After graduating with a BFA in product design in 2004, I knew I wasn’t interested in pursuing a ‘traditional’ career in product design. I took on freelance positions and spent seasonal lulls traveling overseas, eventually connecting with non-profits who were working on developing artisan skills and ‘designed’ products, generally in communities lacking educational resources.
Many of those who had initiated these programs had no experience in the creative field, and I could see tremendous potential how the application of design could strengthen their projects.
Few organizations however, had a budget for design, and I ended up working pro-bono or on a barter system: I helped with designs in return for the shop or organization creating prototypes for my own work which I later produced and sold to fund future projects.
One of my greatest take-aways from these exchanges was that the drive of the creation of products came from the founders’ desire to address a social condition, not a drive to increase revenue for the sake of increasing revenue: The bottom line was never the primary purpose, and in our current social (and political) state, this way of thinking and practicing design, has tremendous value.
Last year I was lucky enough to start teaching a product design studio class in New York City, specifically implementing ideas of alternate design careers driven by social or environmental causes.
I absolutely love it, and although we cover major themes over how and why the design community needs change, I feel the practical experience of having students working directly with communities - the cultural exchange, seeing first hand the economic conditions - is lacking, and I’m hoping to raise funds to change this. (It's currently difficult for the university to fund such trips due to legal issues).
This exchange is important for two reasons:
If students are interested in pursuing purpose-driven design careers, they'll be introduced to how to go about this. This isn’t a straightforward (or paved) path, and the economic aspect is definitely more tricky than working a 9-5 (!)
Secondly, the students are advocates of the design industry: Connecting non-profits with designers and demonstrating first hand how we can promote and enforce their projects, may lead to new employment opportunities for a new generation of caring designers.
Maria and Harry (Sam and Maryangela in back) - a few of my current students who wish to make the trip.
To address the lack of practical experience, I’m setting up a practicum program in which 2-3 students each year will work on a project with partnering organizations. The goal is to raise enough money to cover or offset the cost of travel and accommodation, and perhaps even raise a small stipend for their work - part of the exchange is to actually get paid for the work we do (however little), to demonstrate that this can be a potential career path.
In total it is estimated that the project will need around $6000 to fund annually and we’re hoping that proceeds of the products or projects we work on will be able to supplement any future fundraising activities. This is the first of two fundraising efforts of the 2018/2019 school year.
This Year’s Project
Our first project will be in Nepal at an Orphanage - House with a Heart - founded by Beverly Bronson in 2001 who unfortunately passed away earlier this year.
Beverly has built a fantastic legacy in the form of a home for abandoned Nepalese children, providing both a caring and safe environment for the children to grow up in, and access to quality education.
Beverly also set up a women’s felt-product training program, aiming to instruct undereducated women in crafting skills, providing an opportunity to make an income to support their families.
This skills-building support is vital: as the economist Jeffrey Sachs points out, “When impoverished families bear many children, it can have tragic results: as the families cannot afford to invest in the nutrition, health and education of each child, they may send only one child - a son - to school. High fertility rates in one generation, tend to lead to impoverishment of the children and to high fertility rates in the following generation”.
Offering these women jobs and skills-building opportunities enhances (all) their children’s chances at education and health services, which cost money. This is a first step out of the poverty trap.
Currently, the felt-program creates a range of skillfully made products, including slippers, scarves and christmas ornaments. The students can significantly help in taking this project a step further by introducing original designs, branding the product range, and working on new marketing strategies - higher sales in felt-products can lead to the employment of more women.
A few of the ladies who run the felt-training program at House with a Heart in Nepal.
(You can visit the organization here: http://www.housewithheart.org)
The exchange portion will happen in the summer of 2019 for the duration of 2-3 weeks, but the designing will be initiated during the winter break and following spring semester under my direction. The bulk of design-work will be completed before the trip. During the trip, students will be training the women in how to make the new products, as well as holding workshops to further the women’s skills - this may include basic computer classes to building upon/enhancing current crafting skills, to entrepreneurial workshops. The students are also responsible for raising some of the needed funds, a valuable skill to learn if deciding to purse a career in design and the non-profit sector.
Please help us fund this project!
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