Shining a light on our city’s extraordinary design legacy, Tanner Woodford, founder and executive director of the Design Museum of Chicago moderated a panel of Design Impact Grant recipients including Laviyah Ayanna, Kathy Gregg, Maya Bird-Murphy, Emily Winter and Quilen Blackwell, in a program highlight of NeoCon 2022. Woodford posed the question: How do you define design? The panelists’ responses called attention to the methodology of design but also emphasized its properties as a shared language.
“It blows my mind I am sitting here talking about design because I had no idea that it really impacted me and the people that I raise money for,” says Kathy Gregg, Friedman Place chief development officer and professional fundraiser, referring to non-visual markers using touch, sound and smell they have designed for resident navigation. Their awareness campaign of design best practice fosters the independence of blind or visually impaired adults.
Laviyah Ayanna, who serves as an instructor with the Tilden High School After School Student Pilot to Permanent Design Incubator, chimed in about design’s encompassing impact, “You can be in our city and not know there are students going to school in third world conditions.” Her face lit up as she described the program curriculum taking root in young minds. “Designing is a collective process and I love this aspect of a classroom setting,” she says.
Envisioned by entrepreneur Maya Bird-Murphy, Chicago Mobile Makers brings design-focused skill-building workshops to underrepresented communities across the city. Bird-Murphy says “the retrofitted truck is really wonderful because it’s this bright odd thing that pulls up and it brings a sense of joy with younger kids. Young people need to understand how design is sometimes affecting them negatively too and then they are able to start thinking about how to design in a more positive way.”
Artist and co-founder of The Weaving Mill, Emily Winter asks us to redesign the notion of waste: “Think about material life cycles and about waste as a starting point for something else.” She is physically and symbolically weaving together the design process and operation of a small-scale industrial mill with artisans, and adults with developmental disabilities. Their grant supports a human-powered treadle fiber shredding machine that takes fabric scraps and turns them into a byproduct fluff to be repurposed into usable products. Winter described the improved design evolution and the gently “treadling and shreddling” activity preferred over the original peddling concept when the team considered the disabilities of participants.
Chicago Eco House/Southside Blooms co-founder Quilen Blackwell has a visionary goal buoyed by enthusiastic optimism. “Dream big,” he says, “Human beings have overcome big problems. Someone had the courage to dream bigger than what they could see.” By transforming urban vacant lots into solar-powered flower farms, they’re creating jobs for at-risk youth and establishing a viable domestic industry in the community. “Our challenge has been to create an environment where youth feel comfortable being themselves within the foundation of a major company.”
The meaning of design might be the collective creative potential in all of us. And if design is true to its multifaceted language, it’s possible to consider periodic redesign. After all, the key takeaway, as Bird-Murphy put it, is to actually act on lessons learned from the program and NeoCon at-large. “How can we personally take action and be better stewards of communities and environments around the country?” That’s where designing a better community, a better Chicago and a better world starts.