Mariana Amatullo is a writer, educator, speaker, and student of design and social impact. She is the Vice President of the award-winning Designmatters Department at Art Center College of Art and Design which she co-founded in 2001. Mariana is a Design and Innovation and Non Profit Management Fellow at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, where her doctoral research focuses on the evolving role of design as a locus for social innovation.
Allan Chochinov: Mariana, I’d like to start with two questions that I teach my students to ask: What gets you out of bed in the morning and what keeps you up at night? What are you most excited about right now, and what are you most worried about?
Mariana Amatullo: I would say that what gets me up in the morning and motivates me deeply is living in a moment in time where there is an important call for, and recognition about, the unique value design and designers may bring to shaping and promoting processes of societal change. In this sense, I consider myself fortunate to be participating in a field or inquiry and practice—which gets referred to in a variety of ways as design for social innovation, social design, design for social impact—that is incredibly dynamic, complex and rewarding. What keeps me up at night is the other side of the coin, if you will, of the same motivation: ensuring that we do not fall short on delivering on the promise of design in this space. In other words, making certain that this emergent field not become “the design fad that failed” because we somehow did not honor that promise with the systematic rigor and boundless imagination required for success.
The encouraging news is that there is a cumulative body of knowledge forming and a pluralism of critical and reflexive design practices that are pointing to impact, i.e. what I call “the return on design” (ROD). I am fundamentally optimistic, but I also feel a great sense of urgency: there is so much work that remains to be done in the field to articulate, translate, demonstrate, quantify and qualify why and how design can lead us to more humane, alternative futures. And that’s exciting….
…AC: Finally Mariana, a couple words on finishing your PhD program. I’ve often teased doctoral students that half the point of doing a PhD is to be able to complain about it for 7 years. But you’ve wrapped yours up in half that time! Can you tell our readers the subject, the ambitions for the work, and what it feels like to be done?
MA: My dissertation is closely intertwined with my practice, i.e. the intersection of design and social innovation. The research addresses the value designers bring to this emergent field. I do this via three studies in which I treat design in a broad cultural context, grounded in the richness of organizational practice. My degree from Case is a PhD in Management, and the dissertation includes project case studies led by inspiring design teams at IDEO.org, frog, Mind Lab and the former Helsinki Design Lab, as well as an ethnographic study of the Innovation Unit of UNICEF. Ironically, and because of the paucity of quantitative analysis in our field, perhaps one of the most original contributions of the dissertation is a quantitative study that, for the first time, measures how design abilities and capabilities—known in the literature as “design attitude”-—are in fact significant in advancing positive social innovation outcomes in projects.