Allan Chochinov on Negotiating Problem Spaces through Design
Once upon a time, to be a designer meant that you made things—chairs, for example—and, in some cases, that you were focused on the needs of the wealthy, who could afford stylish or well-made objects. In recent years, the field of design has undergone a revolution, spawning new, interdisciplinary territories where the tools of design are applied to streamline experiences, navigate problem areas in society, and promote sustainability in consumption of goods and materials. Allan Chochinov, Editor in Chief of Core77 and chair of the new MFA program in Products of Design, which will launch in fall 2012 at the School of Visual Arts in New York City (and is accepting applications with a priority deadline of January 15th), is exuberant about the possibilities of design as it forges new paths. Below, he shares with Dowser some of his personal views about design’s potential for mitigating social problems, and outlines how the program he’s chairing will enable students to become adept at applying design tools toward social good.
Dowser: What are some of your experiences as a design educator that you will apply to the new Products of Design program?
Chochinov: I teach in the MFA Designer Author program at SVA, which attracts a lot of graphic designers and people with an entrepreneurial spirit. I always do a big social impact project with them, and it invariably changes what they think the territory for design is. We recently did a project around humanitarian aid workers—a strategic toolkit for them—with input from people at the UN, strategists in Washington, and big philanthropy. And it was just unbelievable what, in six weeks, these designers were able to bring to the table. A couple of years ago I did a project around prosthetic arm design, and last year, one on girls and women. These have all been formative teaching experiences.
Designers have an interesting approach to social problems—they don’t target one ‘bad guy,’ like the government. How would you describe the approach?
Social problems are fundamentally systemic, so even our language for problem-solving is not helping. I’d argue that you don’t necessarily ‘solve’ problems—you negotiate problem spaces. Our language is actually limiting our abilities, often making us feel helpless and hopeless.
What does it mean, concretely, to ‘negotiate’ a problem space, versus solving it?
Designers take on projects that they’ve never done before. In any other discipline, that’s a ridiculous proposition; in design, it helps you to be fresh. It’s about an ability to speak to multiple stakeholders, multiple constituencies. But that means that a designer needs to be highly skilled in speaking the language of marketing and business while speaking to manufacturing and sustainability and labor practices and supply chain management. Designers need to be in that first meeting, instead of that last meeting—the one about making an object pretty and likable and, you know, consumable—and they can’t be in that first meeting unless they can earn the respect of the other people in that meeting. And other people in that meeting have been in that meeting a long time. They don’t particularly want iconoclasts.
So, a designer has to be fluent in multiple industry languages, in a sense.
You need to be not only empathetic, but also conversant. You need to understand stakeholders, what gets them up in the morning and what keeps them up at night. It’s not necessary to be a designer to do design work. You need to be a ‘design person’ though—somebody who understands the upside of saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no,’ and who is focused on scaling things—doing something once so that it can then be multiplied.
What is most challenging about trying to be conversant in different industries?
Design and business writer Roger Martin talks about the differences in business and design, and he says that the greatest complement a designer could hear is, ‘the world has never seen anything like this’—that’s a designer’s goal. But for a business person, there couldn’t be a worse statement to make. They want repeatability and predictability—knowability. And designers want novelty, and paradigm-breaking. So, innovation is this magic word that has given the two people a common ground. When I’m talking about negotiating problem spaces, I’m literally talking about negotiating—the actual talking part. And then negotiating it figuratively or metaphorically through designed artifacts—what I call the ‘products of design.’ That could be a logo, a campaign, a set of instructions, an object, a kit, a protest—like Occupy Wall Street. Did you see the Lego model at Occupy? Everyone went crazy for it.
Yes, I saw it—it was really enthralling. It was a Lego model of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, with beautiful detail, set right in front of the park for a little while.
That’s the power of design. The Lego set had spark and humor, and spoke to people in a way that had nothing to do with rationality or fairness or politics—it was about delight. It’s like the library at Zuccotti Park made out of sideways plastic bins—when you walked by it, you smiled, and thought, ‘well, isn’t that smart.’ These are designed objects, as part of a built environment. And as artifacts they have enormous power, and they stick. Holding something in your hand is powerful. Stuff’s not going to go away. The critical question in design right now is about how we make stuff, and who shares stuff, and how stuff gets distributed.
How are these ideas incorporated into the new Products of Design program?
It’s a single-track program with three interweaving strands: Making, Structures, and Narratives. Everybody does everything. There are no electives, no grades—you come here to do great work, we’re not going to spend a lot of time measuring you. There’s a lot of work that happens outside the school: the Design Research class is taught at IDEO, the Material Futures class is taught at Material Connection, the Designing for Sustainability and Resilience class is taught on green roofs, at farmer’s markets, outside.
And the program is interdisciplinary, in its coursework and its faculty?
I really believe we have to expand what ‘design artifact’ means, in how we teach it. Dividing things into graphic design, exhibition design, product design, interaction design—I don’t know if it’s helping. Of course, a lot of these are specialties and require time to master—that’s one of the big challenges when you have a multidisciplinary program; you want to provide more than a taste of everything, but you only have so much time. And I want the students to have a life—and not just come to New York City and do homework for two years. New York City is a tough place to go to school—it’s an expensive city—but what I want to offer to our students is a network. Students will be meeting people so that, when they leave the program, they will have a network to reach out to. Networks allow you to learn things quickly, and perhaps that’s the best tool of them all.
Interview has been edited and condensed.