DesignInquiry: An Anecdote

Margo Halverson (2005)

When the Maine Summer Institute in Graphic Design finished its tenth season in 2002, I found myself questioning the effect of the teacher-student relationship. I had developed and run the summer program since its inception, so I was familiar with challenging its value and continuance. A day in late August 2002 became an anniversary of questions that a decade of MSIGD had brought to a head: could the substance of a workshop make a relevant and urgent contribution to the profession? Weren’t the most inspiring moments at my dinner table when faculty overlapped in the weekends, when hierarchy of teacher-student was removed? I had invited Melle Hammer, typographer and design educator, living and working in the Netherlands, as a MSIGD faculty member several times. He understood these questions.

Our conversation in my backyard garden suggested a different kind of workshop that focused around one design issue — not on teacher-student relationships, not on core skills, not on designers teaching designers. We talked about including people from outside of our design profession to inform and influence the topic, we added a goal of publishing to get the ideas out and into the public.

And so, together, Melle and I pursued developing a flatter hierarchy wherein each participant offers workshops or presentations around one theme. We invited outside influences and began publishing the work. After thirty-something week-long workshops with amazing world-renowned educator/designers*, Maine Summer Institute of Graphic Design became DesignInquiry.

DesignInquiry has become a more responsive, fluid event that brings together cross-disciplinary energies that inspire and connect the personal to the professional endeavor of design. The first couple years of DesignInquiry were transitional: still working within the Maine College of Art’s summer program structure, we invited educators and designers to lead simultaneous workshops around a topic. We added presentations that represented the arenas of psychology, anthropology, journalism, philosophy history, theater, architecture, and even some juggling.

Now, DesignInquiry is no longer connected with Maine College of Art, nor does it partner with AIGA as it did for one year. No one is paid for organizing the events and it has applied for non-profit status. DesignInquiry has a board and is independently run by volunteers who have built the website, the blog, the everything! Each year, DesignInquiry’s ‘framers’—Melle Hammer, Peter Hall and myself—develop a topic, get the word out, and work to get participants to merge and inform. Each year we continue to move to an egalitarian structure with workshops or presentations to push the topic into unfamiliar and unexpected corners; before, during, and after the event.

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In 2006, DesignInquiry was held on Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine. This was the closest realization of what we had envisioned six years earlier: twenty-two participants worked (around the theme of “More than Business as Usual”) and took turns leading the group. We did this without internet or cellphone reception, with only laptops, a projector, cameras, pens, pencils, and paints we’d brought, along with things scavenged on-site. We were together at The Poor Farm, a large house and studio owned by artist Alisen Hildreth. The experience is like that hallway or that bar outside of the conference. It is that dinner table where we find like minds that inspire and move our work into the arena of “what-if”?

Instrumental in the revamped summer program hitting the ground have been Elliott Earls, Jessica Helfand, William Drenttel, Natalia lyin, Douglass Scott, Nancy Skolos, Thomas Wedell, Lorraine Wild, Ellen Lupton, Marlene McCarty, Matt Soar, Louise Sandhaus, Lucille Tenazas, Rick Valicenti, and everyone who joined in the experiment.