There’s a lot of energy in this country put into creating and providing technical education for underserved students towards the end of increasing the chances that these students will find careers in STEM. I care deeply about how this is handled and sit on boards of multiple organizations that address this issue for a range of students from pre k-12 programs to workforce development initiatives for adults who want to move into technical careers.
We need more diversity in the technology industry for at least two reasons:
Technology Scales Really Well. This is important because when a technology is aimed to scale good things, it scales good things. And when it’s aimed to scale bad things, it scales bad things.
More Diversity = Better Solutions. We need a diverse set of brain power with multiple perspectives to understand complex problems we face today and then invent, implement, and scale appropriate solutions.
But there are a few gaps between technical education and the diverse and inclusive workplace that we imagine. A technical education might be enough to increase diversity – that’s a measurable number like, “How many of our new hires identity as female?” But it won’t be enough to foster inclusion which is less measurable. Inclusion is the creation and ongoing improvement of systems and environments that help diverse talent succeed.
So a good technology education will get someone’s foot in the door. But that won’t be enough to help them succeed in an environment where they may be the “first, only, different” person at the firm. There are a few ways to address this and there isn’t complete agreement on the best path. However, I’ll list some ideas here on some non-technical content that a technical education might include:
History of technology, industry, and economics to paint the big picture of how technology and industry became homogenous in the first place
Role Models and success stories. It’s important to show students examples of innovators that look like they look like. Include guest speakers or news stories that highlight diverse talent. When making images for public consumption, chose images carefully.
Employee training on how to navigate work situations in which it’s hard to be seen, heard, or taken seriously because you don’t fit the status quo image of an engineer or programmer
Manager training for industry managers who don’t yet have experience managing and supporting diverse talent.
Technical Education isn’t enough. If the 21st century is going to be better and more equitable than the 2oth, we need to integrate history and social skills into the mix.
In the age of 3D printing, analog modelmaking is a bit of a lost art. But it should not be forgotten. Sometimes the smartest way to put together a model is to make something with your hands and not with a computer.
Lucky for us there are tons of resources out there including a series of videos from Industrial Designer Eric Strebel. The videos run the gamut from rendering with markers, to making 3D mockups with blue foam, to resin casting, to photo tips for product shots. Check them out here
There’s a lot of excitement about Design Thinking–a field of study made popular by Stanford University in which people learn techniques for navigating complexity; gaining empathy for users; and iterative prototyping.
Navigating complexity and gaining empathy for users are skills of the mind. The basics can be taught rather easily and with self-guided practice, they can be mastered. But prototyping is another story.
Prototyping is a skill of the senses: touch, sight, and sound with taste and smell being used less often (unless we are in the culinary arts). Prototyping is also a skill of perception: how objects and systems are perceived in time and space. However, the kind of prototyping we see in design thinking workshops consists of pipe cleaners and other fluorescent colored bits from the craft store with little regard for the senses or perception.
So how do we incorporate the more formal elements of design into design thinking workshops? Is it even possible? I have a few ideas:
COLOR. Limit the use of color. Untrained eyes can communicate clearly if they use this magical color combination: neutrals + one color. Neutrals should be used for the bulk of the design and color should be used to make the important parts “pop” or stand out.
CONSTRAINTS. Constrain the use of materials. Encouraging people to get the most impact out of the least amount of resources is a fantastic exercise. And it will give the prototype clarity.
CRITIQUE. Provide guidelines for giving and getting feedback. Prototyping is a process of continuous learning and improvement. So we can’t be presenting our work-in-progress as if in a sales pitch.
Can these skills be mastered in a weekend workshop? Of course not. But are they a good start for training ourselves to prototype with intelligence, curiosity, and elegance? I think so.
My introduction to the execution side of creativity was in my mother’s catering business that she ran out of our home kitchen when I was a kid. She called the business Gorgeous Food and thevision for the business was true to its name. The focus was on presenting fresh, seasonal ingredients in their most beautiful form. “Presentation is everything,” my mother used to say.
When prepping for a party, my mother would describe her vision, then set me up in the kitchen with the ingredients and tools I needed to execute. I kind of loved it. The openness of creativity combined with the orderliness required for assembly was a spot that I felt at home in.
It’s no surprise then, that in my adult life I LOVE watching cooking shows, especially ones that feature masters. This past weekend I watched Chef’s Table: Jordi Roca. Roca has a funny story. Standing in the shadows of his mother and older brothers, he struggled to find his voice for a long time. But he eventually found it in pastry.
My favorite part of the feature is watching the chef experiment with sugar. There are many scenes, played back in slow motion, in which Roca is spinning sugar or blowing it into glass-like forms then filling those forms with emulsions or creams. The creative process is mesmerizing. But what must be just as good, though they don’t show it, is how his team sets up for production. I’d like to see that.
