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A year of work for Education+Design

Reflecting on Jump Design's journey so far :)

It's my (sad) duty to inform you that the first six months of 2022 are almost over, and soon we'll be hurtling headfirst into 2023. Incredible, right? Where did the years go? Perhaps into wave after wave of covid, just when we thought it was gone for good. Or, into revenge tourism and trying to convince ourselves that we could finally move on with our lives. Maybe a little bit of both.

For me, 2021 (and this half of 2022) was divided into a)working on a book that I can finally say is almost ready to print (!!) and

b)figuring out the world of education and play-related design projects.

For a person who has moved from job to job for the last 6 years, even while studying, to take a leap of faith and start seriously building up from a freelancer to a studio to a book business, was frankly, quite scary. Add a dash of moving cities, quarantining and matrimony to the mix and you've got yourself one hectic life.

The way I'm going to process these... processes is by telling all of you about the professional parts and hoping you connect, either in a 'haha that's relatable' kind of way or 'aha I might be able to learn something here' kind of way. Let's do it in a classic 'Listicle' style. Five things I learned about design and education this year. Number 5 will shock you! 😱

1. Writing for children is enjoyable and challenging

It may not be obviously connected to education or design, but writing a children's book is what I'm starting with. It seems like a fun idea, right? I'm not here to tell you it isn't. It's really fun. I like it a lot. What is challenging, as with any learning design project or standing in front of a class full of children, is trying to break down ideas that we've taken for granted to their bare minimum. Ideas like what the brain does as opposed to the heart, why people make rules and laws -trying to explain the very basis of them to a person who's never thought of these ideas is tough. Sometimes I tried to write it like I was explaining things to an alien who's just landed on the planet. Sometimes I delved deep into research papers to search for just the right alignment of ideas. Even so, I know that not every child will get everything I've written, and that's okay. I think as an author I just have to accept it, even if as a designer I want to keep iterating until it 'works' flawlessly.

2. SEL (Social Emotional Learning) is gaining traction in India

A few years ago, I wouldn't call SEL by its name while explaining what I am interested in or what I wanted to write a book for children on. Not just because I'm still developing the right vocabulary, but also because so is everyone else. Today, I find a growing number of people, (even clients!) who have heard of SEL and want to pursue it. While this world of SEL, Life Skills, Emotional Intelligence, 21st Century Skills, Entrepreneurship Skills, Soft Skills, Moral Science, Value Education etc. is fragmented by ideological and practical approaches, the idea of education moving beyond facts and figures, and learning being a cognitive-social-emotional process, is gaining traction. In my opinion, the pandemic helped the average Indian parent think of their child's growth beyond cognition, to want to include the emotional and social aspects of being in school in their child's lives. This is very promising, not just for my professional practice but also for the future of millions of children.

3. Design for Education is a long-term commitment

While I've not been diligent with documenting client requests, I've got a sense that the world of 'Education in India' is large, diverse and quite promising for designers. While designing something for learning, one of the most restricting factors to taking on more work is the turnaround time for a project. I've had shorter projects that are deliverable bound - making toy prototypes, creating a certain set of activity-based content, etc. The shortest of these lasted about 3 months. As a learning designer, without enough time, I wouldn't know how children learnt from the content and if it was, in fact, effective for learning. To observe learning happening, typically projects have lasted for 6-9 months. While working with a new curriculum or new research, observing the entire course of the intervention with the child and then iterating has been ideal. In some ways, this is very much like traditional industrial design disciplines, and very different from quick visual or digital design disciplines and their turnarounds. When I was working with a subscription box startup, design timelines for one box were lightning-fast and exciting - 4 activities were designed and production-ready in a month! All the cogs of that system were in place, and all we had to do was the creative work, and look at the effectiveness once in a quarter or so. For a standalone consulting practice, when a new client approaches us, it takes some time to even understand where they come from, what their work so far has been like, and how best to proceed. So, designers and new clients, you've got to be patient for the best results when you design for children and learning.

