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It wasn’t your conventional classroom. We sat huddled together around a couple of steel tables within the Prudential Mall food court. Commercialism cradled us with neon signs for pizza, Chinese and New England clam chowder. Branded napkins littered the floor and food peddlers summoned us to sample goodies. Unorthodox as it was, it proved to be the perfect setting for our learning exercise.

A few weeks prior to that August day, my firm had been contacted with an opportunity to participate in Youth Design Boston 2006. The collaborative initiative between AIGA Boston and the City of Boston provides inner-city high-school students with design mentorships by offering paying summer jobs within various design disciplines such as graphic, industrial and architectural design. This particular year four talented city teens—Carlos Cardoso, Michael Chew, Alec Mauré and Ifeoma Onuorah—were chosen for the prestigious internships at some of the city’s best firms. Once a week other studios and freelance designers provided different views on design by taking the aspiring designers on field trips. We were among the handful of firms asked to volunteer. While we felt honored to be asked, I wondered whether these city kids would really have an interest in what we’d have to share.

When planning our excursion, my creative director and firm principal Paul Tepperman, our summer intern Bryn Tattan and I decided we didn’t want to lecture the kids. We didn’t want a show-and-tell session either. We wanted to interact to hear their thoughts. So we devised a scavenger hunt. We armed the kids with cameras and a list of adjectives: conservative, playful, sophisticated, urban, et cetera and asked them to troll the nearby streets or mall and meet back at the food court 30 minutes later with photos of logos fitting the descriptions. But the assignment was more complicated than a simple click of the shutter. The teens had to explain why they thought the found logo was conservative or playful, sophisticated or pedestrian.

Surprisingly, they returned with a bounty of examples. Chew identified the Newbury Comics logo as playful, while Mauré thought the “feet” or serif on the Talbot’s logo made it look more conservative. In an almost lawyerly fashion, they made their cases showing us how in touch they really are with the work we do everyday.

“I was really impressed with the kids,” said Tepperman. “They seemed a lot more aware of the world around them than I would have been in high school.”

I admit, I too was blown away. And I continue to marvel at their comprehension of design as a profession, nevermind how a logo communicates a certain message. I had no idea the design field existed at their age. But then again, I never had the degree of exposure these kids have to design.

“We’re hit in the face every day with design,” said Mauré. “It has a larger effect on us and we’re more conscious of it.”

It’s truth from the mouths of babes. Design is everywhere as evidenced simply by picking up the Sbarro fountain soda cup I drank while chatting with the kids. MTV, iPods, sports paraphernalia, video games and even text messaging are major components of teen culture.

Young adults “are major and sophisticated consumers of design...[who]...influence design trends. [Kids] are much more in tune, than in years’ past to the role that design plays in creating status,” agreed Paul Sproll, department head of Art and Design Education at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and a recognized national leader in the youth design education movement.

This growing teen power, among other things, has increased attention on kids and design. Consequently, design education and mentorship programs have germinated all around the country. They take different forms: some are privately-run mentorship programs, some are run by art institutions and others are publicly-funded school initiatives. But all share the goal of outreach and design education for kids.

It seems, however, that despite the constant exposure kids have to design, many remain unconvinced of the value of youth design education programs. With dollars at a premium, opponents contend that the funds for these different programs might be better spent teaching traditional reading or arithmetic, or perhaps providing nutritional programs or other support. I recently argued this point with a respected friend. He would prefer his kids learn “traditional curriculum.” Learning design was taking away from the basics. I haven’t taken a poll, but I’ll bet he’s not alone in his views.

Predictably, my fellow designers, design educators and I disagreed with this point of view.

“Teaching design to youth is about unlocking a way of thinking. Design is no longer considered a superfluous subject, but rather a process that can be applied to any problem in order to ensure an appropriate, well-informed solution. Creative problem solving has proven itself an invaluable skill for leaders in all fields. The federal education law, No Child Left Behind, has required schools to increase classroom hours spent on math and reading significantly, often at the expense of other subjects, including design,” said Maria Emmighausen, a project manager for the AIGA’s K-12 initiatives.

