Designing Change: How a MFA Program in Design is Leading Innovation

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Cheryl Heller is not naive. She knows that real social or environmental change will not happen overnight, nor will it be easy or perfect. As founding chair of the School of Visual Art’s Master of Fine Arts program in Design for Social Innovation, the only MFA of its kind in the United States, she does believe that the real work of creating innovation starts by redefining entrenched ways of seeing and thinking about the issues. 

Social innovation is the creation of new models or ideas to strengthen society and the environment. Design for Social innovation (DSI) applies design processes to help solve those issues. Can design change the world? Heller thinks so. Communications design relies on all design disciplines, not just the visual, to communicate in ways that clarify an issue and drive individuals to become involved. Creative people are usually taught tools, but not what to do with these tools in context. That’s where this pioneering interdisciplinary program comes in.

The world no longer fits into the neat categories that were decided on long ago, and education must change with it. SVA holds to the notion that nothing lives in isolation any longer. In the world of art, many painters, illustrators and filmmakers not only want to practice their art for the sake of self-expression, but also to have a particular outcome or impact. The MFA program, which runs for two years, identifies core design skills needed to give something form, and how to manage a project through the design process, but also adds skills on how to articulate a change model, using words and images strategically to have impact.

“We imagine all those things designers used to do alone in their studio and then think about scaling them up to accomplish in a community, or talk to a group of people and facilitate a conversation,” explains Heller. “I want to see leaders coming out of this program and leading change in all kinds of organizations, running a multinational corporation or an NGO, crossing boundaries. Real change can happen when the same people who set up the rules are not the ones making decisions anymore.”

Heller is certainly not new to the world of design, having come from practicing communication design, strategy and social innovation at major corporations like Seventh Generation, Reebok, L’Oreal and Amex; non-profits such as WWF, the Girl Scouts of America and the Ford Foundation; and as board member and advisor to several organizations working on issues she is personally passionate about. When SVA approached her to teach, Heller developed an undergraduate class called Design for Good that was aimed at helping creative people connect what they meant to communicate with how the message was received. After about five years the question became, ‘what would that look like as a graduate program?’ 

“Change happens over long periods of time, by studying a system long enough to understand the context and figuring out how to intervene,” she says. “Test an idea and make sure it works, then go and scale it. I worry about all the people who believe you can meet up over a weekend and change the world, or convene a meeting to change the conversation about climate change. It’s the big generalities that get Americans in trouble.”

As part of the curriculum, faculty members find projects that connect students with outside partners across disciplines. A class called ‘Understanding Natural and Social Systems’ teaches students to think about social and environmental issues in the context of the multifaceted human communities and systems in which they live. The class has teamed up with Rosanne Haggerty and the organization Community Solutions in Brownsville, Brooklyn to help revive a neighborhood where the streets have been made desolate by housing projects. Over three semesters now, students have been working in Brownsville, learning to partner with stakeholders within the community to bring about change.

Traditionally, design is centered on physical or visual resources and results in a created form. Heller describes DSI as design that starts with invisible things and works on the human dimensions. “We take the same principles and apply them to relationships and communities of people and world views - how people think about things and behave. There are films, artifacts and products that come out of it, but they come at the end rather than as the initial focus of the product.”

Recently, the DSI program sponsored a documentary film screening and panel on youth incarceration in America called Natural Life, by filmmaker Tirtza Even. Here’s a little known fact: the U.S. is the only country in the world that allows life without parole sentencing for youth. There are over 2,500 inmates in the U.S. who are serving life without parole for a crime they committed as juveniles.

The film uses a tense but effective split-screen visual technique and personal storytelling, focusing on five inmates in Michigan who have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as juveniles. The effect is such that an otherwise dry political issue becomes downright human, and compels an honest conversation about our justice system. The event perfectly aligned with Cheryl Heller’s vision, that design can strike deeply and start much needed conversations, and then the real work of creating change can begin.