You probably know Allan Chochinov as the core of Core77, the beloved industrial design megasite of which he serves as editor-in-chief. The designer and educator’s latest creation is a new MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. As chair of the MFA in Products of Design, Chochinov has devised the graduate program around a new way of considering the design of artifacts, experiences, sustainability, strategy, business, and point of view. The design star-studded faculty ranges from Paola Antonelli (MoMA) to John Zapolski (Fonderie47). “We have created a program that I feel represents a optimistic, rigorous, and future-forward step in the future of design education,” he says, adding that applications are now being accepted for the inaugural class. “We are looking for all kinds of applicants: the highly-skilled, seeking more meaningful applications; the deeply-knowledgeable, looking for greater scale and impact; the passionate, looking for more rigor and process; and of course the iconoclastic, looking for a home.” In answering our seven questions, Chochinov gives us the full scoop on the program, discusses some of his own career highlights, and proves that unwieldy edibles (or useless machines) make the best gifts.
1. What led you to create the MFA in Products of Design program?
I’ve been teaching design at the college level for 17 years now, and I’m passionate about students, creativity, and point of view. When SVA approached me about creating a new MFA program, it was an incredible opportunity to spend time researching, conceiving, and collaborating on a program that would represent future practice and equip students with the skills and fluencies that the world will demand of them. The program that resulted, I feel, is at the sweet spot of business, making, storytelling, and stewardship. It’s a program that aims to engage, ennoble, and empower. It’s also going to be a ton of fun.
2. What can prospective students expect from the program, in terms of coursework, faculty, and experience?
The program is rigorous but joyful, multi-disciplinary and multi-sensorial. There are no grades. Most of the classes are in the evenings. Several classes happen off-site (the Design Research and Integration class is held at IDEO in SoHo, for example; the Materials Futures class is held at Material ConneXion). Two of the classes are co-mingled with MFA Interaction Design students. There’s our new Visible Futures Lab fabbing space next door, and a city brimming with design making, design thinking, and design doing right outside the door. We’re dedicating a lot of the architecture and curriculum to food and food systems, and we’ve got a faculty comprised of some of the most fascinating, progressive practitioners in design.
3. What’s been the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of working on the program?
The most challenging aspect has been to clarify this very fuzzy place where I think design needs to be right now. (That last sentence is a bit fuzzy in itself!) Referencing the challenges inherent in designing for systemic, interconnected conditions, faculty member Manuel Toscano remarked to me that “we will need students who are comfortable being uncomfortable.” I think that’s very true. Design is at an incredible moment right now, but the challenges of production, consumption, labor, resilience…these demand a nimble kind of practice.
The most rewarding aspects come daily, actually, with each milestone and with each new challenge. The past few months have been particularly fascinating, as I’ve been meeting with prospective students, articulating the hopes and dreams of the program, and listening to their wishlists for graduate school. It’s been an amazing process.
4. What has been your best or most memorable design-related encounter?
The notion of a “design-related encounter” sounds fairly portentous, so I’ll try to deliver. When I was working on my Masters thesis in ID back in 1987, I had the opportunity to be stuck in a doctor’s waiting room down in Florida. (I was doing research on stick-proof hypodermic needles, laboratory blood collection, and related phlebotomy equipment.) In the waiting room was a medical supply salesman, and we got to talking. He totally schooled me on “how the real world of medical design” works, and it made a huge impression on me. His stories (and advice) were all about the business aspects of that world, and that has stuck with me forever. Design was important, he argued, but after that it was all business, regulatory, distribution, marketing. Obvious to us all now of course, but back in those impressionable days, it really shook me.
5. What do you consider your proudest design moment?
My favorite answer to the question “What’s your favorite project?” is always “My next one.” (Not sure who said that originally.) But I’d have to say that I recently completed a project in the MFA Designer as Author program at SVA around the design of communication tool kits for humanitarian aid workers. We had advisors from the UN, Washington, and big philanthropy, and the students really knocked it out of the park. (Website coming soon.) Watching the students during their final presentations was a proud moment indeed.
6. What’s the best gift you received this holiday season?
Hmm. I did receive a Giant Snickers Bar that is a foot long and proportioned exactly, well, like a Snickers Bar. It says on it “Slice n’ Share.” I haven’t exactly done that yet.
7. What’s the best gift you gave?
I was happy to solder up a Useless Machine kit with my daughter. It’s a great project and the absurdity of the device is a bit of a hard sell on a 10-year-old, but I believe by the time we were done putting it together, she was owning the irony.