“To deal with very complex issues and problems in the social sphere, that themselves are interdisciplinary and systemic, you can’t look at it from only one lens and one discipline. You need to leverage the value, experience, knowledge, and perspective from people with different skill sets, disciplines, cultures, and contexts.”—Lee Davis
Lee Davis: Board Member, Winterhouse Institute and Co-Director, Center for Social Design, MICA / Baltimore, MD
“to deal with very complex issues and problems in the social sphere, that themselves are interdisciplinary and systemic, you can’t look at it from only one lens and one discipline. you need to leverage the value, experience, knowledge, and perspective from people with different skill sets, disciplines, cultures, and contexts.”—lee davis
What is your background with Winterhouse?
Prior to getting involved with Winterhouse, and prior to getting involved with MICA, I spent the last 16 years as a Co-Founder and Co-CEO of the international organization called NESsT, which is an incubator for social enterprise and social businesses in Latin America and Eastern Europe. I was not really working in design for a long time. Although I had started my career in design, I took a very divergent path into international development, policy, and social enterprise for almost 2 decades. I got connected with Winterhouse when I took a sabbatical from my work; I like starting new things, so I was ready to move on to the next thing. I was looking to connect all of the stuff that I was doing: social enterprise and social innovation, with design again. A friend introduced me to Bill and that began a series of conversations about what his position was for the Institute. Then he invited me and three others to join the board of the Institute. I guess that’s three years ago.
Simultaneous to that, I coincidentally met Mike Weikert at the Winterhouse Symposium. At that meeting, I started talking to Mike about doing some stuff together and was really excited about his vision to scale the work that he had initiated at MICA, and to put together a larger vision for what has now become the Center for Social Design. So that’s why I stepped out of my role at NESsT about a year and a half ago, and started working with Mike. Now I am with MICA full-time. Part of my role is teaching in the graduate program, the MA in Social Design. I actually still live in California. When I am here in Baltimore, I teach and do stuff with our grad students and fellows. The other part has been building up the vision for the center. We have started a bunch of new initiatives here. Half of the time I am in Baltimore and half of the time I am elsewhere.
My role as a board member at Winterhouse is as a volunteer board member. Now that Bill has passed away, we have been driving the Institute. Some of the things that we are working on are collective things. It is very focused on social design education now. We just wrapped up the fifth Winterhouse Symposium on design education and social change over the last 2.5 days here. We hosted it at MICA.
What is it about social design that interests you in particular?
I started as a designer. My initial passion was graphic design. I had majored in art and design at Connecticut College and at Pratt, and then I worked at a very traditional and corporate graphic design studio. I wanted to connect that with my passion around big social issues and problems. The first step in that direction was I moved back to New York City, and I was the first in-house designer at CARE, which is a big international development agency. But at that time, in the early ’90s, there was still not a real understanding of the role that design could play. I kept getting pushed back to the communications and fundraising offices, because people’s understanding of the role of design was to make things look pretty and to design logos and brochures, and I could do that, but I wanted to be involved much more strategically in the mission of the organization. I quickly realized that was not going to be an easy career path.
That was when I kind of abandoned design, in a way, and went back to grad school at Johns Hopkins and did a policy degree in international development. I started NESsT with a friend that I met during that time. I was abroad for about ten years, building that organization, always with that sort of design lens and interest. But I wasn’t connecting design back into what we were doing, or at least I didn’t identify it as design.
Is there something about social design that is intrinsically collaborative or intrinsically cross-disciplinary?
Yeah. I use the term “social design” very deliberately for that very reason. At MICA, that term has two meanings. When we talk about social design, obviously the “social” means social problems and social issues. But the other meaning is interdisciplinary or collaborative. For us, intrinsic in the definition of social design, is collaboration. We have realized that designers can no longer work in isolation. I was trained in that very traditional way, where the designer is in his or her studio, creating an artifact.
