“Our students get over the idea that they, as an individual, have all of the answers. It is not an easy thing to get over. Most designers are taught to approach things individually, as if they always have the brilliant end-all idea in their head.”—Jamer Hunt

Jamer Hunt: Director, Transdisciplinary Design MFA, Parsons / New York NY

“our students get over the idea that they, as an individual, have all of the answers. it is not an easy thing to get over. Most designers are taught to approach things individually, as if they always have the brilliant end-all idea in their head.”—jamer hunt

What does “transdisciplinary” mean within your program?
I am the director of the graduate Transdisciplinary Design Program at Parsons. The program has been around for four years. I am part of a team of ten faculty. We have a relatively straightforward objective, which is to find a way to use design to address large-scale, complex problems. To do that, we need to bring in designers, but also other kinds of experts.

The reason we started a transdisciplinary design program, was that we felt as though a lot of the challenges that we were exploring did not belong within certain disciplines at all. They sort of transcended disciplines. We also saw the opportunity for designers working with other fields to develop new approaches that belong neither to design, as a discipline, or other professions. Somehow, we wanted something that hovered between those two entities. The term was useful because it was kind of an empty signifier, in the sense that it allowed us to do a number of things within that space. A lot of what we’ve tried to do with the program doesn’t define what transdisciplinary is, as a practice, but instead uses the opportunity of the program to work with students to discover what the program can become over time. There is a strong emphasis on making sure that the program is very open, collaborative, and that we are not tying down our methods too much. We are always open to new approaches and new kinds of interactions within the projects. As a result, it is a really exploratory and experimental program, and it’s one that will hopefully continue to define itself over time. We do have certain things that we do consistently, but the curriculum is pretty open and free-form. It really is defined by the student and the work that they want to develop. The faculty guide and set up an infrastructure to support that.

What are students expecting out of the program? Why are they choosing it?
By and large, most of the students come to our program for two reasons. 1) They are very lateral thinkers. They may have a background in industrial design or faction or social studies, but they are always looking at what is going on in other fields. So they want to make connections. They are curious about the intersections of disciplinary practices. 2) The students are driven by a desire to apply their energies towards a more meaningful, socially oriented change. Many of them are people who have practiced for three, four, or five years within a design profession and they understand what they are doing. But they look at the narrowness of their disciplinary approach, and they look at the world around them and see a lot of big, hairy issues that they want to get involved with. Our students want to apply their energies, but they’re not quite sure how to do that. In a lot of ways, our program allows students to bridge practices in order to find ways to address large-scale systems. It is usually a combination of those two things.

Does that mean the program gravitates towards Designer As Altruist?
I think a lot of the students come in with a very strong altruistic streak. They want to do socially meaningful work. They have an interest in social justice. But we certainly don’t talk much about altruism. I think that can become a self-serving, inglorious kind of thing. In our case, it becomes more about looking at how you change systems. That’s really the biggest challenge for us: understanding the role that design can play in large-scale systems. And we are only beginning to scratch the surface on that. It’s a generational challenge.

We want students to feasibly find scaled projects, so that they are actually able to not just go through the motions and pretend that they are making change, but to actually try to implement change, even if it’s at a very local level.

Does that mean students are investigating Wicked Problems, or small-scale manifestations of Wicked Problems? Or do students choose projects that address specific local issues?
I think it is a combination of those two things. When students are initially framing projects, they are thinking in terms of large-scale, wicked problems. That might be public education, food systems, healthcare, or any of those broad, systemic issues, but none of our students are going to solve healthcare, food systems, or public education on their own. So they need to use that interest to identify a feasibly scaled project, and hopefully then expand into larger projects within the system. We don’t have any particular visions; we are not expecting students to make massive change, but I think they are really looking at the complexity of situations, and then finding ways to strategically or tactically intervene within the systems, to at least start implementing change.

Does that mean the students are collaborating on projects, and the interdisciplinary skill sets come at the group level?
There are a couple of ways to answer that. The first is that the students do come from a range of backgrounds. They primarily have design backgrounds, but we also have some people on the fringes of design, whether it is in business, strategy, social research, writing, fine arts, or computer science. When they come into the program, all of the projects are collaborative, starting from the very first week. We try to teach collaboration as a core, 21st century skill or capacity. We feel like that is essential. What’s interesting is that because students are obliged to collaborate from the very beginning, for much of the two years that they spend here, they are constantly collaborating. Our students get over the idea that they, as an individual, have all of the answers. It is not an easy thing to get over. Most designers are taught to approach things individually, as if they always have the brilliant end-all idea in their head.

