Adventures in Sketching

When we first started sketching classes at ac4d I thought I would quickly feel successful at representing my ideas visually. I often think in visual metaphors rather than words. And I spent tons of time in elementary school, middle school and high school (and maybe even college) doodling all over every available scrap of paper. In college, I was conducting interviews for an on-campus job, and one of the people we hired, Mei, ended up becoming a good friend of mine. Years later she told me she’d never forget my intent notetaking during the interview and how nervous it made her. But as we were concluding the interview, I set my clipboard down on the desk revealing it was actually covered in drawings, not scathing critiques. 😳

Getting back into sketching I fell back onto some old habits of using stick figures and symbols. In the first week, I hated the stuff I made so much that I didn’t save any of it. (I now regret that.) But even my stick figures have been tuned up since starting this class. The stick figures below have little detailing that allows you to position their heads more intentionally, direct their gaze or change their body language. Adding circles for hands and feet makes them feel more finished. But in a semester-long sketching class, I knew we weren’t going to stop at rendering humans as stick figures.


Our first figure drawing class had us drawing people breaking them down into heads, shoulders, hips, and feet connected by a centerline. A not so secret trick that felt like a revelation. With a few small shifts in the hips and shoulders, I could create different versions of people that conveyed body language differently. These are a few early attempts. Not quite nailing it yet.


Next, we added fleshy body features and clothes. This next image is about halfway to a having real body.


I loved the way that building the frame of the body first could free me up to sketch different body positions easily without as much guess and check work (drawing it a little wonky and then starting over from the beginning). These quick outlines are both very expressive on their own and an essential foundation for fleshing out a person more fully in a way that feels anatomically accurate.

In the images below you can see faint pencil marks from my first attempts. In the first of the sequence, my first lines put the head and torso more directly over the hips, but looking at my finished product, I realized that with the leg extended so far, the torso and head needed to be further away from the leg for a realistic balance. In the second drawing, the hands and foot were too close together, so I redrew them further apart. I also noticed that drawing the shoulders and arms in perspective was challenging. Which should appear closer? How to make them look the same size and length? How to draw the shoulders? I tried to find reference photos of yogis doing this pose, but most were just perfectly 90 degrees to the camera/illustrator. I wanted to be able to illustrate this on a different plane.


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I also found it interesting to try to illustrate bodies in ways that pushed the limits of the linear structure. I drew several figures in different versions of child’s pose. I was also experimenting with different ways of doing the mouth, eyes and nose. I used the linear framing for the first (bottom) and my later attempts were modifications of the first figure with less use of the body framing.


After drawing these side angled and asymetrical figures, I returned to the straight on, symetrical forms and drew a few more people. Hands, wrists, ankles and feet are still areas I’d like to improve on, but I was pretty happy with how these turned out overall.


I’m enjoying experimenting with different ways fo drawing hair, facial features, and altering proportions (bigger heads, wider set eyes, different musculature). I also am enjoying drawing figures with less clothing or no clothing, so I can focus on the bodies rather than how clothes drape on the body.


As much as I enjoyed sketching forms and objects the last couple of weeks, drawing humans has been really fun. I love seeing a person come alive on the page with a personality and back story that I might not have imagined when I first put pen to paper.

The Evolving Role of Design Research

As we move forward from reading foundational theorists to more modern practitioners, we have seen designers grapple with competing incentives and motivations in their work as designers. One perspective to take in understanding some of these oppositional forces is thinking in terms of the locus of control within the designer’s work. Or in other words, as designers, are we “designing with” or “designing for”?

In many ways ‘designing for’ is a given. When I first studied cartography we learned that the difference between graphic design and art is that graphic design must have a purpose or goal. Because of this constraint, you can’t start making a map without first knowing who your users are and how they are going to use it. What language do they speak? Are they walking or driving? Do they know the area or are they first-time visitors? There is a goal to be achieved and that goal can be evaluated in clear terms. Did my map help you get to the Palacio de Bellas Artes? Then it worked. The art contained within the Palacio isn’t subject to the same type of scrutiny. Unlike design, art doesn’t have to solve a problem. It can provoke, soothe, delight, confuse. It is emotional, rather than functional.

