One Giant Leap

Social design leaders discuss the way forward in this professional frontier.

A new generation of designers is emerging, one dedicated to applying their talents to the critical challenges of our time. Still, as these professionals seek to become social innovators, a few questions remain — what kinds of jobs are available for these designers, and are they receiving the preparation needed to face the realities of a challenging and evolving marketplace?

The exploration of that question was the focus of LEAP/2: Value of Design Symposium, a seminal convening held in MICA’s Center for Social Design this past April. The symposium brought participants from around the country and globe, including over 100 thought leaders, educators, and practitioners, to MICA to discuss this professional frontier. The Symposium was made possible through support from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Sappi, and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.

“It was an incredible opportunity for our graduate students to interact personally with many of the leaders and role models in the emergent field of social design,” said Lee Davis, co- director of MICA’s Center for Social Design. “It was also an opportunity for us to celebrate Baltimore as a real pioneer in social innovation and to spotlight the amazing work of our colleagues and partners around the city who have embraced the value and potential of design to address really complex social problems.”

LEAP/2 built upon momentum from an initial LEAP Symposium hosted in 2013 at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. The first event explored the rising trends in social innovation careers while acknowledging numerous challenges. The goal of LEAP/2 was to shift from a broad conversation to one that explored actionable opportunities for creating new professional pathways in social design.

Davis notes that LEAP/2 was intentionally designed by the Center for Social Design to be an open, honest conversation about the current state of the emergent field. A mix of small group work facilitated by MA in Social Design (MASD) graduate students and faculty, site visits around Baltimore, and public plenaries offered multiple opportunities for critical thinking, discussion, and reflection about both the challenges and opportunities faced in developing professional pathways for social designers.

“One theme which stood out was that of equity and social justice in design,” Davis said. “This topic came up in nearly every session and was intentionally discussed in the final plenary. We were delighted to see these conversations emerge as urgent themes. How can we discuss human-centered design and professional pathways for social designers when our own profession doesn’t yet reflect the diverse communities, talent, and voices we espouse in our work and teaching?”

Participating in plenary sessions were what Davis called a “diverse group of provocateurs” who were brought to the symposium to inspire and challenge participants — including George Aye and Sara Cantor Aye from Greater Good Studio, Christine Gaspar from the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Kippy Joseph from the Rockefeller Foundation, Gaby Brink from Tomorrow Partners, Justin Cook from the Finnish Innovation Fund — Sitra, Liz Ogbu from Studio O, Seema Patel from the Global Development Lab at USAID, and Rafael Sergio Smith from

When MICA launched MASD in 2011, it was the first graduate level, degree-granting program of its kind in the country. The success of LEAP/2 illustrates the increasing interest from educational institutions in offering educational opportunities to socially engaged designers.

“As MASD enters its sixth year, we’ve been reflecting on the amazing work of our alumni. The diverse pathways they have taken are representative of the field itself,” Davis noted. “It is exciting to see designers working on complex problems at a macro systems level demonstrating a new role for designers in areas we wouldn’t have seen a decade or even a handful of years ago. And many are now educators themselves. It’s exciting to see a new generation enter academia with an equal portion of design literacy and social literacy and who can push design education in more ambitious and impactful directions.”

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