Learning The Right Way To Think Wrong

The “Think Wrong” Cycle. John Bielenberg @ Future Partners.

As described in the first post on California College of the Arts (CCA), the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) selected CCA as a CIIN grantee and partner because of the college’s interest in experimenting with developing new types of donors who invest based on principles, and who value supporting art and design projects that have tangible social, environmental, civic, or community benefits. CCI’s funding has been used to support learning and activities in three departments: Center for Arts and Public Life (CAPL), Secret Project, and the Interaction Design Department. Following on from our earlier profile of CAPL’s CIIN-related activities, we now turn to an overview of CCA’s experimental Secret Project activities.

Secret Project is an interdisciplinary program created by John Bielenberg, a designer, entrepreneur, and imaginative advocate for creating a better world through the practice of Thinking Wrong. He is the co-founder of Future Partners (2012), a Silicon Valley Innovation firm; Project M (2003), an immersive social innovation program for young designers; and C2 Group (2001), a brand strategy firm. In his career, Bielenberg has won more than 250 design awards, including the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Gold Medal for lifetime achievement. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has acquired six of his design projects and staged a solo exhibition of his work in 2000. He was also awarded the Washington University Skandalaris Award for Design Entrepreneurship and an honorary doctorate degree from Maryland Institute College of Art.

Based on his highly-acclaimed Project M program, Secret Project is an immersive experience that allows students from any department and level to work on real-world challenges in partnership with other schools, organizations, and companies in the Bay Area. Students learn the Rapid Ingenuity process developed by Bielenberg at Future Partners. It’s an intensive, chaotic, and energizing design-thinking process for learning how to Be Bold, Get Out, Think Wrong, Make Stuff, Bet Small, and Move Fast. Students work in short “blitzes”, collaborating with fellow students from a variety of departments, to create real-world solutions that use their ingenuity for the greater good.

We spoke with Bielenberg to learn more about the impact of offering–and funding–this experimental program that has flourished outside the bounds of the traditional classroom:

CCI: The Think Wrong resources are a formidable toolkit. How might your methodology be adopted by more traditionally-structured organizations outside of CCA? What first steps can they take toward a “wronger” future?

John Bielenberg: Thinking Wrong came out of my private practice client work from the 90s. There just wasn’t a process like this for other designers, other than architects. The nice thing about Thinking Wrong is you can plug any challenge into it and it generates ideas that couldn’t be conceived any other way. We call it Conceiving the Inconceivable. It’s designed to unlock the latent creativity and ingenuity in everybody. It’s been purpose-built so that anybody can do it regardless of the scale of the organization or the amount of resources, or the size of the challenge.

CCI: Both corporate investors and 501c3 funders are trained to think in terms of return on investment (ROI). You’ve operated in Silicon Valley for a long time–how do you address this inevitable question when working with student projects?

Bielenberg: Running on minimal resources is embedded in our practice. When you run the Thinking Wrong engine you generate a pile of ideas that you hone down–by availability of resources, or time, or talent–to what we call a portfolio of small bets. ROI can be scaled to whatever you have available. We specifically train our students to be ingenious about solutions and to be as efficient with resources as possible. We actually call it LFI (Learning From Investment), not ROI.

CCI: And how do you assess your students’ LFI?

Bielenberg: Well, for better or for worse, assessment really orbits the hairball of the institution. I actually thought doing [Secret Project] as a formal class was a huge failure because the process doesn’t like to exist in a pre-existing formal structure, like “two hours on Monday and Wednesday mornings”. It’s much more effective as an elective club where students don’t get credit or grades. We experimented first with open enrollment, but that wasn’t sustainable because recruiting ate our resources and the students that showed up were too random a spread of skills and levels of interest. So then we switched to what we called the “Ocean’s Eleven strategy” where we recruited the best and brightest from each division of the school, by faculty nomination and invitation.

CCI: Why do you think Secret Project has been such an effective experiment?

Bielenberg: When you’re in an unfamiliar place, you have no pre-existing neural pathways, so you have no patterns to follow, everything’s new, you can’t get stuck in the normal ruts of expectations and problem-solving. I find that learning is most intense and meaningful at the juncture of being terrified or uncomfortable. Comfort is highly overrated. Having a physical experience is so different than classroom abstraction.

