“Art Will Not Save Us”: Out of the Studio and Into the Streets

Panel discussion on design thinking is short on practicality and action

January’s ‘Out of the Studio and Into the Streets’ discussion, the latest in the 5-year-old ‘Critical Conversations About Diversity and Justice’ series, aimed to discuss how decision-making processes originating in art and design can be applied to issues of economic and social equity, and to address inclusivity and diversity within design fields. As part of a typically popular series, January’s discussion was no different, with an audience larger than the 120-seat lecture room could accommodate. Though audience members were almost exclusively from design backgrounds, the panel leading the discussion included a broader range of interests, ranging from architecture and urban planning to education, health care, and community activism.

Photographer: Xavier Wang

Photographer: Xavier Wang

Moderator Virajita Singh started off the discussion by laying out some of the basic ideas behind combining art, design, and social equity: one, there is growing interest in design, two, anyone can think creatively and design solutions to problems in their life or community, and finally, too few artists or designers are currently involved in ‘radical collaboration,’ defined as fundamentally involving users and community members in the process of designing solutions.

Though a broad premise, these ideas formed the basis for the rest of the panel’s discussion. Coming from non-profit and public service backgrounds, panelists Lynnea Atlas-Ingebretson and DeAnna Dodd Cummings talked more explicitly about how design norms, processes and settings foster exclusivity if designers fail to think about how ‘design thinking,’ the process of brainstorming, planning, prototyping, and re-evaluating successive iterations of a project, can incorporate the users and communities it should be serving. Teddie Potter, the director of Inclusivity and Diversity for UMN’s School of Nursing, and Tom Fisher, previous dean of UMN’s College of Design, both took an approach that focused on using design as a way to facilitate collaboration in designing solutions to public issues.

The discussion served as a good overview of some of the equity and inclusivity issues facing the design field today, including a legacy of unilateral solutions to community issues, a jargon-heavy design culture, and a lack of attention to non-dominant communities, narratives, and ways of thinking and communicating. Panelists expressed their thoughts on the importance of tolerance, strong relationships and communities, and self-correction in creating a more inclusive society.

As panelist and CEO of North Minneapolis nonprofit Juxtaposition Arts, DeAnna Cummings, half-jokingly put it, “design thinking won’t kill white supremacy.”

Although these are important conversations for any field to have, the discussion felt more like a wide-ranging primer on current social justice issues than a conversation on the specifics of bringing design knowledge to bear on broader social issues. This omission of the question billed as the central idea of the event can be attributed more to problems with the question than any failing of the panelists involved, however. As panelist and CEO of North Minneapolis nonprofit Juxtaposition Arts, DeAnna Cummings, half-jokingly put it, “design thinking won’t kill white supremacy.”

This statement illustrated interconnected and underlying themes brought up by Cummings and fellow panelist Lynnea Atlas-Ingebretson. The first of these ideas is that, in the academic world, there is an inflated idea of the potential for art and design to radically affect unjust systems and institutions. “Art will not save us; art and design don’t automatically add positive value to a community”, Cummings said. While they can act as means for self-expression and serve as tools in creating better institutions, art projects and efficiently designed systems alone will not ‘solve’ root issues of poverty, histories of under-education and under-investment, and systemic disenfranchisement. Design thinking can “impact the components of a system”, Cummings added, “but it cannot actually dismantle and rebuild [institutions].”

Design thinking can “impact the components of a system”, Cummings added, “but it cannot actually dismantle and rebuild [institutions].”

Perhaps the bluntest of the panelists, Cummings brought a grounded perspective to a group that seemed most comfortable in the oft-discussed liberal academic ‘bubble’. Other panelists put forth some proposals that were disturbingly out-of-touch with popular sentiment and concerns. Notably that, instead of a wall along the U.S.- Mexico border, some portion of the border should be made into a ‘collaborative space’ where citizens from both sides can meet and collectively determine how the border should be treated. Recognition of the systemic nature of political issues was also lacking in the suggestion that the Affordable Care Act is endangered simply because Americans do not have enough empathy for their neighbors.

Although this discussion missed the mark in terms of advancing the practical application of design thinking and designed solutions to social issues, it provided an important opportunity for members of the university community to consider the value of interpersonal connections, genuine tolerance, and compassion in creating better communities. For anyone who may have missed the discussion but would be interested in hearing more, all of the lectures from the past 11 months of the ‘Critical Conversations About Diversity and Justice’ series are available online on the Office of Equity and Diversity’s YouTube channel.