To work with a population with a wide range of sight abilities, students indicated that seeing space and objects, literally, in a new way forced them to examine more deeply their assumptions and considerations as designers. Because so many of the sight issues conflict with one another in the kinds of strategies and opportunities to mitigate them in space and with objects, resolving these conflicts became the greatest single challenge of the design process.
They supplemented these explorations with lighting experiments and applications. With the help of a local lighting designer, they streamlined their ideas to achieve appropriate techniques for experiencing light, texture, and color.
After arriving on a final graphic treatment (hexagon tessellations), students developed a concept for the project: the white oak—asserting that this local tree symbolized the closeness and family-like work environment at IOB. Working at full scale with their texture, pattern, color, and light, students designed three studio wall installations for a series of reviews attended by IOB leadership, university officials, and IOB employees. The wall provided a site to trace the studio's design process and final ideas. The IOB employees expressed excitement at the idea of a comprehensive treatment for the building.
One of the greatest successes of the semester resulted from the student team's efforts to bring IOB employees to the studio building on campus. Because the IOB sits at the south border of campus and approximately 1,500 feet from the studio door, leading persons with limited sight abilities down the sidewalks and into the building was relatively easy. Students learned that their traditional methods for representation reached some viewers but not others, necessitating important one-on-one and small-group conversations. As a result, through this rich method of production and representation, students negotiated the particular special needs of a particular population with special needs, learning lessons of identity on a myriad of scales.
At the conclusion of the studio, students expressed having learned much about themselves as designers, the design process, and the dynamics of group behavior and collaboration. The most significant challenges resulted from interpersonal relationships and group behavior. In that our community partner needs varied so greatly and the products they requested varied as well, students learned important lessons about the human relationships that inform all of our work as designers. Internally expressed within the student teams and externally expressed with community partners, these students gained valuable experience in negotiating community and weaving good design into the fabric of where we live, play, and work. They learned lessons about citizenship and advocacy for others that simply could not have unfolded in the traditional studio.
These investigations have led to opportunities for students to continue to work with the IOB through independent study and research, bringing to fruition a graphics package for the organization as a wall installation within the structure. Instead of design in the community, the IOB project provides a model for design with the community.
Our university relations office caught wind of the success of this community-based project right in our own neighborhood. Because of both the strength of the community partner and the colorful, inventive, and creative student work, the IOB project was featured in the new brand guide that the university was developing. As a result, the project has attained significantly more exposure both on the general university website and on the Institute on Community and Economic Engagement's Collaboratory (index of partners) site.
One student continued on the project working directly with me to refine the design and to articulate a system for the timeline within the building. The joint goal of student, professor, and partner was to manifest a design system that could be managed by the partner down the road by using standard-sized printing paper and setting up a set of guidelines and a brand for consistency of design elements.
Finally, the student articulated the design elements for the interior in four key locations: the upstairs hallway of the office suite, the second-floor conference room, the exterior entrance of the building, and the entrance foyer. The student and community partner determined that the new design would have the most impact concentrated in these most public areas in the complex, visited by employees and community members alike.
By living in a place, one begins to know it more deeply and thus comprehend the needs of its constituents and organizations. Community-based work calls for faculty and students to leave their offices, classrooms, and studios and be in the city—on its streets, patronizing its retail establishments and services, letting its culture seep into university life. By listening closely and examining where the community does not quite come together, or where there might be friction, or an existing need—these cracks and fissures provide golden opportunities for faculty, students, and institutions to make a difference.
Community engagement literature emphasizes the need for reciprocity among faculty, students, and community partners. Community partners, thus seen as co-educators, bear equal responsibility for the creation and dissemination of knowledge and the learning experience of students. This shifting landscape brings a different sensibility to academic design work—with community-engaged activities representing more than a one-way street where students drop in and out—but rather a reciprocal feeling of accomplishment among all the partners involved—faculty, students, and community groups alike. While architecture programs have engaged with communities through design/build work across the nation, very few design teachers have ventured into this arena. Designers must move toward more meaningful and strategic actions that demonstrate what design professionals can do for the benefit of society, echoing the call of our colleagues in architecture (Anderson, Honey, and Dudek 2007; Bell 2004; Bell and Wakeford 2008; Boyer and Mitgang 1996; and others). Working collaboratively with educators, designers can show how to connect by embedding important stories as we do our work—stories that outlast us well into the twenty-first century as permanent records of ideals and hopes and values (and sometimes fears) manifested in tangible forms. With good stewardship of the earth's precious resources in mind, we should celebrate deeds great and small and cling to the idea that design can indeed change the world for the better. As social practice gains momentum in the design disciplines, stories about young designers and their successes represent critical dimensions of the kinds of transformational experiences we hope for in our universities.
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