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Public In Practice: The Pipeline Problem

Editor's Note: This blogpost is part of a series taken from Public In Practice: A Field Guide to Public Interest Design in the Twin Cities. The series focuses on the conclusion of the book, a look at some of the issues in public interest design brought up by those doing this work in the Twin Cities. This installment focuses on "the pipeline problem."

There is no question that public interest design is a growing field. There are more and more organizations practicing some form of public interest design, more and more exposure to the field through media, social or otherwise, and more and more students who are interested in doing this kind of work for a living. And that's where things get complicated. While the number of students and young architects wanting to do public interest design is increasing, the way the go about doing so is still very unclear. Compared with a traditional path into architecture, with established firms, internships, and licensing, starting a career in public interest design is much more difficult. According to Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, "that's one of our major challenges right now, which is the so called 'pipeline problem,' which is that there are a lot of students who are graduating and really eager to do this work, but are unsure of how to start."

Take the example of Laurie McGinley, designer at ESG Architects. After graduating with an undergraduate architecture degree in 2000 and working in a firm for a year, her desire to help others and make a difference in the world led her to join the Peace Corps, after which she figured she would go to grad school. "What ended up happening is that what I learned while being a volunteer about how the rest of the world lives made me actually averse to the field of architecture," McGinley said; "I kind of went as far away from it as I thought I possibly could...it seemed like design was something wealthy countries spent money on and I couldn't see the practical applications of it." After not being able to connect her time in the Peace Corps with any aspect of her architectural education, McGinley spent seven years working as a web designer - before going back to grad school and getting a job at ESG, an architectural firm. So what drove her back to the field of architecture? McGinley, like many others, was inspired by the ideas of public interest design: "The reason I went back to grad school is that I finally started to see the connections of how design can help people whose babies are dying, who don't have roads, who don't have water...that's where I see my future career trying to go," she said. However, even newly armed with a renewed passion for design and architecture, McGinley says it's still incredibly hard to see where to go next, or how her passion for design that helps others can turn into an actual career. McGinley explained, "I have this question of, 'All right, I'm on board...now what?'"

Dean Fisher sees firsthand the interest coming from students in this field, but he also sees a great demand for this kind of work from the rest of the world, and that, he says, is "the kind of paradox of it. While the route is less clear, the need is much greater. We just need to develop the institutional structure that allows this to happen." Fisher also views the recent Latrobe Prize report, "Wisdom From
 The Field: Public Interest Architecture In Practice," as a tool in helping lessen the pipeline problem. The report, which involved a massive survey of design professionals across the nation, outlined different approaches to practicing public interest design, and offered suggestions on how to support and grow the profession from within large institutions like the AIA or the NCARB.

Interested in reading more? Read the entire book here, or see the embedded link above.

2014 Fall Gathering

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James Wheeler leads discussion on "What Next?" at the 2014 Public Interest Design Fall Gathering [photo credit Virajita Singh]


The 2014 public interest design Fall Gathering, which took place October 29th, was meant to bring both students and faculty interested in public interest design together to meet, network, get an update on latest college PID developments. Students and faculty were also there to engage in a facilitated discussion on what PID means to our college community and ideas for what should happen going forward.

The meeting, facilitated by James Wheeler, began with attendees sharing "What I know and What I want to know," from which various PID questions emerged. The discussion then followed the "Pro-Action Café" Method - where participants rotated around to different facilitators, each with their own question to focus on - to tackle three main topics as generated by the opening questions. The session then concluded with a wrap up as a large group, discussing steps to take: what now and what next? The following are just a few highlights and takeaways from the meeting

- The session led by Dean Tom Fisher, looking at defining PID, identified nine key words related to how PID is defined at the U of M: Community, engaged, problem-solving, process, cultural immersion, impact, with, people, and dignity.

- Kristine Miller, who led the group examining the question of "how can we better serve the community?", looked at ideas about the NDSA loan forgiveness and how the school can help students continue their projects outside of school to create ongoing relationships with the community.

