MASS Design Group’s meteoric rise and expanding portfolio of built work is all the more impressive considering the realities and challenges of public interest design. While only a few years into its existence, MASS has raised the bar for the practice of public interest design—and, indeed, for design professions generally.
Public interest design—gaining momentum in recent years thanks to awards and books, museum exhibitions, marquee projects, promising new organizations, and charismatic leaders—remains far more exclusive, competitive, and hard to penetrate than many acknowledge. There remain a select few post-graduate opportunities, limited funding, and only so much press coverage to go around. There is also a stigma of low expectations that design for good need only be, well, good—not great.
Designers naturally want to assume that our professional peers are playing a role in hospitals and schools currently being built. But, in the chance exchange between Michael Murphy and Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health that precipitated MASS’s founding, Murphy learned that Farmer, a decades-long public health advocate who had built facilities for health and education, had not worked with architecture and design professionals. MASS cofounders Murphy and Alan Ricks seized the opportunity and forged a relationship with Farmer and his organization.
Setting MASS apart, and comparing to IDEO.org
In the context of their predecessors and peer organizations, there are several attributes that distinguish MASS. The first is represented well in its relationship with Farmer and Partners in Health: a commitment to forge meaningful, long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships. Several years in, the trust and relationships they’ve built are arguably more significant than the breathtaking Butaro Hospital, the first physical manifestation of that partnership.
The second thing that distinguishes MASS is its clear commitment to getting things built. Gone are the days when competition entries or even the most refined renderings of small-scale, conceptual projects dominate the field of public interest design, and we owe MASS a huge debt of gratitude for that. Their Butaro Hospital (pictured here, accompanied by elevation drawings) alone is larger, more contextually appropriate, and more beautifully designed than virtually any previous public interest design project.
The third distinction is a crucial understanding that design is a means, not an end. The ends are better public health, better schools, better lives. It is a humbling but empowering realization that MASS clearly embraces.
Though distinguished in many respects, MASS is not alone in representing the next generation of public interest design. It is joined, more recently, by another groundbreaking organization, IDEO.org—a nonprofit spinoff of industrial design giant IDEO. Like MASS, IDEO.org utilizes design as a means to eradicate poverty and suffering. The organization is focused on some of the most pressing social issues of our time: agriculture, health, finance, gender equity, as well as water and sanitation, among others.
Staffed by eight “Innovators in Residence,” IDEO.org practices what it calls human-centered design, a process pioneered and time-tested by IDEO over two decades. Those eight residents were selected from a pool of more than 400 fellowship applicants in IDEO.org’s inaugural year. Whereas MASS is focused primarily on the built environment, IDEO.org applies design thinking to systems, such as clean water delivery. And rather than design lingo archi-speak, MASS and IDEO.org both trend toward powerfully simple terms, like “hope” and “dignity.”
IDEO.org and MASS operate as nonprofits—soliciting donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations—but they also generate revenue through fee-for-service work. Both have received significant contracts thanks to their demonstrated ability to deliver. Funders and investors have come to expect this diversified portfolio approach of social sector organizations.
Both organizations have also become masterful storytellers, crafting compelling narratives about their own instincts, their clients, and the causes they represent—whether as ambassadors for Partners in Health in MASS’s case, or advocates for clean water in the case of IDEO.org.
Factors in the public interest design movement
If MASS and IDEO.org represent the best of the present, three things will determine the fate of a growing and still-fragile public interest design movement. The first is a need to empower people and organizations to demand good design worldwide. The goodwill, intentions, and supply of design expertise are now readily apparent in pro bono pledges made by firms, but they greatly outweigh the demand and capacity in the social sector. In other words, the supply and demand equation is imbalanced. Meanwhile, MASS has demonstrated the potential of partnering with an array of entities to build demand and raise expectations. More firms like MASS are needed, as well as organizations to step up as crucial matchmakers or brokers.
The second pressing need is to provide opportunities for designers of all ranges of experience to put their professional training to work for the public good. With thousands of new graduates each year and a significant number of underemployed designers, we need a robust service corps of significantly greater scale than the precious few opportunities that exist today. While the pathway to a career in public interest law is well known and defined, the pathway to a career in public interest design is anything but. Imagine something akin to Teach for America for designers, or the legal profession’s equivalent—such as Equal Justice Works and the Skadden Fellowships, which are introducing legions of young lawyers to the field of public interest law. We need design firms and manufacturers to support and endow such opportunities, and to do so with big expectations for their return on investment.
The third need is to improve communications, better utilize social media, and facilitate the sharing of ideas. The public interest design movement needs to demonstrate that it is more than the sum of its parts—and instead be representative of a coordinated network with a collective will. We need to design this movement, recognizing that it could serve as a model for other movements struggling with similar challenges. While the nature of contemporary social change gets more and more decentralized, it’s more critical to create nodes or hubs where movement leaders can share best practices and avoid redundancy, and newcomers can get a sense of the landscape of the broad effort and join in. That’s a huge challenge facing public interest design.
Few may be surprised at Paul Farmer’s admission that he and his organization never before worked with a designer. As we celebrate MASS Design Group for filling that void, it’s high time we reverse the market trends that allowed a world-changing organization—and countless others like it—to not understand that they too deserve and need good design. We all do.
John Cary is the editor of publicinterestdesign.org and author of The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients. He writes and speaks widely on architecture, design, public service, and social justice. As executive director of Public Architecture, Cary was the co-recipient of the 2009 Designer of the Year Award from Contract.