DSI Students Engage in Service Scenario Prototyping for the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity

DSI / Social Design

MFA Design for
Social Innovation

136 W 21st St,
5th Fl.
New York, NY 10011
(212) 592–2205


Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeffrey Franklin. That’s why.
Among other things, Jeffrey Franklin and Archie Coates are making it possible for nine million New Yorkers to swim in the East River for the first time in one hundred years. And they teach Thesis at DSI.

DSI: What’s design for social innovation?

Our position is that design should be both innovative and social, always. We just think it’s good design.

We run a design office called PlayLab and the core of our office is pleasing ourselves first because we’re people and we’re social. If we can make ourselves happy and do something that benefits us, then chances are it will benefit somebody else and somebody else will be attracted to it and make their lives better. So as a result we are doing projects that do affect a vast number of people.

And they range in scale from a project called +Pool, which is a water filtering, floating pool. It’s the first water filtering pool in the world that floats on the water allowing nine million residents in New York to swim in river for the first time in one hundred years. That’s a social community project, but it’s an innovative project because it’s a new technology that doesn’t exist. And it’s right now the largest crowd funded architecture project of all time and it will continue to be so.
plus-pool-1   plus-pool-2
We’ve also done a pie shop in Alabama, with our friends in Project M, where the goal was to get two entirely different groups of people to want to communicate with each other and sit at the same table for the first time in 200 years. But all under the guise of fun: swimming, eating pie, and having a good time. You know?

A lot of times in ‘social innovation’ this term gets thrown around and then people hide behind it as designers trying to do good and change the world, which is this heavy hand that you put on people and a lot of times shit doesn’t get done and things aren’t even better. But those people look great in a magazine article.

DSI: So what else are you doing?

We started a quarterly architecture magazine called CLOG, which advances the field of architecture by addressing one topic at a time, from a multitude of viewpoints, collects them in an issue and distributes it all over the world, and holds exhibitions, conversations, panels, lectures, etc. around topics that are relevant. One of the recent issues was about the architecture of prisons. In this case we are playing the role of editors, of publishers, of designers. We’re collecting the information, we’re curating it, editing it and releasing it to the world with a specific viewpoint.

We’re always initiating new projects, that can range from proposing toys, products, and they sort of straddle art and design, design is the tool, art is the idea. And so right now we are trying to make this piece that deals with time, so it’s a watch that doesn’t exactly tell time, but it provides a sense of reference of what’s important. So things like that…

For us, design is less about working up to the thing that will be the thing and more about looking at all the possibilities, whether it’s drawing them, writing them, talking about them through conversation and then editing down. You produce all of these things and then you see what came out of you naturally through conversation and pushing buttons, or prodding things, and then editing down and then saying “oh that’s weird, this, and this thing kind of go together, I never would have thought about it” and then you put them together and say ”that’s the idea, that’s the thing.”

You have to blow out all the possibilities and then you prototype from there.

A lot of people believe that the role of the designer is just to fulfill the will of somebody else and make sure it’s done in the best way possible. What you’re seeing from the DSI program, is that they are all initiated projects, they’re all finding people who actually have needs and they are attacking it, or addressing it, from their own interests, which is the way that I think design should be practiced.

With Pie Lab it was the same thing, in Alabama. Everything was intentional. There was one table, there was no to-go silverware, you couldn’t take the pie out. You had to sit on one table, no matter whom you were you sat around this small table. And it was successful, you know. It was rated number 1 pie in America by Good House Keeping Magazine, not because it’s the best pie in America, but because it’s the best experience for eating pie in America.

DSI: What do you want to say to students applying to the DSI program?

Archie: I’d say that one of the biggest problems we’ve seen is this desire to change the world. Now, that’s not a bad thing, that’s an admirable thing. But I think that can be selfish and it can be weird. It’s important to enter DSI with an open mind, an open heart, a ton of excitement, but to realize that it’s going to be a lot of work and that you should understand what your interests are.

Jeff: We always told students not to underestimate the fact that a small change can have a big impact. That even those tiniest solutions can create a ripple that can actually make a real change, and that there’s no magic wand that’s going to cure some major problem in one swoop. It’s little things working together to make those changes.

Take Josh Treufaft’s thesis project from this past spring—he might have started a revolution with one dinner party. Huff Post just wrote an article on him yesterday. That alone was proof. That’s how +Pool started, that how Pie Lab started, that’s how all these things start.

Looking at something that most people see as incredibly bad and then trying to find something good in it and then bringing the good out. We always give the High Line as the example of this because everybody wanted to tear it down because it was overgrown, rusty and ugly and then two guys were like no, that is a relic, it’s important to the neighborhood, it’s important to New York City, let’s use it instead of tear it down. They did. World-class park. Game changer. New model for the entire world about how to use things that are actually there. It was just finding something good in something everybody thought was bad. And it’s a way of seeing, it’s being positive, and looking around and finding inspiration in those things.

That’s a big piece of advice for students. To be honest and look at the world.

Photo Credits:
Archie and Jeff portraits: Tanya Bhandari
+Pool image credits: Family & PlayLab
136 W 21st St,
5th Fl.
New York, NY 10011
(212) 592–2205