Transdisciplinary Design

TransDesign Q&A

Q&A with Jamer Hunt
In his teaching and professional work, Jamer Hunt, chair of Urban and Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons The New School for Design, uses design to explore the politics and poetics of the everyday. Here Dr. Hunt discusses the development of Parsons’ new graduate program in transdisciplinary design.

Q. How do you see the field of design changing?
A. The boundaries between the disciplines are breaking down. People who were traditionally trained in, say, product design or communication design are often working in ways that are moving across disciplines.

Q. What’s causing this shift?
A. There are a lot of reasons. For one, software is making it easier for people to pick up new skills. But it’s also because of globalization. It used to be that having a basic applied skill was all you needed to get a job in the United States. Now, in general, around the world you can get someone to do that skill for around ten cents on the dollar. It’s no longer sufficient for young professionals to simply be good at something like rendering or modeling or basic typography, because they’re now competing with people in a global marketplace and often at very different cost levels.

Q. Is that why Parsons is starting a transdisciplinary design program?
A. Actually, we’re focusing on the larger situation, which is that the degree of complexity of the really challenging problems we’re facing requires teams of people—and even working in a team requires a new set of skills for a designer.
Moving from one complex problem to another, understanding what the social and technological causes are, and knowing how to address them requires that designers develop not only skills of making and of craft, but also skills of thinking and analysis—and being able to bring theory and practice together in a particular practice.

Q. Should universities change the way they teach design?
A. I’ve always felt that universities should be experimenting and helping to lead the design field, but for too long design education has focused on training students to take on basic-level production jobs. We’re hoping to change that. Parsons is a place where cutting-edge thinking and making is happening, and we’re collaborating with leading industries to think these ideas through and see where they fit in the world.

Q. What kind of students do you expect to attract?
A. Some will be people who have been trained in design and moved into a good job. But they’re looking at their work, which is often very narrowly focused, and they’re looking at the world around them and saying, “Look at all these big, juicy, thorny problems.” They have a sense of civic activism—they want to make some change in the world—and somehow doing packaging for diapers is not really scratching that itch. I think it’s going to attract students who want to use their experience and background to address broader, more pressing social problems.

Q. What makes today’s problems so complex?
A.It’s the nature of our world, where you have networks built upon systems built upon more systems, connected by even more networks, all of it flowing 24–7. You end up with problems that are multidimensional and incredibly complex. It’s very difficult to think that narrow specialization is appropriate to take on these nonlinear problems. You try to fix one part but another part moves, and you have to deal with that. It’s very hard to do. It requires a different set of tools and a different kind of perspective.

Q. What led you to transdisciplinary design?
A.I was trained in cultural anthropology. From the very beginning, my focus was more on culture, behavior, society, and the world around us—on the context of design more than design itself. But once I migrated into design, part of my role with design companies was to help them situate their work and their practices in a broader cultural context and to understand how they might innovate more effectively by being more closely tied to the cultural context that surrounds a product. There’s a constant tension and a constant back-and-forth between designing and understanding the implications of design.

Q. Designers have to be more aware of context?
A.Yes, things now are designed in one culture and move to another, or ten others, very quickly. You have to understand that colors mean different things to different cultures and that forms mean different things and not everyone does things the same way.
Once I got into design and was teaching it and practicing, it was an awakening for me that design tended to work on very narrowly defined problems and the outcomes were determined more often because of what field you were in than by what the problem really needed.
So as I taught in an industrial design or product design program, I realized that it was much more interesting when designers could keep open about what it was that they were designing and really make it more responsive to the situation.
That requires different skills, different knowledge, and often requires partnering with different kinds of stakeholders, people who understand business models or systems engineering. So I got more and more interested in these situations where problems challenged you to move beyond a very narrow approach.

Q. Isn’t there a place for people with specialized skills?
A.I’m not at all saying that these disciplines should go away; it’s not an either-or situation. We need highly specialized people and we need people who can be more lateral connectors, who can understand a problem from multiple perspectives and also understand how to then use design as a process to move towards a solution.

Q. And that’s what you mean by “design-led research.”
A.We want to rely on a design process. Even though we will work on projects with multiple kinds of team members involved, many of whom will not be designers, we do want to focus on this as a design-led process. For example, we could approach an issue such as urban mobility from a legal and policy standpoint, where we regulate the amount of traffic that can go out on the street and all sorts of things like that, but we’re focusing on a design approach which involves making solutions visual and visible and tangible. Designers will facilitate and navigate the process, but we’ll have multiple kinds of intelligence involved.

Q. You’ve described this as an experimental program.
A.That’s where terms like agility come in. It’s very much the idea that you need to be able to situate yourself within a problem, keep your mind open, understand where the solution is, not be so much bound by what you’ve been trained to think the solution is, but then to be able to find those people you need to bring into the process in order to get to the final outcome. It’s no longer about the heroic lone designer solving the problem by herself or himself. Now much more often it’s about teams that come together in very rapid order.

Q. So part of the experiment is leaving the outcome open?
Yes; we don’t know in transdisciplinary design whether the outcome will be a product or a system or something else. The fun and exciting part to me is the idea that we don’t always know where we’re going. And we’ll discover it along the way. That’s what good science and good innovation are about—not limiting your possible outcomes, trying to keep as open as you can, but still getting to the finish line.