“I argue that art and design education is for ‘all’ students, not just the talented few and it needs to be a core component of a student’s general education,” added Sproll. “Studying art and design not only provides all students with the opportunity to develop their creative selves and to enhance their creative problem-solving skills, but through the study of art and design students come to understand [that these disciplines are about] the expression of ideas, feeling and values.”

Sproll puts his money where his mouth is. For four years he and a group of colleagues have offered The Design Connection Program at RISD. The program brings elected students from the William M. Davies, Jr. Career and Technical High School in Lincoln, Rhode Island, to campus to engage in short-term graphic arts exercises including typography and graphic form. In addition to this program, RISD’s Division of Continuing Education offers a Pre-College Summer Program for high school students serious about pursuing careers in art and design.

Over the last decade Stephanie Grey, a senior designer at Boston’s Flanders & Associates, has taught at several programs nationwide including teaching at the RISD Pre-College Program, volunteering with the AIGA New York Chapter and Youth Design Boston programs and directing Colorado’s iD Tech Camp program. (This national program is a summer technoogy camp for kids.) She’s seen the difference design makes.

One of Grey’s favorite and most difficult assignments, while teaching Basic Design in the RISD Pre-College Program, was the design of a cardboard chair using minimal materials. The catch was the kids had to sit on their own chair throughout the critique. Grey watched while the students transformed everyday cardboard into art with purpose. The students discovered that self-expression can be infused in the most basic of design problems.

“Design gives you a point of view [through which to] see the world...the sooner kids can find something they relate to, the better,” Grey said.

“Design and other forms of visual art are being used to teach basics. Students have different learning styles and many students learn better through visual methods. I remember looking at flash cards when studying a foreign language...they were the most ridiculous images and they didn’t have to be,” said Diana Arcadipone, associate dean at Art Institute of Boston’s Office of Extended Programs. “I can remember a simple cat shape in the middle of the card with the word (unaesthetically) scribed ‘gatto’ underneath...There was little or no regard for composition or design, type choice or color that would make the translation more thrilling and memorable for a child. There could have been more effective utilization of the visual language to communicate the foreign one.”

The Art Institute of Boston (AIB) at Lesley University offers several programs for high school students including pre-college courses, a spring ArtsFirst Conference and a summer young artist residency program, designed to expand high school juniors’ awareness of careers in the visual arts. Students may enroll in courses including introductory graphic design, basic design and a selection of new media classes.

The New Design High School in New York City is the perfect example of blending design instruction and the basics while growing character development. This public school opened four years ago to grow city youths with an art interest. Art and design are more than subjects at the school. They are integrated in every subject.

“We empower kids to use design as a planning tool for success. They break out of their passive roles and become active in the process of setting and achieving future goals in their education,” said Corey J. Willis, director of the school’s design education.

The way the school integrates is creative in itself. The school may bring in an illustrator to work with kids to develop ways of visualizing physics problems or invite a filmmaker to guide kids in adapting a famous work of fiction to film. “We’ve really seen the potential of this kind of teaching,” said Willis.

New Design High School senior Sharif James is just one success story. James enrolled with an interest in architecture, but with no real direction. Through its various programs and counseling, the school helped channel his interest. Junior year he studied green design looking at Superadobe homes. (Superadobe homes are small rounded homes made of earth, cement and wire.) This past summer he studied at Cornell’s Summer Architecture program with a grant from Working Playground. During his high school career, he has worked with Open Road, a nonprofit organization that helps build green parks in New York City. If that weren’t impressive enough, James is currently part of a team working with Cornell University’s Landscape Architecture Program and the architecture firm, Gensler, to create a green space on the massive rooftop of the New Design High School building. Next year he plans to pursue architectural design in college.

