Where Design Education Needs To Go Next

Students should learn through social innovation–but they also have to understand design’s limitations, says ArtCenter’s Mariana Amatullo.

Mariana Amatullo is vice president of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.


Doreen Lorenzo: What is Designmatters? 

Mariana Amatullo: Designmatters is the social innovation department at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. We are first and foremost a hub for educational enrichment and curricula, so we develop courses that are typically in partnership with organizations that are not design-based, necessarily. We work with companies and industry, but we also work with nonprofits and government, acting as a connector for the college with a dynamic network of organizations in the space of social innovation. Because we are fiercely committed to the notion of “real world” outcomes beyond the walls of our studios, we also function as an incubator: supporting students and partners whenever possible with the design capabilities and resources needed to implement their ideas.

Designmatters curates transdisciplinary projects with partners that any student at ArtCenter can apply to and qualify to take, depending on their discipline. These projects are organized under four thematic pillars—sustainable development, public policy, global health, and social entrepreneurship. The portfolio is national and international; recent examples range from the Wellbeing Project for the city of Santa Monica to redesigning the patient environment of a burn clinic in Chile. In any given semester we have 100 to 120 students across disciplines engaged in some of these courses as well as co-curricular programming that includes workshops, internships, and fellowships. We are launching, this summer, a minor in Design for Social Innovation, which is quite exciting.

Designmatters students and faculty conducting field research in Santiago, Chile, at COANIQUEM HQ.

DL: Are the students helping you shape what Designmatters should look like?

MA: It’s definitely a two-way street. We have courses that are coming out of concerns the students have. So the students come up with a topic for a course—a recent example addressed the notion of designing for transformation through the ideation of tool kits—and then we’re able to provide faculty mentorship and guidance to put these courses into the curriculum.

That said, I believe it is our responsibility as educators to always have a big-picture view to shape inquiry, and it’s not only a student-driven path that gets us to develop a curriculum that is rigorous and robust. It is through faculty leadership and collaboration with our partners that we identify how to best leverage the creativity of our students. We are also intentional about weaving in the right expertise needed outside of design to ensure we are always grounding the exploration in responsible and culturally appropriate ways. And then students, of course, make it real. I’m always very impressed about the kind of magic that happens where we are tackling “wicked problems”—interdependent, complex issues—and that’s one of the joys of my work, to witness how transformative these projects can be, not only because of their outcomes, but also in terms of the learning that happens for everyone involved. The students never cease to surprise me by the kind of thoughtful resonance work that they’re able to zero in on.


One of our objectives is to guide our students through a process of experimentation that enables them to take on a reflexive and critical perspective and see how what they’re doing might be part of a larger system in social innovation. There are many aspects of the work that require you master the skill to pursue problem-discovery and accept that you might simply not find a definitive solution. Understanding how you place yourself as a designer in that larger system is as critical as it is challenging.

Students work with the City of Santa Monica to improve the overall health and well-being of its residents.

DL: Is it unexpected for a young designer that sometimes you don’t know the answers? How do you work with them in that respect?

MA: We emphasize the importance of teamwork as well as co-creation and participatory research methods. Also, our pedagogical model is based on experiential learning. The project might start out as really problem-focused, but there is the assumption that as students engage with these challenges and become mindful of grounding their work in actual constraints, they will be more agile and entrepreneurial in their learning journey. That kind of hands-on, field-focused approach goes a long way in terms of opening up our students to gain a sense of agency. It allows them to act with creative confidence as they embrace possibilities and navigate the inherent ambiguity that social innovation work entails. In this sense, I’m a big fan of this concept of constraints driving innovation in design, and not thinking that the sky is the limit.

Designmatters student Behnia Rahmati utilizes Google Translate to co-create with a patient at COANIQUEM.

DL: Do you have projects that surprised you or outcomes you didn’t expect?

MA: One case is a recent project with COANIQUEM in Chile, Safe Niños. This award-winning pediatric clinic treats, free of charge, a vulnerable and underserved population of kids who have been severely burned and have to come back to this facility for up to 20 years, because the healing process as they grow is very complex, and they undergo many surgeries.

Behnia Rahmati one of the students, identified a segment of that population, teens, who were being a little bit left out on the patient service front. He developed an environment that caters to their unique interests, creating this “teen zone” for them to have a place of their own when they come for treatment. That project is indicative of the level of results you can achieve with empathy and a sense of playfulness focused on need and aspirations, and is an example of design at its best. We think of social innovation and social impact design sometimes as meeting dire and difficult needs, and for me the aspects of aesthetics and joy and delight are actually so important in this work.

TeenZone, designed by Environmental Design student, Behnia Rahmati is an outcome of the Safe Niños initiative.

DL: Do you think design is going to be a driver for innovation in the future?

MA: Yes, I do. Design is a powerful practice that gives form to a preferred future. Design is about purpose, intention and plan, and from that standpoint design does have the opportunity to bring empathic insights that can lead to positive change and innovation. That said, we should also recognize that in a time of accelerated complexity and uncertainty in the world, we are also witnessing how design is a discipline in flux. More than ever there is urgency for designers to be better informed beyond the boundaries of design research and practice. I guess I have a mix of optimistic ambition and caution when I think of design’s promise. Fundamentally I want to believe that design is an important way forward, but design alone is not the answer. This is why most of the work we do and a lot of the research and areas of knowledge that we bring in to the work we do comes from fields outside design.

Designmatters fellow Anjuli Sethi working alongside farmers in Myanmar as part of her fellowship with Proximity Designs.

DL: That’s an important aspect. You are integrating many fields of expertise into your curriculum.


MA: It’s a challenge in design education, because we see a big push from industry and practitioners for our students to show increased technical skill along with deeper fluency in multiple sources of knowledge. It’s a real balancing act. What do you put in, what do you take out, and how do you do it so that it exposes students to a breadth of approaches without diluting depth in core competencies?

My PhD from Case Western is in management. I had to master quantitative research methods and collaborate with colleagues who are looking at problems sometimes from a very abstract vantage point: They are analyzing data, developing models, correlating factors, and predicting what might happen. The experience has taught me both the limitations of this kind of knowledge (and how much designers can contribute to it), as well as the discipline of becoming much more precise with the claims I now make about design’s unique value. How we might educate designers for the future–and ensure they are bold enough to break free from current marketplace demands–is a real challenge upon us.

DL: I know there are some hard lessons you’ve had to learn.


MA: Sure, it is difficult work. When I mentor my students, I usually remind them that designing with a view toward social impact is not for the faint of heart. There are real material constraints that play out in this line of work. You’re constantly navigating complexity, some of which you can try to anticipate and solve, and some of which you might not have any say on—factors a designer cannot necessarily control. That can be frustrating. We might be working with a city government to look at reinventing a park environmentm and the site then doesn’t materialize, and having to change midway. Many of the lessons have been about setting clear rules for engagement with partners and paying attention to the importance of dialogue and communication. We do a lot of work before we embark on a new initiative to anticipate as much as we can, but we are sensitive to understanding that things might change.

Perhaps one of the key takeaways I have also learned is not becoming entrenched with one’s own mental model, remaining open instead of dropping that precious idea and starting again. Having that flexibility and humility can be hard. The good news, it does get easier over time.