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Empathy Is Our Compass – The Power of Design Futures

December 30, 2015

For years, students across the country have been frustrated by the lack of real educational opportunities in community-engaged design. While a handful of programs are gradually emerging to fill that demand, the problem of access remains: Not every student has the privilege to attend one of the few institutions that offer these programs. So what about everyone else? How can an education in impact design become a reality for a broader group of designers?

Design Futures Forum seeks to address that challenge.

The seed for what would become Design Futures was planted in 2011 at the University of Texas, Austin when Professor Barbara Wilson pioneered a new program called Public Interest Design (PID). The program made its mission loud and clear: “Public Interest Design emerged out of a call for the design professions to directly respond to the needs of underserved communities, specifically to raise the question of equity within design professions … the PID program offers design students the opportunity to investigate what it means to be a public servant and what the civic role of design should be.”

Despite the early success of the PID program, there were still hundreds of students who could not afford to attend. To help address the gap, Wilson joined forces with colleague Dan Etheridge, the Assistant Director of Tulane City Center, to co-create an alternative venue for public interest design education. Beyond simply educating the next generation of designers, Wilson and Etheridge saw an opportunity to bring together the dozens of PID practitioners in the field who they knew had long yearned for a forum to interact with one another in an environment focused on professional development and peer-group learning. In a convening of leading thinkers at the Fetzer Retreat Center in the fall of 2012, addressing equity gaps in the design curriculum seemed to be the top concern for many of Wilson and Etheridge’s colleagues, so they decided to prototype the idea.

In June of 2013, for five days before the PID Summer Program began, Wilson and Etheridge brought together 20 of the most well respected and professionally accomplished individuals in the public interest design world to teach a first-of-its-kind student leadership forum — essentially a crash course in public interest design — which they dubbed “Design Futures.”


Now entering its fourth year, Design Futures is a five-day, interdisciplinary forum that brings together leading students, practitioners, and educators from across the country to discuss how to use design as a tool for social equity and positive change in underserved communities. The primary goal of Design Futures is to foster peer-based professional development by connecting both students and practitioners to one another through meaningful dialogue and collaborative exploration of what it means to practice PID. Now led collaboratively by Wilson, Etheridge, and Sarah Wu, Design Futures boasts 163 student alumni representing 22 different degree programs and over 60 faculty alumni who have contributed to the content of the forum.

Impact Design Hub set out to explore how well Design Futures is delivering on its promise to inspire and empower by speaking with students around the country about their experiences at the forum, and how their ambitions and paths to practice have been shaped by what they learned.




I’m currently a senior at Washington University in St. Louis and my goal is to find a way to synthesize human-centered design and international development to create sustainable partnerships and build capacity within underserved communities. Last semester, I took a class called Design for Social Innovation through my school’s Architecture department. Through that class I furthered my own passion for a career in public interest design, so when this conference popped up as an opportunity, I had to sign up.

With my background, it was a bit different coming in. I’m studying Mechanical Engineering and Sustainable Development so I was one of the few people (if not the only person) coming from a non-design or planning background. Most of the crowd was made up of urban designers, planners, and architects of some fashion, but I came to learn from them and see where their expertise aligned with my specific skillset. Design Futures really solidified some of my goals. I realized that in all the work I do, I use empathy as my foundation — as a way to connect and resonate with those different from me — and when doing development work, this is crucial in order to bring out the voice of the target community. It also strengthened my personal viewpoint that we, as a society, need to fight complacency.

Throughout the conference, many of us would have conversations that circled around the idea of comfort: How do you get people to do things, not for themselves, but for the greater good? I think the answer stems from a certain discomfort which only happens when people let go of the power they have and utilize their privilege to lift others out of oppression. For many, the after effects of slavery, colonialism, and the general silencing of those who are not white, hetero cisgendered men strays from comfortable. If we don’t grapple with these themes head on, then our society can never progress and we will stay stagnant in an oppressive regime where all members of society aren’t given a true opportunity to thrive in their own right.

