Sep 16, 2010
Zelda Harrison

Design, A Viable Tool For Social Innovation?

AN INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM DRENTTEL OF WINTERHOUSE.

Philosophy, Motivation and Inspiration

XCD: Could you please share your background with our readers? How did you launch a career in Design? As someone who arguably has many career options, what has been the most compelling aspect of being a Designer?
WD: I began my career with a decade-long stint in advertising, working at Saatchi & Saatchi in Italy, Canada and the U.S. I then launched a design firm, Drenttel Doyle Partners, in 1985, and latter mutated into an online designer when I merged with my future wife, Jessica Helfand, to form Winterhouse.

XCD: Do you embrace a particular philosophy that guides your work? Your choice of clients and projects?
WD: At Winterhouse, we have always chosen to stay small and to work with a select group of clients and partners. For the past decade, we have worked almost exclusively with universities, NGOs and non-profits.

Design Criticism, Critical Writing about Design


XCD: How was Design Observer born? How would you account for its success?

WD: Design Observer was started in 2003 and was a passion and a hobby for a long time. With my partners Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand, we just keep slugging away at publishing what we considered great writing about design. A few years later we woke up to the reality that we had a huge audience, and suddenly we were being nominated for Webby Awards for best writing online with The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker and Wired. Our success is simply that we stayed focused on the quality of the writing.

XCD: You’re pretty well known in the United States as a design critic, and an advocate of writing about Design. Do you think all aspects of design are being adequately covered? Are there issues — that even the Design Observer and Change Observer haven’t touched – that you feel would be pertinent to the Design Community and the general public? How would you suggest that a forum on these issues be developed?
WD: A large issue facing both the design profession and the users and proponents of design is simply that we do not have real design journalism and criticism. Architecture has a history of theory and criticism: design does not. Design is talked about as a means to business success, but there are few design case studies being taught in business schools. And now design and design thinking are supposed to be the Holy Grail for anything and everything. How often do you read about design failing, or design as an integrative part of larger processes — especially as we realize the importance of sustainability and possibilities for social innovation. Fundamentally design is still in its childhood.

XCD: You are a key element behind the Winterhouse Awards. Could you briefly describe its purpose? How would you evaluate its success so far with recipients and the Design community? Would you propose more efforts at writing about Design in Journalism/Communications programmes? Perhaps in Design Education as a whole?
WD: I think your question is too broad. The AIGA Winterhouse Writing Awards for Design Writing and Criticism have a simple purpose: to encourage and recognize outstanding writing about design. I think we need to grow writers who can serve as critics, observers and journalists. It will happen one writer at a time, just as every book is ultimately read by one reader at a time. Every writer we have recognized is still writing, many for broader audiences than before their award. This is slow, hard work. But we have faith and patience.

Design in service to Humanity

XCD: Your Pollingplace Photo Project is a wonderful — deceptively simple — portrayal of civic action. Would you subscribe to notion that civic-mindedness is on the decline? How would you account for this? Demographic changes? Shifts in power structure? Or that citizens no longer feel empowered nor adequately represented?
WD: I live in America. Today, we have Sarah Palin in the news and the new Tea Party seems emergent. But Barrack Obama is still president. American citizens elected someone who ran precisely on a platform of civic-engagement, and his fiercest opponents will engage millions because they disagree.
I don’t think civic-engagement is in decline — rather I think only a percentage of our citizens are engaged. In my own rural, small-town community, citizens are grappling with issues of low-income housing and how to support local farming. These issues generate broad support and strong opposition. What we saw when we mounted the Polling Place Photo Project is that in all 50 states people were proud to vote, and were willing to stand in line to vote.  That just over a majority (56.8% in last presidential election) of U.S. citizens vote is of course a tragedy and a challenge. But I know so many designers deeply engaged in creating processes for government transparency or get out the vote campaigns — or encouraging the elderly to get flu shots at polling places.
There is a movie in which a President says, “Democracy is not easy. It’s advanced civics.” I subscribe to this notion that civic engagement is rewarding, and hard work, and not for everyone.

