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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Public In Practice: The Pipeline Problem

Editor's Note: This blogpost is part of a series taken from Public In Practice: A Field Guide to Public Interest Design in the Twin Cities. The series focuses on the conclusion of the book, a look at some of the issues in public interest design brought up by those doing this work in the Twin Cities. This installment focuses on "the pipeline problem."

There is no question that public interest design is a growing field. There are more and more organizations practicing some form of public interest design, more and more exposure to the field through media, social or otherwise, and more and more students who are interested in doing this kind of work for a living. And that's where things get complicated. While the number of students and young architects wanting to do public interest design is increasing, the way the go about doing so is still very unclear. Compared with a traditional path into architecture, with established firms, internships, and licensing, starting a career in public interest design is much more difficult. According to Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, "that's one of our major challenges right now, which is the so called 'pipeline problem,' which is that there are a lot of students who are graduating and really eager to do this work, but are unsure of how to start."

Take the example of Laurie McGinley, designer at ESG Architects. After graduating with an undergraduate architecture degree in 2000 and working in a firm for a year, her desire to help others and make a difference in the world led her to join the Peace Corps, after which she figured she would go to grad school. "What ended up happening is that what I learned while being a volunteer about how the rest of the world lives made me actually averse to the field of architecture," McGinley said; "I kind of went as far away from it as I thought I possibly seemed like design was something wealthy countries spent money on and I couldn't see the practical applications of it." After not being able to connect her time in the Peace Corps with any aspect of her architectural education, McGinley spent seven years working as a web designer - before going back to grad school and getting a job at ESG, an architectural firm. So what drove her back to the field of architecture? McGinley, like many others, was inspired by the ideas of public interest design: "The reason I went back to grad school is that I finally started to see the connections of how design can help people whose babies are dying, who don't have roads, who don't have water...that's where I see my future career trying to go," she said. However, even newly armed with a renewed passion for design and architecture, McGinley says it's still incredibly hard to see where to go next, or how her passion for design that helps others can turn into an actual career. McGinley explained, "I have this question of, 'All right, I'm on what?'"

Dean Fisher sees firsthand the interest coming from students in this field, but he also sees a great demand for this kind of work from the rest of the world, and that, he says, is "the kind of paradox of it. While the route is less clear, the need is much greater. We just need to develop the institutional structure that allows this to happen." Fisher also views the recent Latrobe Prize report, "Wisdom From
 The Field: Public Interest Architecture In Practice," as a tool in helping lessen the pipeline problem. The report, which involved a massive survey of design professionals across the nation, outlined different approaches to practicing public interest design, and offered suggestions on how to support and grow the profession from within large institutions like the AIA or the NCARB.

Interested in reading more? Read the entire book here, or see the embedded link above.

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