Last week at frog we kicked off our new book club with a discussion of the Steve Jobs Biography by Walter Isaacson. The main theme of the conversation was, “I’m not Steve Jobs and you’re not Steve Jobs, so what can we learn from Steve Jobs”. We went from there and discussed Steve’s personality, his reality distortion, his uncanny ability to predict the needs of consumers, and how these aspects of his very public life have influenced the design community and frog specifically. These are some of the gems that I found in, or from, the conversation, either because they are directly applicable to my career as a designer or because they touch the part of me that is passionate about quality, genuineness and discovering passion in all areas of my life.
During course reviews with students at the Austin Center for Design, where I am a professor, our faculty saw a concerning pattern. Many of our students were inhibited, some even fearful, of actually making things. Luckily, they were seeking advice and direction on how to use their hands and actually experiment.
We teamed with MTV and the College Board to help shepherd three finalists in the Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge. Here’s what we learned in the process.
Recently, frog, MTV, the College Board, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teamed up for a program called the Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge. The goal was to get students to create an innovative technology to better understand the financial aid application process and help alleviate the financial burden of college. Three finalists were chosen, and frog helped shepherd the students through the process of refining their concepts. Today, President Bill Clinton announced the winner at his Clinton Global Initiative University. UNLV graduate Devin Valencia won with her “Connect Fund” app, which leverages a person’s Facebook profile to automatically generate relevant aid opportunities.
“The public now demands better education. It doesn't know what good education is, and it fears every particular manifestation of it, but it is so far committed that it will accept, if only for a while, a certain number of genuine reforms. When enough of these reforms have been adopted, the public will feel free to call it a day. The job, they will say, is done.”
Math Professor, Ralph A. Raimi on New Math, June 29, 1958
“In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It is how we make our living... If we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”
— President Obama, from his 2011 State of the Union address.
The world has changed, and it’s no secret the education system in America needs help keeping up. Creative problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration are essential skills for citizens of the new world economy. Yet, our focus on standardized instruction and testing doesn’t prepare our children for success. These methods infer there is one right answer, that consulting your peers is against the rules, and that learners should conform to standards rather than apply unique thinking. It’s time for a change. The ways of the past won’t propel us into the future. This is why frog was thrilled to participate in the No Right Brain Left Behind (NRBLB) challenge.
It would appear that we’ve arrived: design has emerged as the discrete discipline of problem solving and cultural change, and the designerly ability described by Nigel Cross in 1995 as “a distinct form of intelligence” is now considered with some degree of respect in disciplines such as the sciences or the liberal arts.
That’s good, as a disciplinary acceptance of design work would imply that:
- Designers could spend less time justifying what we do and why we do it, and more time actually doing it
- Designers could work alongside and with other disciplines, rather than working instead of other disciplines (or being excluded by other disciplines)
- Designers could begin to further differentiate and structure nuances of specialty, allowing for a more impactful depth of practice and a larger degree of impact
- A larger “we” could benefit from a broader view of problems and opportunities, approaching issues from a multiplicity of perspectives simultaneously
Yet these statements aren’t necessary true, and as I traveled between three significantly different groups of thinkers at three different conferences, I interpreted a few trends as an indication of some of the largest “next steps” we face in achieving the above. I’ve summarized a few of these here.
Design has been in a period of change for the last decade, but design education – and more specifically, design educators – just haven’t kept up. This is problematic and troubling for a number of reasons:
- Design students are continually learning tired and irrelevant methods and techniques
- Design graduates find themselves without either the breadth of relevance or the depth of expertise to get a job
- Students and parents generally fail to realize a “return on investment” in an increasingly expensive college education
Perhaps most fundamentally, the potential impact of thousands of well intentioned design students is not realized, as these individuals have the passion and cultural sensitivity necessary to take on large-scale social problems and gnarly business issues, but are not afforded the skills and methods necessary to appropriately engage.
“Warning: This book contains a live mind virus. Do not read further unless you are willing to be infected.” Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind, The New Science of the Meme
Many of us who studied under Richard Buchanan at Carnegie Mellon University are familiar with his four orders of design: a framework that include symbols, things, action, and thought. Our professional focus in design has generally evolved in complexity, mapping to these orders - graphic design to symbols, industrial design to things, interaction design to action. Now, we arrive at a place of designed thought, which Buchanan has mapped to system and environmental design.
I just finished kicking off the IxDA's sponsored project with Boulder Digital Works, here in Boulder, CO. The IxDA conference will be here in Boulder in February of 2011, and as part of the conference, the Interaction Design Association is sponsoring a comprehensive system and interaction design problem with BDW's incoming class of students. The students are focusing on the space between venues - from the Denver airport, to the various conference venues and to the hotels. They'll do contextual research, synthesize that into meaningful insights, develop prototypes, and build out interactive solutions. The focus of our project is on creating magic - memorable interactions that attendees bring with them long after the event is over. It's a similar challenge to that given to frog by our clients; how can we transcend "innovation" to create something that's authentic and magical? Solutions are driven by emotions - by empathizing with and leveraging the emotional qualities of the audience, making connections with memories and aspirations.
The students at BDW represent one of the most vivid shifts in educational approaches in recent years - a completely studio-focused interdisciplinary group of graphic designers, marketers, and technologists, all working to apply the process of design to complex problems with multiple touchpoints and comprehensive service delivery. BDW's program is poised to take on more established offerings, and the "old guard" of design - Pratt and RISD - can't sit back on their laurels and rest, as BDW is doing more with less, faster, and with more passion. It's David the startup, taking on the various goliaths that have become unfortunately complacent in the art and design education space. And it's one of many new programs that are cropping up that fundamentally challenge the rigidity of traditional design education approaches.
Watch BDW for their future alumni, and consider attending the IxDA conference - it's sure to be the event of the year.