Syracuse University Magazine

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James Fathers

Purposeful Design

When he worked as an industrial designer early in his career, James Fathers liked to spend as much time as he could on the factory floor of the plastics molding company where the large products he designed were being manufactured. “Because that was where the real production knowledge was,” says Fathers, the Iris Magidson Chair of Design Leadership in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). “I could have sat in my office and said, ‘Here it is, and I’ll pass the designs down to you.’ But it worked much better if I could be on the shop floor and say, ‘Okay, I’m thinking of doing this. How do you think it would work best?’”

Through that process of personal engagement, he sought to encourage a sense of ownership in everyone involved in the manufacturing process and invited them to take pride in the products they helped create. In the years that followed, as he shifted from the industrial to the educational sector, Fathers transferred that collaborative emphasis to his teaching and research, focusing on sustainable and universal design and design in a development context. “I’m really interested in the role design can play in helping people to have better lives in the broader sense—the role of design for social good, to equalize society—whether that be a system, a service, or a product,” says Fathers, who hails from Bradford, England, and holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of Wales, Cardiff. As part of his doctoral research, he spent a year in India, working alongside local craftspeople to help them learn to design better products so they could gain more control over their livelihoods. “Although it might sound naïve, I’m absolutely convinced that design can change the world,” he says. “But the ‘how’ of that is very important. Designers are really good at looking at a problem and saying, ‘I have a solution.’ But what that misses is whether the person really wants a solution in the first place. And finding out what the real need is takes a lot of sensitivity and empathy and self-reflection.”  

The goal of instilling those skills and qualities in the next generation of socially responsible designers is fundamental to Fathers’s role as director of VPA’s School of Design, where he oversees undergraduate programs in communications, environmental and interior, fashion, and industrial and interaction design, and graduate programs in collaborative design and museum studies. The school is situated in The Nancy Cantor Warehouse, the University’s academic facility in downtown Syracuse. “I see myself as a designer of systems and services, and with 600-plus students and 52 faculty members who interact both at The Warehouse and across campus, this is one of the biggest projects I’ve come across,” says Fathers, who also co-chairs the Commission on Publicly Engaged Design, an initiative of Imagining America, a national consortium of artists and scholars based at SU. “My role is to provide leadership for the whole school, both to support the academic activity and to encourage and inspire people to improve and do things better.”

Fathers came to Syracuse in 2013 from York St. John University in England, where he headed up the School of Art and Design. He was attracted to SU for many reasons, including the enthusiasm of the faculty and the potential for developing cross-campus collaborations. “This is a time of building and defining, of asking, ‘How do we provide excellence in the student experience?’” he says. “The challenge as I see it is to work together to create a school, college, and University that is much greater than the sum of its parts.” —Amy Speach