It's the start of a new year and students are once again filling the seats in front of me, with their own unique set of expectations, skills, and challenges. I enjoy the beginnings of things. Teaching offers a rare opportunity to start new and fresh on a consistent basis. The mistakes from the year prior only serve to improve practice and rethink philosophy. The lessons that tanked, can be reworked and the ones that hit the mark can be repeated without effort, making work-life a little simpler and sweeter.
The inclusion of design as a stand-alone course in the art department is still a decision that makes me proud. More and more I become confident that this set of skills has the power to benefit ALL students, not just the kids going into art. This year I look forward to thoroughly analyzing and assessing my design lessons because, despite a common misconception among non-educators, that's what teachers do. At the start of the course I make a habit of asking the students to write down 2 key points they learned from the day's lesson. This helps me to understand what is really sticking with them from my hour long influence. It is clear through this feedback that they learn key, fundamental points from the following "first day" project.
We start the course off with some marshmallows and toothpicks. This is not a unique project. In fact, I am certain I did some version of this myself in school. The students are asked to create a structure that is as tall as possible but also as unique looking as possible. The instruction that follows comes naturally through their discovery and challenges based on this task. We define form and function as they relate to the task at hand. The understanding of these two words carry a lot of power in my class. Once they comprehend these things, the doors of design open wide.
The students notice right away that the marshmallows don't hold as much weight as they'd like. They realize quickly that to make it as tall as it can be, doesn't leave much room for interesting aesthetics. As they're struggling with these little tools, I drive one of the most important lessons: the difference between form and function and how the process of planning and limitation of materials effects the outcome and design.
This very common but powerful exercise introduces the students to the concepts right off the bat while breaking the ice and offering some course "buy-in". A condensed version of the lesson is to the right -- hopefully it is as helpful to you as it has been for me.
1. Students will be given mini marshmallows, toothpicks, and the simple task of creating a structure that is as tall as it can be while maintaining an interesting and unique aesthetic.
2. Students are able to break into pairs, groups, or work individually.
3. The teacher will encourage the students to consider strength, balance and the overall look of the structure.
The design problem:
Students are asked to create the structure to be as tall as possible while exhibiting a unique aesthetic. They aren’t asked to just make a building, but it has to have a specific function. This is the design problem give to them.
The design process:
Students sit and think before they start to come up with a plan. As they begin their building, they consistently work around problems that arise and design solutions. I like to point this out them as they are working so that they begin to realize their own process of working and how that related to the design/engineering process.
Working with marshmallows and toothpicks is not easy. The marshmallows change shape and the toothpicks aren’t strong. Students notice this right away. A connection can be made to the availability of inexpensive materials compared to what might be the best material for the job. Discussion points about cost and availability is easily made after the students become frustrated with their structures falling down.
Form over Function
How does one affect the other? What challenges arise in the attempt to have both form and function?
Many of the projects that are created in this course are solved with dramatic, over-the-top solutions which can’t actually be created in the classroom. When a student has a perfect idea for a product design that they can’t actually make, it is frustrating for both the student and the teacher. It can be difficult to stifle a creative idea knowing that our materials will not support it.
Using the experience of the marshmallows is a great way to explain to students why an idea does not work, even though in theory it makes sense.
I just returned from a wonderful Spring Break trip to Disney World with my family. I had been to Disney a few times when I was younger, and have always held all things Disney close to my heart. I was a fan of the movies and characters as a kid. I remember watching them over and over with my little brother and knew every line by heart. I had always been surrounded by Disney fans and didn’t think that anyone could NOT be a fan until college. Before a trip down with my family when I was about 20, the Disney haters suddenly came out of the woodworks. I didn’t realize how many people were generally unhappy with the Disney Company and had no intention of ever visiting its parks. I get the whole “down with the man” thing and I too get frustrated with big business, but to me, Disney represents a company that reached its success by utilizing design, theatre, and art effectively.
Every inch of Disney's parks are carefully planned with precision to ensure a happy (or dare I say magical) experience for their visitors. It is theatrical spectacle at its pinnacle. They spare no expense to leave you in awe. From the minute you are greeted by the world’s happiest employees (are they really? Who knows, but they like their jobs enough to fake it) to the final moments you are left with; a finale of fireworks that marvels the finest you’ve seen.
If you’ve never been, it is hard to explain what Disney World is like. The two most popular parks, Magic Kingdom and Epcot are very different, but were both created with the intention of displaying the forward thinking of Walt Disney and his company. Magic Kingdom was designed to provoke the nostalgia of people of all ages. Whether you are familiar with the characters or not, the attractions inspire a piece of familiar culture. Epcot is kind of like a school field trip on a cocktail of drugs. There’s something for everyone, especially for those who appreciate design.
The parks are set up so that you can truly escape. It is like a great novel or a t.v. show that you binge watch on Netflix; it allows you to enter a different world and be a part of it for a while. The landscape of Disney is set up to create this illusion of worlds and every participant is a part of this deception. When we returned home, my 4 year old looked at a building at the airport and asked, “ is that building real?” After seeing man made creations all week, his perception of what was real was a little off-balanced. It was for me too. Even portions of the park that aren’t ready for visitor's eyes yet are designed to blend in and further the story being told.
Disney thought of everything when planning these parks. The design of the lands, rides, and attractions themselves creates a grand world within a world. Beyond that, the layout and flow of the park itself was a design feat and was created successfully. Thousands of visitors go into these parks every day. There are so many people, in every direction. Lines for rides can be long. Lines for food are long. Lines for the potty with a 4 year old are long. Yet, for some reason, time doesn’t seem to hold the same value as it does in the real world. They are true magicians in the sense that people don’t realize they have been waiting so long for a ride. There are twists and turn in the lines carefully mapped out to keep you interested and ease the frustration. Visually, there is more to look at than your senses can even take and it is all done well. Disney hires real artists, not businessmen and the form of the park is an equal partner to the function.
While on the Sea in Epcot, the ride suddenly stopped. The soundtrack that was playing to carry the story forward was replaced momentarily by the same character voice letting us know what was going on. The ride didn't skip a beat. The veil was never lifted. I didn't have to break the escape mode I was in. After a few minutes, the character came back into the soundtrack to let me know that the ride was about to continue where it left off. Every detail is part of the larger design to ensure that clients feel safe, and are having a good time.
I can't help but be impressed by the design of these parks and the interactive experiences set up for visitors. One hour there inspires countless project "problems"
• How do you inspire nostalgia in a client base from multiple generations?
• How do you manage crowd control without being overbearing to your client?
• How do you use design to tell a linear story in a physical realm such as a street (or land in Magic Kingdom )
• How do you distract your client from unavoidable instances such as remodeling, or machine breakage?
I'm pretty sure a field trip to Disney is in order. Students would surely benefit from analyzing all of the problem solving that is taking place on a daily level at these parks and within this company. I'll get started on writing for that grant.
I have been teaching art and design at the middle and high school level since 2006 and learning about both for a lot longer.