A lot of the work, depending on the project, is done in small teams, and typically with external partners. They work in a studio context on their thesis with an external partner, who brings a very different perspective to what they are doing. There are very small, three to four–person collaborative teams within the program, and then there are also larger fields that we draw upon when we get into the external collaborations. That can be anything from the Red Cross and disaster preparedness, to the World Bank and climate change, to small-scale local social service organizations. We are typically working on problems with partners. We don’t always get to the point of implementation, but that is our goal.

What skills do incoming students need?
It’s funny, because I see a lot of applications from prospective students who often feel the need to demonstrate that they are transdisciplinary. So they will show their paintings from high school, and their sculptures from grade school, or something like that, trying to really prove that they have a broad range. In fact, that’s not particularly interesting. We are mostly looking for people who have a very strong point of view and bring a skill set that is developed; we value the ability for candidates to take ideas, make them visual, and model them. You do see some people that come from a range of disciplines. We feel like they learn the capabilities and cooperative modes while they are here in the program. We don’t feel like they need to come in with that.

Sometimes you see students who have genuinely done remarkable kinds of work. One of our students started a micro-finance bank in Providence with a number of other graduates from the University. She brought together a really interesting group of students and was able to make something quite real and effective. That’s a fantastic example of someone already coming in thinking in broad, strategic terms about how to facilitate change. Most students have more typical backgrounds, where they have studied industrial design, for example, have worked in a consultancy for three or four years, and there is nothing that they are lacking in that field per se, but it’s more about them wanting to expand their skill set and capacities while they are in the program. That’s typically what they are looking to do. We are definitely open to looking closely at students with a very strong focus and individual kinds of disciplinary approaches.

There is both a portfolio, which demonstrates the work, and a statement of purpose, which is somewhat more aspirational. We want to know if the candidates are asking the right questions and looking beyond the discipline that they are in, to find inspiration. We are always on the lookout for people who have a very developed set of capacities and skills, but also people who are curious about the world, and who are putting that together with a sense of agility.

Does the group sometimes struggle to devise or implement a cooperative approach?
More and more, as the program develops, people are understanding that collaboration is the framework. A lot of them are looking for that kind of thing, although not always. More and more, they are well aware of what they are getting into, and they see that as an opportunity, but it is never easy. Collaboration is probably the hardest part of the program, and we insist on it, but that doesn’t mean that they are all good at it. And that doesn’t mean that it goes well.

When it comes to collaboration, if you break down the challenges, the challenges all come back to personalities. This person doesn’t do this or that person doesn’t do that. But you can build collaborative skills along the way to help them become better at it. You can’t engineer the people out of a collaboration. There are a lot of emotional and psychological challenges that go into working with people closely: sharing ideas, accepting certain roles, not always using your idea, not always understanding that a project needs to move forward without your agreement. A lot of designers are trained to come up with an idea, develop the idea, fight for it, argue for it, and eventually produce it. It’s hard for them to throw an idea out there and find out that their team decided not to go in that direction. And they still have to find a way to be enthusiastic. It is never going to be easy. It will never be resolved. But hopefully, over time, our program will help develop their skills and approaches to manage personality differences.

How do you go about that? How do you teach people how to work together?
Part of it is building a culture. From the very first week, we combine first and second year students on collaborative projects. The second-year students help the first-year students understand what it means to collaborate and share what they’ve learned. We also bring in people with backgrounds in collaboration. We have one person who works on creative collaboration and takes the students through a lot of exercises to help them understand the problems that they are going to face, as well as the skills and the tricks for working their way out of certain situations. It is a constant process of learning how to teach collaborative techniques.

If they come into a place that is energized and animated by the fact that they are collaborating, it is not seen as a drag on what they want to do in the world, and it is actually seen as a net benefit. My parable on collaboration, my mantra, is that in a good collaboration, 1 + 1 + 1 = 4. But in a lot of collaborations, what you often see is 1 + 1 + 1 = 2. Sometimes three people working together only produce the amount of work that two could. In this case, collaboration is limiting their ability to get work done. So we try to get the students to the point where 1 + 1 + 1 at least equals 3. But we really want students to get something additional out of their collaboration, rather than it diminishing the kind of work that they can already do.

