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Design Emergency — Live from Vivid Sydney

9:45am: A wet start to the Tuesday made the dash to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney much more rushed than was intended — designers, Billy Blue students and Object staff all struggled through the traffic, only to all be beaten by the kids from St Mary’s Public School, who had the furthest to travel but were the first to arrive.

Learning Coordinator Annette has just kicked off proceedings, and the day is underway. The location (the roof of the new MCA extension) is a pretty impressive venue. I’m typing this looking at the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House as Sydney Ferries talk in Circular Quay. Behind me, Andrew Simpson of Vert Design is catching up on the Discovery already performed by the kids from his school, Daceyville Public.

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Stay tuned to keep posted on the day as it happens. For now, we’re just pretty thrilled it all got underway on time!

10:05am: Zoe Barber, from Canvas Group, was the first to shirk the idea of tables, taking her year 8 kids from Pittwater High onto the floor, quickly followed by Liane Rossler’s St Marys students. Meanwhile, Michael Alvisse tasked his Randwick Public kids with getting two glasses exactly half full of water… Andrew Simpson has his Discovery board up — and just told the Daceyville students they were designing too early. He’s not convinced they have truly worked out what their problem is.

In advance of today, each school received a preparation pack. Normally, Design Emergencies are run over a number of days, weeks even, allowing the designers and students to work together to discover the issues before they begin to really drill down to the root cause. Over time, the designers explore with the students the various possibilities and ways they might resolve it — not just find a solution to the problem, but come up with a better, resolved design that will make sure the problem doesn’t resurface. Because we only have five hours here today, the schools all did their own Discovery before arriving, meaning the designers are playing catch up.

The next phase is Interpreting. They’re scheduled to have an hour for this before breaking for morning tea. The room is full of post-it notes and whiteboard markers. Though I’m still curious as to why Michael needed two half-full glasses of water. Stay tuned.

10:35am: I’ve run around and got an update from all the schools — they’re coming up with some great issues they want to tackle.

St Marys (working with Liane Rossler): The students are looking at safety for kids growing up in their area. They often don’t feel safe, and they want to improve that situation for themselves and for other kids in the area. One of the issues they’ve addressed is that they all have bicycles, but only one of them actually rides to school — the rest aren’t comfortable, they don’t feel safe enough. So they’re interpreting their discovery based on different categories — environment, people etc. Turns out, most of it they’re attributing to people.

Pittwater (Zoe Barber): They have a library from 1963, and it hasn’t really changed much since. Sure, there are some computer labs, but how can they make the library deliver more of what they want, make it a better space, a space they want to use more? They’re ideating all sorts of examples in the moment I sat in — digital books so it’s always available when you want it is a great one. Why not have the library on a USB stick?

Putney (Ramin Jahromi): There’s a big new development going in at Putney Hill. Already, the school is completely full — they’re working out of demountable classrooms as it is. With the new development there will be a big influx of new students, and they will all want to come to the school. How can they design a better school that has everything they all want, but also has enough room for new students?

Randwick (Michael Alvisse): The kids think their toilet block is gross — they’re even brought a diorama of sorts to demonstrate the issues. So they’re looking at what they can do to make it better, but then to keep it clean, safe and appealing. And this is where Michael’s trick with the glasses comes in. While there are bad things about the toilet block, sure, we need to make sure we don’t lose sight of the positives. It’s not only half empty, it’s half full as well.

Daceyville (Andrew Simpson): The students came to the day feeling like they didn’t have enough space in their school — there are heaps of activities they want to do, but they just don’t feel there is room. As they go through their discovery, they’re actually realising that maybe they do have enough space, they’re just not using it well enough. They need to be smarter about what they’re doing with it, so that, like the kids from Putney, they can make the most of it.

About to break for morning tea, next stop is Imagining — the most fun part!

11:20am: Morning tea has just finished, the kids are all returning to their seats. We have some external observers here over the course of the day, watching it as it unfolds. Until now, Design Emergency has existed in presentations when we talk about it, or else in classrooms when we practice it — this is the first chance many people have had a chance to witness it in action. Lisa Cahill, from the Australian Design Alliance, seemed pretty impressed, proclaiming ‘This is design thinking in action! Solving the problems and showing the grownups how it’s done.’

