Collaboratory charettes offer learning beyond case studies

Collaboratory charettes offer learning beyond case studies

Posted on April 16, 2015 by Judy Sedgeman

This blog post was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend about the Collaboratory at Ringling College of Art and Design (RCAD), which is a partnership with The Patterson Foundation. “What’s the big deal?” my friend asked. “Every good teacher involves students in case studies. Why would this make such a difference?”

I realized it’s one thing to talk about the merits of experiential, collaborative learning and to sing the praises of The Collaboratory at RCAD for creating the promise that every student enrolled from 2015 forward is guaranteed the opportunity for real-world experience with real clients before they graduate. It’s quite another — and truly enthralling — to experience it along with the students, facilitators and clients. It mattered to me the same way this program matters to students — it moved the conversation from the theoretical to the actual.

Recently, I joined a one-day charette at the Collaboratory and watched the remarkable learning that emerged between the first tentative meeting between the client and students and what happened a mere 8 hours later -- the professional presentation of stunning design solutions addressing the client’s dilemma.

The subject being addressed is a new product for consumers in markets throughout the world where pollution is a significant health problem. It’s not right to reveal too many details about a product in development that will create a new market and quickly generate competitors, so I'll share what I can say.

The product was conceived and engineered by health professionals; it’s for home use (although, it clearly has institutional potential); it will be retailed to individuals and families. The client was looking for help transforming a sensible, utilitarian idea into something consumers would desire and value. The client’s mock-up of the product had the bland, functional look of something you might find in a hospital. The client described it as a “platform for global artists, decorators and designers to add features to make it successful in different cultures around the world.” For this charette, he wanted the students to concentrate on China as a first market.

At the beginning of the day, the client provided about 40 minutes of background on the product and showed the specs to the students, letting them know what features and elements had to be worked into a final design for the product to work. The students were, at first, put off by the limitations on materials and appearance dictated by function. But they immediately set that aside. As one put it later, “At first I thought, ‘What an unappealing looking product!’ But then I started imagining how to make it interesting.” And then the client won their hearts when he said his philosophy of business was, “If it does good, I’m willing to do it,” and informed them that for every 10 of this product he sells, he will give one away in an area where families need it but could not afford to buy it.

The client left the initial discussions promising to return for a review of where the students were heading with their ideas within a couple of hours. The four students broke into two teams of two; out came the computers and the sketchpads, and they were engrossed in animated conversation. These students knew each other casually, but had not previously worked together. They came from different majors. They had to create trust, respect and enthusiasm with each other quickly to get down to work. They threw themselves into it.

When the client returned for the interim conversation, the two groups each had a clear direction and an initial set of sketches. Without planning it that way, one of the groups had focused on designing the product to charm parents and children; the other had started working on a sophisticated appeal to adults. The client engaged in a lively interchange with the students over lunch, asking detailed, provocative questions, making suggestions, and offering additional functional information to keep them from getting so enamored with design that they might veer off track from the product's main purpose. He was clearly impressed with what they had produced in only a few hours and excited to see how it would come together at the end. The students were clearly inspired by the conversation and were encouraged by the client's positive response.

He left once more and the students went right back to work for another three hours, promising to arrive at a finished presentation and quality drawings that could be shown to the client’s partners by the end.

This last phase required research, understanding of market demands and the consumers they wanted to reach, understanding the materials that would keep the product within the client’s desired price point, as well as engineering requirements. The students were undaunted, dividing the work according to skills and interests.

Three hours, several sandwiches, quite a few donuts, and many discarded sketches later, the students announced they were ready to show their work. The group that had started working with ideas for children had refined the idea into something that would play into parents’ desires to educate and delight their children, as well as keep them safe and healthy. And, inspired by the other group, they also designed a product for adults, using as a design theme the beautiful patterns from nature found on antique Chinese silk.

The other group had discovered that Chinese consumers are currently fascinated with European and Scandinavian design. They incorporated sensuous curved wood forms into a product that would attract adults, featuring all kinds of lighting, music, sounds and entertainment, all of which could be controlled by a smart phone. (All of us in the room would have bought one on the spot.) The product designs were gorgeous, as well as practical.

Part of the students’ presentations had to include a statement of the rationale for their choices, as well as some “tag lines” to go along with the product. Impressive results. The client was pleased with all of it and clearly was struggling to choose one or the other. (This has been reported as a common outcome from Collaboratory charettes— clients falling in love with all the presentations and having great difficulty settling on which one they will take forward.) The final discussion between students and clients was subtly different from the earlier conversations: They were talking as colleagues. Within a few hours, the relationship had shifted from teacher/students/class assignment to entrepreneur/designers/marketing plan.

After the happy client departed, I had a chance to debrief with the students. What stood out to me is how grateful they were to have worked together, to have gotten to know peers who approached problems from different vantage points, to have melded their expertise, arriving at a better outcome than any of them would have come to alone. The time had flown by and they found joy and satisfaction in the experience. This exemplifies a movement in education at all levels -- one recently described in an article about educational policy changes in Finland.

Here are two telling comments from the students:

“We started working to sell this product to ourselves, and we saw how it could change the world and change people’s perceptions. We inspired each other.”

“This experience was not just about design. It was about learning about the world, challenging ourselves, pushing ourselves to be more creative. The real value is in the experience of learning to work together.”

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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