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.

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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The First Year: My First 12 Months as a Designer

When I began writing this, it was 11:15 on a Sunday night. In a little over 12 hours I would begin a new school year. In no time, a new year of sleepless nights, coffee binges, and creative endeavors would begin. Quite honestly, I have no idea if I’m prepared. I think I am, but that’s only speculation at this point.

Just 12 months previously, I was a new and burgeoning designer. I was as green as the Atlanta kudzu, overly ambitious, and feisty as all get out. Well, I’m still overly ambitious and I am still feisty as all get out. This time, however, I have come prepared with a few life lessons a firmer grasp of what it means to be a designer in 2015.

The following is my list of 12 things I’ve learned in my 12 months as a designer.

1. It’s not personal. It’s design: At the end of the day, you are designing for the masses, or whatever your population might be. As tempting as it might be to invest your full self into the work, just remember that you are not designing for you. You are designing for them.

2. If you believe in it, fight for it: You are the one who has put in the blood, sweat and tears into your project. So, you know better than anyone what the direction of that project is. You have a spine. Use it.

3. But know when to listen: One of the amazing tings about design is that you are always learning. As much as you think you know, you don’t know everything. It’s critical to learn when you’ve reached these points and when it’s time to start listening and stop defending.

4. Over communicate: As much as you might think, not everyone around you is a psychic…and that is ok. Know who you are talking to, and how to talk to them. When you’ve mastered this, you will have mastered design.

5. Criticism is not an attack on your idea. It is an attack on the presentation of your idea: This is an important one. Naturally, we become invested in our work, but even the best ideas will be passed on if they are not communicated properly. You can never assume that your audience will “get” your idea. So, don’t take criticism personally. Think of it as a chance to improve the communication of you concept.

6. Know who your “client” is: There have been plenty of times when I thought I knew the problem, only to find that I hadn’t really listened to the needs of the client. Sometimes, we have to put our needs on a shelf and concentrate on the task at hand. This is ok…In fact, this is normal.

7. Know how to sweet-talk the above-mentioned “client.”: Sometimes, the client is wrong. Of course, never tell them this. That being said, however, sometimes you need to think critically about how to get the right idea across while still making the client think it is their idea. This isn’t easy…but you’ll get the hang of it.

8. The pig always looks better with lipstick: Appearance means more than is should. A beautiful idea is beautiful. But even a bad idea still looks good with a little bit of polish.

9. But at the end of the day, a pig is still a pig: In the long run, a good idea will always beat out a “pretty” idea. It just will.

10. Procrastination will never give you what you want: When you have learned how to manage your time, please let me know how you have done this. I am still working on this skill.

11. Get out of the studio! NOW!: There is a whole world outside of the studio. I get it. There are a lot of things you have to do—renderings, portfolios, models, etc…Here is the thing, though, you are designing for people and not other designers. GET OUT OF THE STUDIO and learn about the people you are designing for. If this means avoiding class work for the sake of “research” then so be it. Own it.

12. It’s only design: I love what I do, and so should you. But, at the end of the day, we are designers. We are not solving the Iran nuclear crisis or writing hunger policies in Nairobi. We are designers. Love what you do and make the best of your skill set. If you are passionate and show up, the rest will fall into place.

I hope these have helped! Keep on truckin’, my design warriors. I believe in you.

The Real Value Add of Design

A few weeks ago, I had a whim.

I wanted to see if I could utilize the local Museum of Design Atlanta for a design education project we’ve been working on. A few emails later, myself and the Spark Corps team were in the office of Executive Director Dr. Laura Flusche. As we discussed our project and our goals, we began a larger discussion on design education and its relevancy in the Atlanta community.

Dr. Flusche began telling us about a design education workshop she had led in a low income school district. From a designer’s stand point, the event had gone fine. The children were somewhat engaged, the teachers were content, and there were no major mishaps. From a designer’s stand point, it also could have gone better. That’s our curse. Things can always be better.

Her team left the school, and returned to the office. Over the course of the next few weeks, Dr. Flusche was shocked with the range of positive feedback she was receiving. Suddenly, she had calls from The Boys and Girls Club Atlanta, The United Way Atlanta, YMCA, and other regional community organizations. All of these groups wanted to talk about her design workshop in the school.

Here’s the thing, though. They didn’t want to talk to her about design. They didn’t want to talk to her about the quality of the outcomes, the rigor of the methodology, or the outlet for creativity. Theses organizations wanted to talk to Dr. Flusche about teamwork, empathy, confidence, and pride.

Designers love design, and rightfully so. I love this career I have chosen, and could go on about all the reasons why designers deserve a place at the table. Yet as the five of us sat around MODA’s table we all took a moment and sat on her words. We had almost 50 years of design experience between us. How had we never seriously considered the benefits of design that were not design related?

