Student group creates online series to help keep students connected

LAWRENCE - When the University of Kansas announced last month that spring break would be extended an extra week and that all in-person classes would be moved online in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, students – along with the rest of the University community – were forced to mobilize in the face of an unprecedented number of unknowns. 

With the reality of a suddenly remote academic environment having yet to set in, a group of KU design students came together to explore ways to help keep their community engaged and connected.  

The students — executive board members of Prototype, KU’s student chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) — with guidance from the group’s faculty advisor, design professor Andrea Herstowski, used the extended spring break to develop plans.  

The challenges of a remote educational environment were easy see from the outset. All programs in the KU School of Architecture & Design are rooted in hands-on inquiry and creative production in collaborative studio settings. Though digital technologies are important, they are merely tools in an expansive kit utilized by student designers. Physical tools, tactile experiences, environmental considerations, and investigations of space are integral to developing the technical expertise, research competencies, and critical thinking skills needed in all design disciplines.   

Though the challenges were easy to see, some of the solutions to continuing the semester successfully were less clear. The rapid response by KU Informational Technology staff to bolster remote capacities, make software available, and provide training resources to students, faculty and staff was essential in taking some of the pressure off by providing stable online platforms to deliver coursework and collaborate. And due to the timing of the public health crisis, much of the hands-on investigative aspects of studio work completed up to that point had at least yielded some usable outcomes on which to move forward remotely.    

With these positives stated, one of the most challenging aspects of this remote reality for students is continuing the established momentum of the semester and academic year away from the familiar setting of campus. The physical separation of students from their classmates and instructors, and removed from the studios, labs, and maker spaces where so much collaborative work happens is a disruption of the highest order.  

During their initial conversation on how to respond, Prototype students and Professor Herstowski pinpointed that the abrupt disruption of normalcy and sudden loss of proximity had the potential to leave students feeling unmoored from their school community and disconnected from their ongoing projects.  

“Obviously, everything is online now,” said visual communication design student and Prototype president Sierra Hunter, “so we had to find a way to keep everyone motivated online and still have a sense of togetherness.” 

The influential mid-20th century designer Charles Eames famously said, “Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.” Put another way, essentially, design is problem solving. With a key problem identified, the students set to work designing a solution that could help to mitigate some of the side effects of the interrupted semester. By the time classes resumed online after the extended spring break, the students had developed a weekly online discussion series and already had four consecutive weeks of events set.  

The series, dubbed Food for Thought, gives students in all School programs the opportunity to interact with practicing designers to gain technical instruction and insights about professional life in a conversational (albeit remote) setting.    

The first event of the series, which took place on the first Friday of the newly remote semester, featured Chicago-based motion graphics designer Lucas Nelson. The next two events featured Trevor Basset, illustrator and Senior Designer at Starbucks, and creative director Sydney Michuda of Super Creative. The three discussed their professional experiences before and after social distancing, the challenges and opportunities caused by working exclusively from home, and offered specific guidance on how to create successful, professional projects. 

Food for Thought, though brand new, is a natural extension of Prototype’s activities. The group develops a busy schedule each year: inviting experts to discuss various topics that affect designers; organizing studio tours at area firms; holding portfolio and technical workshops with design professionals; participating in KU Design Week; and more. Remote events have been organized in past semesters, but most of the group’s activities take place in physical settings. Though not ideal (and hopefully short-lived), the constraints placed upon the group by this necessitated social distancing have proven that remote events can be successful. And in some instances, they can be important in ways that go beyond the event’s content. 

“Currently, [Prototype’s] goal is to just keep the design community alive and motivated as we are all experiencing drastic changes to our day-to-day routines,” said Sierra Hunter.   

Some projects that are still in process, such as a series of largescale mural installations the group is developing for design studio spaces in Chalmers Hall, will have to be put on hold. But where possible, these students are proving that engaging design and designers can create useful and meaningful responses to unprecedented challenges.   

Food for Thought continues Friday, April 17th at 12:00pm with New York-based freelance designer Jessica Marak. See Prototype on Instagram for more information about past and future events. 

The Prototype Executive Board includes: Monica Can, Ho Chin Minh City, Vietnam; Sara Denoyelles, Wichita; Bhroovi Gupta, Mumbai, India; Ben Hoepner, Shawnee; Sierra Hunter, St. Louis, MO; Tiana Lawson, Lawrence; Anna Matuella, Omaha, NE; Annie Myers, Shawnee.