Creativity 101: Harnessing the power of students’ imaginations

Photographs by Chris Hatcher, PHOT '05

Photographs by Chris Hatcher, PHOT ’05

In 30 minutes, visualize your creative process and recreate it using an 8-and-a-half-by-11 sheet of paper.

This is the first assignment in Creative Strategies, a popular undergraduate Product Design course taught by instructor Fridolin “Frido” Beisert PROD 98, INDU 08, faculty director of Art Center’s Product Design Department.

All 14 students accept the challenge. Walking to the front of the classroom, they each select a single sheet of colored construction paper and take a seat along the row of bare metal tables. As a digital timer, projected onto the wall, starts ticking, the students immediately start cutting, tearing, folding and drawing.

It’s the sort of exercise students might remember from grade school, but this time the message is quite different. “I want you to fail at least one of the assignments in this class,” says Beisert. “That way you will know if you are reaching new conceptual grounds.”

The rapid-fire, 14-week course uses 10 creative-thinking projects, from reimagining Valentine’s Day chocolates to repackaging items from the 99 Only Store to sell them at a higher value, each demanding a different strategy. The intense pace of production—10 projects per student per term—is integral to Beisert’s teaching strategy. “At Art Center, we make things. It is in our DNA. The more you practice, the better you get. I found that this principle especially applies to creativity.”

Students typically have a week to complete each project, which they present in class along with a visual guide of their creative paths. For the 99-cent assignment, Beisert brings in a panel of guests to evaluate the finished projects and to put a “price” on each one. “We once got up to $9,000 on one concept,” he notes with pride.

The course took years—and a master’s degree—for Beisert to formulate. In 2006, he enrolled in Art Center’s Graduate Industrial Design program to design a class in creativity and spent two years researching and prototyping the course. But its original inspiration dates back even further.

“A student of mine years ago asked me if I could teach her to be more creative, and that question has haunted me ever since—in a good way,” Beisert says. “I wanted to investigate if it was possible to teach creativity just like any skill that we learn at Art Center.” Beisert’s Creative Strategies course teaches students to break patterns, reframe problems and apply new conceptual thinking to their work.

Thirty minutes are now up, and students lay their paper creations side by side on a long table for Beisert’s review. The finished products vary wildly—from what looks like a red, ruffled mountain to a fish-like skeletal sculpture in blue. One student, explaining how his broad blocks of thought gradually become more refined, holds up a green page that’s been sliced with increasingly longer strokes until a rectangular strip curls into a tail.

“I see, so this is meant to hang,” Beisert says. “You probably anticipated we’d place the projects on this table. What would have been better is if you had grabbed a piece of string to hang it from the ceiling.”

Creative Strategies challenges students’ existing processes and design skills, and for some it’s a catalyst for forming their careers,” says Karen Hofmann PROD 97, chair of the Product Design Department. “They learn how to take something expected and common in the marketplace, completely rethink it and come up with an idea that is novel, marketable and potentially groundbreaking.”


Companies, too, are placing an increasingly higher premium on innovators who dare to think differently, according to IBM’s most recent global CEO study. The report, which surveyed 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries, found that 60 percent of these executives named creative leadership as the top orga-nizational need over the next five years. And more than a third said their companies invested resources into developing these types of leaders, even during the height of the global recession.

“Creativity is at the very core of an art and design education,” says Art Center President Lorne M. Buchman. “And in today’s economic environment our graduates have both the ability and the opportunity to create new value on an increasingly global stage.”

Indeed, some manage to do so even before they graduate. Andrew Kim prod 13 is a case in point. As a student in the Creative Strategies class in 2012, the Product Design major’s homework went viral. “Frido assigned a project where we rebranded popsicles. But I didn’t want to rebrand popsicles—I wanted to rebrand Microsoft,” says Kim of the project that was assigned last summer.

Prior to the tech giant’s launch of Surface and Windows 8, Kim created “The Next Microsoft,” a boldly minimal rebranding of the company across multiple platforms and devices. He then posted his concepts, which took three days to design, on his aptly titled design blog, Minimally Minimal. Within days, Hacker News, a website that spotlights computer hacks and startups, picked up Kim’s designs. And Fast Company, The Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch and Business Insider soon followed suit.

“My blog got half a million hits in one weekend, and I have 8,000 followers on Twitter—basically all from this project,” says Kim.

Kim calls Creative Strategies the greatest course he’s taken at Art Center. “It’s not a class about developing your skills but about thinking differently,” he says. “It’s transformed my approach to design completely, and I can’t thank Frido enough for that.”

