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As the Designmatters Department at ArtCenter celebrates 15 years of social impact design education, we asked our network of students, alumni, faculty, leadership and partners to reflect on key terms heard throughout the field of social innovation. In 15 Buzzwords for 15 Years, an arm of our celebratory storytelling campaign, contributors share their experiences, successes and challenges around words like Innovation, Sustainability and Influence, and how they relate both personally and professionally. We are sharing five of our favorite buzzwords below, which highlight the impactful projects Designmatters has spearheaded and implemented over the years.


by Mari Nakano

Innovation is deliberate. It’s about solving problems without creating new ones. It’s about taking risks and discovering new alternatives. As much as innovation is about looking forward into the future, it is also about being able to look in retrospect at your life, pulling into the present some of the most valuable relics and pieces of information you have sculpted in your past in order to create something to move us all forward.

Designmatters, by its very nature, has been innovating since its inception, allowing designers to insert themselves into social impact spaces in ways we couldn’t years ago. It has not only carved out places for designers to give of themselves, but it has refined how we participate in those spaces so we can be the most impactful creatives for the organizations we work with. Designmatters truly contributed to my trajectory as a designer in the social impact space and I don’t think I would be leading the UNICEF Innovation Unit’s design team if it weren’t for my involvement with Designmatters.

For me, innovation is not just about a cool product, it’s an approach to life. To innovate is to enable one to share our natural empathy and be able to allow others a new means for expression. Innovation is something humans and other creatures have been doing forever, be it by instinct or experimentation. We innovate to survive and to create positive solutions to simplify and better our lives.


by Arden Stern

In 2013, anthropologist Lindsay Bell described a North American “empathy boom,” citing Barack Obama’s 2006 declaration of an “empathy deficit” alongside recent publications like Jeremy Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization (2010) and pop psychologist Brené Brown’s 3-minute YouTube video on empathy that has, to date, garnered over 5 million views. It would seem that empathy is not simply a buzzword or, as Bell writes, “perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with”, but also a kind of political mandate: a call to, in Obama’s words, “find common ground.”This is the paradox of empathy: we cannot step out of our shoes and into someone else’s, but we must try. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ offers muscular empathy as a rigorous alternative to “a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. […] If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity.” So we must relinquish, along with our utopianism, the belief in our exceptional abilities to do better than others have done — a bitter pill for any designer to swallow.

Neither Rogers nor Coates makes any promises for those who seek to correct their assumptions through research or account for misunderstandings through dialogue, because these acts in and of themselves cannot, as Rogers admits, refute or displace those assumptions. In other words, curiosity is not a remedy. It is only, to use an educator’s term, a prerequisite.

Experimentation: The Imperative for Innovation

by Karen Hofmann

As Designmatters celebrates 15 years, ArtCenter is fast approaching another milestone — a decade of the DesignStorm, an innovative workshop process launched to drive the “exploration” component of the Color, Materials and Trends Exploration Laboratory (CMTEL). The DesignStorm has proven to be a successful model for organizations to engage with students and faculty to explore future design or market opportunities. This model was conceived at a time when design thinking was being adopted by the industry as a critical pathway to innovation. At the heart of the DesignStorm is an experimental, playful, design-doing approach to tackling complex challenges.

After ten years, the DesignStorm has evolved tremendously — in process, scale and application. I’m inspired by numerous faculty who have experimented with diverse methodologies over the years with a fearless approach to taking on sometimes daunting challenges utilizing this process. With risk comes great reward and perhaps one of the greatest risk/rewards I’ve experienced was using the DesignStorm process for the Designmatters LEAP Symposium with over a hundred participants. While our facilitation team of over twenty faculty and students embraced the challenge — we were pushed out of our comfort zone. The outcomes from LEAP were compelling, authentic and innovative due to the experimental nature of the process coupled with complete support from the stakeholders.

Important lessons I’ve learned regarding “experimentation”:

Trust in the process, trust in your team.

Create the space and time to play.

