About Public Interest Design

Public Interest Design is...

Public interest design is a “human-centered and participatory” design practice[1] that places emphasis on the “triple bottom line” of sustainable design that includes social, economic, and environmental issues and on creating products and structures that address social issues such as income inequality and the preservation of the environment[2].

Starting in the late 1990s, several conferences, books, and exhibits have helped promote interest in public interest design. Since then, public-interest design has gained public recognition as a distinct type of professional practice[3].

In a 2011 survey of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), 77% of AIA members agreed that the mission of the professional practice of Public Interest Design could be defined as the belief that every person should be able to live in a socially, economically, and environmentally healthy community[4] [5].

Public interest design grew out of the community design movement, which got its start in 1968 after American civil rights leader Whitney Young Jr. issued a challenge to attendees of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) national convention[6]:

“. . . you are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this does not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.[7]”

The response to Young’s challenge was the establishment of community design centers (CDCs) across the United States[8].  CDCs, which were often established with the support of area universities[9], provided a variety of design services – such as affordable housing — within their own neighborhoods.

In architecture schools, “design/build programs” provided outreach to meet local design needs, particularly in low-income and underserved areas[10]. One of the earliest design/build programs was Yale University’s Vlock Building Project. The project, which was initiated by students at Yale University School of Architecture in 1967, requires graduate students to design and build low-income housing[11].

One of the most publicized programs is the Auburn University Rural Studio design/build program, which was founded in 1993[12][13] [14]. The Rural Studio’s first project, Bryant House, was completed in 1994 for $16,500[15].

Public Interest Design from the 1990s – Present

Interest in socially responsible design – particularly socially responsible architecture — began to grow during the 1990s and continued into the first decade of the new millennium. Conferences, books and exhibits began to showcase the design work being done beyond the community design centers[16] — which had greatly decreased in numbers since their peak in the seventies[17]. 

Non-profit organizations – including Architecture for Humanity, BaSIC Initiative, Design Corps, Public Architecture, Project H, MASS Design Group– began to provide design services that served a larger segment of the population than had been served by traditional design professions[18], [19].

Many public-interest design organizations also provide training and service-learning programs for architecture students and graduates. In 1999, the Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship was established[20]. The Rose Fellowship gives young architects the opportunity to work on three-year-long design and community development projects in low-income communities[21]. 

Other organizations providing professional training through fellowships include Design Corps[22], Gulf Coast Community Design Studio[23], bcWORKSHOP[24], IDEO.org[25], and Design Impact[26].

The first formal educational program to use the term “Public Interest Design” was started at Mississippi State University in the Fall of 2010, followed by the University of Texas in June of 2011.

The first professional-level training was conducted in July 2011 by the Public Interest Design Institute (PIDI) and held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design[27].

Several books have been published that showcase a variety of public-interest design projects and practitioners:

  • Good Neighbors, Affordable Family Housing, Tom Jones, William Pettus, and Michael Pyatok.  1997,
  • Learning by Building: Design and Construction in Architectural Education,
  • William J. Carpenter, 1997
  • Good Deeds, Good Design:  Community Service through Architecture.  Bryan Bell. 2003.
  • Design Like You give a Damn:  Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises.  Kate Stohr and Cameron Sinclair.  2006.
  • Expanding Architecture, Design as Activism.  Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford. 2008.
  • Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People.  Emily Pilloton.  YEAR.
  • Power of Pro Bono, John Cary. 2010.

The annual Structures for Inclusion conference showcases public-interest design projects from around the world. The first conference, which was held in 2000, was called “Design for the 98% Without Architects.[28]” The conference challenged attendees to serve a greater segment of the population than “the 2% currently being served.”

In 2007, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum held an exhibit titled, “Design for the Other 90%.”  Following the success of this exhibit, it was developed into an ongoing series, the second of which was titled “Design for the Other 90%: CITIES[29]” and held in the United Nations building. In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a public-interest design exhibit called “Small Scale, Big Change.”[30]

One of the oldest professional networks related to Public Interest Design is the professional organization is the Association for Community Design (ACD), which was founded in 1977[31], [32].

In 2005, the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network was founded in by a group of Harvard community design leaders[33]. The SEED Network established a common set of principles and criteria for practitioners of Public Interest Design:

Public Interest Design Principles[34]:

  • Principle 1: Advocate with those who have a limited voice in public life.
  • Principle 2: Build structures for inclusion that engage stakeholders and allow communities to make decisions.
  • Principle 3: Promote social equality through discourse that reflects a range of values and social identities.
  • Principle 4: Generate ideas that grow from place and build local capacity.
  • Principle 5: Design to help conserve resources and minimize waste.

An evaluation tool called the SEED Evaluator is available to assist designers and practitioners in developing projects that align with SEED Network goals and criteria[35].

There is a growing sector in the design professions known as Public Interest Design. The projects in this sector are unlike traditional practice in critical ways and are an area of great potential for the future of the design professions.

The Public Interest Design Institute® provides training and in-depth study focused on how design professionals address critical issues faced by the communities we serve through collaborative processes and fee-based projects. Training in public interest design is a way of enhancing an existing practice by enhancing the skills needed to pro-actively engage in community-based design… More

The Public Interest Design Institutes curriculum is grounded in the Social Economic Environmental Design® (SEED) mission, principles, and methodology. SEED goes beyond green design with a “triple bottom line” approach that tracks and documents social, economic, and environmental impact. Exemplary case studies and best practices documented in the Public Interest Design Practice Guidebook, the Harvard Case Study, and the annual SEED Awards will be presented and discussed by leaders in the field.

