Dot the “i’s” with hearts: Working with kid designers at RECESS! Design Studio

A conversation between Jordan Rosenblum and Roshani Thakore.
Edited by Jordan

RECESS! Design Studio is a creative agency housed inside of a classroom in The Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School in Northeast Portland. Working with third, fourth, and fifth-grade designers, the studio is one part classroom, one part creative agency, and one part artist project. The project is co-directed by artists Jordan Rosenblum and Kim Sutherland, in collaboration with visiting artists and designers. 

RECESS! serves as the in-house studio for the artist-run project, The King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA). The studio’s ongoing design services include posters for exhibitions and lectures, signs for classrooms, and promotional material for school events. 

The ambition of RECESS! is to create a full-service creative agency directed and run by elementary school students.

Since its launch in the Fall of 2018, RECESS! has worked on several large-scale projects. In collaboration with the school administration, school parents, and student copy-writers, the studio created a set of posters championing community residents as a long-term installation in the school cafeteria. In Spring of 2019, the studio collaborated with Adidas to explore the design of a new school brand. 

In the classroom, RECESS! students develop classic graphic design skills—creating experimental typefaces, designing business cards for student entrepreneurs, and learning about visual literacy and making meaning through text and image. 

Through project-based learning, RECESS! also explores the role design plays in society—looking at the power design has in shaping kids’ (and adults’) lives. This includes an on-going project creating interpretive signs written by student-designers that will be installed at the school. The signs investigate the architecture, history, experiences, and culture of the school from the students’ perspectives. 

The following conversation took place in May 2020 between Roshani Thakore, Artist and Organizer, and RECESS! co-director Jordan Rosenblum. 

Roshani  

Let’s start off with talking about the early days of RECESS! Design Studio. What was the beginning of it like?

Jordan  

The idea for teaching design at the King School (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School) came from a series of conversations between Harrell Fletcher (co-director of KSMoCA, with Lisa Jarrett), Kim, and I. Within a month, we were in the library pitching to recruit kids to opt-in to our fledgling class. 

When Kim and I started having planning conversations, we were really asking, “Well, what is graphic design? What is design? And what do we want to teach about it? Why should kids care about it?” We were thinking a lot about narrative, about storytelling, and about communication as a kind of core piece of this, as well as how design impacts them. We were really interested in how kids can and do construct meaning. 

From the beginning it was going to be a project-based learning environment. The studio was going to provide design services to KSMoCA (The King School Museum of Contemporary Art), which was one of the things that made the project compelling to us. That is, the idea that we would have a classroom of kids that were creating design work for real clients. One of the goals for us was that the studio would eventually provide design services to the school, and extend out into the community.

We also had never formally taught children before, so we were—and still are—trying to figure that out. I feel like we’re in total infancy in terms of understanding how to work with kids.

Roshani  

I know that you were formally trained in graphic design, and have had a long history working as a designer, and you teach design at Portland State University. You are also an artist, and enrolled in PSU’s Social Practice program. Working in design is just one part of what you do. What does design mean to you, and how does it enter your life?

Jordan  

I have always been ambivalent about design. The constructive role that design can play is serving as a conduit for interpretation, and as a vessel for communication. It functions for me as a process for relating to things. It is useful for looking at systems, breaking them down, and problem solving. There are also lots of complications with the role of the designer finding and solving problems, but I think that’s a separate conversation.

Roshani  

I think the most interesting thing about the project is that it is in the King School, which is a public elementary school in Northeast Portland that has been historically African American, as opposed to, for example, a private school. The demographic of the school is changing as the neighborhood gentrifies. Beyond thinking about teaching design to elementary school students, there’s something powerful that’s happening in choosing to lead with this concept of design as interpretation, and design as communication. Many of our systems, and so much infrastructure that we know, are created by a specific group of people – white, cisgendered, men. 

This is an opportunity—and any kind of art education can be—to start talking about interpretation, and communication, and breaking down systems. That’s the most interesting thing to me. 

At a young age to even start to consider, “Oh, somebody designed my school,” is a big deal. To have an understanding that the school is somebody’s concept. Or, that “I could design my own school, and I could build my own world.” Or, “I can communicate the things that are actually important to me and relevant to me because of my worldview.” Which may not match up with what I’m being told every day, as a person of color, as an African American, as queer, as all these other aspects of identity and experience.

