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!

 

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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Growing Pains

Last May, a good friend introduced me to local designers Joyce and Meaghan at a regional design conference. For the next 2 hours we talked about our love of cats, our favorite places to eat in Atlanta, and this little side project they had started together.

What this project ended up being was Spark Corps. Its mission was simple, but lofty: help designers help the world. This little idea that was sparked how many ever years ago is now an exciting and green, little design studio in the heart of Atlanta. Spark Corps isn’t even a year old (and my time there even shorter!) but it is already full of potential. These past few months have been fraught with growing pains, missed steps, and the challenges that come with starting any new venture. But each of these has also been accompanied with little victories and marks of progress.

I think that when I started, I thought I would spend my days developing stunning visuals and falling in love with the design process all over again. Instead, I spend my days cold-calling potential clients, devising project budgets, and providing a space for Spark Corps’ organizational philosophy to grow and flourish. I spend my days as a businesswoman just as much as I do as a designer. The real crazy thing is that I sort of love it.

Ironically, for years I fled from the world of business. I grew up wanting to be an artist, or teacher, or maybe I would just travel the globe leaving all worldly possessions behind. But this desire to flee was forcing me to deny part of who I was. It was forcing me to deny my history and my heritage. My ancestors range from leading architects to pioneering pharmacists, from brew master to politician.

Big or small, my blood pulses an entrepreneurial spirit, and those who had the desire to use their minds and passions to create something. In their own way, they were designers.

So, while deliberating over emails, writing proposals, and pitching new work might not be as sexy as designing beautiful visuals, I feel like I am paying tribute to my own heritage. I’m helping build something.

They don’t look that fierce, but they’re pretty shrewd business leaders!

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.

You Know You’re a Designer When…

As my first academic year comes to a close, I am beginning to feel more and more like a legitimate designer. I’ve survived sleepless nights in the studio, competing deadlines, painful critiques, and I’ve gone through more Sharpies in nine months than I thought was humanly possible. During these nine months, I’ve also compiled a list of characteristics unique to industrial designers, and designers in general. So, without further adieu, I give you “You know your a designer when…”

You know you’re a designer when:

1. You can justify the purchase of a $110.90 hand blown coffee filter from Chemex. I mean, seriously. Its beautiful, functional, highly crafted, historical, and perfectly filters 13 cups of delicious coffee. You don’t even know.

2. Having an in depth conversation on the complexities of coffee on a regular basis is not abnormal. Coffee, right!? I don’t even know how much coffee comes up in my daily life. Just this morning, I had a 15 minute conversation about superior forms of coffee presses. This is serious stuff, wo(man).

3. You have an unhealthy obsession with certain hex numbers. Who ever knew that you could be so insanely attracted to a color. Don’t worry. I won’t judge you if you’ve ever fantasized about marrying #2f3440. When paired with #ea6045? I can’t even! Be still, my beating heart.

4. You will never be able to look at anything, ever, without critiquing it. It’s the designer’s curse. Everything from a pint glass, to a web app will be scrutinized. Even if you absolutely love it, you will find something to improve upon it. The new iPhone, yeah, its beautiful, but its not perfect. And that’s ok.

5. No pen is ever good enough. The other day, I sat down to do some sketches. 15 minutes of searching and 10 pens later I finally found one I was somewhat satisfied with. My non-designer roommate stared at me in amazement, boggled by the rigor to which my pens were critiqued.

6. You can describe the ideation phase as a dog, and its tail as prototyping. If you didn’t understand that, you are obviously not a designer.

7. “I don’t want to do this anymore” is said in regards to what you love on a daily basis. Possible iterations include “I don’t even know what I’m doing!” “Why am I even here!” “I have so much work to do,” and “This doesn’t even make any sense.” But at the end of the day, you have made something beautiful and inspiring. And if its not, well, you’ll just pretend it is.

8. Making something “portfolio worthy” is the bane of your existence. Today, a professor told me I could make my project into a portfolio piece. I almost cried.

9. You choose a 24 pack of Prismacolor markers over groceries for a week. Change the brand to Copic, and that’s at least 2 weeks. Supplies over food. The struggle. It’s real.

10. The first time you sat in an Eames lounge chair brought you close to Nirvana. I’m not going to sugar coat this. It’s fantastic…and the moment that you put you’re feet one the ottoman…well, you’ve been warned.

If you have some more, I’d love to hear them! Comment below!

Less Talking. More Doing.

I’ve spent the last week talking–talking about design, talking about manufacturing, and talking about my goals as a designer. I’ve talked with the president of IDSA, freshman design students from burgeoning design programs, and I’ve talked about my fictitious design firm to my fictitious clients/real life professors. Yet despite my love of improvisational small talk and my natural inclination towards public speaking, I am spent. I’m done talking. I want to start doing.

This past week, I ventured down to Florida for the 2015 IDSA Southern Conference. It was my first professional conference with IDSA and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I had been to plenty of conferences and networking events before, but never for design. These were my people, and I wanted to make a good impression.

For the past 9 months, my view of ID has been fairly limited to what my university has provided for me. And while I’ve ventured out on my own to the best of my abilities, I still have a very narrow view of the field. It was like I had spend the past 9 months in elementary school, and this was my first day of junior high. What if I didn’t fit in? What if the big kids stole my lunch money or stuffed me in a locker? But as I settled into the conference’s first lecture regarding the sustainability of design and the use of innovative materials, I knew instantly I was where I needed to be.

The next few days were a blur filled with insightful presentations, plenty of small talk, the exchange of business cards, and happy hours that lasted well into the evening. During this time, one consistent theme kept coming up: making. Every speaker, engaging in their own way, spoke on the importance of getting your hands dirty–of investing in local manufacturers, artisans, and resources. The talked about becoming more invested in the process after our designs left the studio, and thinking critically about our influence as designers during a product’s life cycle.

As I made the drive back to Atlanta on Saturday afternoon, I was slap happy, sleep deprived, and in dire need of my own bed. During the ride, I began really thinking about that message of making. Here I had been sitting in a beautiful conference center listening to professionals out in the field about making. I had watched undergrads present their merit work, rendering me speechless. Here I was, surrounded by makers, feeling inspired, overwhelmed, inadequate and empowered all at the same time. But here’s the thing–I wasn’t making!

What does this all mean, then? Well, I need to start doing more. Talk is cheap. I will never reach the level of those individuals I had admired so much over the past 3 days without working just as hard, if not harder, than they had. I started small, writing down excerpts and snippets overheard during the conference. It was small, but it was putting pen to paper which was a step in some direction.

In building my online portfolio, I stumbled upon my senior thesis from undergrad. In it, I put a quote from Mark Rothko stating, “if a thing’s worth doing once, it is worth doing over and over again–exploring it, probing it, demanding by this repetition that the public look at it.” As an developing designer, I couldn’t think of a better way to express my views on design at this very moment. Designers are makers, thinkers, and doers. And only from repetition and continuous self examination will we progress.

So, lets get to work.

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