The ‘Broader Canvas’ of Design

For longer than I’d like to admit, I’ve had Jack Schulze’s talk from the MIT Media Lab open in a browser tab. Today, I finally made the time to sit down and watch it. The wait was worth it.

Schulze is co-founder and principal at BERG and the 90-minute talk gives some of his thinking around where we are not and where we could be headed with the making of things.

For me, the light bulb turned on toward the end of the talk when Schulze said, “There’s something of a mythology in terms of the idea that utility is as valuable as it claims to be.”

While I’m not a designer, this certainly spoke to the tension I feel as an educator who calls for teachers to ask kids to do real, meaningful and authentic things while also insisting on the value of play for the sake of play.

In naming the mythology of utility, Schulze isn’t denying the place of utility. He’s more calling it out as not the only reason to build things, to design things and to make things. I like that. I like what it could say about authentic learning experiences existing in the same spaces as play for play’s sake. If we are going to have kids make things, perhaps they don’t need to show us their learning, but there might be a more human, more cultural reason for the making of things. Maybe the making is reason enough.

Later Schulze points out, “Culture is a broader canvas than the functional utility of delivering functions or responses to problems.” Again, this strikes the sweet spot of educational beliefs. The cycle present in many vintage educational landscapes is train for test to train for next level to train for test to train for next level to…well, you get the picture.

If educational institutions take the “broader canvas” of culture as our guides, then we need not be preparing students solely for what’s next. We can also be preparing students for the present moment and providing them with playgrounds (literal and figurative) for finding out who they want to be as they picture the cultures around them.

Schulze closes with what design and software can be, “Software and design can be there to increase the cultural value, or enjoyment, or delight, or engagement with something above and beyond, say, adding or refining functionality or improving the user experience.”

So can education.

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