We had the absolute pleasure to record this conversation this month with Allan Chochinov. A truly multi-talented design force, this Winnipeg born creative divides his time between Chairing the SVA|NYC MFA Products of Design program, being an Editor-at-Large at the influential Core77, and being a dad.

Tell me about your design life. What was your journey from product designer to online publishing to design educator? What is your mission? I started off as a pretty hard-core industrial designer, focusing on the medical field, as well some consumer products and graphics and packaging. A lot of herman-millerwork for Johnson & Johnson, FedEx, Braun…tons of great brands. From there I started freelancing, getting into identity design, and then a lot of systems and software applications, mostly for Herman Miller. I started working in earnest with Eric Ludlum and Stu Constantine, founders of Core77, in 2000, and got more and more into web publishing and design advocacy. Actually, my teaching career started in 1995—I’ve been teaching one day a week pretty much for the past nineteen years—most recently founding a new design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 2012. We’ll have our first graduates this coming May, so that’s a big milestone.

As far as mission, I think my mission has been pretty consistent. I’ve always had a tension with waste and squandered opportunity (it’s really the reason I went into medical right out of school; so I could work in a purposeful field that I could believe was doing some clear good), and so my message has always been pretty contrary. I believe deeply in the power of design, but so much of design results simply in more garbage and, ironically, brand new sets of problems.

Design has grown in popularity, and it continues to be such a watery buzz word. Do you think that this popularity has thinned the meaning of design? Is design generally better now than in the past, or the reverse? I think the increasing popularity of design is a great thing, and I’m bullish on its increasing gravitational field in business and social innovation. The fundamental challenge is that most people have always thought of design as something aesthetic; something that comes at the end. “Engineer it, then make it pretty/marketable/consumable.” We know, of course, that design is something that is fundamentally strategic, and which needs to come at the beginning. And I think that more and more, design is being understood as a baked-in methodology and not simply as a coating after the fact. But it’s taking a long time, and we’re seeing backlashes against the term “design thinking” which I think is a distraction. Design thinking is great. It’s not sufficient, but it’s certainly essential. So yes, design is definitely better now than in the past.

Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 10.39.45 PMCore77 has always been about more than pretty pictures, an intelligent dialogue. Does publishing help deepen design culture, or does it perpetuate the selling of design like a shopping guide?  As the first design community on the web, Core77 was the pioneer in showing, talking about, and criticizing design since 1995. We were the first to talk about sustainability, stewardship, design for social impact, progressive design education, and the limits of design, and continue that tradition to today. Now, throughout that editorial content and point of view you will certainly find beautiful artifacts, silly artifacts, suspicious enterprises, and just plain dumb fun. Core77 is a group effort, and its editorial mission is to bring wonderful, engaging, and challenging design to its readers, its members, its communities, and its fans.

We pride ourselves on being balanced. We provide free and exceptionally affordable services to people around the world because we choose to. Core77 isn’t a metrics or money-driven enterprise (indeed, we often say no to paid advertorial that attempts to fool our readers). And we do things like limited edition bicycles, or the Hand Eye Supply store, or the Core77 Design Awards, or panel discussions and conferences because they are consistent with serving the design community. And we’ve been happy doing it for 19 years.hero_eames_lounge_2Why do people pay $20,000 for a designer sofa? Ah, that’s the design art! Exactly. There’s a place for that. It’s not my cup of tea, but I’d rather spend more money on an authentic Eames Lounger than a knock-off or another kind of chair that has no provenance and little value. But it’s a slippery slope up from there. A Zaha Hadid table? If that’s your choice, sure.

Tell me about your move to academics. What motivated this shift, and what do you think the contemporary role of the design school is? I’ve always loved education, and teaching in general has always been part of my DNA. A few years ago, School of Visual Arts approached me about creating a graduate degree in industrial design, and I took the challenge to research and conceive of a kind of “next education”—one that was contemporary in its practice and future-forward in its preparing of students. What resulted was a reimaging of what industrial design was becoming, and a total embrace of the move from products to services to systems to platforms. We position our pedagogy at the sweet spot between design thinking and design making – between strategy and prototyping, with stewardship and sustainability, business, and brand running through every course. And with a strong emphasis on personal point of view, online making communities, open hardware, and an ethos of alternative everything. There’s a ton of speculative design, and a lot of preparedness for a kind of progressive professional practice and entrepreneurship.

How do design schools drive the profession? Are design schools creating thinkers or future design agency employees? I think the role of design school goes beyond getting students’ jobs; it should be helping creating the new kinds of jobs—involving integrative, cross-disciplinary work—that we need in order to negotiate complex social and political problems and emerging technological opportunities. There has always been a dichotomy between training and educating; of course you need to do both. But the educating probably comes first.

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Locations have driven design around the world—think sports cars from Italy, watches from Switzerland, etc. Design gains considerable market value by linking to where it is made/designed. Do you think that this is still the case? Has globalization won, or are national products holding on? This is a very intriguing question. One thing I think we’ve all noticed in the past few years is the proliferation of “design weeks”—Philadelphia Design Week, Helsinki Design Week—well, those are well-established ones. But every city and country seems to be jumping on the bandwagon now. And no wonder: It stimulates economies, shows off local talent, gives the media something to get excited about and write about, and local enterprises that municipal groups and leaders can be proud of. I agree that we see a horrible homogenization of the everything-the-same the global product industrial marketplace, but even big brands are now rediscovering local idiosyncrasies and trying to embrace those as they innovate for thinner and thinner slices. Cynics would say “exploit,” of course.

Where is the innovation happening in the design world…specialization or the design guru, or the mixes of professions and designers collaborating with other disciplines? All of the above, I think, and lots, lots more. We are witnessing an explosion, a revolution, in design endeavor, in creative thought, in maker participants, in coders, hackers, crafters, synthetic biologists—a renaissance in people being creative and making things. The “design world”? I’m not sure that we shouldn’t worried that design is will be passed by and left in the dust. The definition of design, as alluded to before, is blurring, widening, changing. And this is a good thing. But it’s not an efficient thing, since a “graphic designer” will almost certainly be doing branding, interaction design, user research, etc., etc., and an “industrial designer” will most certainly be doing ethnography, data visualization, embedded technology, user experience…. So in this way I don’t think design is in crisis, but I do think that design monikers are. We named our new MFA department Products of Design, arguing that the products of design can, and must, take many forms—from sets of instructions through business models, through hacks and mass production to social interventions, from design art to speculative objects.

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We have to ask…what are a handful of products in the history of design that you think are the best? What are your top five most influential? Yikes. I hate these questions. Let’s say: Whole Earth Catalog, Oxford English Dictionary (and then Wikipedia), Design for the Real World, Muji CD player by Naoto Fukasawa and Braun coffee maker by Dieter Rams. See, impossible.

What is your favourite I LOVE this question! Can I throw in a Canadian one please? Bay Blanket…by a hundred miles.

car/ The Tesla.

building/ The Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

painting/ My daughter’s.

city/ London, UK.

chair/ The Diamond Chair by Harry Bertoia.

 

 

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