Major online players started courting Kim, who again made news when he announced on his blog he’d be joining Microsoft this summer, working as a visual designer for products under the Xbox brand.


Beyond the classroom, Art Center has been helping to funnel funding into our community’s creative endeavors. The College teamed up with Kickstarter and in 2012 launched a curated page where Art Center students, faculty and alumni can find backers for their projects.

Kickstarter’s invite-only curated pages allow organizations—including YouTube, TED Fellows and Sundance Institute—to highlight projects for potential backers to browse, all in one place.

“Our Kickstarter page shows the diverse and innovative work of our Art Center community,” says Alumni Relations Director Kristine Bowne, who helped lead the Kickstarter collaboration. “It’s a very powerful platform to both share these projects and support great ideas getting funded.”

So far, more than 45 ventures, mostly student-led, featured on Art Center’s page have raised nearly $1.5 million. Additionally, acclaimed designer and entrepreneur, alumnus Yves Béhar PROD 91, recently raised $8.5 million through Kickstarter for Ouya, an Android-powered game console.

Other successfully funded projects, some of which are already for sale, include alumna Christine Park’s PROD 08 PadPivot, a tablet stand that fits in your pocket, and Portals, a pair of boxes crafted by Media Design student Jayne Vidheecharoen that allow users to interact both physically and virtually.

In 2011, Gabriel Wartofsky TRAN 09 raised nearly $26,000 on Kickstarter for Conscious Commuter, a company he launched to produce the folding electric bike he designed while studying at Art Center.

Wartofsky and serial entrepreneur Bob Vander Woude co-founded Conscious Commuter Corporation in Portland, Ore. Art Center’s Executive Director of Graduate Transportation Design Geoff Wardle soon joined the advisory board.

“The best part of Kickstarter is that it allows everyone who wants to, to be involved,” says Wartofsky. “But to make it work, it’s got to be a passion project. Everyone [at Art Center] has a passion.”

Art Center is continuing to take creativity outside the classroom. In partnership with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the College has just launched The Design Accelerator, a 12-week immersive program for five selected startup teams with the goal of turning creative ideas into viable, funded companies.

“The Design Accelerator is unique among Los Angeles incubators in its focus on design-driven entrepreneurship and in the collaboration between design and technology, represented by two of the world’s top schools in these fields,” says Mark Breitenberg, Art Center’s special assistant to the President.

The Design Accelerator provides teams with seed capital and with professional mentors drawn from the faculty of Art Center and Caltech and from the local business community. The fledgling companies are housed in the Pasadena-based tech incubator Idealab, whose CEO Bill Gross sits on the boards of both schools.

“The work our students produce in courses like Creative Strategies has so much potential in the marketplace, but too often ends up just sitting in the portfolio. The Design Accelerator will give students and alumni yet another vital platform to get their creativity out of their portfolios and into the world of startups,” says Hofmann, who serves on The Design Accelerator advisory board. “This new initiative will allow us to turn creativity into actual companies. Platforms like Kickstarter and our DOT Launch entrepreneurship program are enabling our students to take their ideas directly to market and perhaps launch their own businesses.”

Faculty Commons: Raising the bar for art and design education in the 21st century

It takes a village to educate the next generation of artists and designers. With that in mind, more than 70 faculty members from all departments pooled their resources and approaches to understand how best to support Art Center students.

Faculty Commons, which hosted its first “Summit on Teaching and Learning” last October, offers instructors a series of professional development and research opportunities, as well as common ground to share campus resources and practical teaching approaches.

“The Commons allows faculty to develop a sense of community and share in the collective wisdom of the many, many smart and talented people who teach at Art Center,” says Sean Donahue GMDP 02, who teaches Graduate Media Design, Graphic Design and Humanities and Sciences classes at the College. “The goal is to engage the challenges and opportunities of art and design practice in this new century by supporting and initiating resources, efforts and events that directly contribute to instructors’ intellectual and classroom efforts.”

The next summit is slated for fall, with a series of faculty workshops and events sprinkled throughout the coming months.

Art Center President Lorne M. Buchman has personally encouraged the development of the Faculty Commons. “We are blessed with a group of gifted and talented faculty who collectively hold enormous knowledge capital, not only in what we teach but how we teach, and tapping into that is critical for an institution like ours committed to the highest level of learning and discovery. Through the Commons, faculty gain from a deep engagement with each other and, as one of the world’s leading art and design schools, we raise the bar for the entire field.”

To venture deeper into the next frontier of arts education, check out the full Dot magazine story here.

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