Michael Ellsworth

Co-Founder & Principal of Civilization

Michael Ellsworth

Co-Founder & Principal of Civilization Episode 12

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Hello, and welcome to Episode 12 of Design Edu Today, the podcast series discussing topics concerning the state of interactive design education at institutions of higher learning. I am your host, Gary Rozanc, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Today’s guest is Michael Ellsworth. Michael is co-founder and Principal of Civilization, a creative agency based in Seattle that believes in design as social change. Michael has built over a decade of breakthrough work for a diverse group of clients, ranging from sub-pop records, chef Michael Hebb, The Frye Art Museum, the US Department of Energy, the Seattle Public Library and the World Economic Forum. He has also used his skills as a public programmer to facilitate discussions; his recent design lecture series brought the voices of iconic designers like Stefan Sagmeister, David Carson and Ken Garland to a collective conversation on the way design impacts us all. For all the complex ways one can push boundaries, Michael has always kept it very simple, finding the creative idea a the core of the story, question or experience and then let it lead you to the next one. Michael continues to stay on the path of ideas that matter in this unique moment and the next.

Welcome, Michael.

Michael:
Hello, Gary. Thanks for having me.
Gary:
You’re welcome. I’m excited about our talk today for a couple of different reasons, but before I get started down that line of questioning, I want to know a little bit more about why Civilization categorize on their website web, print and identity. Why the distinction?
Michael:
That’s a great question. So, we wanted to make our portfolio as neutral as possible. We wanted to make it really simple because we work with a variety of different partners and they might not be totally in tune with the deliverable they need, for instance, so we work with a lot of non-profits and a lot of government organizations and a lot of museums and not to say that they’re not educated or not familiar with what they need but we wanted to make it really clear to people that when you land, it’s our featured projects but then we wanted to make it really clear that we make websites, we do identity and we do print work and we thought that instead of writing a bunch about that, let’s just make it really simple with the nav.
Gary:
Right. That’s kind of what I was figuring that it had to do with the client expectation, because they honestly don’t…that’s how they perceive design but the reason I brought it up is because there’s so many titles now out there for design: there’s print design, identity design, UX, UI design, interactive design, web design, product design, that it’s getting out of control and I just wish we didn’t have those qualifiers any more; to me I’m just a designer.
Michael:
I agree; I feel they are becoming archaic. It’s interactive or visual communication; it’s just really how we communicate.
Gary:
Yeah. It’s design!
Michael:
It’s design, yeah, exactly. But then, design is in this time of, it’s becoming this buzzword; it’s the first time when we have these CEOs that are like, we need design thinking, which is really exciting but at the same time can be frustrating when have been a designer.
Gary:
Yeah, it’s one of those ones that you wish people had a better understanding of it but at the same time, at least we’re getting, these people are starting to understand the value of it, I guess.
Michael:
Exactly.
Gary:
OK, not understand the value of it, but seeing the value of it beyond the creation of an artifact.
Michael:
Exactly.
Gary:
That they’re actually seeing it as a process for doing something that can be applied to teaching math all the way to solving community problems; it’s just a larger thing and I’m glad that’s coming to fruition.
Michael:
Absolutely. We’re working right now with helping Ayse Birsel with her book tour and it’s Designing the Life You Love and it’s all about design principles to your life, applying that, so you’re absolutely right: from math to just how you budget your family spending in a month; it’s a pretty interesting time.
Gary:
Yeah, it definitely is. But the reason I really wanted to speak with you, and the reason of the whole idea behind this podcast is that, when I’ve got three credits to teach everything they need to know about interactive design, what should I be teaching and so the real question is, I’m curious about your conversation with my recent guest Zachary Smith, Vice President of Technology at Substantial. When he introduced us to each other, he mentioned in the email, “Michael and I get together from time to time to talk shop and today we are talking about ways we feel formal education isn’t always setting people up for success in the workforce.” So, I’m assuming that the two of you aren’t the only people running agencies or leading out design teams, to have these types of discussions.

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during any of those conversations because as a design educator, I really have to work hard to get any kind of metrics on how the education I’m giving is actually preparing students. So, could you share the details of that conversation, basically give the listeners a good, old-fashioned critique of the product design educators are sending out into the industry?

