“People have realized what Disney and Apple figured out and capitalized on a long time ago, which is to create holistic experiences. Collaborative teams are figuring out so many different ways to create experiences and package those experiences.”—Don Carr

Don Carr: Senior COLAB Faculty Fellow, Syracuse University / Syracuse NY

“people have realized what disney and apple figured out and capitalized on a long time ago, which is to create holistic experiences. collaborative teams are figuring out so many different ways to create experiences and package those experiences.”—don carr

What prompted you to make an MFA in Collaborative Design program?
Having taught within the Industrial Design program at Syracuse for a number of years, I’ve watched many of our graduates become researchers, strategists, and envisioners at places such as Continuum and IDEO. I’ve seen their impact, and it’s safe to say that a decreasing percentage of what they do in their professional practice can be defined as industrial design, communication design, or environmental design, etc. As educators, we need to acknowledge and facilitate the growing number of unconventional paths. Given the variety of skills our students possess, it’s interesting that most graduates still hope to land a position working for another designer. These traditional paths remain; however, for many, these paths have become far too narrow. With so much collaborative potential, 99% of what could be explored as a design problem is not being considered. I can’t blame them; between student loans and the intrigue of working for an established firm, it’s a tall order to ask of any recent graduate to explore an alternative path and embrace the risks.

For a number of years, we’ve wanted to explore the idea of creating a collaborative studio working with more experienced students, possibly mid-career professionals that join the program with experience in a variety of fields. This is their chance to take part in a series of immersive efforts and then see how the pieces go back together. This is a brand new program. It’s an experiment based on our belief in the collaborative process.

Syracuse University + Hallmark + Continuum

courtesy of don carr

What makes a student a good fit for this program?
We have applicants with backgrounds in communication design, industrial design, architecture, interior design, UX, engineering, writing, etc. I think the common thread is that they all see the connections that can be made within a highly collaborative studio environment. They see this program as an important step to evoke change in their careers.

A student that comes out of this program might question what they’ll do with their degree. The reality is that collaborative opportunities now exist, and the careers of many of our alums serve as great examples. I’ve referenced these individuals, because it speaks to the larger issue of making the commitment to jump into one of these collaborative programs. Students need to look beyond their time within the program to whatever they see themselves doing in the long term. Any collaborative design student needs that perspective.

Another question that we’ve discussed has been to consider what a thesis show or portfolio might look like upon graduation. It’s essential that our faculty help students articulate what they’ve learned and the value they bring to employers. Because this work happens within the context of a research-based university, we have the leeway and the responsibility to take risks with our curricular projects. At the same time, we have to promote each of our collaborative efforts as an opportunity to impact the field.

What is the process of starting an MFA in Collaborative Design at a large university?
Both the Industrial Design and Interior Design Programs at Syracuse have a 90-year history, and there was a time when both had masters programs. With our recent move downtown, each of the design disciplines is now located under one roof, rather than being dispersed across our campus. Being located in the Armory Square district, we’re able to take on a range of community-related projects. Our long term strategy is not to treat this seven-story building like a layer cake, separating each of the disciplines. Instead, we’ve thought about how to envision a space for people that embraces design more holistically. Therefore, we’ve placed the MFA Collaborative Design Studio on the 4th floor for everyone to access.

The decision to start an MFA in Collaborative Design was also partly based on our not having active graduate programs in any of the design majors. Therefore, if we could only lead with one grad program, it made sense that we look at places like the, and make our MFA all encompassing. The original name for the program was Design+, the “+” being our to connection to the greater university.

I think this is true of many schools: everybody wants to collaborate with Design. Our goal with the MFA is to work closely with a variety of disciplines. The Aging Studies Institute is based on our campus, and is now one of our strategic partners. So are Engineering and Architecture. Recently, we began discussions with the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI), who deals with issues related to disability law. We’ve brought all of these groups into the collaborative design conversation. This is how we’ve been able to gain the support of our administration, by working in conjunction with others.

How do these relationships translate into coursework for students?
Well, earlier I mentioned that we have many alumni that work at companies such as Continuum, a company that was founded by one of our most esteemed alumni, Gianfranco Zaccai. At Continuum, another alum, Heather Reavey, is the leader of their Strategy Group. There’s a holistic approach to the way Heather and the team approach their work that relates directly to our coursework.

courtesy of don carr

There are also pitfalls to the process. Taking the time to document and follow-up our efforts is a big challenge. What typically happens in a collaborative environment is that designers can charrette something for an entire weekend and get excited about a series of ideas. However, on Monday morning, everybody wakes up and the reality of a long list of other priorities sinks in. Too often, ideas that are either not acted upon or not fully realized, fall to the wayside. Our collaborative teams need to capture everything in real time and then create better tools to inventory and access these ideas. As we continue, we’ll focus on the design of collaborative sessions, and a great deal of effort will be dedicated to how we refine our process.

How does collaborative design help solve the big global issues?
We have a diverse student group, therefore we’re able to study wicked problems from multiple perspectives. Designers are great at getting people to purchase and consume, however the net result is that we’re rapidly depleting the world’s resources. However, the power of design is such that we have the potential to get people to do the right thing, and not simply feel they’re getting by with less. We have to believe teams that can approach global problems with a collaborative conscience have the ability to shape a new reality.

Why is work bridging collaboration, design, and interdisciplinarity so popular right now?
People have realized what Disney and Apple figured out and capitalized on a long time ago, which is to create holistic experiences. Collaborative teams are figuring out so many different ways to create experiences and package those experiences. There is a higher level of discussion going on within collaborative, interdisciplinary groups, and that’s how they’re moving beyond traditional design. Places like Continuum and IDEO touch on so many different skill sets. When it works, they’re able to have meta-conversations that lead to more holistic outcomes.

The maker movement is really about a belief in the essence of human making at the local/social level. When someone has a connection with the artifact, and some idea of how it’s made, that’s really significant. People want more out of the experience of acquiring things, and much of this mystique is centered on storytelling. Whatever the scale of production, designers are so good at the crafting of experience. I think we are realizing our collective power of manipulation. I view manipulation as both a negative and a positive, with regards to our impact on society.

For example, Syracuse has a mall called Destiny. For years, the developer was attempting to build the largest indoor destination in this country. Upon reflection, now that people no longer have the need to physically go out and shop, why are people still trying to build the world’s largest shopping destination in Syracuse? It comes down to experiences. The online experience is now as good as the physical experience. Both can be designed to be equally engaging.