The value add of social skills are an untapped aspect that designers need to start using when promoting the value of design. We are excellent at promoting the value of our designs. So, let’s be smarter about how we promote the value design itself. How does design teach children the skills to become leaders in their community? How can design empower groups of young people? How can design build confidence, empathy and compassion in those who need it most?

Countless community organizers, organizations and non profits operate around the country promoting these values. How amazing would it be for designers to lend their skills and expertise to enhance the efficacy and mobility of these groups?

Some food for thought.

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Our own design team brainstorming how to use design as tool for social development

I’m Sorry, Arduino, For the Things I Said to You While I Was Angry and Under-Caffeinated

The other week, I said some mean things to Arduino. Now, please know that this wasn’t out of my dislike for you, or even my dis-love. It wasn’t you. It was me. So, with this blog post, I will try to make right the things I made wrong, and formally apologize for lashing out at you. After all, you are an inanimate object. I mean, it really wasn’t your fault.

For those who need a recap, my last blog post was ended with an emotionally distraught grad student (me) and an Arduino board content in its ivory tower and with a complete disregard for us mere mortals. The next day, I met my lab partner to go over our project only to find that she also had the newest Apple OS and was unable to run processing as well. BUT, she also had the ability to run Windows on her system. All was right in the world…at least for the time being.

But with two days left until our quiz, and 4 days left until the functional prototype, moral was still low. On Monday night, I sat with my coffee, bread board and wires trying code after code. I was reading Arduino forums, and had even started my own forum thread.

Suddenly, things started to change. I checked my email to find my previous blog post had solicited emails from several SparkFun associates. And after only mere hours of starting my thread, I had people responding. Complete strangers were taking their time to help ME with MY project! WOAH!

I had hope. So, I kept tinkering and downloading, and then it happened. I pressed a button, and my servo motor turned. I pressed it again, and it turned another time, and another time, and another. AND, when I pressed a different button, a light went off!! There was still a long way to go, and I honestly had no idea if any of the code was correct or just functioning because of dumb luck, but it was something.

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After a brief nap, I went to class and handed off my project to my partner. Related side note, I had received a ticket to see President Obama speak, and wasn’t going to let a quiz get in the way. Luckily, the professor was excusing any student seeing the president speak and told us to return to class as soon as it was finished.

After a rousing debate on education policy (lean about the Student Aid Bill of Rights here), I skipped back to class only to find that the quiz had been canceled! It turns out I was not the only student who saw the president and, because of this, the professor couldn’t make the quota for the quiz. To make things better, my partner had been one of the only people in class which meant her and the professor spent almost the whole time fixing all of our issue! PRAISE JESUS AND OBAMA, HALLELUJAH!

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To wrap things up, this gave us the next 2 days to really hone in our design and fix any last minute coding issues. When Thursday finally arrived, we had a great functioning prototype and were pretty darn proud of it. The function was quite simple. Pressing a button turned a servo motor into 1 of 5 positions. As it turned, 1 of 5 RFID tags were read by a reader. When the reader read the tag, and image an song played on a screen. In addition, pressing a button also activated a light that went off when the button was done being pressed.

…ok, maybe that’s not simple. Frankly, I don’t know. But regardless, we were happy. We called it The Lilly Box, and let the wires and components of the circuitry act as a feature.

With that, thank you, maker community. You are all awesome. Now all I have to do is get through our final project on wearable, and maybe I can pass as moderately competent in Arduino.

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If One More Person Tells Me, “Just Make a Grid…”

It’s crunch time. As the threat of summer approaches, all efforts are being channeled towards getting the elusive summer internship. It’s one of the few ways we can gain real world experience before graduation, and critical in order to secure a permanent job after we leave the gates of Tech. The portfolio is an essential part of this process, which makes sense. How else do we show prospective employers our work? But there is just one tiny issue with this. I have no idea how to actually make a portfolio!

My creative endeavors up until this point have been in the fine arts. In fine arts, the portfolio is pretty straight forward. You write a 1 page artists statement, you write a slide page, and you put your art into portfolio sleeves. If you have sculpture, you take high quality photos of the work from multiple angles.

That’s about it.

But design? Oh no, brother. It’s not nearly this simple. There are layouts, and grids, and color schemes, and visual hierarchy, and photos, and sketches, and grids, and icons, and did I mention girds?

I began asking my peers how to make a portfolio and kept getting the same response. “Just make a grid,” they all said. Just make a grid? Ok, what does that mean? How do I make a grid? What size should it be? What are the proportions? What is a good grid? What is a bad grid? All these questions would fly through my mind, and clarification beyond, “just make a grid” was rarely provided.

So, I took matters into my own hands. This past week, I attended a portfolio review through our local IDSA chapter. I put my work into what I knew at the time, bound it, and went to the event.

