Social Design Celebrates 10 Years at MICA

Since 2008, MICA has been at the forefront of the social design movement, a rapidly emerging field and creative practice in the U.S. and around the world that is dedicated to understanding social problems and supporting positive social change. And what is now known as the Center for Social Design at MICA is a culmination of a decade of pioneering and experimental work to define and demonstrate new models of social design education and practice.

Early on, even among those familiar with the concept, social design was often viewed through a narrow lens defined by traditional assumptions about design, the role of designers and the design process itself.

“When we first started out, we found ourselves educating not only our students but also our peers and partners about the potential and value of design in the social sphere,” noted Mike Weikert ’05 (Graphic Design M.F.A.), Founding Director of MICA’s Center for Social Design and M.A. in Social Design graduate program. “But a decade later, we’re surrounded by a growing community of partners and collaborators in many fields who recognize the value of design
in their work and seek us out.”

The First MASD Cohort at MICA PLACE in 2012

Social design is, by definition, complex and messy given that its focus is on understanding and addressing complicated social problems. Instead of focusing on the design of artifacts or physical objects, social design has no predetermined outcome. Social design is instead driven by an iterative, human-centered process that focuses on understanding the needs of the people most affected by a social problem. It involves people in every step of the design process, opening up the potential for new ways of doing and making, resulting in more
meaningful and valuable outcomes. The outcome of a human-centered design process may be a new process, system, methodology or some other intervention.

“Designers participate in an immersive process of researching and understanding the problem,” Weikert explained. “They interact with and develop a deep empathy with the people most affected by that problem. Through a collaborative, creative process — with the people at the center of that process — we can identify new ways to intervene with the goal of more meaningful and valuable outcomes.”

And as the understanding of social design has evolved, so has its practice and the education of those seeking to enter the field. Throughout it all, MICA has been a leader.

In 2005, Weikert was hired as co-chair of MICA’s undergraduate graphic design department, and, as he explained, “I was in that position from 2005 to 2007, and I saw the potential of the creative minds here to be applied to different kinds of problems. But there weren’t a lot of interdisciplinary opportunities. I proposed bringing students from different disciplines together with community partners to apply design principles and process to social issues in Baltimore.”

With his proposal supported and approved by MICA’s leadership, Weikert launched the Center for Design Practice (CDP). “That was the start of it all,” he said. “The first iteration of funded, sponsored projects with outside partners around specific social issues.”

Operating on the third floor of a row house on MICA’s campus, students and faculty from across disciplines came to the CDP to collaborate on projects with partners in the nonprofit, government and educational sectors.

One of the first projects was a collaboration with the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) on the “EmPower Maryland” Initiative — a drive to reduce energy use statewide by 15 percent. The CDP’s work focused on outreach to college students and culminated with the MEA Box, a physical box with an interactive display highlighting 15 things students could do to reduce power consumption. Serving as an educational tool, the box traveled to college campuses around the state.

Despite early success, Weikert recognized the need for a dedicated program that would allow students to go deeper into the emerging space of design in the social sector. “It wasn’t enough for well-intentioned designers to enter the social sphere without a deeper understanding of why social problems exist, the power structures and dynamics that enable systemic inequities and injustices to exist,” said Weikert. “Designers require a heightened social literacy alongside their design literacy.”  So in 2011, he launched the M.A. in Social Design (MASD) program, an intense, one-year program focused on practice-based learning that was the first degree-bearing program of its kind in the country.

Center for Social Design Associate Director, Becky Slogeris, and Founding Director, Mike Weikert

Initially housed in MICA PLACE in East Baltimore, the program’s first cohort included eight students representing a variety of backgrounds and geographic locations – including Becky Slogeris ’11 ’12 (Graphic Design B.F.A., Social Design M.A.) who had taken part in projects at the CDP as an undergraduate. As with projects within the CDP, every aspect of the MASD curricula is practice-based, conducted in collaboration with outside partners, and engaged with real people in real life contexts.

Social design initiatives at MICA have always built on each other, and as projects and partnerships change and grow, new ideas take shape as new initiatives.

In 2012, Weikert created a third initiative, once again expanding the social design work done out of the College. Weikert explained, “The work MASD students were doing needed to continue past their graduation. We secured five years of funding from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation and launched a postgraduate Social Design Fellowship program where each year, two students were funded to continue their thesis work.” These postgraduate opportunities have led to incredible innovations in Baltimore with MASD alumni embedding social design into new institutions and initiatives across the city.

Social design at MICA was thriving, but initiatives were located on all corners of campus and the city. So in 2014, the Center for Social Design was founded, bringing all social design work under one umbrella.

“Our programs and projects were growing and shared the same mission and vision, but they were running as separate entities,” said Lee Davis, who joined the team in 2012 as co-director of the Center for Social Design. “So we created a comprehensive center to bring the work together, and give us the infrastructure to grow and deepen the practice.” Located in the Fred Lazarus IV Center, it is the first center of its kind in the U.S. to merge education and practice of social design. Thomas Gardner also joined the Center team in 2016 as lead faculty for the MASD graduate program.

Today, the work in the Center for Social Design includes Practice-Based Studios (those semester-long projects that first started at the CDP) as well as MASD and Social Design postgraduate opportunities. Work there also includes Impact Initiatives, which launched in 2015; these projects are long-term, multi-year efforts with many of the outside partners the social design team has long worked with. “The Impact Initiatives began when it became obvious that most projects needed to last beyond the academic calendar,” Davis explained. “Social problems don’t exist on an academic calendar and, to be effective, neither can we.”

The heart of all the Center’s work is the belief that many social problems exist because of an unbalanced power dynamic, and that problems are fundamentally people problems. In every project, the Center seeks to create interventions that shift relationships between people and people, people and objects, or people and institutions.

To do that, the Center emphasizes social literacy. Slogeris explains,

“To look at social problems and do the work, you need the language and skill set to understand and analyze complex social problems. Our students learn how to deconstruct systems, learn to understand power, learn where to intervene. You don’t learn that in a book.”

Slogeris, who is now the Associate Director of the Center for Social Design and lead faculty member responsible for Practice-Based Studios, added: “So much work in social design is around behavior change, and if you try to change behavior without understanding the systems or structures that led to that behavior, it won’t work. Our HealthiAir project is a perfect example of how you really have to go to the system to make change.”

HealthiAir Events Facilitate Conversations to Help Customize Their Personal Process Toward Cessation

The HealthiAir project, which spanned two Practice-Based Studios, is also a model of how
social design and the human-centered design process, specifically, works in the field.
The program is focused on smoking-cessation efforts in Baltimore; students who took part worked with experts at the Baltimore City Health Department and Johns Hopkins University, and engaged local families in conversations about smoking. In trying to understand why people smoked, the team came up with a surprising and compelling insight — for smokers, the day-to-day priority was on “getting by and surviving.” Smoking was a coping mechanism for stress, and simply explaining the risks of smoking and expecting people to quit was impractical.

“The typical approach is to show a power point presentation with scary pictures and hand out a brochure,” Slogeris said. “That doesn’t work. People need to connect to the content on their own terms. So we created a model that’s aligned with what research says will help change behavior.”

HealthiAir was officially launched in spring 2018 by the Baltimore City Health Department as a series of events where public health staff use a process designed to promote simple conversations to help smokers customize their personal process toward cessation.

“There’s a flexibility within the event for all kinds of conversations,” Slogeris explained. “People are asked what smoking means to them, and then they’re asked what their smoke-free home would look like. They actually draw it and think about it. They think about the first step they can take — maybe they start by smoking outside. Then they’re given resources they can connect with afterward depending on their personal terms.”

As the Center for Social Design team at MICA looks to the future, they can point to the past decade as a testament to their achievements. Not only did they launch noted ‘firsts-of-their-kind’ in the MASD and Center for Social Design, their work has garnered an impressive array of honors — they were one of the first design schools selected for the Clinton Global Initiative University, and the first to receive the global Ashoka U—Cordes Innovation Award. Their work has been featured in Design Observer, Fast Company, GOOD, Graphic Design USA, HOW magazine, Metropolis and Print. They have received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, National Science Foundation and Sappi Ideas That Matter, along with awards from Design Ignites Change, Core77 and the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. MASD alumni have gone on to impressive, professional leadership roles in academia, business, government and nonprofit sectors.

Demi Lashawn’16 During The LEAP 2: Value of Design Symposium Hosted by the Center for Social Design in April 2016 to Explore Professional Pathways in Social Design

And as they see it, their work is just getting started.

“We’ve drawn tremendous experience and lessons from our collaborations with so many diverse partners on myriad social issues — from health to education to climate change.” Davis said. “It’s no longer about defining and demonstrating a new practice in social design. The field is no longer new. It’s about scaling our collaborations and impact and taking the work into new, uncharted areas.”

MICA’s social design team has a unique capacity and expertise at the intersection of design, public health and medicine — and, in the next decade, the Center is also seeking to deepen collaborations in the area of design, government and policy. The team is also focused on broadening access to social design education, and continuing to create new professional pathways for their students and alumni.

As the practice of social design continues to evolve, the social design team at MICA will continue to lead the way. “People now recognize the value of what we do; they see us as committed to the work and committed to social justice,” said Weikert. “And prospective students know that if you are passionate about equity and social justice, and want to be taken outside the institution to really do the work, you come to MICA.”