Mar 30, 201312:35 PMPoint of View

Public Interest Design

Public Interest Design

EVERYONE DESERVES GOOD DESIGN was the mantra of Public Interest Design Week (PID Week), anchored by the 13th annual Structures for Inclusion (SFI) conference. Hosted by the University of Minnesota’s College of Design (Cdes) in Minneapolis, from March 19-24, PID Week was animated by nearly 500 attendees – architects, designers, students, professors, the media and interested public from across the country, and a dozen or so from far off places - who embedded themselves in the thought, language, and practice resonating at the intersection of good design and public service. Branded in orange and black across T-shirts and carrying bags, the phrase EVERYONE DESERVES GOOD DESIGN was visually underscored by three black and orange icons titled Products (cube) Places (triangle/map pin-like shape) and Processes (circle).

According to John Cary, of PublicInterestDesign.org and chair of PID Week, this was a first-of-its-kind conference.  It did not disappoint. “We decided to unite otherwise disparate events, in an effort to combine resources and audiences,” wrote Cary in a post-conference email-chat. “Our goal with the expanded slate of events was to appeal to the design disciplines more broadly as well as other stakeholders, such as beneficiaries, clients, and funders.”

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Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic of The New York Times and PID Week Keynote speaker, with John Cary, Chair of PID Week and founding director of PublicInterestDesign.org Photo Credit:  College of Design

So what did PID Week cover? Everything. Seemingly no design rock was left unturned.  That a human-centered design (social, environmental, public, political) could – and should – be the center of daily life was reinforced by the four compelling keynote speakers: Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times architecture critic; Liz Ogbu, an award winning architect, designer, and scholar in residence at the Center for Art & Public Life within the California College of Arts; Krista Donaldson, SFI keynote speaker and CEO of D-Rev: Design Revolution; and William Kamkwamba, a native of Malawi, who changed the course of his life and his village by building a windmill by hand. His story of perseverance combined with a delightfully humble presence inflected with humor has struck a deep chord in the design world. Kamkwamba, now a junior at Dartmouth, tells his rigorous tale in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity & Hope, co-authored with Bryan Mealer.  His story is also the subject of the documentary William and The Windmill, directed by Ben Nabors, which just won the 2013 SXSW Grand Jury Prize for film.  Screened after Kamkwamba’s address and a book- signing event, the film proved to be thoughtful and über-inspired.

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Keynote speaker William Kamkwamba signs a copy of his book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Hope, for Namyd Lyoubi graduate student, School of Architecture at the University of Las Vegas. Reception was at Weisman Art Museum, U of MN. Photo Credit:  College of Design

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William Kamkwamba, in the film William and the Windmill, which had its first post-2013 SXSW Grand Jury Prize award screening at PID Week.  Photo credit:  Mason Riddle

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Liz Ogbu, designer, social innovator and Keynote speaker at Weisman Art Museum reception.  Photo Credit:  Mason Riddle

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Ogheneruno (Runo) Okiomah, architect and Co-founder & CEO of Maa-Bara and William Kamkwamba.  Photo Credit:  College of Design

The PID Week sessions harnessed a provocative array of topics and issues into a manageable sequence of ideas and practice from an Affordable Housing Design Forum, workshops with a local Twin Cities focus, the Detroit Collaborative Design Center’s work as fleshed out by their director Dan Pitera, the SFI SEED (social, economic, environmental design) award winners, and challenges of Funding Public Interest Design, to name few. Katie Swenson of Enterprise Community Partners, Kate Stohr from Architecture of Humanity, Eric Muschler from Minneapolis’ McKnight Foundation, and Jennifer Hughes, a design specialist with the National Endowment for the arts, and many others made significant contributions.

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Dan Pitera, PID Week presenter and Executive Director of Detroit Collaborative Design Center, at the University of  Detroit Merci, laughs with Tom Fisher, Professor of Architecture and Dean of the College of Design, University of Minnesota.  Photo Credit:  College of Design

If PID Week was very good, it may have been one day too long.  With five days of overlapping sessions and events, boredom was held at bay, certainly, but such a brainy endurance test begs the question as to how much one can absorb. “Our interest was to cast a broad net--looking beyond the traditionally dominant architecture and environmental design fields to include product and process designers,” assesses Cary. “We also wanted to produce a well-curated and professionalized event that made people feel seen and like they're a part of something special.”

I attended the keynote addresses and several sessions and receptions, noting the enthusiasm barometer was high whether I was speaking with graduate architecture students or professionals in the field – from Boston, New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Twin Cities.  Everyone seemed stimulated, some to the point of exhaustion, but spirited about their PID Week experience.

Of course, sponsorship is key to the quality and vitality of such events.  Asked if there would be a PID Week #2, Cary responded, “There were numerous requests for more programming of this sort, with several prospective partners and hosts already having approached us. So, yes, we are excited to build on the momentum we generated, both locally in the Twin Cities and nationally.” This year’s sponsors, in addition to Cdes, included Autodesk, Curry Stone Design Prize, Design Corps, Enterprise Community Partners, Humanscale, J+J|Invision, the McKnight Foundation, PublicInterestDesign, The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Reed Construction Data, SEED, and Surdna Foundation.

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PID Week participants, L-R: John Cary, PID Week Chair; Liz Ogbu, designer, social innovator and Keynote speaker;  Laura Marlo, Reed Construction Data, a PID Week sponsor; and, Tom Fisher, Dean of the College of Design, U of MN.  Photo Credit:  College of Design

“From my perspective, PID Week was really a dream come true,” commented Cary. “The energy of the participants was palpable, and I think it went a long way toward uniting and solidifying the field, even if much work remains.”

Mason Riddle is a writer based in Saint Paul. She covers the visual arts, architecture, and design. Her reviews and articles have been published in Architectural Record, Architecture MN, Artforum, Dwell, The Star Tribune, Public Art Review and Rain Taxi, among others. Her article, Game Plan, explored the textile work of, Alighiero Boetti in the Italian conceptual artist's MoMA retrospective and appeared in the winter 2013 issue of Surface Design. She is former director of The Goldstein Museum of Design and MN Percent for Art in Public Places program.

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