Picture 16Recently I was asked whether the focus of Merge is strictly on capitalistic entrepreneurship, or whether I view social entrepreneurship through the same lens. A look back at my posts on the work of Participle, The Better Project, Firebelly Design and others provide the answer to this question: I see very little distinction between these two categories. Both require designers to dramatically alter the way they do business, both require not just a brilliant idea but also careful planning, and both require money—whether the desired outcome is financial gain or purely social change.

On the “social change” side of things, Project M has popped up a few times in my Merge posts, and I have been meaning to contact M founder John Bielenberg to write a proper piece on this groundbreaking concept (Steven Heller interviewed John recently for AIGA Voice). I’ve had a fascination with Project M—the purpose of which is to inspire designers, film makers and artists to use their talent and creativity for the greater good of the world—since I first heard about it when John and I were on the AIGA board together five years ago. At that time Project M was just launching and I still remember the palpable sense of “holy shit, I can’t believe I’m really doing this…” in John’s voice as he talked about his vision. That quality of danger and even recklessness is integral to Project M and is borne out in the results of recent sessions: last year’s Iceland Design Blitz, and Buy A Meter from 2007.

Now I see that Project M will be partnering with Winterhouse this summer on a two-week program bringing twelve individuals together to create a design project of lasting value for a rural community (Project M has always had this intriguing element of reality television to it). Winterhouse is, of course, the design practice of Bill Drenttel and Jessica Helfand (who also serve as editors of a fairly well-known design blog, among various other endeavors). The Winterhouse Institute, established by the couple to focus on non-profit, self-initiated projects that support design education and social and political initiatives, recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop social impact programming across the design industry.

(Yes, you read that right…$1.5 million. More on that to come)

Despite having missions that seem to point in generally the same direction, I see a tension between the edgy, rebellious Project M and the stately, academic Winterhouse. I’m hopeful that this tension will make for exciting results this August. Regardless of the outcome, though, it’s undeniable that the partnership of Project M and Winterhouse brings together some of the truly progressive entrepreneurial thinkers in the design world.

Applications are due June 15 for the Project M/Winterhouse program, which will be held August 15-30 in Falls Village, Connecticut (do you think they’ll need an audition tape too, like Amazing Race?).

Here’s a clip of the Project M Iceland Design Blitz from 2008 in which participants express the double meaning of the Icelandic word ”ÓRÓI which has the double meaning of disturbance and wind chime or mobile: