• Steven Heller

Architecture for Ages 10 and Older

In 2010 I wrote about Design Dossier: Graphic Design for Kids published by Paint Box Press and produced by Pamela Pease, which received a Gold award from the non-profit Parents’ Choice Foundation. Her current attempt to educate kids in the visual and physical arts is Design Dossier: Architecture for Kids. With graphic design, no one was at risk, with architecture, well that’s another story. I asked Pease how her attempts to bring design literacy to the younger set is going.

How successful was your first Design Dossier on graphic design? We have been pleased by the reaction from educators, museum shops, and the design community. Many feel this is a series of books that needs to exist, but up until now has not. Kids are surrounded by design in their everyday lives, but often don’t stop to think that just about everything in their environment has been designed by someone.

The book was rather sophisticated, involving interviews with people, like me, who do not as rule teach kids of that age. How did you make the material accessible? The format of the book was designed to visually engage young people, but not to speak down to them. Its simplicity and sophistication does set it apart from other books on the shelf, and we hope it communicates that this book, and they, are something special. Tabbed pockets, foldout pages, removable cards, and a project envelope in the back of each book help make the contents feel more accessible. We include lots of images, and keep the text concise. In our introduction to 20th century design history, for example, we emphasize context, making sure to relate something about a particular decade to things young people might be thinking about today. And the contemporary designers we profile are chosen because we believe they have something interesting and important to communicate that will resonate with aspiring young designers.

Now you have published one on architecture. Its one thing to introduce graphic design – a two dimensional form – and another to explain the intricacies of designing buildings. What were the fundamental differences in approach? Our approach is the same. For some kids, thinking in three dimensions comes as naturally as thinking in two. In Design Dossier: Graphic Design for Kids, we touch upon two-dimensional topics such as typography and layout. In Design Dossier: Architecture for Kids, we discuss three-dimensional subjects such as building materials, or the forces that push and pull on an object. We focus on the common building blocks of design and how to communicate via the two and three dimensional processes of sketching and prototyping. Our goal is not for students to master these complex topics, but to be exposed to them. In both cases, we challenge kids to interact with physical materials as well as to work digitally.

In some ways, our books are like “take your daughter / son to work day.” We try to give students a glimpse of what it might be like to be a designer or an architect: what sorts of things designers and architects think about and do on a daily basis, and why. Your kids may not understand absolutely everything they see, but they will have an idea of what your professional life is like. And they may be inspired to explore further those things that capture their interest.

What can children truly derive from the material you are giving them. What is their take-away? That their ideas matter. That they can impact the world they live in by observing, thinking, and doing.

Have you had actually responses from the kids? Anyone becoming an graphic designer or architect? We have heard from a number of kids. A couple have mentioned that the section on design history helped them with school projects. We have received several photos of things kids have designed. One expressed a new-found interest in architecture that prompted him to sign up for a computer-aided drafting class. But, for most of our young audience, it’s a little early to tell what direction their future may take!

Every designer or architect can probably point to a moment when they realized what they wanted to do in life. An experience, a book, a movie, an object, or a person inspired them to pursue a certain path that they may not have realized was open to them, and encouraged them to have confidence in their own ability to create. There is a direct link, for instance, that connects my 20+ year career in design to a Betsy McCall fashion designer kit (with its little orange light-box) that someone gave me when I was about 8 or 9. So many designers who I’ve spoken to have shared those moments as well, and we try to include some of those stories in our books.

One final thing, how did you finance this ambitious project? Blood, sweat, and tears! And the help of generous designers and architects who shared their work and their wisdom, without whom this project would not be possible. Paintbox Press (the independent publishing company I founded in 1998) has financed upfront production costs so far.

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