A Student Perspective

By: Abigail Emerson, Class of 2018

As a student in Mount Vernon’s Innovation Diploma program, I engage with the real world through opportunities. In ID, we no longer have the mindset that classrooms are where we learn about the real world, but rather the real world is our classroom. One of the most rewarding things we do in Innovation Diploma is a design brief. Design Briefs are opportunities that allow high-school students to solve problems in the community.

This year we were approached by Jeff Garrison, Partner/ Development, at S.J. Collins Enterprises with a challenge. Looking for distinct and unique ways to incorporate a green space alongside a Chamblee Whole Foods shopping center they were developing, the people at S.J. Collins wanted this green space to be a place where their user would stay — a place that would meet a shopper’s needs. That’s where we came into the picture. They asked us to put our design thinking skills to work and design the outdoor area. To learn more, we did some online research and had multiple meetings with our client. We also visited many different parks and areas that focused on a theme of community. When it came time for our next client meeting, we were ready to show Mr. Garrison our research to confirm we were on the right path. Instead we were faced with a reality check. Mr. Garrison wanted us to become experts on the people who would use this green space, yet we had not interviewed one person from the Chamblee-Brookhaven area.

We realized, with the help of some feedback, we had been treating this project as if it were one for school instead of one for the real world. Further assessing the situation, we set multiple deadlines and goals, and we decided to focus more of our energy towards knowing the needs of the user. We did this through intercept interviews — interviews conducted by stopping and asking questions of individuals in places such as grocery stores and coffee shops. As you can imagine, these interviews were a little awkward at first. We also set up multiple, longer interviews with community members of Chamblee as well as surveyed some of the parents of Mount Vernon, asking a few questions around what makes a community. Using the notes, we created design drivers and user insights. Some examples of our user insights were: Users want an area in which they feel comfortable or an area containing the natural beauty of flowers, trees, and other greenery. Some of our design drivers were:

How might we inspire play through natural beauty? and How might we create a feeling of togetherness where stories, laughter, and joy can be shared?

Once we brainstormed an abundance of ideas, we mixed and matched them, drawing them out on a whiteboard wall. Truthfully, our drawn-out prototypes were really rough at first, but when we started to experiment more, we found different combinations worked better than others. From there, a few of our team members, who had experience with Sketch-Up — an online designing platform — took the ideas and transformed them into Sketch-Up. For a couple weeks, we went through the process of prototyping new ideas and reiterating them over and over with small team meetings to discuss the new versions.

When the day of the next meeting arrived, everyone was a bit on edge, not wanting it to be like the last one. For this meeting we presented our user insights and five Sketch-Up ideas. One board focused on the idea of using a caboose to bring in the history of Chamblee, while another one centered upon having a large tree as a focal point to provide natural beauty and shade. A separate board highlighted the idea to create a cafe-like setting with chairs and tables set up near a pond and a food cart, with an alternate Sketch-Up depicting an audience of children in mind. Finally, our last Sketch-up centered on the concept of a large grassy area where children could play and mothers could set up a picnic. When it came time for Mr. Garrison to share feedback, we were all shocked by his favorable reaction and approval. He selected different aspects from each of the designs he liked the most, and as our meeting came to an end, we were thrilled with the outcome.

In the following weeks, we split up into smaller teams to prepare for our final pitch. A few of us worked on the meeting logistics, while other team members worked on combining the concepts of each Sketch-Up. Some other members created multiple Pinterest boards, containing real examples of each concept. For example, since one of our ideas placed a caboose as the main attraction, we researched different ways to utilize the caboose, such as making it a structure children could play on, an inside area where people could sit, or even using it as a cafe.

Before we knew it, the time had come for Mr. Garrison to see our final design. At this final pitch he also brought his landscape architect, Eric Shade. After we finished presenting, Mr. Garrison and Mr. Shade shared their feedback on the final design and which aspects would need to be adjusted to fit safety codes. Closing out the meeting, Mr. Garrison shared his first impressions with us and also how he saw us grow and evolve throughout the design brief process.

Looking back, we realized at that moment he and his staff weren’t treating us as high school students anymore. We had become business partners. As S.J. Collins develops the green space, the company will utilize our concepts, and soon we will see the contributions we made to the project and to the community.

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