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DSI Paul Polak’s Work Inspires a Powerful Thesis

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MFA Design for
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Despina Papadopoulos. That’s why.
Among other things, Despina is helping crafts people in Afghanistan think outside the object and connect to a larger world. And she teaches Thesis at DSI. 

DSI: What’s design for social innovation?

We talk a lot about human centered design, as if design should be anything else. Design should always be human centered because whatever you design is for a human or for the environment they live in. And once you bring many humans together you have the social. Now let’s talk about innovation. As our societies become more and more complex and we’re facing big challenges and issues, it’s important to know how we change our current predicament and how we innovate. Innovation is an innate part of design. As a designer you always want to make something better, more useable, and more useable could also mean more fun, because if it is more fun, then it becomes more useful, especially if you start thinking about behavioral change and that aspect of the work. So in a way bringing design, social and innovation together is an actual natural outcome of the maturity that design is experiencing in the past, let’s say 30 years, where it includes an understanding of the impact it has in everything that we do. So how do we apply those three terms and combine them in order to satisfy some of the biggest quests that we have as humans.

DSI: What would you like to say to prospective students about the program?

What’s really exciting is that you come together with other people who have similar desires; similar desire for change, similar desire for innovation, similar desire for making an impact. Even though your fellow students and your faculty might have different interests, or methodologies, it’s a group of people who are really striving to create change, starting with how they change and define their professional aspirations and their professional framework, but also, you meet 20 other young people who come from all over the world who are driven by similar desires and visions, and that’s really powerful and not easy to garner. At the same time you are in a city like New York that has a lot of opportunities and a lot of diversity in its own right, so it becomes quite easy to explore and observe and analyze and experiment with a lot of the questions and the intuitions that one might have as a young designer.

DSI: Can you talk a little bit about your background and the work that you do?

My background is, like many people in this area, quite diverse. I was born and raised in Greece, and then moved to Belgium, where I did a B.A. and a Masters in Philosophy. I was really interested in existentialism, psychoanalysis and aesthetics and how is it that we locate meaning. I followed that Masters with another Masters at NYU, at a program, like DSI that was quite small. It was called the Interactive Communications Program, led by Red Burns, like DSI, by a quite visionary woman, so it’s interesting you have all these women in the space; visionary and uncompromising. I was really interested in those models of interaction; what happens with the advent of new technologies, how do we locate meaning, value; how can we use these technologies to create delight, to create new experiences, to understand how we interact in the world, what it means to be in the world with all this technology. Both of these intellectual and educational backgrounds are very important for me, and I think that the fact that I studied philosophy first really informs a lot of how I approach my work. I spent the first few years of my career very involved with interactive design for museums, and a lot of what was called, then and now, wearable technologies. I was interested in wearable technology because it has such an intimate relationship with the self, the body, the environment. We have all these wearable technologies, but what does it mean, what can we do with it; also how do we construct it, what are the emotional and material affordances that we create? I like when the problems, the material and the technical meets the social and the emotional. This is an intersection that all of my work is very much concerned with. I just launched six months ago a big project around wearables for older adults, looking at how we use the technologies that we have to change both perception of what ageing is and how we ourselves approach our own ageing.

DSI: What are the ways you mix technology and the social, or technology and people?

On the one hand, technology is a tool. A pen is technology. What do you use to get a job done? Today we have a great acceleration and proliferation of technologies. We have to be much more critical about how we approach it. What I’m interested in technology is that it does present, the way we experience, at least today, a connection to zeitgeist, right? We see technology being a very intrinsic part of how we engage with the world. What I find incredibly interesting with technology is the ability, if used properly, for transparency, and accessibility. Now you have all these kids being able to code, all these people being able to come together, there’s something really interesting and rich here. We should be very conscious, however, because the same things can be used for good, or for bad. You can use it just as well for repression and oppression as for openness and communication.

DSI: Can you talk in more detail about a project that you are working on?

despina-2  despina-3
A woman that I met in Afghanistan four years ago moved back to Canada and started an online e-commerce venture selling artifacts from developing economies (Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and now Kenya and other developing markets). We were always discussing how frustrating it is that in many developing economies there are some wonderful crafts people with great skill, but they really cannot think outside the object at all, they make the object, usually it’s almost entirely identical to what their great-grandparents made, but they don’t know how to price it, how to cost it, how to innovate, how to change it, how to sell it, how to export it, none of it. And now you have a growing group of people who are looking for ethnical fashion and ethnical design, the unique, the special… So we kept saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow communicate this process that one needs to follow…” to artisans in Afghanistan. Long story short we got a grant. We wrote a proposal, we got a grant to do it. And it’s so simple, it’s really a business manual, effectively. A lot of them were illiterate…So we made two versions. The one you see here is for the literate artisans. The ones that are literate are on the Internet, they have smart phones, they’re really sophisticated, but then you have a lot of home producers who are not. That version is almost like an illustrated book, there’s a lot more illustrations and a lot less text and the audio component is just for that group.
despina-1

DSI: If you could give one piece of advice to students starting out in the world of social innovation, what would it be?

Don’t make any assumptions about people you don’t know. And be generous, and kind, and fearless.

Photo Credits:
Despina’s portrait: Tanya Bhandari
Photos: Kathleen Holland (left), Jake Simkin (right)
Illustration: Liza Singer
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136 W 21st St,
5th Fl.
New York, NY 10011
(212) 592–2205

SUBSCRIBE