Michael:
Sure. Zach and I meet for lunch quite a bit and talk about ideas and the industry and talk shop. One thing that we talk about is the passion and learning how to learn, and I think that is the best thing someone can have, that trait is amazing. That’s what I look for when I’m adding someone to our team. It’s being able to take all the tools around us, all this information we’re swimming in, and being able to distill it down and use it in a practical way. To have that thirst for knowledge and not just regurgitate something but really look at it and be like: huh, critical eye, think about it, how can I apply this, how can I do this in a new way? And I always get on a high horse about history and kind of knowing where things have come from, when we talk about design in that larger context; why these breakthrough moments have had such an impact on culture at large. Why they happened; who made them happen and how can you look at that and take that and run with it. So, from an education perspective, I really think history is such an important part of it, but not in a boring way, not in the way it’s like, here was Gutenberg’s bible, the first movable type and then, you know…that’s great, you should definitely get into that, but I think there’s a really exciting way to get into that and that kind of interest for me came out of music, as a failed musician; as a kid, I was totally into rock ’n roll and just wanted to learn everything about it: wanted to learn how it came about, where it came from and where it went, where it was going and where it has been and I apply that same kind of thinking to design and that same kind of thinking when I’m talking with people about why they do design, why they’re into it.

It’s like if you ask a guitar player who their favorite guitarist is, they’ll probably name five, it’s really hard. Or their favorite album. But you ask an interaction designer or graphic designer who their favorite designer is and it’s like deer in headlights: Ummm….I like this website, or I like this blog. And not everyone, that’s a general comment, but that was really an impetus for this design lecture series that we put on; it’s bringing people in and kind of making them feel like rock stars; make it feel like hey, this is important, this piece of communication that I put out changed things, just like The White Album changed things. So, I think that that sometimes gets cut from our education programs because things are changing so rapidly and there’s so many things to learn but I think there could be an interesting way to frame the history with the now. For instance, April Greiman: love her, first person to use Mac Paint to create a piece of artwork or a piece of communication and April didn’t sit down to try to break the rules; it just happened because she was interested in this and she was just playing; she’s very playful that way, and learning, looking at that from an interaction designer can be very valuable to see, hey, this is the first important piece made on a computer. And even though the end result was a printed piece of material, it still used the same tools, so I think just figuring out a context for these historic moments and how they apply today is important; you know the cliché saying: “if you don’t know history, you’re bound to repeat it”. Maybe it’s good if we repeat some of it, but put our own take on it.

Gary:
Well, you know…OK, I’m going to back up to that just a little bit. So, you use the analogy, ask a guitarist their favorite guitarist and they’ll name at least five. But I’m curious, and I saw you did go to…I did see somewhere on the things that I was doing research on, that you did study music.
Michael:
Yeah.
Gary:
But I don’t think people say that they could name their five favorite guitarists, they learned that in school; I think they knew that before they went to school. So, why don’t designers, why don’t they know…why would musicians, budding musicians, be more cognizant of their history of what they want to do, where designers aren’t in their early stages and students aren’t? It is total deer in headlights when you ask them to name one person. They don’t even stop and realize that the I Love New York logo came from somewhere. They don’t see that as a piece of design.
Michael:
And why that came, why that came into fruition; it wasn’t to sell tourist T-shirts and coffee mugs. Milton Glaser, it was a moment where he saw a problem, he saw a problem in New York that people were disenfranchised with it; it was becoming a place that people had a love-hate relationship with. So to step back to what you’re saying, I agree and I think it’s a cultural issue; I think that if you ask most people where I Love New York came from or who made that, they would probably say a machine; they don’t really think that it was a human. So, there’s one that design isn’t in the cultural fabric as much as music is; we have the rock star, so it’s easier, it’s more accessible. Although with the way information is available now, that’s kind of a half-ass excuse because you can look that up if you’re interested.

Also to say, you brought up music school; when I was studying music, I did learn a lot about musicians I didn’t know about and they weren’t necessarily pop musicians but they were jazz musicians and composers that I didn’t know about pre-music school. One of my favorites, Steve Reich, I didn’t have access to that. I didn’t grow up…well I grew up with the internet but it was very late teens so I had to find a lot of stuff through friends and the old ways, my pre-internet brain operated very differently! But it’s a great question but I think that even just in class, for instance, an inspiration session like, hey, where does this inspiration come from? Where do these ideas come from? Because ideas aren’t built in a vacuum; they’re the collision of ideas, they’re the rub, they’re bouncing things off of each other; they’re finding ways to see something and add to it or change it or mutate it. So, those inspirations and those ideas can come from anywhere; they don’t need to be inside the design world per se but that’s a good place to start.

