Thursday, March 31, 2011

Honoring Big Bill

Later today I'll travel downstate join my family in honoring Basil W. Matychak Sr. aka "Big Bill" who passed away on March 21. Big Bill was my grandfather, an engineer, and a farmer who inspired the maker / DIY spirit that I have today. Here he is riding around his yard with my brother Ezra, 4 years old, following close behind. Yes, he taught a 4 year old to drive a tractor. Gotta love that man. xoxoxo

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Designers Love Their Thumbnails

This past Tuesday, my class and I went on our second field trip into the city, this time to Foodlnk's R&D facility, on Joseph Avenue. It's exciting to be collecting so much great data for the ROC2020 project. However, our ultimate task is not just to collect the data, but to communicate it in an engaging way. How do we get from here to there?

Here's what we found on Tuesday. Foodlink, as you may know, is a food bank in Rochester that provides emergency food to eleven counties in the region. But their long-term goal is to transform the regional food system so that emergency food won't be needed. This means heavy investment in R&D.

We visited their Skunk Works and talked with some impressive people about the transformative work they are doing there. Previously a bottling facility for Pepsi, it holds three social business start-ups focused on the following goals: provide healthy food for school kids; train and place Rochester citizens in green jobs; and convert food waste (of which Foodlink has an endless supply) into green fuel, compost, and animal feed.

To try to make sense of all this data, on Thursday we came back to the RIT Innovation Center and started a knowledge-sharing session, in which we wrote down every current urban innovation that we had discovered through our primary and secondary research. Then we took all of these innovations - each one written on an individual post-it - and began sorting them into an affinity diagram. Then the students each chose two innovations that resonate with them. And finally, we embarked on the task of figuring out how to communicate these innovations in an engaging way.

What may separate design processes from processes in other disciplines is that it generates hundreds of ideas each step of the way. The rationale behind this process is that if we generate hundred of ideas, then we increase the chances of finding a truly innovative one. Think of a photographer and how many pictures she takes to get that perfect shot. Or a film maker and the hundreds of hours of footage she shoots toward the end of delivering a two-hour film. The same principle applies to design. Go for quantity and select the best for further development.

This is where thumbnails come in. At the beginning of a project, designers generate hundreds of little sketches, a visual brainstorm of ideas caught on paper. Thumbnails are small, no larger than one inch by one inch. Once we have enough thumbnails, the next step is to choose a few of them for further development. If the deliverable is a poster, and in this case it is, we choose three thumbs to develop into rough comprehensives. Again, we don't choose one thumbnail that we think is the best; we choose, instead, a few options that show the most potential.

If you look at the photos above, it's not clear that these designers are loving their thumbnails as I claim in the title of this post. That's because making thumbnails is hard. "Art is Work," claims one of my favorite illustrators, Milton Glaser. He is right. It is work. But while generating thumbnails can be an exhausting task, we eventually come to love them as evidence that remarkable ideas don’t just fall into our laps, but, rather, emerge from hard work.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Roots of Design-thinking

For our first field trip for the ROC 2020 map project, my students and I met with folks from the Good Food Collective to help them sort the very last of their winter veggies. You may be wondering what the heck carrots and potatoes have to do with design-thinking. My students were probably wondering that too as they sifted through the dirty and sometimes stinky roots.

Here's what these root vegetables have to do with design-thinking: they are the product of Good Food’s vision of transforming the regional food system, acquired through a process at the heart of design-thinking called “Build to Learn.” Last fall when the Good Food Collective was struggling with the question of how to deliver regionally produced food year-round in a region, Western New York, that has a mere three-month growing season, they didn’t rely solely on other people’s data. They also didn’t rely on a business plan, and they certainly didn’t let the possibility of failure get in their way (“Fail Forward Fast“ is another process inherent to design-thinking). Instead, they made a prototype: they found a dark and cool space, played with a couple of different types of storage bins, and voila: beautiful, crisp carrots and potatoes in March. By thinking and working as designers, by building and testing their own prototypes, they learned how to get closer to their vision of transforming the food system in Western New York.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

This Map is *Definitely* Not the Territory

This quarter my design-thinking students are making a map of the city of Rochester in the year 2020. I'll try to upload a few images each week to track our progress.

Pictured above are the students working on a baseline map during their second class meeting. I gave them one hour to work on it in class and very little instruction. We'll compare this map to the one we make for the festival on May 7. I hope we will find that the map we make for the festival is a little more interesting than this one. Not that this one didn't turn out well. It has its charms, for sure.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Prepping Students for a Digital Future

This morning I caught a workshop at RIT with CMU artist & technologist Golan Levin. The workshop was centered on an open source tool called "Processing" that lets you create and manipulate objects. You can use it for creating and manipulating anything from simple shapes on a digital screen to tangible objects in the physical world. It's powerful stuff and pretty easy to learn the basics (it didn’t hurt that GL is a great teacher). I was attending this workshop along side an entire class of fashion photo students and like me, they had little to no programming experience. Some of them could see right away how Processing was relevant to their work. Others did not. And it occurred to me, right there, that these kids have to learn the basics of programming while in school. If they don't, then they will die out there in a media environment that is rapidly moving to tablets and apps. I had already known this in my mind -- that these kids have to learn this stuff. But today I felt it. Profoundly. I thought back to last June when WIRED magazine's Chris Anderson spoke at RIT's "Future of Reading" symposium. Anderson told us all about WIRED's failed web experiments and how important these failures were to shaping their approach to the iPad app. Apps aren’t tracking clicks, they are tracking our thumbs. Therefore, the content has to be dynamic. It follows that students in design, photo, marketing, and journalism need to know enough about programming to, at the very least, engage programmers in creative conversations and collaborations. And if an old broad like me can learn the basics in two hours, then there's no excuse for these kids not to. On a similar strain of thought, I've been having a conversation on Quora about the absence of 3D printing in design and business education. In this discussion the experts assure me that our students will be working in firms and businesses that look similar to the ones we're seeing today. But wow, really? I'm not so sure. As gas prices go up so do all of the costs related to our traditional methods for production and distribution. All of this change points to a significant rise in 3D printing as a method for producing and distributing goods. So it would be nice if the kids coming out of school today knew how to work with some of these technologies as these technologies are bound to be a part of their career. Of course, most professors aren't comfortable exploring budding technologies in class because they feel pressured to be the all-knowing expert at the front of the room. Perhaps what we need are more profs who are comfortable being curious and enthusiastic explorers working along side their students. But that's another post. Check out some Processing projects here Golan Levin’s work here And 3D printing explained by a ten year old here