As part of a new series, we hear from DFA students around the country about their thoughts, vision, and passions in life. This one is brought to you by Michael Kulikowski, founder of DFA Virginia Tech.

The topic of Design Activism is something that strongly resonates with me – it is the embodiment of the fusion of my passions: design, sustainability, urbanism, and social innovation.  My personal definition of Design Activism is the conscientious effort of utilizing your skills, talents, and knowledge to develop and implement solutions to problems for the benefit of others.

Design as activism is well illustrated by a recent phenomenon referred to as Tactical Urbanism, which is defined by incremental, small-scale improvements with the deliberate intention of creating long-term change within a community.  Tactical Urbanism projects have cropped up all across the country in response to three current trends: the great recession, shifting demographics, and the rise of crowd sourcing civic input online.  While the methods and issues that Tactical Urbanism projects address are diverse, the common denominator between all them are the conversations they spur in their communities, which as a result recognizes the need for a more permanent intervention.  Arjo Klamer’s description of Unsolicited Architecture in Volume 14 is also an accurate depiction of Tactical Urbanism: “There can be no genuine innovation in building without social innovation… Good artists and architects know that they have to seek friction. Resistance gives energy and possibly warmth in the end. Friction brings about conversation and that is usually a good thing (2007).”

Friction is energizing for makers because we create awareness, which is an important aspect to the design process. The DFA studio at Virginia Tech experienced this friction first hand in the implementation of our BurgFinder project.  The BurgFinder is a wayfinding project that was implemented through guerrilla tactics.  The project looks to raise awareness of alternative transportation options, as well as help people understand how easy and convenient these options are to use, in Blacksburg, Virginia.  By using graphic symbols and time, the signs present information in a simple, understandable, and visual format while aiming to promote an identity for alternative transportation in Blacksburg and encourage active and safe commutes.

The installation of the signs was above all an experiment to see what might happen, what reactions they would generate, and how they would be received. After initially receiving resistance from the town, the signs performed exactly intended in generating healthy discussions amongst community members and quickly gained support. This friction is the impetus for many Design for America projects and can result in very satisfying outcomes. Ultimately, by collaborating with the community, the BurgFinder aims to be a short-term action for long-term change.

I argue that as students of DFA, we have “hacked” our education by utilizing the system — the resources that are available to us through our universities — and our skills/knowledge to make an impact.  To me, it is important to understand hacking as a shift in focus from product to process and technique. A hacked product is nice, but a hacked process is even better — it takes it to a level of emergence and self-organization, and multiple products can result as possibilities are drastically increased. Design as a process frees us from the associations of the physical. Thinking and producing, are the basic tenants of creation for DFA projects. If a solution is seen as a result rather than an object, we can be free to address complex issues in infinite ways.

Unfortunately, in most cases formal education has removed this type of playfulness and inquiring from the learning process. As an architecture student at Virginia Tech, however, I have had unprecedented opportunities available to me such as life-changing classes, studying abroad, and internships that were all ripe for my hacking.  In doing so I was able to craft and tailor my education to my interests; but it has been my experience with Design for America that has crystallized my identity as a maker and a problem solver. It provides a home for my active desire to hack, to live and thrive.


Please note- this student thought-piece series reflects the thoughts and opinions of DFA students, but may not reflect the opinion of Design for America.