- James Wheeler led a discussion around creating a PID curriculum, leading to ideas about Academia, Practice, and Theory all leading into and building off each other, and brainstorming ideas like "what if PID was part of every course?" or "what if there were real clients for every project?"

- The session looking at how to structure an educational program to prepare students for working in PID, led by Jim Lutz, examining what skills and values are needed in PID that might not be as apparent in a normal/existing design education. This led to a discussion on the importance of teaching ethics in a PID education, like empathy, cross-cultural competence, and the value of "street-scape" design and real world experience.

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Post-It Notes from the session on "how can we better serve the community?" facilitated by Kristine Miller.

Blitz Building with Habitat for Humanity

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Blitz building in action; photo credit Nathaniel Tollefson

I have been volunteering for Habitat for the last 10 years. I am a carpenter by trade and they were looking for volunteers. I was invited to do a 'blitz' build in West Virginia by my brother and his wife. I did not know what a 'blitz' build was but soon found out. The local chapter of Habitat partners with a group of traveling Blitzers who help build complete houses in one weekend to energize the local volunteering force. This build was two houses side by side is some of the most beautiful hillside riparian country I have seen. West Virginia is truly stunning. We built two houses in one weekend working side by side with volunteers, homeowners, inmates and local carpenters. When each house was complete before the last piece of siding would be nailed at the peak of a gable everyone who worked on the house would sign it. We would all gather around and support the ladder as the homeowner nailed that piece on high up on gable. Not a dry eye on site, everyone cried, whooped and hollered. I was hooked.

For the last 5-6 years I have been trying to do the same type of build but on a local scale in Minnesota. My aunt is the CFO of Habitat for Humanity St. Louis County chapter and has put me in touch with the local president Nathan Thompson. St. Louis County includes Duluth and areas straight north of there. We have done a blitz build every summer and met some great people. Nathan gets the foundation in and the site prepped before we arrive then we show up and give it our all for 30 hrs in two days and usually have a house built with just the interior left to do. I like to stay an additional day or two and enjoy the woods in the surrounding areas, right by BWCA.

This coming winter we will be doing a slightly different build. I am currently looking for volunteers to help design a habitat house to be built in the summer 2015. I am specifically looking at fellow undergraduate and graduate students interested in making a difference. SLCH4H is interested in lowering energy costs for their homeowners so we will be looking at foundation insulation, wall sections, and possible site orientations. The houses are small and on a tight budget which adds to the design challenge. Very soon you will see postings around Rapson Hall for meeting times and places. I am looking forward to working with the team that develops out of the process. Come to the meetings and sign up! As an additional incentive the hours working on Habitat count towards your IDP.

Nathaniel Tollefson
NL Tollefson Inc.
LIC# BC681638

Otto Habitat Blitz 056.jpgBlitz building in action; photo credit Nathaniel Tollefson

Otto Habitat Blitz 123.jpgBlitz building in action; photo credit Nathaniel Tollefson

Dwell + DLGYAD Live! - From the National to the Local

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Design Like You Give a Damn: Live! from Architecture for Humanity and Dwell Magazine; Photo by Virajita Singh


Last month Dwell Magazine held the inaugural East Coast offering of its successful design event in New York. Architecture for Humanity (AFH) partnered with Dwell on Design NY for its 5th annual Design Like You Give a Damn Live! humanitarian design conference. With three days of programming, the concurrent events created interesting opportunities for the mainstream and fast-becoming-mainstream field of public interest design (PID) to intersect.

The conference kicked off with an inspiring keynote presentation by Daniel Libeskind who shared his groundbreaking ideas and innovative work. This was followed by stimulating breakout sessions over the next two days covering a variety of topics: emerging trends ("The New Malleable Office"), technology ("Technology and Material Innovation"), urban development and public spaces ("Between Civic and Residential Architecture"), and interior design ("Living Large in Small Spaces"). A product showcase featured Blu Homes, Raydoor, IKEA, Humanscale, Vitra, Volvo, Marvin Windows and Doors, among others. An onsite bookstore organized by Dwell and Designers & Books was a personal favorite.