Probably one of the first legitimate networking events I had been too since starting my program, I was in my element. The small talk, the exchange of business cards, the industry specific jargon, the anecdotes and lame jokes. It was networking at its finest. And although I was a little rusty, I was like a tiger who had been locked in a cocktail party-less cage for 7 months and finally released back into the wild.

As the mingling subsided, I suddenly became nervous. We had reached the part of the night where the actual reviews began. I expected the reviewers to tear my poor portfolio to shreds—to say the work was hideous, the layout belonged in the trash, and that the gird was just the most abominable thing they had ever seen in their entire lives.

To my complete and utter delight, they said no such things. They gave me critical and objective feedback. The pointed out my strengths and weaknesses and told me directions to take the work in. It was great and informative at the same time. Here are some of the main takeaways I learned:

  1. Put your work in context. This I kept hearing over and over again. CAD a hand holding your rendering. Put it in a bedroom if that’s where it belongs. Make a persona to describe who will use your object. Put logos on pretend business cards. Always give context for your designs
  2. Put in outside work. As one speaker said, “I will fight anyone to the death who says that extracurricular work will not benefit your portfolio.” Employers don’t want to see just class assignments
  3. Just because an assignment ended, doesn’t mean the design has to. This ties into the previous point. If you like a design, push it further. It shows initiative
  4. It is better to have 3-4 highly detailed projects in your portfolio than 20 overviews. Employer’s want to see how you think. They don’t want to see just the end product. Put in sketches, models, prototypes, and the final product. Also, they want to see the research behind the project, so putting a page on the backstory and research involved in the design is a good thing.
  5. Have both a print and digital portfolio. Maybe this seems obvious, but out of the 20 or so students at the event, I was one of the only students with a print portfolio. As I got to the last reviewer, he thanked me, stating that all night he had been hunched over computer screens looking at tiny images. Designers like using their hands, and that goes for touching portfolios too.
  6. Show what makes you you! My portfolio was about half design, and half fine art. I was nervous that I would get critiqued for that, but instead found the opposite. Everyone loved that fact that I had fine art work and even told me to elaborate. Many designers are not fine artists, so this is a skill that I need to accentuate. They told me elaborate on my work, include studies, and delve deeper into the research that informed my art.

So, what then, can we learn from portfolios. Well, at the end of the day, I learned that quality always out shines quantity. I learned that every portfolio will be different and that there is a no one-size-fits-all style. Do your hard work justice, and let it shine. And lastly, I learned that when the work is good, no one is going to say jack squat about your grid.

Let’s Talk About Periods…and User Experience

No, gentlemen, I am not talking about grammar. I am talking about the necessary evil and paradoxically beautiful event necessary for creating life. But before you get your undies in a bunch, and run from this page as fast as you can grunt, “Super Bowl Sunday,” let me give you a little back story. This week, I was on Facebook when one of my favorite sites for girls empowerment, A Might Girl, featured a story about Arunachalam Muruganantham. A lower-middle class Indian man, Muruganantham was shocked one day to find that his wife was continually choosing between purchasing food for their family and purchasing sanitary pads.
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Rather than purchase sanitary devices, his wife and many other women globally resort to using rags, leaves, grass, hay, and even mud to prevent embarrassment. In many parts of the world, access to basic hygiene is a luxury, and specifically with regards to female health. These alternative methods lead to a host of UTIs and vaginal infections, all which are easily preventable. To add another layer of complexity, the lack in access to hygiene devices causes girls to routinely miss school, and makes it difficult for women to hold steady jobs.

Muruganantham, like many men, was shocked by this realization. He began tinkering with a host of low cost designs and prototypes, and at one point began wearing his inventions himself (with the aid of goats blood!) because finding women to were willing to test them was so difficult. Currently, Muruganantham’s products are manufactured in over 1,300 villages and 23 Indian states, as well as employing as many as 10 women in each village. In 2014, Time Magazine named him one of The 100 Most Influential People.

I took a step back, and thought about his work through the lens of the industrial designer. User experience is an increasingly important aspect of design. If we don’t understand how our client thinks, acts and what they experience, there will always be a disconnect no matter how strong the product is. Companies like IDEO have near-perfected this model, and countless others have provided supporting material. But what do we do when the user wont engage with the development process? In the case of Muruganantham, there was a very real and critical need. He had to bring “User Experience” to a whole new level, literally putting himself in the position of the client in order to bring a viable product to market.

I was also enamored by the idea of a man with no formal education or exposure to design methods using a principle that is still being explored in the design field to a whole new height. It reminded me of a similar story published in 2013 in which in Jorge Odón, an Argentinian car mechanic, invented a life saving device for emergency births.

