Design for Social Change

Collaborating with students from Detroit Community Schools

Nick is an Associate Professor at A&D and a public performer whose work is rooted in the social lives of public places.

Last fall, I taught the first of what I hope is a regular class and partnership between the School of Art & Design, the Center for Entrepreneurship, and a community school in the Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit. The class uses the principles of human centered design to develop art and design projects that will impact the community in a positive way.

Let me try to give a concrete example to illustrate the meaning of human centered design and why it is essential for a collaboration like this.

Think of an object you use habitually—a chair, shoes, a wallet. Each of these has a recognizable and designated function. I don’t know about you, but my wallet doesn’t always work for me, and so I stuff receipts, bits of paper, business cards and other ephemera in my more capacious pockets. The chairs, they’re OK, but I find myself, like right now, sitting on the floor. 

Think then not of a chair but of asking someone what they do or need when they sit. Not of a wallet, but of how someone spends their day, what they need access to, when and how much of it.

This kind of problem solving is called human centered design.  The human centered design approach recognizes that better design solutions come from asking more questions, and getting to know a person, a place, or a situation before developing an idea.

So when we began our class with Detroit Community Schools (DSC) last fall, we began by getting to know one another. Through conversations, interviews, field trips, working side by side and sharing life journeys, the students from A&D and the students from DCS began to understand one another not as archetypes or ideals, but as complex individuals with insights and aspirations, needs and assets.

The projects we concocted together – a mobile pizza oven, a line of solar-powered bicycle lights, a shoe design workshop – are essentially all prototypes; trial balloons that we launched, together, to see how they fly.

The class is over now, but the hope is to set up an ongoing design-build program with DCS as its hub, and the School of Art & Design as a partner. Along the way, we are contributing to a movement within our school to develop links with experiential education, the community and the classroom, to generate hands on projects that link public and civic action.

Here’s a glimpse into our collaboration with the Brightmoor community, as told by the A&D design teams: 



Mobile Pizza Oven

Team; Nairi Bagdasarian, Chris MacKenzie, Ran Li, Alana Hoey, Allyson Zelinski, Vaishu Ilankamban

After spending time talking with the Brightmoor students and seeing all the amazing gardens and spaces that have been cropping up in the neighborhood, our team wanted to come up with a design project that combined the two.
We designed this mobile pizza oven for the students.
The pizza oven is an after school activity, but it’s also a way to learn about cooking and build relationships with local people doing urban farming. (Basil and tomatoes for the sauce!)
Our hope is that the mobile pizza oven will not only be an after school activity, but also turn into a great business venture for the students.

Shoe Design Workshops

Team: Zack Moscot, Jennifer Silverstein, Neil Zemba, Methula Naik, Daniel Gold

Talking with the students got us inspired to create a project that would bring together the students' interest in athletics and art and design.
Neil Zemba, one of our team members, had been a winner of the NIKE Shoe Design Competition.
We decided to do a series of workshops called 'Design Your Sneaker' that would introduce students to the skills they would need to create a design that they could enter into the 2012 NIKE competition.
The workshops were designed to also raise awareness around potential career opportunities and spark motivation for further education in an area of interest.
Our hope is that there could be many hands-on workshops in different fields between students from Detroit Community Schools and the University of Michigan. This kind of mentoring helps to disentangle the complex web of perceptions and apprehensions that students seemed to have about college.

Solar-Powered Bike Lights

Team: James Reich, Sunny Kim, Oleg Kolbasov, Stephanie Schutter, Lara Slotnick

After talking to the students and learning more about life in Brightmoor, we heard a general consensus that the young people feel unsafe in their neighborhoods at night because there are no street lamps.
Our response was to create a low-cost lighting system that the students could create themselves out of recycled materials.
We decided to create these solar powered bike lights because the students also felt stuck in the neighborhood and this would empower their mobility.
After a series of workshops, the students had enough skills in soldering, electronics, solar power and craft to create these solar lights on their own.
The students were engaged and excited, and seemed so proud to be working on something as new and complex as solar lighting.
The total cost for making each light is $2.10.