If design by definition is always “for” someone, how can we put it on a continuum contrasting it with something else? The two models I propose are the subject model of the user and the object model of the user. Is the user at a remove? Someone we view through a two-way mirror? Who can be observed, but cannot give input. This is the user as an object. In the act of scrutinizing them, we have objectified them. The locus of control is entirely with the designer. As my classmates and I discussed our experiences as logo designers or non-profit consultants, we realized that this framing was typically the default framing. We asked our clients (and by extension, our users) to step aside to let the professionals do their work. “After all, it’s what you hired me to do.”

A subject model recognizes the agency of the user. It finds ways to include them in the process or even provides opportunities for them to direct aspects of the process. Defining the user as a subject allows the designer to be in conversation with the people she is researching in a more profound way. Liz Sanders describes the utility of co-creation that involves the users and other stakeholders extensively in the design process. “Co-creation of this type involves the integration of experts and everyday people working closely together…with direct personal involvement.” She cites the capacity for all people to be creative and the ameliorative potential of including diverse voices in co-creation when the design team itself does not effectively represent the beneficiaries of their work. Sanders also recognizes the barriers to co-creation. “The shift for companies in seeing their objective change from designing for people to co-creation is profound. It takes many years for the mindset and practices of co-creation between companies and people to permeate and change an organization.”


Extending this observation about the challenges inherent in adopting an approach that maintains the locus of control with the user, John Kolko discusses the evolution of the role of the designer in organizations that are attempting to adopt a more user-centric and pervasive approach to incorporating design research into strategic decisions. The designer needs to be engaged in thoughtful, two-way communication with the users so that she can thoroughly “understand the experiential, emotional, and personal aspects of culture.” And she also needs to be able to meaningfully convey that understanding to individuals throughout the organization. The designer becomes an advocate for the user and conduit for the insights gleaned from the research process. Her role is as a facilitator of the design process and an articulator of the outcomes.

Given the awareness that Kolko and Sanders have of the organizational ecosystems that designers exist in, the object model of design that keeps the participants at a distance might seem untenable. Yet, many counterexamples exist and even dominate the culture of design.

We read Bill Gaver’s description of his development of Cultural Probes for use in design research. One example Gaver describes is capturing 10-second audio snippets of dreams that participants recorded and then sent to him on a device that didn’t allow editing or erasing. For him, these weird, irrational windows into other people’s cognition are exactly what a designer needs to spur creativity. His unique methodology has been adopted by other researchers, but they are attempting to deploy Gaver’s whimsical methodology in more sober ways. He conveys his disappointment at seeing Cultural Probes being misappropriated by more pragmatic researchers. They “design theirs to ask specific questions and produce comprehensible results. They summarize the results, analyze them, even use them to produce requirements analyses.”

Gaver’s probes are completely one-sided; they intentionally do not allow for interaction or conversation between participants and designers. The artifacts do not allow for context or explanation. The locus of control is firmly with the designer. The work of the designer is to bring new creations into the world using these snippets as muses. Those who would try to standardize or rationalize the process are missing the point. He says, “Whereas most research techniques seek to minimize or disguise the subjectivity of this process through controlled procedures or the appearance of impersonality, the Probes purposely seek to embrace it.” Despite the squishiness of information he gleans from Cultural Probes, he trusts them to effectively guided his process, saying, “the Probe returns have allowed us to predict with confidence which system our volunteers might prefer, just as we might predict which item in a shop our friends might like.” Gaver wants to use his probes to intuit what gift to buy, rather than have his participants tell him what is on their wishlist.

As significant a departure as Gaver’s approach is to the Sanders/Kolko framing, the three have a commonality; all are hoping to create a design environment that can incubate innovation. The creation of new things that have never existed before. New companies, new products, new systems, new environments, new services. The idea that a designer’s work is to create new things is culturally prominent, however, creation is not always the intention of design research. Often designer’s talents are applied to iteration, optimization, and customization, rather than innovation. Donald Norman argues that design research is only effective as a means of iterating on existing objects. He feels that design research in the service of creating new breakthroughs is unrealistic. His argument lacks a body of evidence to support it and was fiercely opposed when it was published, yet one cannot deny that many if not most professional designers are engaging in work that improves existing ideas rather than creating fully new technology.


An analogous framework for considering these two opposing views is the debate amongst evolutionary biologists of how to best model genetic change over time, gradualism or punctuated equilibrium. Gradualism suggests that species gradually evolve over time, while punctuated equilibrium suggests that species exist for long stretches of time with no genetic changes until a beneficial mutation or change in context confers an evolutionary advantage that spreads rapidly through the population. While gradualism was the mechanism that Charles Darwin advanced in the Origin of Species, the theory of punctuated equilibrium is meant to explain patterns observed by paleontologists in the fossil record.

