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How An 8-Year-Old Changed My Entire Approach To Design

“I was floored by his confidence.”

This spring, we’re celebrating innovators who are tackling pressing global issues. We call them the GOOD 100. In the spirit of solidarity, we’re also rolling out insights and personal stories from a select list of influential global citizens working in alliance with the world at large. We’ll be highlighting GOOD Citizens once a week.

Sustainable design doesn’t “happen” to people passively—it requires those involved to participate. When people have a voice in the creation of their own surroundings, they take ownership of them, sustain them, keep them safe, and continually invest in those places. That might sound logical, but I didn’t really internalize this idea until an 8-year-old made it clear to me.

That 8-year-old’s name was Ron. I met him while teaching a design course as part of an after-school initiative called ReThink. I’ll never forget the first time he asked me about collaborative design. “Garrett, when we’re designing, if I wanted a roof like this”—here, Ron touched the tips of his fingers together to make a triangle—“and George wants a roof like this”—this time, he had one hand lying flat—“can we talk together and make sure everyone is happy with the final design?”

Ron was a couple years under the accepted age range for the course, but he was too insightful and adorable to exclude. It was my first time teaching, so I had started the class off by tracing through the most impactful design concepts—big ones, like “scale,” which I introduced by having the kids play with clay, making abstract shapes of different sizes. Then I sequentially handed out larger and larger objects, including plastic figures. I thought it was a pretty clever exercise, until Ron pulled on my shirt. He certainly wasn’t shy: His question about working to compromise together made it clear that he had big ideas about how we collaborate as a group.

I was floored by his confidence. I teared up when reflecting on it later, perhaps because Ron's approach was in such sharp contrast to what I'd learned to do in school. Just three months prior, I argued the case for my biggest theory to date before a panel of stoic academics. My master’s thesis presentation involved an idea that was purely my own: no client, no real partners, no physical site. The project was theoretical, the drawings floating up from the page as the final product of a year of work. I defended the concept in a room with 70 other student projects, none of which were in response to any real person's need. They were all ideas transformed into proposals—to earn us a degree, to get us jobs. But this kind of work doesn’t take the community into account, instead existing only to give the creator credit as the sole inventor of a final outcome, preserving a rather romantic image of an architect burning the midnight oil, alone in a studio.

So when I heard Ron’s question, he woke me up from an academically induced dream of being a visionary designer who worked alone. The ReThink class was a very informal program at the time. I picked the students up at their homes, met their families, and even drove them to Dallas to have them present their work. The organization trusted me to a degree I had never experienced before. I took that trust and devoted huge amounts of energy into the volunteer course. The students chose to be there, giving up their free weekend time to learn about design and to co-create. We all chose to be there, to listen to one another, and to develop something as a group.

Our official objective was to create an entry to a competition about designing a school on a defunct naval base. However, the grander and more meaningful subtext of our design was simply about collaborating together. We gave one another the space to question, to reflect on what was or what wasn’t, and to dream of what could be. It was an encouraging space, one where we could be vocal, allowing the students to challenge the tough realities of their school’s failing facilities.

For me, it was a break from my day job as a set designer for larger studio films. The course was a chance to be part of something that everyone chose to buy into with passion. At the end of the year, we packed into a van and headed to Dallas to present our work in the regional competition. Everyone’s time was devoted to helping our chosen presenters prepare, craft their words, and extensively practice. When Ashley, George, Elana, and Jordan presented, they owned what they had created, with well-composed answers to all the questions they received from the other schools and the gray-haired judges. They succeeded not because they were sole visionaries, but because they supported one another and took pride in what they had developed together. In that moment, Ron’s serendipitous theory of participation was confirmed.

On presentation day in a new Dallas high school, Ron was asked about his favorite part of the design. His answer was that “we all built it together.” Since then, his instinctual love for others and a shared common cause has fueled my voracity for participation in design. From the first day until the end of course, he was committed to working together and making sure everyone had a voice in the process. And that’s what I do now. Thanks to Ron, I design the space for people to see the power and benefit of working together.

Garrett Jacobs is the Executive Director of The Open Architecture Collaborative, a global network of local grassroots chapters delivering design advocacy, facilitation, assessment, and small build services to their local marginalized communities.

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