Gray Garmon is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Center for Integrated Design in the School of Design and Creative Technologies at The University of Texas in Austin. Before UT, Garmon was a faculty member at Southern Methodist University and co-founder of the Master of Arts in Design and Innovation program. He practices Human-Centered Design (HCD): a problem-solving approach widely used in industry, governments, schools and NGOs.
Garmon holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies from The University of Texas in Austin. Garmon served in Peace Corps Ghana from 2007-2009, is a recipient of the American Institute of Architects Henry Adams Medal, and is a University of Pennsylvania Social Impact Fellow. His recent design work includes a partnership with a health clinic and school in the western region of Ghana, an urban plaza prototype called Reimagine Crowdus St., and an NEA-funded interactive art project called the WonderPhone.
How has your degree in architecture influenced design?
I loved architecture school; it was a broad education about theory, systems, design, construction, craft, and more. Because of some great professors here at the UT School of Architecture, it started to show me how design was also a powerful tool for challenges like affordable housing, community engagement, and social impact. My experiences in architecture have provided an invaluable set of skills and mindsets that guide my work.
How and why did you change career paths from architecture to design?
It was definitely not a single momentous shift, but more of a long, continuous practice to align the design skills I learned in architecture school with my passion for bigger global societal issues. I went from architecture school at UT to the Peace Corps in Ghana. In graduate school I designed a large cultural building, but I also created my own Design Thinking class to design better educational experiences in schools in El Salvador.
All of these experiences may seem so disparate, but for me they were all part of the same exploration to find a way to use design to create social impact.
How has your work in Ghana influenced your approach to Human-Centered Design?
I joined the US Peace Corps after finishing my undergraduate degree at UT. For twenty-seven months, I was in Ghana, living in a small community called Hain. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, your role is to understand the needs of the community and work with them to develop solutions. For me, this meant understanding the needs of the local community, and one of the biggest issues was that the schools had hundreds of students and no bathrooms. This lead to many environmental and health issues. We worked together to design, raise funds, and build composting toilets for the schools. This process was very similar to the Human-Centered Design process, but at the time I didn’t know that. I was experimenting with the alignment of best practices from architecture, international development, participatory design, and co-creation.
What courses do you teach here at UT Austin?
I teach Intro to Integrated Design, Intro to Design Thinking, Sketching for Thinking and Communication, and Senior Design Capstone. This fall was my first semester at UT, and these classes have been an amazing way to get to know a big cross-section of the UT student body. I’m thankful for such a broad introduction to the design community here.
What motivated you to co-found SMU’s Master of Arts in Design and Innovation?
For years, I had been attempting to combine my interest in design and social impact, but I had been looking at it through the lens of one project at a time. I had the privilege to meet Kate Canales who introduced me to Human-Centered Design, and a lightbulb went off for me. HCD was the “what” I had been looking for (and attempting to practice).
Kate was already teaching HCD classes at SMU and had the idea for the Masters program. I had the opportunity to brainstorm with her about what might be the future of design education. We thought about design education as design projects, using our own methodology to create a new graduate degree that not only taught, but embodied the values of HCD.
What is one piece of advice you’d like all students to hear?
To take ownership of your education, and spend time exploring your passions and interests, even if there is not an obvious “degree” for what you want to do after you graduate. The world is looking for people who are capable, passionate, and know what they want to do.
What are your thoughts on failure?
Failure is an incredible learning opportunity, but it’s only powerful if you reflect, iterate, and continue your work. Don’t aim to fail. Aim to succeed and use failures along the way to guide, motivate and inform your work. Design is riddled with failure: bad sketches, wonky ideas, prototypes that don’t work, assumptions that get squashed. It’s part of the designer’s mindset to reflect on those failures and move the work forward: make a better sketch, brainstorm more ideas, build another prototype, and challenge your assumptions.
What has been the most fulfilling design project to work on to date?
The most fulfilling project has been working in design education. For the last several years, I’ve been able to work alongside students who are designing amazing solutions that respond to some of the most complex and challenging issues in our society: teen homelessness, refugee resettlement, food deserts, public transportation, and more. I see the classroom and curriculum as a design project. I’m focused on trying to better understand what students want to learn, how they want to learn, and what we as faculty hope they learn before they graduate. Then I create learning experiences that are always adapting and being iterated upon as I learn what works and what is impactful.