Today’s design students are more interested in having an impact on the lives of others than any previous generation. Frustrated with decades of brand-name architects with little or no social agenda in their work, these students want to contribute to projects with some long-term benefit for people that have not traditionally had access to quality spaces and environments
Universities provided the catalyst for the growth of this movement. They offered visionaries like Sam Mockbee an opportunity to work with communities in dire need of quality housing and public amenities. Embedding the Rural Studio in Auburn University offered Mockbee the opportunity to concentrate on educating students and providing quality designs to the program’s clients outside of the real estate industry, which sets the direction of almost every architectural practice. Formative design build institutions like Rural Studio and Building Project at Yale succeeded because their university affiliations allowed them to concentrate on producing quality, appropriate, necessary projects for communities completely left behind by the market.
In the last ten years, this handful of design build programs have become the touchstones for a generation of students that want to use their skills to contribute to the social and environmental health of the world. The Academy recognized this and have launched efforts large and small to give design students what they want. The University of Kansas’ Studio 804, Stanford’s d.school, bcWorkshop at The University of Texas, and many other architecture and design schools established design build programs based on the Rural Studio Model. After Hurricane Katrina in 2006, Tulane University integrated community service into its core curriculum, and new programs are launching across the country every year.
Yet when these same students graduate, and when they leave the academy for the professional world, only a very few are able to continue practicing design on projects that have a real social impact. I recall a recent conversation with a new graduate from the Yale School of Architecture, whose enthusiasm for having a social impact was matched only by her mystification with where and how to capitalize on that enthusiasm. At Public Architecture, we fielded far more requests for internships and employment than we could ever hope to fill. Architecture for Humanity, probably the highest-profile and best-resourced social design organization, had such demand for engagement among its supporters that it started a world-wide chapter network.
Part of the reason for this frustrating lack of opportunities is that there are simply not enough jobs in these formative design impact organizations to go around. Community design centers and advocacy organizations like Public Architecture and Architecture for Humanity are relatively small organizations with modest budgets and modest turnover. The market for social design and the resources available to these organizations haven’t caught up to the interest among students and designers in this work. But I believe that universities bear some of responsibility for teaching their students how to translate their work and interest in the academic universe into the practical, professional universe. Graduates of these programs, and design students in general that come out of school with an interest in producing meaningful work that contributes to the greater health of society, aren’t given to tools to do so out in the real world.
Consider how many students gain their first exposure to design with a social mission. When featured in the design (or mainstream) press, they are most often presented as finished objects. These designs are very often taken out of context to be judged based on their aesthetic and assumed functional quality. Programs like the Rural Studio gained legitimacy among mainstream designers by presenting projects with great narratives, and that could also stand on their merits as designs. The presentation of these completed projects gives their most willing recipients – the many students who bought and passed around their dog eared copies of Mockbee’s books – the illusion that these projects are self-evident and self-producing. They are not, and universities could start by showing that these beautiful, meaningful projects are in fact the products of a long and complex process and network of partners.
The university system is broadly responsible for failing to train students interested in design projects with a social mission in the skills they need to actually make such projects possible. Recent graduates with enthusiasm, dedication, and a valuable set of skills have only a handful of highly coveted positions and opportunities in the social design sector to seek out. But it is also because universities don’t give students any introduction to the cross-disciplinary skills they need to get these projects off the ground, and just as important, the networks of stakeholders and gatekeepers to ensure these projects are successful. Without an understanding how design for good is actually possible, many recent graduates that would be great contributors to the movement end up getting discouraged and walking away from the movement entirely.
In fact, one of the most common compromises that leaders in the design for social impact field must make is how little actual design they do. Many more of their hours are spent meeting with clients and stakeholder groups, pursuing funding, ensuring their access to student labor or AmeriCorps members or community volunteers stays strong. Many more are concerned with site acquisition, financing and ownership models that allow the clients to keep their homes without a massive hike in property taxes. In short, working in the design for social impact sphere requires a much broader skill set than one is taught in design school, and even a broader skill set than one is taught at the Rural Studio.
John Peterson, Founder & President of Public Architecture, makes the point that “we are seeing an almost unprecedented interest now in design projects that serve a social mission. But this interest will wane, at some point, just like it did in the 80's, and whether or not these values last will depend on how well designers integrate them into professional life.”This series of essays will examine how universities can better teach the next generation of design leaders to not just be great designers, but real contributors to the social fabric. It will examine the models for socially-conscious practice, whether they are working for a community design center, in the academy, or for a traditional firm. Finally, it will present a vision for how design education could be adapted to make better, more effective public servants.
Nick is currently Vice President of ADPSR's national board and in the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania.