As an undergraduate deciding between majors in Essen, Germany, Hanna de Vries realized she could pursue communication design without sacrificing her passion for exploring the human mind. In creating projects like a typeface embedded with pronunciation cues for deaf readers and trauma education materials for refugees that replace written language with images, de Vries exercised her compassion for and interest in people. “To design for people, it’s crucial to understand why they behave the way they do,” says de Vries of her college experience.
After moving to New York for an internship, de Vries found she still wanted to explore the relationship between psychology and design, and in even greater depth. While examining her postgraduate options, she discovered the MFA Transdisciplinary Design program at Parsons. The examination of complex systemic challenges and embrace of intense collaboration in “the program allowed me to do exactly what I wanted, which was to design across psychology and other disciplines for social impact,” she says. De Vries began the two-year MFA in fall 2018, building bridges between design and her other fields of interest from day one. De Vries’ program classmate Sudeshna (Shona) Mahata came to Parsons from a different path: She had helped create more inclusive classrooms for children with autism and developed employment opportunities for people with disabilities. In the Transdisciplinary Design program, she was able to build on her experience and give her professional life a new direction.
In her first semester, Mahata collaborated with caregivers for pediatric cancer patients to design care journals for the Design for Living and Dying studio, which is co-led by Transdisciplinary Design program director John Bruce. Reflecting on the resilience of her interview subjects, Mahata says, “I wanted to create a safe space for participants during the co-creative process
to be able to openly share their experiences and traumas that may be part of their personal narratives or journeys.” She employed this inclusive approach as she embarked on her thesis. She also wondered more broadly about combining participatory design processes with evidence- based research in applied psychology to develop inclusive person-centered models of care.
For both de Vries and Mahata, the journey through Transdisciplinary Design led to Dr. Adam Brown, PhD Psychology ’08, an associate professor of psychology and the vice provost for Research at The New School for Social Research (NSSR). Brown joined the NSSR faculty in 2018, at a moment when he was shifting his professional focus. “When I became a clinical psychologist, I was interested in why certain people, when exposed to trauma and adversity, develop long-standing conditions whereas other people bounce back and adapt quickly,” says Brown, explaining the first phase of his career. But as he studied emotional resilience in migrants and refugees, he grew increasingly aware of inequities in people’s access to psychological and psychiatric services — especially among displaced populations like those he had tracked. Meetings with the World Health Organization (WHO) led Brown to focus on “equipping people with little or no background in mental health to serve as additional points of care in their communities.” He launched the Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab at NSSR in part to conduct these capacity-building interventions.
“Within the first week of my arriving, I had Parsons students knocking on my door, wanting to bring design perspectives to this systems-oriented way of thinking,” Brown remembers. Particularly impressed by Transdisciplinary Design students’ big-picture perspective and capacity for cooperative efforts, Brown adds, “In that moment, I began to realize there’s a whole way of work that designers engage in that I hadn’t known much about.” He invited students to join in his project of democratizing mental healthcare and psychosocial support.
“The need to understand what it means to solve problems for people, which involves all sorts of issues concerning privilege and power, will challenge designers for decades.” — Jamer Hunt
De Vries was among those first collaborators; the pair conducted a Burnout Innovation Focus Group on behalf of the UNICEF Staff Counseling department in spring 2019. Four years earlier, in surveys of more than 17,000 United Nations employees, Brown had uncovered notable levels of distress among staff. In turn, the counseling department tapped Brown and de Vries to lead corporate employees of UNICEF through exercises dedicated to shedding light on burnout in their office culture. Bringing together design thinking and brain science, the activities not only pinpointed causes of burnout among UNICEF workers but also helped participants find ways to identify and cope with stress.
In 2020, Brown and Mahata teamed up on a separate mental health capacity-building project, this time using the WHO’s short-term mental health intervention, known as Problem Management Plus (PM+). Although Brown had a plan in place to pilot PM+ training with NSSR students in his Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab, COVID-19 compelled him to deliver the training virtually, so that students and community members could provide counseling to New Yorkers facing adversity during the pandemic.
“It became very clear that to pull off 80 hours of remote training successfully, we needed someone who could approach training as a designed experience,” Brown says. “From the very beginning, Shona helped us think through how we wanted to communicate with program participants, how we would streamline information sharing, and how we’d evaluate whether people were learning the competencies they were hoping to learn.” Mahata attended
the sessions alongside Brown’s eight graduate student trainees, and she redesigned the training on the fly when she and Brown observed that attendees were the most deeply engrossed in the material in interactive group sessions.