Gary:
When I do, where I used to previously teach before I came to UMBC, I used to teach the History of Design and that was, the way I taught it was, cause and effect.
Michael:
Nice!
Gary:
And we’d kind of start at the Gutenberg Bible; that was the cause. So, what was the effect of it. And then you keep building that up and you talk about the Marshall Plan in World War 2: what effect did that cause? What did that influence have on design and you can see that design is not just done in a bubble; it’s a reaction to cultural things and in response it also causes cultural phenomenon that then cycle itself back and forth. So I loved that.
Michael:
Very parallel with art, right? It’s taking these cultural things that are happening and it’s trying to provide solutions to the problems or trying to visually communicate and articulate these ideas. Whereas art creates more questions but you need to have that historical significance or a cause and effect as you say; there needs to be a reason not just to pull it out of the air. I mean, that’s OK if it’s just practice or an expression but if you really want to use design in its fullest, it really needs to have something to rub up against.
Gary:
I’m going to jump into a question that I was going to ask in a little bit, but you kind of segued into it a little bit. So, I was recently listening to your conversation with Jennifer Snyder on the Create Your Own Path podcast and something you mentioned really stuck out: you said that you initially went to School for graphic design but quickly changed majors because of not liking the Foundations program, because it was art-based. Can you expand on that, if I mis-spoke about that?
Michael:
No, no. It was in High School, I got into art through skateboarding and music and I became the President of the Art Club in my School of five hundred people and I was really into being expressive; I was a very frustrated, angst-y teen and I figured out Photoshop…I think it was Photoshop 2, maybe, I don’t know what it was: early days. And I really loved it; I really loved the communication aspect of it, I loved to be able to express ideas, I loved to be able to create controversy with posters and things, designing for the bands I was in. And then I went to Art School and I was like, this is what I want to be: I want to be a graphic designer. And it was all of this figure drawing for the first year, which I totally understand to know the nature of the body and form and proportion. But I lost all of the reasons that I personally love design; it lost communication. It wasn’t about communicating, it was about the human form and then there was, when we did have a graphic design class, it was about color and I’m color-blind, so that really threw me off really quickly!
Gary:
Ouch!
Michael:
Which…you need color for sure. But we didn’t really get into even technical things; it was really the space structure of learning about how to draw and I personally don’t draw at all at my job. I sketch, Pictionary-style, to visually communicate ideas but then it goes into the computer; that’s the tool that I’m comfortable with. So it just turned me off and then I went into music and kind of the same thing and I realized that I’m a learner that needs to be excited by things, so I’ve learned to learn and have learned to teach myself and that’s pretty much what I am excited about with getting into education now; I’m teaching some classes and doing some workshops and we’re doing a community outreach program with an after-school program; it’s a five week program to teach High Schoolers how to create graphic design for a cause that they see in the community and to me it’s about getting them excited about the process and to actually make something.

When I was learning how to play guitar, I didn’t take music lessons, I didn’t learn notes; I just jumped in and learned how to play my favorite songs. A friend down the street taught me how to play a Smashing Pumpkins song and that was it for me, it was like: ah, I can do this! And I think there’s something about that, to get that spark and to get people thirsty. I only want to work with people and my team are doing it because they don’t want to do anything else; they wake up and they think design and they are looking at researching and looking how to improve themselves all the time. They’re not doing it for a pay-check; they’re not doing it for fame. They’re doing it because they love to do it. They can’t do it, they would be doing it no matter what and I think if you can get that when you’re in School, that’s invaluable, to get that spark.

