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Nov 06, 2015

Panel: Design Education & Social Innovation

Elise Hodson, Justin Ahrens, Dana Klisanin and Connie Chisholm

About this video


There is growing emphasis on social innovation in design schools. This ranges from community projects in developing countries to thesis projects addressing complex systems-level problems. Underlying these initiatives are assumptions that design is a tool for social good, and that both students and “real-world clients” will benefit. Why has this tradition developed? Do these feel-good projects just give the illusion of engagement, or can this work have meaningful impact? Join a discussion moderated by Elise Hodson, Chair of George Brown College’s School of Design, that will include Justin Ahrens, Principal of Rule29, psychologist and social entrepreneur Dana Klisanin and Connie Chisholm, Instructor and Principal at CoDesign.


Elise Hodson, Justin Ahrens, Dana Klisanin and Connie Chisholm

um so thank you Robert thank you all for joining us um our panel today features three speakers uh from tomorrow's

conference which is just up the street at George Brown so if you like what you hear you should come again tomorrow um

and the subject um of today is uh social Innovation as it applies to design

education um so this is something I think that's been going on for years right schools have been engaging with

communities in many different ways for a long time but it seems like there a lot of momentum around this topic and some

people even called it a design for social Innovation movement um and it's a topic that's near to my heart because of

the work we do at the school of design and at The Institute without boundaries and I know it's a topic that's near to

the hearts of our panelists as well so I'm going to introduce them briefly and then I'm going to get them to tell you a

little bit about what they're doing now um so we have three speakers from very

different backgrounds Justin is from Chicago uh he's the founder of principal

founder and principle of rule 29 which is a strategic creative company uh that's very much focused on the rule of

design for social good uh he's also been an adjunct instructor um and I think he's personally involved in some some

nonprofits right that deal with helping uh water and issues in Africa um which

sound pretty compelling and then we have Connie Chisum who is she's from Toronto

and she's a Furniture designer originally and she has taken this model of collaborative design out of the

classroom and has actually developed an entire um sort of consultancy model where she pairs uh students design

students with communities at risk and she is really pushing this idea of what is collaborative design so we'll hear

more about that and Dana has come all the way from New York um and I love

Dana's bio she's not only a psychologist she's also a futurist a writer a social entrepreneur and a game designer um

she's the founder and CEO of evolutionary guidance media and executive director of Mind Lab at the

center for conscious creativity and I think her work is pretty important for design education in terms of new

technologies and um the impact of of or potential impact for social good in digital in the digital realm so because

their work is also different I would like them to tell you a little bit about what social Innovation means to them

maybe they even have a different word for social Innovation and a little bit about the kinds of projects that they're working on so Dana do you want to start

sure hi everyone thanks for being being here I know it's a lot of competition out there for some really good sessions

so um my work um I I began in Psychology

I just want to try to be really brief but um when I started in Psychology what interested me was um expressive arts and

um the use of expressive arts for healing and as I continued to study I happened to take a course with um a

Hungarian gentleman who was in his 80s at the time and he had pioneered an area called evolution uary systems design um

and I started to become interested in applying his um evolutionary model to

media on a large scale so I moved from the expressive Arts to Media because basically media is nothing other than

the expressive Arts reaching out to a wider public um and so once I started to

apply that model that thrust me into the world of futurism because if we're designing something for that's

evolutionary then and and it's about our Evolution then that puts us um squarely

in the realm of the future so that's how I came to be associated with those three separate disciplines um and social

Innovation to me is um any projects that are designed towards um achieving the

universal Declaration of Human Rights um or the Earth Charter um or any consensus

documents such as those that a lot of people have agreed as the direction that

we need to go so is that good enough for the start great thank you Connie go I

was just going to say wow I I got to start making stuff up here

soon do you want to no no sorry don't mean it would be rude no no not at all

uh hi everyone I'm Connie uh is this can everyone hear me okay good all right so

uh my company codesign started about five years ago uh I I'm a designer and

an educator and uh I saw an opportunity to really uh enrich the educational

experience uh working in the community my work is specifically with uh vulnerable and marginalized

