This month, Icsid reached out to Dr. Mariana Amatullo, Co-Founder and Vice President of the Designmatters department at ArtCenter College of Design and review panel member for the World Design Impact Prize 2015-2016. She gives us her perspective on women in design from the vantage point of a leader in the field of design education and an expert on design as a tool for social innovation. She also shares with us a number of exciting and inspiring projects that leave no doubt as to women’s impact in the field.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about how you came to co-found the Designmatters department at ArtCenter? Were there any particularly strong influences that shaped your career path?

I joined ArtCenter in 2000, taking a junior management position in a one-year old department that had as its mandate “innovative global programming,” and from which Designmatters would later emerge. My prior professional experience was that of a young curator and art historian who had worked with contemporary artists in two of our prominent area museums, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). I had also deferred enrollment into a PhD, in Latin-American 20th Century Art and Literature, at the University of Southern California in order to dedicate myself to raising two hyperactive toddler boys. Just as my sons were settling into a more manageable preschool routine, I remember reading a newspaper article that profiled ArtCenter as a community of outstanding creative individuals with an incredibly dynamic organisational culture. This was sufficient to spark my curiosity and move me to want to contribute to that entrepreneurial educational environment—even though at the time I was a relative novice to design and design education!

Looking back on particularly strong influences that shaped my career path, my trajectory is the result of a mix of insights from formal education and my lived experience—none of which translates into a linear pathway. For example, my curatorial training definitely influenced my approach to project management and curricular development, as well as storytelling and documentation. On the personal learning front, I attribute my relative ease with confronting the essential uncertainty that characterises all complex decision-making to the resilience that I honed from growing up as a diplomat’s child, with multiple and constant relocations around the world. Furthermore, the multicultural and mission-driven environment of the United Nations is one I came to appreciate very early on, and that familiarity proved beneficial when we designed the outreach strategy for the college’s affiliation with the UN as a nongovernmental organisation (NGO).

In more recent years, a transformative and profound experience has been to get out of my comfort zone to pursue and complete doctoral work at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, where my research in design and social innovation has opened up new lines of inquiry that both inform and have been informed by my practice.

Above: Giradora, is a human-powered washer and spin dryer, increases the efficiency and improves the experience of hand-washing clothes for women living without access to running water. Giradora is an outcome of the Safe Agua Peru project. Project Team: Alex Cabunoc (Product Design), Ji A You (Environmental Design) & Mariana Prieto (Product Design)

Q: There has been ongoing speculation in the last few decades as to why there aren’t yet more women in design, particularly industrial design. What are your thoughts on this?  

It is a challenging question. I have not personally researched or delved enough into the issue to have formed an opinion as to why the scale may not be balanced and is still tipping toward under-representation of women in the industrial design discipline. As many of us do, I do follow some of the important discussions occurring that point to a historical legacy and a combination of socio-economic factors that seem to correlate with this under-representation. I also sympathize with many valid concerns about the conspicuous lack of visibility of the great women industrial designers of the past and the present, who regrettably get granted celebrity status less frequently than their male counterparts. In this regard, I find initiatives such as IDSA’s Women in Design, that support women in achieving their full professional potential as leaders, really important. I am also encouraged by the fact that we currently have great female role models in industrial design education for the next generation of women pursuing this path. At ArtCenter, these accomplished practitioners within our faculty surround me, starting with my colleague Karen Hofmann, chair of ArtCenter’s Product Design department.

Q: In your opinion, is the emerging field of social impact design going to attract more women into a career like industrial design?

Quite possibly. But again, I would like to resist the urge of a generalized statement that might lead us to pigeonholing women in any particular role or design discipline. I believe the emerging field of social impact design is very exciting and attracting a level of ingenuity and excellence that is inspiring. But I tend not to look at the field with a gender lens. I am more interested in identifying and nurturing great talent, period. That said, I can think of three superlative industrial design social enterprise projects associated with Designmatters which all have women industrial design members as part of their leadership teams: Mariana Prieto (former Fellow and Product Design/Designmatters alumna) is part of Giradora, a human-powered washer and spin dryer for emerging markets; Mariana Somma (Graduate Industrial alumna and former Designmatters Fellow) is now at the helm and taking forward the Calientamigos water heating and pressurized shower system, and Mariko Iwai (a current senior Product Design student) is the team leader for the innovative menstruation kit Flo, recognised by the prestigious 2015 IDSA Design for Equity Award. All three projects are also IDSA’s IDEA Gold Winners and exemplars of outstanding design for social impact.