All successful participants earn certification as a SEED Professional. Practicing professionals will earn 13 AIA, ASLA, or USGBC HSW CEUs/PDHs. Licensure candidates will earn 13 AXP Hours.

Learning objectives will address:

  • Understanding public interest design and how it is re-shaping professional practice
  • Learning participatory design methods
  • Leveraging partners and assets to address project challenges
  • Maximizing a project’s positive impact on a community
  • Moving beyond LEED to measure positive social, economic, & environmental impact

The Academic Leader of each session is Bryan Bell, Founder of Design Corps, Founder of the Public Interest Design Institute, and a Co-founder of SEED. Bell has supervised the Structures for Inclusion lecture series for 22 years, which presents best practices in community-based design. He has published five collections of essays on the topic and lectured at numerous schools including the Rural Studio with Samuel Mockbee. He has received an AIA National Honor Award in Collaborative Practice. His work has been exhibited in the Venice Biennale and the Cooper Hewitt Museum Triennial. He was a Harvard Loeb Fellow in 2010-11 and a co-recipient of the 2011 AIA Latrobe Prize, which is focused on public interest design. He is a tenured Professor at the College of Design, NC State University.

[1] Jett, Megan.  “Infographic:  Public Interest Design.” ArchDaily.  May 31, 2012. http://www.archdaily.com/239913/infographic-public-interest-design/

[2] Bennett, Sam.  “Bryan Bell asks local architects to become agents of change.”  DJC Oregon.  March 31, 2009. http://djcoregon.com/news/2009/03/31/bryan-bell-asks-local-architects-to-become-agents-of-change/

[3] Cary, Martin. 2012

[4] Bell, Bryan.  “Public Interest Design Takes Shape.” Metropolismag.com.  September 17, 2012. http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/20120917/public-interest-design-takes-shape

[5] 2011 Latrobe Prize Progress Report: Public Interest Practices in Architecture.  December 31, 2011.  Bell, Bryan and Roberta Feldman, Sergio Palleroni, Davide Perkes.

[6] Leavitt, Jacqueline and Hoffernan, Kara.  “Multiplying Knowledge:  Service-Learning x Activism = Community Scholars.”  Hardin, Mary C., ed.  “From the Studio to the Streets:  Service Learning in Planning and Architecture.” P. 103. 2005: Stylus Publishing, Sterling VA.

[7] Insert speech citation here.

[8] “Our Roots.” http://www.designcoalition.org/aboutus/our%20roots.htm

[9] Pearson, Jason and Mark Robbins, ed.  “University-Community Design Partnerships: Innovations in Practice.”  2002:  Princeton Architectural Press, New York

[10] Pearson, Robbins 2002

[11] Hill, David.  “The New Frontier in Education.” March 1, 2012.  Architectural Record http://archrecord.construction.com/news/2012/03/The-New-Frontier-Education.asp

[12] Jett 2012

[13] Clemence, Sara.  “Avant-Garde in Alabama.” April 20, 2012.  The Wall Street Journal.  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304356604577342370002244732.html

[14] Bostwick, William.  “’Citizen Architect’:  The Humble Origins of Socially-Responsible Design.”  March 16, 2010.  Fast Company.  http://www.fastcompany.com/1585096/citizen-architect-humble-origins-socially-responsible-design

[15]   “Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio: Community Architecture” National Building Museum website. http://www.nbm.org/exhibitions-collections/exhibitions/samuel-mockbee.html

[16] Jett, 2012

[17] Pearson, Robbins 2002

[18] Hughes, C.J. “Does ‘Doing Good’ Pay the Bills?” Architectural Record, March 2012.  http://archrecord.construction.com/practice/Community-Service/2012/03/perspective-practice/Humanitarian-Work.asp

[19] Jett, 2012

[20] Jett.2012

[21] “About” page.  http://www.enterprisecommunity.com/solutions-and-innovation/design-leadership/rose-architectural-fellowship/about-the-fellowship

[22] Pearson, Jason and Mark Robbins, ed.  “University-Community Design Partnerships: Innovations in Practice.”  2002:  Princeton Architectural Press, New York


[23] “Internship Program” Gulf Coast Community Design Studio website.  http://www.gccds.org/teaching/index.php

[24] “bcWORKSHOP Issues 2013 Call for Fellows.” May 11, 2012.  http://www.publicinterestdesign.org/2012/05/11/bcworkshop-issues-2013-call-for-fellows/

[25] “Innovators in Residence.” IDEO.org.  https://www.ideo.org/fellows

[26] “Fellowship.” Design Impact website.  http://www.d-impact.org/involve/fellowship.php

[27]   http://www.publicinterestdesign.org/2011/07/20/pid/

[28] Jett, 2012

[29] Cooper Hewitt Museum website:  http://www.cooperhewitt.org/exhibitions/design-other-90-cities

[30] Jett, 2012

[31] http://www.communitydesign.org/about

[32] Jett, 2012

[33] Jett, 2012

[34] SEED Network website “Mission” http://www.seed-network.org/join/pledge.php

[35] SEED Network website, http://www.seed-network.org/projects/submit.php

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