communities and uh it provides really special opportunities for students um it

it uh student projects uh in the real world are are difficult projects to

manage because there's a lot of expectations and there can often be a real feeling of everybody being taken

advantage of and um working with marginalized communities kind of evens

the playing field between the students and the the end users and it really produces some amazing results

uh uh it essentially it it balances power and for me social Innovation is

obviously about putting people first but it's about power sharing uh truly uh to make a difference

in in working with communities in bringing designed thinking to communities and allowing students to see

how their work can be applied in the Greater Community you you need to share

power to make those kinds of um really uh systems change uh ideas

happening uh so uh that's my idea of uh

social Innovation and uh just a really broad overview of of the kind of work

that I do that's great now it's your turn thank

you I'm actually quite I'm not quite sure how I would Define it um because I feel like it's ever changing uh when we

talk about design for good or social in Social Innovation or social cause design

whatever the term is right now I think for me as a designer what is incredible

is we were built with this DNA a to help people shift perspective and for me that's an

intoxicating ability and I think when I would go home after working all night on

a golf catalog photoshopping you know spotch out of the Chrome and I'd go home

and I'd work on the nonprofit that we were supporting and I

became energized and I realized that my work and my team's work could potentially help an organization do what

they're doing better clearer stronger because we have the ability to tell their story that's when I realize that's

what I want to do for as much of my time during the day as I can and so that's

what we've been shifting and for us um very similar I'm I'm very passionate about I don't understand extreme poverty

I don't know how it exists in this world um I'm flabbergasted by the most

marginalized um and so for us I want to use design thinking uh to help

organizations that are already doing the work out there and help them tell their story better and so I feel we're we are

a unique species from design Educators to you know the the next generation of creatives and designers now practicing

to literally change the world and I think that is

awesome thanks um it's a nice contrast of scales from the world charter down to

these little Community groups groups and back up to this change the world um so I have a few prepared questions for the

panel and then after that we'll open it up to the audience um Justin's already started answering my first question for

him which was when I was doing some a little bit more research about this idea of social innovation in schools it seems

like everyone's doing it now especially Business Schools and especially design schools but as you look across fields of

who else is doing social Innovation they keep talking about design Thinking Tools so other people keep coming back to

design about this is something appropriate for social innovation so my question to Justin is what is it

about design that makes it so appropriate for social Innovation and why does this belong in a design

school it's a great question let me first say that I think a lot of schools

will have this social project and they'll make a poster to teach someone

how to wash their hands and that's wonderful and I think that that

assignment helps you as a creative separate yourself yourself from the um economics of design right because I

think once you start realizing that we can do creative to actually change someone's opinion versus make someone

money both of which are great by the way um don't get me wrong I'm a for-profit company uh I think that helps shift you

as a student and as an educator you have this opportunity to um show your students that

perspective but I think um it's design thinking is made for seeing something

holistically seeing something from a 360 degree perspective and I think that's really really key uh as creatives we

like to make stuff right I made my website I made my poster made my book and that's all wonderful great I love that but the problems that we're talking

about and the problems that we deal with are so complex and that there's a process that keeps going and design is

perfect for that process because we know how to ask questions research shift um

information around you know tell the story accurately then get day I'm getting nerdy on you now then get data

um do some um you know field research tweak it again and test it again out there and then it's that sort of thing

that that I think design has a real special ability to do and I hope and and some schools do this I know really well

that we look Beyond just the little one small project and see it as a larger

thing because I think design is perfectly positioned for that do you guys want to comment on

that well yeah I mean I think I think I think uh as a designer you're practicing

all you're always practicing empathic design right you're putting yourself in somebody else's shoes and you're trying

to determine um what they need and uh this kind of social Innovation work um

is is empathic design times 10 right it it puts you in a position where not only

do you have to understand an individual's needs or your specific you know a specific client uh with a very

narrow Focus you need to understand the broader picture you need to understand the millu that that individual or that