Those who advance an innovator’s view of design believe in a world where new breakthroughs can burst onto the scene and change the way we live. The gradualist view suggests that there really are no new ideas, just a vast ecosystem in which small optimizations can give a product or service enough of an advantage to outperform its competitors. Norman believes in a world in which both gradual change and radical breakthroughs exists, but that design research is only effective in advancing gradual change.

Although biologists have theories about what types of selection pressures and environments might favor incremental change or breakthroughs, Norman does not consider what conditions would be favorable to more dramatic breakthroughs. A place to look to answer that question would be Jodi Forlizzi’s description of a product ecosystem. She details the changes in HCI from considering a single user and a single interface to considering the entire ecosystem in which a product exists, an ecosystem that includes other users and other products.

An example of a product in my lifetime that felt like a breakthrough was the iPod. Carrying around your entire music library on a device the size of a deck of cards felt amazing after spending most of my adolescence lugging around easily damaged, over-priced CDs in bulky disc carriers so that I could play them on my battery-powered Discman that was prone to skipping and always needed new batteries. This product wasn’t produced in a vacuum. At the time the iPod was introduced I already had tons of music on my computer thanks to Napster and tons of burned copies of albums or mix CDs that my friends had shared with me thanks to the ubiquity of PCs with CD drives that could burn music onto discs incredibly cheaply. The iPod emerged into a product ecosystem of friends and strangers that were sharing huge quantities of music, with several other substitute technologies that were inferior in ease of use and quality.

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While Norman would argue that the iPod was a technological breakthrough of scientists working without input from design research. Forlizzi would suggest that comprehensive, incremental design research focused on understanding that product ecosystem was responsible for the success of products like the iPod. Similarly, Jane Fulton Suri advances a theory of design research and synthesis that can be applied to experience design, rather than product design, to drive incremental changes. Both rely on studying interactions with existing products and prototypes to create optimized versions of these existing products and services.

Taking this research from the incremental and designer-driven to the incremental and user-oriented is the work of Paul Dourish. He analyzes the complexity of context when we consider designing objects that have contextual awareness. Whether it’s a smart home that adjusts to your presence to turn on lights or a customer service bot that responds to open-ended inquiries, technology is increasingly being designed to leverage an understanding of the user’s context. When successful our products feel seamlessly integrated into our lives, however, Dourish details the ways in which a shallow understanding of subjective context or a misreading of objective context creates experiences that are frustrating and eye-roll inducing. It’s your HDR recording something you would never watch in a million years, or automated hand-dryer that refuses to see you. Dourish theorizes that a thorough understanding of context is essential for the current generation of designers.


Understanding these various vantage points in terms of locus and control as well as purpose allows for reflection on the methodologies and focuses that one might choose when engaging in a new research project. Will I look to Gaver for whimsical methods that cherish the creativity and perspective of the designer? Or to Dourish for the possibilities afforded by an intricate understanding of context? Or will I attempt to find a middle ground? One researcher/practitioner that attempts to sample a little from each is Chris LeDantec. He shares stories from his research into developing technology for use by people experiencing homelessness and their caseworkers. His techniques borrow from Gaver’s cultural probes, but are also rooted in process intended to develop a deep understanding of the user’s context. He integrates aspects of Sanders-esque co-creation when he brings caseworkers into stages of the design process. His design is ultimately in the style of Forlizzi, an incremental application of existing technologies, optimized for a particular use case.

As I continue to have more experiences in choosing design research methods, I am curious to see how the different approaches yield different results. I am also curious how each of these might feel as a designer. Is it more rewarding to design in a collaborative way? Is to more palatable to design for incremental change? Or will I enjoy moments of being a mad scientist in the vein of Gaver?

Does design require an economic revolution?

As we consider the future of design and our role in it for the last two weeks, e have been reading several perspectives on the role of design in society. Although the perspectives of authors we have read have spanned beyond the field of design to include educational psychologists, propagandists, and media theorists, all have something to say about the transmission of culture and the responsibility that people have towards future generations. Whether products or services, technological or aesthetic, designers are creating the future through the things they design. The academic perspectives on this challenge range from the acutely naive to the obsessively fastidious, from myopic focus to universal theories. To varying degrees, each is concerned with the current trajectory of society, from Bernays’ opening rumination about the tendency of widely held opinions to be slow to change and reactionary to Postman’s near panic about the ravages of technology on modern life.

