Social design education helps develop “character, empathy, cultural awareness and flexibility,” says Mariana Amatullo, vice president of Designmatters, a decade-old social design organization at Art Center College of Design that now has a concentration and an MFA in the field with the Graduate Media Design Program. The programs envision themselves as a sort of design Peace Corps, tackling real world issues like food distribution (a Parsons project) or engaging with local communities (as MICA is doing in its low-income east Baltimore neighborhood).
But even an expensive Masters degree might not help you land a job in the field. The pitch to potential social design students is that they might find work at foundations, nonprofits, NGOs and design consultancies like IDEO and Continuum that are engaged with social design. Or perhaps at Apple in an emerging market, or in non-traditional design places like government agencies, boards of education, or in corporate responsibility positions. If not now then later, reckons SVA’s Heller, who believes that "opportunities will expand as awareness expands."
One stumbling block for the future of social design is that nobody has figured out how to make it a profitable or self-sustaining enterprise. Many firms are experimenting with business models, including for-profits and nonprofits, foundations and hybrid formulations, but for the moment social design efforts play more to building a firm’s brand and reputation while pursuing the admirable goal of helping humanity.
Still, students are gravitating to the field as social issues move to the top of their agenda. Becky Slogeris, a 22-year-old senior at MICA majoring in graphic design, is considering the school’s social design masters program because she wants to be a designer who "doesn’t just clean things up" with a new logo or brand but who makes organizations work better.
As the schools enroll their first students, it’s still unclear what social design programs can really teach and how effective they will be. For her part, Slogeris is weighing whether she could become a social designer on her own or if the MICA program, with its excellent faculty, connections, and commitment would accelerate that process. And then there’s the extra $30,000 in student loans.
Perhaps a better definition of social design is needed and a better way to evaluate the success of projects, suggests Sergio Palleroni, a professor at Portland State University and a senior fellow at its Center for Sustainable Solutions, which is launching a certificate program of its own in public interest design. "We have a clear idea of what a doctor or lawyer is,” he points out “but not for architects and designers and how they serve the public."