Growing Minds for Innovation

I was dressed and ready — fully prepared to tackle my interview to gain a place in what was now my dream school, the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. I stepped out, but the day had one caveat. I had to speak to my father. 

I decided to do Graphic Design at Edna Manley because I had a deep abiding fear of one subject. Mathematics. By this time I had failed maths twice at the CXC level. Because of that fear, I switched from wanting to do architecture to my new dream of graphic design. Unfortunately, my father now stood in my way. I approached him with grave anxiety. I desperately just wanted to say goodbye and walk through the gate.

It was not to be. My father, who most definitely should have studied law, argued his point to a fine tip. I never made it to Kingston that morning. I went to a community college, then UTech. While at community college I passed maths and eventually matriculated into doing Structural Engineering then into second-year Architecture.

My father, an agronomist, saw absolutely no value in my studying Graphic Arts to turn out to be a poor artist. Sometime after finishing my studies in architecture I realised it was the perfect mix of a science and humanities/liberal arts education. I had a very different world view from most students that were in a pure business or science stream. Not only did I have a different mindset, I was more prepared for various job opportunities that were not limited to my field of architecture. Architecture has for the longest time been seen as the “bridge between the sciences and the arts”. It is a unique hybrid area of study that is both rigorously analytical and wildly artistic, all at the same time. My mind was flooded with a new sense of being. A new way to think. I saw both sides, humanities/arts and analytical and I loved them both.

In an excerpt from his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria states: “The Yale report explained that the essence of liberal education was ‘not to teach that which is peculiar to any one of the professions; but to lay the foundation which is common to them all’.”

There has been for a long time in our educational system a focus on channelling our students into different study streams in the following way. The ‘bright’ students will do law, engineering or medicine, ‘kind-of’ bright students will do the business stream, while the not so bright will do the arts or the technical subjects. This approach for way too long has shunted children into career paths they either hate or they cannot find jobs in.

I know too many people who were either lawyers, doctors or engineers who have made a much better living in a field they are truly passionate about. The interesting thing though is foundational knowledge is never wasted. The principles of design I learned in Architecture school have been priceless in my approach to print, web and branding design.

As I relate to my colleagues in the Jamaica Design Association I realise that a truly creative mind never has one outlet. The passion for design finds many ways to express itself. Hence, just as how the mind has a myriad ways to express itself, it also learns from different inputs and crystalises these methods in incredibly unique ways.

While it is still important to have a focus, I think it is just as important to have a hybrid approach in giving all students basic aspects of all the areas of study available. This approach I strongly believe is at the core of developing not just a better critical thinker but essentially a more innovative mind. Better problem-solvers prepared for a broader range of situations and challenges. Competent in all trades, yet a master of one.

For example: Every student at the CXC/grade 11 level should have a good grasp of the financial structures that drive our economy and that drive a business. Then we have basic, yet core knowledge of general science, maths and basic coding. The analytical skills to be gleaned from this area are highly valuable to all career fields.

Next, there are skills in the technical fields that though looked down upon by most in our society have proven to be highly valuable and have helped many persons to be more marketable in the job market. Now mind you, this is not training for professional certification, this is getting prepared to tackle the challenges of a real world that demands a flexible adaptable skills set.

Lastly we have the liberal stream which takes into account art, design, philosophy, social studies, psychology mixed in with a bit of history and geography. Students exposed to this area will have a more soft skills approach to problem solving. They take into account the impact of decisions on a human level and how they impact day to day interaction between people from different regions of the societal sphere.

This mixture of the technical with the liberal arts, the analytical with the human, was the basis of one of the most taken-for-granted aspects of daily modern life — the design of the graphical interface of the personal computer. Steve Jobs and his team at Apple computers were responsible for bringing this to market. In a 2011 article by Tim Appelo, an ex-Trappist monk and a calligraphy instructor to the future CEO of Apple while he was at Reed College, states:

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country,” Jobs said when he gave Stanford’s 2005 graduation speech. “Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed…I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture.” Calligraphing like a monk gave Jobs an aesthetic sense most math-nerd tech giants (like Bill Gates) lack.

He goes on to state that:

“About two years later Steve came back to Reed to tell me he was working on computers out of his parents’ garage,” says Palladino, now a retired priest doing masses in English and Latin in Oregon. “He wanted to consult with me about my Greek letters.” As Jobs told Stanford’s graduates, “When we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. It wasn’t just a calligraphic skill Jobs picked up at Reed. It was a mindset.”

This fluid, adaptive mindset cannot be created by flushing students down specialised chutes of learning or trapping them in silos of knowledge that don’t connect to other areas.

This approach stifles curiosity, it kills innovation and traps creativity in an ember of time. We will continue to create students who do not have the competence, character or creativity to reshape our country as needed to meet our millennium goals. In his article for the Harvard Business Review, Want Innovative Thinking? Hire from the Humanities, Tony Golby-Smith, a CEO of an Australian business turn-around and transformation firm states:

“People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings … have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analysed in conventional ways.” He continues, “an understanding of history is indispensable if you want to understand the broader competitive arena and global markets,” that “Any great work of art — whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual — challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, to see the big picture. This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems.” He ends with this chilling warning: “If you want another good reason to hire from the humanities, consider this: consulting firms like McKinsey and Bain like to hire them for all of the reasons I’ve described above. You can hire liberal arts graduates yourself, or you can pay through the nose for a big consulting firm to hire them to do the thinking for you.

It is time that we step back from this edge of rigid educational classification and get dressed for a new world that demands a student that can not only dream in colour but can have the ability to build and innovate those dreams into reality.

YorkAli Walters is a Graphic Designer & Photographer with over 23 years in the design industry. He’s also a Vice President of the Jamaica Design Association (JDA). Contact the JDA at info@jamaicadesign.org.

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