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Parsons Launches Transdisciplinary Design Program. Whatever That Is.

This September, 15 lucky grad students will enroll in the country’s first MFA program in transdisciplinary design at Parsons. Then, just two short years later, they’ll surely graduate to find myriad career options, all aimed at filling this country’s desperate need for transdisciplinarians. What’s that? Your mom (the one whose name is at the bottom of your tuition checks) wants to know what, exactly, transdisciplinary studies means?

transdisciplinary design at Parsons

This September, 15 lucky grad students will enroll in the country’s first MFA program in transdisciplinary design at Parsons. Then, just two short years later, they’ll surely graduate to find myriad career options, all aimed at filling this country’s desperate need for transdisciplinarians.

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What’s that? Your mom (the one whose name is at the bottom of your tuition checks) wants to know what, exactly, transdisciplinary studies means?

Herein lies the problem that Jamer Hunt, the program’s director, faced when he hit the streets with a video camera to get public reaction to the concept. “It’s about people and humanity,” said one Indian guy, earnestly.” “It’s about film, fashion, video, and interiors, with new technology and everything,” opined a woman in a tweed hat. “It’s transsexual,” insisted a purple-haired Goth.

“It’s actually a simple idea,” says Hunt, a cultural anthropologist, chairman of the Urban and Transdisciplinary Design program at Parsons The New School for Design, and founder of DesignPhiladelphia, an organization that sought to make that city a laboratory for innovative design projects. “We start from the premise that there are certain challenges in the world that are too complex for an individual design discipline to address. So we wanted a place in the curriculum where we could embrace that complexity and use the design process to make a difference.”

The program, which will be project-based, will bring together experts from a variety of backgrounds and points of view to tackle real-world challenges. “We’ll focus on what’s changing–where it’s coming from and why” says Hunt. “That might involve financial change and collapse, immigration, transportation, sustainability, and social challenges. A design-led process can provide a unique means of framing and moving through a problem in a creative way. We’ll harness that potential to bright, smart people involved on the ground.”

Hunt points to the current crisis in Haiti as an example of a problem that could benefit from the kind of thinking his program will foster. “A crisis like this allows us to think across different scales,” he says. “Some students might want to focus on small scale interventions–building shelters, or providing clean water. Another might recognize design’s role in reconceiving infrastructure or how design can help with communication and organizing people. Others might want to think about humanitarian relief on a global level.”

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Academics, design firms, and corporate design leaders are increasingly thinking about design with a Big D–that is, moving beyond conceiving design as a process that results in an object, graphic, or even experience–to employing design’s unique ability to frame problems and solve them in a systemic way. Big urban projects or those in developing countries immediately come to mind, but the process is increasingly important in industry. At Coca Cola, for example, thinking about a fountain machine’s ability to deliver a wider range of beverages, reduce syrup delivery system’s carbon footprint, and provide real-time feedback on customer preferences, is promising a significant uptick in both sales and cost savings. In Dallas, city planners are hoping the design and placement of a new bridge will help jumpstart urban development in a blighted part of a city.

While Stanford’s d.school led the way in showing how design thinking can be integrated into other disciplines, Parson’s program will actually grant degrees. “We’re pleased that Parsons put a stake in the ground,” Hunt says. Indeed, the school has a history of innovation in design curricula, having launched the country’s first degree programs in fashion, interiors, and graphic design.

In addition, Hunt says, the program has the advantage of being able to draw on the school’s long history of engaged scholarship. “One of the core strengths of the New School is social research,” he says. “So we’ll be able to draw upon a faculty oriented to social innovation.”

To celebrate the launch of the program, the School of Design Strategies (in which the Transdisciplinary program is located) will present a series of lectures about design for a complex world. Speakers will include Yochai Benkler from Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, the Walker Center’s Andrew Blauvelt, and Nigel Snoad, product manager for Microsoft’s Public Safety Initiative.

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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