AFH's sessions were very well attended, often with standing room only attendance. The Design Open Mic event featured national and global architectural projects, including work from Mexico, Chile, Afghanistan, Israel, Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, Germany, and elsewhere. It was heartening to see so many public interest design projects from around the world. As the PID movement grows, it's time for stakeholders to share best practices, including those pertaining to design with other cultures and ways of community engagement. This is a conversation in which all sectors -- community, government, academia, and practice -- should be engaged.

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DLYGAD Live Conference, Unknown Speaker; Photo credit Virajita Singh

From the University of Minnesota College of Design's perspective it was great to connect with a number of staff from AFH who have been great partners with our faculty and PID initiatives over the last few years -- Eric Cesal, Darren Gill, Jacob Ehrenberg, Audrey Gallo and others. There are many synergies to be found in the numerous projects with which AFH is involved. As new executive director Eric Cesal stated in a recent interview, his goal is to "position Architecture for Humanity as a teacher and mentor". Opportunities abound for collaboration.

At our Public Interest Design Fall Gathering last week, many of the students and faculty present were in agreement that given the enthusiastic interest in PID across the College, support at the administrative and faculty level, and being in a region known for its philanthropy and humanitarianism, we are uniquely situated. With our local, national, and global partners, we are excited to be involved in this work. Stay tuned!


Virajita Singh is Sr. Research Fellow and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the College of Design, University of Minnesota.

Public In Practice: PID in the Twin Cities

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Above: Chart overviewing the basic findings of the "Public In Practice" project. Organizations profiled are arranged from largest to smallest, with the largest group on top.

The above infographic is taken from the booklet "Public In Practice: A Field Guide to Public Interest Design in the Twin Cities." The document, published a year ago, was created by undergraduate architecture student Evan Hildebrand working under Professor Ozayr Saloojee as an independent research project under through the undergraduate research scholarship (URS). The goal of the project was to examine how public interest design was viewed and practice among designers, architectural firms, and other organizations in the Twin Cities. The following text is taken from the introduction:

"Twenty designers were interviewed, representing three large, three medium, and three small architecture firms, as well as three organizations involved with public interest design, in addition to the University of Minnesota's College of Design. They are all in some way involved in public interest design, and their interviews form the basis of this guide. The firms and organizations profiled were chosen for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to, their already publicized work and reputation for public interest design, their size and presence in the Twin Cities, and the recommendation of previous interviewees. Effort has been made to showcase organizations at a variety of sizes, practicing in a variety of different ways. This document is not comprehensive: it is intended as a representative snapshot of the overall field of public interest design as it currently exists in the Twin Cities. There are more firms, organizations, and individuals than the ones mentioned here involved in the practice of public interest design.

Each organization is profiled in its own entry, arranged and divided according to size. Each entry begins with a concise overview and a quote from the interviewee. Additional project examples, inspiration and/or precedents, and images have been included when applicable and available. The entries are bookmarked by an overview of public interest design in the Twin Cities at the beginning, including connections and inspirations, and a conclusion profiling some of the issues facing the future of public interest design."

If you are interested in reading more, the entire booklet can be found embedded below, or by clicking the link here.


Design Futures Forum Reflections [Part 2]

Malia Lee Panorama.jpgImage Courtesy Malia Lee


This past June, six students from the College of Design got the opportunity to travel, along with faculty member James Wheeler, to the second annual Design Futures Public Interest Design Student Leadership Forum. The gathering, this year held at Tulane University's School of Architecture in New Orleans, is an effort to bring together students and leaders in public interest design for discussion and exploration of design in the public interest. The event this past year included 10 workshops, 26 speakers, and 65 students from across the globe. Below are three short reflections on the experience, written by some of the Minnesota students who attended. [Part 2 - scroll down to see previous blog post with more student reflections].

