Noah's Archive: Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , DesignEd K12

Pittsburgh, where I was reared, was popularly known as the Iron City. The rearing didn’t come easy. When I was in the fourth grade my parents, baffled by my inability to learn addition and subtraction, sent me to the Iron City Normal School (as teachers colleges were called at the time) to see whether I was. After a battery of tests, the house psychologist concluded that, for some deeply buried reason, numbers were so abhorrent to me that whenever I saw them I took refuge in daydreaming.

The psychologist was right about the daydreaming—I was a pioneer in attention deficit. But I wasn't daydreaming to get away from numbers. I was daydreaming about numbers. I was so enamored of numbers that, instead of listening to what the teacher was saying about them, I was casting them in dramatic scenarios. 5 was always the hero. 2 was a woman. 8 was an older woman. 7 was a wise guy. 9 was a con man. Don’t ask.

I couldn't tell anyone, because they would think I was crazy. I couldn't tell anyone because I was afraid they would be right.

Those memories were dredged up by an invitation to participate in the 10th Summer Design Institute organized by the remarkable education department of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The Institute brings educators and designers together to explore ways of teaching design in, as they say in the trade, grades K through 12. The program consists of presentations, workshops, conversation/dialogues, and master classes led by such design luminaries as Kurt Andersen, William McDonough, Seymour Chwast, Jan Abrams, John Maeda, Lee Skolnik, and Linda Yaven.

When I mentioned the program to a friend, he asked innocently, “Why would teachers want to get involved in design?”

“Because they are already involved in design,” I said.

Teachers regularly and unavoidably design courses, lesson plans, lab experiments, and field trips. I find the design process more interesting as a vehicle of instruction than as curricular content. At best, they are inseparable.

Exhibition design, for example, has been a teaching resource since the first science fair, perhaps since the first blackboard. Show and tell is intrinsic to the schoolroom. Even in this digital age, the designer's instinct is still to take everything at hand—pictures, ideas, data—and throw it up on a wall where it can be seen, discussed, and organized. That is often the teacher's instinct too. As a pedagogical tool, exhibition lends itself to visible participation, visible correction, and visible improvement. Students directly involved in creating instructional exhibitions must confront such design issues as logical connections, legibility, language problems, color, and scale. And creating an exhibition may combine instructional design, product design, set design, interior design, and editing.

Design as what teachers teach is most effectively tied to design as what teachers do. The Institute’s program reflected this. A hands-on workshop in interior design was directed to designing classrooms for more effective teaching of all subjects. A discussion of a projected design magazine for kids raised the question, “How can we use design news, issues, and practices to enhance school curricula?”

Well, one hugely rewarding benefit of exhibition design is the educational material it can generate. Because each exhibition yields more information than it is possible to display, many design firms have become repositories of information and ideas about a staggering range of subjects. Designers always learn more in creating an exhibition than visitors learn from attending it. That comes as no surprise to teachers, who invariably learn more from preparing a course than students do from taking it.

I did not attend the workshops, but the lists of required materials made me wish I had. One session called for a laptop and a lap; but most of the other equipment specified was invitingly low tech: candy (in a variety of packages), Exacto knives, scissors, duct tape, markers, pop bottles, toilet paper rolls, oatmeal boxes, dice, string, crayons, glue, popsickle sticks, rubber bands, tag board (what’s that?), rulers, bags (both paper and plastic), single-use cameras, fabric scraps, pipe cleaners, dowels, staplers, straws, umbrellas, ping pong balls, pennies, kaleidoscopes, aluminum foil, and dried yellow peas.

Most of those are of course standard grist for craft projects, but they are worth noting because they betoken an instructional contact with reality. (They must have presented a challenge when going through security—complicated perhaps by the fact that one of the presenters is Director of the International Spy Museum).

As for my own material contact with reality, my doubts evaporated in 1962, by which time I was able to add and subtract although I still could not do long division. On October 6th of that year The New Yorker appeared with a cover by Saul Steinberg showing a couple of numerals seated across from each other at a table, having a drink.

The numbers, as it happened, were 5 and 2.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.