Concluding an Unforgettable Year: A Message from Dean Whiting

Dear GSD Community,

As we gathered virtually to watch the Class of 2021 receive their graduation honors, I was overwhelmed with admiration for what you each, and we collectively, managed to accomplish this year. While now is a moment for celebration, it is also a time to reflect, given the impact the past fifteen months and more have had on all of our lives. We all know—we all have lived through—how difficult that time has been. To celebrate and honor you each is also to remind ourselves what work and values we must continue to carry forward.

I am always struck by the sheer talent and passion that thrives within our community. One aspect of this year I will never forget is how our students and faculty spoke out, compellingly and evocatively, about the challenges and legacies of racism in our world and in the design fields. I am beyond grateful for our faculty and students who have made race and equity not afterthoughts but core values. We must maintain that ethos.

Some important projects on race, equity, and design emerged over the past year at the GSD, illustrating design’s agency to affect these big, structural questions. I want to highlight our African American Design Nexus (AADN) and the podcast it launched this year, “The Nexus,” as well as a specific project that emerged from it: the Harlem StoryMap, created by Thandi Nyambose (MUP ’21). Thandi’s engaging reveal of the designers and stories that shaped Harlem exemplifies both the self-scrutiny and reassessment we must undertake as designers, as well as the overdue honor we owe to those designers whose contributions have long been overlooked. I also want to applaud Toni L. Griffin for launching the inaugural Mayors’ Institute on City Design Just City Mayoral Fellowship, which convened seven Black mayors from around the United States to directly tackle racial injustices in each of their cities through planning and design interventions. These are exactly the sorts of projects that remind us all how much work we have to do, but also how dialogue and action can shift when design intervenes.

The pandemic presented us with other challenges, both immediate and ongoing. We needed to create a virtual pedagogy that would be potent and inspiring, and our Innovation Task Force, and really our entire community, worked to develop the finest virtual education possible. I applaud the ITF for their insights, which directly shaped our academic year and will inform and elevate our pedagogy well beyond the pandemic. Introducing “GSD Now” to the community was a real thrill; to be able to gather, if virtually, in shared “Trays” and to immerse ourselves in the daily pulse of activity made our spring semester just a bit more normal. Our Fabrication Lab raised the bar, too, with their Virtual Gund. Our faculty and students deserve a hearty round of applause for pivoting so quickly and effectively and for producing such remarkable work despite great challenge.

But we also face broader questions of how people will design and create space in a world where space and coexistence can be feared as dangers. Among those who have begun exploring that bigger question is Farshid Moussavi, who led a fascinating studio last fall on rethinking residential architecture in light of the pandemic and its erosion of the live-work dichotomy. Farshid is among the GSD faculty who are working, as we speak, on studying our own Gund Hall and preparing it to accommodate our return this fall.

Despite the headwinds we faced, the GSD expanded and elevated its public programming and engagement. Our events and exhibitions remained top-notch, and it was especially powerful to see our exhibitions turn “Inside Out,” starting with last November’s Election Day message. Harvard Design Magazine returned with a stunning redesign and a roster of brilliant and dedicated contributors and guest editors, scrutinizing the idea of “America” from diverse angles. And in launching Harvard Design Press and the student journal Pairs, we have ensured that written word and expanded, immersive conversation will remain cornerstones of design dialogue at the GSD and beyond.

With all that there is to celebrate in the moment, it feels almost hasty to look ahead to our return to Cambridge and to campus this fall. But that is where we currently stand: an inflection point between immense hardship and eager optimism. I encourage you each to take good care of yourselves, and to follow university guidance and public health recommendations as we embark upon our summers and start planning our return to campus.

With optimism and with the wish that you all have a peaceful and promising summer,