As a participant in the a2ru 2015 Emerging Creatives Student Summit, I came to realize that artistic excellence is no longer defined by aesthetic or originality; instead, the issues faced in the 21st century demand designers with the empathy to connect with all people, the humility to ask questions, and the self-awareness that one must understand before being understood.
Sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth University, the conference drew students from around the world to discuss the role of art and design in the future of cities. Along with my colleagues in engineering and art, I attended the summit as a representative of Washington University in St. Louis, where I am studying architecture and international studies.
At the conference, interdisciplinary groups were tasked with proposing solutions to contemporary problems spanning social, political and ecological spheres. Panels and discussions complemented these collaborations with leading experts in the fields of design, activism, politics and planning. Participants represented a wide range of interests and expertise, which were integral in the development of projects addressing community vitality, homelessness, sustainability, and more.
Much like the everyday musings of a 14-year-old, my a2ru experience was best encapsulated in a Facebook status. In a reflection on the weekend, my teammate Edward Coe wrote, “[The a2ru conference] made me realize that the most valuable asset of a designer is empathy… and the most important skill is the ability to listen.” While, as a team, we tackled the issue of homelessness, many of our most formative conversations broached topics of collaboration, empathy, and intersectionality. While the ability to design a beautiful logo is a valuable skill, it is irrelevant without the context of human users.
By hosting this conference, a2ru and VCUArts have committed to rethinking the designer’s role in the 21st century. A recent New York Times article, How to Rebuild Architecture, does an excellent job capturing the pitfalls of the design profession: “…at what point does architecture’s potential to improve human life become lost because of its inability to connect with actual humans?…We’ve taught generations of architects to speak out as artists, but we haven’t taught them how to listen… ” Universities have a fundamental role to play in shaping the future of arts education—we must consider the design process as a methodology of solving complex issues, not merely producing isolated work for portfolios.
I wish to end this post with a call to action, posed to participants by one of the panelists:
“Don’t be afraid to disrupt…We are in the age of disruption.” – Ralph Remington
With the issues the world faces today, the most revolutionary act is action. It doesn’t matter if you have permission; you’ll never make everyone happy. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t a universal success—there is no silver bullet to these issues. For too long, design has forsaken its potential to make change by failing to connect with actual humans. I encourage you to be action-oriented, seek to propose real solutions, and take an active role in your education; design can change the world, but it will require empathetic, self-aware practitioners. Be one.