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On Record 03/01/2001
Linda Norlen
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Last summer two of my faculty colleagues, Steve Diskin and Andy Davidson, and I started an experimental studio at Art Center College of Design. We wanted it to be different from a typical class at the college, by being immersive (5 days a week), multidisciplinary, and entrepreneurial. Funded by Art Center alumnus and trustee Clement Mok, the "Mok Institute," as it came to be called, is one of many possible new models for design education, and one of several that we had considered. Part laboratory, part think tank, the Mok Institute was meant to be an experiment, a "petri dish," as one of the students described it: a yeasty mix of thinking and doing. In the following short article, I talk about why and how we started the program, and what we learned from the first semester-long studio.

Why and how we started the program ("The need to be contrarian")

My colleagues and I had been aware for some time of the many changes in the designer's working environment. We saw that there had been a shift from designing isolated objects to designing connected experiences and larger systems of communication. We realized that there had been a shift from designers working mainly as singular creators to working in multidisciplinary teams. And we noted the shift from designers working mostly as service providers to the greater possibility of their being authors and entrepreneurs.

But how do you educate students to work in an environment that is increasingly about convergence, teamwork, and entrepreneurship? We talked about what that kind of education would need to include. We wanted students to view the design field as a larger enterprise than just creating visually appealing objects. We wanted students to see design's connection to other fields and to many other aspects of the world. We thought business should be one of the connections, but certainly not the only one. We wanted to encourage young designers to think broadly and be culturally aware, in the largest sense. We thought they should be familiar with the potential audiences who might encounter their work, and, as designers, they should understand, as much as possible, where their work would likely intersect with the culture at large.

As we looked at the curriculum throughout the school, we saw many areas of strength in all the programs, but nothing that specifically addressed teaching from this larger view. To foster better thinkers who were still adept designers would most likely require a comprehensive program begun in the foundation years, with better integration between liberal arts and sciences and the studio disciplines. While the long-term solution for the college might well be to change the curriculum, piece by piece, we saw the advantage to creating a stand-alone studio that, at the very least, could become an arena in which to experiment, and at best, could serve as a model for future teaching.

The experimental workshop was constructed as an "internal internship," with students paid a small stipend comparable to what they would be paid at an internship in a design studio or corporation. Students weren't enrolled in any courses, and the workshop was separate from any academic department. However, we knew that that we were attempting to innovate not in a vacuum, but in a very particular context. We saw that we would have to confront all the assumptions, beliefs, strengths and weaknesses built into the college's current education. While many of thse qualities might be similar to those in design programs at other schools, we knew that some of them were unique to the Art Center culture, and we felt we had to work in a deliberately contrarian fashion if we were to succeed in making something new.

As anyone who has ever seen Art Center student projects knows, the work is very convincing and sophisticated for student work. While the college's dedication to formal excellence is legendary, we wanted to create a zone where that wasn't the immediate goal. We also wanted the Mok Institute to be more idea-driven and based on teamwork. This is not to say that ideas were absent or that teamwork had never been tried at Art Center. On the contrary, as a pioneer of corporate sponsored projects since the 1950s, the college had had a long history of addressing real-world problems in team-based projects, usually in the industrial design majors. A traditional Art Center sponsored project often focused on designing devices or branding them, or both in tandem, however; these projects seldom ventured into the design of larger systems or design across media. To their credit, many of the sponsored projects were meant to be "blue sky" explorations, rather than solutions aimed for the near term, but many of these projects paired disciplines along predictable lines (e.g., graphic designers collaborating with product designers); a rare studio might collaborate with business majors from another college. Few studios, if any, involved truly multidisciplinary teams.

We decided to open the first Mok Institute workshop to all the majors at the college. Students had to compete for entry by submitting a portfolio, an essay, and letters of recommendation from faculty. We had specified that to join the workshop, students had to be at least 5th term (equivalent to first semester juniors at other schools), and we decided to limit the team to twelve students. The students chosen were all well grounded in their own disciplines: graphic design, illustration, photography, film, and one each from advertising and transportation design. (Only students from fine art, environmental design, and product design were missing.)

