What Does Democratic Design Look Like? Establishing the Center for Design in the Public Interest at the University of California, Davis

Scholarship: Creative Work Award Runner Up

Susan Verba
Professor
University of California, Davis

At the UC Davis Center for Design in the Public Interest (DiPi), a multidisciplinary team of design practitioners, writers, researchers, educators, and students work closely with community partners to make ordinary experiences better.

Established with a mission to directly impact social problems and seed funding awarded by the UC Davis Office of Research (via the Interdisciplinary Frontiers in the Humanities and Arts competition), DiPi focuses on projects related to public health, safety, and civic engagement. Explorations derive from the core question: What does democratic design look like? Activities result in the redesign of everyday things and the creation of new tools and methods. Outcomes—including design prototypes and best practices—are disseminated as open-source models for others to build on.

Faculty affiliated with DiPi contribute expertise in writing and rhetoric; communication; computer science; medicine; anthropology; and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. Student assistants and researchers have diverse backgrounds—in design, art, biotechnology, cognitive science, community development, computer science, digital media, pharmaceutical chemistry, sustainable agriculture and food systems, technical communication, and more. The team’s transdisciplinary collaborations offer exciting opportunities to explore new ways of working and lead to innovative ways of approaching design education.

Susan Verba, Professor of Design, is the Center’s director. Since DiPi’s launch in 2014 she has initiated grant proposals and spearheaded outreach efforts that have supported more than a dozen public interest projects. In addition to leading the projects, Verba’s activities include training and mentoring graduate and undergraduate students, establishing collaborative partnerships, and connecting research to teaching and curriculum development.

A major focus of Verba’s work at DiPi involves The Pain Project, a cooperative venture with UC Davis Health and Hill Country Health and Wellness Center (a Federally Qualified Health Center serving low-income patients in rural Shasta County, California). The goal is to engage patient and provider communities in the design of tools to help evaluate and better manage chronic pain. Although millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain, clinicians lack adequate informational resources for engaging patients in their own care, and patients lack effective ways to track and communicate their pain or to fully understand treatment options and risks such as opioid addiction. The Pain Project is supported in part by a Sappi Ideas that Matter grant.

A related project, Outpatient Radio, aims to combat the stigma and isolation of chronic pain, improve understanding of the many issues surrounding chronic pain, and spark new conversations in California’s North State community through grassroots radio programming. Although experts often dominate medical discussions, Outpatient Radio seeks to redraw the boundaries of expertise to include individuals whose personal experience and regional knowledge are often overlooked. By collecting and sharing stories in-person, on-air, and online, we are exploring how narratives connect, inform, and support communities through listening and conversation. The hour-long show aired on community stations KKRN 88.5 FM in Round Mountain (Shasta County) and KDVS 90.3 FM in Davis, California, and is online at https://youtu.be/MBrvnTVYeeM. Outpatient Radio was honored with a San Francisco Design Week award for “the unexpected and experimental products that can’t be put into a category” and recognized with an Honorable Mention in the 2018 SEED + Pacific Rim Awards for excellence in public interest design.

Online at http://dipi.design.

Susan Verba is a professor in the Department of Design and director of the Center for Design in the Public Interest at the University of California, Davis. Her work focuses on information design that directly benefits the public, exploring issues of health, safety, community participation, and access. She is also principal and cofounder of Studio/lab, where she leads research-based projects and advocates for the value of design in corporate, nonprofit, and government communications. She earned an MFA in graphic design from Yale University and a BS in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, and studied at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy as a Fulbright scholar.

 

White Plains Storefront Project: Art In Vacant Spaces

Teaching Award Runner-up

Warren Lehrer
Professor
School of Art+Design, Purchase College, SUNY
Founding Faculty Member, SVA (School of Visual Arts) Designer as Author Graduate Program”

For two years in a row, the White Plains BID (Business Improvement District) asked me and my Community Design class at Purchase College, SUNY to “improve the visual appearance of vacant storefronts in downtown White Plains and thereby enhance the ambiance and pedestrian experience in the downtown business district.”

Community Design is a senior level graphic design class that serves the campus and non-profit communities while providing students with “real” projects that interrogate ideas of community, civic engagement, and an expanded role of the designer. The class functions as a design studio that works on multiple projects of different kinds, scales and media with a variety of clients/collaborators. In the fall of 2015, the Storefront project was one of 11 projects. In 2016, it was one of 6.

In year one of the Storefront project, the students and I reframed “the brief” to go beyond “aesthetic enhancement” of the vacant storefronts, by creating works of visual poetry that reflect the conditions of downtown White Plains and the people who inhabit it. As the class had ten other projects on its plate that semester, and the course is not a writing course (I also teach a elective writing course for designers), we brought in Judith Sloan to write poetry for the project. (Judith is my partner in EarSay, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to uncovering and portraying stories of the uncelebrated.) After researching White Plains and interviewing residents, commuters, historians and city officials, Judith wrote five poems that left room for visual interpretation by students.

