Fusing storytelling and design at Design Week Portland

Youth learn storytelling and design to solve problems at AKQA Portland

Solving the world’s problems through design is generally the domain of the experts — and most often, adults. During Design Week Portland, however, AKQA Portland and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) put Portland-area kids ages 10-to-14 and agency pros together, using teamwork, design, storytelling and emerging technologies to shape a better world.

The program, “Solve”, was created as a de facto “top secret” fictional agency for kids. The anticipation was palpable as the children recruited for the agency were sent a confidential briefing about a fictional incident at a real lake, Lake Baikal, in Siberia. After an earthquake, a rare mineral was found, potentially capable of producing clean energy. The goal was to harvest samples of the materials using technology and the principles of design.

The recruits were given a series of design challenges at the agency, all wrapped in storytelling. The goal was to allow the scientists in Siberia to set up camp, safely enter the cave system that was created by the earthquake and begin harvesting the mineral. The teams in Portland were “connected” via video conference to Siberia and were tasked with helping the teams figure out how to build a shelter, communications tower and a balloon-powered vehicle to make it a successful mission.

Though the day was all about fun, the agency was keen to ensure that the kids were solving problems using design principles, in keeping with the spirit of Design Week Portland. “Empathy” was key principle that grounded the entire endeavor.

“That [was] the key thing we were trying to bring in here,” said Aaron Seymour-Anderson, creative director at AKQA Portland and “Agent Zero,” the leader of the crew. “It's so important in design. It's so important in advertising — to understand who you're designing for or who you're trying to communicate with.”

Prototyping, and working with materials for an end result was ever-present throughout the day, but collaborating among a team was an important aspect, understanding that success depended upon, as Seymour-Anderson put it, “lots of solutions to find the best one in a productive and collaborative way.”

To AKQA and OMSI, the storytelling side of the equation could not be underscored enough. At times, design principles can come across as dry, impersonal and boring. True, having a story engages a younger crowd, but Seymour-Anderson believes that the same principles that were at play in this project present an opportunity to get out of that rut.

“To us, we feel like there's such an opportunity to make design and the problem-solving that goes along with design, more relatable, more understandable and to be contextualized in ways that maybe the everyday person could use as a framework to solve problems.”

Reaching that goal does demand balance between the physical and digital worlds — a trait that drew Seymour-Anderson to AKQA in the first place.

“We talk about the crossroads of art and science,” he said. “On one hand we understand technology and how to use it. But I think technology for technology's sake without that emotion lacks a connection to the user. Likewise, if it's just storytelling, [it’s challenging] unless it’s compelling. For us, it's about bringing those two things together — using design as a process to bring story and technology together.”

To that end, after a successful mission and event in Portland, Seymour-Anderson sees an opportunity to extend the program.

“We’re testing it now, but the hope is that it would be a continued physical program,” he said. “It could be packaged as an online education tool and resource for [the importance of] design thinking.”

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.