Saturday, November 7, 2015

Design thinking - students trying to breathe life into Owings MillsMetro Center

The task for the students in Stevenson's School for Design given out in the class for Communication Design was not an easy one. Not easy to understand if one considers this description:
Builds on problem-solving and creative processes developed in Communication Design II with continued development in the implementation of design strategies. Students solve more complex human-centered design problems using design thinking and professional production practices to create multiple prototypes that function across various media platforms. 
Students conduct design research, integrate visual culture, demonstrate intermediate level design software knowledge, and practice production techniques. Through research, collaboration, critiques and presentations students solve design problems, formulate solutions, document their findings, and compose visual forms.
 And not easy to do if one considers the field of investigation: Owings Mills Metro Center, that little bit of downtown springing up behind those two towering garage structures that block it from view for those arriving by subway or driving by on Interstate 795. As lofty as the assignment was, as trite are the actual field condition.
Stevenson School of Design in Owings Mills

In communication design the students didn't have to necessarily redesign the development but, instead had to package it, develop branding, a logo, a brochure and think out a "future scenario".

When I had met the students the first time they had done field investigation, had walked through the new streets of Metro Center and spoken with a few people in the area. I had been invited to give a bit background about this TOD and sharpen their senses to some critical assessment of what they saw.

But these young men and women were quite content with what they had found, that there was a pizza restaurant, a little plaza, a library and many apartments; nothing wrong with any of that were it not for the terrible lack of character and the predictable and well worn architecture. Or the fact that this area is totally disconnected from the ailing nearby mall, old Reisterstown or the new Wegman's shopiing center springing up on the old Solo Cup site. (see my earlier blog about Owings Mills). But these students who generally came to the Stevenson campus from no further than 30 miles away saw the new development as exciting, more of a place to go to than what had been available before.

When I met the students again this week, they were in the final stages of their work and had assembled to present their products to a few assembled critics, including me and Councilwoman Vicky Almond and her Chief of Staff. Clearly there was energy in the room and the students enjoyed showing the products

I was surprised to what extent their work had turned lemons into lemonade. Several students had designed quite snazzy logos, several brochures were at least as good if not better than real estate brochures usually are and ideas for themes, interventions and possible future scenarios came fast and furious.
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The themes that inspired programming and graphics ranged from "Seasons at the center" to Bridgeway, to "getting around healthier", "the journey is as exciting as the destination" (an easy feat in this case), a botanical garden, an exhibit of local talents' handiwork  and a theme park idea quite out of the box: Jurassic Park".
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The Jurassic student tried to capitalize on archaeological finds in the area and combined the historic angle with a futuristic one by suggesting magnetic levitation trains and "gyro spheres" for getting around (not a bad idea given how spread out Owings Mills is). The getting around healthier theme envisioned "training cars", took some pages from the Nike campus and suggested an ice rink and a track.
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The Bridgeway student realized that it would take gigantic long bridges to get across all the freeways and highway ramps that separate everything in Owings Mills. If I understood it correctly actual pedestrian bridges were combined with electronic holograms suggested for instant connections and "transmission of thought energy". Indeed, Owings Mills could use a lot of positive energy and utilizing a future generation social media to transport it seemed really cool.
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A concept that choose "garden" as a concept that will inspire the Metro Center area suggested community and botanical gardens. The idea of using nature as a theme seems obvious in sprawling Owings Mills with so much leftover space that a planner once defined as "Dross-Scape". But the student kept nature from escaping from small block-like pads and missed to see the potential of making gardens and nature something that could really set Owings Mills apart.

The student that suggested artifacts and events revolving around hobby production and talents of the residents in the area probably suggested the most "local" approach by not imposing a big branding theme from above but letting it evolve, instead, from within.

I left the presentations musing about the wide gulf between the imagination of some of these students and the pretty sad reality of Owings Mills seen with an urban designers eye. I directed my eyes to the sylvan edges that occasionally appeared on the side of the wide roadways where they were glowing in the rays of the low afternoon sun, making them absolutely beautiful.
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It all depends on the perspective, an important lesson to also apply in evaluating what the students had done. On one level there was so much they didn't know but on another they dared to ignore those gaps to leap forward into the territory of imagination, precisely what design thinking is supposed to do and precisely what the real estate on the ground is lacking.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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