Mahata aimed to make the PM+ remote training platform easy to use and emotionally engaging, saying of her efforts, “I didn’t want the richness of mental health psychosocial support content to be overshadowed by the technology.” She was also eager to see if the digital delivery of mental health interventions would be effective, as such evidence would represent “a huge win for accessibility of mental health.” By all accounts so far, both PM+ and the digital training are proving successful. Brown’s graduate students used their PM+ tools to provide five weeks of counseling to ten patients who had been selected from the Safran Center for Psychological Services waitlist. Equally telling, preliminary data show that these recipients of PM+ counseling had made gains in emotional regulation, self-efficacy, social connectivity, and other metrics. Since then, Mahata has gone on to adapt mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) trainings with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), SOS Children’s Village, the WHO, and other NGOs, offering mental health and psychosocial support to communities in North America, Ukraine and other European countries, Africa, and Asia.
“The program allowed me to do exactly what I wanted, which was to design across psychology and other disciplines for social impact.” — Hanna de Vries
The alliance taking shape between Brown and Transdisciplinary Design students like de Vries and Mahata is exciting but not unexpected, says Jamer Hunt. The founding director of Transdisciplinary Design, he currently teaches in the program and has led transdisciplinary initiatives for the university through the Provost’s Office. Hunt notes that the design professions are increasingly moving beyond production expertise and embedding user knowledge in practice. “The need to understand people — and what it means to solve problems for people, which involves all sorts of issues concerning privilege and power — will continue to challenge designers for decades.” Whereas de Vries came to recognize the need for understanding on her own, Hunt says, Parsons is uniquely creating conditions to develop this awareness: “We have patiently and strategically developed an infrastructure by which the movement of students across disciplinary boundaries is easier and easier.”
Transdisciplinary Design is an important piece of the groundwork, as the program was founded as a platform from which to engage with large- scale challenges rather than simply augmenting students’ skills. The program’s capacity for dealing with complexity has encouraged inquiries into systemic racism, climate change, and other difficult problems critically connected to at-risk communities. Given Transdisciplinary Design’s aversion to formulaic responses, as Hunt puts it, “It’s no surprise that mental health would become one of the things that students pay attention to.”
While a program in existence for more than a decade might have settled into its own orthodoxies by now, Hunt praises faculty member John Bruce and others leading the program for celebrating a mission of open- endedness. “John has a sensibility that allows him to be comfortable in ambiguous situations and see beyond disciplines,” he says of his colleague.
Bruce, meanwhile, observes that his own pursuits as a professor may be behind students’ desire to learn about the human psyche. Now five years old, his Design for Living and Dying course examines notions of care from the perspective of end-of-life experience. Besides focusing on a charged subject, the studio compels participants to consider the various ways their design research creates a psychosocial dynamic. As Bruce describes it, “I’m not a fly on the wall. My presence has an impact and an effect.” A straight line could be drawn from Bruce’s embrace of reflective practice to Mahata’s looking to psychology for techniques to avoid re-traumatizating the patients with whom she collaborates.
Institutional support for a design-psychology exchange is increasing. This fall, Bruce is rolling out the Superstudio concept, in which students, faculty, and collaborators from across disciplines participate in a series of events representing five systems that define our time, after which students break into affinity groups and develop their own research endeavors. Healthcare is one of the five pillars that Bruce has chosen for Superstudio, and he will be leading an event dedicated to attachment theory—which deals with the bonds between individuals, including parents and children—with NSSR psychology professor Miriam Steele and MA Psychology candidate Zishan Jiwani. Simultaneously, a new Global Mental Health graduate minor—which Brown describes as aimed at addressing gaps in mental health treatment and disparities in access—has been launched under Brown’s oversight to offer graduate students at The New School opportunities to gain related skills. Hunt anticipates that this expanded infrastructure will yield more Transdisciplinary Design activity in the areas of healthcare, education, and international development. He adds that greater exposure to mental health pedagogy will help design students align their user research with the high standards established by institutional review boards in the psychology field.
Meanwhile, Brown’s original design collaborators are also deepening their knowledge of psychology and continuing to apply it in their practice. De Vries, who currently designs behavioral change strategies on behalf of UNICEF and other NGOs with the consultancy Common Thread, earned an additional MA in psychology at The New School this past spring. Mahata is engaging leaders of NGOs in dialogue about workplace and organizational change strategies in collaboration with Brown and IFRC in new projects geared toward reimagining mental health in humanitarian settings using the power of design.
David Sokol is a New York–based writer specializing in design.
This piece was originally printed in re:D 2021 “Health and Wellness for All” re:D (Regarding Design), the magazine for Parsons alumni and the wider Parsons community, is a publication of Parsons School of Design and The New School. Below we feature highlights from the 2021 issue: “Health and Wellness for All”. You can read a full digital copy of the magazine here.