Tuesday, August 27, 2013

If I Only Had a Brain

 Ray Bolger sings "If I Only Had a Brain" in the 1939 classic movie, "Wizard of Oz".


“I could think of things I’ve never thought before and then I’d sit
  and think some more.”

Thinking is important to our development as a culture – thinking creatively is vital.

CCI – the acronym for "Cultural and Creative Industries" and the idea that new economies are about selling ideas while the old industrial production model would be selling things. America was an industrial production leader for many decades ushered in with the vision of Henry Ford. In 2013 are we being left in the dust because of our archaic notions about our educational infrastructure? It's Brawn Power vs. Brain Power.

I am thinking specifically about education. We have been slow to adopt new ideas therefore a large portion of our society has been left behind - but not in the way the "no child left behind" legislation of the Bush administration would have suggested. Our population is being left behind as other industrialized nations move from production oriented industries to Cultural and Creative Industries (CCI).

For a country to be competitive in design and creative thinking education is a vital element and yet the US is still experimenting with systems and undervaluing the field as a whole. Finland is a good case study of a country that has successfully refocused itself from being an industrial production economy to a growing CCI economy. Even though it is a smaller country than the US, without significant ethnicity and/or religious confilict it is a current example of what can be right in an educational system.

Investment in Education: Forty years ago, the Finnish government decided the path to economic recovery would involve a stronger educational system. They implemented stringent teacher-training guidelines requiring every teacher must have a fifth year master's degree and teacher training school. Consequently, their teachers are pulled from the top ten percentile of students in the country and given the same status as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. 

The status and value put upon the teaching profession not only encourages the best and brightest to become educators but also sends a message to society as a whole that thinking and training are valued. Since Finnish teachers are given autonomy in the classroom and encouraged to develop new educational thinking the education system again reinforces the idea that they are a society that values creative innovation and respects the abilities of its professionals.

In contrast, you have the American education system, which closely monitors the curriculum, teaches to the test, overvalues test taking, and is straddled with economic burdens which makes it difficult to implement new ideas. The American system currently ushers untrained teachers, fresh out of college straight into the classroom in an effort to keep the schools functioning but not necessarily flourishing. This is a corporate model for education, which is an extension of the old idea of a production-based economy. 

The production-based model measures quantitatively the effects of education upon its product (i.e. the student), rather than the development of creative thinking and successful problem solving. It is one of the contributing factors to why our younger population is at odds with the current culture. Their world is a fast moving, tech based, economy that they need flexible thinking skills to survive but instead they are being handed a group of archaic skills that are only good for following orders and producing product – the old industrial model. This style of education is producing an indefinable, widespread anxiety among young adults as they emerge into the work world.

Technology: The second element in the development of a CCI economy is technological development and wide spread access to the Internet, which in turn provides the knowledge and content to create new products. There have been several Congressional bills over the last few years that would have effectively put the control of the Internet into the hands of the service providers. Fortunately, these bills were defeated but had they been passed the United States would have set itself back several years in technological development – perhaps a move from which we might never have recovered. In a recent development and with tremendous foresight, major universities are putting their curriculum and some classes online for public access. The idea to socialize education is good for society as a whole and with regard to the development of a CCI economy, universal Internet access is the key to facilitating that. 

Once again, I look at Finland as the successful experiment – the Ministry of Education and Culture launched the “Development Programme for Business Growth and Internationalization of Creative Industries 2007-2013.” The idea that technology, education, and the creative ingenuity of their population could significantly increase the bottom line of their GNP was forward thinking and proved the right move to make.

Functional Social Structure: The third and most difficult hurdle for the US to overcome is to create a functional social structure. This idea can be examined on a micro level to gain insight as to how it impacts us as a nation on a macro level. For example: if the parents in a divorced family are antagonistic towards each other the children can suffer intellectually because they focusing upon coping with their emotional response to a fractured social structure. However, if the divorce is supportive, with open lines of communication and tolerance for differences the children can thrive intellectually and feel less need to focus their energy upon solving the emotional issues. Of course, this is simplistic but it is meant to show the importance of pulling together as a nation rather than against each other. 