Malia Lee Theresa Hwang.jpg Malia Lee, Theresa Hwang, and Other Forum Attendee - Image Courtesy Malia Lee

Malia Lee
The Design Futures Forum was an amazing opportunity where individuals from across the country came together with different interdisciplinary backgrounds to discuss visions of public interest design (PID) along with new initiatives and previous experiences on using design for the greater good. Through the many workshops I received training on financing public interest design projects, organizing, understanding communities, looking at case studies, investigating PID interests, and learning about the overall complexities of community oriented design. In addition to receiving some training, I was able to build relationships and camaraderie with like-minded individuals who were both professionals and students. The forum left me feeling empowered, knowing that as students we have the ability to create a lot change in fact we may even be in better position to do so while we are students. It was inspiring being able to listen to speakers such as Bryan Bell, James Stockard, Maurice Cox, Dan Etheridge, John Peterson, and Theresa Hwang. Theresa Hwang's project was one that really stuck with me. She is a Rose Fellow that focused on tackling the homelessness issue on Skid Row, in Los Angeles, California. The underlining question is, how can design thinking be used to empower communities in order to achieve longstanding results that can elevate communities to another level? The most effective outcomes occur when assisting and helping communities solve problems from within. To achieve the best results through our efforts we need to learn to let go of our personal values and beliefs and understand the values and beliefs of those in which we intend to serve. Through being at the Design Futures Forum I feel more confident and empowered moving forward as a designer and community activist and I have made new connections with other leaders from around the country who share similar interests.


Sarah Hayosh.jpg Image Courtesy Sarah Hayosh

Sarah Hayosh
One of the most rewarding parts of the Design Futures student leadership forum was the opportunity to form connections with a diverse set of students and professionals with experience in the field. For 5 days, not only did we have engaging workshops and presentations by current leaders in the field, we were surrounded by a cohort of peers, many of whom, over nighttime conversations over beers and oysters, or long winding walks home through muggy New Orleans neighborhoods, I learned were also grappling with some of the same questions regarding public interest design that I was. The scale ranged from the structural to the intensely personal. How do we move public interest design beyond subsidized or pro-bono initiatives? How do you take something akin to a movement, that is inherently human and messy, begin to translate its values into mainstream practice? What are the values upon which we should base our work? What are my values? How have my lived experiences shaped those values? Design Futures was a great place to discuss and debate, share ideas and learn from each other, but it's not the only forum where we can explore those questions and have those conversations. Kitty cat club, anyone?


Moriah Baltz Streetcars.JPG New Orleans Streetcars - Image Courtesy Moriah Baltz

Moriah Baltz
The design futures public interest design forum was a fantastic learning opportunity that inspired me to start thinking like a leader, define my learning goals and imagine my career path. Through the forum, I was exposed to PID leaders as well as architecture, landscape architecture, finance, housing, and urban planning students and faculty from all over the United States. Most importantly the forum provided me with the training and inspiration to develop my community engagement skills, invest in the PID network and maintain goal-oriented work. Overall, I learned that PID will look different for different people and might change throughout the course of any one person's career, but it is important to recognize that there are many ways to have an impact. It is not how this work is manifested but the quality of the goals that define what drives the work. At the forum, we talked about how specific goals may change but we must keep our aspiration and believe we can make a change. This discussion helped me realize the importance of identifying transferrable skills and the potential for learning in any role. More importantly, it gave me the confidence to recognize that, no matter my situation, I can find a way to do meaningful work. The forum inspired me to fight for idealism and believe I have the choice to name and claim the world I want to live in.

Design Futures Forum Reflections

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Above: Design Futures Forum meeting at the Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans


This past June, six students from the College of Design got the opportunity to travel, along with faculty member James Wheeler, to the second annual Design Futures Public Interest Design Student Leadership Forum. The gathering, this year held at Tulane University's School of Architecture in New Orleans, is an effort to bring together students and leaders in public interest design for discussion and exploration of design in the public interest. The event this past year included 10 workshops, 26 speakers, and 65 students from across the globe. Below are three short reflections on the experience, written by some of the Minnesota students who attended:


Faith Lindner

A particular dialogue stands out from Design Futures 2014 when Bryan Bell spoke about establishing a "greater good by collective action." He mentioned a quote by Hans Henrik Knoop: "As advanced humans our adaptation now more than ever seems to depend on our ability to understand and create truthfully, beautifully, and in a moral and ethical way." There is such wisdom and truth in these words; they have challenged me to think about my intentions, standards, and morals as a designer. Participation, accountability, and transparency also hold much weight within the design field, and even more, emphasizing direct access to the end users of the system one is working with. As Maurice Cox brought out, "Nothing about us without us is for us" and this has truly set a mindset for me.