Gary:
Yeah, and you know, that’s why I asked that question because with Foundations, yes, you’re learning life drawing, you’re learning still drawing, you’re learning two dimensional fundamentals of design. But the problem is, and this is a generalization, but most of the time, that stuff is taught from the perspective of an artist, not from the perspective of a designer. So, yes, there’s definitely some similarities and skills and visual but that’s it; it stops there. To me it stops at visual as the similarities. After that, the philosophies, the thinking, how you…there is something to be…there is a persona of a designer; there is a way they think that is completely different than an artist and I think having this universal Foundations is causing a huge problem as design evolves and grows, so maybe fifteen years ago, the differences weren’t that big but now you throw in the iPhone, so now you throw in this idea of designing for different devices so it’s not just one screen and then you throw in the ability with media queries and everything you can do with CSS and HTML. I mean, CSS3 and HTML5, it’s just opened the gamut and so that’s why I asked. And also too, about that excitement. You walk in, you didn’t get excited because you’re not being a designer, you’re not doing what you think are designer-ly things And I think maybe that’s why they didn’t start to think about who April Greiman is, who are the people that really first started pushing web? Who were the people who started doing all these different things because they’re learning about Basquiat.
Michael:
Oh, I wish! That would be excellent!
Gary:
True, true, so let’s even back it up; they’re learning about cathedrals.
Michael:
Exactly. Which is great but…
Gary:
It doesn’t translate.
Michael:
Yeah, I think…but I also think it’s kind of backwards because now I’d love to learn about that but I’d love to learn about that because I’ve got the hunger but before that I didn’t so it’s almost…maybe it’s like learning your palette, for instance, the best wine in the world’s not going to taste great to you if it’s the first glass of wine; you’ve kind of got to get into it and then you’re like, oh yeah, now I understand it, so I think there’s always a backwardsness to it. Thinking about teaching High Schoolers, it’s like, and to think about things they like; you’ve got to think about video games, sports; like, look at your favorite sports logo: let’s dissect that. Even though I’m not a sports guy at all, but let’s connect with people on things that they’re already into and get them excited about things versus just, here’s this structure: step 1, step 2, you know?

And I think that our culture’s changing that way; we pick and choose what we want to learn about; our social media feeds are filtered by our friends and the people that we surround ourselves too. It’s really easy to unfollow or hide someone if you’re bored by them; it’s like we are becoming hyper-critical on the information that we consume because there’s so much of it. So let’s start with something that’s going to connect or resonate with people, kind of activate them.

Gary:
And another thing that you mentioned, you said one sentence in, also in that same podcast, you mentioned it in one sentence that you look for somebody learning how to learn. Can you explain, what does that look like to you first, before I follow up?
Michael:
Sure. So, we always push ourselves; we always take on projects that we have no idea how to do. This morning’s an example of this. We have all this audio gear for this podcast that we’re starting and we had an engineer help us with our first podcast recording it. I had all the gear in our studio and you like, oh, do you have a microphone and so I grabbed all the gear at 8.30 this morning, had no idea how to set this up and just figured it out. I went online, I read the manual really quickly, put it all together; it was a little stressful, a little sweating figuring it out. But I figured it out. That’s how I do it. I watch our web developer, Shaun Kardinal: he’s incredible; taught himself how to make websites and he’s continuously pushing himself. Hey, Shaun: we want to figure out a way to use CSS and JavaScript ….whatever, to have things rain down the page. He goes in forums, he goes on many different channels and figures it out. He takes it and then we put our own flavor to it. It’s building on this network of things that are already out there.

I’ve had people over the years, interns and things, they’ll hit a wall and it’s OK: you have to learn to learn, it’s not innate but they’ll hit a wall and I’ll just be like well, I don’t know, there’s not something out there that I can just instantly take; it’s finding a piece of that that’s out there and then running with it. So my metaphor about setting up the audio equipment isn’t quite accurate: that’s just the first step, it’s not having the fear, getting over the fear. The fear to fail. It’s not even about…it’s OK if I fail it’s just don’t even think about that: just go! And then taking things that are out there and being able to create new things from them and being able to learn about those things. And it’s not easy but I think a lot of it is just in your head. I think a lot of it is, oh, I didn’t learn how to do this so I don’t know, you just kind of hit a wall and that wall is just mental.