We see design and the design process in a very different way now, where the designer is one person around the table with an important and unique skill set. But to deal with very complex issues and problems in the social sphere, which are interdisciplinary and systemic themselves, you can’t look at it all from only one lens and one discipline. You need to leverage the value, experience, knowledge, and perspective from people with different skill sets, disciplines, cultures, and contexts. That richness is what makes us able to really understand social problems and try to come up with ways to crack those problems. There is so much discussion right now, both within Winterhouse and MICA, about what terminology is appropriate for this movement. There are lots of different opinions around that. For us, that double meaning in social design gets to that.
Is it important for there to be a singular vision behind any sort of social design outcome?
In some respects, the contribution of the designer is no different from anyone else around the table. On the one hand, we want to be valued, just like the climate change specialist or whoever is at the table with the designer. On the other hand, I recognize the unique value that the designer, the design, and the design process can bring. I think that’s what we try to wrap our heads around within educational settings, where you try to understand what makes the social designer different from the social scientist or the social worker. There is an intrinsic creativity that we seek. We bring a craft and a skill to the table, as well as a process. The designer can play different roles in a collaboration, acting as a facilitator of a distinct process, not only as a participant. That’s another unique skill set that we are trying to see our students develop.
2014 Winterhouse Symposium Group
photo: natacha poggio
courtesy of winterhouse institute
Where does Winterhouse fall in all of those threads?
Winterhouse started as a studio, which Jessica and Bill created. They did lots of amazing and award-winning design work out of Winterhouse studio, but then Bill made a big personal and professional change and departed from the Winterhouse.com vision and started the Winterhouse Institute, which is the nonprofit institute that I am a board member of. The primary focus of the Institute now is as a convener. It’s a neutral entity. It’s not affiliated with any particular organization.
The main focus, for the moment at least, is really promoting and propelling social design education. And the main activity of the Winterhouse Institute right now, is this annual symposium on design education and social change. We just finished the fifth convening, which brought together 20 educators from 15 or 16 different design schools around the country. The focus is to use the Winterhouse Institute as a platform to enable this collaborative work amongst different design schools and educators. We are all representing our own institutions, and we all have somewhat different terminology and different curricular approaches in this space. But we all have a shared vision that this area of social design education has a lot of potential, and there are many more programs cropping up around social design at college, graduate, and high school levels. There needs to be a place where we can all work on things together, through collaboration and sharing, but also raising awareness of social design education and promoting excellence in that space.
How important are issues regarding finances within the social design discussions?
It’s funny that you ask this because we just spent a lot of time this week talking about that. The Institute, for a long time, was really driven by one person, and that was Bill. Without him, a lot of our discussions have focused on sustaining the Institute. The financial part of it is a big part, too. We went from a model where there was one curator, who determined who was around the table, and raised some of the funding to enable that group to come together, to a model where we now have 15 or 20 curators around the table, where we are all pay our own way to participate in the symposium. The Institute raises a nominal amount from sponsors to cover the costs of the meeting. To me, what’s interesting about that, and I think this applies to a lot of other kinds of collaborations, is that when you have skin in the game, it really changes. People value something differently when they are contributing to funding and sustaining something, especially in the social space, versus, when there is a heavy dependence on philanthropy and sponsorship, and the grant money ultimately develops dependency and becomes an unsustainable model.
With NESsT, after working on it for 16 years, I can take social initiatives out of the typical charitable philanthropic model and reengineer them into a sustainable entrepreneurial model. Social enterprise faced that same problem 20 years ago, and it is the same thing that social designers are facing now. They are trying to figure out how to sustain projects, whether they are student projects or professional projects, that are often funded by grant money to begin with. How do you sustain them and create long-term impact? In the case of Winterhouse, I think that the future is brighter now because you have 15 or 20 institutions around the table, that are all committed to helping sustain that activity, rather than depending on that one person who is going to make that happen.
Do all social design projects fall under public service somehow, as a needs to argue for funding? Artists and musicians regularly make that claim when relevant tax issues are brought up.
Depending on who you ask around the world, you may get a very different response. I spent a lot of time working in Eastern Europe, then South America, and of course in the US, and there are very different ideas of what “public” means. I don’t think anyone would dispute that, in social design, it is all about creating public benefit. But what some would dispute, is how that should be funded and sustained. In some countries, the idea of public service and public good being financed by public institutions, like the government, is commonplace and commonly understood, and believed to be a human right to have access to healthcare and education. On an international level, you’ve got entities like the United Nations that share that belief about universal rights and access to public goods. But when you come to the US and some parts of Latin America, there is a heavy belief in the private sector and the market-based economy, or the market-based democracy, which is a different way of looking at it. That has really influenced how social design has evolved in different contexts. In the States, you see a lot of social design activities being funded. Here at MICA, we have done a good number of projects that have been funded by municipal agencies here in Baltimore, or state government sources. But for the most part, private nonprofits, private companies, or private foundations have provided the funding to start those kinds of things. I spent a couple of weeks in Budapest, and they have a very different view. The oldest design school there is heavily funded by the government. Students go to school for free. A lot of the projects that they are working on, are social design–related, and are funded by ministries and public agencies.
All to say, social design is really evolving. The financial model is evolving. One thing that I am definitely seeing, and especially here, is more of an interest in connecting with colleagues in social enterprise or social entrepreneurship, to see how some of those models can be adapted or applied to sustain some of these social design projects. I can’t say that’s always the right model, because I believe that there are some things that are not appropriate to be sustained using a market-based model, and they are actually damaged by doing so. I definitely see a place for philanthropy and public funding.
Why are students interested in social design?
For our graduate program, it is pretty self-selecting. People are specifically applying to come to our social design program. So they have already identified that it’s an area that they are interested in. Having said that, within the group, it is pretty diverse—both geographically diverse, as well as the student’s backgrounds being very diverse. If you look within MICA, I think one of the great things about the Center for Social Design is that it not only includes a graduate program, but also includes that studio experience, which is across the entire school. We have students that are graduate and undergraduate, and they are from all different programs. We have graphic designers like Brockett and Ellen, we have architecture students, we have social design students, and we have some students across the fine arts. I think there is a growing movement, not only within MICA, but certainly within all of the schools that are involved in the Winterhouse network, and I would say globally as well. There is rising interest among young people and designers of all different disciplines to find ways to leverage their creative talents to address social problems. Pretty much in every department here on campus, you’ll find a handful of students from every discipline that are interested in this. What is causing that? I can’t say. We are seeing a generational shift of young people with a different set of priorities and a different perspective on the world.
I guess in the case of social design, it is pretty self-selecting. People are very deliberately looking to come here and make a career shift. It might have been a designer working in graphic design, and they are looking to make a shift and identify a career pathway as a social designer. As we have more and more students coming out of our programs that want to go out and work as social designers, where do they find jobs? What are the career pathways in this space, and how do we help them finance opportunities when they finish here?
Is collaboration something that has to be taught? Can it be taught? Or should it be taught?
I’ll answer the last part first: Yes, it should be taught. But the harder question is, can it be? Teaming and collaboration is at the heart of the curriculum here. With the exception of an individual thesis project, everything in the classroom, in the studio, and in the seminars is intentionally collaborative. The students are not only forced to work together, but are also working with outside partners on very real challenges and problems. On the one hand, how do you integrate that into the curriculum?
When the students first arrive, we take them through a process like the Myers-Briggs to get them to look at what their individual styles are, and then to look at those collectively, and make them aware that different people not only have different skill sets, but different learning styles, and different ways of working and thinking. They have to design a team process. They have to figure out how they are going to work together. How are they going to make decisions together? How are they going to determine roles? Obviously, there are all kinds of exercises, readings, and leadership styles that come into play. There is a formal part of the curriculum that looks at teaming and collaboration, but we also put that into practice.