The power is in the revolution right there. You are working with a specific site. 

Jordan  

We are interested in exploring how design relates to power, and how design can also be a tool to look at power. We hope to provide some agency for students to explore that for themselves, in their own lives. We are trying to approach it in a couple of ways. I think one piece of it is through having students designing client-based work. For many of the projects—especially the early ones—Kim and I were doing the art direction, and the students were designing, but we want to move in the other direction. We are interested in flipping it, where the students tell us what to do. What if they worked as hovering art directors, telling us to push pixels around, make something smaller, move it to the left, etc.? That’s one of our ambitions. I think it’s a lot less interesting when we are running it like a traditional design studio where Kim and I are the creative directors and the students are doing the production work. Despite our commitment to making this flip happen, we haven’t been fully successful in doing it yet. In part, I think it has to do with the students really trusting that they have full permission to do what they want with the material. They are receiving lots of messaging implicitly and explicitly to perform or think a certain way—by us, too, despite our intentions. And there also secondary expectations that come into play from other places. This was particularly clear on a project that involved a pretty complex collaboration with parents, students, and some of the school administration. Issues came up around whether things were written well enough, or drawings of people were good enough representations. That is to say… we didn’t all agree. Merging these different forms of education and an approach that is sometimes purposely not affirming what is good or bad can be complicated and confusing. 

At the same time, I also think there is power just in the fact that students create things, and all of a sudden those things are hung up all over the school, and published on the web, etc… 

I also don’t want to downplay the role of formal design education, and of course that’s in there. We spend a ton of time looking at and creating typefaces, we talk about form and hierarchy—“what’s the most important thing on this poster? And, how do you know what to read first?,” etc.

We started off with an approach that was pretty abstract—making collages out of cut paper that would evoke feelings, and drawing typefaces that represented qualities, like fast, or soft, etc… but they just didn’t seem to work. In part because we were so new to working with children, we were just throwing stuff against the wall that seemed interesting. As it progressed, we would go back and forth between doing client work, where we would draw or design posters and things for the school, and return to these shorter exercises. We became interested in longer collective projects where students would each contribute something that would form the whole. One example would be the posters we designed for a couple of KSMoCA artist’s lectures. We created one for Hannah Jickling’s talk about their Big Rock Candy Mountain’s project, and another for Arnold Kemp’s lecture. For both of these, each student designed letters for the poster that collectively formed the text for the poster. They created typefaces that were created together. These were also tactile, where the letters were created out of materials that related to the artists’ work. A really simple lesson for us about teaching young folks is that they love tactile materials. For the talk about Big Rock Candy Mountain, we crafted letters out of clay that resembled candy. It’s not totally clear to me why, but the tin foil we used for Arnold Kemp’s poster was totally captivating for them. We love these projects, but also recognize that at a certain level they are really dealing with form, and not so much with content from the students. 

We started working more directly with content. We asked students to choose portions of Dr. MLK Jr.s “I Have a Dream” speech, and to illustrate a graphic poster out of it. So, we were experimenting with narrative, where we would have all of these posters that would basically line up together to form the whole speech, but allow these individual interpretations in a mix of word and image. When the speech itself was removed, we had these wonderfully evocative posters that related to each other, but were also clearly individual expressions. The project had clearer boundaries and goals, and some really evocative imagery to work with, and because of that were easier for the students to access. More importantly, the project opened up discussions into the places where student’s individual experiences could meet up with the communicative power of graphic design.

Roshani  

It seems like it’s a meshing of traditional design education, and on-the-job training—which is also experiential learning. If your classroom is one of only a few spaces in the structure of King school that operate that way, it’s going to take some time for the kids to realize they’re in a different kind of class, with a different set of expectations. KSMoCA is pushing the lines of experiential education in the school in a major way.

I think for kids to have to adjust to another space in their school for an hour a week, while seven hours a day they are in more traditional classrooms is just another unseen layer  in how you are working with them. You are really butting up against traditional education models. Students having to navigate to very different types of spaces, and move between them must be such a big transition for them. Especially when you are talking about projects that are really asking students to show up as their whole selves. 

