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Slides from "Design Is Hacking How We Learn"

This past September, I spoke at AIGA Seattle's Into the Woods, a multidisciplinary retreat whose theme was "Survive and Thrive." Five speakers were asked to speak on that theme through the particular lens of their practice, on topics as varied as sustainability (Scott Boylston) to inspiration (Jeanette Abbink) to creativity (Howard Lichter) to business (Seth Johnson and Karen Kurycki). The topic I was asked to speak on was design and education.

At the event, as we participated in far-reaching conversations fueled by everyone's passion for what design could accomplish, it seemed like each night would never end. But just like a long college weekend, we would still have to drag ourselves back to class (and/or work) on Monday. And even if you haven't been to college, you know what that feels like. We've lived it, as part of our experience growing up with school.

Take this scenario. It's your third cup of coffee for the 8 AM seminar, you sit down, and the room feels like it's filled with an incandescent haze drilling holes into your cerebral cortex. The teacher is passing out a handout, you turn it over, and suddenly you realize: You've been smacked with a pop quiz!

The fog lifts as the adrenaline courses through your veins. Sure, you've watched all the lectures, jotted down the occasional notes, and maybe done some of the reading while catching up on Breaking Bad. But the information swirling in your head hasn't come into a coherent whole. Maybe this is what your professor thinks she needs the class to do to critically master the material. And if you're going to get that degree next year and stumble out into the world, this could have an impact on your GPA.

You turn over the paper and see the first question: Can design solve most of society’s biggest problems?*

"Of course! Design can change the world!" You blurt it out loud, without even thinking. Everyone in the room looks at you. Oh, this is going to be easy, you think. I’m just going to write in “Yes.” Next question.

Then, you notice the asterisk. Your eye drops to the disclaimer lurking at the bottom of the page: *Be sure to show your work.

Suddenly, this test doesn't look so easy anymore.

If you'd asked me this question two years ago, I'm not sure I would have had a good answer. It wasn’t until this point in my career, 17 years in, that I could even venture taking a shot at it. So this is the topic of this talk: answering that question. And here's the response I'm going to write on my pop quiz:

Design can solve society’s biggest problems… if we cultivate a love of learning through the design process.

So while I'd been asked to speak on the subject of design and education, my talk wasn't about educating designers. It's about how we learn. The next big disruption in lifelong learning will be by design. We are innately trained and poised to have a global impact on how other people can survive and thrive, whether they are designers or not.

The above slides are from a talk where I outlined how designers can do this better. I argue in this talk that the mode in which designers learn—with a focus on practice and reflection, supported by theory—is not limited to just designers. Taking this orientation towards learning hacks how we learn. This is an approach we can communicate to others.

I believe that anyone can adopt the range of skills that we regularly exercise, and learn about a variety of topics of value to them, without having to formally be or become a designer. This can happen not by redesigning how schools work, per se, but by looking at the design process as a form of skill development that can help people change their world. Within that process, there are simple tools we can teach others that help them to create more meaningful lives, independent of formal design work.

In the first half of the talk, I talked about what survival means through the lens of design and lifelong learning. In the second half, I shared tools I've gathered that have helped me become a more adaptive learner and designer, using the action map of the Collective Action Toolkit as a way to organize them (at the time still a work in progress).

David Sherwin is an interaction design director at frog. He has built his reputation as a design leader, interaction designer, and researcher with 17 years of experience in generating compelling solutions for systemic business problems. David is the author of Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills and Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers. You can follow David on Twitter @changeorder.