What I really did over summer break

Don’t be fooled. I’m putting together a highlights post with wonderful adventures in and around Pasadena/LA of this past summer. But mostly what I did was hang around in Mike’s little room, think about what I would cook for lunch and dinner, snack all day, and read. I was lucky that the South Pasadena and the Pasadena public libraries were so friendly, close, and well-stocked with both novels and graphic novels.

most of what I read this summer

We found a great comics shop in Pasadena called Comics Factory. The guys there were awesome and super-friendly, super-helpful.

I feel like I read more non-fiction and fiction books than that. If I remember what they were, I’ll add ’em. I just updated GoodReads with brief reviews of most of the above.

I’ll be reading a lot of design theory and such the next few months, so hopefully I can find time to keep reading for pure pleasure as well. Keeps me sane.

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Words

Lovely. As many things should, it starts with “play.”

This video was made as an accompaniment RadioLab’s show about WORDS. (Have I mentioned lately how much I lovelovelove RadioLab? It’s wonderful, full of wonder.) My mind was blown a few times during the course of this episode: that our ability to connect words like “blue wall” and “left” helps us orient ourselves; that as a language is born and grows, the level of thought available to that community expands; the use of toddler’s voices in the part about toddlers learning language is simple yet powerful; if you lose words/language/story of self, you also lose the separation of self from everything else around you; the idea that language shapes thought, not the other way around.

Of course the idea is fascinating to me in terms of how people who speak different languages think of life differently: how language affects their sense of time (how precise your tense), space (cardinal directions used for all locations in Guugu Yimithirr), relation (Chinese has dozens of terms for aunt, English: one)…without realizing it because it’s ingrained in the way you grew up around this one language. A New York Times article expands on these notions of mother tongue affecting worldviews:

Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

Or what about this!

And it turns out that the colors that our language routinely obliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to certain color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language. As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.

Thinking about language affecting thinking is also applicable to my Austin Center for Design studies because part of my goal is to learn how to articulate and talk about the ideas and processes surrounding design for social impact. If we have better language to discuss these issues, that can expand our ways of thinking about and conceiving of design in these new terms.

I will gladly say it again. RadioLab is awesome. Listen and support it!

Project H Design

I’m starting a one-year certification program with the Austin Center for Design in “interaction design and social entrepreneurship.” In other words, using design thinking to tackle social issues. People still want to know what that means and what we’ll be doing. It’s a hard concept to explain since in many ways it’s not been done before. People ask for examples, and one of the best ones I can think of is Project H.

Emily Pilloton is a big name in design for social impact. Her background is in architecture and industrial design, and she could have easily followed the corporate track of her colleagues making useful and beautiful things; she started Project H Design because she felt design can have an impact and change the world…if the design industry changed as well.

Pilloton’s 15-minute talk at Cusp Conference 2009 does an excellent job explaining why she created Project H and highlighting some of their projects (Hippo Roller in South Africa, Abject Object in LA, Empowerment through Food in NY, Learning Landscape in Uganda/North Carolina/Dominican Republic).

Emily Pilloton talks about Project H at Cusp Conference 2009

Project H’s core tenets:

  1. There is no design without (critical) action.
  2. We work WITH, not FOR.
  3. We start locally, and scale globally.
  4. We create systems, not stuff.
  5. We measure, document, and share.

This year, she and architect Matthew Miller are also starting Studio H:

“a public high school ‘design/build’ curriculum that sparks rural community development through real-world, creative projects. By learning through a design sensibility, applied core subjects, and ‘dirt-under-your-fingernails’ construction skills, students develop the creative capital, critical thinking, and citizenship necessary for their own success and for the future of their communities.”

I myself got involved in the education field last year and started the process of becoming a classroom teacher because I was frustrated with the lack of impact I could have on social issues as a graphic designer. I know education is at the core of change and ensuring our children get good educations starts a ripple effect of positive change throughout the future. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I wanted to make my impact on the world through the change my students would eventually make in their lifetimes. I wanted them to gain the critical thinking skills necessary to succeed in whatever endeavors they wished to pursue in the future.

I stopped pursuing traditional teacher certification partly because I could see the frustrations I would face working within the current bureaucratic, political system…that would probably negate any good I might do in a single classroom. Besides my teacher-ed program not “walking their talk” (you cannot have us read Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and then expect us to sit quietly and mindlessly through bulleted Powerpoints for the rest of the semester), I realized that there were larger issues about the structures of the education system that needed to change, or re-thought and re-designed.

It’s powerful to imagine teaching design in K-12 schools as a means to empower students with critical thinking skills—and to entrust them with real projects that have immediate impact on their immediate communities. The kind of education model Studio H is putting into practice pushes the idea of what schools can be and what learning can be—an evolution (revolution?) that is sorely needed in the education world. More info can be found at Studio H’s site, or in this New York Times article about the project.

(Other examples are Stanford Institute of Design’s K-12 Lab and UpLift Austin and a Designers Accord initiative called School: by Design that asks high schoolers to work with local designers to “redesign your school”.)

Last year, when I “quit” design to move into the field of education, I had no no no clue that it might come full circle, and that there might be opportunity to merge the two passions. They are still virtually two different worlds with their own languages, rules, and customs. I don’t know where this will all lead in my future, but the groundwork is certainly being laid.

Emily Pilloton is inspiring because she is one person who made this work and shares many of the same passions for design and social change as me and my Austin Center for Design teachers & classmates. She mobilized a network of committed designers who were willing to volunteer their time and energy to their communities and the aforementioned design projects.

I think one of the big things that Austin Center for Design adds into the mix is a parallel focus on entrepreneurship and economic sustainability for the projects we’ll be working on. Those of us at AC4D don’t believe that “do good” and “make money” have to be separate paths.

Much of what we’ll be doing this next year through AC4D will be transparent and public, so it’ll be easy to follow along. I’m jazzed!

Rosie the Riveter

Riveting
Working

In my head, bygone eras are black and white because that’s how I’ve seen those images in movies and in photographs. People lived in black and white. Color didn’t exist. Of course it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how my brain works. It’s intriguing to try and push colors back into my iconic imaginings of times past.

Denver Post photo essay: rare color slides from 1939-1943.

(p.s. not liking that they added a “like” feature to wordpress blogs. sigh.)

Dance

Hypnotic
Guys and Dolls “Crapshooters’ Dance” aka “Luck Be a Lady” lead-in

Heartbreaking (especially in context)
All That Jazz “Jagger & Gideon!” aka “Everything Old is New Again”

Happy
Royal Wedding “Ceiling Dance”

Hopeful
Singing in the Rain “Good Morning”

Hot (NSFW)
(heartbreaking in context)
Bob Fosse pushes buttons in All That Jazz “Take Off With Us”