Q. How important is it that this program is located in Parsons and that Parsons is part of The New School?
A.I think Parsons’ being situated within The New School creates a unique opportunity. That’s because we’re bringing together design and social sciences in a new way. What we have at The New School is a unique combination of tremendous design experience and new design thinking, as well as a long history of civic activism and commitment to social change. Being in an important metropolitan area makes it even more interesting. And then being within one of the world’s design capitals really puts us in a unique position. We’re able to make connections and draw people into the process, into the curriculum, and into the lecture series who are coming to New York from all over the world on a regular basis. So it’s a real chance to do something in a high-profile institution that can attract tremendous assets from around the world.

Q. What sort of response has the program gotten as you’ve approached potential members of your board of advisors?
A.I think we’re getting people excited because they realize that we have to start educating designers in a different way. And very few places have stepped up to really embrace that challenge 100 percent.
People in industry recognize that the landscape of professional practice is moving so quickly and is so fluid right now. There are a lot of pressures that are forcing large and small design consultancies to rethink their approach and rethink their practice. Often that means branching out and reaching across to other kinds of approaches and disciplines.
The best firms are moving in these directions. In that way, we have a lot to learn from them, and I hope that they’ll have a lot to learn from us. We’re freed from financial constraints, so we may have more flexibility, but they may have resources and capacity and experience that we don’t. I think having relationships with people in industry is going to be important because we’re all focused on where we need to go with this. A dialogue between industry and education is a good thing.

Q. What do you expect students to take away from the program?
A.The students will come out with a portfolio, but it won’t be so much artifact driven—in other words, a poster or a product. It will be more process driven. The portfolio will present a series of projects that may involve skills like visualization or collaboration or problem framing. They’re relatively new sets of skills and systems, so students will have to be reflective and come up with new ways of describing what they’ve done.

Q. Where do you see your graduates heading?
A.We talk about the graduates moving into a range of different outcomes, whether in design consultancies, government or NGOs, health care, or education. One of the things we recognize is that design is a great process for problem solving. But if designers are going to work, for example, in rebuilding the American education system, they’re going to have to work with people who aren’t designers and they’re going to have to be very explicit about what they do—just as if you bring an engineer into the problem, you know that engineer is going to name pretty quickly some things that she or he can do for you. Our transdisciplinary designers will have to be as explicit about what they do. So a lot of the education will be focused on being very aware of the kind of skills and capacities that they’re developing and what’s needed in the world.

Q. Can you give me an example of transdisciplinary design at work?
A.One example involves a former student of mine whose project had to do with bringing materials to an aid mission in Guatemala. When she first looked at the problem, she thought she wanted to design a more efficient bag for bringing material. When she took a step back, she realized there were materials that were always shuttled back and forth, and she thought maybe she should design a shed where she could store stuff rather than transporting it back and forth. Taking another step back, she saw that there were lots of aid agencies coming down on a regular basis, bringing their own supplies, and some things like generators were very cost intensive and were only used three or four weeks of the year. So then she realized that it was really a systems problem, where you had to figure out a resource-sharing solution so that all these organizations that are strapped for cash didn’t have to buy a whole generator, but could buy four fifty-seconds of a generator.
Stepping farther and farther back, you begin to realize that these are chronic problems because of large-scale social and economic, and in some cases environmental, situations, and if you really want to get to the root of the problem, you might have to address it at that level. I’ve felt all along that this is a program where we will hopefully have the intelligence to identify all those different levels.

Q. Can you really conquer all those problems?
A.The ambition is to pick out the feasible solution, the one that makes sense. To identify what’s the inflection point where design will make the greatest change. Sometimes it might be that you design the bag because your background is product design or sewing and you have very few resources and that’s all you can really do, and that will help. And other times you may want to look at the issue from a systems level and work out a sharing system. But if you’re going to do that, you know you’re going to need more resources and the ability to work with people who know how to build integrated systems. So having the ability to frame and visualize these problems across multiple scales becomes really important—and that’s where transdisciplinary design comes in.

About Jamer Hunt
Jamer Hunt is the chair of Urban and Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons The New School for Design, where he is developing the new graduate program in Transdisciplinary Design. He previously worked in the office of Parsons’ dean restructuring graduate offerings across the school and creating a more open and flexible curriculum. After earning a doctorate in cultural anthropology, Dr. Hunt worked at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for seven years as director of the Master in Industrial Design program. His practice, Big + Tall Design, combines conceptual, collaborative, and communication design, and he is a founder of DesignPhiladelphia, an initiative to energize Philadelphia’s design community and establish the city as a laboratory for innovative design projects. He has served on the board of directors of the American Center for Design and the editorial board of the forthcoming journal Design and Culture. With Paola Antonelli of MoMA and Adam Bly of Seed magazine, Dr. Hunt co-hosted MIND08, a conference run in coordination with MoMA’s exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind. He has also consulted with or worked at Smart Design, frogdesign, WRT, Seventh Generation, and Virtual Beauty, and his writing has appeared in a number of books, journals, and magazines, including I.D. magazine, which published his Manifesto for Postindustrial Design in 2005. Dr. Hunt is currently working on Form Follows Context, a graphic design textbook to be published by Thames & Hudson.

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