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?
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.
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.