We wanted students to use their already considerable skills to grapple with larger issues and potential design problems. Steve Diskin had given the group his own definition of entrepreneurship: designers spotting opportunities for design and having the courage to act on them. We hoped students would think beyond being directed by a teacher or a client, and learn to become the drivers of a project.v

I knew only too well from experience that narrow parameters produce the best results in design courses, and in most design courses at Art Center, faculty gave students a tightly written project brief to follow. (Though it may be commonplace at other colleges, it was rare at Art Center for students to direct the content of their projects outside of a relatively narrow range.) For the Mok Institute, though, we felt that providing such parameters could inhibit the level of independence we were trying to encourage in the students. Instead we decided to give them a broad and, admittedly, a rather cryptic theme ("the disappearance of the physical world") that we thought could be interpreted in a number of different ways. We were especially interested in the tendency of physical things to give way to the virtual. Besides the theme we also gave students a thick anthology of readings to stimulate discussion about technology, cultural issues, and the role of design. By using the theme and the readings as stimuli, the students would devise their own final project.

From the beginning, we saw that most of the group of twelve we attracted to the program were mavericks, students who had been looking for something new and different in their education. In our discussions it became clear that they had strong personal points of view; they were staunchly anti-consumerist and cynical about institutions, high culture, even art. And they were struggling with how to stay socially conscious and be good designers at the same time.

We invited a number of guest speakers to seed even more ideas into the mix. The group had lively discussions (which the students reported were very unlike discussions they had had in their regular studio design courses or even in their liberal arts courses). In the midst of this swirl of ideas and issues, we launched the first project.

The small project ("We went to Long Beach and found Cambodia")

We sent the students to study the city of Long Beach, a port city near Los Angeles with a number of interesting characteristics, as an example of a large body of information they knew little about. We picked this subject in part because it couldn't be researched by using books and web sites alone; much of the information had to be gathered by interviewing city officials and talking with business owners and residents. The students visited the city dozens of times. They observed, analyzed what they saw, and scouted for opportunities where design could make a difference. They focussed on areas they found interesting, notably the identity of Long Beach as a city. City officials wanted to focus the public on a few contrived tourist attractions, such as the Queen Mary. One of the student teams discovered that Long Beach was also home to many immigrants, among them the largest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia. They suggested an identity and signage project that would inform the public about the various ethnic districts of the city and lead visitors to interesting sites there. The students designed a version of this idea for the Cambodian community ("Little Phnom Penh"). The two other student teams came up with equally interesting ideas and solutions.

The Long Beach project could easily have become the entire semester's work. However, we wanted to spend more time researching, generating ideas, and investigating process than on extending the Long Beach project into production. Because the three small teams working on the Long Beach project had been such a success, we felt confident that the group was ready to find their own larger project to engage all twelve of them as a single team.

The big project ("The search for the big idea")

The quest for the "big idea" led to weeks of ideation, pitching, discussion and contention. Most of the group was interested in something that was risky for themselves, yet socially responsible (though a couple of vocal members rejected the notion of social responsibility). Several themes emerged. The students were interested in children and their relationship to technology. They were also interested in fostering creativity and imagination in kids. (The students shared a fear that children will lose their ability to be imaginative and creative in a world that is homogenized, packaged, branded, and marketed.) And finally, there was talk throughout the term of something mobile—a train ride, a bus trip... The group spent weeks in ideation. Every time it seemed as if the team were starting to gel and the ideas were becoming clearer, a faction of the group would rebel or reject the idea in question.

Steve, Andy, and I kept expecting that a student leader would emerge from the group, but none of the likely candidates stepped forward. Even when we intervened and assigned roles at several points in the project, the assignments often dissolved or changed almost immediately. At times the group did assert itself: one day, in particular, the students sent the faculty out of the room while they made their own decision where to go next. We considered that to be a positive act (though very unlike the typical Art Center way). However, that level of student decisiveness and cohesion was the exception rather than the rule.

Eventually, through an elaborate process of pitching ideas and voting on them, the group arrived at a compromise idea, a cross between several of the proposals. (A few students felt that the final idea was never as good as some of the individual proposals.) The four threads: children, technology, imagination, and mobility all came together in the idea of "Nocturnia," a traveling "dream theater" for eight- to ten-year-old kids. (Think of something akin to Cirque du Soleil meets Exploratorium meets Harry Potter.)