Meanwhile, I overheard Jess Scully, Creative Director of Vivid Ideas, talking to our Director Steve. She said ‘I came in earlier and saw my favourite designers with my favourite arts organisation, teaching kids. I almost welled up!’ Sounds like pretty good praise to me.

Bobbie, a teacher who has come in with the students from Pittwater, chatted to me for a moment, and had this to say about the process as she has seen it happen so far:

‘The best aspect of it is concentrating on gathering the data, and going out and interviewing people and getting their opinions, and asking them how they feel as well as what they think. The observations as well — like watching people in a zoo! I can see the kids reflecting on those observations. In a sense, they didn’t understand why they were gathering the data, and now in here it’s drawing the whole process together. Rather than being solution based, it’s asking something quite different.

‘The issue is very real to us, we have funding to make some changes, so they are really at the beginning of a process that we will follow through with. We’ll go back to school, do a whole lot more interviews, gather more information from the various stakeholders (teachers, parents, groups that use the library) and really follow the process through to come up with some real input for a design, rather than just paying a design firm to come up with a new design for our library, just by changing furniture. We’re now viewing the library with different functions, not only its traditional function.’

And that’s what it’s all about! Giving people the design skills to go back and implement them in their day to day lives. I have a very good feeling about today.

12:30pm: We’re well into the Imagining phase now. Randwick have taken the leap into empathy — obviously, the things that are wrong with the toilet block need to be fixed, but they’re now exploring how to keep it at its best. They’re imagining it from the point of view of the cleaners — maybe that step will help them to design a solution that will make it easier on the cleaners, which will, of course, make it a better place for everyone between the cleans.

Daceyville are looking at a couple of ideas. They’re unsure whether they should be redesigning the classroom, the physical space, or redesigning the physical furniture. So they’ve started to design some furniture (conveniently aided by industrial designer Andrew!) that might fulfill the purpose more effectively. I’ve heard the word ‘modular’ and ‘interactive’ already — this could be quite the school-furniture revolution.

Putney have set about physically constructing the various elements of the school that they think are important, or that they think could be better designed. Knowing that they can’t physically double the size of the school, they’re working on that smarter design I mentioned earlier. With the new development going in within a few hundred metres of the school, I’m sure this project is particularly timely for the students.

Pittwater are imagining what the new spaces within their library might be. Split in two, one group is devising various spaces that might occupy the space — a quick search on an iPad has come up with some very interesting sleeping cocoons that seem to have piqued everyone’s interest. The other group is trying to piece together how the library might physically look — how all of the spaces that have been devised might fit within the existing structure. The library is starting to take shape, as imagined by the students who will be using it over the next few years.

St Marys are looking at Happiness, something that seems to be a recurring design theme lately (see the interview with Alice Rawsthorn recently.) Liane explained to me that the kids, finding most of their safety concerns related to the actions of people making them feel unsafe, came around to the insight that perhaps designing a school and a community that promotes happiness will stop people from doing things that are not safe. So, maybe those people hooning around in their cars wouldn’t be doing that if there was a laser skirmish of go-kart racing facilities to keep them occupied. So they’re mapping out the community to try and come up with ways to promote better feelings of wellbeing, and therefore a safer community. What a revelation for these 10 year olds.

Lunch break now, but all of the kids are still working hard!

1:50pm: Presentation time. These forty kids have worked hard, and now it’s time to show it all off. First up is Randwick.

Randwick, remember, had the stinky toilets, that no one really looked after. They’re used their discovery and interpretation to enter into some empathetic research, coming up with their solution. Problems included locks not working, and it made them feel outraged. They want to feel clean and happy, and they want to trust the toilets. They want to feel welcome and invited. So the core problem was that they weren’t keeping the toilets clean and tidy. An idea they had was to get the cleaner to directly communicate with the students as to what they were doing, and how disgusting it actually was. They thought maybe they could create a movie or a slideshow to promote the clean bathrooms. They realised that it wasn’t simply about renovating the bathrooms, but about changing the behaviour of the students — why fix it if it’s just going to get trashed again? That colourful bit at the bottom left of the picture is a mood board of feelings they want associated with the new bathroom — looks a lot better than the toilets I remember from school.