Tough questions and critical thinking like this is what energized me about Design Futures. They showed me that there is a community of intellectuals within the design field fighting for this kind of change. Designers have so much power — they dictate how our society is structured and how we synthesize the world around us. But with that much power, they have a responsibility to keep empathy as their moral compass. How can one plan a city without understanding the spatial distribution of racism? How can one design a building with no awareness of our people’s legacy of environmental brutality? Confronting tough questions and challenges like these is how we can move forward in design focused on the public good.




I graduated from the University of Kansas with a masters in architecture, but I always wanted to do a different type of architecture. I’m from Gambia and I wanted to explore how I could give back to my country after my opportunity to study in the States. In Gambia basic structures are scarce — I played soccer in the streets as a boy because we didn’t have parks or recreational areas. My goal was to go back to Gambia and study the culture to uncover what was needed, but at University of Kansas, the normal fourth year route is to do an internship or work in a studio. I didn’t want to go work in a firm, so one of my teachers, Nils Gore, suggested Design Futures in New Orleans.

Before that, I had all these ideas about designing with community but I didn’t know what to call them or where to place them. Through Design Futures I found a place where all of these thoughts were something people shared. I was introduced to MASS Design Group’s work and that showed me what architecture is supposed to do, that we’re supposed to design with not for. They used examples like the huge buildings constructed in Dubai that don’t make any cultural sense and are the result of designers just doing whatever they want — simply trying to build the coolest building without thinking about things like carbon footprints or the effects on the users.

Design Futures really got me thinking. I saw what architecture could be and how I could achieve my goals through architecture. I realized that I could do things differently, not in the traditional way — it was a big boost, to know what to call it and what the next steps could be. As a result, for my fourth year project, I decided to start my own architectural nonprofit with a focus on people, patterns and practices called Kinitative. The idea was to find out what people want and to subsequently empower them with the skills and knowledge to be able to rebuild their own buildings when necessary. What I also learned at Design Futures was that I needed a schedule and deliverables for my project.

In Gambia, healthcare is often lacking because of crumbling structures where care should be taking place. In some cases there’s not even a building, just a nurse under a tree and people lining up for hours in the hot sun. I realized I needed to demonstrate how I could enhance these systems architecturally. I contacted the Gambian Ministry of Health and told them what I was trying to do and asked them to help make my research easier.

Everything from contacting people to fundraising was all part of the project. I went to Gambia in December and because of Design Futures I knew that I was not there to be a savior, that I was there to enhance and empower, and that there had to be a transfer of knowledge and skills both ways. I met with the community and asked what redesign meant to them and what they thought was needed, which informed the design of the clinics. The design came from them as opposed to me designing it for them. The ministry was so impressed they want to make it a standard design for all structures of this kind. We hope to start building our first medical clinics next summer.




Design Futures is appealing because it is sponsored by a collective of schools and hosted at a different university each year. This year it was hosted at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Being from Berkeley, California, and getting to hear diverse perspectives from the different faculty and students was valuable experience. When you’re studying architecture, you end up with a particular perspective about the right way to approach design. However, at Design Futures there are people from all kinds of backgrounds from all over the country — just hearing their voices and perspectives, how similar and different, was mind-blowing.

Because we came to the forum somewhat “pre-united” though public interest design, it felt like meeting strangers who, for some reason, you were connected. In architecture school we don’t explore urban planning in depth, so it was eye opening to talk to people with those backgrounds — to collaborate with them and hear about solutions that aren’t just design-oriented but are rooted in policy and politics.

One particularly influential speaker was Stephen Goldsmith from the University of Utah, who gave the introduction to the forum. While he was speaking, a video walk-through of Market Street in San Francisco played in the background. Imagine a camera mounted on a horse-drawn trolley, a black and white San Francisco in the early 1900s. I was representing the University of California, Berkeley, and here was this guy showing a video of a place that was supposed to be incredibly familiar, but felt very foreign. It was great having this person show me a place that was so familiar to me in a new way.
Design Futures helped me realize the career path I now want to pursue. Originally, I wanted to work in a large, well-known office. After the forum I interned at a prestigious firm, one that’s known world wide, but it didn’t make me happy because we weren’t affecting people in the small, community level. Now I know that I want to work in a government-based organization like a planning or public works department.