A brief overview of some of the theorists we have read:

Dewey (1938): Societal transmission of knowledge is achieved through the accumulation of experiences at the level of the individual. Experiences and their context are foundational to the development of humans. Through a thoughtful understanding of the component parts and mechanisms of experience, we can design more impactful ways of teaching.

Vitta (1984): Design tells us who we are, and as the communicative purpose of objects increases, the functional purpose of those objects declines. The things one creates are an expression of values, preferences, and identity. The things one consumes tell that person more about themselves and signal those attributes to others. This theory of design is in dialogue with a theory of the practice of design.

Papanek (1971): Design has the potential to change the world by solving meaningful problems, and designers have an ethical responsibility to design for the needs of people. Learned preferences and aversions limit designers’ scope of practice and ability to solve problems creatively. Irrational beliefs and values shape the preferences of consumers, manufacturers, and investors.

Bernays (1928): People with the means and inclination to influence the public can have an outsized role in determining the path society takes. Simple tactics can have an enormous effect on public opinion and behavior. People who chose to manipulate public sentiment are preventing people from being culturally stagnant and will usually not misuse their influence.

Postman (1990): We have become overconfident in the ability of technology to solve problems while underestimating its negative consequences. Solutions are more likely to come from other disciplines. The existential challenges of human experience are not meaningfully addressed by technological innovation.

While juxtaposing any article against any other leads to interesting insights, I am considering all five articles for what they tell us as a disparate but thematically connected body of work.

I first considered the scale at which each writer is operating. Dewey is concerned with the minutia. He develops a whole vocabulary to define the ways that the internal, external, past, present, positive, negative come together to create human experience and identity as the product of their interactions and their environment. Vitta is reflecting on people at the scale of their relationship to individual objects, and the qualities of that relationship. Like Dewey’s, his theory of the relationship between humans and designed objects is individualized. This perspective is foundational to understanding a societal perspective.

Papanek, Bernays, and Postman each move further away from an individualist perspective towards a societal one. While Papanek is concerned with the individual responsibility of designers to society, his focus is largely on the profession of design as a whole and the opportunities and missteps of designers collectively. Bernays’ focus is on large segments of a society that have opinions that can be shaped, cultivated or redirected. Postman’s view is the farthest removed of them all looking at the global effect of technology on humans.


While this view may make for tidy categories and organize the information neatly, it didn’t help me find new insights about these writers. In particular, the cluster of Bernays, Papanek, and Postman on the right side seemed problematic. Could I picture a tidy discourse happening between the three given their coming framing of the relevance of design at a societal level? I could not. I pictured Papanek berating Bernays for promoting consumption for consumption’s sake as Postman chided him for his shortsightedness in not being able to see the negative possibilities of social manipulation. I could see Papanek and Postman getting along as they lamented the growing Pacific trash gyre and proliferation of redundant technical products in homes across the world while homelessness, hunger, and war went unaddressed. Could I find an organizational system that honors these similarities between Papanek and Postman and acknowledges the gap that existed between them and Bernays? As I went back to my notes and marginalia, I found a word that appeared often in my notes, but only once in the texts we were reading, “capitalism.”

Each of the five writers is writing from the perspective of someone living within a capitalistic economy and many indirectly address the interplay of market forces on design choices. While each author engages with the idea of capitalism to varying degrees, we can still consider how compatible their theories are with a capitalist system as opposed to a system that might incentivize work, production, and design differently.

Postman, the only one to directly speak about capitalism, mentions capitalism in a negative light in a harried parable about misuse of technology that blames the existence of capitalism on monks who invented clocks as a means of timekeeping (ignoring the fact that commerce, accounting, taxation, and labor markets all preceded the clock). The crux of Postman’s argument is that “the computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most.” One imagines that one could substitute “money” for “computers” in this passage and still elicit Postman’s agreement. He calls out overpaid software engineers and imagines “what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people – perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.” While technology bears the blame in his critique the system of capitalism that rewards these technological pursuits cannot be considered compatible with his worldview.

