Looking Back at the Winterhouse Symposium


Last August 7-9, the School of Design hosted the seventh annual Winterhouse Symposium. Terry Irwin, Head of the School of Design, and Associate Professor Kristin Hughes curated and coordinated the Symposium’s events. The 2016 cohort of 23 participants included School of Design faculty members Hannah du Plessis and Marc Rettig, as well as Ph.D. student Silvia Mata-Marin.

Established by graphic designers William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand in 2006, the Winterhouse Institute exists to “articulate the value of design education for social impact,” an area of focus at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design. The Institute has three main initiatives to see that mission through. One is the Social Design Pathways tool, which can be used to understand the scope and potential impacts of social design projects. Another is the Drenttel Awards, through which the Winterhouse Institute and partner organization Teach for All recognize projects that use design to create social impact. Finally, the annual Winterhouse Symposium for design education and social change is an intentionally small group of educators in social design gathering in an informal, intimate setting to foster community and collaboration.

Through discussions and breakout sessions on topics determined by the participants themselves, the Symposium served as a space for exploration, inspiration, and support for educators in this emerging field. The main areas of focus at this year’s Symposium considered different factors in grounding and growing social design, both academically and in practice.

One way the participants worked towards this goal was in further developing the Pathways tool for wider adoption. “The Design Pathways tool is a foundational outcome of our collective work and we are unanimous in our view that it has great potential,” say Lee Davis and Chris Kasabach of the Winterhouse Board. “We have an ambitious plan now to further evolve it with more content around each quadrant of the tool’s matrix, including cases for how it can be applied, a bibliography for further reading, learning outcomes and competencies for each, etc.” 

Building out the interactivity and practicality of this tool will help social design educators, students, and practitioners better shape and scope their work. According to the Pathways tool website, “the effectiveness of a designer’s (or indeed of any socially-minded problem solvers', work in this broad terrain depends upon their understanding the scale in which they are operating and the impacts they hope to have.”

Establishing social design as a recognized academic field is key to giving the research being done in this space grounding in the broader worlds of design and social change. Symposium participants had a common goal of “sharing experiences and exploring collaborative opportunities in publishing around social design education” to understand the opportunities available now. In doing so, they discussed how they might share curriculum models and resources.

Participants also acknowledged the importance of providing funding for the sustainability of this emerging field of social design, setting a goal to increase institutional capacity to support the Social Design Pathways tool, the Drenttel Awards, and the Winterhouse Symposium. According to Davis and Kasabach, some of the goals are “to attract financial support that would allow us to take these initiatives to the next level; to build an online presence for the Institute that better enables us to share and promote our work; to explore opportunities to expand our network and initiatives nationally and internationally; and to build our Board capacity to support all of this.” The Advisory Council, made up of almost twenty leaders in social design education and practice from around the world, was formalized during the Symposium. 

In addition to the discussions and breakout sessions hosted on campus, attendees also interacted with leaders of social impact projects in Oakland, Friendship, and Braddock: three communities in and around the city of Pittsburgh. The Symposium began with a reception at Octopus Garden, a community garden in Friendship founded by faculty member Kristin Hughes, and dinner at Avenue B, where chef Chris Bonfili curates menus based on locally and seasonally available ingredients. On Monday evening, participants visited Braddock to learn about the many social impact projects happening there. They toured Braddock Farms, a collaboration between chef Kevin Sousa and Grow Pittsburgh that teaches local youth how to grow and cook food. They also visited Unsmoke Gallery, part of Mayor John Fetterman’s Braddock Redux project. Tuesday morning’s walking tour featured two Carnegie Mellon research labs (LINKS) and the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. 

“We were all so inspired by the innovative work happening at CMU, truly pioneering some very thoughtful and revolutionary design education philosophies and programs,” said Davis and Kasabach. “We were also able to see Pittsburgh at its best – as the culinary and social innovation hub that it is – with visits to local community gardens, cultural sites, and an amazing evening at the Mayor’s residence in Braddock, catered by the renowned chef Kevin Sousa.”

Beyond the inspiration and expertise found in the discussions and tours, perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Winterhouse Symposium is the community of support and encouragement that’s formed between the participants. “Our favorite moments are really the collection of the many ‘intangible’ moments, sometimes informal, personal between individual participants. The Winterhouse Symposium feels closer to a family reunion than a conference,” added Davis and Kasabach.

The eighth Winterhouse Symposium will take place in August 2017 at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)’s School of Design.

Date Published: 
Thursday, January 26, 2017
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