I am often asked by design educators about how to teach ethics and sustainability. In my experience these words can be a real turn-off for some people. They are seen as “do-goody” and a bit of a bore, especially by those who think they are only interested in the more glamorous areas of design.
There are a couple of educational interventions, ModUAL and Fixperts (initiated by the maverick Professors Fred Deakin and Daniel Charny respectively) that don’t use these loaded words, but have a very strong ethical and sustainable message. I’m very interested in how both of these seem to get through to people in a way that is genuinely transformational in terms of how people see themselves as agents in the world.
Do these ModUAL students look like they don’t care?!
ModUAL is a two week full time workshop for UAL students of any discipline (it also has a spin-off, Collabology, which has been run with students at Falmouth and Manchester). On the first day, students are asked who they are, what they are interested in, and their Pecha Kucha presentations are full of lovely posters, chairs and the other usual student design projects. So far so good. However, it’s the second day that gets really interesting. They are asked what they care about in the world. The responses start fairly predictably, but with a bit of expert prodding and poking from Fred Deakin, the room starts voicing their concerns. “My dad’s got MS, and I think that people with MS are amazingly brave” “The estate next to me is getting knocked down and my rent’s gone up. I hate gentrification in London, it’s driving me mad.” The energy in the room is suddenly electric, and the students start forming groups based on their passions. By the end of the following week, using their collective design skills, they have created initiatives that intend to solve the problems they care about. The word ethics was never mentioned, but they have found their passion, and they seem like transformed beings, ready to graduate, go out into the real world and know that they can make a difference.
Fixperts is a programme that is embedded in the curriculum at several universities around the world from Japan to Poland, devised by Daniel Charny at Kingston University along with James Carrigan from Sugru. It has a different methodology to ModUAL, but with similar results. Students (“Fixperts”) find someone in their local area who has a problem (usually an older or disabled person), they meet with the person (the “Fix Partner”) and fix their problem. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it is, and it’s also incredibly powerful. It develops empathy and creative problem solving, and working with a real person (rather than the usual fictional brief that students work to) creates an imperative to solve the problem in a way that actually improves the life of the Fix Partner. The video below shows an example of some Fixperts helping Donal, injured in a rugby accident and unable to write.
Last time I was at Kingston (as an external examiner on the Illustration and Animation BA) one of the students I talked to had just finished creating a sound baffle at a local primary school to fix a noise issue caused by two classes having to share a room. This illustration student had had to find product designers and textile designers in the university to form a team, then they together had successfully solved the problem. With huge enthusiasm, she said that Fixperts had changed her view of what she could do when she graduated. Being able to solve the problem empowered her, and she will now be able to participate in making our society more sustainable and resilient.
I wonder if either Fixperts or ModUAL were run early on in a student’s education, whether they might get the bug for applying their creativity for social good, and then be more open to subjects termed sustainability or ethics. I think I feel strongly about this, as although I have always been a passionate environmentalist with strong ethics, it wasn’t until my late 30s when I was running Airside that I had an epiphany and realised that I could combine my personal values with my work. That feels so crazy now, looking back, but I guess it’s the prevailing viewpoint in our society that you probably have to do work that goes against your personal values.
(Nice post by a recent ModUAL student here – affirming my thoughts above!)