Putney is next. They’re dealing with a major development going in just down the road, that will bring in a bunch of new children into a school they feel is already crowded. They want to improve the facilities and space in the school, and give it a safe entrance and a good community. They’re built three models. One is about the inside of the school, and includes solar power, an integrated water feature feeding into the river, a teacher’s desk raised right above the learning area — beware any teachers with a fear of heights. (Andrew Simpson just murmured next to me ‘They’re some good models.’) Another of the models looks at the outside of the classroom, which has a big shuttered roof to act as a skylight. The last model is a big play area, accessible only by flying fox or giant slide. Extreme sports in Putney. The playground goes down to the river, and they’ve added a beach. Pretty keen to explore this new school myself.

St Marys are presenting their wonderful insights into designing safety, and how they can make the community safer by making people happy. One of their insights was that someone who has a bad day might end up drinking, and the driving, which is not safe. After exploring the glass-half-empty bad things, they identified what made them happy, like spending time with friends. Things that make people feel safe are parks, familiy, their home, friends, good adults like their parents and lifeguards, candy, beaches, celebration, churches. Some of the things they identified as promoting safety were cold and harsh, like fences and spikes, but as the day progressed they realised that they had to not only make themselves feel safe, but those outside as well. Fences with spikes might make those on the other side feel uncomfortable. So they made a teacher’s VIP Lounge where they can relax and enjoy themselves, so they feel happier. They went from writing to sketching to drawing, adding colour, and the created some collages to put them into 3D. They want less concrete, activities for the children, monster trucks (of course.) A big revelation was that they all want more colour to come into the school. Liane Rossler was touched by how they progressed — coming in having looked at things that scared them, but emerging from the day full of hope and possibility.

Pittwater High is taking the stage. They’ve looked at the library, which they described as old and daggy, with old computers. In their discovery, the found that people liked the computers, but they weren’t living up to what they needed to do. They wanted more comfort, more colour, better noise control. They tested these ideas by sketching out a new floor plan, and then put it into three dimensions — that’s the hanging model that reminds me a lot of some of the models the first year UTS students came up with last year on Cockatoo Island! You enter into the middle floor, with some desks, computer and equipment rentals, bathrooms, bean bags, librarian offices, books (of course.) Bottom level is very similar, with a classroom, but this is the noisy section — the kids tend to be noisiest on arrival. They want to include iPads, so you can just wander in and move to wherever you want to be — grab a beanbag and sit! These guys are going to take their insights back to their school and keep working — I can’t wait to hear what the outcomes are.

Last is Daceyville. They want to make better classrooms for students and for teachers. Issues they had included planes flying over the school, no designated spaces for stationery and equipment, and not enough space to do activities. They already do a number of activities, but they want to be able to do even more! So how can they make a better use of their space to make a better environment at their school? They’re redesigned some furniture, including desks with better storage, a chair with a vacuum cleaner, included the garden in the classroom with some hanging pots. Their goals were to get rid of the carpet and change to wood floorboards so that when they spill paint in art class, it will be easier to clean (genius!), and they want to put wheels on the table so that they can be moved if they need to be, but they can connect them to each other to help secure them. Most of this sounds pretty doable — smarter design to make small classrooms more effective learning spaces.

Great work from all of the students! Some really impressive insights, and a truly amazing opportunity to watch Design Emergency in action. This outreach program has been in development for a while now with Learning Coordinator Annette Mauer really spearheading an inspiring education initiative. She’s wrapping up now by encouraging everyone to go home and keep the ball rolling — pitch it to your P&C, Principal, local council. But mostly, remember the process. The process is key, and can be applied to many other problems.

A huge thanks to Vivid Sydney and particularly Jess Scully at Vivid Ideas for letting us be here, to the students from Randwick Public, Daceyville Public, Putney Public, St Marys Public and Pittwater High, and our five designers Andrew Simpson, Zoe Barber, Liane Rossler, Michael Alvisse and Ramin Jahromi.

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