It's all in how you look at it.
This weekend, to get out of the house and the stifling monotony that can envelop life in suburbia, the kid and I went out to run unnecessary errands. Nothing exciting. I’d purchased some shoes I ended up not needing, so we returned those and hit the local bookstore circuit. The outing was ultimately uneventful, but it did serve its purpose—it got us into a setting (the car) where we had to converse with each other, even if only on a superficial level.
During the trek from Joseph-Beth Booksellers to Half Price Books, as the Talking Heads sang Once in a Lifetime at barely audible levels from the back seat, I asked the kid a question.
“What should I blog about this week?” I asked, secretly hoping for an "I don't know—what have you been reading about?" answer.
“Space,” he responded, without hesitation. Full. Stop.
“Space?” I glanced at him skeptically for a moment, fully aware that I was piloting a vehicle at speeds of over 70 miles per hour along an unusually congested highway. The six SUVs surrounding our Mini Cooper moved in perfect time with us, as if we’d rehearsed this dance for months.
“Yep. Space.” An annoying confidence filled his seventeen-year-old voice as he stared straight ahead, a slight smirk crossing his face. (I could tell—he realized he was crawling under my skin, and that I'd made it far too easy to do so this time.)
I looked at him again. “What does space have to do with design education?!?” I asked, slightly amazed at his cheek.
“Hell if I know." He looked at me. "But you’ll figure it out.”
There was a slight hesitation before I replied. I’d intended to make some sarcastic comment about his overconfidence in my creative writing abilities. Or maybe that I should have him write it instead, just to teach him some undefined, yet playful lesson. But, at that moment, David Byrne burst out “You may ask yourself, ‘how do I work this?’” And I asked myself "how would I work this?" And at that moment, I realized… The kid was right.
Space. The Not-So-Final Frontier
I continued driving north on I-71, my kid next to me with an all-too-smug look on his face, while I ran a few different “space” ideas through my head. I could talk about actual space, with its infinite reach, as a metaphor for creativity. I could use the topic as a launching point for a "how I teach" post, writing a simple lecture on how space is used as a design element. I could discuss how the Star Trek tv series ("Space, the final frontier.…") could become an allegory for collaborative design and the design thinking process (I might actually come back to this one—stay tuned!). I might use the topic to launch an entire series on the creation of a space for more engaged learning, which would tie into conversations I'd had with Dennis Cheatham and Helen Armstrong earlier in the month (another one I plan to revisit). I could…
As I exited the highway, I realized I was getting antsy. I started bouncing my only free foot (not the one on the brake), drumming my hands on the steering wheel in anticipation of getting to a place where I could pull over and write. I needed paper. Pencil. Any means of documenting the myriad of ideas flying through my head as quickly as possible before they all disappeared. There were so many—too many—ideas. And all of them could lead to viable content.
Some had more meat than others. Some tied more directly to my newly forming obsession (read “academic research path”) of learner experience design (LX). Some would just make witty tweets. But all, on one level or another, “worked” since all, on one level or another, connected “space” to something else in a manner that sparked ideas, opened potential conversations, and set a foundation for other topics I’d struggled to start previously.
What excited me, though—what made me anxious and in desperate need of documentation materials while driving—was the realization that I was doing what all designers do.… I was staring into space, connecting different ideas, and coming up with (hopefully) unique ways of communicating these ideas. And that's what I could write my blog about.
How Do I Work This?
All designers are a little bit crazy. We observe our world, staring quietly into the chaos of it all, trying to find patterns and connections where most see empty space. Kind of like cats on catnip. But without the dilated pupils.
When we find something in that chaos, or, more often, when we find at least two somethings, we grab them, throw them in a room, and lock them there until they can learn how to play nicely. It may take awhile. There may be a noisy mess involved. But when we let them out, we release them into the world as a newly formed idea or design. And if we did everything right, that new idea or design will seem natural, obvious, and perfect.
Oh, god, if only it were that simple.
In reality, the design process really is much harder. We don't search the chaos. At least, not the chaos surrounding us. Instead, we search our experiences—everything we've ever seen, read, heard, or done—frantically looking for connections no one else has made, loosely tying together ideas that are completely unrelated in every world except our own imaginations. When we finally find something, we lock it in room after room after noisy room until we finally find a place where our inner critic* cannot be heard. (* My inner critic is a small man with thick glasses, a tacky moustache, and the foul smell of breath achieved only by smoking cheap cigarettes while drinking too much strong coffee. He likes to yell a lot, so sometimes finding that quiet room takes longer than it should.)
Once we find a quiet space in which to work, we beat our ideas into submission/ work our wizardly magic on them/ iterate and iterate and iterate again, sometimes throwing out the whole idea and starting from scratch all over again, until we’re satisfied enough that our solution will behave itself in the real world. Then, and only then (or when our clients demand to see "tangible progress"), we release our designs, hoping our social media feed won’t explode with negative comments or (worse) silence. (Yes, we have issues. We're well aware we have issues. Deal with it.)
So the process is messier than we want the world to know it is. But the point is the same. Designers make connections in a way that (hopefully) simplifies and (briefly) calms the chaos swirling around us each day. We’re the visual universal translators, helping Kirk understand just what the talking brains are really saying. We’re the nighttime navigators, recognizing that if we connect the stars, we can make pictures to help us find our way. And we’re the children of the self-conscious creatives, confident that a single word answer will spark a million ideas.
We’re the brats.
But we’re also the ones who know how to work this.