Not design for children, or by children (though those are certainly things), but design WITH children, in their presence, or, better said, in spite of their presence. You see, I am a designer, an architect, and I work from home. I also have three lively children who return to the house promptly at 3 pm Monday through Friday, which immediately changes the timber and effectiveness of my work. So my day has two distinct phases – a very quiet, sometimes lonely one from 8-3, and then a chaotic, undisciplined, and productivity-challenged one from 3-5.
You often read that young children are naturally creative and imaginative creatures – sort of ur-desingers, yet to be corrupted by society, school, their parents, etc. Picasso is said to have noted that “Every child is an artist”. There is truth to this, and the elegant free-form animals my 5-year-old can produce and the obsessive pencil eyes my 13-year old sketches are examples. Children can approach design the way I, as an adult, approach grocery shopping when hungry – I can go into a huge supermarket full of wonderful food and buy WHATEVER I WANT. I don’t have to beg my mom for Frosted Flakes, buy off-brand bratwursts because I’m pinching my pennies, or worry about the calories in that loaded frozen pizza. Likewise, kids design with colors, shapes, proportions and dimensions with no thought to standards, conventions, or limitations.
I’ve heard rumors that some children wake up and independently locate paper, drawing media, and clean work surfaces, after which they proceed to create page after page of fanciful dragons and princesses, bringing them up to their parents for show-and-tell no earlier than 9 am. Many children, on the other hand, seem to need some hand-holding – to stretch the grocery store analogy, they are likely to view a blank page with a limited understanding of their possibilities the same way they would be if asked to go into a grocery store and purchase the family groceries for a week. I’m not sure how much creativity there is in cereal and hot dogs every day. It is with learning that we expand our horizons; the trick is to keep learning – otherwise the limited knowledge we gain becomes an ill-kept cage.
Trying to work with the beeps and sonic tones of a Nintendo Wii in the background is possible, but draining. If Charles Eames was right, I’d be the best designer in the world (and, also, he means something somewhat different by that quote). My best moments are when my kids seek to copy me – they see a paintbrush in my hand, or a drawing on my computer screen and they want to be part of it, they want to do it too. However, more often they want a thousand other things, and pull me from my fragile state of concentration back into a world of yogurt, board games, and homework.
Design is hard to copy, and hard to learn, and often consists of internal and external processes that are challenging for children to mimic – thought, research, writing, brainstorming, learning from failure. How are these skills imparted? Maybe at the end of the day the result clarifies the path. The kids see an overcomplicated adult process unfolding, with drama and heartache and bad temper, but then they also see a finished product and happy parents, the result of a process they may not understand, and may not immediately know how to copy, but one that hopefully impresses on them that the thorny path is navigable, even desirable, when struggling towards a creative goal.