This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Twelve students from nine Philadelphia-area schools got a crash course in working on a design staff as part of Fresh Artists’ Design Lab program.
The Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization provides free art programs to public and charter schools across the country. The group primarily works with schools where 70 percent or more of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Before participating in Design Lab, students go through a process to ensure that they will be a good fit for the program. These programs are weekend-long, focused workshops with a specific product or result in mind and they require a certain type of student to succeed.
Fresh Artists director Barbara Allen said the organization typically holds one or two Design Labs per year. Before each local Lab, they send a design brief to every art teacher in the Philadelphia, Camden, Norristown, and Chester Upland school districts describing the project. The teachers nominate students who want to participate, and Fresh Artists interviews the nominees and their families.
For this particular Design Lab, the client was Stick-lets, a small, Philadelphia-based company that sells flexible rubber connectors to help children build toys and forts, using a variety of materials, with an emphasis on outdoor play. Stick-lets inventor Christina Kazakia sought help from the students to design pouches and totes to be sold as carrying cases.
The students began the Lab by trying out the product and looking at the ideas that Kazakia compiled for them. Then they were taught about patterns before beginning to develop their design ideas.
Design Lab participant Pamela Guzman Colón, a 4th grader at Hancock Elementary School, said she had fun learning about different types of art.
“I enjoyed using different materials that I usually don’t have at home,” Colón said in an email.
The participants were primarily ages 7 to 9, but three high school students also joined in, focusing more on the physical design and construction of the bags as opposed to the art.
“This Design Lab is a very focused way of getting kids who are creative, who their teachers have nominated and suggested come into this program—they now, in a very short time, have a crash course in what it’s like to be on the design staff of a small company,” Allen said.
Allen also highlighted the goal of fun for the students, despite their hard work all weekend. “There’s some fooling around,” she said.
Every 90 minutes, they bring the students outside for a brain break — either to run around on the Fresh Artists’ property in East Falls or participate in something a little more structured like a scavenger hunt for natural materials in order to spark inspiration.
The Fresh Artists’ staff and art teachers were there to support the students the entire weekend, as well as encourage support among the students themselves.
Crystal Gurreonero, parent of Hancock Elementary School 3rd grader Marley, underscored how positive the experience was for her daughter.
“You can tell that the instructors really encouraged the kids and made them feel comfortable in their own skin and gave them room to experiment and be a bit more creative,” she said. “Since all of the kids were going through this together, they just kind of bounced off of each other. I don’t know if kids are really able to be in a situation like that at school, or even on the regular.
“They really complemented each other, brought out different sides of their projects and pointed out different things. I think it was just overall a really great, inspiring, positive situation for all the kids involved.”
Marley agreed, saying, “It made me feel amazing.”
The students got to explore different patterns and try multiple iterations of designs. They later had a series of critiques, with students commenting on each other’s work.
Although Allen acknowledged that “this is not an ‘everybody wins’ situation,” because Kazakia cannot choose every design for her products, she noted that “we don’t encourage or really allow any negative comments during the twice-a-day critiques among the very young designers.
“Everyone isn’t brilliant at everything, but every child in a Design Lab has their moment of brilliance where they are lauded and acknowledged.”
Maggie Slaboda, a 2nd grader at George W. Nebinger School and the youngest participant, said that the whole experience made her feel excited. “I liked it because it was fun. I got to meet lots of new friends and people, and the teachers were really nice.”
Her mother, Megan Slaboda, agreed and added that besides the intense hours and difficult logistics, she would give the experience a “huge thumbs up.”
“It was really hard, but we made it work,” she said.
The students went home with some Stick-lets, as well as a tote bag with their first design printed on it.
Said Allen: “It’s just the idea that your art can come off the refrigerator and go to work in the world to do good.”