Like Willis, Mark Randall, principal of Worldstudio and co-founder of Worldstudio Foundation, has witnessed kids step up. For ten or so years Randall and volunteers have coordinated a project-based mentorship program. Each year the team picks a social issue to explore which have included intolerance, gay teens, gun violence. Once a subject has been selected, Randall’s group locates funding, recruits students from the area schools or art organizations and finds professionals willing to volunteer to work with the students. The students are then paired with mentors to develop a project to promote awareness of the chosen topic.

“You can design a poster or you can teach a kid to read,” said Randall. “We wanted to be in the camp to teach them to read.”

The programs have helped, perhaps more than we can ever quantify. Randall recalled one particularly memorable project that Worldstudio Foundation worked on with media artist Janeil Englestad. The Visualizing Violence Project 2000 partnered kids in New York and in Los Angeles with local mentors to create bus shelter posters and billboards about gun violence and how the effects had touched the kids personally. Upon completion the teams drove around the neighborhoods where the pieces were placed to see the work in action. Randall watched as the tears collected in one seventeen-year-old, Hispanic participant’s eyes.

“This was a big deal for him,” Randall said. “He had this opportunity to express himself on this huge scale to his own community.”

It’s a powerful message Randall hopes the kids involved in his programs will carry with them throughout their lives. “It’s about thinking in really creative ways,” he said. “You can bring that to anything you do. You can bring that into your accounting or your business...anything you learn is good. Many may not go into design school, but they may hire a designer someday.”

If they do lean toward design, exposing youth to design can shape futures. “It exposes students that may have an interest in art and/or design to the actual ‘behind-the-scenes’ and day-to-day of what it means to be a designer,” said Emma Presler, volunteer with the AIGA New York Mentoring Program. “This exposure helps them assess their own interests in entering the profession, realistically gauging their talents and personal career goals against the demands of the design industry.”

The New York Chapter of the AIGA works with the New York Department of Education’s New York Mentoring Program and the High School of Art and Design to provide a similar mentoring program. The program, founded in 1993, matches kids with professionals in the fields of graphic design, fashion, architecture, photography and illustration with the goal of exposing students and opening cultural outlets. There are currently about 50 pairs meeting for a total of four hours a month.

“The mentorship programs truly enlighten the participants,” said Mauré. Working with Proteus Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Boston Latin High School senior learned more about the process of product design than he ever could have imagined. One of the projects he was given included designing a frame for a mirror. “I can appreciate more what they do, after having gone through it myself,” he said. “It has gotten me to look at things in a different way and not look at something for what it is, but what it does.”

Because of this experience, Mauré is considering studying graphic design next year, a subject he probably would not have contemplated had he not experienced the Youth Design Boston program.

Kids aren’t the only ones who need to be turned on to the idea of a career in the arts, explained Denise Korn, founder of the five-year-old Youth Design Boston Program and principal of Korn Design. Teen programs such as hers dispel the myth of poor artists to those who advise youngsters. “Parents see that ‘design’ is a paying and a respectable career path,” she said.

Another benefit is that programs like those mentioned above open doors to other segments of the population that may not realize the potential of design. Everyday the population grows more diverse. The design field, however, lacks color. In fact despite repeated efforts I was unable to find any statistics quoting the racial breakdowns of kids entering colleges. Although there is little evidence, I can speculate there are several reasons for the lack of ethnic representation in design. Perhaps one of the most significant is the lack of exposure and resources for art and design in city schools. As we all know, when schools need to cut from the budget, art programs are often the first to go, making it exceedingly difficult for kids to gain experience in art/design topics. These design education programs re-inject communities with design and art awareness and energy.

Of course, these programs aren’t the only gateway to design for kids of any color. Many schools are now investing in teaching design technology. Schools in the smallest of towns are teaching Photoshop, PowerPoint and other multimedia programs due to the growing teen interest in video games, computer programming and other technologies. And programs, like iD Tech Camps, offer another avenue in the direction of technology.