Design Futures is a space where you can collaborate with people in the broader field of impact design — it’s a rare and exciting experience because it shapes your perspective at that pivotal moment between school and the start of your professional career.





I think ultimately the greatest value for me in attending Design Futures was the gathering of so many young minds together focusing around the same issues. Not simply because it instilled a sense of fellowship around public interest work, which it did, but because it really gave me, and I believe many others, the strength and encouragement to believe in our own paths. It gave us encouragement to move forward in our careers and lives as we saw best as opposed to following the paths that others in the field have established.

What has been made very clear to me through Design Futures is that the social impact field tends to shy away from the key issue that allows one to work towards equity: agency. Temporary installations or development initiatives never quite seem to make space for the agency of the client, probably because those clients do not bring money to the table. Rather, we as designers end up being concerned with “impact,” which is usually the impact our work can have in perpetuating or inflating our brand as socially conscious designers. Within the design process someone you identify as poor or different will never be in an equitable position in relation to you.

A lot of the work I have done and continue to do revolves around the concept of the designer as a professional and what the status as a professional allows, obscures, and empowers in terms of the agency of our clients. I conducted research that focused on agency, equity, and civil rights and determined that the area of highest impact in creating equity is in the rules and regulations of the built environment — the zoning laws and planning regulations. Treating your client as a true client allows the design professional to fully engage in this process and to identify the areas which provide the most cover, or most wiggle room, for clients to inhabit space in the ways that they wish. The concept of civil rights necessarily engages with and challenges laws and regulations. Identifying, exploring, understanding, and crafting the regulations through which civil rights can be secured and furthered is, to me, the most valuable work we as design professionals can undertake. In the end, agency, equity, and civil rights have become my qualitative analysis tools.





I’m originally from Venezuela where the designer is considered to have a responsibility to the people using the buildings, so I’ve always had a social call. Two summers ago, I attended the Public Interest Design Studio at University of Texas at Austin, a multi-disciplinary program combined with urban planning. It was run by the Center for Sustainable Development and focused on working with communities and understanding their needs. I was the lead for the project while Barbara Wilson was still at UT-Austin, so that’s how I heard about Design Futures.

Since there aren’t many people at UT-Austin who share the public interest mentality, Design Futures was great because I got to connect with people who share the same concerns as I do. Design Futures wasn’t like any other conference I’ve been to — it was very open and non-hierarchical. You get to choose where you go and can still talk to presenters after their talks if you couldn’t make their session. It’s refreshing to see people doing things in the world that resonate with what they find inspiring and are passionate about.

When I attended, I was in the last year of my master’s thesis and I was struggling with what to write. I wanted to address social and environmental issues in design and planning but also incorporate something from my Venezuelan background. Because of this, the Design Futures session on development finance was so influential for me. The speakers were part of the Kansas City Development Corporation whose mission is crafting creative approaches to financing. As a result I’ve started writing my thesis on crowdfunding in community development projects and I hope to tie it to what could be done in Venezuela.

I wouldn’t have pursued a career within social impact if I hadn’t realized there were people working in this field through Design Futures. I was reassured about the things that I felt passionate about, and that it was fine to care about those things. It was a really validating experience for me. Since those elements are lacking in most design curricula, I had almost dismissed it as something not worth thinking or caring about — I have Design Futures to thank for not following through with that.


Design Futures 2016 will be held from May 23rd-27th at the University of Virginia. Workshop proposals are due Friday February 19th, 2016. Click here to download the RFP

Images courtesy of Design Futures, Washington University in St. Louis, Jose Latorre, Joanna Salem, Natan Diacon-Furtado, Kinitiative, and Studio:Tesla.

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