Community lives within and you know it's enormous right what you're saying it's

it's a massive big picture and you can't you know you can't produce either

an object or a service unless you understand that big picture so we all

practice empathic design but it's empathic design to another level which is what these kinds of uh projects

social Innovative uh design uh really gets us to do I would add to that um I I

agree with the empathy there and um I think that the reason is because as far as it seems to me this may not always be

the case but it seems that designers are are artists and that um a lot of

designers come into design as a means to make a living

um instead of doing it necessarily through either being um a painter or a

musician um or any number of other types of forms of art um and so I think most

art most designers have the heart of an artist and most artists um are really

steeped in creativity and that if we go really deep in our creativity then we um

intersect with love and so I think designers because of that are um really

perfect for this social Innovation work thanks I like that Designer step

yeah um okay so my second question I'm gonna start this one with Connie um and

it's about the sort of the practicalities and the expectations that are placed on these real world projects

so they're often described as real world because they get experience outside of school and they get experience with with

real clients and in the process we hope that they learn something more about empathy and teamwork um but these

projects like you said are very complicated and there's only so much you can do within the confines of a school year um so sometimes there's a

perception that these projects can be superficial and that they don't go deep enough or that maybe we're leaving these

clients with some nice design ideas but no no way to actually do anything with them so um in your opinion I mean you

have a lot of experience in the field um and with these big clients and and cing and I are working on a project right now

together um in your opinion who benefits from these projects that involve design students and and what kind of value do

they get out of it and do you have any ideas about how we should be structuring and managing these projects in terms of

expectations that's a lot of questions question where we start okay

well uh the nuts and bolts I guess um a good place to start is the kind of projects that students work on um and uh

there's no shortage of people lining up to give students projects where they can produce things for their company all

right and I think you as an educator when you when you take your students

into a project I think you have to wear a pretty critical hat on your head and say what's what's the value of this

project for my students and what are they going to learn out of it what are they going to give up out of it and

what's that interaction really going to look like so uh in order to do that you

know you have to put a a quite a bit of effort into finding that that good client and uh that's essentially why I

do what I do because uh Educators already have a huge amount of work on their plate developing curriculum and

running the course and to on top of that syn that time into really finding that

good scenario and then managing it setting it up so that it works properly it's it's tough it's a it's a tough

thing to do there's there's a a lot of back and forth and and managing expectations and those

expectations uh are really have to be managed um uh to get a good outcome out

of that um what was the other question about

students students question of value so how do you ensure that the the students get the value the the communities you're

working with get value out of it yeah so uh I think one of the things that works

really well is when you when you can set the students up where they're direct uh working directly with the end user not

with a business that serves the end user not with a social agency that serves the

end user but you get directly to the end user so what the students are doing then

is there uh they are it helps to develop something tangible and have something at the end that comes out of it that's

really really important for everyone to feel that this was a worthwhile project but uh it's not that that tangible

product is going to a company that they can turn around and sell that product it's not like it's going to a social

agency to help them with their with their administrative needs it's going to

a Target Community it benefits that Target Community they're often served by

a business or a social agency and you work through those those Avenues but

you're working directly with the end user and that's that's where um that kind of connection with the community

that's I think makes a really big difference with students to have that immediate connection with the community

and and that's also where that power power sharing comes in right because uh the students are are both giving and

receiving and the community is giving and receiving they're giving an uh an

amazing Real World experience to the students and they're receiving a product

and vice versa so it's it's not it doesn't become charity you know a lot of these projects end up being charity and

charity is not really good for anybody it it needs to be an equal exchange of

goods and services in order to feel meaningful for students and to feel meaningful for the community so um you

know I think if you keep that at the top of your mind when you go into these projects it really helps you uh sort of

weed out the projects that aren't really going to work that well and focus on the ones that um are going to be uh

beneficial but you know there you have to if it's a four-month course you know

there's only so much you can do but then you have to leverage that as much as you possibly can so um there's an advantage

by the way four months is actually you might think it's not enough time but if you're working with Community they want

to see results you don't walk into community and say in two years you're going to see something and they're

somewhere else if you get results within four months it's it's a uh a really

positive thing to see that that quick turnaround so it's not necessarily a disadvantage to have that kind of short

time frame and Connie you work on quite um concrete projects like Furniture right so Furniture Tex start and finish