Elena Brown
One of the most significant lessons that I learned during the week, was the importance of collaborative efforts. Throughout the week I was able to network with a vast amount of like minded and driven scholars, professionals, enthusiasts, advocates, teachers, etc. It was in these interactions, that I was most able to learn. I feel that the ability to collaborate is a critical component of leadership. Collaboration increases the capacity of your ideas, missions, and efforts. It is crucial to the creation of projects that have a lasting impact. This conference pushed me collaborate. Throughout the entire week, the conference allotted abundant time for fellowship amongst fellow DF participants. In this time, we developed lasting connections as we got to know each other, expressed our motives and goals, and showcased our talents. During my undergraduate academic career, I was often surrounded by students of a similar positionality which limited the dialogues that could occur. The participants of this conference were of diverse races, ages, professional fields, academic tracks, geographic locations, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. This led to very interesting discourse in and out of the classrooms. I REALLY enjoyed being able to work with the older, more experienced minds, a luxury that is less common in undergraduate academia. Graduate students have a way of pushing and contributing to class discussions in a way that most undergraduates fail to do. During this conference I was not only able to converse with numerous graduate students, but also with well-versed professionals, Ph.D. Students, and incredibly well-spoken and interesting public interest design enthusiasts. The dialogues that emerged from this interpositonality, was profound, inspiring, challenging, and very encouraging for people like me, who are fresh out of college, with no professional experience, and in a transitional period of life. I now have a solid contact list, to depend on when I need advice, references, or good conversations.


Evan Hildebrand
"I don't know." It was these three words that stood out most prominently at the end of the 2014 Design Futures Public Interest Design Student Leadership Forum in New Orleans; and this is a good thing. To explain: I was in Bryan Bell and Teresa Hwang's workshop "Good Deeds, Good Design, Good Work," exploring professional ethical standards for the field of public interest design. With a small group of students, our task was to have a discussion about ethics important for designers in the public interest. We ended up having a long, deep, open and incredibly honest conversation about race, inequality and the role of designers, a conversation that was brought back to the larger group and ended up in three words written by Bryan Bell in dry-erase marker: I don't know. They represent, for me, the first steps of public interest design - admitting you don't know what's best, and turning instead to listen to the community. They represent design with, not for. The open and honest conversation that led to "I don't know" is the same kind of discussion we should be having not just as students, not even just as public interest designers, but as designers period, to bring more of the empathetic focus of public interest design into a much broader sphere. So, after attending this forum, what exactly does the future of public interest design - and my own future in it - hold? I don't know, but I'm not afraid to admit it, and that seems like a pretty good place to start.

Diseño para el interés público: Public Interest Design in Mexico

PID Mexico Award Panel

Earlier this month, over 200 people gathered at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City for a first of its kind Public Interest Design Mexico conference, organized by the SEED network. The image above is of a panel of PID Mexico Award Winners, designers honored for projects from around the country.

Read more in the following article published by Mexican architecture blog Arquine shortly before the conference, translated for this blog (original text at http://www.arquine.com/blog/diseno-para-el-interes-publico/):


Public Interest Design

This 11 and September 12 there will be held at the School of Architecture of the UNAM Mexico's first conference about design for the public interest: Public Interest Design (PID) Mexico. This conference is an opportunity to discuss design as a social impact practice while seeking to raise awareness about the value of design in enriching the common good. Currently, Mexico is home to a number of public interest projects that not only solve specific problems but address major challenges ranging from democratic decision-making to the empowerment of communities and their political involvement. Despite this involvement, most professionals in Mexico are still outside the debates and initiatives around public interest design happening globally.

