Impact! Impressions

by Vera Sacchetti

When I first sat at the roundtable that inaugurated the Impact! summer program at SVA, I was far from understanding how the following weeks of this intensive summer program would affect me. As an observer, I came from the nearby SVA Design Criticism department to study the language used around the booming field of design for social change, as it was used in the first program of its kind. Such cold detachment soon proved to be impossible, due to the fast paced, immersive nature of the program and the people that brought it to life.

I was first struck by the class, a group of impressive people young and old, several of them at a turning point in their lives and careers. Determined to make social change an inherent aspect of their practice, the majority  had experience in the field, bringing to the table many interesting projects. Students came not only from the US but also Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Portugal, which diversified the range of perspectives and proved the urgency around the field of design and social change knows no borders.

Impact! students.

Starting from day one, the weeks unraveled at a fast pace, with students working simultaneously on a personal project and a team assignment. Wanting to push the envelope on what designers can do, students were encouraged to be bold but realistic, and challenged to answer difficult questions from instructors every day. Classes would vary from lecture to work session to field trip, and by the end of each week I was exhausted – and I was only sitting in on the classes!

The lectures varied in tone but always posed demanding questions to students, who had to constantly re-evaluate their beliefs and intentions, refining their goals and how to reach them. Work sessions were extremely rewarding, with guest critics – practitioners in the field – stopping by every so often to advise and give feedback to the class. The field trips were gems, too – in three weeks the class had the privilege of, among other outings, touring the Cooper-Hewitt’s Design Triennial with the museum’s Curator for Socially Responsible Design, Cynthia Smith; visiting charity:water and be welcomed by its founder, Scott Harrison; and doing a grantseeking workshop at the Foundation Center. Guest lecturers would also talk to students every now and then – in the first weeks only, the likes of Milton Glaser and Bill Drenttell stopped by, inspiring everyone with their stories.

Allan Chochinov (left) and Steven Heller (right) critiquing student work.

At the end of week three I had observed a remarkable evolution not only within each project but also within the class. With instructors demystifying processes such as planning, funding and pitching, and alerting to importance of measuring the success and evaluating the outcome of each project, students had become focused and pragmatic, and yet hadn’t lost any of their far-reaching goals. Team projects were shaping up to be fully or partially implemented within their specific contexts, and individual projects were becoming more and more defined. Students were constantly given more tools, and I was sorry to miss what I am sure were three more fantastic weeks.

By interacting daily with this extraordinary group of people – students and instructors – I grew as a design critic and as a human being, renewing my faith in what I believe is an extraordinary opportunity for the design field. I ended up changing the focus of my thesis research, for I, as the Impact! students, also changed and evolved through this period of time. I’m sure the students completing the program this week will leave with an extraordinary set of skills, using them to the benefit of others and the betterment of the design profession.

photos by Keren Moscovitch

Matt Johnson (left) meets with instructor Martin Kace (right).
Student Deborah Alden.
Student David Mierke.