XCD: During your presentation at the Indaba conference, you implied that many efforts at Social Innovation are “failing”. What would you attribute this failure to?
WD: I think I was trying to suggest that many social innovation initiatives, despite their sincerity and good intentions, will not be successful or scalable in creating true impacts on poverty or hunger or homelessness. We should not stop encouraging these initiatives, but too many of the projects written about and celebrated are really what I call “weekend projects.” Deep, systemic change will result from deep, systemic work.
One example: At the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, where I serve on the advisory board, we have large teams (50+ people) across multiple platforms working on healthcare and wellness issues. Trying to solve rural healthcare delivery in villages where there are limited or no doctors is simply not the same scope as designing an identity or marketing program for a large company.
The goal is not simply to sell someone something, but rather to change whole systems (financial, governmental, technological) as patterns of behavior (by doctors, patients, healthcare providers, hospitals, insurance companies).
We need expertise and experience and time to engage deeply. It’s that simple. But it’s a daunting challenge for designers who want to think of themselves as problem-solvers when the problems are “wickedly hard.”

XCD: Tell us about Teach For All? What have been your latest successes? Any successes/milestones in the Teach for All Global Challenge you’d care to share? What has the Teach For All experience given you that you would like to share in particular with a South African audience?
WD: Teach For All is not in South Africa, so I cannot speak to your local situation. (Although I did meet with friends working with Teach South Africa when I was in Cape Town and was so pleased to hear that they had placed young teachers in schools there.) Teach For All will be in 20+ countries by 2011 and we are helping local social entrepreneurs in those countries form new education initiatives and hoping to accelerate their growth and impact.
Having started only in 2009, it’s amazing what we have achieved. But it, again, is the tip of an iceberg to grow to scale where one can see improvements within any single country, much less around the world. But as a designer, I’m so proud to have been involved with Teach For All. More here.

XCD: Lately, you’ve received support for your mission to promote “collective action and collaboration for social impact across the design industry”. What are some of the projects are now taking shape and what kind of collaborators you do you envision? How will you judge the effectiveness of your programmes?  Any thoughts about “programme maintenance by the client”, and replication/scalability into other cultures and environments?
WD: For the past two years Winterhouse has received significant support from the Rockefeller Foundation. It’s the largest project of my career, and such a challenge. Rockefeller is not a client but a sponsor and partner: they are light on supervision and heavy on encouragement and ideas. We have held numerous summits, one in Aspen Colorado working with the Center for Disease Control, Mayo Clinic, UNICEF, etc. on concrete projects of social innovation, and one in Italy exploring the role of the museum as an agent for social innovation. We have new case studies being published with Yale School of Management. And we have published hundreds of articles covering the zone of design and social innovation on Change Observer. We are just getting started, and there is so much to learn.

Concluding thoughts

XCD: Does anything keep you up at night? What gets you through the day? What would you need from us to keep your vision going?

WD: I worry every day that I am not doing enough, and that the challenges are so daunting. During the past two years I have met so many other people doing so much more — and who know so much more.
It’s so exciting that’s it’s easy to get dazzled: what one needs instead is a steel-like fortitude. My trip around the world with my family this year showed us so much need, and so many avenues for exploration and work. South Africa was especially exciting because of its rich heritage and stunningly complicated problems and challenges. I retuned to the United States with this deep sense that both global and local solutions will come with great difficulty, and with a renewed commitment to learning and doing this work.
It was such a humbling experience.

William Drenttel is a graphic designer, publisher and design leader. He works in the mountains north of New York City at Winterhouse, a design studio focused on social innovation, online publishing, and educational and cultural institutions. He is president emeritus of AIGA, a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management, and the editorial director of Design Observer, a leading site of design news, commentary and cultural observation.

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