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MDes Public Talks 2022: Designing Change in Chaos

For the first time in two years, members of the graduating class of the Stamps School of Art & Design’s Master of Design in Integrative Design (MDes) program presented their thesis work to an in-person audience on March 192022.

Featuring the first cohort to work entirely under the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, the evening of talks was hosted in the Art & Architecture Building’s Taubman Commons — and via Zoom — and aptly titled Designing Change in Chaos.” Topics ranged from integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion issues into engineering curriculum to designing more sustainable restaurant dining habits. 

As faculty advisor and Associate Professor of Design Joe Trumpey remarked to start the evening: Tonight, we learn about four very different thesis projects, but all are focused on making the world a little more just place.”

Zoom Recording of March 19, 2022 MDes Thesis presentations.

McKayla Buford: Reprogramming the future

McKayla Buford, wearing a checked brown blazer and dark turtleneck, smiles at the Stamps graduate studios

While taking computer science classes as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, McKayla Buford often found herself the only Black person in the room. 

It was difficult for me to see myself in the curriculum, because most of the faculty members were white,” she said. Traditional computer science curriculum doesn’t appropriately address the ethical and social implications of technology design.”

Before starting her work with MDes, Buford addressed some of those implications for herself, and shared some of her own experience, by designing and building Don’t Touch My Hair,” an interactive sculpture of a Black woman with sensors embedded into her afro that could detect if someone had touched it without asking.

Now with her thesis work, Buford wants to inspire the next generation of programmers and game makers of color to find their own modes of expression while learning the fundamentals of game design, all through the lens of black feminist thought, stressing the importance of intersectionality and human-centered values throughout the process.

McKayla Buford, wearing a dark mask and brown blazer, works on a project at a large table

Working with Ann Arbor’s Neutral Zone teen center and Games for Justice founder and MIT senior Hussain Risvi, Buford created an afterschool program aimed at letting high schoolers explore game design in a space where they feel comfortable trying and failing; holding thoughtful converstaions about technology and games in the context of black feminist thought and design frameworks; and learning to be reflective, playful designers.

In its latest iteration, the program’s curriculum includes five workshops, two of which Buford got to test so far at the Neutral Zone with a group of predominantly Black teens.

It’s a really interesting and unique space, especially in computer science,” she said. Even in game design, having a predominantly black team or space is very, very rare.”

Sessions include warm-up activities on working with narrative, playing games, software tutorials, defining terms like oppression” and privilege,” and lessons on ways black women are using personal experiences to teach others to be more respectful through games. At the end, students take surveys about what they learned.

One challenge has been recruiting students; the Neutral Zone lost a lot of its core audience during the COVID-19 pandemic, and getting them back into the space hasn’t been easy. But Buford says high school students also bring great ideas and awareness of their place in the world and how power structures work. 

The opportunity of working with high school students is to start getting young people thinking a lot earlier about how computer science isn’t just a lucrative field to get into,” Buford said. You can make great money, and that’s really important, but knowing that when you enter that field, you’re entering a lot of things as someone who is Black or who is Latina, and so I just felt really excited about working with high schoolers.”

Kendell Miller-Roberts: Engineering equity

Kendall Miller-Roberts, wearing a gray sweater and gold-framed glasses, smiles in a portrait photo

The adopted daughter of two women, Kendell Miller-Roberts first started noticing a world that wasn’t engineered for her when filling out contact forms that didn’t include fields for her to list her two moms. Later in life, she realized computer software algorithms had a hard time recognizing the same concept.

For her thesis work, Miller-Roberts explored the intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts with engineering and design, ultimately creating a prototype set of cards educators can use when designing their courses that could help them make links between DEI topics, learning objectives, and learning methods.

The idea is to help shape the engineers and designers who will then shape the built world around us, so they can create more equitable and inclusive designs. To do otherwise perpetuates a system of injustice, Miller-Roberts explained, naming facial recognition software with racial biases and an interstate highway system that has proven to deepen racial segregation in the United States as just two examples.

In the 21st century, it’s incredibly pressing that these engineers and these designers are trained to understand topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion, because when they don’t, there are dire consequences,” she said.

Kendall Miller-Roberts, wearing a sweathirt and blue mask, works with post-its on a whiteboard at the MDes studio.

Working with U‑M College of Engineering faculty, Miller-Roberts investigated how instructors currently teach DEI topics, including how they choose what gets taught, what methods they use to teach them, and how DEI might be more fully integrated into course design.

