Interview: Cheryl Heller on SVA's new Design for Social Innovation MFA

PopTech Board Chair Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of a new MFA program, Design for Social Innovation, at the School of Visual Arts in New York. As the founder of Heller Communications, she’s been working at the intersection of design, communication, social change, sustainability, and business strategy for years and now, at SVA, she has an opportunity to transfer her knowledge to a student body with a growing interest around those same topics. Since the program is just getting underway and applications are still being accepted for the program's first year, we wanted to check in with Heller to learn more about why this program is being sought after right now.

PopTech: Why do you think there’s a desire for SVA’s Design for Social Innovation Masters of Fine Art program at this very moment? What’s happening to fuel that need or interest?
Cheryl Heller: We’re witnessing a global movement in social innovation – encompassing a broad spectrum of industries, social and business strata, generations and geographies. If you think about it, everyone who wants to create change, whether they know it or not, will need to design it. We’re offering people a path to learning to design positive change intentionally and sustainably and they are hearing it.

What are a few examples of where you hope students will land after going through the Design for Social Innovation program?
The most obvious places are inside corporations or business or design consultancies, working as or with entrepreneurs and with NGOs. But we are finding opportunities showing up in places where they didn’t exist before - with government agencies or community organizations. All these organizations have come to realize that they can’t succeed without including the needs of society and the environment in their future; that change will happen whether they’re ready for it or not, so they might as well design it.

What do you hope that students will come away with after completing the program?
A deep connection to themselves and their own purpose that is a constant source of strength and clarity, the ability to enter any situation and see the system dynamics at work, humility, creativity, the skill to make things visible and accessible to diverse people or groups so that collaboration is possible, the character to lead by inspiration and example, and the confidence to use beauty, elegance and joy as motivators.

What are some key concepts that students will be exposed to in this program?
Context is critical. Paul Polak talks about this. A solution is not a solution if it doesn’t work for the people for whom it’s intended. To work within any system without causing harm to it, you must see and understand every aspect of it. There is no substitute for immersion and understanding of the context in which you are working.

Creativity is often forgotten in our world, or misjudged. It’s not the same as innovation necessarily. It is a discipline that has application throughout the process of social innovation, and it is one of the most obvious but well-kept secrets that the way to heal organizations or communities is to help them create together.

Process is a beautiful thing. Great designers know how to get stuff done, and they know that it comes after understanding context and applying creativity.

At PopTech, we’ve been following the building momentum that connects good design to affecting significant social change. What design-focused projects are particularly inspiring to you right now that reflect this trend?
What I love is that we’re beginning to see people designing change from places and roles that are less expected. Directors of HR, finance, CEOs, business consultants, and foundations are becoming more actively involved. We can now look well beyond those obvious stars who have developed revolutionary models or technologies and see that leaders are needed – and are showing up – throughout the system.

Applications for the Design for Social Innovation MFA program are due January 15, 2012 for Fall 2012 enrollment. The program is currently seeking a cohort of 25 visual thinkers and creative talents who will become the first class -- designers, graduates in other disciplines, and professionals who are looking for a career with purpose.

For more about the program at SVA and the recent Designathon they hosted, check out this video.

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