There are a lot of phrases we throw around in design school, one of which is “empowering our users.” I’m usually pretty critical when this comes up, because half the time “empowerment” is turning on a light switch or adding a print photos option. But then I thought of the times that I felt empowered, and, although they are few and far between, it’s a pretty amazing experience. For me, I felt empowered when I realized I could make a positive difference in society, and I had the skill set to do so. Empowerment was closely linked with being proactive.
So far, I can only think of three distinct occasions that a truly felt empowered, once in high school, once in undergrad, and once (so far) in grad school.
Andrea and the High School Food Drive
In high school, there was a school-wide can drive where the cans and proceeds went to a local food bank called Care n Share. The Care n Share food drive was a yearly event, and I never paid much attention or contributed until my senior year. As a part of the food drive, each second period class competed to see which class raised the most money. My second period class was biology with Mr. Lewis, who was one of the funniest, kindest teachers of my educational experience. Through a motivational speech, he managed to convince our class that we could win the food drive, and it would be awesome if we did win. Usually the way I went about food drives was to find forgotten cans in my pantry at home and bring in two or three cans. Not this time. It occurred to me I could use the same marketing technique that my youth symphony used to raise money – set up outside grocery stores, play live music, and ask for donations. I called up my local grocery, told them about the food drive, and asked if I could set up. Within 5 minutes the matter was settled, and my master plan was approved.
The food drive went for a few weeks, and each week I went three to four times to the grocery store with my cello, music stand, and donation sign. I went in two-hour shifts, where each shift typically resulted in about $30 and a box of canned food.
My best friend and fellow cellist sat behind me in biology, so we started talking about the food drive, and how I was playing for donations at the grocery store. She excitedly told me she wanted to join, so we set a date, and played cello duets near the produce aisle.
In the end, I felt like a total boss, and through our class-wide efforts, we ended up winning a pizza party. Yay, pizza party.
Andrea and the Case of the Posture Epidemic
I guess I have a thing for becoming empowered in my senior year of things. First there was getting hyped about a canned food drive in high school, and then in college I got incredibly excited about fixing posture. In my ergonomics class with my favorite professor, he brought up the posture concerns of laptops based off of the way they’re designed. We didn’t spend much time on the topic, but I thought it was a fascinating unintended consequence of design. After that lecture, I kept noticing how so many people on our campus were hunched over their laptops and I began to see it as a huge problem that wasn’t seen as a priority in the laptop-design world. In the subsequent semester, I had the opportunity to do a design research project around a topic of my choice. I chose laptop postures. The design research class ended up getting cancelled halfway through the semester due to an unexpected illness, but I was interested in furthering my research on the topic, and went back to my ergonomics professor (who also happened to be my advisor), and asked if I could continue my research project under his advisory. Within the department, there was an option for “Empirical Research” which meant conducting a study, and writing a research paper about it. And that’s exactly what happened.
To someone reading the paper, it’s probably just another long, boring paper, but to me, it was really about addressing a problem I thought was important, but no one seemed to pay attention to. The other part of the equation was that I was really excited, because I felt I could make a difference.
Unfortunately, the optimism and empowerment I felt during the study have dissipated through my experiences in design school. Ergonomics is seen as somewhat of an afterthought, if even that. To some designers, ergonomics doesn’t push enough boundaries and is “too safe” and “accommodating” to users. To which I would say if a chair design that “pushes boundaries” or “make a statement” results in back injuries to all the users, priorities need to be reevaluated.
Andrea and the School Blues Buster
For the most part, I like my graduate school program here at Products of Design. My main grievance was (and still is) the lack of school/life balance. In the original plans for the program, this idea of balance was mentioned, but has not been a prevalent feature of the program.
A few days ago, I met up with one of my friends for dinner, and she asked me what I usually do on the weekends. I gave her an incredulous look, and told her I was at school, like it was the most obvious answer in the world. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I would guesstimate that school takes up 60+ hours per week on a normal week. If I spend 8 hours in the studio on a given day, it feels short and reasonable. The other side of that is that there is pretty dramatic burnout and exhaustion across the student body. I have interests and life priorities; sacrificing those things for the sake of the program dramatically decreases my happiness and satisfaction with the state of my life and well-being.
At the end of my first semester, I met with our program director to discuss the issue. We came up with the idea to implement a weekly yoga program in our studio, and I was ecstatic. It was probably the most empowered I’ve felt in my entire life. We talked about how we were going to implement it, and brought others into our plan.
The program has been running for about 2 months now, and I think about a third of the department now keeps a yoga mat at their desk. The program usually rotates between playing yoga videos on the projector from a nearby yoga studio, and having one of the second year students who is a certified yoga instructor, teach the class.
I like the program, but I don’t think it’s enough. At the beginning of the semester, there was a large turnout, with about 10 people (which is a quarter of our department). As the semester picked up speed, turnout gradually decreased. I’ve had multiple conversations with different people where they will say they really wanted to go, but are simply too busy.
I feel invested in the program, and I want it to succeed, so I plan around yoga. If I don’t feel like going, I go out of principle, and I’ve never regretted it. At the end of the class, I’m happy that I took time for myself, that I stepped away from the never-ending pile of work, that I did something for me.
That’s really the whole point of the yoga program. It’s about finding time to take care of yourself, to step away from the daily grind, to acknowledge that there’s more to life than work.
I wouldn’t call myself a natural-born leader, and I’ve been told what to do for most of my life as a byproduct of the education system. The times I took initiative outside of the expectations of the mandated structure are the moments I felt empowered.
So, here’s to challenging the status quo.