Design Education Matters... A lot.

A sampling of photos from the 12 design education workshops I led in 2015.

A sampling of photos from the 12 design education workshops I led in 2015.

Two things that I am really jump-up-and-down excited about: Design. And Education.

I love design (and by extension, the creative arts) because it gives us ways to outwardly express unique ideas and perspectives that would otherwise stay trapped between the folds of gray matter of our brains. Education is a never ending source of inspiration because it provides tools to think critically about the world and lets us share our unique perspectives with others in hopes that they might learn something new. I also have an unwavering commitment to diversity that cannot be untangled from both my love of the arts and my excitement for education.

But when I stop jumping up and down, land in reality, and take a longer, harder look at eduction, the arts, and diversity, this is what I see:

Students of all shapes and sizes feel so pressured to find "the right" answer, or take the "right" path, and teachers feel so pressured to meet the "right" requirements, that the open exploration of truly diverse, creative, or unique ideas is not even a remote possibility. Arts programs are misunderstood, overlooked, and desperately underfunded in education systems that are clamoring to equip the best and brightest with an increasingly science-and-math-focused experience. Oftentimes students are so overwhelmed by the professional and societal pressure of going to the right school, doing the right things, taking the right classes so they can find the right job (preferably in tech, because, apparently, that is the right place to be) that they are mentally and emotionally incapable of looking to their own unique experience, identifying meaningful problems, and taking action towards relevant (rather than right) solutions. Despite this, we are somehow surprised that our engineering and technology organizations lack creativity and diversity of perspective. (Shocker.) Then, in order to solve the "pipeline problem," the tech industry looks to our education system for a sustainable solution. The irony of this makes me stop in my tracks, furrow my brow, roll my eyes, and mumble, "What the fuck." on the regular. 

We rarely consider that the "right" answer might be to simply ask ourselves if we are even solving the "right" problems. I am certain that our diversity problem will not be solved through a single gender approach to an engineering-focused education. I am confident that our education problems will not be solved by making a greater commitment to the right answers. And I am convinced that the best and brightest solutions will not come from the usual and expected places.

Hear this: I also do not have the answers. But. I pursue the things I am passionate about, and in 2015-16 with the help of some amazing colleagues at Twitter, I designed, led, and facilitated 12 design-education and outreach programs aimed at young women, high school students, and underserved communities who may not have access to formal design programs or technological resources.  

Each time I sat down with a group of students, my goal was to use the design process to equip them - regardless of their race, socio-economic status, ethnicity, or gender - with the confidence to believe that their ideas can play an important role in product development conversations. It was, and continues to be important to me that students focus their efforts on solving meaningful problems rather than finding right answers. 

Over the course of a year, me and a group of enthusiastic designers forged new collaborations with Girls Who Code in both SF and Boston, were mentors at women's hackathons, and helped inner-city students to design their own apps. We mentored high-schoolers and inspired them to pursue creative careers, and in collaboration with Twitter's Women in Engineering group, we worked alongside middle school girls to design and code a race-track game. We had fun.

In each case, we helped students think critically and creatively about a problem they experienced in their daily lives. Surrounded by paper, markers, art supplies and post it notes, students then worked in teams to sketch out ideas and interfaces that communicated their unique product ideas in more tangible ways. We never once touched a laptop or mobile device. (Cause let's be honest, by the time these kids start designing in professional contexts, smart phones will be a thing of the past. Why limit their expression to our primordial technology?)  The day always finished with each group sharing their work, hearing the stories that mattered most, talking about challenges and roadblocks they encountered, and giving each other feedback. 

More than anything, I know that there is a lot of possibility in paper and markers when paired with young and imaginative minds. Students of all ages and backgrounds were eager to keep using their new-found skills. Program organizers and educators wanted to know how to incorporate design into their broader curriculums. Designers were eager to talk about their career path, give feedback on classroom projects, or give advice on how to successfully pursue a creative career. Parents recognized that there was a way to encourage their child’s creativity alongside their analytical abilities. (Yes! Pick yourself up off the floor. You can actually study the arts and not end up starving in a basement or cutting off your ear.) 

I am fully convinced that as long as there are students who can look at their unique experiences with wonder and possibility, there is a direct pathway between an arts or design education and careers in technology. I have no idea where these efforts will lead, but I feel like I am just getting started. If you are a high school teacher, educator, creative program director in underserved communities, or simply have an interest in infusing STEM education with a a little more creativity and crazy please ignore all the "I'm-busy-and-wont-reply-to-your-email" lines on my contact page and reach out. I would love to find a way to hang out with you and your students. There is a lot left to learn.