Each student in the Storefront team did their own primary and secondary research on nearby White Plains and selected a poem or poems they were interested in. From the 20% commercial vacancy stock, students picked storefronts they thought most suitable for their selected poem(s) and began visualizing them within the frame of the storefront using typography as well as shape, color, texture, image, sequence, metaphor. The student’s interpretive “performance” of a text into a space was influenced by the store’s configuration, number of windows, and proximity to other landmarks (train station, bookstore, other vacant spaces, etc). Invariably, the design student’s re-composition of the poem necessitated consultation with the poet, sometimes culminating in collaborative re-writes. This fluid collaboration/negotiation between designer and writer, the whole creative team and the BID/property owners, and with materials and vendors—helped catapult the project beyond a normal class assignment or traditional designer/client relationship. The resulting transformation of a blighted area into an activated public space fusing poetry and art was an enlarging and successful experience for everyone involved. The windows stimulated conversation, enchantment and change in the community. Half the stores utilized in year one have since rented, the commercial vacancy rate is down to 17%, and the White Plains BID approached me to do the project again—with an expanded budget—for a second and now third year. In year two of the project, we expanded the media beyond printed vinyls and lenticulars, to include laser cutting, digital monitors and projections.

LehrerWhite Plains Storefront Project

Warren Lehrer is a designer, writer, and educator known as a pioneer of visual literature and design authorship. Awards include: Center for Book Arts Honoree, the Brendan Gill Prize, the Innovative Use of Archives Award, three AIGA Book Awards, a Media That Matters Award. Grants/fellowships include: NEA, NYSCA, NYFA, Rockefeller, Ford, Greenwall Foundations. Collections include: MoMA, the Getty Museum, Georges Pompidou Centre, Tate Gallery. With Judith Sloan, Lehrer co-founded EarSay, an arts organization dedicated to portraying lives of the uncelebrated. Lehrer is also a playwright, performer, and frequent lecturer and keynote speaker. He is a full professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and a founding faculty member of the Designer as Author grad program at SVA. His recent illuminated novel, A LIFE IN BOOKS, has received nine awards, including the International Book Award for Best New Fiction, the IPPY Outstanding Book of the Year Award, and a Print Magazine Design Award.

Intercultural Design Collaborations in Sustainability

Working remotely as cross-cultural teams, students explore ways design can address sustainable behaviors and lifestyle choices around diverse topics such as food, water, environmental degradation, social justice and cultural preservation.

Kelly Murdoch-Kitt and Denielle Emans work together in an ongoing series of semester-long collaborations with their respective students to make meaningful connections between the concept of sustainability and people’s day-to-day lives. Working remotely as cross-cultural teams, students explore ways design can address sustainable behaviors and lifestyle choices around diverse topics such as food, water, environmental degradation, social justice and cultural preservation. The semester typically culminates in a public exhibition on each campus, enabling students to share their concepts and communications with their local communities. Additionally, the most recent student exhibition, “Co-creating sustainable futures: American and Middle Eastern visual design students explore behavior change” was presented at the 2015 Association for the Advancement for Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Conference in Minneapolis, MN, USA.

gulftogreatlakes.org
restartexhibit.com

Kelly Murdoch-Kitt is Assistant Professor in the Graphic Design program at Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Imaging Arts and Sciences. She teaches and works primarily in the areas of user experience and service design. Her recent collaborations exploring the socio-cultural benefits of cross-cultural design education and the benefits of integrating sustainability challenges into project-based design courses. Kelly and her collaborator, Denielle Emans, recently presented research at Spaces of Learning: AIGA Design Educators Conference and the 2015 Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Conference and Expo, “Transforming Sustainability Education.” Recent journal publications include “Design Nexus: integrating cross-cultural learning experiences into graphic design education” in Studies in Material Thinking 11: Re/materialising Design Education Futures (co-authored with Prof. Denielle Emans, 2014) and “Sustainability at the forefront: educating students through complex challenges in visual communication and design” in Interdisciplinary Environmental Review (co-authored with Kelly Norris Martin & Denielle Emans, 2015).

Denielle Emans is an Assistant Professor in the Graphic Design Department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, specializing in the area of experiential design in relation to the conceptualization, development, and execution of visual messages for social change and sustainability. As a designer, she has worked to create print, web, and motion design solutions for clients ranging from software specialists to international institutions. Denielle has published her research in a number of academic journals and presented at numerous conferences across the world. She holds a Master of Graphic Design from North Carolina State University’s College of Design and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Denielle is currently a Ph.D. Candidate within the Centre for Communication and Social Change at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.