During the conference participants will have the opportunity to listen to the experience of those involved in public interest design: NGOs, community organizations, architects, agronomists, environmentalists, anthropologists , economists, public health workers and academics. This diverse range of experience reflects how public interest design creates interdisciplinary teams and focused networks to produce solutions to the most urgent problems of the communities in need. The purpose of the conference is to reflect on the ways in which design contributes to political recognition, equity, and justice. It is also a perfect opportunity to discuss and clarify the specific opportunities and career horizons for young people interested or dedicated in pursuing a career related to public interest design.

The conference will have two topics of discussion. The first day will cover Design as Agent of Enablement and Empowerment of Communities. Presentations and discussions will center around the possibilities of involvement of designers in community projects, addressing issues ranging from access to health services, education and economic development to protection of the environment, cultural heritage, and human rights. The second day will consist of a series of workshops and panels addressing the specific problems that arose on the first day for further group discussion. The potential and benefits of creating a Mexican network for public interest design from this conference - possibly connected to other Latin American countries - falls on Mexican designers and the communities of SEED, and on support from the latter in the most viable and sustainable way.

Following an open call and a rigorous selection process, the conference also will host the awards for a series of projects recently built in Mexico that demonstrate excellence in terms of their social impact, effectiveness, inclusiveness, level of participation and systematic application. The jury was composed by Michael E. Conroy, Teddy Cruz, Josep Maria Llop - Torne and Gabriela Videla. Organizations and winning projects are:


Winning projects :

Impulso Urbano (Urban Pulse)
(Monterrey, Nuevo León)

Tradición de cerámica de Atzompa: retos y oportunidades (Atzompa Ceramic Tradition : Challenges and Opportunities)
Oaxaca , Oaxaca

Diseño participativo y auto-construcción de un Centro Microregional de Innovación Tecnologica (Participatory design and Self Construction - Microregional Technological Innovation Center)
(San Miguel Peras, Oaxaca)

Una productora de mermelada para NAXII (Jam factory for NAXII)
(San Jerónimo Tecoatl , Oaxaca)

Procesos artesanales como catalizadores de urbanismo sustentable (Traditional processes as catalysts for sustainable urbanism)
(Oaxaca , Oaxaca)

(Autoproducción de vivienda social asistida (Self-produced assisted social housing)
(San Antonio, Cosoleacaque; Coacotla, Cosoleacaque, and Zaragoza, Minatitlan, Veracruz)

PID Mexico Award Winners

Honorable mentions:

Estrategias y análisis de participación para la generación de diseños de espacios alternativos en la colonia El Salvador (Strategies and analysis of Participation generating designs for alternative spaces in the El Salvador colony)

Centro de atención múltiple 43 (Multiple Care Center 43)

RIA Rural

Reconstrucción del hábitat en la montaña de Guerrero (Reconstruction of habitat in the mountains of Guerrero)

Lugar, espíritu y economía del lugar: productores de agave (Location, spirit, and economy of place: agave producers)


Organized by the Social Economic Environmental Design Network (SEED), Basic Initiative (Portland), Design Corps (Raleigh), the Faculty of Architecture of the UNAM (Mexico), and sponsored by the Fetzer Institute, PID - Mexico is a free lecture and open to the public . For more information visit the site PID - Mexico (https://designcorps.org/pid - mexico/).


Architects Live in Senior Spaces to Help Elderly

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From USA Today

"The idea popped into David Dillard's head about five years ago. Dillard, president of D2 Architecture in Dallas, was in Baltimore then. He wanted something more from the firm and wasn't sure his staff of young architects really "got it" when they were designing housing for seniors. His thought: Make them actually move into the senior housing and live with the people they were designing housing for. That way they could first hand get a feel for the needs and requirements of the residents..." Read More

A New Way to 'Make Architecture Happen'

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From ArchDaily

"In recent years, crowdfunding websites have taken the world by storm. Sites like Kickstarter have been used to fund books, films, products, and even been used to fund architecture projects, with success for projects like +Pool in New York and the Luchtsingel in Rotterdam. However, one drawback which prevents such 'kickstarter urbanism' from taking off more is the way the platform constrains the design of the projects: in both instances, construction elements are offered as rewards for the backers, who get to mark their contribution by having their name inscribed on the project itself..." Read More