How do designers design toward the right questions? In the case of students in Pratt’s industrial design studio Undocumented Design, zoning in on problems they could tackle—nested within a complex and far-reaching issue—meant connecting directly with those on the front lines.
Taught by Alex Schweder, BArch ’93, Adjunct Associate Professor of Industrial Design and Interior Design, Undocumented Design centers on developing products that address needs of, provide support to, and challenge perceptions of those struggling to obtain legal status in the US. To understand the real human experiences that would drive this work has meant being present—at demonstrations and in courthouses, side by side and face to face with individuals seeking legal status, advocacy workers, volunteers, and immigration agents. Running for the third semester this spring, the studio partners with New Sanctuary Coalition—a New York City-based interfaith network of congregations that stands in solidarity with families and communities resisting detention and deportation to stay together—a collaboration that makes this kind of deep and nuanced research possible.
The students’ pursuit of inquiry starts with observation and continues with empathy, both honed out in the world, feet on the ground. “What would you do in their shoes? What would you want people to do for you if you were in that position? That’s why it’s important, the presence,” says Judith Sanchez of New Sanctuary Coalition, who has met with Schweder and the students throughout the phases of their design process and provided critical feedback.
Early in each semester, every student comes up with 20 design proposals to present to Sanchez and Zac Mosley of Judson Church, a New Sanctuary Coalition member congregation perhaps best known for its practice of offering inclusive space to the community for art and social justice activities. Taking into account Sanchez’s and Mosley’s responses to the initial concepts, each student selects two designs to develop for the remainder of the semester, in consultation with the partner critics. “Judith’s voice I heard in almost every product,” Schweder says of the past two semesters’ designs. “Not in its shape but at the more fundamental level of its legitimacy. Her feedback shapes the questions that students come to ask, rather than the answers that they offer.”
Among the lines of inquiry students have applied to their concepts is how experiences could be documented, producing concrete data about interactions and events using accessible, inexpensive technology. Josh Bird, MID ’19, considered the question of how to certify US birth when a child is not delivered in a hospital setting. He designed an umbilical-cord clamp that registers the location of a child’s birth, pinpointing its GPS coordinates, while also collecting a DNA sample. Last spring, Alejandro Moyano, MID ’19, looked for ways to clarify—through visual record—questions that arise around violation of rights and use of force during interactions with the authorities. He created a small video camera that could be worn on a lapel; with the pull of a tab, the camera would activate and stream footage to the wearer’s Facebook page.
Some objects considered the external and internal stresses that can take a toll on individuals’ emotional well-being. Martin Sombathy, MID ’20, created an object that responds to how difficult it can be for someone seeking legal status to maintain a sense of self-assurance. He devised a transitional mirror that would introduce an affirmative phrase, a sort of mantra, on a matte screen; over time, as the mantra is internalized, the message screen fades to reveal the mirror’s full reflectivity and the viewer’s face. As Sanchez puts it, the mirror reaffirms a message that is vital for many people her organization serves: “When I see you, I see a human being.”
More than solving for a single, tangible need, the students’ work has taken shape around opening up a conversation and rethinking established narratives—also presenting an opportunity to scrutinize their own internal biases. Doing their research directly within the community revealed what designers might take for granted or simply not have considered when it comes to how others want to be treated. In turn, much of their work attempted to cultivate compassion and awareness in others based on those observations.
When Chiara Treglia visited the courthouse as a volunteer accompanying people going through the process to obtain legal status, she noticed that immigration and customs enforcement agents had a lot of downtime and weren’t permitted to use their phones to occupy themselves. Considering how an analog form of entertainment might be an opportunity to encourage reflection, she developed a concept for a puzzle book that contained subtle messages about the experience of undocumented people, an example also, Schweder says, “of how the utterly familiar can become intelligently strange.”
Over the semesters Schweder has taught this studio, his students’ concepts have been focused in three areas—the emotional or empathetic, the logistical or practical, and the activist or perception-changing—but, as he sees it, these facets of design aren’t so discrete. In fact, Schweder has developed his own practice around “artistically cultivating questions with the hopes that logistical, emotional, and activist dimensions of a project are understood as contingent upon one another.” He adds, “Emotion and activism are ‘useful’ in the ways they allow questions to be asked and designs to be evaluated. . . . The emotional objects are less about the thing as an end but the shifts in subjectivity that might arise from interacting with it. Similarly, activist objects might be thought of as useful in the ways that they initiate intersubjective changes.”
Objects imbued with a message can signify solidarity but also act as sites of contemplation and learning. Alex Thompson, MID ’20, took inspiration from grocery store produce labels for her design of eye-catching alternative stickers that demonstrate the close connection between the buyer and the laborer who harvested the crop, and raise questions for the viewer to consider. Shaya AlArfaj, MID ’19, designed a water bottle that could fit in a chain-link fence, with the idea that a grouping of them could create a graphic message (such as the logo for New Sanctuary Coalition) while each individual bottle could hold pamphlets with awareness-raising information.
Just as students have sought out ways to assist the partner organization in thinking creatively about how to serve its constituency, the experience has been an opportunity for them to enrich their understanding of the ethics and sensitivities surrounding others’ experiences—which could have a ripple effect in other communities they come to work in. Not only are students coming away with a richer understanding of design practice but an additional layer of learning that touches on social responsibility. “Ultimately, the courses I have taught that are premised upon a topic of social import are aimed at teaching students to be flexible thinkers, to find ways of using their design skills in situations where design might not be the obvious address to its problems,” says Schweder, who also recently led a studio focused on design for Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers.
When it comes to the intricate challenges organizations like New Sanctuary Coalition grapple with, “The change needs to come from every angle,” Sanchez says, and designers can serve as catalysts for transformation. For her organization’s constituents, “It’s a long journey, and in that journey they suffer so many traumas,” and the Undocumented Design students, “through their developments, through their art . . . are willing to fix these anxieties, these traumas, this sense of not belonging. . . . All the art they did was with a purpose, for people to see it, for people to ask, what is this about, what can I do?”
Images (top to bottom): Subversion Stickers courtesy of Alex Thompson; JustICE Water courtesy of Shaya AlArfage; Mantra Mirror courtesy of Martin Sombathy; ILLUMINA courtesy of Alejandro Moyano.