4. Running a service-based and product-based business are two different things

I wish someone had told me in 2020 that what I'm proposing to do are two very different forms of business. Perhaps it was obvious common sense staring at me, but I chose not to see it. Shark Tank India recently made a space in my brain and now I fully see it, but I still am running a design practice and learning to be an author and an entrepreneur at the same time. I think most design studios do this anyway, so it's not so crazy an idea, really. Textbooks, though, are a special category of products. I could have handed over this manuscript to a publisher. I seriously considered publishers and literary agents and contacted many friends in the publishing industry to give me advice. While they make a convincing argument for the reach and scale of the big publishers, the traditional publishing teams are not experts on SEL, and I need to get the written content right above anything else. So I spent time and budgets on illustrating, peer-reviewing, fact-checking and supplementary writing for the book myself, which I can't recover from publishing royalties. While I invest time into services every day and get paid for this time, with products, I may be investing money that I may not recover this year. Long-term though, a successful product is more stable and rewarding, and the hope is that it'll generate revenue next year without so much time spent on it. The phase that I'm now in requires savings, patience and a strong commitment to the product. It's exciting for sure, but once again, it's a great unknown and it's hard to not get intimidated. I remind myself every day that it is possible - I'm not kidding about Shark Tank. I find it comforting that so many people have tried and succeeded at building businesses in India at any scale. If any of you reading know something about running a book business that sells to schools, I am ready to listen, drop me an email. :)

5. Many cool things happened this year!

I tend to keep thinking ahead and not pause and take in the good things as they happen. In an effort to remind myself that 2021 and this half of 2022 were a pretty great start, I will document a few here. For me to enter a new kind of design specialization after my Master's degree, turn it into a decent business and manage to fund this SEL book is pretty special. - I employed a total of 5 people this year (Samreen, Satya, Sohela, Trishanya and Ekta :), only one of whom I knew before. All of their work has been excellent, pushing this book far beyond what I imagined. I also learned what kind of a leader I wanted to be, thanks to the challenging year we've all had. - I sometimes cannot believe I finished writing a 100-page non-fiction book on an under-researched area for children in India with just me setting my own deadlines. A first in many ways and very special. - I worked with four long-term clients on very enriching and satisfying projects. Each of them brought something new to my understanding of the world of education and design. - I discovered an ability for research. Research papers in the social sciences tend to be lengthy and their citations are spread across decades of other interconnected research that doesn't become obsolete quite as fast as in other fields. The most challenging part of switching from studying design at NID to education at Stanford was attempting to re-wiring my brain for this. It feels like it has finally paid off because now finding reliable research, reading it and bringing back actionable insights for clients is coming easily to me.

- I taught a class of college students online at NID. Teaching online made me respect anyone who taught and learnt online 100x more. What a strain to engage so much so often online, I would almost certainly have given up my own pursuit for education if I had to do that for 4 years. The nice thing about it was getting across some SEL ideas to the students and seeing them add them to their design projects with flair. It also led to an interview on campus, and some sweet offline interactions in person, for which I am very grateful.

- I interacted with dozens of potential clients, though eventually, things didn't work out. Several job postings appeared and tempted me to go back to the employee life, move abroad, and get into adult learning, but I stayed the course, because I know there's something worthwhile here. The typical mismatches between budget and expectations aside, there are many interesting things going on in Education in India. With a studio setup, many ideas can come together and lead to better quality in the EdTech and Ed NGO landscape. To be at a crossroads where many businesses intersect and be able to apply learning from one project to the other is very exciting.

- I learned a lot more about SEL this year. Just working on projects focused on SEL gives me the opportunity to think and read so much more than I knew last year. Every year of growth is welcome.

You made it to the end! Thanks for sticking with me through the entire year. See you again next year, hopefully with a printed copy of 'Useful Notes of People' in hand, and many new stories from the studio life. Stay safe and healthy, and have a lovely year ahead!

~Swati 🌼


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