While not directly engaging with the role of capitalism in influencing design, Papanek harshly criticizes advertisers for “persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care.” Papanek, also scolds designers for choosing the wrong problems to solve, for “sex[ing] up objects…making things more attractive to mythical consumers” (or a Vitta might say, increasing the “signification and communication value” of objects). Instead, Papanek wants designers to improve conditions for humanity and the environment. Yet, he stops short of implicating our economic system as a force that results in design work being allocated to solve aesthetic problems rather than making changes that would positively affect lives. He details the experience of trying to design a better toilet that would require less water as an environmental boon, but unquestioningly embeds this the observation that his innovation is going to allow a toilet manufacturer to make more money by selling toilets to people who don’t actually need to have their old toilet replaced (as the environmental effects can be replicated by putting a brick or two in the tank).

Vitta has a similarly complicated relationship with capitalism. He quotes Karl Marx, including the voice of capitalism’s ideological opposition in his writing, lamenting how “the character of commodities…takes on the phantasmagorical form of a relation between things is only the already determined social relations which exist between the same men.” Basically saying the reason a rich man’s Rolex is judged to be better than a poorer man’s Timex is because we already value the rich man for his ability to accumulate wealth, the watch just echoes that sentiment. The positionality was never about the objects, but about the men. He also says that we need a “different, more balanced relationship with things” and worries about the “knot of economic interest that closes around use objects.” However, he states, “It does not seem that attempts to escape the market’s logic…have been very useful.”

Postman, Papanek, and Vitta’s theories could fairly be characterized as capitalist critiques or varying degrees.

On the other hand, Bernays describes groups (hat sellers and margarine producers) that have a vested interest in transforming public opinion to the benefit of their own industries but conspicuously doesn’t address the financial incentives for these groups to advance a positive narrative about their products. In fact, he moralizes the changes in public opinion advanced by these groups saying “the women in this country [when changing their hat preferences and purchasing habits] quite rightly accepted the leadership of the fashion groups.” For Bernays, like many of his era, the successful capitalist was virtuous. His conviction that “the privilege of attempting to sway public opinion is…one of the manifestations of democracy.” Reminds me of the anti-democratic, capitalistic arguments at the heart of the Citizens United Supreme Court case: that money is speech, and that having monied interests influencing political discourse is an expression of democratic ideals. Bernays is no socialist.

Dewey was the most difficult to pin down. The connections between his philosophy and capitalism are in largely in the subtext. He does say about the social order: “Is it not the reason for our preference that we believe that mutual consultation and convictions reached through persuasion, make possible a better quality of experience than can otherwise be provided on any wide scale?” This quotation is in the context of providing our society’s general preference for democratic systems that are participatory and humane, over forceful and coercive ones as a justification for a progressive perspective on education. In the subtext, I came to the conclusion that Dewey’s theory of individualized education for the personal fulfillment of each child exists in contrast to the “traditional education” that he opposes. That system was designed largely for the benefit of providing the proletariat with an obedient workforce. I came to infer that although Dewey seemed to not oppose the democratic capitalism of his day, that he would not approve of the vast inequities of late-stage capitalism that deprives so many of a relevant education that empowers them to pursue their own interests personally and professionally.

This allowed me to create a new representation of these writers’ perspectives.


As these theorists debate the role of design in society, I can’t help but feel a more self-aware acknowledgment of the debate actually being about the role of design in a capitalist society is important. As we move into an era of increasing inequality and consolidation of wealth and power into fewer hands, how can we update our ideas about design? Will voices like Bernays dominate–those who mistrust the populace to arrive at reasonable conclusions in a marketplace of ideas, but still somehow trusts the public to “learn to overthrow tyranny of every sort” as a result of being exposed to ever more sophisticated manipulations by people in power? Or will we answer a more progressive call like Papanek’s–to integrate “insights of the social sciences, biology, anthropology, politics, engineering, and technology, the behavioural sciences, and much else, [into] the design process…responsive to the true needs of men” that doesn’t “defile the earth”? Surely the latter will require a rethinking of the benefits and constraints of capitalism as we are currently practicing it.

Understanding the Heart of Parks in Austin

Earlier this week we were challenged to devise a research plan for conducting ethnographic research with a segment of the Austin population that interacts with a specific non-profit. We are using contextual inquiry to learn more about this community and their needs with the ultimate goal of being able to share insights with the leaders of the non-profit organization.

