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.

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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!

 

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

You Know You Love Your Job When…

A few months after my 14th birthday, my dad looked at me and said, “Well, it’s about time we get you a job.” So, he opened up the paper to the classified section, looked at who was hiring a 14-year-old without a car, and, the next thing I knew, I was talking to Mr. and Mrs. Nelson who owned a local apple orchard. For the next 5 months, I stocked shelves, made caramel apples, and helped clean apples. Over the next 12 years I served beer at a local race track, catered at a ritzy events center, ran summer camp programs, and even rubbed elbows with a president.

But all of these experiences were jobs. I never felt like they were my career. I don’t regret any of my experiences, and, in fact, some of my jobs have been profoundly transformative. However, I have never “loved” my job. That is until this summer. My first summer as a design student, I am interning at a local design firm in Atlanta called Spark Corps. For the first time in a long time, I wake up each day, excited to go to work and energized even when my brain is fried. In my 12+ of paying into social security I have never felt these feelings. Could it be that I love this job?

You know you love your job when…

1. It doesn’t feel like work. You know the saying “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”? That’s sort of how I feel. I wake up each morning with a game plan and to do list I genuinely want to accomplish. The work I leave on my desk at 5pm keeps me up at night in a good way and I look forward to coming in the next morning to pursue the genius idea that came to me at 1:00am. (Also, I may or may not have willingly done work after work hours…just dont tell!)

2. The people you work with support you. Every day, I am in awe of the people I work with. I work with people who will be making silly jokes one minute and then whip out the most incredible designs and visuals you have ever seen. I work with young, energetic, and intelligent adults who are passionate about design and want to better their craft. They also recognize that I am just starting my design journey, and through that recognition have been kind and patient with me as I get over my learning curve.

3. The work you are doing is significant. My greatest fear as a designer is to wind up in front of Solid Works designing pointless widgets for Target’s Dollar Spot. I have yet to feel that this summer. My projects range from public transit initiatives to a global vaccination program. This is the kind of work that I came to grad school for, and (at the risk of sounding so basic) I feel blessed for being put in this environment. I’m reminded about a post I wrote this past winter, and love seeing how with some persistence, and luck things end up coming full circle.

4. Your superiors push you. This is another big one. I work for leadership that push me and test me. They want me to grow and become a better designer. If I fail, I take responsibility. But when I am on the ground, they are there to pick me up, talk through what happened and send me on my way with the next plan of attack. This support and accountability makes me want to be a better employee and, therefore, produce better work.

5. You are given responsibility. I am going to be completely honest. Other than my personal accounts and some dabbling at previous companies I am pretty average with social media. So when on my first day, my boss told me to start managing the social media accounts, I was a little nervous. Not wanting to let her down I started reading social media blogs, looking at strategies for collecting followers, and putzing around with the Tumblr and Square Space. Before I knew it I was a self proclaimed social media queen. And, while I do not try and pass myself as the next Mark Zuckerberg, I will say I might be better at this that I thought.

5. You have a voice. This may be the most important one for me. If I have an idea, I feel free to express it. If I take initiative and follow a lead not suggested by my boss, chances are good that initiative will be rewarded. If things go south, then we chalk it up to experience. This doesn’t mean that I am allowed to run my mouth. It simply means that I am in an environment in which my intellect is valued and I was not hired to merely produce and churn out other people’s designs.

6. There is lots of free food. Ok, so maybe this isn’t a deal breaker, but I am under the belief that there is a direct correlation between a healthy work place and copious amounts of free food. I know that correlation does not equal causation, but I’m just saying.

I am sure there are things I am leaving out, and I am sure that I will not love my job every day. That being said, I am thankful for this opportunity and excited to see where the summer leads. With that in mind, I ask that you invest in something that you love. Maybe its not your job, but I believe that everyone should have something to get them excited about the day. It’s a big world. Go find your passion.

Sitting in My Box

I’ve always had a fascination with children’s books. Every time I go to a bookstore, the first place I go after the arts section is the children’s section. Because of this, to my delight and detriment, I have amassed a healthy library of children’s books. A good children’s book is timeless, and has the ability to use whimsy and joy to discuss the harder topics in life. They don’t feel contrived and their subtlety is often too nuanced for its intended audience.

