Note: I wrote this as a final reflection for my CS 247 class, Design for Understanding. I initially wanted to just submit this as a paper, but writing it gave me a lot more insight into why exactly I love design and some of the principles I’ve taken to heart from this class. I share it as a snapshot of how I’m developing and growing as a designer.
Part one, in which I talk about what I learned
There’s an episode in Spongebob Squarepants where all Spongebob has to do to pass his driving exam is to fill in the blanks of Mrs. Puff’s exasperated sentence: “What I learned in boating school is… blank-ity! Blank-ity! Blank!”
How about CS 247? What I learned in CS 247 is… how to sketchnote.
I’m kidding, though I do seem to have a bug for sketchnotes that won’t leave me, even after this class is over.
In truth, I think what’s so cool but so daunting about HCI is loaded in its core proposition: technology affects and is affected by the humans that use it. It’s something that truthfully was in the background of my mind as I went through CS 147, which emphasized more of the process of design thinking than its implications. Arriving in CS 247 this quarter, then, I came in thinking it was going to be more of the same. And then we get into the topic of gender, and it immediately became real.
When I heard the topic in the first class, I was honestly scared of a number of things. I was scared I’d get it wrong, that I’d slip up someone’s pronouns or walk into a really poorly-worded statement. I was scared I’d hurt someone inadvertently. The actions and consequences in murky topics with no clear right or wrong initially frightened me more than I care to admit. But throughout the course, I learned to let go of those fears and instead move fast and make things. I had to allow myself to make mistakes in order to learn.
I learned instead to let go of those fears and instead move fast and make things.
Get past the roadblock of just talking things out without making any meaningful work happen, and instead actually start doing things: charrettes, needfinding, whatever it takes to draw and act. Apologies to the d.school, but while design thinking is great as a set of training wheels, don’t treat it as a strict set of rules all good projects must follow to be successful. The reality is so much more complicated than its hexagons may imply. (I take a stab at it below. Messy? Yes. More accurate? Arguably so.)
I perhaps learned the most when I was working within teams. Past interactions on team projects have often left the responsibility on me to guide the group and push it to completion, but this class forced me to grow in that respect. The two teams I was in this past quarter taught me a lot about what it means to be a good team member. With my team in Flying While Trans, I learned to take a step back and make space for others. I learned how to manage difficult team dynamics even when others weren’t being up front with their own feelings. I tried to make space for those who need time to develop their own communication skills (something that I admit I’m still working on).
With my team in Glass Ceiling, I learned how awesome it is when team members are all on the same page; differing perspectives, perhaps, but motivated all by the same underlying goal and vision. I learned that each team is different, and I’ve learned to outline what I and others want in a team and agree to it before we get started, holding ourselves accountable when we fail to do so.
At every step of this class, I was demanded to consider the implications of what we were building. Who were we targeting? What was our goal, and how does each component get us there? Every action required a reasoned-out intent and a compassionate perspective in order to do right by the stories we were sharing and considering.
Compassion, empathy, and intentionality: that’s what I’m taking away from this class.
Part two, in which I apply these skills to musical theater
Odd choice of topic, I know! First, a little background: I didn’t get myself involved in musical theater until Stanford, and when I did in sophomore year, I fell hard. The stage quickly became my home on campus, whether it was a tiny black box theater in the Nitery or the large one that filled MemAud.
But musical theater isn’t faultless. Musical theater is wonderful and incredible and deeply emotional, but it is also systematically racist and classist in the way it produces shows. Books and scores can be insightful in the ways they speak to the human condition, but can also be seriously problematic in the way they handle sensitive topics like race relations, mental illness, and sexual violence.
How, then, do I reconcile my love for the art with its reality? How can I at once love something so completely, and also be deeply hurt and angered by it as well?
Step one: I get my thoughts onto paper. I mind map, if only to just begin to make sense of the many ideas and facts racing through my head. For the purposes of this exercise, I focus on race and the ways it manifests in musical theater; still a really loaded area filled to the brim with subtopics, but it’s a start.
From my mind map, I’m immediately drawn to the “Casting” section, something that’s been on my mind ever since I got to campus and an issue I’ve personally felt in my time here. If I could address the Stanford theater community, what would I do? How would I get their attention?
I brainstorm. Many terrible or unreasonable ideas, but some that could get a worthy shrug, too:
- An infographic, sharing statistics
- A game from the perspective of producers, casting roles in the musicals they’re producing
- A game from the perspective of actors, answering casting calls in the hope of landing a role
- An interactive explainer about casting calls, following people of different ethnicities as they each audition for the same three casting calls
- A self-written musical, focusing on the struggles of getting cast
In honor of the Tony’s being tomorrow, I decided to take that last idea (initially something I threw on here as a joke but grew to love) because:
- Theater folks love getting unnecessarily dramatic,
- it’s an unconventional, attention-grabbing, and potentially viral way to share information, and
- it’s the end of the year, so why not?
For the purposes of this assignment, I scale down the concept to a parody of “Hello,” a song from The Book of Mormon. The satirical musical’s already well-received in the theater community on campus, so it seemed like an appropriate choice for this project.
So please, enjoy my very crappy first demo of the introduction:
(We haven’t quite gotten to Lin-Manuel Miranda levels of genius yet, but give me time!)
I don’t know if I’ll finish the parody (because it clearly showed so much promise!), but I do know my next steps if I did: conducting more primary and secondary research from within Stanford’s community of actors, gathering statistics, writing the rest of the parody, sharing it with close friends, and so on until the message comes across just right. Thereafter, I’d record it on something that’s not my phone, film a music video to go with it, and boom! Share it across all theatrical list-servs on campus. Become famous. Make it to Broadway. Win a Tony, even.
Jokes aside, I’m so proud of the work I’ve done as part of some awesome teams, and I’m truly appreciative of the class and the ways in which it’s challenged me to grow as a designer and as a human being. I cannot wait to continue learning and honing these skills. If I could sum up what I learned in CS 247, it’s this:
Look at problems from a point of compassion; it’s what we’re all compelled to do.
Until next time,