Part 1 of 3

InGlobal’s Jeff Kupperman talked with Katie Robertson and Diane Tamblyn from Wholemindesign about becoming comfortable with not knowing, co-designing coursework with a student, and working together to strike the right balance between exploration and moving forward. In addition to leading Wholemindesign, Katie is a teacher educator at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, and she started with a story from one of her courses.

Diane Tamblyn (left) and Katie Robertson, in Katie’s studio

Part 1: This Film is on Fire


Part of the design process is breaking things open. You may not know where you’re going, so you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. If we’re willing to do that, design helps us get to amazing things that we never would’ve been able to achieve otherwise.

Here’s one example of that, from my course about learning through art and design at the University of Michigan. In one exploration in that course, the students go out into the Arb [Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor], and the purpose is just to absorb what’s around them and to observe it, to notice things, to slow down their perception, and just see where their thinking and their attention goes, documenting it all through photographs. Then based on what they notice, they explore different phenomena using all sorts of different materials, documenting their process and eventually creating a film that narrates their own journey of exploration. I had one student, though, who really was very uncomfortable with the whole idea of going out into the Arb and not knowing and not having control.

The way this discomfort came out was that he would say things like, “My camera’s not very good,” or “I don’t know how to do iMovie,” and there were all sorts of barriers he kept putting up for himself. What I realized was that he was just genuinely uncomfortable with ambiguity — the idea of not having a well-defined goal. I tried to give him permission to not know. I told him, “Just go ahead and enjoy what you have before you.”


So what happened?


He went out with his camera, but he landed in my office about a week later, expressing a lot of anxiety. He was very, very verbal, and talked a lot about his discomfort with the task, so eventually I said, “Well, why don’t you try and make a connection between your images and your words?” I tried to start with something that he did feel good about and did know. I suggested, “Maybe try putting some writing over the images — think about using words.” He was suddenly like, “Okay.” One of the phenomena he was interested in was fire, and he took the words to some poems and some texts about fire, and created an image out of the words in the shape of fire. He literally used words to make fire.

If you can allow yourself to not know, and to go in and explore and deeply observe, things emerge that you never could’ve planned, and you can tap into a different part of your being, your thinking, your feeling.

After that, each stage of the design process revealed a new idea that he could deepen and play with and extend. His movie ended up being very conceptual and visually beautiful. It was about the destructive power of fire but also the growth that fire allowed, and he connected it to books that he had read and art that he had seen. It was a very deep, rich movie, conceptually and visually. And it changed the way he thought about his work. While working on another project that pushed him, I heard him say, “If at the beginning of this semester somebody would’ve told me that I would be spending so much time on my art, I would’ve been rolling on the floor, like there’s no way that would ever describe me.”


What was your take-away?


At the beginning he was just trying to fulfill a requirement for his program, but now he’s doing some very cool conceptual art pieces. If the question is what I learned about design, it’s that if you can allow yourself to not know, and to go in and explore and deeply observe, things emerge that you never could’ve planned, and you can tap into a different part of your being, your thinking, your feeling.

It occurs to me that this is a good example of participatory creativity, which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Although I was first and foremost trying to give him a little life raft that would free him up and spark ideas, I wasn’t just giving him an idea for his work. It became, I think, a real conversation about the work, where I was throwing an idea in and then he would throw one back, lobbing the ideas back and forth and back and forth. Not only do I have a really good relationship with him now, he’s in my office all the time now and talking about other things that matter to him, and we are co-creating other things.


The way you started, Katie, it sounded like a story of your student’s own personal growth and change, but from a different angle it’s a story about you and him working together.


I think that’s right. We talk a lot about how we access creativity, how we want to provide structures and provide a bridge for

The principles of design, the processes of design, just lend themselves to socialness.

people to their own creative process. But it’s not an individual process. The principles of design, the processes of design, just lend themselves to socialness. The best kind of learning is social. As educators we believe that all of us are smarter than any one of us, and in order to make that happen, we need to learn how to show, and not just tell, our ideas, in many different ways.


Design just doesn’t happen inside a person’s mind. It happens out here, in between people. It’s a shared experience.


I’ve learned a lot about communication through the design process. This idea of “show don’t tell,” make it visible, get something concrete that others can access in a different way, can open up conversations. What’s important is that the reciprocal nature of design builds something, the “third thing,” something that didn’t exist before and that I couldn’t make by myself.

Next: Make Up Work