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Expanding horizons of social innovation through design pedagogy: Educating the next generation of impact designers

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Design Matters, O Design Importa, is an international, interdisciplinary design course that brings together students from a university in Brazil with students from a research-teaching institute in the United States. This presentation highlights the rationale, socio-cultural opportunities and ethical challenges of developing and implementing this community-engaged design course. “Design for Social Impact” is an emerging field in higher education and design pedagogy. Yet, many multinational companies have been developing impact arms and investing in social innovation within their organizations for some time now. The Impact Hub at the AutoDesk Foundation is one example. This cohort of not-for-profit organizations aims primarily to address the “wicked problems” we face today through Design. While, these projects effectively address socio-cultural equity, economic prosperity, and environmental stewardship questions remain: how to best prepare students for these types of professional practices once they graduate? The authors of this paper believe that interdisciplinary, culturally diverse teams working cooperatively in an exchange of knowledge, creativity, and strategic implementation can affect social change and be better prepared to join, facilitate, and even lead multi-disciplined teams toward integrated solutions of the wicked problems we face through experiential learning.

Educating the next generation of impact designers requires experiences in the field, reflective pedagogy and creating assessment plans as nuanced as community partners involved. Design Matters is a Service-Learning course with three primary goals, including: 1) engaging Ohio State University design students and Mackenzie University students with a non-profit community partner in hands-on, team-based projects to collaboratively and creatively address the needs of “street situation” people, 2) providing a marginalized community design services that contribute to positive ‘social impact’, and 3) expanding University students design thinking to design doing through practical place-based learning.

The underlying philosophy of Design Matters is to teach students how to design “with” community members. This approach fosters social justice design and cultivates design action as a means to “social equity” by empowering community members to contribute directly to the rethinking and rebuilding their physical environment. In the process, students learn socially responsible design and how to exchange ideas in interdisciplinary environments to address issues of social change and environmental stewardship. The “parallel content” for student learning includes: developing empathy for others, becoming culturally competent, and globally engaged stewards of the environment and ambassadors for social change through design and cooperative efforts.


Susan Melsop    
The Ohio State University
United States

Juliana Bertolini    
Mackenzie University


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