Design Beyond Design

By Gretchen Pinard

I decided long before I applied to the Communication Planning and Information Design graduate program here at Carnegie Mellon that I no longer wanted to be a practicing designer. At least not in the traditional sense. Seems an odd decision, doesn’t it, applying to obtain a Master of Design degree with no intent of being what most would consider a designer?

Let me explain. I received an undergraduate degree in industrial design and spent my first three years as a professional working for a modest design firm. It was exciting work in the beginning. I had secured a job in the field for which I’d studied, a feat not everyone accomplishes straight out of college. But as the years ticked by, and I sat in front of my machine cranking out Pro/E models and specifying colors and textures for our latest products, I knew something was missing. Rather, I knew I was missing something. There had to be broader implications and applications of design.

What I had started to realize is that designers cannot live exclusively in design studios. Don’t get me wrong; design studios serve a great purpose. I, for one, am thankful that there are designers out there who are passionate about making better products, interfaces, and other tangible artifacts. We need those things, too, and there are talented designers who help make our daily lives more enjoyable, more functional, and, ultimately, more livable. But I also think there is a great need for designers to establish themselves in positions where we wouldn’t typically think of finding designers.

Take the founders of Project H Design, for example. Emily Pilloton and her partner Matthew Miller both left the traditional world of design to immerse themselves in a struggling North Carolina community where they felt their design approach and process could have a profound impact. While their projects, produced with the community, not for it, have real tangible outcomes and benefits, their ultimate focus is to, “empower communities and build collective creative capital.” Not a standard design mantra. But could it be?

This year, I’ve been working with a local charter school organization. They have been incredibly successful at creating an effective and sustainable model of public education in the Pittsburgh area. But every organization can improve, and working alongside their team has helped me realize that integrating design as a way of identifying needs, assessing current systems, and proposing ideas for growth is a wholly valuable application of design skills.

More and more, I’m finding that design has a place—an important place—in transforming organizations and communities. But I do not think that design alone can change the world.

Instead, I believe design must play an integral part in working toward solutions to some of our nation’s and world’s most complicated problems—failing public education, hunger, environmental protection, and more—and I’ve figured out that that is the kind of designer I want to be.

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