The Studio is the World: Educating Tomorrow's Designers

This essay is part of “Defining the Studio of 2015,” an initiative by AIGA and Adobe that seeks the insights of visionary design thought leaders who are poised for the future. In this series, these leaders share an inside look at their plans, predictions and aspirations for the studio of 2015 and beyond.

It seems more than a little ironic that on the day I sit down to write about the studio of the future, I have received from storage a delivery of the contents of my home studio from three years past. Things that were once precious enough to pack and store and move to a new home are now foreign objects—a one ton time capsule of the things I once felt essential to my work, yet have happily worked without.

Design was once all about things—making things, printing things, carrying things around the studio and shepherding things through their production. The artifacts of design have always been ephemeral; now they have become inessential. But the process of design is one that I believe the future of the world depends upon. Over these past three years, I have ventured beyond the confines of my home studio to lead the development of a new M.F.A. program, Design for Social Innovation, at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. To say that this experience has changed me and the way I work—and my view of the future and of education—is a gross understatement.

My understanding of the word “design” has transitioned from the creation of things to the creation of change. Design has become invisible, and in so doing, it has also become more powerful than ever before. What social innovators recognize is that the change we need to design is in human behavior. Designing things, no matter how clever, will never create the seismic transformation we require. As we move toward 2015, we need to alter the way we treat the planet and each other, and the way we view our “right” to natural resources, money and (in America in particular) things. That essential transformation—from designing form to designing content, process, behavior and, finally, an intended outcome—has enormous implications for the way we as designers practice, and the way an educational program, like ours at SVA, can help develop the future leaders of change. 

Traditionally, Western culture rewards individual genius, whether in the arts, science, politics, sports or design. We honor singularity and those that stand apart from the crowd, and we tolerate the ego required to attain and maintain such a position. Looking toward the future, however, real individual genius will lie in the ability to help bring about creativity and hope in others by working from the inside of communities, companies, cities, countries or tribes. It will lie in the ability to synthesize from a group a common vision for a different future, and to make that vision compelling enough for the entire community to rally behind it. It will lie in the ability to hold up a mirror to individuals and organizations and reflect to them their higher selves—people capable of thinking differently and existing in the world in a sustainable way. When the goal is to design change with people, there is no hiding away, creating masterpieces that win awards. The “studio” is the world, and design education must include the world as well.

Designing change in our societies requires new skills and craft. It requires deep understanding of human nature, of change models and systems of every type. It requires skills in leading conversations and facilitating co-creation. It demands broadly curious people, not narrow experts, who can no longer simply rely on their own brains and eyes and instincts but must learn to fully engage and excite and motivate the brains and eyes and instincts of others. It uses traditional design skills as well—making complex information accessible and exciting, bringing clarity to chaos, delighting with form and elegance—but these core skills are part of a larger system with far-reaching impact.

Not long ago, some students came to interview me as part of a project called “Educate 20/20.” They were traveling across the country, researching innovative educational programs. The last question they asked me was “What did I think the future of education might be?” Since I have no capacity for predicting the future, I can only imagine it, and in doing so, hope to help bring it about. For me, the future of design education has nothing to do with physical spaces or equipment or technology. It has to do with beauty—not the “designery” kind, but the profound beauty of our planet. Tomorrow’s design educators will develop leaders who inspire by using all of themselves, exploding the definition of “design” and “designer,” moving beyond brains and intellect, becoming citizens of the whole world and understanding their place in it. The footprint we leave should not be things or detritus, but a renewed connection to nature, responsibility and hope, and a real conviction that we can again anticipate with confidence a future that looks rosier than our past.

Matt Klein, executive director of the Blue Ridge Foundation, which helps connect people living in high poverty communities to opportunities and resources, came to speak to our cohort not long ago, and gave them perspective on their place in history. He said that everyone needs, and will seek out, problem solvers with interdisciplinary skills like theirs—that it’s an advantage now, but it will soon be a requirement. All around us, we see organizations and communities that need to change. The job for design is everywhere. I would like the people who come through our educational program to become embedded in thousands of places in the world that we can’t even imagine yet, like seeds of change and hope, helping our species evolve from selfish users of resources to expanders and creators of resources. And for that, while there is no “studio” involved, we hope you join us.

About the Author:

Cheryl Heller is a communication designer and business strategist. She has helped grow businesses from small regional enterprises to multi-billion global market leaders, launched category-redefining divisions and products, reinvigorated moribund cultures, and designed strategies for dozens of successful entrepreneurs. Cheryl is founder of CommonWise, founding Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA, board chair of PopTech. She is the National Director of the AIGA Social Innovation, Leadership and Entrepreneurship for Designers Program (SLED), a learning initiative that augments professional designers' skills through exposure and insider insights into the best practices in social innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership and change management.