I see phantom Designmatters projects everywhere. This is the beautiful affliction of being the former Director of the program, and a member of the small team responsible for building it over the last 15 years. It’s a great predicament to have, and it’s an outcome of having worked for so long in the dynamic world of social impact and creative education. And with this, the possibilities seem more endless than ever.
Beginning in 2002, just a year after the program’s inception, I had the great joy of working alongside founder Mariana Amatullo for 13 years, shaping and developing Designmatters into the award-winning educational social impact design education program that it is today. It was, and is, a crown jewel of my career accomplishments to-date, and one which rewarded me every day with the great pleasure of affecting the educational experience and careers of ArtCenter’s students and alumni. In July 2015, I left ArtCenter to take on the new challenge of raising and influencing the educational experience of my now one year-old daughter, but my former life working in the rich field of social impact design has left an indelible impression on the way I see the world. (Thank you, Designmatters.)
Just this week, I attended a community summit aiming to spark a dialogue between the residents in my hometown and the current city leadership, around the topic of a perceived increase in crime which had incited the activism of a vibrant roomful of citizens eager to support the city’s needs however they could. This city is facing a crisis in record low numbers of qualified applicants to the force, due in part perhaps to the many horrific, publicized cases of police brutality nationwide. The result is a lack of “attractiveness” of law enforcement as a career opportunity – one that exists for many cities across varied socio-economic status. Cities also need to widen their reach, target a bigger audience, come up with innovative and attractive messages; turn heads, change minds. Sitting in my auditorium seat, I couldn’t help but recall the kind of magic I had seen occur in Designmatters projects so many times over the years; the inspired thinking brought to bear on local, national and international projects when students were given the opportunity to dive deep into a quandry like this, collaborate closely with experts and stakeholders and then become forever changed themselves by the potency of their creative contributions. I wondered, what could a young and fresh crop of design thinkers, assembled in a think tank with inspired faculty leadership, do to “rebrand” law enforcement as a career opportunity? What kind of innovative marketing vehicles and messages could they invent, to reach new audiences in a meaningful and relevant way? What would it mean to harness the kind of innovation I have witnessed countless times at ArtCenter, and see it applied to this problem in my very own hometown? I was suddenly very giddy at the hypothetical prospect of unleashing the creative community on this challenge – and felt a little in that moment like I was harboring a best-kept secret.
The next speaker gave an impassioned commentary on her organization’s efforts to partner with meaningful national anti-gun advocacy groups, some of the very ones we partnered with over many years in Designmatters. She wanted support, alliances, and educational materials to inform parents and teachers about how to engage in a dialogue around guns with at-risk youth, and had forged a partnership with city’s unified school district as part of the effort. I couldn’t help but beam quietly with pride as I recalled my close oversight of the Designmatters’ Where’s Daryl project – a multi-year initiative co-led with the Los Angeles Unified School District which addresses these very issues by virtue of an innovative toolkit for deployment in the classroom and which has, in its limited pilot testing, showed great promise and efficacy. I covertly plotted to corner this speaker after the meeting to give her Mariana’s contact information, excited by the prospect of solutions crafted by our students and alumni being realized in the hands of new partners.
These speculative projects, and their potential for real-world applicability, surface everywhere for me these days. Certainly this week’s examples were sparked by engagement at the civic level, but it’s something I also experience in pondering some of our nation’s biggest communication challenges with a looming presidential election, or in studying the myriad global epidemics which face all of us in reading the news.
In my former role in Designmatters, I primarily wore the hat of ensuring our students a compelling educational experience, of brokering projects with partners who were dynamic in every way, who would fulfill the potential of collaboration with our brilliantly talented creative teams. Now out in the world, on the “other side” if you will, my focus has shifted: I see first and foremost the exhilarating possibilities of bringing these projects/outcomes/solutions to bear. Now I am just a concerned citizen, but one who knows too well from immersive firsthand experience the profound contributions which result from these classes, projects and collaborations – in a way that the mayor of my city likely does not. I can’t help but want to see the magic of social impact design applied EVERYWHERE.
So on this remarkable and wonderful 15-year anniversary, I definitely celebrate Designmatters and raise a glass to toast its many successes and stories of impact. I am so proud to have been part of this program’s legacy. But more than this, and more than ever, I want to issue a continuing call to action for the next 15 – or 150 – years. Don’t stop, designers. Don’t stop searching for these projects in your education at ArtCenter and elsewhere, so that you can amass the critical skills needed to be a player on this field. Don’t stop building your toolkit and forging partnerships, honing your sensitivity, your creativity, and your ability to create change so that you can wield your influence, because it matters. Your contribution matters. It truly does.
The problems that design thinking can, and does, address are exemplified in the rich portfolio of Designmatters’ last 15 years. My hope is that the global design community’s army of creative thinkers will grow a thousand fold, so that in years to come we will see the fruits of the myriad collaborations, projects, partnerships, and outcomes that have yet to be born.
Here’s to that.
Elisa Ruffino is the former Director of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design (2002-2015), where she was a core part of the early team that built its internationally recognized award-winning brand. In this capacity, Elisa was responsible for close management of an ongoing portfolio of projects and studios involving ArtCenter creative teams and Designmatters’ collaborators in the nonprofit, government, global development, academic and business sectors. She worked closely with the College’s students, faculty, alumni and partners to produce several acclaimed awareness campaigns, publications, and documentary films catalyzing social action through design. In her 13 years with Designmatters, she provided strategic development leadership on several key program initiatives, including the pilot implementation of the award-winning Where’s Daryl education toolkit, and its rollout across several schools in the LA Unified School District.
Currently, Elisa is a full-time mom to her daughter Lena, and occasional consultant to Designmatters special projects.
Help us celebrate 15 Years of Designmatters by using the hashtag #DM15Yrs
Catch up on the entire campaign at designmattersatartcenter.org/category/dm15
For the latest Designmatters news follow us on Twitter & Instagram @DesignmattersCA