Jamer Hunt. Photo by: Felix Hunt
Jamer Hunt. Photo by: Felix Hunt

Jamer Hunt is the newly appointed Vice Provost of Transdisciplinary Initiatives at New York’s Parsons the New School for Design. Previously, he was Director of the Master’s of Fine Arts Transdisciplinary Design program. Earlier, he served for seven years at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts as Director of the Master’s program in industrial design. His practice, Big+Tall Design, combines conceptual, collaborative and communication design, and he is co-founder of DesignPhiladelphia, an initiative to energize Philadelphia’s design community.

Canadian Interiors: Congratulations on your recent promotion to Vice Provost at Parsons the New School.

Jamer Hunt: My career has been built around trying to make connections across disciplinary boundaries. I started a transdisciplinary design program because I wanted to get at things that were not necessarily solid disciplines in themselves. My current work is to build the infrastructure within the New School for students to do this cross-divisional collaborative work. I’m one of these people who wishes he were a deep expert in one thing, but I’m always too antsy and end up peering over the next desk to see what someone else is working on and what’s interesting there. So, the different ways I’ve approached my work is always to bring together a range of references and sources.

CI: Can you give us a preview of your TO DO keynote address?

JH: The topic will be health and well-being. I will explore the unanticipated consequences of design. Most designers have good intentions; they have a wonderful optimism that is unique and transformative. But that optimism can obscure the possible negative impacts of what they do. They very infrequently explore the aftermath of what they design. How do you temper the optimism with pragmatism and a sense of ethics?

I’ll use examples from Design and Violence [the MoMA exhibition he organized with Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, in 2013]. I’ll talk about not only the unexpected consequences, but—my favourite expression, from Donald Rumsfeld, our former ignominious Defense Secretary—the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. Design at its most interesting is the unknown unknowns, where it often doesn’t know where it’s going and can lead to repercussions that nobody anticipated. The idea that the 911 hijackers, for instance, used box cutters to take down airplanes is a remote notion of the way the die can be used. And nobody expected plastic products to get into the wind stream and then into the plastic gyre in the South Seas.

CI: Like the microbeads in cosmetic products that now kill billions of fish swimming in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, who think the beads are food and swallow them?

JH: Exactly. I’m trying to find a way to turn my talk into something that isn’t a big bummer, that isn’t ͞”No matter what you do, you’re going to wreck things.” So I’ll focus on strategies in which designers can think more like public health advocates and health practitioners. They pull together teams that try to anticipate the outcomes of their interventions rather than just cross their fingers and hold their breath and hope that good things happen when they design. In public health and in medical practice you don’t really change anything without testing it and making sure you’ve brought in not only other experts in the field, but also patients and ethicists, so that if you’re going to change handwashing protocol, for instance, you don’t end up killing people along the way and say ͞Whoops! We should have thought about that. You have processes by which you put something into the world and make sure it doesn’t have consequences you didn’t imagine. I think design has to move in that direction. We need to understand what those repercussions are and anticipate the unanticipatable through design. Let us unbury our heads from the sand when it comes to what we do and the impact of our work.

CI: But are you sensationalizing a bit? Do you really mean “violence,” or do you mean “bad consequences,” which won’t attract as many eyeballs?

JH: In Design and Violence, in some instances we did literally mean that, as with the AK-47 [assault rifle]. If you design a highly functioning, inexpensive, durable gun, it will lead to millions of murders.

CI: Because that particular assault rifle is so robust and easy to assemble?

JH: Yes, it’s a paragon of design in the sense that it works so well it’s been used all over the world by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of soldiers, to kill over and over again. We have an incredible quote from Kalashnikov saying, had I known it would cause this much death I never would have done it. It’s too little, too late when it comes to feeling bad about creating a killing machine.

