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Solving Social Problems One Design at a Time

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, January 19 2015

Some of the designs featured in "Fix!" (Photo: Maia Kaufman)

Picture “a screwdriver that could turn back the effects on climate change” or a “level for leveling social injustice.” Science fiction? No: the inspiration for an exhibit at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. The artists, all first-year MFA students in the Design for Social Innovation program, were asked to design tools to "Fix!" social problems.

Adria Ingegneri, assistant to the curator Kevin O'Callaghan, said it was interesting to work on this exhibit because the artists—many of whom do not come from a design background—were asked to create “a physical object to solve a nonphysical problem.”

Some of the objects stayed in the realm of political-statement art, like Nelson Tseng's tape measure to gauge the impact of social movements. As you pull the tape the numbers give way to geometric designs and when fully pulled it plays a recording of one of the songs sung by student protesters in Taiwan's Sunflower Movement last year.

Tseng said he made the tape measure because some things—like the power of people coming together—cannot be quantified. “These things cannot be shown” in numbers alone, he said. “You can't see the reality of how people sound.”

Other statement pieces were less successful, like “Saw Through the BS” which featured—you guessed it—a saw.

"Grind & Grow" (Photo: Maia Kaufman)

Some of the designs one could imagine as prototypes for actual tools, like Yinman Guo's “Grind & Grow,” a tabletop composter created in the mold of a traditional Chinese stone mill.

Maia Kaufman's "Roberts Belt" was particularly witty. Channeling her frustration at the Supreme Court's decision on McCullen v. Coakley, which did away with Massachusetts' 35-foot buffer zones at abortion clinics, Kaufman designed an expandable skirt-like belt that provides a six-foot buffer for the wearer. She named it after Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the opinion of the Court.

"Roberts Belt" (Photo: Maia Kaufman)

The Design for Social Innovation program is, according to the SVA website, the first MFA program for social-impact design. The interdisciplinary program was created for designers and non-designers alike who are interested in using design for social good in the business, non-profit or government sector.

Fix!” will be on display at the SVA Gramercy Gallery at 209 East 23rd Street, New York City, through January 30. Admission is free and open to the public.