Jordan  

I think that’s absolutely right. In some very real ways we are taking them out of one system and just like dropping them into another for forty minutes. 

The most significant shift in the classroom started when Kim and I started to give ourselves freedom to more directly explore the kind of questions we were interested in as artists. I began to center my interest more in a way that I think has opened up different conversations with the kids; of course, that’s way richer for me. Doing so has fed back into the way I’m teaching in higher education right now, where I am giving myself permission to do similar things in those classrooms. 

I think granting ourselves that freedom has allowed us to go deeper into our initial intent. Like we were talking about earlier, in working on this project my interest has a lot to do with using design as a tool to explore and shift power. Graphic design is a professionalized craft, and in many ways is about providing legitimacy and authority. That craft and visual language can be applied to voices and media that traditionally don’t have access to it. And, to voices that are denied authority which certainly includes youth. 

In a recent project I walked with the RECESS! Designers around the school for about an hour. They wrote down a list of every sign that was hanging in the school. They created this long catalog of all kinds of signs, which was pretty fun, kind of a treasure hunt. We mapped all kinds of signs—exit signs, fallout shelter signs, wayfinding, signs for the principal’s office and teachers’ lounge, historic plaques and markers, obscure indicators for infrastructure—everything.  Even though there are a lot of different kinds of signs and indicators on the walls of the school, many of them are operating in an official framework. Most of them are unquestioned, and many go unnoticed, consciously speaking. 

This started out as an act of observing and noticing. It brought up the students’ curiosities about what was and wasn’t being shown, and it brought up questions they had about the space and its history. This idea owes a big debt of gratitude to Rosten Woo’s work, which served as a big inspiration.

Back in our classroom, we started to talk about what their experiences of the school are, and how that related to the signs and indicators that are on the walls.

Roshani  

Just to be eight years old and to consider that the instructions and signage and language around you is not “truth,” that’s a big thing. To allow for multiple truths to exist, and allowing your personal story to exist in a visible way in relation to parts of the school experience. Even that is kind of like a foundation. I think this side project is a great iteration of that. I think the core of what you’re working through is young people at a place in their lives where they are often told what the truth is, and you’re using the elements of design, education, and art. The juiciest stuff is how it’s all mixed together. You’re expanding the way of thinking about design through an artist’s perspective, and because of that the classroom is an art project. It is an art project that uses the tools and principles of other fields. I think there is a real possibility for arts education to serve as a leader in opening up new kinds of spaces within schools. 

Jordan  

Adopting or playing the role of the artist as an educator can grant more permission to ask questions that might not be asked otherwise. 

Often, even in spaces in schools which are safe and allow for deeper sharing, or that encourage critical inquiry, student’s insights are focused around a specific subject. That might be historical, like a revisiting or reinterpretation of histories. It’s hard to imagine a school giving permission to look at what is on the walls around them, and asking for that to be interrogated. It’s too close to home, and potentially threatening to the institution itself. 

At the same time, thinking about signs in the school is not expressly or inherently critical. It can just serve to simply to create a vessel for student’s curiosities and experiences to be expressed. By focusing around whose voices are being expressed, how signs work, and how they affect culture students can begin to see the possibility of alternatives that more closely support their needs or views. One example is a sign above a drinking fountain. The sign has a set of rules about drinking water, there is a time limit for how long you can drink, and an instruction about how to stand in line. Something like “drink for one minute, and move on.” One of the RECESS! Designers wanted to rewrite the sign to say “drink until your thirst is quenched.” In another, a student wanted to change the sign for the library to read “Kids’ Lounge in the Library, Yay!”  In the design for it, the dot of the “i’s” are hearts. That small gesture reorients the space to a child’s experience. The library is renamed in a reflection of care and fondness. Institutional language—which is the language of most things we consider signs—doesn’t allow for that. There is real power in exploring how the world is interpreted, and allowing for a combination of both critical and personal perspectives. I think one of the possibilities for art and design education is to really bridge the spectrum of experience, so that nothing is left out. So that there is room for the political, the critical, and spiritual, and the personal. It makes me wonder what schools, or institutions, or spaces would be like if the people—or kids—who utilized them had their interpretations and experiences made visible. I think I’d like to live in a world where a library sign had a heart above the “i.”

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.

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