If you attended last month’s NYCxDESIGN 2017, New York’s annual design week, and visited the Wanted Design venue, chances are you ran into TRIAGE, an ambitious roving exhibition that “reframes contemporary urgencies through the lens of design.” MOCO editor Harry Wakefield talked to Allan Chochinov, the Chair of the multi-disciplinary MFA in Products of Design grad program at New York’s School of Visual Arts, to know more.
HARRY: Six roving design interactions that assess the socio-political priorities of visitors to a design festival. That seems a bit out of place at a show mostly devoted to modern chairs and lights. How do those two things go together?
ALLAN: Well, there are two quick answers to that: First, when we began doing “roving interactions” at Wanted Design during New York Design Week (now NYCxDesign) five years ago, the first one was more traditionally targeted at “objects.” The project was called ALSO!, and it dealt with many of the “unseen details” that designers consume themselves with, but which are often overlooked in the frenzy of a tradeshow. Since 2013, we’ve laddered up the subject matter of the exhibitions – from MISSION CTRL (which investigated the contradictions between digital and analog behaviors), to ENGENDER (which looked at design and gender), to ACCESS LTD (which began the conversation around identity and design), to this year’s work (which delved deep into politics, risk, climate, funding, etc.). The second answer is easy: How could you NOT take on topics like this in our current moment in time?
HARRY: So it evolved from objects, which we might expect from a visual arts school, through digital-analog, gender, identity to climate change and politics. That now reads more like DNC or RNC than SVA! I’ve seen many of the roving SVA works over the years, they’re very thoughtful and clever. Ideas and insights are the hallmarks of these yearly interventions, for TRIAGE what was the expected outcome or benefit for the end-user tradeshow attendee? And for the students?
ALLAN: This is really the key question, Harry, because as a school we presume several mandates for the work. Our primary allegiance is to the student: “Did they learn from conceiving of, producing, and acting out the work?” Here I’d say the answer is a resounding yes. The projects for this exhibition, every year, are a work product of a course called Design Performance, taught by the incomparable Sinclair Smith. The argument of the course is that design, now, needs to be “performative”; that design can’t just “sit on a pedestal and wait to be noticed or admired.” It needs to be “performed.” The students are very nervous at first – this is a VERY public exhibition with thousands of attendees – since many of the students have never been “on stage” like this before, and the content they are expected to share is not trivial. But every year they come through and really relish the opportunity immediately after the start of the show. It’s show business!
HARRY: But what, specifically, did they learn with TRIAGE?
ALLAN: There were so many learnings. For the Panic Room piece – which focused on the Trump administration’s proposed slashing of the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding – there were several layers of getting educated in advance. The students worked very hard to ground the experience in real estimates and limits around our environment set by climate scientists, and focused their intervention around how different factors are parametric and interrelated. By pushing visitors to “choose” where funding would be cut, they could learn about the unintended consequences of those choices.
While exhibiting the ‘Media Echo Chamber’, students were surprised to encounter a heavily international audience – many from very different news media zeitgeists than found in the United States. In several cases, the interaction created an opportunity for shared learning and conversation in that moment; guests would describe the national media landscape in France or Venezuela, for example, and also came to appreciate the growing U.S. concern around media bubbles and confirmation bias.
On the reverse side of the ‘Life-Sized Operation Game’, visitors were asked to rank, in their opinion, who was most responsible for the high cost of healthcare? One visitor rejected the given options, instead arguing that the food system in America – where junk food is cheaper than healthy food due to government subsidies – had the largest influence on the health of millions of Americans, who need care directly related to their eating habits. So that breathed new content into the work that could be leveraged in future conversations with other guests.
Taking its cues from the beloved game Operation, “Operating Room” moves visitors through a sequence of interactions where they learn about the economics of US healthcare and insurance coverage. At the end of the game, they receive a printed receipt of health care costs based on their choices!
HARRY: And the benefits and or outcomes for the end-users, the tradeshow attendees?
ALLAN: We adopt an additional, overriding imperative for the visitors: “Does the work challenge the status quo, enoble the power of design to change behavior, and engage with users in a way that is meaningful to the urgencies of the day?” Here there is the distinction between outputs and outcomes. The outputs tend to be solid in concept and robust in execution. But the outcomes – will visitors think or feel differently about immigration, or body image, or EPA funding, when they leave the show? Well, it’s an acknowledged stretch for sure, but over and over I marvel at how long the participants engage with the students at one of the installations, and how often they crave conversations and information that people seem starved for. This year in particular the students did a ton of research to back up their work, and as a consequence had a lot to say. But whenever I pass by the installations, there is so much interaction going on between the students and visitors (and often a line to participate!), so I take that as a very healthy sign that something significant is going on there beyond the simple novelty of the work.
Products of Design students conducted a lot of research in the preparation of the installations. Above: Calculations by first year MFA student Bernice Wong to determine inputs and outcomes around EPA funding and environmental impacts.
HARRY: … and minds have been expanded. It’s really about thinking and feeling differently, as you say, in the end.
ALLAN: And, I should add, there is our responsibility to the organizers of the show (in this case, Wanted Design): “Does the work respect the audience – the visitors – as well as help provide energy to the overall event?” Odile and Claire have been incredibly generous over the years in trusting us to not be cynical with the projects, or to subvert their overall intention of showing extraordinary design. This is a trust that we don’t take for granted; that we feel we must continually earn.
HARRY: Outside of SVA, where will we find Design Performance today? Any real-world applications you can share?
HARRY: Paying attention to “touchpoints” is increasingly making the difference between successful companies and those that are not. I can attest to this personally. Every day. Mostly via crappy experiences with brands. I believe marketing departments own this, but I’m not sure they understand it (is it part of Marketing 101 now?), or fully appreciate its value, and I suspect they don’t know where to get it. We need more of this type of performative design! Where do your grads go?
ALLAN: The program is only five years old, and we’ve just this month graduated our fourth year of students. But our alumni are doing really, really well. Many have gotten positions at large, prestigious consultancies like IDEO, frog, SYPartners, and R/GA while others have taken positions in smaller firms like Fuseproject and Pentagram (okay, not that small!), Aruliden, and Collins. Other organizations that have hired our students range from Vice Media to The Future Project to Johnson & Johnson to Microsoft. Our alumni also create businesses – from Trouble Makers in California to Richard Clarkson in Brooklyn. It’s been a really exciting start, and we can’t wait to see where this year’s grads will end up!
A group photo: Front row, left to right: Christopher Rand, Sowmya Iyer, Alexia Cohen, Jingting He. Middle row, left to right: Bernice Wong, Jiani Lin, Smruti Adya,Manako Tamura. Back row, left to right: Antriksh Nangia, William Crum, Juho Lee, Kuan Xu, Louis Elwood Leach, Andrew Schlesinger, Teng Yu, Lassor Feasley, Kevin Cook, Sebastian Harmsen.
Special hanks to Smruti Adya and Sowmya Iyer for their photography, and to Bernice Wong, Alexia Cohen, and Lassor Feasley for their additional contributions.