The Institute of Play is a New York City–based nonprofit that designs “experiences that make learning irresistible”—a mission that encompasses everything from digital game research to a pair of innovative public schools in New York and Chicago. Now the Institute is trying to amp up after-school learning through its Off the Wall Learning series. “The curriculum for after-school programs tends to be written for teachers,” explains Criswell Lappin, the Institute’s creative director. “We thought it would be interesting to create a mechanism to allow students to do self-directed projects. We’re trying to create richer, more visual opportunities for interaction for teens.”
To foster these self-directed projects, the Institute decided to commission posters that basically act as giant visual lesson plans. The idea is that teachers could hang up the posters, give a brief introduction, and then set the students loose to figure out the rest for themselves. For the posters, the Institute turned to the designer and illustrator Timothy Goodman; he and Lappin had previously worked together when Lappin was the creative director of Metropolis magazine. (Full disclosure: Lappin and I worked together at Metropolis, and Goodman is a regular Imprint contributor.) Goodman ultimately designed two Off the Wall posters. One instructs students to build their own water-filtration device from recycled materials, while the other asks them to explore their immediate surroundings and document what they find.
Above and below: Timothy Goodman’s two posters for the Off the Wall Learning series. (Click the images to view larger versions.)
Earlier this month, the water-filter poster was tested by a group of educators—all of them members of the Hive NYC Learning Network—at a workshop in New York. They had “very positive feedback,” according to Lappin, and both posters are now available for teachers to download and use in the classroom. But the project does not end there. The Institute has also designed a “process template” (PDF) for educators looking to create their own custom Off the Wall posters—in theory, they just need to fill out the form and hand it off to a designer.
Of course, packing a teenager-friendly lesson plan into one elegant, easy-to-understand poster is no easy feat. In the interview below, Goodman explains the thinking behind his two Off the Wall posters:
Can you tell me a bit about the brief you received from the Institute of Play?
The Institute of Play is a fantastic not-for-profit reshaping the way we learn and engage. Naturally, I was stoked to work on a lesson plan for them. After working on a Metropolis magazine cover for Criswell in the past, he and I have built a great working relationship that balances respect and deadpan sarcasm. So when we sat down to ideate together, there was no shortage of great ideas and insults. Early on, we decided that it was important that the posters feel DIY. The only direction was that I had to use all the copy you see, no matter what ideas I came up with.
You had to fit a lot of information into a relatively small space. Was it difficult to accommodate so many instructions into a poster?
Yes, and admittedly I was being a bit of a pain in the ass, pushing back on Criswell to cut more copy. “Designer vs. Copywriter” is a fight I’m all too familiar with from my time in branding and at Apple. Compromise is important, but it’s our job as designers to offer viable solutions for editing and compartmentalizing dense information.
The posters act as a sort of mini lesson plan. Because of this, did you have to think about designing them differently than you would a “normal” poster?
The posters had to be playful, informative, and engaging. However—since it is, in fact, a lesson plan—navigation was definitely paramount, and I certainly had to take into account the abundance of copy. Most posters don’t have to operate this way, so I really enjoyed the challenge.
For the water-filter poster: Did you try building one of the DIY water filters? And for the “Explore Your World” poster, did you walk around taking the photos seen in each frame?
Definitely. A designer must know a thing through and through. There are no shortcuts. I did indeed build the water filter and shoot it; and I did spend a day walking around New York City shooting all the images you see, with my very talented photographer friend Aaron Taylor.
Above: The “process template” is intended to help educators commission their own Off the Wall posters. Click the image to see a larger version, or view the PDF.
Below: Photos from a recent workshop where educators tested the posters, with help from a few student interns
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