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I was recently in my head, when my mind wandered to the book, “Sitting in My Box” written by Dee Lillegard and first published in 1989. Growing up, this was one of my favorite stories. In this story, a boy sits happily in his box reading a story about wild animals. One by one, he is interrupted from his story by a series of pushy creatures who “ask” to sit in his box, but really just force their way in. By the end, he has no place to sit. When a small flee jumps in, unannounced, the flee begins biting all of the animals, promptly emptying the box. Once again, the boy is alone and able to read his story.

Now, what does this story have to do with design? Well, a lot, actually. Almost 26 years later, I think I understand what this book is trying to say. Granted, this is sort of a leap, but just go with me, here.

We go into a design project with a clear objective. We have a plan. We have a design brief. We have a task list. One by one, however, we become side tracked, demanded of, burdened with the requests and wants of others. We are “asked” to help someone with a favor, to just do one more rewrite of a paper, to dig just a little deeper into that concept you don’t want to dive into. Before we know it, we are surrounded by the unfamiliar, and our original objective is lost in the white noise of everyone else’s needs.

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Trying to make room for those around us, we have given up our seat at the table. We are no longer able to perform the task we set out to do.

Now, I am not saying that we shouldn’t offer our services and skills to others. I will always praise the importance of service. What I am saying, however, is that we need to recognize when we are being valued versus when we are being over taxed and taken advantage of. We have skills, and those skills have a value assigned to them.

The flea? Well, the flea is our recognition of this value. When we are able to advocate for ourselves as designers and professionals, we can objectively evaluate the tasks in our lives and cut out the clutter. Sometimes, the flea is a smack over the head. Other times, it builds gradually, slowly revealing itself.

That being said, I’m still looking for my flea. This past week has been a slew of conflicting demands—personal, professional and academic. One thing pulls me north, while the other pulls me south. My box is full and I don’t know where I put my book. I need the flea to jump in put everything in perspective for me.

That being said, I’ll let you know when I do.

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.

Ellen DeGeneres: ID’s Secret Weapon

When I told my family I wanted to become an industrial designer, I had a reaction that I assume was similar to many aspiring designers. My parents starred at me with a look of love and confusion, and asked, “honey, what is industrial design?” This was followed by a, “but, can you get a job as a designer?” and “why don’t you just become an engineer?” I know they meant well, and that these questions came from a place of love and concern, but the frustration was still there.

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What it feels like trying to explain what ID is to my friends and family

My parents were not alone. Extended family, friends, and even strangers on the bus would ask me, “what is industrial design?” I used a variety of methods. I explained to them that ID was making iPhones, cars, and vegetable peelers. I explained that it could be as diverse as designing apps, pacemakers, or trade show displays. I explained to them that ID was what would happen if engineering and art made a baby. And, when all else failed, I just said that it was, “like getting a degree in Ikea.”

“Oh! I get it, now,” was the usual response.

Of course, I have come to learn that industrial design is not easily defined. Depending on whom you ask, you can get wildly varying answers. But for the sake of clarity, I have become OK with letting people think that ID can be defined as making iPhones and modular furniture. So imagine my surprise when one day my mom says, “Allie, Ellen is doing an industrial design show! Are you all watching it? I get what you’re doing, now!” (Ellen, being America’s sweetheart Ellen DeGeneres, and “you all” being my classmates).

“Mom, what do you mean ‘Ellen is doing an ID show’?” She went on to tell me that Ellen had paired with HGTV to air a reality show where furniture designers would compete for a prize and the title of “America’s Best Furniture Designer.” It was aptly named “Ellen’s Design Challenge.”

Was Ellen the missing link? While I knew that a reality show was not the ultimate indication of success as a furniture designer, nor was it a holistic view of industrial design, it did bring up an interesting thought. Was design becoming popular enough where TV executives considered it legitimate programming? And what did it mean that a mainstream celebrity was now a barometer for critiquing a discipline once reserved for high-end Manhattan firms, and gallery directors? In one fell swoop, Ellen had made a convoluted industry digestible to a wide audience of hobbyists and housewives.

As I watched the show’s judges critique the contestants’ pieces in the opening episode, I let these questions linger. All esteemed panelists in their own right, their critiques were insightful and informed, and they used language similar to my own peers and professors. It didn’t feel overly contrived nor dumbed down, which I appreciated.

So, kudos to you Ellen! While I don’t see a reality show in UX happening anytime soon, I do appreciate the step towards bringing the world of design to the masses.

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Now, all we need to do is to get Beyoncé in on ID!