Every year we gather our designers from all over Europe to do something cool together. We call it Design Day. This year we did something very special. It was an early cold morning, very early, and no one likes early mornings, but this one we think was worth it. All 36 of Futurice's designers (and a few developers too) came together, Futu people from Berlin, Tampere, Helsinki, and London, a great meeting of minds with the same goal. Our mission was to design concepts for schools that help kids get a better understanding of software and learn how to code.
Now I realised in the planning of this event that you should never underestimate the the complexities of taking 36 designers into a working school with hundreds of pupils for the whole morning. Thankfully I had some amazing people on the school side who, without their help every step of the way, Design Day would have never been possible. So before I go any further, I would like to say a huge thank you to Päivi Huhtinen and Petri Vuorinen at The English School in Helsinki. Thanks for believing in this crazy idea and doing everything you could to help me make it a reality ;-) I'd also like to thank all the other teachers who took part, thanks for letting us take over your classes and thanks for saying really smart stuff when we sat you in front of a film crew and stuck a huge camera in your face. I know how scary that can be. Thanks to:
I'll never forget the look on the faces of our designers as they entered the class rooms for the first time. Staring back at them, twenty to thirty kids ranging from 2nd grade to 7th grade. I'm not sure design school preps you for this kind of situation, one much scarier than any board room full of executives waiting to be "impressed". But if you think about it, it's not that different. One thing you should be taught as a designer is how to connect with people and how to gather insights for design from most situations, no matter how challenging. I'm happy that it was a learning experience for many of us and next time we are in that high pressure board room we can think back to the day we spent at The English School and say to ourselves "hey this is a doddle."
So the natural icebreaker for us was to connect what we were doing (design) with what we assumed kids were doing. We know kids are iPad friendly already at about 5-6 years old and are playing games like Minecraft and Angry Birds, most of them already have a smart phone, so that was to be our common ground. It was fun listening to our teams trying to explain what designers and developers do to 6 year olds. Good practice I’d say, for any of us, if we want to find ways to cut through the bullshit business jargon.
With the concept of teaching kids how to code in mind, we started to get the children to open up around the subject of digital. We asked them about their favourite games and music, we asked them to draw some cool apps for us that they would use. Without any difficulty at all, and faster than we could keep up, we had a whole bunch of concepts already on the table. The creativity of the children totally inspired us and it was refreshing to see how a young creative mind is free from the technical feasibility lens that we adults place on ideas often before we even start.
The role of the teacher in the class was to us also a great source of inspiration. It was lovely to see how the teacher acted more as an enabler for learning rather than the old model of "teacher" especially around digital topics where the kids were often very much the experts.
The children were remarkably brand savvy. Words like Apple, Netflix, Spotify, Google, and many others were just part of their 6 year old vocabulary. I remember at many points during the morning thinking back to my own school days and reflecting that the world was a very different place back in the 70’s. For better or worse I wonder how this new world order will benefit these kids in the future now that digital is a way of life for them. As a parent I often feel the pain of trying to get my kids away from the dreaded "Screen Time" to doing more physical activities with other children. The real truth, I suspect, is that my generation are the last of the non-digital parents that will see things this way.
In the afternnon we decamped to Waiski, a venue boat in Helsinki where our teams started to work on creating learning concepts inspired by the co-creation with kids and teachers in the morning. The teams were under some pressure as we had some VIP guests attenting in the evening to vote a winning concept. We assembled an expert panel including Teemu Lehtonen (Sanoma Pro), Sonja Ängeslevä (Other group), Tina Aspiala (Hyperlocal LTD), Minna Ala-Outinen (Yrityskylä / Me&MyCity), Petri Vuorinen (Principal, The English School), Pyry Ahtainen (Student, The English School) and Eelis Holmsten (Student, The English School).
I have to admit that I was very nervous about taking this many designers into a school in the hope that we could get insights and inspiration on how to develop learning platforms that were relevant. I was happy to see at the end of the day it was all worth it, all 9 concepts presented were of very high quality.
The winning concept interestingly steered away completety from a digital format and focused on analog interaction methods to help children understand the basic logic and structure at the core of code. I think this for me was a revelation and I believe for the age group of children it was designed for, it could really work in a school context involving the teacher and pupils in a fun and immersive way.
I hope we get to develop these ideas further and if there are any schools out there that would be interested in being a test environment for some of these concepts we would be happy to hear from you.
Big thank you to the Futurice teams who put all their efforts into making this an inspiring and productive day. I think many of us were way out of our comfort zones and that meant we all learned a lot and grew as designers. For me personally, the day will be one that I will remember as a highlight of my design career.
Just to finish I would like to add here a few nice messages from a couple of the children and teachers who took part. This kind of stuff is really what makes being a designer worthwhile. The sense of achievement and positive impact is always the most satisfying outcome.