Our hope now is that as these approaches get ingrained even more within our culture, that there will be less time fixated on collaborative process, and more time on producing. Inevitably, there is a balance between those things.

Part of the reason that universities exist, and that this graduate program exists, is to be able to extend that process, to find a way to do it more effectively. School is for when somebody doesn’t have the time to do that in a professional setting, where it’s always about producing for a deadline. Within an academic environment, you have the luxury and the freedom to stretch out the process a little bit; making an object in a study, we help the students reflect on how they work, rather than just that they work. I think we will always pay attention to process, because I think that is how you teach design. The dynamic within our program is one where the students are not only expected to emphasize their process as they are working, but they emphasize it themselves, to the point where things really slow down. The students don’t get nearly as far in a project as they would like. What tends to be produced in the end is more of a record of their collaboration and the workshop that they have done. The idea of producing a solution becomes the hardest thing. It can be difficult to find the right size for that solution, or the right scope for the design brief itself. I would say that we are always trying to encourage the students to produce more. They are constantly taking a step back and reflecting, researching, and doing anything but producing.

It’s an ongoing tension in the program—there’s no question about that. And I think it is for very obvious reasons. The things that they are working on do not resolve themselves easily. And design doesn’t have a huge history working in these fields. So it’s not as if the students can look at it like a poster that features of all the chairs that have been produced in history. If you are designing a chair, you kind of know what a chair looks like and how it functions. Then you innovate within that. When you are looking at how to design for the end of life, or issues of food access within the South Bronx, there is not an easy solution in there, and it is not easy to make something that makes sense for the scope and scale of the project. The biggest challenge for us is: What exactly are the students making?

It seems like there’s a local New York emphasis to the work.
Mayor Bloomberg had an initiative to bring in a group of 20 to 25 designers, including the academic Dean at Parsons, to consult on design. There was a lot of infrastructure for social change already built in New York. So I didn’t need to introduce that particular kind of initiative. But what I think did translate, and what started with the earlier work that I did in Philadelphia, was working on a park with the local community, and specifically, the idea that design can be an inclusive, collaborative activity that is not about superstar designers creating glamorous chairs or buildings. It is about transforming the fabric of the everyday experience, and to do that best, we need to bring everyday people into that equation. That has always been my approach to thinking about design. So that very much influences and impacts the program. It’s not just because of me—it is also because we know a lot of faculty at Parsons that share that sensibility. It’s something that’s within the drinking water at Parsons already. So it was easy to catalyze that. But if we look at the overall leadership and curriculum of Parsons from ten or fifteen years ago, it really was about the individual designer preparing for an industry job. Now there has been a radical transformation in the way that design is conceived. There is much more emphasis on the social impact of the design, and looking at design through a broader lens. It was a good time for me to come in, because I think the leadership was already having these kinds of conversations.

Why did the school shift? Was it due to external or internal factors?
One of the external factors was that there had been a massive reorganization within Parsons. Historically, the school was organized by departments. Each department had more or less one full-time faculty member and everyone else was part-time. The logic was, students came to Parsons in order to work with people who were working in the industry, and these people would come teach a course here and a course there. For a variety of reasons, there was a sense that Parsons needed to move towards a more research and academic–oriented culture. Because of some internal reorganization, Parsons had the opportunity to hire a lot of new full-time faculty. About eight years ago, the full-time faculty at Parsons was about 25 total. In those eight years or so, it has increased to 170. This means that Parsons brought in close to 150 new full-time people, who are energized, excited by the mission, and who are not senior faculty. Senior faculty sometimes hold up progress by sticking to something that they have done for the past 30 years. Instead, we got really bright, energetic people who are thinking in really hybrid ways about what design can be. It has created a massive cultural change within the institution.