CCI: What do you think the optimal future role might be for art schools?

Bielenberg: My assumption is that we’re at or near the tipping point of the relationship of humans with the planet. It’s completely unsustainable. It doesn’t matter what your political orientation is: climate change, species extinction, deforestation, population growth…we’ve gotta start doing things differently than we’ve been doing them.

Traditional education provides a workforce for capitalism and plugging into the status quo. Large organizations, countries, religions, corporations–they love to live in the quadrant of the certain, and the known, and the measurable, so you’re not going to get radical change from that sector. That’s where artists and creators come in. Art and design schools are the engine and creators of the people that actually have the vision and the wherewithal to change the status quo.

We also spoke with recent Secret Project student participants to get a sense of the impact that participation had on their academic journeys, and how it might influence their future plans:

CCI: Why was it appealing to you to take on Secret Project in addition to your required curricular studies at CCA?

Bill Chien (Graphic Design, 2018; Secret Project Alabama): I hoped to learn things I couldn’t learn at CCA in the classroom or campus bubble. It was totally different to get off-campus for an unstructured, creative, totally interdisciplinary experience. It broadened my view and altered my thinking about what design can do.

Will Felker (Interaction Design, 2016; Secret Project Palo Alto): CCA has excellent curriculum and faculty, especially in my [Master in Interaction Design] program, so I was already checking a lot of boxes I wanted, but Secret Project has allowed me to engage differently. It takes the quality of boundless experimentation that you’re automatically granted as a student and places it in the real world for actual impact. It’s been an opportunity to start working between majors and actualize that raw, genuine multidisciplinary mission that CCA espouses.

Weiwei Hsu (Interaction Design, 2018; Secret Project Taiwan): I first heard about Secret Project when I was a freshman. The idea of working with other levels and majors outside of the classroom was something I was looking for. SP also provided opportunities to meet interesting people and problems that you don’t just run into if you are always in school. It was fun to meet with different hosts of the blitz and try to work within the real constraints that they have.

CCI: Did you feel your Secret Project was “successful”? How do you gauge that?

Hsu: I think the blitzes are rarely about outputting transformational projects that will change a community over a night, weekend, or month. When running and participating in SP, the participants of SP are always the ones that benefit from the experience the most. There’s something about going to a place that’s unfamiliar and working together while sharing vulnerable stories with each other. Everyone became more courageous.

CCI: How might your experience with Secret Project impact your future academic or professional goals?

Chien: I thought design was all about visual beauty, but after Secret Project I think design is a creative and thoughtful process to help others. It’s not about being the best designer in the Bay Area and getting the highest salary, it’s about how I can become a designer that does something meaningful and impactful.

Hsu: It was great to be exposed to working with non-designers and different communities that early. I want to incorporate more of these types of engagement into the work I do in the future.

Felker: I’ve been exploring more about what this means for myself. I got a degree, and I presume I’ll get a job in an industry that wants those skills. But people are starting to understand that they can commoditize design, so artists and designers are becoming a new kind of factory worker. That means that creatives now have to work even harder to stay raw and nakedly creative and not become constrained by what society expects. We don’t want to limit “how creative” creativity is–I don’t want to be a boilerplate designer, and I want to help more people figure out how to not be the boilerplate version of their disciplines. It’s a misnomer that only ‘real artists can be creative. It’s a muscle, just like math. There are certain mindsets that can help you become better at creativity–just like anything else–and it shouldn’t be so isolated.

The way we tend to educate in the U.S. is we have a set of knowledge that has been proven, and we stay the course without really adjusting curriculum for the jobs students will be looking for in the future. The problem is we don’t know the scale or scope of the problems we’re going to face in the future, so teaching the problem-solving methods of the past isn’t going to work. I want to augment the current education system by combining it with some form of non-academic research institution through something like a gap year, so that students get better context for solving wicked problems. We usually tackle problems like that too late in our careers.

In our next post, we’ll speak with Kristian Simsarian, IDEO Fellow and Chair of CCA’s Interaction Design department, to learn how the same principle of supporting creative projects with tangible social, environmental, and civic benefits can be applied in the classroom