Social Innovation / Social Justice 2018


My mind is full and fatigued. Megan (my wife) and I spent the last two days in a symposium at The University of Cincinnati (UC) called Social Innovation, Social Justice: Rethinking Design Anthropology (SISJ). I initially heard about SISJ because I am an adjunct professor at DAAP. When the e-mail came through my inbox, I was intrigued because the visual design wasn’t the typical red and black, masculine and modern aesthetic so often seen in advertisements around DAAP. SISJ is more hospitable, with organic qualities, and leaned refreshingly feminine (I later learned that it was designed by Stephanie Sadre-Orafai, an anthropologist who studies typography). The beautiful visuals, impressive line-up, and a desire to meet other UC faculty were enough to persuade me to sign up. 

The best place to begin describing this event is that it's the brainchild of Stephanie Sadre-Orafai (anthropology) and Brooke Brandewie (fashion), professors from different schools at UC. Collaboration is often preached from podiums, but less often modeled as powerfully as what these two organized. The lineup, composed of predominently female, black and brown, lecturers was the most diverse that I’ve experienced. Each person shared root shaking perspectives that challenged my preconceptions and biases while seeding new and refreshing tools and methodologies.

Instead of sharing my usual weekly links, I decided to share information about each presenter along with nuggets from each of their presentations. I wish I could include more context, but that would take more than a blog post. At the very least, I hope that these reflections give you a glimpse. I also hope that there’s another SISJ that you can attend next year. No pressure Brooke and Stephanie…  



Danya Glabau - Medical Anthropologist and Science and Technologies Scholar

I enjoyed these questions that Danya encouraged us to ask throughout the design process to scrutinize our biases (or often times, whiteness): 

“What does the thing serve?" 
“Who does it represent?"
“Who is it made for?"
“Who are we borrowing from/appropriating?”
"What is the social context?"
"What are the social forms and norms?"

April De Simone - Social Impact Designer and Strategist

“People are experts of their own experience.” The people we work with hold the wisdom and experience that informs our design work. 

“Own your own shit.” April shared this quote after a student asked what can be done to make DAAP more diverse. I suppose her answer is a bit like admitting your powerlessness and that what you’ve been doing isn’t working out so well (i.e., step 1 of the 12 steps).

Todd Nicewonger - Project Director for Destination Areas at Virginia Tech

Todd led an improv workshop that Megan and I attended. Both of us were intimidated by improv but are glad we went. There was a lot of laughter and learning. Todd had us do several improv exercises (one of which included selling a chair made of granola) that we can use with students and clients to facilitate creative conversations and processes.

Lara Penin - Associate Professor of Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons School of Design

“Designers are not really humble.” This goes back to what April shared about people being the experts of their own experiences. What strikes me about this is that designers are usually the first to call for empathy. Perhaps what we really need is a call for humility.

“Personas flatten complexities.” This one hit home. I teach about personas, and I often use them in my professional practice. They have been helpful in encouraging my clients to better understand how to meet the needs of the people they serve. But, at the end of the day, personas are generalizations. They’re not actual people but, rather, ideas of people.

Ashlyn Sparrow - Game Designer and Educator

“Work with strength models, not deficit models.” Start with what is positive in people and places.

“Gaming teaches agency, trial and error, creates a safe space to fail, and introduces systems.” I do believe that the many hours I spent during middle school in my basement playing Final Fantasy 7 (a role-playing game) have informed my career. It certainly taught me each of the Ashlyn's points.

Elizabeth Chin - Professor at Art Center College of Design

“Make ideas. Don’t just write about them.” I think this one speaks for itself. 

“Universal design is not universal.” It’s hard, but necessary, to be reminded that what a bunch of white dudes deems right isn’t necessarily what everyone else believes is right. 

“Own the fact that you don’t fit in.” Ah, yes… This is an excellent reminder for me when I'm at the university. I often feel out of place because I’m not an academic. The temptation is to try to do what I can to fit in. Read more books, dress differently, speak the language. I hate standing out… This will be a challenge.