Muireann McMahon, Designmatters First Scholar-in-Residence

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November 27, 2013

The following blog post was written by Designmatters first Scholar-in-residence Muireann McMahon with an intro by Designmatters Vice President Mariana Amatullo. In the blog,  Muireann shares what she experienced during the 6 months she worked with Art Center faculty and students on several Designmatters projects.

mariana_muireannAfter hosting Muireann in our department as the first Designmatters scholar-in-residence from February until August of this year, I had the good fortune to meet her students and colleagues at the University of Limerick in the context of Design Week Ireland 2013, and a one-day seminar that Muireann facilitated through the Product Design and Technology department  where she is course director.  Entitled, REFORM: New Perspectives on Sustainable Design, the seminar provided us with a great opportunity to share different projects and research directions and I was thrilled to learn about the work of fellow presenters in this context:  that of Dr. Simon O’ Rafferty from Ark Lab and Tradeschool and Dr.  Renee Weaver from TU Delft.

I went on to meet again with Muireann during the Cumulus Dublin Conference hosted by the National College of Art and Design. Muireann presented a joint paper that provides a reflection on some of the lessons learned from collaboration with partners including some of her experiences co-teaching for  Designmatters this year.   Read more about her insights about one of these projects in the blog entry below.

I am grateful for Muireann for all of her contributions this year and for the wonderful hospitality in Limerick. A drive to the majestic Cliffs of Moher in a rainy and raw fall day will remain a special highlight.

6 Months with Designmatters

Muireann McMahonWhen the opportunity for sabbatical leave arose at my University in Limerick I made a list of the places I wanted to go to; Designmatters and Art Center were at the top. I can’t really remember when I first came across their work, but Designmatters projects were an inspiration during my PhD research and when Mariana took part in one of my studies, I began to really understand the impactful work being done. My father always said “There is no harm in asking, the worst someone can say is no!” So I wrote Mariana an email asking if I could come over, and thankfully her response was positive and plans began to form to make it happen.

With everything in place I landed in LAX at the start of February and began work a few days later.  I have worked in other countries before and I strongly believe that traveling broadens the mind and pushing me out of my comfort zone in ways that make me stronger and more confident in my work. The quick immersion approach has always worked best for me to adjust to life and work in a new place.  So I threw myself right into it with the help of the ever friendly Designmatters crew.  The DM staff are a fantastic inspirational and busy group of people.  And while the space may have been tight, this never stopped them from developing and delivering challenging projects to the Art Center students.

DfS 2 Sum 13-120The types of projects I worked on were wide and varied, from researching youth unemployment for the ‘On the fence’ mural that was installed in Art Center’s  Sinclair Pavilion to preparing grant proposals for Safe Agua and from  DESIS to attending the Compostmodern conference in San Francisco.  And while I wasn’t directly involved in any of the Designmatters TDS’s in the Spring term, I did get to attend some of the classes and see the design outcomes presented during mid-term and finals for both the USGS: Next Wave and the Coaniquem: Healing Cloud projects. To say I was blown away by the professional standard of the work was an understatement. The quality at which the students delivered was so high it was hard to believe the work was from undergraduates.

What also impressed me was the process Designmatters employed, in which richly researched, carefully planned projects led to achieving innovative and realizable outcomes. Understanding how relationships were formed and expectations managed within the partnerships is where Designmatters excels. Another interesting aspect was the extent to which the teams go to learn from the project participants and their experiences. Highly visual and beautiful books and videos have proven to be highly effective in communicating the unique way in which DM engages with their partners and creates design insights to fulfil their goals.

DfS 2 Sum 13-68In the summer term, I got the opportunity to take part in one of the TDS classes and see how the entire collaborative process played out first-hand. The Open Ocean project, in partnership with the Aquarium of the Pacific tasked the students with  exciting the public about ocean exploration. Working with the Chairs of the Interaction and Graphics departments, Maggie Hendrie and Nik Hafermaas, TA’s Skye Moret and Janya Menges and the enthusiastic student team was an honor.  Seeing the group discuss, dissect, diverge and converge, mobilize and create in an effort to instigate a movement, was a unique experience for me.

Alongside the research work, I also had the pleasure of teaching Design for Sustainability 2 with the team of Heidrun Mumper-Drumm and Dice Yamaguchi, in both the Spring and Summer terms. This is a subject that was right within my comfort zone, as I have been teaching a similar course at home for the past 6 years. That’s not to say I didn’t learn a huge amount. Both Heidrun and Dice have unique lenses through which they view Sustainability and openly shared their perspectives during class and over coffee conversations. The dynamic and discursive class environment has caused me to rethink how I structure some of my studio classes at home. I will be implementing these changes next semester so we will see how that works out!

DSCN0139Design for Social Impact is an underserved area in Ireland and given my experience here, I am keen to see how I can apply it in an Irish context. The biggest take-away from my time at Designmatters at Art Center is that nothing is unachievable, nobody is out of reach and real-world social problems can be positively addressed through design.


Special thanks to Mariana, Elisa, Helen, Steven and Ashley for making the experience such a positive and memorable one.