Gary:
And so where does that come from? Because I’m going to just throw out some…when I look at my class, when I look at any class, any given semester, out of I may have maybe five to ten percent that will just take it and run with it and super-excited to learn on their own; they’re bringing things back to me like asking me questions: hey, did you see this, did you see that. But that’s five to ten percent. So, what about that other ninety to ninety five per cent? Why don’t they have that? And if they don’t, what are some strategies that you’ve used to help people get into that self-learning mode?
Michael:
Well, two things: one, I think there is people that are just naturally risk-takers, so that’s probably a lot easier for them. Then the other percent that’s not, I think there’s a big opportunity for them to learn how to…let me re-state that. I think that other percentile potentially don’t feel comfortable taking that risk; they’re afraid and they’re kind of buttoned up and I think there’s one way that I approach things like that is to disarm people; so, let them feel comfortable but then it’s a safe place, it’s OK to fail, it’s OK to experiment. That’s how we’re going to get to a better solution. And with design it’s sometimes hard because you want to…I’ve got to solve this problem; I’ve got to solve this problem the best way I can and you start giving my best and gotta do this and there’s a lot of pressure, but if you can somehow unpack that and you can somehow get into a place where it’s OK to play.

So, one trick is, hey, write down twenty five ideas in the next hour. And it’s OK; they could be totally shitty ideas, that’s fine. But one of the shitty ideas might mutate into a great idea. Or someone in your group might see that shitty idea and run with it and go somewhere else with it. Or you see one of those ideas and you start to be like, ooh, that’s great, that leads to another idea. So I think it’s just kind of setting up this mindset that it’s OK to play and it’s OK to experiment. I find development really interesting; I’m not a developer but you write a line of code and you test it and if it doesn’t work, you re-write the code and it’s just this constant hit the wall, hit the wall, hit the wall. When we get back to that kind of art mentality that we were talking about, that’s not as acceptable; it’s like you don’t just do a sketch and throw it away, that’s not the line of thinking. But it should be. It should be like hey, that idea, it’s OK. Give me another idea. OK. Because once you pass through the first three or four ideas and you start to get to the twentieth idea and the fortieth idea, sure it’s painful, it’s hard to find those ideas, but that’s when the stuff really starts to come together and I think it’s just a way of thinking and accepting that that’s OK to do. And once you start down that path of pushing yourself, then you start to be more open to getting inspiration in other places and maybe figuring out how to learn from that.

Gary:
Well let me follow up with this then. When I teach the students HTML and CSS, they are afraid to experiment. They just will not experiment. Like I said, hey this…as long as it shows up on the screen at some point, it doesn’t matter if it’s semantic, it doesn’t matter if it’s efficient; just get something so you can show progress. And no matter what I try, they’re afraid to experiment and I think a part of it comes from they’re evaluated on it so they feel like they have to have it perfect, even when I don’t…I don’t even grade on what it looks like now: I simply grade on effort; did I see that you tried something new, and they still won’t do it! And so I think that’s tough and that’s the one where when it comes to interactive design versus print design, they’re willing to experiment in print design but they’re not in interactive and I can’t for the life of me understand why because they’re both new to them, it’s not like…Photoshop is new: is it because it’s HTML, CSS, looking at code, is that what makes it scary for them? I don’t know, it’s just something that I’ve observed that I’ve really had a lot of trouble with.
Michael:
Yeah, that’s a really great observation. I wonder too, just a hunch is, if it’s the left-brain right-brain, because when you’re in that prep role you can kind of play and you can kind of be, I’m being creative now. But when you’re in code it’s I’m being analytical and critical, so I wonder if there’s something there, it’s just if there’s ways to do exercises in code that let them, make them experiment in a way, it’s like, let’s take away that this has to be perfect and we have to be looking at every bit of code and every single character has to be perfect: let’s just let loose and play a little bit. And this comes up in our studio a lot; we’re always talking about this. Just something with the web, it sticks, it flows ??? I don’t even think trends is the right word but it’s like large photo boxes underneath; it’s like these interfaces become like standards really quickly and I think it’s a lot to do with functionality; you don’t want to break the rules so far that you’re confusing people; the user’s always right kind of mentality like oh, we don’t want to throw some curve-ball.

But I hope to see that change because I don’t think that there’s really good reasons for that. I think that it’s early days on the web and it’s scary to take risks but we need to. I can’t tell you how many times a client will say, oh we need an arrow so people know to scroll, I know that’s the bane of a lot of interface designers, but it’s just like…we don’t. People know, people know! And I think there’s something to that, that stance and it makes you kind of close up when you’re making a website potentially.