While part of me reads these stories and thinks, “Why am I in design school again?” the other part of me is inspired by these inventors and further affirms my belief that to be a good designer you need to have a strong understanding of the world you want to design. Being able to wade through the endless sea of design methodologies and diagrams will only get you so far. You need to actually understand the problem you are addressing. This should be common sense, right, but I seem to be finding this isn’t always the case.

With this in mind, I leave you with a quote I heard from Dan Formose of Smart Design, New York in the documentary Objectified. He stated, “What we really need to do to design is look at the extremes. The weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, or the fastest, or the strongest person. Because if we undersand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.” In the case of Muruganantham and Odón, they looked at the extreme. They saw a problem, learned about the user, and worked tirelessly to solve it. The rest, as Formose, stated, took care of itself.

What’s in a Name? That Which We Call and ENTJ

There seems to be an innately human fascination with the idea of putting ourselves into categories. From the time we are little, we take quizzes and assessment to justify our behaviors or bring clarity to problems. When we are in high school, we take career aptitude tests that are supposed to map out the rest of our professional lives. Buzzfeed is always there to tell you “What Famous Ginger is Your Secret Best Friend” or “What Beyonce Song are You?” Identity is so much of who we are, so taking 5 minutes to fill out a questionnaire that will put into words the traits we know we possess but are unable to articulate seems like a small price to pay for clarity and self actualization.

It comes as no surprise, then, that on the first day of my Professional Practice course, we were told to take personality assessments. The first was a Meyers Briggs personality assessment, and the second was a design skills assessment.

I had taken Meyers Briggs tests many times before and had always been told I was an ENTJ. I was proud of this. ENTJs were no nonsense, executive leaders. We were the bosses and the visionaries, and I enjoyed being held in the same esteem as Madeleine Albright, Bill Gates and Katherine Hepburn. But to my surprise, this quiz told me I was an ENTP. Talk about an identity crisis!

As I began to research the traits of an ENTP, however, I came to find an alarming amount of attributes which I had known to be true about myself prior to this test. For example, a common theme is the love of verbal sparring. We could debate about anything, and love to debate simply for the sake of debating. Words are our weapons, and we are constantly looking for ways to gain information in an attempts to better equip ourselves. ENTPs are also quick decision makers, processing a large amount of information in a short amount of time to make decisions based on logic and gut intuition. Because of this, many ENTPs are often politicians, comedians, and the hybrid political satirists such as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Knowing that I could now cozy up to Stephen Colbert made me rest a little easier.

What, then, does this knowledge have to do with my course work? The course is focused on contextualizing ourselves as designers in the current work force. What about our personality will be advantageous, and what will be detrimental. As positives, I was happy to know that the ENTP type validated my quick thinking, knowledge driven, and innovative approach to problem solving. All of these, as I have come to learn, will be hugely advantageous in a design setting. These same traits, however, can all contribute to the ENTPs downfall if left unchecked. Our overactive minds can be interpreted as scatter brained, our propensity to debate comes across as argumentative, and our passion for our ideas can come off as an inability to compromise or insensitivity. Just as with the positives, the negatives traits have also been common occurrences in my personal and professional life. To mitigate this, I have found it most affective to be (1) conscious of their existence and (2) constantly working to redirect these tendencies in a positive direction.

The second assessment was a self evaluation of our skills based on a list of core competencies outlined by IDSA. For each competency, we had to check if this was a strength or area for improvement. The items ranged from traditional design roles, such as “Physical model making” and “3D rendering,” to managerial roles, like “Is able to leverage networks” and “Advocates for teams’ recommendations.” With a few years of post college experience under my belt and a slew of part time jobs throughout my life, I was please with my assessment. I felt as though I possessed a large portion of the cognitive, communication, management and leadership skills. Those I selected as needing improvement I had either had a little exposure to or were familiar with the concept. Ironically, I found the highest percentage of my weaknesses lied in the creative boxes.

While I have a background in fine arts, I am quickly learning that an aptitude for oil paints is very different than being able to design a widget from start to finish. This assessment made me painfully aware of my novice level, and the skills that I still need to learn that will make me a marketable designer. Despite this, the assessment also served as a tool to push me to better these skills, and was motivating in a nagging mother sort of way.

So, what is in a name? How much weight should we give to assessments such as the above. We cannot view these results as absolute dogma and let them stifle our process, or give us license to rationalize poor decisions and continuous weakness. Yet, we also should not write them off completely, and rather respect their validity and use as a tool. So, like many things in life, we have to find the happy medium. We have to use these tools as guidelines, allowing them to add clarity to our decisions, but not let them dictate every choice we make. Because, people are not static, and we can always take actions to lessen our weaknesses and accentuate our strengths.

For a good resource on deciphering Meyers Briggs types, might I suggest 16Personalities.

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