Establishing Intention

Every time I hear the word, intent, I think about one of my favorite books growing up, A Wrinkle in Time. It’s not particularly relevant to the plot as I remember it, but at one point one character says to another “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It stood out to me at the time, not because I understood it, but rather because it painted such vivid imagery. I saw a narrow road, winding down a dark, deep cavern and all the characters making there way down, single file. As I got older, and understood the proverb through experience, my mental picture of the road became unevenly paved with cobblestones and it was me precariously making my way along the path. Each stone a memorial to some plan or hope that I had not acted upon or had abandoned.

As I sat in class this week and heard the lecture topic—establishing intention—I knew this was a big week for me. Not only for the sake of focusing the work but also to reaffirm my commitment to my goals for me professionally and for my thesis academically.

For the most part, I’ve felt pretty clear about the kind of work I want to do after graduation and how I want that reflected in my thesis work. However, over the course of the last semester, while I was trying to articulate my (lower case) thesis, I meandered around my central topic making for a collection of work that is related but doesn’t necessarily serve my goal. It was a necessary process, but now that I’ve done it I can look back to help refine the work I will do in this final semester.

This process began in class as we worked in groups to help each other establish important key words that represent the work we want to create. I worked with Jenna and Arjun. We took turns speaking about our theses while the others wrote down either the “good” or “not good” words onto sticky notes. Afterward, we arranged the words into dichotomies so we could physically see the continuum of intention that we were already holding in our minds.

Pink for good, Blue for not good—I think more pink than blue is a good sign!

Pink for good, Blue for not good—I think more pink than blue is a good sign!

The next step was to distill our sticky note dichotomies into 2-3 continuums of intention. On either end of each continuum is a word or phrase that dictates a possible direction for the thesis work, however, the point here is that the two ends of the spectrum, while not necessarily opposites, are mutually exclusive.

intention continuum 1st draft

My first attempt yielded three continuums: emotional/intellectual, optimistic/urgent, and changing minds/changing behaviors. The first, emotional/intellectual seemed obvious. The entire premise of my thesis rests on the idea that inducing eco-distress will effect public and political will to act on climate change. The second, optimistic/urgent, has been a dichotomy that I’ve grappled with since day one. Although, when I began this exploration I was intent on being optimistic, (to the extent that I was trying to create a lure to the climate movement with promises of utopia) over time the work took on a more urgent tone as our political landscape shifted underneath us. Finally, in the last continuum, changing minds/changing behaviors, I failed to articulate that my designs are conceived to change minds as a means to eventually change behavior, rendering this continuum ultimately unhelpful. Although this first attempt was all pretty close, it necessitated a second draft in which I refined my vocabulary.

Before I could refine the vocabulary on my content continuums, I needed do a deep dive into what is driving me to create this work and what I want out of it. Many thanks to my classmate Josh and partner Asaf who listened to me re-hash all my thoughts about what my work is about and what it’s purpose is. Firstly, I restated the positioning of my (upper case) Thesis. Although this topic is very important to me personally, ultimately I intend for this work to position me for a career in social justice design tackling wicked problems.

From there, I had to make decisions about the tactics I would employ. As stated before, early on in the work, in an effort not to scare people away, I was attempting to design new possibilities around climate change. Yes, we are running out of time, but look at this blessing in disguise! A chance to break down the old, dirty system and design something truly clean and democratic, a utopia of renewable energy, fair labor standards, and equality. That was back when Bernie still had a chance and even after when Hillary was a sure thing. However, through my research I found that, discounting the young and idealistic, people don’t take up banners of revolution unless the status quo doesn’t work for them. Unbelievably, Donald Trump won the presidency and as a result, the climate movement has been pushed back years in terms of progress. Our situation is now dire, and my thesis work will reflect that.

Since the (lower case) thesis of my (upper case) Thesis involves intentionally creating a state of distress in my audience, clearly my intention is to design highly emotional work. That said, I don’t think “emotional” and “intellectual” are mutually exclusive, and so in my second draft I’ve evolved “intellectual” into “academic”. There is one point that I would like to make very clear here: although I strive for emotional work, I hold myself to a high level of academic rigor. The academic side to my work will be evident in the thesis book and in the research and preparatory work that goes into each design.

Finally, I revisited the changing behaviors/changing minds continuum. It was almost immediately clear to me that I had missed the mark on this one. As I tried to hone in on what I was getting at in the first draft with this dichotomy, I realized that the question I was asking myself was “is this work about fixing climate change myself or building a critical mass?” SPOILER ALERT: it’s the latter. Even at the start of the year, I’ve been asking questions and designing work around organizing and outreach. My user group is made up of people that are sympathetic but inactive and I’ve been trying to activate them. So on this last, and arguably most vital, continuum are the directions practical solutions and raising awareness.

Intent continuum.jpg

For the most part, I think that the work I’ve done to date is pretty close to the intentions I’ve identifies here. The place I think I need to do the most work is in the emotional/academic continuum. That balance will have to be worked out as I compile my work in the book and final presentation. The other two continuums will be resolved in part by having done this exercise. Being able to visualize where I am now and where I want to be is incredibly helpful and I plan on using this tool when ideating future projects to see if they further or prevent my intentions with my work.

Karen Vellensky