Currently our social structure is deeply divided which is starkly illustrated during each national election as the population divides into red and blue states. There are religious, social, economic, and racial differences that pull us apart and cause our focus to shift from the fundamentals of pulling together. Using Finland as an example in this case is where we part company completely. Finland, and many smaller European countries, although they can have problems with religious and ethnic antagonism, have smaller populations of people to influence when shifting their country into a CCI economy. This could single-handedly be the biggest hurdle the US faces today. While adversity can often lead to startling leaps in creativity from individuals, it is when a country pulls together that you see world leadership born. In the current world economy many countries come to mind that could be potential candidates for that honor but the US is not one of the stronger contenders.

With our uneducated, reality TV based culture, we have turned our backs on our greatest export – the creative intelligence and ingenuity of our people. The promotion of a creative economy needs to become a concept that is understood by the individual American and something they are committed to with foresight and intelligence. If we understand that, the model of what we are educating ourselves for will shift from "how to build things," to "how to think of things" and we would begin to heal our social structure and legislate creativity into our government. 

These are utopian ideas but we are seeking answers. This article was inspired by one column on how charter schools are using young teachers in a transient manner to fill the leadership roles in our classrooms. This seems symptomatic of our band-aid approach to our future as a nation. This idea as well as many of our "knee-jerk" emotional short-term responses to long term issues will have the same effect that fast food had on America – it will satisfy an immediate need but ultimately it will be unhealthy for all of us.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Breaking the r / U / LE / s

 Raygun Magazine designed by David Carson

I have been thinking quite a bit about the "rules" of design and when I choose to break them. The "rules" make sense to me – following the grid – paying attention to balance with regard to scale and space. But when do I get to B-R-E-A-K the rules?

Knowing when to break the rules in design is as important as knowing the rules. One of my favorite designers is David Carson. I have reflected on the pure genius of his punk/grunge, groundbreaking design of Raygun magazine. Carson broke all the rules. 

If you have ever seen his TED talk he makes fun of the fact that his copy is often illegible and he happily claims to have a degree in sociology rather than design. He sees the world around him and interprets is differently from the rest of us and it all works. It works, because it defies your expectations. It works, because it makes your brain decipher the visual code. It works, because you remember it. It ALL works.

Carson didn't break the design rules because he was being rebellious, although there was a little of that I'm sure. He broke the rules because his design sense was telling him to. He was designing in the surf/sport industry and his audience had short attention spans and a lot of physical energy. If you think about his work it often has the sense of catching something as you pass by in a speeding car. The words would fly off the page, unfinished or difficult to read. There was a new energy to the work.

David Carson has been widely emulated by other designers, with distressed design and broken typography but when Carson did it his "rule breaking" design came from an internal place. He was having fun and using "whatever he had around the house." His xerox machine, photos from surfing trips or roadside advertising, emulating the dilapidated textures of the strange little surf towns he had visited. It was all present in his typography and photo manipulation. His design came from a personal place – that's how he knew when to break the rules, he had seen it done in real life and found the beauty in it.

I think about this and realize that if I follow the rules to a "T", I am doing what feels right for my subject and my audience. Of course my ego wants to create bone-ratteling, jaw-dropping, ground-breaking new work but if I were to pursue that as a goal I would fail miserably. So I listen to the little voice in my head and I play.

The first two issues of 3.1 Venice magazine have surprised me with regard to the final design. I thought that given my head I would, like a wild horse, run through the field, jump the fence, and stray wayyyyy out into the world of design. But I did not. Instead I went back to basics and applied restraint and discipline to my work. Balance became incredibly important. Flow. Keeping the reader engaged without tricks. My subject was the beach community of Venice, California and we are known for having one of the widest expanses of beach in Los Angeles.

Venice is a balance of congestion that ends on the edge of Pacific Ocean with expanses of blue sky, blue water, and beige sand. The magazine design reflected my internal feeling about the city. The expectation would have been to create a jumbled, crazy quilt design of graffiti art, wild color, and density but for me that is a design element, not the infrastructure of what Venice feels like. If you don't believe me just look at the large numbers of minimalist painters and architects that live here – obviously we are all picking up the same vibe.

Back to the rules – as designers we have favorite, "go-to" fonts, colors, layouts, and tricks. But what about that one new thing you have always wanted to try? When do you try it? I have one firm rule about breaking rules, if you are consciously deciding to do a design a certain way BECAUSE it breaks the rules... you have failed. If you are playing and experimenting and a happy "design accident" happens, be strong and roll with it. You just broke the rules and it didn't hurt a bit.