The final charrette: A ride to remember

Rollercoasters. They’re the fun, exhilarating and adrenalin-pumping amusement ride loved by thrill-seekers and theme park junkies the world over. Yet for the uninitiated, strapping yourself in for your very first ride tests both your nerve and your resolve. Nothing can prepare you for the emotional minefield you experience as the ride propels you through its series of steep climbs, fast-paced falls and breath-taking loops. It’s an encounter like no other, delivering the ultimate mix of excitement and pure terror, which is why it provides the perfect analogy to describe my latest design experience; the Design Charrette.

By definition, the concept of a design charrette is intimidating enough, as it is a period of intensive collaborative design work undertaken to meet a set deadline (Department of Environment and Primary Industries 2013, 1-2; Merriam-Webster 2016). Couple this with the fact that the outcome would determine 60% of my final grade in the subject Design and Creative Thinking, and the relative failure of our practice ‘mini-charrette’ two weeks earlier, and the cause of my anxiety becomes obvious. To say I was reluctant to strap myself in for the charrette ‘ride’ would be an understatement, yet the experience itself proved to be my most exhausting yet rewarding rollercoaster ride to date… A journey of emotional highs and lows in the world of design.

Despite my initial apprehension and the fact that we’d spent nine weeks nervously waiting ‘in line’ for the details of the brief to be released, the ride began smoothly. The brief required us to design an innovative strategy to enrich the first-year experience for students in QUT’s Creative Industries Faculty and produce similar outcomes to those called for in the mini charrette. This was somewhat comforting as it had an element of familiarity that made the task seem less daunting. Armed with the feedback received from the mini charrette and our resultant list of improvement strategies, our group wasted no time in starting the assignment. We were determined to complete as much of the task as possible prior to the compulsory tutor consultation that was to take place at the end of the first week. As such, I suggested that we all dedicate time to conduct individual background research and consider some initial ideas to bring to our first group meeting. It was a strategy I thought would guarantee a comfortable ride, reasoning that organization and pre-planning would facilitate a speedy and effective design solution. Indeed, this seemed to work incredibly well, as by the end of our meeting, we had successfully decided on our chosen strategy; a creative common-room called ‘Artispace’, openly accessible to all first-year Creative Industries students. Featuring a communal studio work-space, a casual lounge area, shared kitchenette facilities, and a purposely designed wall for students to showcase their creative works, we reasoned that it would be a welcoming and inviting place where students could relax and socialise with their peers. The concept also included weekly creative workshops run by senior students and regular Q&A sessions featuring current and past students from a variety of creative study and industry disciplines. As such, Artispace was designed to address many of the challenges associated with the first-year experience, highlighted during our background research, including a lack of student connection and belonging, limited on-campus engagement and activity, and a poor sense of community (Bridgstock 2016).

Artispace_Explained

This meeting was also used to gather additional background research, conduct interviews with current first-year students, decide on our communication strategy, delegate individual tasks to each group member and resolve all of the finer details associated with our concept (i.e. proposed room location and regularity of the workshops). We then spent the final few days leading up to the compulsory consultation prototyping our solution, consolidating our research and creating all of the required branding.

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Come consultation day and almost halfway through what had been a comparatively mild and enjoyable ride, with no sudden dips or sharp, sweeping turns in the track, soon degenerated into the heart-stopping experience it had the propensity to be all along. Our plummeting fall into reality came unexpectedly and there was little I could do but to hold on. Explaining our ‘Artispace’ strategy to our tutor, she aptly pointed out that in our haste to complete the research and ideation phase as quickly as possible, we had failed to conduct either phase thoroughly. Although we had technically undertaken a ‘textbook’ design process by conducting initial background research and using ideation techniques to refine the details of our concept once chosen, we had mistakenly ‘fallen in love’ with one of our first ideas, and resultantly, neglected to explore any alternative solutions. While this criticism cut deep as we hadn’t seen it coming, it was justified and entirely constructive.

Alas, we had reached the scariest and yet what proved to be most beneficial part of the ride. As rightly identified, not only had we failed to spend adequate time exploring a full and comprehensive range of ideas, but we had also failed to fully evaluate our research and dig deep enough to find the true crux of the issue we were trying to address.

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Source: (Newman 2006)

Although we had correctly identified that the inherent lack of community that exists within the faculty as one of the main issues associated with the current first-year experience, we’d neglected to take the all-important next step of further exploring the notion of ‘community’ and ways it can be established. We mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that creating a physical ‘space’ would automatically bring people together and establish community. By highlighting that the faculty already has a range of under-utilised studio, study and relaxation spaces available for student use, our tutor helped us to realise that our proposed ‘Artispace’ concept lacked originality and would do little to enrich the first-year experience. Furthermore, she suggested that instead of solely focusing on the problems that exist with the current first-year experience, that we should consider the many opportunities prevalent within the Creative Industries faculty and the wider community and how they might inform a more effective design solution. As deflating and nerve-racking as this feedback was, sending us catapulting through a 360 degree emotional loop in the track, we emerged from the other side equipped with the strategies needed to revisit the research and ideation phase of the design process and devise a more effective solution to the brief.

