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Nanowrimo: Day 7

November 9, 2014

lisa hammershaimb

Have a mentor. Be a mentor. Party.

Over the course of the past three weeks, I have been engaged in another massive undertaking (depending on who you happen to ask at any given time) somewhat tied into my 803 course, somewhat tied into my own personal interest, and unequivocally tied into my day-to-day job as a program dean. The initiative is called (again, depending on who you ask or even when you happen to ask me….I know, total negative points on the whole branding consistency thing and I am even a practicing designer who generally is the one who is hyper conscious of all these inappropriate naming vagaries!!)  “Mentor Challenge,” “Mentor Mod,” or the much more pedestrian “Design Club for Mod 11.”

No matter what you call it, the basic idea is that for the last three weeks (and for one more…total of four) students in my own undergrad graphic design program who opt in have been paired with either a professional designer as a mentor or a student a bit further along in the program and together they navigate through a design-thinking IDEO-inspired challenge. The challenge is very real-world for them in general and me in particular and involves them investigating the question: How can we help students, after a few months into the in online graphic design program, feel less overwhelmed with their courses and less disconnected with the online course experience?

Each week students and mentors are tasked with exploring this question by using a different phase of the Design Thinking or Human Centered Design Process made popular a little while back by the industrial design and innovation firm, IDEO. The idea is that by engaging in this endeavor, students will not only get a sweet experience with a design professional but also get exposed to some much higher level thinking/problem solving skills. Unlike the usual school projects, for Mentor Mod students will not be creating a “thing” or physical artifact rather they will try their hand at the back story thinking/researching/brainstorming that often is truly responsible for changing things from a much more systems level place.

Because all of our school projects are very project/artifact focused, students get quite good at churning out stuff as a student–revising and updating as needed with the input of their instructor. That said, because there is little attention paid to the actual nuts and bolts and “whys” of the design process, students really struggle with the deeper meaning behind what they’re doing. Sure they can pair typefaces like a boss upon graduation and recite for memory the color wheel and even dazzle you with their Photoshop skills but actually slow down a student in the midst of drop shadows and paragraph styles and say, “Cool….but remind me again….why are you doing all this in the first place???” and there’s a good chance you will be met with a blank stare.

This is not meant to be a criticism of our school and especially not meant to be a criticism of our students. When I was a design student I first encountered these questions when I was late in my MFA program….literally years beyond anything that even resembled undergrad work. In addition, almost a year into my position and a year plus into my doctoral studies I’ve learned in so many ways that students tend to, by and large, do and also excel at whatever you as the administer task them with.

The criticism, in this case, points squarely back to the curriculum itself and myself as the program dean, who is indeed holding the reigns of the whole system. We have not taught students to be good with the whys of design because it is abstract and it is a bit messy and it really does not have an answer that can be graded via rubric. Plus, as a school very strictly held to accreditation and job skills training, it seems making stuff has trumped being thoughtful about making stuff.  But no longer! We are now raising our fists and saying “We can’t stand this any longer….design thinking will be taught no matter what!!”

Actually, who am I kidding? I don’t want to battle the DOE, I need a job to keep clothes on my yorkie and whiskey in my rocks glass, and honestly I have asked enough whys of my own that have made me think that maybe a solid skill set and a mind that doesn’t immediately ask why is not a totally bad way to start in the design profession which is, for all its glitz and glamor, ultimately a service industry. So…the only place my revolutionary fist is, is firmly grasping my pint glass as I write these 1500 words of Nanowrimo brilliance.

To provide a somewhat safe guard against any revolutionary uprisings and because it is just easier all around, this whole mentor challenge is happening on an opt-in basis sponsored by our extracurricular design club. If students want to do it…they’re more than welcome however it is on their own time and will have no impact on their grades. They say yes, they join in, and my hope is that what we are learning may be good fodder for eventual changes to the design curriculum itself but…between now and then I am not holding my breadth.

So….you’re probably wondering quite legitimately, how this all works and what specifically we’re doing. So glad you asked!

The basic steps of the IDEO design thinking process are:
1. Discovery
2. Interpretation
3. Ideation
4. Evaluation
5. Evolution

The first week students were paired and they and their mentors just met causally via email talking about their school experiences, sharing their back story, and generally doing all the phatic stuff that is not super consequential except when you do not do it and then realize you have no sense of safety with the other person. The second week, we focused on the first two steps of the process, Discovery and Interpretation.

In the discovery phase you want to move from naming the issue that you are looking at to really knowing the issue that you are looking at. In this way, you probe the question, engage in interviews with the primary stakeholders, try to see the issue in a holistic rather than polar manner, and just generally act like a thirsty sponge.

Because we already have a robust community created on our Facebook Pages (woohoo! go networked identity!) I tasked students with beginning by posting the following question to their peers first on the FB page and then to whomever they happened to be in contact with:

What causes you the most stress about being in school? Or What tends to make you feel overwhelmed in school?

It was my hope that everyone would begin spouting off ideas about bad things that have happened to them, things they hate, etc. In reality, my stellar students posted the question and it was a bit of a cricket effect as a couple of people got a few half-hearted things but not so much the floodgates of complain fest I was hoping for. That said, there did end up being enough chatter after a while to make things meaningful and students did end up reaching out to wider networks so that after a week we had a pretty decent pool of ideas. These were all placed in a shared Google Spreadsheet and students moved on to the second step, Interpretation.

In interpretation the main idea is to first empty your mind and next really be open to whatever the facts are actually saying to you. This step is a bit like phenomenology in that you are looking to interact with ideas that are as non personally bias as possible. In this step, students and their mentors together review the listing of reason going down about the overwhelming feelings of school and try to hopefully tease out three or four recurring themes. I know I have a few that I am guessing will come up but like a good empathetic thinker, I am trying not to be too vocal about those before the data is processed.

The third step is ideation. This is also when we’re most likely going to end Mentor Challenge because after ideation you have to move into a more artifact-focused thrust with implementation and evolution and things might get a little too complicated for right now. The main idea with ideation is that students brainstorm possible amazing solutions to the challenge presented. The beautiful thing is that these are blue sky, wide open, anything goes type storms. Because it’s still early in the process you don’t have to limit yourself with the mundane questions of budget or feasibility rather the idea is all that truly matters. My hope is that after a couple of weeks together the students and mentors will feel comfortable enough together to share some big and crazy stuff even if it feels a bit preposterous because at the end of the day, you never really know what idea will lead you through into the perfect ending.

So…that’s where Design Club stands for now. We shall see what happens over the course of the next few days. Hopefully good and collaborative things! And if not….totally good experiential learning!

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