We have partnered with Austin Parks Foundation, a non-profit that works with the City of Austin, local sponsors, and communities to make physical improvements to and provide programming in Austin parks, trails and green spaces.

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APF has a lot of stakeholders — community groups, donors, park sponsors, vendors – they identify 14 different stakeholders. But rather than looking at internal dynamics, civic strains, or donor needs, we are looking at people’s relationship with parks. 

Park Visitors

How do Austinites feel about spending time in parks? And how does time spent in parks shape communities and people’s sense of community?

Although not explicitly identified as stakeholders by APF, park users are the core of why APF exists. We want to talk with park visitors in three key areas of Austin: Central, which houses some of their premier parks and projects; East, which houses more low-income communities; and North, which houses more middle-class communities.

We are curious how and why Austinites spend time in parks — what brings them out? We also want to know about their expectations, values, or feelings of ownership towards parks.

We plan to explore these topics through interviews, then have them walk us through a map of Austin highlighting what parks they’ve been to in their area (and why), then we’d like to do a photo connection exercise about how their parks make them feel, and lastly we want to walk through the park with them, learn from them about how the use and experience the parks, and have them take note of their emotions throughout the visit.

APF volunteer

Park Volunteers

We also want to talk to volunteers — both casual and committed to see why they invest their time and energy into parks. Of the group of park users, volunteers are outliers in terms of their investment in parks. We want to know what public green spaces mean to them and their feelings about time spent in parks. We are also curious about their perception of the impact they have on their parks.

We are especially interested to talk to the community organizing volunteers, who not only spend time and energy improving local parks but galvanize their communities to come out and make a difference. Why are parks a passion for these community leaders?

We plan to do this through interviews, walking through the park with them to see a standard volunteer opportunity, their emotional and actual timeline of working with APF, and having them draw an organizational web — how are they connected to other volunteers? APF organizers? Other park users?

Park Partners

Although the community is a huge force for affecting change in parks, the majority of APF’s operating budget comes from partnerships with local companies. One local event production company, C3, contributes 75% of APF’s annual budget.  We’d like to talk to a point of contact there, along with other significant partners, to better understand how they perceive the community needs met by their contributions, the value of their partnership with APF, their perceptions of the impact they have on APF — and Austin as a whole. 

We plan to do this through interviews, a community assessment worksheet, a values exercise comparing APF with other organizations, and a photo connection exercise to understand how donors view the emotional impact of parks.


Austin Parks Foundation Staff

We want to talk to at least four staff members about how they understand the values of parks for communities in Austin. We’d also like to see how they nurture and sustain relationships with partners and how they communicate the value of APF. 

We plan to do this through interviews, walkthroughs of processes and paperwork, photo connections of the user experience — to really dig in on APF’s value, and a partnership path scenario — essentially, pitch us APF for a prospective partner. How does that change for different types of partnerships?


Through these experiences, we hope to understand more about the place of parks in the hearts of Austin park-goers and ways parks shape communities. We hope to generate insights that will support APF in connecting authentically with the groups that they serve and sparking engagement.  


The Neuroscience of Taking a Leap

What is it like to learn something new? While I have learned many things as an adult—coding and skiing are the two that come to mind first—I haven’t been a student in a formal educational setting since finishing undergrad at 22-years old. There are many ways that my current self feels different from the 22-year old version of me that was taking classes at UCLA. Stronger sense of self, a better and more nuanced understanding of the ways the ‘real world’ works, tons of life experiences, more thoughtful communication and empathy skills, better self-care habits and a healthier lifestyle. Things just keep getting better. So school should be better, right? Yet, adult learners often struggle in ways that younger learners do not.

I had an early observation about this while I was in college. One of my roles while working for my college’s outdoor adventure department was facilitating programs at the ropes course on campus. We had many student groups who used the facility, in addition to youth summer camp programs and corporate team building events. One of the most frequently used elements of the course was the Leap of Faith, a telephone pole that participants would climb, carefully balance on top of the wobbly pole, and then jump from the pole to a trapeze swing several feet away, all while on belay. I observed a range of responses to this challenge from participants of all ages, from eagerness to indifference to abject terror, however, there were patterns in how each age group responded to the challenge.

