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.

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