During the concept development phase, Rick Robinson (of Sapient) and Brenda Laurel (now graduate faculty at Art Center) gave the students valuable input about research. The students conducted some experiments with children of friends and college staff to test some of their ideas for the attractions within Nocturnia.

The attractions included a "dream tree," where children could record their stories; a human-puppet theater; and many other dream and story-related environments and toys, where children could interact with both the physical and the virtual.

Once the team agreed on a concept, they finally embarked on designing it. But at this stage it became evident that students from the different disciplines at Art Center had very different ways of approaching a problem, and had virtually no common language for either their process or their visual notation. Lacking a common visual vocabulary and problem-solving process, the students relied far too much on talking about their ideas rather than sketching or quick prototyping. (We as faculty had assumed far more commonality of visual language among the students.)

To complicate things further, many of the students were attempting to try things far outside their disciplines. While this was positive, in many respects, it also made the process much harder, and the results much less satisfactory. (At this stage of the project, I wished mightily for a skilled product designer or two in the group.)

On the positive side, a quiet leader did emerge from the students, with a reliable group of three or four others to help carry the project forward. And some wonderful ideas came out of the project (a fantasy tree covered in tiny ziplock bags filled with jello!). There was an interest in child/computer interfaces that used the whole body, not just tiny hand movements. Three students who called themselves the engineers of the group experimented with recording devices for the dream tree and moving prototypes of robot-like creatures, and they worked! One film student wrote a fantastic back story. The group blocked out where the attractions would go if they built some full-scale models in the studio. A team wrote an elaborate script, based on the story line, and practiced a simulated walk-through of the attractions for the visitor. There were lots and lots of ideas, tests, and experiments—too many, in fact. Finally, it became clear that there was no way to build the attraction as planned; the students had neither the time or the resources to successfully complete it. Then they scaled back their plans to be more abstract, like theater set design. But still there were major barriers to actually building it.

In the end, the group chose to communicate the entire Mok Institute experience through a a book, a series of six videos, and an installation. To help assess and analyze what we had actually done in the workshop and what we had all learned, I interviewed each student for an hour on video. The final six videos included an edited tape of highlights culled from my twelve hours of interviews, one about the Long Beach project, an animation about Nocturnia, two tapes about the research into children, and an overall presentation tape.

What we learned ("Teamwork is hard")

We really did take risks in the Mok Institute; everyone was pushed far past their comfort zone, and the process was very untidy, without the safety net of the predictably handsome Art Center products. Yet as difficult as it was, the process was revealing of many things.

Through this process, the students became very aware of the importance of design research. In their video interviews, all of them said they'd spend a lot more time in the future thinking and researching before they started the design process.

We all discovered that teamwork was much harder than we expected, even for people within the art and design disciplines, who supposedly have a great deal in common. To do this kind of multidisciplinary project again, there would need to be an intensive workshop in the first few weeks to set up a common design process and working modes. (Better yet, of course, would be to have that commonality built into their education from the first day of foundation studies.) Since too much democracy choked the decision-making process, the orientation workshop should also set up agreements about how decisions would be made.

One valuable lesson the students learned is that, as important as concept is, holding out for the ideal project idea proved to be less fruitful than making a good idea better and better by working on it. The students also learned that killing an idea is easier than nurturing one. They also saw that often a good idea died simply because the person couldn't present it well enough to the group to convince them to rally behind it.

Overall, there was not enough structure to the workshop, and the project phases of the large project were not well enough defined, and we as faculty took responsibility for that. However, had we given the students all the structure ahead of time, I'm not sure they would have learned nearly as much.

The students had intense and sustained interactions with teammates whose approaches—in concept, process, and execution—were quite different from their own. The lessons about group dynamics were probably the biggest lessons of all. As one of the students put it: "We used the process of designing a product as a way of structuring the workshop, but it was really all about the group, and it was an adventure." (—Dona)

A huge amount of learning did take place. The students all reported that the workshop had changed the way they thought about design. In the short span of the fourteen-week semester, I doubt we could have asked for more.


Linda Norlen is a writer and consultant who lives in Italy. From 1996-2000, she was the Senior Vice President for Education at Art Center College of Design (Pasadena, California). She has over twenty years of experience in graphic design and design education, first at California Institute of the Arts (Valencia, California), then at Art Center. Currently she works on communications, policy development and planning projects at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, Italy. She can be reached at

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