Gary:
And I’m glad you mentioned that; OK, so the client thinks that you need an arrow for it to scroll and I think that comes with the fact that OK, the web is what, twenty years old, but in really its current iteration where you can design, where you now are designing for multi-device and you have media queries that can detect those multiple devices: that’s five years old!
Michael:
Yeah, right!
Gary:
That’s it! You’ve got five years of…so that’s why it’s not even a trend because it takes more than that to be a trend! But anyway, so what I was getting back to is that in print, we know to turn the page. Or we know to look at the poster from a certain…the context and I think that…how off are designers that are just coming out of school on that idea of designing for the fact that we want to encourage scrolling without beating them over the head with an arrow? How do we encourage interaction when there isn’t that type of interaction in print? Have you seen a real deficiency in that?
Michael:
Yeah and that’s a great observation as well. Yeah, there is conventions in print: we all know how to use it because it’s been around for longer than our parents and our grandparents; it’s part of our make-up these days, or has been. With the web, you’re right, it’s new and it has to work in so many different ways in so many different browsers and so many different sizes; it has to be so scalable so it’s like there’s so many rules but it’s the next generation that’s going to take that and break all those rules, you know? I have a ten month old son. No: he’s eleven months today! An eleven month old son…
Gary:
Happy anniversary!
Michael:
Thanks! And it freaks me out. The kid just goes for my cell-phone; we don’t let him have the screen time, we’re good parents. Or bad, depending! We don’t let him sit in front of screens but he just grabs our phones; he’s like, what is this magical rectangle these people are always looking at? And he’s going to grow up…this is going to be like print to him; he’s going to know to scroll down the page; he’s going to know to click, he’s going to know to tap, he’s going to know to pinch-zoom. And that’s where I think it’s going to be exciting, when these things start to become just second nature and I always get excited with students and college age people when they’re making websites because it’s like, you have such an advantage over myself; you grew up around this, this is second nature to you.

But then I think there’s all these rules and structure and foundation that kind of maybe beats it out of them a little bit; they get scared when they could just play and be free and express themselves on the internet and they do express themselves on the internet with social media in many ways but with interfaces; and there’s definitely people doing it. This might be a tangent but I always think of the web a little bit as like video games; we had Atari and Pong and it was like, OK, we do this and now we know you do this and you do that and then I grew out of those and now we have Centipede and Pac-Man, like oh, OK, we can do more things and then Nintendo comes; I’m not a video game historian but maybe that was five years in, I don’t know probably.

