By the time Eva Maddox had been in business more than 30 years, she had already achieved a significant amount of notoriety for her accomplishments as an interior architect and designer. She had won more than 70 awards for her work. Her creations had been featured in 16 books and in more than 60 magazines and journals.
She had also gained recognition in her profession for coming up with the concept of “branded environments” — a design sensibility that argues that anyone who walks through the door of a workplace ought to be able to decipher immediately what people do there, who they do it for, and what values the organization stands for. And, having coined that notion, Maddox had helped Ogilvy & Mather, John Hancock, and Hallmark Cards, as well as several hospitals and museums, to adapt it for use in the development of their own work spaces.
In all likelihood, however, Maddox will leave as her greatest legacy not an office interior, a museum, or any other working example of her design aesthetic. Instead, she will leave behind a design school that doesn’t even bear her name but that is based in large measure on her philosophy of leadership. It is a legacy that traces its beginning to an idle comment made in 1993 by the then-city manager of Muskegon, Michigan, where Maddox and a colleague, Stanley Tigerman, 69, were working on designs to revive the city’s lakefront. The city manager suggested that Maddox and Tigerman open a school to teach the kind of community involvement that they displayed in Muskegon. On the car ride home, Maddox and Tigerman resolved to do just that.
One year later, in 1994, Archeworks was born in Chicago. The mission: to provide an alternative, multidisciplinary education to a dozen students, one year at a time, and to put them to work on projects for nonprofits and other organizations that ordinarily would not have the financial resources needed to acquire good design talent. The Archeworks students immediately found opportunities to apply their craft to a wide variety of worthy projects: making furniture for disabled people who live in single-room occupancy (SRO) residences, designing pillboxes to help AIDS patients take their prescribed cocktail of pharmaceuticals on schedule, and building improved head pointers for cerebral-palsy patients to wear to help them communicate better.
Next, Maddox and Tigerman threw themselves wholeheartedly into the task of giving Archeworks a real home. They found land, they erected a building, they cajoled furniture makers into outfitting the place, and they taught classes to students at night. “We weren’t trying to provide a conventional education,” Maddox says. “We wanted to provide an avenue for examining unexplored design problems in a positive environment that would produce results.”
Maddox makes it all sound very simple, but underlying her approach to design is a basic tenet of good leadership that many people fail to understand. “Eva is all about breaking down barriers,” says Tigerman, who remains her partner at Archeworks. “It’s one of the central tenets of Archeworks, and it comes straight out of her mouth.” The barriers that affect the design world — those between theory and practice, those between disciplines, and those between the haves and the have-nots — happen to be ones that confound many organizations in all sorts of industries. Here’s how Maddox went about breaking down those boundaries at Archeworks.
Don’t stop with the sketch pad.
Before she helped start Archeworks, Maddox had taught at some of Chicago’s best design schools, and she had received plenty of complaints. “At most schools, good design ends on the sketch pad,” she says. “Good ideas are a dime a dozen, and most schools are either all about theory or all about practice. At Archeworks, we wanted to cover both theory and practice — to conduct research, to create ideas, to test them, and then to implement them, all within one year. Unless you can make that happen, a big idea won’t mean anything.”
One of Maddox’s primary roles at Archeworks is to search for projects that contain the best opportunities for students to produce those actionable big ideas. “We never take on projects in which clients know what they need and we just go out and do it,” she says. “We look for clients who have a problem and don’t know what to do about it. That’s the kind of work that gives you a reason for being. Otherwise, you’re doing work that anyone could do, or that people could do for themselves.”
Find your significant others.
It’s one thing to dissolve the barriers that exist between the academic world and real life. It’s another thing altogether to tackle the barriers that exist among designers on both sides of the divide. “Architects have always treated designers badly,” says Tigerman, who is an architect himself and who had been close friends with Maddox for 20 years when they launched Archeworks. “The fact that there are two of us here is symbolic and deliberate. Archeworks would not have worked if it were the patrimony of a single person from a particular discipline.”
Cross-pollination among students at Archeworks is also crucial. About one-third of them are architects, like Tigerman. Another third are interior designers, like Maddox, or industrial designers who work in product development. The rest are what Tigerman calls the program’s “significant others” — lawyers, art historians, retail-display designers, anthropologists, and experts in other fields.
Why do most design schools keep people from different disciplines isolated from one another? “There are too many tensions between departments,” Maddox claims. “Those few institutions that even have engineers and architects and materials scientists all on the same campus tend to pit those groups against one another. The goal seems to be to get people to compete for funding. So why would those groups want to collaborate?”
They would if they could see how many sparks fly when you form the sort of interdisciplinary groups that Archeworks establishes. At Archeworks, the team that was formed to create a more attractive head pointer included a nurse, a former shoe designer for Nike, and a recent architecture-school graduate. The designer knew of a lightweight metal composite material that the team could use to make the frame and the pointer.
The architecture student figured out the optimal construction pattern for the elastic bands that would hold the pointer to the user’s head. The nurse helped the team test the product on a patient. Within a year, the pointer was in production, and it rapidly became an industry standard. Today, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago receives royalties on the sale of the device.
Bring your best stuff to the masses.
Big design firms had not lined up outside the Rehabilitation Institute, clamoring for a chance to redesign head pointers. Which is precisely why Maddox grabbed the project for her students. “When we started, we wanted to become the people you call on to help in places with no funding,” she says, “places where what seems like a small impact could make a major difference.”
This year, Archeworks has taken on three such projects. One is helping the Illinois Department of Welfare reroute its delivery system — and its image. “We’re thinking about the many ways in which design could help change a system like this one,” Maddox says. “Can we change the way welfare money is received — change it in such a way that people might be more inspired to go out and get a job?” Products for Alzheimer’s patients and interior design for federal housing for disabled people are also on the drawing board.
“Design has always served a pretty elite group of customers,” Maddox says, noting that the best design is often available only to people who can afford to pay for it — the people who may need it the least. “Design shapes the way we live. So it ought to serve everyone.”
Ron Lieber (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Contact Eva Maddox by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or visit Archeworks on the Web (www.archeworks.org).
Sidebar: What’s Fast
“As a general rule, the people who have the most money always get the best design,” Eva Maddox explains. “At Archeworks, we think that it’s the people who don’t have much money who are in need of the best design.” Here are Maddox’s principles for design that makes a difference.
Everything starts with education.
Everyone involved in an Archeworks mission has to know what its goals are — and why. To effect social change through good design, Maddox has to educate several different constituencies: students, social-service agencies, and other clients.
Look for projects that are getting the least attention.
Diseases and disorders — and the tools that help people cope with them — go in and out of style in the design world. Little has been done to design products that assist people with Alzheimer’s disease. Archeworks students experimented with various memory-aiding devices, but once they learned that Alzheimer’s patients have a lot of trouble getting in and out of cars, they settled on an entirely different product: a walker that doubles as a horizontal board to help people slide in and out of cars — a product that can help not only Alzheimer’s patients but also anyone who has a limited ability to move around.
Remember who your real customers are.
All service firms — particularly design firms — need to keep in mind the people for whom they’re really working. For instance, by talking to caregivers, the students working with Alzheimer’s patients realized that their new product was most useful to those who help people with Alzheimer’s get in and out of cars. “I’ve always felt that our real customers are our customers’ customers,” Maddox says. “If you don’t keep those people in mind — ask for their input — then you probably won’t be able to improve their lives through your work.”