George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

A Design in Your Mind: Designers and Teachers Join Forces

A design institute summer program.

October 18, 2006
Credit: Peter Hoey

The Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a four-story, sixty-four-room mansion on the corner of 5th Avenue and 91st Street in Manhattan, exudes an air of Old World elegance.

But there's more to this Georgian-style palazzo than initially meets the eye. Just down a stairway to the bottom floor you'll find sleek, floor-to-ceiling glass doors that signal a thoroughly modern world inside. This is the entrance to the museum's new Target National Design Education Center, consisting of a one-hundred-seat lecture room, a design studio, and a resource library.

This modern center will serve as command central for the Summer Design Institute (SDI), a program held July 17-21 that brings together a cadre of well-known designers and twenty K-12 educators from across the country to discuss and study ways to teach the varied and complex -- and pervasive -- subject of design. In the past, the lineup of experts at the course has ranged from educators from MIT's Media Lab, the Rhode Island School of Design, and New York City's Parsons the New School of Design to product designers from Nike, Ikea, and Target. Landscape architects, interior designers, and graphic designers have lent their expertise to the SDI, and this summer's schedule of speakers and advisers promises more of the same.

"Design is an intrinsic skill," says Anna Slafer, a past speaker at the SDI and director of exhibitions and programs at the International Spy Museum, in Washington, DC. "We're the designing animal, yet it's totally ignored in our education system. Design impacts everything -- the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the natural resources we use for products. We're trying to raise kids into adults who make informed choices about their world. They can't do that if we don't inform them about design."

The SDI summer course aims to change that, as former attendees can attest. "For me, the program was a totally life-changing experience," says Carolyne Kellner, an elementary school art teacher who works at three inner city schools in Providence, Rhode Island. Last summer, Kellner came to the SDI expecting to learn how to improve her teaching of traditional elements of design, but she left with much more. "Design is so much bigger than the lines of a teacup or a chair," she adds. "I learned that for anything to be good, it had to be well designed -- I mean, beyond art. The SDI really drove that home."

After listening to the SDI's provocative speakers, Kellner says, she returned to her classrooms "motivated and inspired" and had what she describes as her "best year ever" teaching. She began instilling in her students the ability to look at the world from a designer's point of view, including teaching a lesson on evaluating good and bad graffiti. Though many people may think there's only one kind of graffiti, certain questions can be asked about it that apply to all graphic design: Is it legible? Does it have balance or composition? Does it communicate with the viewer? Critiquing graffiti, says Kellner, simply employs a kind of design present in her students' neighborhoods.

In addition to new design-oriented lessons, Kellner redesigned her classrooms to give kids more of a sense of "ownership of their space," as she puts it, and created a "chill-out zone" with plush pillows that enhances the aspect of play and openness, other qualities she says the SDI emphasized as a crucial element of innovative design.

Credit: Cooper-Hewitt
Hierographics: Teacher-students at the 2005 Cooper-Hewitt Summer Design Institute in New York put new ideas to work.

Against Perfection

Teachers at the Cooper-Hewitt course are encouraged to emphasize fluid thinking. Says John Maeda, a professor at the MIT Media Lab who serves on the SDI's education committee, "Design is optimism, meaning there's no single right answer." He explains that seeking one answer, or perfection, makes a person pessimistic and "grumpy" and cramps innovation, especially in young minds. "Too often, as a child, you're told over and over again what's right and wrong," he says. "Design is about unstructured structure. It's the open process to the open-ended question."

Though design experts who participate in the SDI are at the top of their respective fields, their approach to design resonates with the down-to-earth attitude of Cooper-Hewitt's educational staff, whose operative word is accessibility.

"Even people who might have a problem analyzing a painting on a museum wall are able to tell you what chair looks comfortable and what chair will hold someone and why it needs to work," explains Caroline Payson, director of education at Cooper-Hewitt. "Everyone has been exposed to design, and everyone is a great judge of bad design."

Follow-Up, by Design

Now entering its twelfth year, the SDI introduces two new aspects this summer: not only an actual home of its own but an enhanced virtual one as well, which offers new possibilities for the program to reach teachers around the country. Thanks to upcoming Educational Resource Center content on the SDI's Web site, to be unveiled October 15 as part of National Design Week, educators nationwide can soon tap into what took place at the SDI through video streaming of keynote speakers and workshops.

The online community will also be able to follow SDI teacher participants as they and their advisers document their progress and post it on the site throughout the year. In addition, the site will include an interactive component in which fellow teachers swap ideas, tips, and feedback, as well as offer a network of educators and, most importantly, lesson plans tied to standards.

"Our ultimate goal is to create content that is accessible to teachers from across the nation," Payson says. "We can best do that by making sure that we align our content to national standards and make it available through the Web site in ways that are effective and easy to use."

As Payson and others at Cooper-Hewitt see it, design is much more accessible than people often assume it is. Learning the process of design, which builds lifelong skills -- how to observe, analyze, problem solve, collaborate, define, and refine ideas -- enriches any student's life, whatever his or her primary interests. Cooper-Hewitt's staff especially hopes this message gets through to children and enables them to see their world through a designer's eye. When this happens, Monica Hampton, school-programs manager in Cooper-Hewitt's education department, is convinced that kids will experience life on a deeper level.

"That may sound grandiose," Hampton says, "but when you ask kids where something comes from, or how it came to be, they have no idea. If we can get students to understand that the clothes they wear, the chairs they sit on, the buildings they're in, are all designed by somebody, they'll become more informed citizens with an active voice in shaping their communities.

Evantheia Schibsted is a contributing writer to Edutopia.

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