Flustered and doubting our ability to devise a new solution, let alone complete all of the required elements of the brief by the rapidly approaching deadline, we dug deep to find the momentum needed to scale the incline that confronted us. Realising we had already completed a significant portion of the task once, I knew we had both the skills and experience required for the task. Instead of searching for an eject button, we launched ourselves into another group brainstorming session and spent several hours reflecting on the feedback we’d received for potential ‘opportunities’ within the first-year experience.

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It was during this process that we realised three important facts that set us on the path to developing our new and improved concept:

  1. People must have something in common (i.e. shared interests or a shared goal) in order for a community to be established
  2. First-year creative industries students have a range of creative skills and expertise that are commonly overlooked by the university.
  3. There is a constant demand for creative talent within the wider community

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Seeing potential in a collaborative program that not only connects first-year students with mutual skills and interests but also benefits others, we devised our final design solution; a creative industries specific program titled In Cahootz.

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Essentially, we took inspiration from the operational model of Griffith University’s in-house student design studio Liveworm, to devise an extra-curricular program that brings likeminded students together to collaborate on real-world projects, submitted by clients from the wider community. These would be advertised on a central website, where students could nominate the projects they are interested in, which can be of any creative nature. The program would also incorporate student support by experienced mentors and access to all resources, materials and facilities required to complete the projects.

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By connecting students with shared skills and interests and encouraging them to work collaboratively towards a common goal, the solution would therefore successfully encourage a sense of belonging and build that vital sense of community.

The end of the ride was almost in sight and our roller-coaster ‘car’ was nearing the top of the final crest in the track. While several late nights, lengthy group meetings and countless hours of individual work still lay before us in order to prototype and evaluate our concept, film and produce our pitch video, and prepare our presentation, the dedication and commitment of our group allowed me to enjoy the climb towards the summit – presentation day.

On the day of the presentations, despite the majority of the hard work being behind us and rehearsals having gone to plan, I was still incredibly nervous. Could there still be some unexpected loop in the track that lay ahead? I watched as some of the proceeding teams pitched some well-presented, highly innovative and well resolved solutions. I squirmed as teams experienced technological difficulties, reached the strict ten-minute time limit before finishing their presentation or were faced with curly questions from the tutors and audience. I wondered how ours would compare and whether we’d done enough but I took solace in the fact that the feedback received during our consultation had allowed us to develop a solution that was far stronger than our original idea and we had rehearsed our presentation several times to minimise the risk of a final nose-dive over the edge.

All factors considered, I believe our presentation went extremely well and I was both satisfied and proud of the end result. Unfortunately the final 10 seconds of our pitch video went un-viewed due to the strict time constraints, but I felt that our presentation was polished, informative and addressed all of the required criteria.

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Overall, our design solution was unique and we successfully engaged the audience with our introductory visual performance, which seemed to be appreciated. The subsequent question and answer session with the tutors was also a positive experience as we answered all of the questions with relative confidence. Similarly, the live GoSoapBox poll held on the day, revealed favourable responses from the audience regarding our PowerPoint presentation and overall concept. While a few respondents expressed concern regarding time commitments with the program, this was highlighted and addressed during the evaluation stage of our design process. Although the fact that we neglected to explore the possibility of also allowing students to submit projects for the program was one potential weakness in our design solution, as suggested by the tutors, our concept appeared to be a viable possibility.

Looking back on the ride that was the charrette experience, I now realise how vital those unexpected loops and terrifying descents were, in growing my experience as a designer. While difficult to face at the time, I gained a great deal of personal satisfaction from rising to the challenges presented and consider it to have been a wholly gratifying and rewarding experience. Although I wouldn’t ‘line up’ again in a hurry, the experience has taught me to face future challenges with enthusiasm. For there will always be a rollercoaster of exhilarating highs and corresponding lows in the world of design, as clients respond differently to the work you produce. The question is, when client feedback forces you to loop back to the drawing board and start again, what will your response be? Are you willing to take the ride?

References:

Bridgstock, Ruth. 2016. “DXB101 Design and Creative Thinking: First Year Experience lecture notes” Accessed March 29, 2016. https://blackboard.qut.edu.au/bbcswebdav/pid-6273923-dt-content-rid-5846629_1/courses/DXB101_16se1/FYE%20lecture%201803.pdf

Department of Environment and Primary Industries. “Design Charrettes.” Last modified April 26, 2013.  http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/effective-engagement/toolkit/tool-design-charrettes

Merriam-Webster. “Charrette.” Accessed May 21, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/charette

Newman, Damien. 2006. “Illustration of the Process of Design from a great height.” Image. Accessed May 22, 2016. http://nitibhan.com/2012/11/09/mapping-the-path-to-prototyping-an-adaptable-user-centered-design-process/

 

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