With their thesis, although that’s an individually driven and identified project that they work on, they are all really required to work with outside partners. Even then, it’s really about integrating that philosophy into their work. Part of it is, you can try to introduce it in the abstract, but it is hard and messy and complicated, for some more than others, because they are not accustomed to working that way, especially if they have come out of a traditional design or art background focused on their craft and their individual portfolio.
The other thing is being able to speak a common language across disciplines. It is at the heart of the whole curriculum, probably more than anything. That is a skill set that we are trying to impart the year before they are propelled out into a professional context.
Is part of the challenge for graduating students to articulate the need for social design, or maybe just advocating a set of principles found in their work?
One little anecdote gets at this. When we started the Winterhouse Symposium, one of the things that we were looking at was the mission statement, and at that time, it read that the Winterhouse Symposium would articulate the value of social design education. We all rallied around that and thought that was awesome. But then a whole conversation started this year, where it changed. The latest version was to articulate the value of design education in social change. We are just trying to promote social design. We are trying to promote the value of design in education, and then how that can be applied to the big social problems.
Having said that, I think that there is a short-term and a long-term view. And this is absolutely identical to the social enterprise arena because the same parallel conversation is going on. Why should we be talking about social enterprise? Shouldn’t all enterprises be that way? And the answer is, yes. But that is a long-term thing. Ultimately, we would like all design to have that intrinsic way of thinking and doing, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t. The short-term part of that is that the descriptor of “social” really needs to be there right now. We need this program, even in a place like MICA. We need a social design program that is demonstrating the value that design can bring, that is offering a diverse and rich curriculum, where preparing and educating students has a very different approach than a traditional design education. That model is something very different. In the short run, I think it needs to be recognized as a separate discipline and valued in that way. The ultimate idea is that the term “social” can just go away. Hopefully in the long run, we will get to the point where it is understood that all design is social design.
Can you elaborate on that? What’s the vision? What’s the dream?
I can answer that on one level as an educator and on another level as a practitioner, although it is hard to separate the two. Mike and I spent a lot of time when we were looking at the social design curriculum, to wrap our heads around the core competencies that we believe a social designer should have. What should someone coming out of our program be prepared to do? What is the skill set and the toolkit that individuals need to have? We came up with seven to ten different core competencies; some of them are more practical kinds of skills, and others are broader mindsets. It is very difficult to try to import empathy into a designer, for example, or ethics, or teaming and collaboration. Other things in that toolkit that are practical skills: design research, methods of facilitation, and some elements of entrepreneurship.
In a broader sense, I see a short-term, long-term, and very long-term vision. The short-term goal is a real need for social design and that terminology to be used. The next step out, is where the “social” part disappears, and all designers behave that way, shifting their priorities to work on these big issues. But the long-term goal is where design is not a discipline in isolation, and the rest of the world starts to recognize the value that design and the designer can bring to the table. In those collaborations, which we model in our class projects, there are a lot of people around the table, even if they have a traditional view of what design can do—like designing a website, or making a logo, or a poster, or whatever it is. But also that they realize design is a lot more than that—it’s not just the artifact. It’s the process. It’s the whole way of thinking and doing and making in a completely different way. For me, that ultimate long-term goal is that we begin to see the walls and silos around design break down. Design is not only happening within design schools and design studios, but it’s integrated into all social change organizations, entities, and universities.
What makes somebody a really great collaborator?
What we do at the beginning of each year, these Myers-Briggs assessments, shows why it’s hard for me to say what makes one collaborator better than another, because everybody’s bringing something different to the table. Something that always makes collaboration better, is the listening part and the empathy part. I think those traits are undervalued. I was reading about why brainstorming doesn’t work, and the text talked a lot about how the early, vocal people tend to dominate. That predetermines the whole direction in the process because the first ideas that come out are the dominant ones, and that dominates the process thereafter. I think that when you shift that, you have a process that allows people to contribute ideas, by people who weren’t even wanting to contribute ideas, and that is a much richer place to start. This relates back to listening. I honestly think that’s the most important thing in collaboration.