Part of the work of the last five years has been to get the curriculum and infrastructure up to the same speed of the faculty and creative culture at Parsons. It has been quite a deliberate and successful culture change. I have always thought that hiring 150 full-time faculty over the last eight to ten years is probably the largest change of its kind in the history of schools of art and design. It’s unprecedented. Being in New York City, which has this incredibly intense, really dynamic, global, cosmopolitan culture, has meant that we have been able to do some really exciting things. It has been a paradigm shift, mostly towards nudging along the idea of the designer as the sole repository for the solutions, to a much more open and collaborative process, by looking at cities, services, ecosystems, innovation, and a whole series of things. Design plays a role in collaboration with other kinds of professionals. One of the things that I am doing at Parsons is working in the Provost’s office, developing a university-wide, transdisciplinary initiative that will bring together laboratories of faculty with graduate students around some key emerging topics, where they can work on those for a year or three years. We want to break down this island at the graduate level. We want to bring together people from different backgrounds; not only in design, but also in social, management, policy, economics, and performance, and try to generate some new models to practice.

When students leave the program, how do they implement this way of thinking and working? What kinds of jobs do they pursue?
That is a huge factor: at $40,000 a year, it is a massive investment on students’ behalf. A long time ago, I would have thought that our job was really only about the education that they got. But now I know that our job is to provide a great education, and also to help them frame their own practice moving out into the world, so that they have opportunities when they leave the program. If we teach people who can’t find work, and are in significant amounts of debt, we won’t have a sustainable model. We work a lot with the students to identify their practice by their third semester. Even though they have been working collaboratively, how do they frame their own practice? And then, how do they identify community practice? If you are interested in educational innovation, then what does that landscape look like? The students are expected to map out their community of practice, so that if they understand that they are in educational innovation, for example, who are the key players? Where are the interesting things happening? What are the big ideas? What language is being spoken?

My mantra about that is, I don’t want students leaving the program and saying, “I am a transdisciplinary designer; figure me out.” I really want students saying to their employers or partners or collaborators, “I understand your needs, and this is how I can help out.”

The students, for the most part, are moving on to larger design consultancies. Quite a few people have started their own small consulting gigs, as freelancers. Some of them start small businesses together, but those have been a little harder for students to engineer. One of the most exciting opportunities, but one of the hardest ones, is working in fields where designers have not traditionally worked. So whether that is working with NGOs, public health, World Bank, or in a hospital—that is a really exciting opportunity. We’ve had one student who went on to do their PhD at Karolinska Institutet, a research hospital in Sweden, and the challenge is that a lot of these places don’t hire full-time designers. A cultural change is necessary from their end. We love students to go into policy and government. We are working on that, but it is a harder sell, typically because the organizations are often very intrigued by the idea of design, and they want to try to incorporate it in new ways, but they often don’t have the actual administrative line to hire a designer full-time.

Why are you personally on the education front, teaching collaborative design?
I used to teach because the academic lifestyle has four months off in the summer, so that seemed like the best idea. Now I seem to only get a couple weeks off, if I am lucky. I like the challenge. I love teaching. I love working with students. It is a pleasure. And it stimulates me in ways that I often forget about until I am in the midst of it. But I also think that there is a really interesting change that’s happening. When you are looking at shift from a commercial design practice, which is what it was historically, you really had a client and a designer in a pay-for-service model. It was a one-to-one relationship. Clients would pay designers to provide them with a design. What is interesting, is that in order to address these more socially complex kinds of problems, the client-designer model doesn’t fit. The model that tends to fit instead, is an assemblage of a lab—often a university, a government, a foundation, or a consultancy.

I also like to write and think and partner in different ways, so I am excited to stay in the academic environment, while still able to collaborate with consultancies, governments, museums, and community groups. That puts me in a privileged position to seek out partnerships and do really interesting work. I think it is harder to do that in this field, in a professional context. It is just a lot more pressure to do traditional, client-based work or fee-for-service work, and I don’t think that really applies in the interest of large-scale systems change.

If you could work on any project or any type of project or medium, what would it be?
One thing that I would love to do is rethink the University. Part of the way that I have framed my work, is about using design to change the possibilities of what an institution can do. I want to think through and model organizational change. Right now, I feel like a hopeless insider. The model of higher education in the US is really broken, and the costs are just ridiculously high. They exclude people who are tremendously talented, who simply can’t pay. I have no illusions that we will go from charging a lot of money to charging nothing, but I think the leadership is very interested in exploring what the next phase of an institution can be. I love thinking about educational innovation.

If you can affect an institution, you can affect a lot of people, and that can influence other institutions. I see the educational environment as the field that I work in as a designer. So while it is partly teaching, I see my work as much more about creating structural change.