Designing Questions for Young Designers


Designs“Art is solving problems that cannot be formulated before they have been solved. The shaping of the question is part of the answer.” ~ Piet Hein, author of Grooks

“How do you want your letters to be read?” That was the overarching question for high schoolers on a quest to design an original font. Tom Weis, leading Intro to DesignTom Weis, who travels back and forth each week from RISD to Watershed School in Camden, ME, knows just how to get his class thinking. In the course of a typical 2 1/2 hour session on a Monday afternoon, students were analyzing typefaces they’d

Found type facesDesign student's work on typefaces
Ninth graders in Intro to Design classcollected before determining the conceptual basis for their own designs. To begin, Tom established the importance of context. “When the magazine Popular Science first came out,” he explained,”its goal was to make science approachable. What do you associate with science today compared with science in the 40′s or 50′s?”

Not a moment lapsed before they responded. “Heavy, serious topics like cloning, global warming, and cancer

Watershed School, Camden, ME

Watershed School, Camden, ME

research.” Considering the concept; independent projectKids in Watershed’s Introduction to Design class made instant connections between the mood of the times, attributes they were after, and possible font styles.Tom reviewed terms (like ligature, serif and san serif) and posed questions, building more bridges between concepts and design elements.

IMG_0150With the requirements for the assignment set forth: to identify fonts that are “out of the ordinary,” to document their process with a file of images, to write a mission statement for their font, create a mood board (with a clear understanding of who their audience would be), and learn to use new software from which to design their font, Intro to Design classthey were on their way. Each student had a seedling of an idea, which had personal meaning for him or her. Science fiction, a musical score, a shampoo brand for curly hair, and mystery (“clever mystery, not gory,” one student specified) were put on the table. Brainstorming as a group, they contributed to peer thinking before buckling down to craft their own conceptual mission. “My font needs to be eloquent,  bold, and maybe British,” she affirmed with confidence. Good thinking was happening.

Designers at work

Now they were on their own, and having remained 100% focused in the first 90 minutes, these students were ready to launch their projects. Most were at work on their writing; others were getting accustomed to new software, through which, shape by shape, they would construct their invented font.

Independent project workStudent working on concept

Every ninth grader at Watershed enrolls in this course. It’s required, while others can sign up for engineering or creative writing in that time block.

These kids are getting it all, having the entire afternoon to dig into their work. So much was possible. So much was happening. Watershed addresses every 21st Century standard.

Kids: Tom explaining requirements(1) Learn 21st century skills, creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration, gain content knowledge and expertise (2) Build understanding across and among core subjects (3) Gain deep understanding rather than shallow knowledge (4) Solve meaningful problems with the real world data, tools, and experts , and (5) Have multiple means through which to master and succeed.                                                                                                 Regardless of how the experts define what matters in school, kids say it better. Having asked one student why she thought Intro to Design is required she said, ”Because after you take this class you see everything differently.”

Isn’t this what we want for kids in every school?  Thank you Watershed. You’ve set a mighty high standard.


Nancy Harris Frohlich