When someone says, “Now, that’s the good life,” they’ve usually just sat back, put up their feet and taken their first swig of a cold beer on a sunny Friday afternoon. A good life, however, is another thing altogether, and not just grammatical hair-splitting between indefinite and definite articles. A good life can mean getting safe drinking water in Sub-Saharan Africa. Or, Kenyan girls having a homemade soccer ball to kick around. Or, a little indoor garden for senior citizens who can’t get out anymore to tend their plants.

When Parsons The New School for Design in New York came up with the idea of "A Good Life" for their senior thesis BFA product design program in 2003, the concept was to merge ethics and design in a hands-on way. Students collaborate with not-for-profit organizations of their choosing in designing products that address the needs of the people these organizations are helping. For instance, when Romi Hefetz created her senior thesis for Doctors Without Borders in 2004, the organization needed containers that could transport safe water without risk of contamination from airborne bacteria, fatal to the region’s high percentage of HIV/AIDS-affected population. Hence, she designed a plastic stackable container called the Aqualoop, sized and shaped for women and children, and most importantly, equipped with an angled spout and special valve that attaches only to safe water sources regulated by UNICEF and the Red Cross.

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“The goal was to focus the students on developing a value system that would act as a backdrop for their future work,” says Tony Whitfield, chair of Parsons’ Product Design department. “There is a different level of commitment and research on the part of the students in this project than when we didn’t have an organization that the students were working with. There is a deeper commitment to coming up with something that would have a demonstrable benefit. It really changes the students’ understanding of what is possible in design. It’s not about styling issues or coming up with ideas that purely innovate but are not necessarily socially rooted.”

Projects cover a broad sphere of issues: there is Liza Forester’s Let’s Kick It, a DIY soccer-ball kit that uses fabric scraps and plastic bags to make balls for UNICEF’s “Kick HIV/AIDS out of Kenya” soccer program aimed at 15-19-year-old young women; and Yu Ming Chang’s Eden, horticultural-therapy indoor gardening units for the elderly. Sofia Kim designed MagiCape, a dress-up costume-cum-security blanket-cum-backpack for children undergoing trauma, which Kim developed with the American Red Cross. In keeping with A Good Life’s collaborationist model, Parsons has developed a relationship with the Milano The New School of Management and Urban Policy in which graduate students there take on A Good Life projects and develop business plans for them. This is the case with Aqualoop. While not all projects will be commercialized, at least not in the near future, some are close to the production stage, like Eddie Shao-Hsien Chiu’s 2006 Mobee, for example, an educational toy designed to improve the motor skills of children with cerebral palsy.

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With the success of A Good Life’s individual projects, Parsons is now turning its attention to town revitalization. Margaretville is a small town in upper state New York. Located in the watershed that supplies New York City with its water, it is prone to frequent flooding. Parsons has mobilized its product design, architecture, interior design and lighting students to redesign Margaretville, making it adaptable to floods and bring in more people. The project encompasses a community center to replace the present structure that is rotting away, public seating, and a bus depot. Much of the time, design is the cherry on top, an exercise in style to make something look better. A Good Life reminds us that there should be usefulness, even urgency to the things we conceive and make. And that design can, indeed, make, if not a good life, then at least a better one.

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Photos courtesy of Parsons The New School for Design.

Posted May 10, 2007