Designmatters is one of those rare, wonderful moments in education that asks students to close their books and open up to experience. This initiative at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena explores the social and humanitarian benefits of design and responsible business by recognizing design as a powerful force that can shape human behavior and improve quality of life right now. The program was launched in late 2001 as a branch of the International Initiatives program, part of then incoming president Richard Koshalek’s goal to make Art Center students more aware and involved with design outside of the design community. The success of Designmatters is that it doesn’t just define an “us-and-them” type design world. Instead, the program defines the world as their design community; a simple shift that allows for the exploration of new places and situations not previously considered. By connecting with local, national and international social sector agencies as well as companies, Designmatters sets out to produce projects that are simultaneously integrated into Art Center’s curricula, are driven by research and collaboration, and yield tangible results. And when the world is your classroom, some very big things happen.

What’s truly exciting about the Designmatters program is that these big things aren’t just big ideas: they’re actual designs that go out and live in the world. That tangibility is what really defines this program, pushing it beyond the conceptual realm often settled for in an educational setting, and makes these ideas a reality. This was one of the requirements Mariana Amatullo had for Designmatters when it was launched. Amatullo is the director of the International Initiatives Department under which Designmatters was founded and has flourished ever since.

Designmatters functions more as an in-house design studio than a set curriculum. You don’t graduate with a degree in Designmatters, but rather you participate in a project the group is a part of. Each term, Designmatters creates around five of these projects with a diverse group of participants, usually some combination of students, faculty, alums and an external non-profit or governmental organization. Art Center calls this make up “transdisciplinary”– the idea here being that although there are people coming from many different backgrounds, the work they produce becomes a new amalgam unto itself, one not just influenced by different backgrounds, but the sum of all of those ideas and influences. It is the job of Designmatters to match a need with an internal and sometimes also external project team, effectively connecting disciplines, people and development agencies. But perhaps most importantly, it connects students to critical world issues that are usually outside the domain of design education.

With Amatullo’s leadership, Art Center has become the first design institution formally affiliated with the United Nations, and Designmatters has earned worldwide recognition as a template for uniting humanitarian, social and educational objectives. Overall, Amatullo oversees an innovative portfolio of public awareness campaigns, exhibitions, documentary films and publications. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s still about outreach. So she picks up the phone, or hunkers down at a conference, and sets out on possibly the most important part of her job: networking. Amatullo has been responsible for forging scores of partnerships ranging from major international forces like the U.N. Department of Public Information, and national campaigns like the American Red Cross and American Cancer Society. In 2003, mostly due to Amatullo’s persistence, Art Center became the first design school designated as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) by the United Nations. Since then, Designmatters and Art Center’s graphic design department have been responsible for the branding of the annual United Nations Department of Public Information’s NGO conference. Currently, Designmatters is working with the City of Los Angeles on The Los Angeles Earthquake, a cross-institutional initiative to improve communication outreach and earthquake preparedness in Southern California.

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A compelling recent and ongoing project is one that aids integrated mobile health clinics for remote communities in Kenya. The project was originally created as a proposal for the World Bank’s Development Marketplace competition last May. It was selected as one of the 105 finalists out of 2900 entries from designers, design firms and other disciplines worldwide. For this project, Designmatters partnered with two Art Center alums, two Kenyan community organizations, and the Princeton Engineering department to create two separate design solutions. The problem they addressed was simultaneously complicated and simple – a usual situation when designing for low-tech regions. The two Kenyan community groups, the Mpala Community Trust and the Nomadic Community Trust, function as both a mobile health education unit and a mobile medical distribution center for nomadic people. To distribute this medical care, the Trusts often set out on two- to three-week camel convoys into the desert regions of Laikipia and Samburu districts in northwest Kenya, remote areas awash with poverty. The Trusts were encountering a couple of problems on their journeys: because they were traveling for weeks in the blazing hot sun, often times the medicine they were carrying would go bad because it needed refrigeration; and because the majority of the people they were assisting were non-literate, the Trusts couldn’t distribute health education materials for these communities. To design solutions to these problems, Designmatters first partnered with the Princeton University’s Institute of Science and Technology Materials (PRISM) department to help develop a refrigerator that was solar powered and was attached to the camel via a special saddle. Then Designmatters looked internally and asked their graphic design students to create health education materials that communicated only pictorially and that reflected the Kenyans who would be using the materials so they could see themselves engaged in the action. The camel pack will be tested in Kenya soon during Fall 2007, and the health materials component will be created also in the fall of 2007 through a Transdisciplinary Studio hosted by the Department of Illustration at Art Center. Pilot testing of those resulting educational visuals is slated for early 2008. We’ll keep you posted on their success.

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For more information, Designmatters

All photos by Wendy MacNaughton, courtesy Designmatters at Art Center College of Design

Do you know of other schools creating programs like Designmatters? Do you see any potential problems with the Designmatters model, or is this an educational approach bound for increased success? Are design schools on the whole preparing students to be responsible designers, and are they even obligated to? Let us know what you think…

Posted September 28, 2007