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 was one of the editors of my own high school yearbook. Back then, we laboriously developed film, hand cropped, scanned, and edited using simple software, under the direction of a big yearbook company representative. This person would pop in from time to time, just often enough to keep us from spending all of the petty cash on junk food and sneaking into offices during after-hours. Back then, the representative seemed to be an essential part of creating and publishing our yearbook.
When I signed on to advise the yearbook as a teacher, I was surprised to find out that not much had changed in that capacity. There were still only a few big companies out there competing for their chance to represent each school. For my first 2 years as adviser we worked with a representative who visited the school twice a year to make sure things were going smoothly. The yearbook was created using an online editing software that was difficult to use and had no real world application for the students learning how to use it. The yearbooks were expensive, deadlines were unreasonable, and we were paying for services that we were more than capable of producing ourselves.
When our contract was up I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. With my graphic design background, I knew it would be a manageable task to design the books in-house without requiring special yearbook specific software. I also knew how to handle printing and creating deadlines that time-managed efficiently.
I set out space in my graphic design curriculum to teach the students Adobe InDesign (which we would have covered anyway) We decided on a theme, learned about photography and a whole mess of design skills, and set out to create the book.
In the end, we achieved the following:
Less expensive book - This is huge, being that we are such a small school. We were able to get out of our yearbook debt due to not having to pay a company what we could do ourselves.
NO ADS!! - We didn't have to sell 'em. That's huge.
Same printing quality - The yearbook company tries to tell you that their printing process is better. We chose to print digitally, with the same print quality as the previous company produced (digitally printed) yearbook.
No Quantity Minimums - We purchased as many books as needed. They arrived 2 weeks after we put the order in.
More control over printing - Not only was the quality matched, but we could actually PROOF the printing quality including color.
No Deadlines! - Yes, I created my own, but I was able to get the Spring sports and Spring theatre production in there which is really important to those graduating seniors.
More Creative Control - We weren't stuck using templates, which to me, was the easiest way to navigate the editing software that the company had us use.
Applicable Skills - The students used editing software that they might actually use in the real world.
We created a great looking book with less effort, less buck, and less headache.
Why aren't more schools doing this?
I will say, through this experience...Adobe really should think about adding a photo organization option into indesign. It would be great to be able to organize which photos were used in a document. Maybe they do already? Enlighten me....
This week I was lucky to take a trip back to Providence. If you're ever feeling uninspired, just spend a few hours in this city. It is one of the most refreshingly interesting places I've spent time in. As an art teacher, the resources there are unbeatable. Every time I go, I make sure to stop at the RI Recycle for Education warehouse. This is a design instructor's dream. Barrels of raw materials waiting to be turned into a meaningful lesson.
This Fall I went to the Makers Fair in Queens with a group of coworkers to prepare for a Makerspace program being piloted in our elementary school. While the Maker movement is mainly a technological extension of the DIY moment, I was mostly inspired by the un-techy objects.
There were thousands of cool creations waiting to be turned into high school art and design lessons.
A challenge I keep coming back to in my design course is how to encourage creative solutions that the students actually get to create. Often times, the materials and facilities we offer can be limiting. I continue to work on molding the assignments to enable creative freedom along with the whole package of completing a design from concept to prototype. How do you work beyond the limitations of a school classroom to help the students "make" more?
I have been teaching art and design at the middle and high school level since 2006 and learning about both for a lot longer.