Designing for Good

An art school in California pushes students to collaborate on art and service-learning projects

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A few years ago, Sanjit Sethi, artist, professor, and director of the California College of Art’s Center for Art and Public Life, wrote a paper called "Getting it Wrong: How We Fail and What We Learn." In the paper, written with Nicole Garneau of Columbia College, he discussed the need to talk about failure as much as success. "When students get out into the real world what do they do when they fail? They’re not taught that," he says. "There’s a specific set of procedures that need to be followed. How do students learn what to do when they're in over their heads?"

Failure in community-based work is important to acknowledge yet difficult to speak about. Putting it at the forefront of curriculum is just one of the many things that sets Engage, a project-based learning program at CCA run by Sethi, apart.

Engage is worlds apart from standard approaches to service learning. The traditional paradigm for art and design schools is very much about individual creation. But Engage addresses a shift toward work that is more collaborative and community-based. Their motto is not DIY, but rather do it together.

Engage combines project-based learning with community engagement. Students don’t run off to individual internships but instead problem-solve with peers, stakeholders and advisors. "We don’t just find a task for students to do," explains Sethi. "We know that students are engaged - so how do you channel that with a specific deliverable in mind?"

Students from 826 Valencia and (below), the book they created.

The diversity of Engage's projects is impressive. A recent client was 826 Valencia, the San Francisco branch of the Dave Eggers' non-profit that helps students ages 6 to 18 develop their writing skills. CCA students helped 826 youth with writing while also studying issues facing urban public schools. Furniture design students created functional, affordable tables for the library of Lighthouse, a community charter school in Oakland, Calif. Other students worked with experts in tactical urbanism and sustainable design to create ceramic nesting modules to restore and protect seabird nesting areas on Ano Nuevo Island.

Yet another group defied conventional notions of service learning by painting a mural for volunteers at a local food bank instead of bagging groceries themselves. Other CCA community partners include BRIDGE Housing, the Exploratorium, GLBT Historical Society, La Cocina, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

CCA students installing ceramic modules at Ano Nuevo. Photo by Leslie Sample.

Every project is designed to show students how design works in the real world. It’s not just elegant solutions but a process that may include challenges like difficult clients and cost overruns.

Collaboration not just among students but with experts, institutions, and beneficiaries of Engage services is key. "Getting a series of people together to talk about ways to solve a problem is exponentially greater than individuals working on them alone," Sethi says. "Collaborative solutions provide more pressing answers. It’s more a sense of a real world engagement."

Sethi is realistic about what his students can achieve within a semester's time and within the confines of an academic program. At a time when so many design agencies grandly tout their "secret sauce," such a refreshingly honest and practical approach feels right. "Engage needs to be pragmatic in what it can accomplish," says Sethi. "We tend to come into a stage where we can galvanize buy-in and move it along. Sometimes we can do something in a two-semester process."

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