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DesigNYC: Social problem-solving through design

   /   Jan 4th, 2011Design, Environment, Interviews

Now in its second year of projects, desigNYC uses design as a way to engage New Yorkers in collaborative action around some of the city’s systemic problems. It’s a matchmaking organization linking designers with organizations working locally for social good. Below, Michelle Mullineaux, Acting Director of desigNYC talks about why design is important and what makes desigNYC partnerships work best.

Dowser: What does desigNYC do?
Mullineaux: Our projects improve the lives of New Yorkers around the themes of well-being and sustainable communities — creating solutions affecting a range of social and environmental issues impacting the city, including affordable housing, sustainable development, social justice, human health, green space, urban farming, local food systems, youth leadership, and more. We connect pro bono designers with organizations serving the public good to create community and social capital, spread good ideas and demonstrate the value of good design.

How did the organization come about?
DesigNYC grew out of conversations between myself, the founder and principal designer of my firm, Edwin Schlossberg, and New York magazine’s design editor, Wendy Goodman, back in early 2009.  We knew we would need a team of big thinkers from a range of disciplines to help bring this new idea into the world so we each invited a few people to join our planning committee from places like MoMA, Pentagram, Gensler, and areas including landscape architecture, interior design, sustainability consulting, and event design. We were convinced that through a collaborative design process, we could build community and increase social capital. Our collective response was to create desigNYC in the fall of 2009.

Tell me about some of the designs you’ve done.
My favorite projects are those in which the design and nonprofit partners not only created an incredible design solution that will improve people’s lives, but that the participatory design process created new social bonds that will sustain the community being served. For instance, desigNYC connected Robin Key Landscape Architecture with Enterprise Community Partners and Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation to design a 31,000 square-foot intergenerational garden for senior residents of Serviam Gardens, an affordable housing development and its neighbor, Mount Saint Ursula’s, an all-girl’s Catholic High School. Green spaces play a crucial role in supporting urban ecological and social systems, but can often be challenging to finance as a part of affordable housing developments.

The garden RKLA created is nearly complete and amazing, but what is even more exciting is that the collaborative design process served as a community-building platform for residents, many of whom had never met prior to the design meetings. The activity of co-designing the space with Robin Key brought the residents together and the ongoing development and nurturing of the garden will continue to connect them daily through an exercise loop, community gathering spaces, an urban farm and programs with their young neighbors next door. It is a great example of how a participatory design process can accelerate community connections that will improve the quality of life for everyone involved over many years to come.

What are some of the results of the first-round projects you launched in January 2010?
A few select highlights include The Power is in Your Hands which helped 500,000+ public housing residents live more sustainably through a resident’s guide to saving energy and reducing environmental impact; Anna Gonzalez Apartments where we created beautiful community spaces that support health, safety and stability for 100 residents coping with mental illness, HIV/AIDS and chronic homelessness; and the Lower East Side Ecology Center, where we worked to make their headquarters, the historic fire boat house on the East River, greener and more effective for staff and the thousands of New Yorkers they serve.

Why do you think the resources these designers are providing haven’t been provided to these projects before?
Many generous designers have been providing pro bono design services to nonprofits for many years, either on their own or through pioneering pro bono organizations. That said, we were experiencing a surge of interest in design for the public good with few channels or bridges for how the multidisciplinary design community could put that passion into action. We landed on the idea of creating a service network for the NYC design community. We liked Taproot Foundation’s Service Grant program and Public Architecture’s 1% Program, which asks architects to donate one percent of their time to volunteer service, but we wanted to create something multidisciplinary and hyper-local.

What makes these kinds of collaborations challenging? How do you overcome these challenges?
Like any relationship, the most important thing for the partners to do at the beginning of any collaboration is to create shared expectations.  We provide recommendations, advisory services and guidance to ensure our partners develop a shared vision and produce a formal and clear agreement.

Do you think desigNYC has been successful thus far?
I think we’ve been successful because we provide just enough guidance and mediation to shape successful collaborations without being overly prescriptive or dictatorial about design direction. We aim to be enablers, connectors and advocates that can accelerate the impact of great people doing great work together.

How is desigNYC looking to grow and develop in its next round of projects?
The long-term vision of desigNYC is to create an open, participatory platform that can be leveraged by communities around the world. We are growing from our 100% volunteer collective into a more sustainable enterprise. We also in the midst of judging our second round of project ideas and evaluating pro bono design service volunteers. Some great projects and partners have submitted credentials and we look forward to sharing news about the next round of collaborations in the New Year!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo: desigNYC

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