Elementary school students demonstrated the least fear. I remember belaying whole groups of eight- and nine-year-olds who completed the task with total indifference. Without complaint or reservation, like little lemmings they lined up and jumped off the pole, just completing another task that an adult had told them to. Brush your teeth. Clean up your room. Do your homework. Jump off a thirty-foot tall telephone pole and grab a trapeze that looks impossibly far away. They seemed to have trust in us, trust that we wouldn’t tell them to do something that they couldn’t or shouldn’t do. And they seemed to have trust in themselves, that they would try this thing and succeed or that at least if they didn’t succeed that the consequences would be insignificant. To be nine-years-old is to inhabit a world full of things you can’t do. Algebra, driving a car, roasting a chicken, amongst many others. Succeeding or failing is more situational than definitive. A nine-year-old is not a person who can’t do algebra, just one who can’t do algebra yet. The emotional and identity costs of trying and failing are low.

With our corporate groups, people were usually between the ages of about 25- and 50-years old. We would budget the time needed for a group of twelve adult participants to complete the Leap of Faith as double or triple the time needed for a youth group. Physically, it’s not much more challenging than climbing a ladder, but the mental and emotional anguish I saw people experience betrayed how different this experience was for the adults. There was lots of crying. Many people refused to even attempt it, to put a harness on and step onto the first steps just inches off the ground. People stood at the top of the pole for five, ten, thirty minutes contemplating their jump. People’s bodies would shake in response to the fear. Halfway up they would change their mind and start climbing backwards down the pole.

I learned a lot about persuasion as a 19-year old coaxing thirty-something Jenna from Accounting to jump for the trapeze. And I also found myself wondering about why adults responded so differently than the kids had. In neuroscience classes, I was learning about the structure and function of the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is most famous for not being fully developed until our mid-twenties. It’s one of the evolutionarily ‘newer’ parts of our brain and is especially well-developed in humans as compared to other animals.

Its functions include “abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes)” (Science of Psychology). Or more briefly, it helps us predict the future consequences of our behavior and choose the options that are the best for ourselves and our community. An asset in most context.

How might this part of our brain affect our willingness to jump for a trapeze or ability to learn something new? A young person with a brain that doesn’t perceive the future consequences of their choices, and doesn’t effectively choose the best options from a range of what’s available has little reason to opt out of taking the leap. They’re in the moment. As they climb each step on the pole, their evidence that they can do it is the fact that they are doing it, the possibility of a negative future outcome doesn’t distract them from the moment at hand. And they aren’t wasting energy or focus on entertaining their other options (climbing down, not doing it at all, stopping midway to cry).

It’s likely that there is an evolutionary advantage to being a young person who doesn’t have a fully functioning prefrontal cortex. Your main focus as a child and adolescent is accumulating experiences and knowledge. Having ‘good judgment’ at this stage might be counter-productive if it limits your access to new experiences or your openness to failure. The late development of this part of our brains is likely a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘bug.’ As an adult learner, I worry about the potential for this part of my brain to be counter-productive when trying to learn something. I worry about the way my brain might be biased against new experiences, taking risks and exposure to failure.

In my first week at AC4D, our instructors have been giving us guidance to ‘trust the process,’ to steel ourselves for harsh, honest criticism, to not be overly fixated on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways of doing things, to focus on the process rather than the destination. They’ve been recommending that we turn off our prefrontal cortex and engage habits of mind that were more familiar to us as children.

Already there have been plenty of opportunities to take risks and to fall short. Interviewing ten people in 2 hours to research the food truck industry looked more like six for my group (or maybe five or four and a half, depending on how you counted). Defining 300 unique ideas that would solve a problem. (We got quite a bit closer to that one.) Drawing vignettes of several of our ideas. (None ended up being something I felt particularly proud of.) Each of these experiences evoked reservations, self-doubt and vulnerability that I likely did not experience as a kid learning new things. I found myself distracted by wondering, “Am I good at this? Am I ever going to be good at this?”

As I sketched I fought to impulse to look at other people’s work as a means of affirming that I was doing it right. As we put ideas on post-it notes I found myself fixating on the number of ideas generated rather than just being in the moment as we developed ideas. As I transcribed interviews I scrupulously recorded every syllable because it seemed like the ‘best’ way to do it, efficiency be damned. As the weeks continue I’m going to practice self-awareness around these paradoxically unproductive prefrontal competencies, to lean into the ambiguity, live in the moment, trust myself, and leave behind the fear of failure that keeps us from taking big leaps.