A roomful of art students had a problem to solve: How to design a shoe for a working woman that would be stable, stylish and not too expensive.
“I’m willing to sacrifice some comfort for some cuteness,” Lindsey Tilley told the class of about 20 Northview High School students who peppered her with questions about her preferences.
Designing an ideal shoe for Tilley, a career exploration coordinator at Kent ISD, was their task for a new class called Creative Problem Solving. Developed by art teachers Tricia Erickson and Tanya Lockwood, it employs a blend of artistic and academic disciplines to help students think creatively to meet 21st century workplace challenges.
On this day, they were helped in their task by Christopher Bruce, a school programs coordinator for the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Bruce walked them through a process called “design thinking,” a problem-solving approach that has been employed by the likes of Samsung, Sony and Steelcase. Such weighty allies did not, however, ease the task of designing a comfy-yet-stylish work shoe for Lindsey Tilley, who was previously a NVHS English teacher.
Chad Colton came up with an elaborate sketch of what he called a Nike dress shoe, “comfortable but not super-cushioned,” colored purple and blue. Tilley said she liked the idea, but that the purple-and-blue thing probably wouldn’t go over well in the office.
But she warmed up to a shoe designed by sisters Jessica and Natalie Byle. It featured decorative touches culled from Tilley’s mythology literature class such as lightning bolts from Zeus and a sword symbolizing Athena. Tilley said she would definitely buy the “Zeus Athena Thunderbolt Shoes.”
Blending Art and Academics
The teachers said they designed the class to help students grasp other subjects, such as social studies and math, while honing their creative skills for the workplace. “This class isn’t how to be creative using paint,” Lockwood said. “It’s more about a systematic way of thinking.
“When they go into the corporate world, they’re going to be needed as a valuable creative thinker, not just somebody that can perform a single task,” she added. “This will help them figure out ways to improve their way of thinking and problem-solving.”
She and Erickson combine art and academics in novel ways. “We have allowed the students to open up and realize, this is not just for art, it is for every class,” Lockwood said.
They also want to awaken the joy of creativity their students may have felt as children. “We’re teaching kids how to play again, and not feel that failure is going to affect them in the long run,” Erickson said. “It’s just play, fail, play again.”
Permission to fail is a key concept of design thinking, a model developed by IDEO, an international consulting firm that helps corporations design innovative products. Northview High School has a Steelcase “node” chair that was designed in collaboration with IDEO and placed in the school as a test piece. Equipped with casters that allow students to move with attached desks, the chairs encourage easy collaboration.
Failure is Not to be Feared
In a presentation he designed for educators, Bruce from the art museum showed students how design thinking works. He broke it down into a circle of elements: discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation and evolution. A former art teacher at Rockford High School, he said he wants students to understand that “design is everywhere.”
“Everything we do is in some way reflective of design,” Bruce said. “We are the designers of our lives. Every choice we make somehow is reflected in that end design,” from what clothes students wear to how they make their resumes.
Key concepts are empathy for others and how to view failure in a highly competitive society. Bruce urged students to not fear failure but to embrace it as a source of discovery.
“In design thinking, failure is essential,” he told the class. “We fail early often, we fail often and we fail forward. We learn more from our failures than any successes we will ever have.”
Students seemed to take that message to heart – including the two who designed Lindsey Tilley’s shoes.
“It’s ok to fail, because you can always learn from it,” said Natalie Byle, a freshman. Added her sister Jessica, a senior, “Never be afraid to try new things, because they can always work out and be better.”