I was at the local makerspace this weekend and I saw some work-in-progress hanging in the woodshop–a series of frames that played with the concept of frame. It’s a great theme. One that I explored in a piece in which I put a bunch of found objects into a fancy glass case in the lobby of a public building. The conceptual weight that frames and fancy glass cases give their contents is a fun concept to explore. Oh, how people stopped and stared at those objects!
But most of the time as artists we are more focused on the content of the frame than the frame itself. Yet, making a decision about how to frame a piece can be surprisingly challenging. For example, I have been trying to decide on whether the piece that I’m working on right now should be freestanding or hanging. I finally decided on hanging for several reasons that I won’t get into here. But one reason that was holding me back from making that decision was that I knew that that decision led to the inclusion of an overt rack or frame.
The frame influences the art. If I choose a laundry rack, that frame will give the piece a domestic feel. And within the decision of laundry rack, there are several kinds of laundry racks. If I choose a lightweight rack, I have to think about how that will affect the movement of the piece. And will that movement be welcome or distracting?
If I go with a work light or photo light rack, that kind of a rack will give the piece an industrial feel. And while I like industrial on an aesthetic level, is that really what I’m going for with this piece? Do I want the art, which is already mechanical, to be the same as the rack or do I want contrast? And if I want contrast, should that contrast be obvious or subtle? Is it something that you see right away or something that you only notice in an extended viewing?
For now, I’ve decided on a cheap, simple, lightweight laundry rack. But I won’t really know how it frames the piece until I set it up in my living room and sit with it for a while. I’m looking forward to that.
There’s a lot going on. It can feel overwhelming. On top of it all, you might have doubts or bad feelings about yourself or about things you have done in the past. It’s ok to have those feelings. It’s natural. Just try not to hold on to them even though there’s a strange comfort in their familiarity. Try not to let them take over even though some times they will. Acknowledge them and let them pass. And when they show up again, acknowledge them again and let them pass.
Life is complicated. And that extra layer of doubt only makes it more so. So peel it off when you can. And be kind to yourself. Be kind, be kind, be kind.
It may be obvious to artists and less so to inventors: you need a portfolio. 90% of the time it doesn’t have to be fancy. It just needs to say, “I made these projects and cared enough about them to document them.” Why do you need one? Because you make things. Sure, other job applicants can get away with just resumes and cover letters. But if you want to stand out as someone who makes things and who is passionate about making things, then you need a portfolio.
If thoughts like, “I need to design a website from scratch” are keeping you from making progress, I’m here to say, move on. There are plenty of ready-made platforms that make it easy to document and share your work.
Google Drive. If you’ve documented your project in a pdf or in a slide deck, you can easily upload these things to google drive and click the option “Share on the Web.” This gives you a URL that you can point people to and say, “Here is some of my work!”
Flickr or Google Photos. These platforms allow you to create albums of images. Upload images of your work and use the captions feature to describe what we are looking at!
Behance.Behance is a wonderful portfolio platform by Adobe that is used by designers. It has a nice feature that allows you to flow your behance content into a simple one page portfolio template. That’s what I use.
WordPress. You can create a simple portfolio on wordpress by choosing a photo-centric template.
Media Coverage. If you’ve been lucky enough to have your work written up and photographed by the media, even a college newspaper, download copies of that coverage for safe keeping.
There are more ways to share your work that I haven’t mentioned here. Video on youtube or vimeo is a popular way to go, especially if your work is motion based or site-specific. And if tutorials are your thing, Instructables works well.
Don’t let the options overwhelm you. If you don’t know where to start, start with the simplest option–create a google slide deck and share it to the web. Remember to include your contact information!
I love this short interview about design and inclusion with Head of Computational Design & Inclusion at Automattic, John Maeda. I like this quote especially:
Creative people are inherently inclusive because they love to learn new things. They love to be motivated, shocked, moved, be taken to a place that they aren’t used to. They’re okay being uncomfortable…with the intent of serving more people–people who aren’t like themselves.
I appreciate what he’s saying here because it’s something that I too believe about creative people. Creatives are wired toward curiosity and that often takes them to places of discomfort. But it’s not just for the sake of experiencing something new. This movement toward discomfort is an act of empathy. And it’s an understanding of a social contract that you enter as a designer: not everyone is the same and while that’s challenging for a designer to navigate, it’s also something to be celebrated.
I like this quote too. His wording and delivery are appropriately curious and playful and honest:
I’m excited that we’re all coming together as designers in tech to [ask and] understand: What is this exclusion stuff? It’s kind of icky. What is this inclusion stuff? It’s pretty hard!
Designers lean into what’s challenging about diversity and inclusion. Because it’s not only the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do.