We are thrilled to announce the addition of Rachel Abrams to the faculty at MFA Products of Design. Rachel will be teaching the new Design and Ideology course introduced into semester 3 of the program. Rachel Abrams is a visual storyteller, creative place-maker and design strategist. Originally a journalist and political researcher in the UK Parliament, she trained as an interaction designer at the Royal College of Art in London before moving to New York in 2000. Having worked for IBM and then branding consultancy, Imagination, she set up Turnstone Consulting, her collaborative strategic design studio, in 2006.
Below is a short Q&A about Rachel, her practice, and the role of education.
Individuals encounter complex systems (a web site, a transit network, a wayfinding system) on a daily basis at an interface that’s like a fuse box. Some wires are dead and trailing, others will blow up in your face.
MFA PoD: Can you tell us a little about the course you'll be teaching, Design and Ideology?
Rachel Abrams: In teaching students about systems, I've come to see that the systems surrounding (rather than inside) the objects and environments we create as designers still interest me the most: I’m interested in the equally intangible external systems that govern why we’re making any of the things we’re making in the first place. Recently I’ve been interested in the relationship between individual experiences (through interfaces with products and services) and the macro systems—economic, climatic, political—that shape those experiences. In this course, I want the students to explore a few of those relationships, so they become attuned to looking for them in every situation in which they intervene as designers. So it’ll be the usual theory and prototyping and with luck, some design as agit prop.
MFA PoD: How does this course relate to your current professional practice?
RA: Closely. When I moved from a social science and policy background into interaction design and art school, pretty much noone understood how the two were related. But it seemed pretty obvious to me that designers were better responding to people than politicians much of the time, so I thought it’d be interesting to practice design as a form of making social change, to use those tools, techniques and superpowers for good, not landfill.
Individuals encounter complex systems (a web site, a transit network, a wayfinding system) on a daily basis at an interface that’s like a fuse box. Some wires are dead and trailing, others will blow up in your face. I’m interested in revealing the organizational wiring to see what other kinds of experiences we might deliver.
I endured selling shiny gadgets (though I did my share of that ), and learned a lot about how businesses tell stories. Eventually the world caught up with this role for designers in the public sphere so I’ve squirreled away some of those business practices to transpose them to things that concern people as citizens rather than as consumers.
Large creaking twentieth century institutions and bureaucracies are crying out for design tools and techniques nowadays. So my work is a mix of commercial pragmatism and speculative storytelling. There’s a moral and financial off-setting to running these two streams of work in parallel.
MFA PoD: What's your overall philosophy of teaching, and can you tell us two things that you've learned about working with graduate students over the years?
RA: Teaching is an incredible test of what and how much the instructor knows, so I find it rewarding insofar as it provides an opportunity to reflect on what preoccupies me in my work, and see if I can extrapolate from that simply, succinctly enough to convey it to students. I consider everything I teach a kit of parts: I basically serve up a toolkit for thinking, so students can take those away and spend less time making the tools for unpacking opportunities and more time using them to generate the best possible outcomes. By doing that, I’m also encouraging the students to acquire a taste for making their own toolkits—and that depends on identifying a stance (through what they make, or have a go at), rehearsing a process, sharpening their skills and acquiring experience in and outside the studio.
Check out Rachel's latest project, Open Society Foundations: Future of Work.