something um but a lot of these projects are more sort of systems level you know changing behaviors um motivated in that

way can you actually I mean how do you start and stop these projects and is there accountability that leaves stays

with the school after the project is allegedly finished or the students have left yeah um well in terms of of the

products and of what what goes out into the community are you talking about just the followup on that or yeah I'm gonna

tell you from personal experience at The Institute without boundaries we have nine months and at the end of nine months the students leave however we

have to hire them because the project is never finished and then the faculty ends up picking up a lot of thow work in the

end because there is this real like real relationships don't stop and start in nine months and you're you're left with

this responsibility to the to the okay that that's actually a really big thing and that gets right back down to the

nitty-gritty of how you set up the pro so you have to be uh absolutely rigid

and and obsessive about making sure people don't take on more than they can actually deliver and and we all have a

tendency to do that to say yeah especially if it's a project for the community you want to just keep you know

feels good you want to keep keep doing the work but you have to be realistic and and that you know everybody has to

be absolutely clear about what they can do and and you have to manage that process all the way along so it actually

finishes on time okay do you want to a comment on this either of you yeah I

mean we've for us we we do a lot of work in um collaboration with University and

we build into that factor I don't know how much in the woods we want to go on this but basically we we set up like any

design um sort of scope you know first semester we're going to try to get this done next semester this and you know

what maybe a whole new crop of students will take it on this the next year and

uh I think that's really important because you a don't want to have to um start from scratch but also you want to

keep things going if we're really concerned about creating something that has some real change to it but that's

just how we've yeah um figured it out just from trial and er yeah um I guess

the only thing that I would add is um I think that um they are both talking about pretty large projects that um are

are going to take a lot of time to Implement and maybe um sometimes for undergrad students if

you don't have as much time maybe um a smaller project and when I say small I

mean like um if a student has the um I don't know like heart connection to a

project so in other words if they pick out something that they really care about and feel strongly about whether

it's the Humane Society or um some local very small local um organization like

the battered women shelter or those kind of things in other words um even doing

something that we might think of as very small like coming up with a a catchy um

hashtag and slogan um and an image and maybe just a card um that that

organization can use um for their social media because one of the things that you find a lot with nonprofit organizations

is especially small local ones um that they they don't always have a lot of

funds for design and um advertising and slogans and they always need material

for social media they're always searching for it so even a small project

um like that just come up with that um but take your time and do it really well

or come up with five you know that they can use uh over the course of time can

make a huge difference because they can go viral and um you know they could end up with something like um the K 2012

campaign that really took off or um the ALS ice bucket challenge um just by um

something that didn't take the student that much time so okay yeah I mean you rais a good point about motivation

because um I mean Connie and I have been talking about this about how much more alive the students are in these projects when they feel that heart connection as

you put it um and that they describe these as some of their most rewarding and best projects while they're while they're students um so in talking about

this idea of what motivates these projects is my my my final question which I'll start with h Dana on this one

which is it's a money question so the School of Visual Arts has this brand new MFA I think I mentioned about it's

called design for social Innovation so you can do a whole master's degree in design for social Innovation and they

see it as part of business it's like a new turn in business this is Design's role now um is to transform how we think

about business through social Innovation uh Carnegie melon School of Design frames it as um an alternative to

capitalism so social Innovation as an alternative to capitalism and Justin on your website I saw that you talk about

um you speak both in terms of social activism but also creating a new company culture uh Connie's told me that when

she goes out to clients it's actually amazing that they are willing to fund these projects they see the financial benefit in these projects too and then