After reviewing current literature, taking surveys, conducting interviews, and analyzing the data, Miller-Roberts developed her card deck. Each card lists a DEI topic on one side and a short description with examples and a prompt for educators on how it relates to their course on the other. She imagines instructors using the cards on their own, as they build their classes, or in workshops or small groups with other educators.

One interesting finding from her research was that many instructors talk about DEI as a means of reducing harm in their work, but not necessarily as a way to strive for justice or an asset to learning. She hopes her work can help change that by encouraging a more intentional approach to DEI education.

When we think about the future of engineering and design, if we want it to be more equitable and inclusive, we need to begin thinking about how we actually teach those engineers,” she said.

Sarah Miles: Taking care

Sarah Miles, wearing a tan sweater, smiles at the Stamps graduate studios

Driven by her background helping children and families, first with volunteer and non-profit organizations and eventually as a social worker in New York, Sarah Miles came to Stamps with a desire to redesign the complicated social systems she worked with daily.

I kept coming up against the same issues and barriers, and my practical mind was like, This makes no sense; There must be an easier way to do things,” she said.

As she familiarized herself with design methods, she recognized parallels to her therapy work, specifically when it came to asking questions, engaging with communities, and getting people to talk about their lives. She grew concerned for the subjects being interviewed, particularly those being asked to revisit past traumas. In therapy, Miles explained that when a practitioner asks a patient to share about her life, they offer something for the client to think through that might help when the conversation is done. But the design relationship is different. 

The mistake that designers could make is bringing up something, or not being ready for something, that could potentially leave someone feeling worse than when they came in,” she said.

Sarah Miles, wearing a tan sweater, arranges post it notes on a white board

For her thesis project, Miles developed an interdisciplinary approach to what she calls trauma-informed design” that she hopes will help designers broadly integrate principles known to mitigate the impact of trauma into their practice.

Working with Convergence Design Lab, a woman-owned learning design agency in Chicago, Miles developed and led a series of workshops covering the definitions and types of trauma, self-reflection on current practice, and applying concepts from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) principles of trauma care to its work.

Following the workshops, Miles hopes to apply her concepts to more design methods beyond interview engagement and relationship-building, while also expanding into different areas, such as civic, industrial, and product design. She’s also working on a website to share tools and expand discussion of trauma-informed design.

We must, and can, learn how to engage empathetically, intentionally, and supportively, and we must have a dual focus on theory and practice,” she said.

Stephanie Szemetylo: Growing Plant-Rich Dining by Design

Stephanie Szemetylo, wearing a dark jacket and striped shirt, at the MDes studios

While working in industrial design after earning her bachelor’s degree, Stephanie Szemetylo quickly learned she was interested more in contributing innovative research and sustainability efforts than she was in traditional design work.

At Stamps, she set her sights on encouraging people to eat more sustainably by choosing low-carbon, plant-based dishes. Working with El Harissa Market and Café, a North African and Mediterranean restaurant in Ann Arbor, Szemetylo designed a series of interventions to help mitigate climate change.

El Harissa had already adopted a pilot program incentivizing customers to bring back their takeout containers and wanted to do more to promote sustainability and be active in the city’s community-wide plan to be carbon neutral by 2030

With greenhouse gas emissions from farm animals far outweighing those of plants — a tradeoff between 1.2 ounces of beef or dry beans for days,” as Szemetylo put it — she set out to learn how to entice customers to eat greener despite several challenges, including perceptions about taste, unfamiliarity with meatless cooking, and a desire to treat themselves above all else when dining out.

Using design for sustainable behaviors methodology, Szemetylo observed and interviewed customers and then used her findings to lead two online activities. First, she asked participants to compose their own plant-based dishes to get a better sense of what ingredients were attractive to customers and also give the restaurant ideas for potential menu items. Second, she asked participants to come up with menu descriptions they found compelling. For this exercise, she said the word caramelized” was a big hit. Other descriptors named exotic-sounding ingredients, like pomegranate molasses, and unfamiliar spices.

Stephanie Szemetylo, wearing a black jacket, points at a menu item on a bulletin board

After lots of analysis, journey mapping, and discussions with her advisors and El Harissa’s owner, Szemetylo settled on two strategies: add labels to the menu indicating which dishes had the lowest carbon footprints, and make the low-carbon food sound as delicious as possible using sensory-rich descriptions.

The thing about this project is that, as I was writing these and working on other aspects, I got really hungry,” she said.

Prototype testing is in process, and Szemetylo plans to use customer feedback and purchasing behavior to develop a final magnetic board menu — with the help of students from Stamps Professor of Art & Design Franc Nunoo-Quarcoos Visual Identity and Branding Course — with movable tiles that can be easily altered as new items are introduced.