Creative Control

Control.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that word lately. The theme of control has come up again and again in my design work. For a long time, I’ve thought of control as the other half of “creative control.” I saw control in a design context as the ability to decide an object’s color, or the amount of kerning in a title. Lately, however, control has taken on a very different meaning.

In design, control is so rarely about the inconsequential creative details. It is instead about about the ability to act and navigate without interference. Even more significant, control has become more about an inability to control how the ideas and actions of others and their affect on how a design evolves. It becomes less about what we are able to control and so much more about what we are not able to control. For every precaution we put in place, life seems to have a way of throwing a wrench in the mix.

How much, then, does control affect creative control?IMG_20160325_154625_279

Case and point: Since January of 2016, I have been working in a local charter school prototyping the Spark Corps design education curriculum. For almost one year, I have been part of a team working hundreds of hours on a 5 month long curriculum. We are taking on the seemingly impossible task of using design as a vehicle for behavioral change. Can design build teamwork skills? Can design increase self-esteem? Can design foster the development of empathy? We said, “yes,” to all of these questions. When you spend as much time as you have on a project this complex, you have to say, “yes.” The moment you start to question yourself, you’re done for.

But what happens when you put this labor of love and hope into the hands of 6 unpredictable little humans. What happens when your design is confronted with unabashed, honest, and ruthless feedback. If a kid is bored, they tell you. If they think your worksheet is stupid, they tell you. If they don’t want to complete a task, they tell you. The user will take your gift to the world and crush it, twist it, mash it, and spit on it.

On top of this, what does the day look like if you run out of snacks? How do they behave if they failed a test that day? Got yelled at by their parent that morning? Or are fighting with their best friend. How these kiddos react each day so often has nothing to do with the design itself and everything to do with the health of their social ecosystem.

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Finally, what happens when the social ecosystem throws something at you that you could possibly never have predicted?

On Thursday, our agenda included having the students present projects they had spent the past 3 weeks developing. I came into the room ready to set up only to find that the storage unit which held each of the projects was empty. To the naked eye, these projects looked like a heap of trash. To my students, they were classrooms of the futures, recreation centers, and playgrounds. I sat stunned. Each project was gone, and none of the 10 teachers, staff of administrators I spoke with had any idea where they went.

The most surprising thing ended up being not even about the missing work, but about my students’ reactions. They were devastated, upset and angry. For 3 weeks, all I had heard about was their boredom. But now? I suddenly saw how proud of their work they had actually been.

So, I did what any good designer would do and utilized the resources around me. In 30 minutes, each team had created a new poster, and they were in their seats ready to present. The day was shaky at best and emotions were on edge, so I was definitely happy to see 5:00 roll around. But, I came out the other side and in one piece (with only a minor bruises).

What does this all mean, then? Honestly, I have no idea. I think the best thing we can do as designers is not to prepare for every possible scenario or overly orchestrate any given design. The best we can do is be comfortable with the fact that there are things about our design that will always be out of our control. All we can do is prepare to the unexpected and be ready to adapt when it inevitable arrives.

Caution: New Teacher Crossing

As I looked around the room, a feeling of terror sat in the pit of my stomach.

D was yelling at L because L was “doing it wrong.”. N had decided at literally the very last minute that she didn’t like the idea her and M had been working on for the past 3 weeks. M stood in horror as she saw her precious project dismantled. T and Y sat in the corner wrapping duct tape around a table leg that would inevitably take ages to remove. To top it off, the administrator I had invited to come watch our presentation had arrived 10 minutes early and looked around the room in a state of shock and disbelief attempting to avoid eye contact with me at all costs.

Was this life as a teacher?

For the past 10 weeks, I have been working in an Atlanta charter school prototyping and refining a design education curriculum. On this particular day, we were giving the final presentation of our Rube Goldberg contraptions. The prompt had been to use a variety of recyclable materials to create a contraption that turned on a light.

A day ago, it seemed like everything was right on schedule. The day of? Well, it was chaos. To make a long story short, we got through the presentations, the administrator observed, and all students made it out of the class with all limbs in tact. It was all I could hope for.

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These past few months have been some of the most mentally exhausting, emotionally trying and incredibly profound months of my professional life. Some days, I feel like I am a professional cat herder. On these days, nothing I says sticks and my kids test and try every button they can get their hands on.

Then, on other days, the information sticks. In fact, the information I thought they were ignoring on the other days resurfaces. WAIT?! You were listening when I taught you what artifact analysis was? And, you want to take some time to yourself to brainstorm new solutions? Yes, please do!

On these days, I cry internal happy tears and do a happy dance. On these days, I watch kids from rough homes give kind and insightful critique to their peers. On these days, I see a kid with severe ADD and ADHD build and ideate better than professionals 15 years his senior. On these days, I watch as students turn cereal boxes into cities of the future and discarded toys into the next great idea.

While I am by no means a professional teacher, my brief time in the classroom has given me profound insights into the challenges facing students, teachers, and families through the lens of education. Despite these challenges, I am hopeful and optimistic. Day by day, I am seeing incremental changes in the skill and insights of my students. Day by day, I am seeing them actively engage with design and reap the benefits of its methodology.

So, wish me luck! If you would like to know more about what I am doing or the details of the design curriculum please comment below of send a private message.

Cheers!

 

360 Degrees of Design Education

They (whoever “they” is) say that things in life have a way of coming full circle. This has never been truer than for me at this very moment. In about 12 hours, I will start semester number four of grad school, and in about 18 hours, I’ll switch roles transforming from student to teacher.

A brief back-story, for the past 8 months, I’ve been a project lead on a series of design education materials. In the fall, we were able to make friends with administrators at Kindezi Charter School’s. This relationship helped facilitate the development of a design education curriculum with the intention of being taught in a classroom environment.

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These efforts have resulted in a 70-hour, and 5-month curriculum that spans the design process and immerses kids ages 8-12 in everything from product design to branding. Tomorrow, I will be piloting this curriculum with the first batch of students in hopes of testing and refining it’s content.

Now, this whole thing is incredibly surreal. Barely 2 years ago I pressed the submit button on my Georgia Tech application. A year and half ago, I took my first design class, and just 8 months ago I got my first design job. In hardly any time my life as a designer has catapulted from not knowing what “Eames” meant to prototyping my own design process.

I feel as though tomorrow is my design due date—that, for two years, I’ve been growing and developing my design knowledge and tomorrow I become a design parent. While I can’t pretend to know what parenting is like, I am filled with anxiety, self-doubt and the sneaking suspicion that these kiddos will see right through me. What, anyways, makes me qualified to teach design? What do I know? I still can’t even articulate the difference between UX and UI!

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Yet, despite these fears and anxieties, I am comforted in my love and passion for design. This is perhaps one of my favorite things about design: Success as a designer lies in one’s ability to admit fallibility. It is in the moments we open our minds to the things gone wrong and items left out, that we let in tremendous insights and monumental improvements.

So while I will be Ms. Miller for the next few months, I can wait to also usher in a new group of designers who I can empower to help make this curriculum the best that it can be.

Wish me luck! Also, if any teachers are reading this, I would love any pearls of wisdom or teaching resources you might have.

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