Dana is trying to do something totally radical to this huge game industry which is based on violence and Blood and Guts

and she's going in there with a whole new social mission for gaming and so I'm wondering

is this social activism is it a new business model is it something totally different what what are we

doing um well I think that it is a new business model and

um the reason I say that is because if you look at some of the major brands um

that their best advertising is now tied to some form of um environmental or

social Innovation um a couple of the campaigns I jotted down here just so I

would try to remember them is I don't know how many people saw the dove campaign it was beautiful versus average

um so uh Dove has a history of doing really powerful campaigns um but that

one you know it was just every everybody loved it um there was also the always um

campaign that was the like a girl campaign um and so uh how did you guys

see that one as well um another one was that Coca-Cola did an anti-bullying

campaign um and then Apple has the new better campaign uh beniton has a micro

Finance campaign um just Intel has a new one out that is about uh girls Rising uh

for education for girls um so it's just if you look at the brands and you look

at what they're doing then you can see that this type of social Innovation design it it's becoming part of business

and even um what is it yeah Apple's better campaign they actually they're it's about doing it better like they're

they're trying to own up and say okay we're part of the problem the the you know computers have Parts in them that

are you know poisoning the Earth well we're trying to do something about this um and anyway they've also partnered

with a nonprofit organization in their effort and so that's what I see um more

of that the brands are partnering with nonprofit organizations so that they can show another type of impact so that's

that's kind of my thoughts on it that's interesting because often we join the design students with NGS or nonprofits

seems like a logical client for these but you're saying that's now a segue to a major corporation where design would

have originally been targeted anyways um so it's a merging of those three cross branding yeah okay but it's kind of

social Innovation by proxy right it's it's a an advertising campaign that um

basically raises the awareness about an issue and um I

guess uh sort of supports that issue through the profits made from selling a

product that isn't necessarily anything to do with social Innovation that's true um I think that

most of these companies are trying to start to be a little bit more transparent because they don't want to be you know caught up on like green

washing um because this generation of students that are out here um see through all of that and they are not

interested in it they're part of the slow movement which is about um you know handmade things the DIY movement um by

local and um they're they're they're not going to keep buying these products from

these companies unless these companies become part of this

change okay so it's a shift in consumer which is driving this new form of design

as well as this desire just to do social good that's do you want to add to this yeah

uh I'm not sure it's a a new business model I think it's U it's just more of like a focus if if I some design firms

focus on um you know web design or or uh

you know um branding or whatever um and I think you know some firms uh I'm not

saying that's it's not specialized I'm not saying there's not some sensitivities to it as you would in any vertical Market um but I think that I

think the reality is the world has shifted and a lot thank you social media like it or not that's part of it um and

corporations don't want to get caught with their proverbial pants down right um doing something that uh would shift

their brand negatively so I think from a brand standpoint and again I'm I'm being um I'm a very optimistic guy I'm being a

little bit of a pessimist here um I think a lot of brands are doing it because they know that cause marketing

is big and that they can attract younger generations and that's great for designers because we like doing things I

love that way you put it by the way um we get down to the emotional part of things we're able to take a complex

issue and see it emotively and we have this great ability to then execute that

through messaging and image and all that sort of thing and so it's a great thing for us and so I said earlier I'm not really quite sure how to define it and

I'm slow to label things honestly um is I think that it's still kind of

developing I feel and uh you know we do probably 50% of our work at the studio

um for profit organizations and we're trying to find actually for-profit for-purpose organizations which may be

the new business model um that's developing so um I'm not sure I answered that question but that's just kind of

how I look at the at it right now is I I feel that I love doing work who doesn't

like to get up in the morning and spend your 9 to5 making some sort of difference in the world

if that motivates you then awesome because I I love that part of it um and

I don't know how to label that yet other than the fact that we have a pretty great profession that can do really unique things and shift tens to

thousands to millions of people um and that's pretty

cool thanks yeah um are there any questions from the

audience um so interdisplinary

collaboration in order to solve some of these complex problems if you look at design school

especially undergraduate colle Unity programs we're very much teaching

practitioners single so what do you guys think about

should we be bringing in something new into the curriculum changing it don't tou it just keep it the way it

is now so you see May changing in response to to these complex

problems conversation around interin collaboration do you want me to answer

that one I have I work at the Institute without boundaries which is about interdisiplinary design strategy um so

we take students from any undergraduate background they can be designers or not designers and I think it's be partly

because they have that special Focus already that they bring something very unique to the table and it's the mix of

those specializations at the table that produces something entirely new and interesting um I don't know if Magda

wants to comment on this but I I think one of the things we might add to undergraduate education is training them

to be able to work better with other people so even if it was just one course that taught you how to collaborate with

people who don't speak your language basically that that would be a big life skill yeah and I would say that I'm

sorry um I would say that in the experience that we've had um design education on the undergrad side has been

very siloed right and it's this and you know curriculum driven and and and I understand that because you only have so

much time but what we have found is when we work with students in The Graduate level that have had exposure to other

disciplines um they the just the communication is so much um bigger and

more sensitive and more empathetic and so understanding um because as creatives we tend to get here right and so I'm all

for bringing other um perspectives into the classroom as early as possible especially other experts you know and I

would build off something my kany said earlier is that um I wish when I was in school someone would have ripped me out

of my classroom and put me um in a in a poor neighborhood and had me experience

and talk to the uh the the local people I was trying to help because otherwise I

have no clue and then and what really happens there is your your eyes open on the power of design and your eyes open

on how much we know we we assume so much in design so my short answer is yes it'd be

great to have other people in there I I would like to add to that just briefly if you're going to be attending tomorrow

at the George Brown Educators I'm going to be speaking on that very topic um because I I do believe that um we need a

holistic model um for for students and um I've been working on one of those and

I'm going to present about it tomorrow so please come um I and I'm going to add something

too just give you a short example I you know I think it's really important and and as a just a small case study I teach

in the school of craft and design at at Sharon college and we have uh Ceramics glass Furniture textiles and Industrial

design and two years ago we started doing a one-week intensive project where

first second and third year students from all disciplines form these multi

multidisciplinary groups around a conceptual idea and produce in five days

uh some kind of something you know it's either a

series of objects or it's an idea or it's an installation and it has transformed our school

completely uh everyone has just um you

know just learned exponentially so much more in that onewe project so I think

you know you're right I think it it we need that yeah yeah okay I think there

was another oh you want to say something night day

speci some


yeah and just throw community in there as well and then it takes off even more okay thanks M okay someone else had to


yeah okay yeah that's an excellent question um certainly part of of of preparing for

these projects is talking about world viw and talking about privilege um

before you go into the community and I think really um you know you you need to

raise the awareness of bias and privilege um uh so that people are can

be reflective and think about that the students can think about that before they go into these scenarios um

but uh it it certainly does help uh that

students are going in as students they're they're there to learn and um

it's that relationship because they're not really presenting themselves as the experts it really does um help to

minimize that idea of being uh uh um you

know a person of privilege going into telling people what what they need right because they're they're there to listen

and and they're not viewed as experts they're viewed as students which is in

this case is a is a good thing you know so you know uh there's I I hear what

you're saying it's it's a it's definitely uh something to uh think

about and to acknowledge and yeah you I just really quick on some of the our

earlier projects we found that to be a huge issue just with some of the initial design Solutions or questions to even be

asked and so we built into our process for them to step back and we do a whole onboarding of like here is their normal

compared to your normal so let's try to start there and what's cool and sad more

cool than sad is it it blows them away um but I think that shift is is is huge

right it's you want to start from the best perspective you can

thanks at the

back well um I think I think uh often

when students work uh in in projects uh with industry or with

other businesses they're being asked to provide their creative ideas and their

free labor to produce a product that will benefit the company so the students are getting real

world experience absolutely it's kind of like an internship right and and you

know we all have different feelings about internships right uh people can often feel really ripped off uh by that

process they give they give a lot and they may not necessarily feel like they got uh The Real World experience that

they needed um and and there may not be a a huge incentive on uh the company's

part to provide uh you know a quality Real World Experience they may just

think that hey you know they're just getting a chance to to soak in the atmosphere here and that's a fantastic

thing for them but uh it's it's difficult to measure um you know what

the exchange is there in terms of of everyone feeling like it was a fair exchange so I think in those scenarios

that can often lead to is that what you meant though

yeah well I guess the nature of of the work that I do is is not working with

those companies I don't I only work with marginalized and vulnerable communities

I only work for social good yeah I don't work with with corporations at all okay

I think I think we're getting the clue that we're out of time the yellow light is on stupid so thank you very much to the