Part of what we tried to get at in the exhibition was that the notion of violence has changed from hitting someone with a club or shooting them, to other forms of violence that are harder to discern and may not be physical. Some [design objects] are a few steps removed from violence. For instance, people in civil rights and social justice see the overuse by police of Flexicuffs, the disposable plastic handcuffs, as violence against the community. The police and the designers don’t see it as violence, but to the members of the community it is.

CI: On the other hand, Flexicuffs are more comfortable and won’t chafe your wrists the way hard metallic ones do; they’re easier to use and cheaper. But the downside is that now people get handcuffed more often?

JH: Exactly, they’re used on protesters all the time now.

CI: So how did you get into design?

JH: I backed into it. I have no formal training in design. My Bachelor’s at Brown University in Providence, RI was—are you ready for this?—in Asian performance studies: a combination of religious studies, ethnomusicology, anthropology, performance and theatre. My doctoral work at Rice University [in Houston] combined intellectual history with anthropology and gender studies.

I never felt comfortable in the field. Then a friend and mentor, Tucker Viemeister [famous for his OXO Good Grips kitchen tools], who was working at Smart Design at the time, said, ͞We need smart people who know pop culture. You should work at Smart Design. I was looking for a job and I was desperate and I thought, ͞Okay, sure, I’ll take whatever.

Shortly after, he invited me to give comments at a lecture he was giving in Philadelphia. I ended up being invited to a bunch of their reviews for their industrial design program. People seemed to like what I had to say. They were looking to push design into a more socially engaged direction. Because I had a background in anthropology, they hired me as a full-time professor in the industrial design department, for which I had no training whatsoever. I was literally reading and learning one week ahead of the students so that I could try to teach them something.

After teaching for a couple of years, they asked me to direct the graduate industrial design program. I was also consulting at Smart Design, then was hired half-time at Frog Design in New York.

CI: You suffered from imposter syndrome?

JH: I was struggling to figure out what my role was in design because I had no formal training and I seemed to be in demand. People wanted to hire me and I couldn’t understand why. When I was at Frog, for instance, I had no idea what I was doing and nobody else did either. There was just this mindset that design needed more people who understood culture. And I seemed to be one of those people and seemed able to talk about design in a way that designers related to.

CI: Where does your one-man firm, Big+Tall Design, fit?

JH: Early in my career I blended teaching with consulting work, which was really my education. What started off as a place to dump the different work that I was doing has become something that helps me focus on how I talk about my work.

Part of Tucker’s mentorship was his sense of humour. I felt that the work I was doing was serious and therefore I had to be serious, but I don’t really like to be that serious. Tucker has a way in his presentations of being funny, but also serious. His sly sense of humour has been a tremendous inspiration for the public presentation of my work. A good example of playfulness I inherited from him is my video What is Transdisciplinary Design, a [montage of] person-on-the-street interviews that Parsons did for the launch of the transdisciplinary design program. It pokes fun at the name and sensibility of the program. I appreciated that as a kickoff because I felt that the word transdiciplinary was pretentious and risked seeming smug.

CI: How did you get your distinctive first name?

JH: My official name is James, my father’s name is James; they’ve called me Jamer since birth. Then the Internet came along and I Googled it and there’s hundreds of them! I think some people do it so they’re more search-engine-optimized than James.

CI: In your YouTube video The Scales of Design, you show part of the iconic 1977 Charles and Ray Eames film Powers of Ten, which exploits the system of exponential powers to visualize the importance of scale. You demonstrate how to think big even when designing something relatively small. The power of one is the industrial design object, the bike; power of two is the need for separate bike lanes on the street to permit the bike’s safe use; power of three is mapping the locations of bike-sharing stations; and power of four, the locations of plants to manufacture the bicycles. This message seems to embody the essence of your work.

JH: It all dovetails with a book manuscript I just wrote about scale, which elaborates on that talk. The current working title is Not to Scale: Design and Innovation in Unruly Times. I’m just now looking for a publisher, so you’ve got a little breaking news story.

David Lasker is Associate Editor of Canadian Interiors, Canadian correspondent for Officeinsight and president of David Lasker Communications.