Possible Worlds Collaborative Studio
Fall 2012
Wednesdays 12:10 – 2:50, 6 E16th St., room 1202
Instructors: Melanie Crean and Huong Ngo

Course Description

The Possible Worlds collab will investigate the last century of utopian thought in the United States, and its impact on systems of living, working, and exchange value in conjunction with environmental sustainability and contemporary design practices. We will look at alternative models ranging from the NYC squatter’s movement, to Buckminster Fuller’s utopian architecture, to alternative economies inspired by worker’s movements in Latin America, and ask how investigating the history of modeling future living scenarios can be of use to designers. We will explore these communities’ social organization, their systems of value, the collective built environments they constructed, and the relevance of these methods to current design practice.

Students will work with three different local groups to explore three different areas of practice: ABC No Rio, to discuss the relation between the local anarchist movement, grassroots community activism, squatters rights, and urban land use (and re-use) in New York City; Local urban farmers Brooklyn Grange and the artist Mary Mattingly to discuss urban farming, sharecropping and the design of possible urban eco-futures; and SolidarityNYC with the artist Caroline Woolard, to discuss large networks of alternative economies currently functioning in the NY city area.

Artists and designers who are working with related issues will visit the class to contextualize each section. Students will work on three different types of projects: descriptive (animations, branding, etc), systemic (maps, apps, communication protocols), and speculative (proposed future project inspired by the group  at hand), matching project type with project group as they see fit.


  • Can models for future scenarios be opened up to criticism, participation, modification, and re-creation?
  • How should ideas for future scenarios come about? How can the public be persuaded to ponder such radical alternatives themselves?
  • What could involvement in environmental design mean to groups who were previously involved in community organization, or saw themselves as countercultures?
  • Which problems are current proposals for social, physical and economic re-design in response to?
  • How can we articulate the relationship between design and daily life today? How can a particular philosophy or mode of thought be enacted through a designed object or designed environments?
  • How might we be critical of utopian plans that entail elements we disagree with, whilst still engage with their laboratory practices?
  • How can self-organization, horizontal systems, and organic design processes productively influence our current design practices?

Course Components

Projects: Students will work on three different types of projects, matching project type with outside collaborative partner as they see fit, as long as the entire range of project types is covered over the course of the semester.  Projects can range from descriptive (animation / motion graphics, graphic design, branding, documentary), to problem solving current systems (product, application or systems design, communications & social networking strategies), to speculative (proposing future ideas, inspired by the goals of the particular organization at hand).

Readings: For each reading, a pair of students will act as moderators for both the online and in class discussion of the reading, writing a primary response on the class blog that will also set up the framework for discussion in class. The primary response should be approximately 500 words, due Tuesday, the day before class, at noon. It should outline central points in the reading that the moderators feel pertain to the concerns of the class, respond to at least one of the framing questions the class blog’s Readings page, and ask a new question for other students to react to. Each student will do this once per semester.

Other students will also write responses to the reading, providing additional information, opinions and comments to respond to the initial post and answer the framing questions provided on the class blog’s reading page. Reading responses are due at class time, and should be about 250 words.

Participation and blog: all students must contribute to the class’s overall discussion. You must speak each week in class, either in response to a reading, or to something that has come up in your own research investigations. Students are also encouraged to post material of interest to the blog, which over the course of the semester, will act as a collaboratively authored document / discussion.

Learning outcomes

By the successful completion of this course, students should be able to demonstrate:

  • a critical understanding of the historical origins of the concept of utopia
  • familiarity with how examples of key historical and contemporary groups and their living and working practices relate to the idea of utopia
  • competency with articulating how design projects relate to larger economic, political, aesthetic and environmental systems
  • competency with articulating how modeling future systems relates to the field of design
  • ability to collaborate with both students inside of the class and organizations outside of class.
  • critical thinking skills by clearly articulating ideas and offering constructive critique
  • effective project presentation skills, as well as responding to constructive criticism
  • a sufficient understanding of design process and workflow to efficiently manage their time.


Criteria for evaluation

Students in the course will receive feedback on the following areas:

  1. Critical Thinking: To what degree has the student demonstrated and developed critical thinking skills over the course of the semester? Is critical thinking evident in the visual work, in critiques and presentations, and in written assignments?
  2. Design Process: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the student’s design process? Is the student able to evaluate the work at different points in the process and to identify areas in their work for future development?
  3. Contextualization and Connection: To what degree has the student been able to connect the themes and core concepts of the course to their work? Is this clearly demonstrated in their class participation, project presentation, and written work?
  4. Integration and Appropriate Use of Technology/Medium: Is the student making good choices about the form and type of technology or medium they are using to express their design concepts?
  5. Communication: How well is the student able to express their ideas, both verbally and in written form?

Undergraduate Grade Scale Descriptions

A = Work of exceptional quality.
A- = Work of high quality.
B+ = Work of high quality, higher than average abilities.
B = Very good work that satisfies goals of course.
B- = Good work.
C+ = Average work, understanding of course material.
C = Adequate work; passable
C- = Passing work but below good academic standing.
D = Below average work; does not fully understand the assignments.
F = Failure, no credit

Final Grade Calculation

Projects 1-3: %75 (25% each)
Class Participation and Blog: 25%

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