Above: Calientamigos, is a family of products that offers a warm, pressurized shower for kids and adults. Calientamigos is an outcome of the Safe Agua Colombia project. Project Team: Kevin Chang (Product Design), Tianyi Sun (Product Design), Della Tosin (Product Design) & Mariana Somma (Grad. Industrial Design)

Q: ArtCenter students recently collaborated with the Nike Foundation, Yale School of Management and fuseproject on the Girl Effect design studio. They explored how to improve the lives—with tangible products and services—of adolescent girls living in poverty around the world. The project was born of the Nike Foundation’s belief that adolescent girls can play a key role in solving some of the world’s biggest problems.

What can you tell us about “unleashing the girl effect”? What parallels, if any, could we see between the power of adolescent girls to positively impact their communities and the power of women in design to effect change globally?

Despite mounting recognition that gender equality and the full realisation of human rights for women and girls has a transformative effect on sustainable development and economic growth, the fate of adolescent girls around the world remains one fraught with discrimination and profound inequities. The impetus behind “unleashing the girl effect” and this studio’s inspiration to build upon Nike’s Foundation acclaimed advocacy work, came from a design brief that was initiated by Tom de Blasis, the former design director at the Foundation. Tom had been part of immersive field research around the world and came to us with a deep understanding about the complexity of the issues at hand, and a lot of clarity about many of the current shortcomings of the product and service design solutions we see in the space. Tom was willing to take a leap of faith in helping us create a laboratory environment to allow for this collaboration to take shape and for our students to be bold in their consideration of new possibilities. This represented a key ingredient for the success of the studio. When one reads the studio’s process book, that collaborative dimension is one that jumps out as a foundational learning outcome for all. And the award-winning Flo product is another brilliant result of the project, for sure.

As to the second part of your question—parallels between this so-called girl effect and the power of women to change design globally—what comes to mind for me as a small example is the impactful work Smart Design has pioneered with their Femme Den Lab (and full disclosure: I have been a longstanding fan of one of its founding members who happens to also be an ArtCenter product design alumna, Agnete Enga). The initiative has been consistently reframing the gender conversation in design with multidisciplinary research insights for several years now. Check out Dan Formosa’s relatively recent post about his predictions of what will change design as we know it.  No surprise he lists women as change agents in that forecast.

Q: What are some of the challenges still faced by women designers in the workforce?

Let me try to answer by first removing the “designers” qualifier out from the question. There is provocative and rich research from the literatures of management and women’s careers highlighting that male-defined constructs of work and career success continue to dominate organisational practice despite women comprising more than 40% of workers in the global economy. Many of the challenges women in the workforce face—designers and non-designers alike—start there. On the other side of the coin, we have new evidence to demonstrate that when it comes to the leadership of many of our private and public sector organisations, effective board governance as well as the financial performance of our organisations is directly influenced by the gender diversity of boards. In other words, it pays to have women at the helm in more ways than one.

Q: What advice do you have for young women thinking about a career in design?

My advice is predicated on insights from intentional change theory and old-fashioned common sense: if you opt into a career in design, embrace it to your fullest. Design is a profoundly humanistic knowledge discipline that can lead us to alternative and better futures, and we are living in a time when the discipline continues to grow in recognition and relevance. Your prospects to make a relevant contribution are endless. As a woman you can contribute by remaining cognizant that your work will be embedded in a larger-than-life context that will include family and career choices that always feel like walking a tightrope. Always rely on your personal intuition, core identity and collaborative self. Be tenacious and remain hopeful and optimistic. This will go a long way in your overcoming any bias, barriers or vestiges of discrimination that may stand in your way.

Above: The Flo Kit, presents an inexpensive system for cleaning, drying and carrying reusable menstrual pads so girls can feel confident and in control. Flo is an outcome of the Girl Effect Studio. Project Team: From ArtCenter, Mariko Higaki Iwai (Product Design), Sohyun Kim (Environmental Design), Tatijana Vasily (Photography). From Yale School of Management, Charlotte Wong & Ben Freedman


About Dr. Mariana Amatullo
A practitioner-scholar, Dr. Amatullo oversees the award-winning portfolio of Designmatters educational and research collaborations in art and design education and social innovation. Amatullo is the recipient of the inaugural 2012 DELL Social Innovation Education award, was named to Fast Company’s Co. Design 50 Designers Shaping the Future, and the Public Interest Design 100. Amatullo holds a PhD in Management from the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, where she is a Scholar-in-Residence. Her research focuses on the impact of design in social innovation and organisational practice. She holds an M.A. in Art History and Museum Studies from USC and a Licence en Lettres Degree from the Sorbonne University, Paris.

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