Celebrate the accomplishments.


by Steven Butler

What are the elements that make up a good story? There are all the usual things like, structure, character, and plot. But ultimately a story can also be riveting and connect with an audience with just one simple component; emotionality. If you can make the audience feel something, then they will follow and support your story until the end.

You might be asking yourself, “What does storytelling technique have to do with social impact design?” At one time, I was asking myself the same question. I made a general assumption that design for good was also inherently design for boring. Boy, was I wrong…

One of my favorite Designmatters projects is the Mpala Solar Camel Clinic. The first time I saw this camel strapped with all that hardware, I thought it was something out of a science fiction movie. I soon learned that in some parts of the world, camels are still used to transport goods to hard-to-reach remote areas. But what happens when they need to transport items like medicine that require refrigeration?

Some clever design students from ArtCenter College of Design and scientists from The Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials devised a plan to create solar-powered refrigeration units that could be mounted on a camel. Genius, right? These “do-gooders” travelled all the way to Kenya to field test the designs and document their findings. And us lucky folks got to observe and witness the joy that was brought to people in need of basic medical assistance. I don’t know about you, but when I look at the image below it generates a feeling of warmth in my soul that is indescribable. To put it simply, I actually care and empathize with all those involved in the project, from the creators to the users. And, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that feels that way about Designmatters projects.

Some of Designmatters best projects/stories have garnered attention from some of the biggest media outlets in the world. Students have won prestigious design competitions and received thousands of dollars in support from outside organizations in order to continue developing their social impact projects. And this is all because they’ve created a design that touches people and ignites the imagination; projects like a pedal-powered washer/spin dryer, or a portable water heater and pressurized shower, or even a fictional cartoon character that teaches children the dangers of hot things. These are the kind of “cool things” that you tell your friends about or that inspire the creative spirit in one to “do good.”

So what’s there to learn from all this? At the end of the day, we as humans are inherently drawn to storytelling because of our need to connect with one another over a common bond. If I had to describe that connection in one word, it would be empathy. Working with Designmatters has taught me to embrace empathy and also what it truly means to create change in the world through the beautiful guise of storytelling + design.


by Dr. Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati

Es Tiempo: Using Design in Advocacy

Design is a powerful force in advocating and promoting public health change. It can save people’s lives! Given alarmingly high rates of cervical cancer among Latinas in Los Angeles, there was an urgency to intervene effectively in order to save women’s lives. Designmatters students and faculty responded to this challenge by creating Es Tiempo, with researchers from the University of Southern California. Es Tiempo is a stunningly beautiful and innovative Spanish/English public education campaign that uses the annual bloom of the purple jacaranda tree in Los Angeles to advocate for regular cervical cancer screening. In 2015, the campaign teamed up with the Los Angeles Office of Women’s health and local clinics to pilot test in Boyle Heights, in-clinic and outdoor media components. Outdoor media was placed in surrounding streets of Clínica Monseñor Oscar Romero and consisted of billboards, bus benches, and light post banners. Clínica displayed posters and mailed 350 postcards to Latina patients that were not up to date on Pap screenings. The campaign was very well received with 64% of women that had been out of compliance, completing a Pap test in the campaign period. Innovatively designed materials can impact the most vulnerable populations.

Es Tiempo is a design tool for advocacy. It empowers and inspires women to make a difference in their own lives and that of their family and community. “Es Tiempo” — It’s time to make cervical cancer a “disease of the past”.

For the complete listing of 15 Buzzwords for 15 Years, and to view our storytelling campaign archive, please visit:

Notes from the Edge of Design

Voices from the intersection of design and poverty

Designmatters ArtCenter

Written by

Through research, advocacy and action, Designmatters engages, empowers and leads an ongoing exploration of art and design as a positive force in society.

Notes from the Edge of Design

Voices from the intersection of design and poverty

Designmatters ArtCenter

Written by

Through research, advocacy and action, Designmatters engages, empowers and leads an ongoing exploration of art and design as a positive force in society.

Notes from the Edge of Design

Voices from the intersection of design and poverty

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