“The technology is easier for them to access. Some of these computer programs make the field more obvious to high schoolers...The software will never replace learning the basic principles...but it can be a segue,” said Grey.

However fancy computers and hi-tech gadgets aren’t necessary. What’s really needed are teachers and curriculum that integrate visual literacy, according to Kristina Lamour of Design Education Consultancy in Rhode Island and on the design faculty at AIB. For several years now, Lamour has been working with local schools to develop youth design education programs. One of the many ways she does this is to teach the teachers the basics of design. Lamour has been offering teacher workshops to build language around design in a trickle down fashion. With scissors and scraps of paper, Lamour sculpts the teachers’ lexicon to include the basic tenants of design. Her goal is to arm the teachers with the knowledge to help kids design better, more effective book report covers or pie charts for their math class or design better science fair exhibitions.

The kids of today “are extremely aware about design,” said Lamour. “But I don’t think schools know how to talk about design...My goal is not to create more graphic designers, but to give kids different ways to enter the learning process.”

The benefits of teaching design or mentoring are exponential—for students and volunteers. “Teaching affects my own work,” said Grey. “You get a fresh perspective every time.”

It’s for this same reason that Tepperman volunteers. Over the years he has spoken at career day in his hometown, and participated in a twelve-week artist-in-residence program teaching design at his local high school. “I enjoy doing things that give back,” he said. “And I love seeing through their eyes...I wind up learning a lot too.”

I know we’re preaching to the choir. I don’t expect the CA audience to disagree with the pluses of learning design at an early age, or to negate the value of the money spent on art programs. If you’re reading this magazine you’ve been touched by design, but it’s important to build discussion about the reasons why youth design education is valuable so when you’re confronted by the nay-sayers, you’re armed. We have to continue to build these programs so that kids don’t miss out on opportunities. It’s not enough that kids are design savvy. In this increasingly visual world, they must become as literate about design as they are about the classics if they are to make intelligent decisions as citizens, consumers, activists and business people.

The looming question for those of us who care is how to promote and/or integrate design education into the mainstream and how to convince the disbelievers. “I fear we have many struggles ahead of us,” agreed Sproll. “We have to show (design) is not just an add on. We have to show that (design) can be integrated and that it is another way of thinking.”

Those interviewed for this article are having an impact on their communities and kids in a personal and touching fashion. We can learn from their results. To that point, last October AIGA and Worldstudio Foundation published seven online guides on mentoring (www.aiga.org). The guides include how to start your own program, recommended curriculum and other subjects. I hope this material will inspire others to start their own grassroots programs.

Also, in April 2006 AIGA gathered a work group of design education leaders from such varied disciplines as architecture and toy design, in an effort to inform the future of primary and secondary design education. Group members discussed their relevant experience as well as existing initiatives in the area of K-12 design education at the kick-off meeting. Ultimately, the group’s objective is to create a report on the potential role the AIGA can play in national K-12 education where design serves as a resource to enhance teaching and learning across the curricula and throughout the community.

It’s exactly this kind of effort many in the design field and design education realm believe is needed if we are to seriously expose and educate students to design. Some have advocated introducing design education the moment students start learning their ABCs.

We need much more than anecdotal evidence to support our argument. Though I spoke to many people, I was unable to unearth any real, quantifiable figures about how many design programs are directed at kids or any figures about the results of the cited teen programs’ or collective effort’s impact. Statistics may be the proof needed to show the interest and the influence of design education on today’s students. If these figures show that design really is catching on, and if it really is as important an educational movement as we think it is, it’s imperative for us as a community to band together, keep pushing and develop a plan to show the unconvinced that design education integration can work and how. We have to prove that design isn’t a bonus, but that it’s a necessity in today’s visual world. Lucky for us, others have started to clear the path. Now we need to pave it. And if anyone can think creatively about this goal, the design community can.

Editor’s note: Many of the most popular Design Issues essays are available in the book of the same name, compiled and edited by DK Holland (the editor of this column) and co-published by Communication Arts and Allworth Press.

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