Last week Allan Cochinov, editor-in-chief of Core77, announced the formation of a new design graduate program at the School of Visual Arts, New York. MFA Products of Design is a two year multi-disciplinary program (and summer session) that transforms the old model of “industrial design” for the twenty-first century. For years Chochinov has written about and edited design publications proffering the belief that product design is a holistic field. This new program is an extension of this vision. Since I’ve worked with him at SVA (where he teaches in the MFA Design program) and helped co-found this, we continually discuss the future of designucation. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
Why is this new program different than other “industrial design” MFAs?
This is an important question and one I’m sure I’ll be answering for a while. First, this isn’t a start-from-scratch kind of program, where the two years are used for remedial work. It is about advanced work in design; about addressing urgent needs at the same time as ennobling and celebrating the wonderful things in life. It has huge sustainability threads running through every course, and its mandates are to help define what’s “next.”
Further, the term “industrial design” has always been problematic (even industrial designers will agree with that!), but now it’s problematic for reasons beyond people not understanding the term. We are witnessing an incredible maturing, and blurring, of many design disciplines right now—interaction design, research and ethnography, branding, entrepreurship, crowdfunding, manufacture on demand, the resurgence of craft and the handmade—so a multi-disciplinary, integrated approach is becoming imperative, and frankly de rigeur in many consultancies. You need to do everything at the same time—the product offering, the marketing campaign, the social impact, the branding, the distribution strategy, the co-creation with end-users, the participation of engineers, researchers, anthropologists and videographers. So to call our profession “industrial design” right now seems a bit anachronistic…and frankly limiting.
What kind of student are you looking for?
Well, that’s key to completing the last thought. We are looking for students who have design skills, degrees and experience. Often these people will be disillusioned with the consequence of what they have been pigeonholed to do as a working professional, and are dissatisfied but not yet ready to give up their belief in the power of design. They love making things, but they also want to make meaning, so they seek out a graduate education environment that encourages their passions, nurtures their power, and respects their point of view. We also welcome extraordinarily creative individuals who actually should be in the world of design, who have deep skills in a couple particular areas and are looking for ways to integrate them in a field that deals in scale. They want their work to have more impact, and see design as a way to accomplish that.
Designers create value, but that value is presumed to be “service of industry,” focusing on commerce and mass-manufacturing. We know this to be fundamentally unsustainable, and are seeing all kinds of new value being acknowledged in the world right now—social value, tribal, experiential, nostalgic, humanizing, environmentally-stewarding. Designers need to be spending way more time contributing to these kinds of offerings.
What is the future of “product” design in the age of sustainability?
That’s intriguing, since you might have asked, “What is the future of sustainability in design?” I’d like to think that these days, sustainability is considered in every single move a designer makes—from the first pencil sketch to finding out whether the people who are assembling their product are allowed to talk or laugh in their factory. The conversation is beyond materiality now (though that’s obviously critical), shining a light on the impacts of extraction, transportation fuel, carbon emissions, labor practices, toxicity, body burden, end-of-life, biological and technical nutrients, biomimicry, dignity, and more. Nathan Shedroff, an advisor on the program, reminds us that “the most agreed-upon definition of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Commission and dates back to 1987: ‘(Use and) development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'” Shedroff adds, that “put simply: Don’t do things today that make tomorrow worse.” If anyone can actually argue that that principle should not be dead central to everything we do as designers, well…I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m motivated to launch this program.
Learn more about the MFA in Products of Design.
(See past Daily, Nightly and Weekend Hellers here.)