Gary:
Yeah, I’m not a big video game person either.
Michael:
But you know, now we’re starting to do way more stuff: we’re starting to jump around, we’re starting to shoot, you know, up and down or have codes. Now video games are out of control. I wonder if the internet is going to…interface design is somewhat that way, it’s like we kind of have to learn and then we can go crazy with it. And I think there are some sites that are doing that and they’re way ahead of the curve and they will scare clients they’re trying to sell something or communicate a message or you know, but I think it’s fun and encouraging kids to make a crazy interface is exciting.
Gary:
Well, you know what, I just realized where we’re at in time, we’re starting moving along, but let me ask you one question that led from that before I wrap up is, OK, and I agree, when I teach HTML and CSS, when I teach web design, I don’t do it for them, I don’t encourage them to…I teach them structure, I teach them how to do it but I don’t just like let them off run and play, because I want them to have something to show in their portfolio. So, as somebody who’s hiring a designer, would you…what would you rather see in their portfolio? A series of exercises where they’re really exploring what they could do on a screen with different technologies, or would you rather see something finished?
Michael:
That’s a great question! So, let me preface this by, we’re a pretty weird studio! We only work with certain kinds of projects so this is probably not advice for everyone. Yes, I would definitely prefer to see some out-there stuff that’s like, wow, this person is just next level; they’re just trying to push and trying to do something that’s new and fresh because I can’t tell you how many times I see pretty much the same portfolio. It’s just heartbreaking, like, oh really? Another one, it just looks exactly the same as the last one, it’s just a different client name or fake client name or different project, it’s just…it just drives me nuts; I want to see something that is fresh, and even if it fails, not fails like it’s just terrible but even if it’s not this polished, amazing masterpiece but it’s just like wow, look at that! Like, instead of hamburger, they used a triangle. Great, that’s at least something. Instead of a big photo that scrolls down to three boxes underneath it, it’s like, I don’t know, it’s asymmetry. Asymmetry right now is like a breath of fresh air when I see something asymmetrical, you know, oh wow, they just made a website with type! Great! Wow, this website looks like it was done in 1992 but it’s intentional. Great! Just something that breaks through the noise.
Gary:
Yeah, and it’s funny, so I’m teaching them how to do HTML, CSS and how to do layouts and I’m intentionally sitting there saying, here’s the hero image: here’s three boxes underneath it and I’m totally doing it tongue in cheek. But they don’t get it! They don’t see the irony that it’s in the sameness that I’m like, I basically said…we did four layouts, I taught them how to use floats, how to use fluid grids and I said, you could make any website that’s currently existing by just re-using this code that I taught you. But they don’t get it; they just don’t see those repeating patterns yet and it’s just kind of funny and I don’t…I’m just kind of shocked that they don’t see that.
Michael:
Well it’s hard to find examples of that too; every Wednesday we have an Inspiration Meeting; it’s like our goal is to bring something fresh to show, like fresh website and seriously, it’s hard to find, so I think maybe you showing some examples could be good because there’s not a ton out there.
Gary:
No, there’s not yet. And again, I bring that back, it’s design education that we’re not teaching to push the envelope in what you can do; we’re just teaching them how to do that and hopefully that’ll slowly evolve as the medium transforms and evolves as well.
Michael:
Absolutely.
Gary:
All right, so, before I let you go, is there anything…
Michael:
(sneezes)
Gary:
Oh, bless you!
Michael:
Sorry!
Gary:
No worries! So, before I let you go, is there anything you’re working on that you would like to share or something you want to promote?
Michael:
Yeah, sure, thank you. So, our studio does a lot of public programming and it’s all labor of love and we figure out how to self fund with partially from client projects with sponsorships and partners and crowd funding and one thing that we’re doing is, you mentioned earlier, is we do a design lecture series every year and we’re kicking off our next, our 2015-2016 series. All the lectures are free; they’re at the Seattle Public Library if you’re in Seattle and this year we have legendary icon design, Lance Wyman who did the ’86 Mexico Olympics, most noted; Paula Scher is incredible and she’s going to be with guest April Greiman.
Gary:
Nice.
Michael:
Then Experimental Jet Set from Amsterdam, a wonderful team, and then the legendary Karel Martens who started Werkplaatz Type School, so these are all free events but the tickets sell out. Lance Wyman sold out in two minutes yesterday which is really fun. So yeah, we’re getting ready for that and then we also, as I mentioned to you before, we started our podcast series called Beyond This Point and we do them at different lab locations around Seattle and different creative thinkers and different disciplines to have a conversation about design and creativity and that’ll be out in a month or two.
Gary:
Where will we be able to find that, is there a URL? Will we be able to find it through the Civilization website?
Michael:
It’s beyondthispoint.design and there’s a splash page now and then our design lecture series is designlectur.es.
Gary:
And we’ll put that, because each episode, we put session notes up and we transcribe them so I’ll make sure everybody can find that information and find that when they’re in Seattle for the local stuff.
Michael:
Cool. Yeah, and then please come out, we’d love to have people visiting!
Gary:
I love Seattle; my sister lives in Portland, so every time I come up, I head up to Seattle too. All right, but the listeners don’t want to hear any of that stuff! All right, so is there any final advice you have for design educators that we didn’t cover that you’d like to mention before I let you go?
Michael:
Sure…Inspiration is I think fundamental to education. Getting people turned on and then they tune in and want to learn more. My favorite teachers were the ones that just, when I left their class, I felt energized and excited and I wanted to go do my homework and wanted to go to learn more.
Gary:
Yeah, we’re part cheerleader!
Michael:
Exactly, exactly.
Gary:
And if you’re not, that’s a problem because we need to be part cheerleader.

All right, well that’s all we have time for today on Episode 12 of Design Edu Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Michael Ellsworth of Civilization, for being so generous with his time. I want to thank the audience for listening and I want to thank the Design Edu Today hosting sponsor, Digital Ocean, and CDN sponsor Fastly , for making the hosting and distribution of these podcasts possible. Finally, I want to thank the AIGA and the AIGA Design Educators’ Community for their generous support of my research that led to this podcast series.

If you want to discover more about the Design Edu Today podcast and read the session notes and transcripts, visit us on the web at designedu.today. You can follow us on Twitter @designedutoday, like our Facebook page or subscribe to this podcast through the iTunes Store.

Thank you for listening to the Design Edu Today.