Designing your ECE future
You have probably played this game before.
You know, the one that goes, ‘where were you when you heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated?’ There are plenty of variations on this question and you can replace Kennedy with any famous person or event that ‘defines’ your generation.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was one popular alternative, for a while. I am betwixt-and-between these two events, too young to remember Kennedy and too old to be thunderstruck by the fall of the wall.
I do, however, recall very clearly what I was doing when I heard that Norman Kirk had died, way back in August 1974.
It was early on Sunday morning and I was on my way to play squash, with my father. Even now, I can point to the exact piece of road where we were at the very time that I heard the news.
Memory has some other games that it plays on us, as well. One of these is the way in which our attitudes and awareness change over time.
Right now, a good example of this is the way in which the word ‘design’ has taken on different meanings for me, over the years.
If I remember correctly, I think that I first became aware of design, in an artistic sense, when I was at primary school.
It was one of those words that reeked of talent-thatI-didn’t-have and evoked aesthetic images of creativity, graphic skills and the greatworks-of-art.
A bit later, somewhere around secondary school level, I became aware of a grittier and more industrial meaning, involving technical drawing, engineering and architecture.
Later still (and now probably well into tertiary study), I began to see it used in a managerial sense, as the foundation of good business planning and all-encompassing ‘design thinking’.
These days, the meaning of the word ‘design’ has morphed yet again for me, and now relates to the structures which support good programme mapping.
Earlier this year, I succumbed to flattery and agreed to teach a new tertiary paper, called Leading Projects.
As I write this article, the last few weeks have involved drafting new content for this paper and planning the classroom sessions which will go with it.
Along the way, I have been thinking about various design lessons that I have encountered in the past and how I might work these examples into the Leading Projects paper.
One of the revelations that came out of this exercise was the realisation that both polytechnics and early childhood education centres rely heavily on good design, in order to meet their respective ends.
For instance, we make changes to the design of our physical environment. We use design in programmes, projects, sessions and even ad hoc learning moments.
We also design promotional opportunities and other activities for our respective communities-ofinterest.
So, what does good design mean for us and how can we use it more effectively?
You are probably aware of some of the thinking around good design principles and hopefully you are already using these principles in planning and delivery, at your own early childhood education centre.
Having an outcomes-based approach is one way to ensure that your design reflects your intended destination.
You can test the quality of your programme design by constantly asking, ‘How does this activity help us to reach our goal?’
An often-quoted design principle is that ‘form follows function’ (e.g. the outcome should influence the design, not the other way around).
In practical terms, make sure that you understand what it is that you are designing and what you want to achieve. A closely related approach is to use reverse-engineering.
This is where you begin your design process by imagining that your objective has been reached and then working out what the immediate steps were that preceded this.
Figure out what each of these steps looks like as you work backwards from your goal, towards the present day. Make sure that the design of each step is both effective and efficient, with minimum distractions along the way.
Talking about design principles reminds me of a fascinating industry guest who I invited to a problem solving and decision making class, a few years ago.
His name was Matt and he ran a boutique design agency in Wellington.
Matt was a mine of information and he shared many design insights, some of which you may find useful in developing your own design thinking.
Matt said that design used to be about ‘the beautification of an object’. His own view was that design is now more about improving relationships between people, or between people and products, processes or the environment.
Interestingly, he also noted that the pulling power of aesthetics can be more powerful than functional requirements and he suggested that ‘form follows function’ should be ‘form and function follow empathy’.
Matt also talked about how his business worked with clients. He said that his team starts by expanding the client’s initial thoughts into something more coherent and contextual.
They identify what the design challenge actually is (through conversations and workshops) before spending time with the users and by immersing themselves in the user experience environment. This uncovers needs and insights from which they can generate further ideas.
Matt’s team then develops prototypes (often using very low cost materials, such as desks and chairs) and explores options (by building actual models to help with their understanding), before testing and shaping the results, using customers and the feedback that they have gathered.
The final part of Matt’s design process was delivery and integration.
In effect, Matt had a roadmap consisting of various stages and activities. Matt also let us in on a few inside secrets, which helped to draw people into the design process.
One of these secrets is about storytelling and Matt told us that we need to be really good at storytelling in order to engage with clients, to clarify for them and to convince them.
He made the point that designing needs to be about ‘co-doing’ with the user (so that we don’t need to ‘re-do’, if we get it wrong the first time).
It is so easy to walk into the same workspace each day, knowing how we expect things to work and quite comfortable with a familiar environment that suits us. The same comments apply to services and programmes that we offer as part of our work activity.
How often do we flip-the-model that we are used to, and physically walk-through our own centres as first time users, unfamiliar with our surroundings and looking for people to provide solutions to our own problems? How do we respond to what we see, hear, smell and touch? How often do we spend time being the child who uses our services?
There are some valuable things in what Matt has to say.
You might like to try some of Matt’s ideas at your own early childhood centre by becoming-your-own-client and experiencing things as the parents and children do. Take the design challenge and see what you can learn from the experience!