December 14, 2012

Navigating the Interface between Global Problems and Design Solutions

BodyPrint. Graphite on Rice Paper. On exhibit at Current Residence in 2004. Drawing by Mitch Sipus.
I finished art school in 2004 with a bachelors of fine arts in art and design and a desire to use my skills to drive major changes in the world's most difficult environments.  Over the next few years I learned that the biggest challenges were not the issues of underdevelopment, or necessarily learning about the problems, but rather the disciplinary mindset of other professionals.  As many design schools are now training designers to be social problem-solvers, not just product producers, I wonder how many others have encountered this problem.

As a designer working with issues of poverty and conflict, my greatest asset is the ability to look at problems from multiple perspectives and to utilize alternative methods to develop ideas and solutions.  When it comes to understanding the issues, this problem is easily addressed as it is a matter of self education and direct experience.  A trip to the library, a web connection, a plane ticket, and a thorough grasp of social research methods is generally sufficient for one to get a fundamental grasp on a particular problem.  But I found that as a designer with a direct and competent understanding of social policies, environmental challenges, economic concepts, and international law the biggest challenge was and remains working among professionals from those fields.  

No matter how articulate would communicate my expertise on a topic, when asked about my background and hearing the words "art and design," suddenly the conversation would fall apart.  Multiple times I had job interviews in which the HR recruiter kept asking questions about my art and architecture degrees, failing to see the next 5 years of work experience in development. The words "art school" somehow undermined my credibility time and again.

Over a few years,  I needed to make a departure from working as an artist and designer, to gain traction in a discipline dominated by analysts, lawyers, and regional specialists.  I had to work in institutions and gain a direct grasp of their experiences to understand the context in which many solutions to global problems are crafted.   This experience was valuable because I could also see the flaws within those systems. 

Today I am well-accepted among professional circles concerned with global conflict, poverty, and economic development.  The challenge has in some ways begun to reverse, as I continue to pull the problems into the studio, and other designers see my background as a strange departure.  

Personally I find the question of background completely irrelevant.  My work succeeds because it successfully connects disparate methods and concerns, creating opportunities where no one else sees them.  I do not worry about the interface between design, planning, conflict stabilization and development.  As far as I'm concerned, the interface doesn't exist at all.