An Experiment in Mass Curation, Participatory Culture,
& Auxiliary Education
HERE’S THE THING…
Negotiating An Era Of Connectivity
-Malcolm McCullough, University of Michigan
SC GIANT Interview #3
For members of the design community, the rise of open sourcing, crowd sharing, and social media platforms is met with mild phobia. While these digital phenomena may at first seem a nuisance or distraction from spatial craft or scholarly work, they are producing essential territories that we must accept and trade within. The Information Age has opened a new set of potentials for web-based learning, collaborative practice, and innovation sharing across disciplines and geographies. How might such a superficial medium have meaningful implications for our closely held, professional, and proprietary field?
In design education, a growing adjunct faculty community is splintered across multiple academies, saddled with various learning management systems and a myriad of institution-specific expectations. In the classroom, educators anticipate self-led or peer-to-peer learning to augment instructional time, but don’t necessarily know how to model those competencies for students (who otherwise dexterously navigate multiple social media networks and feeds—often during class). While we arguably practice an unhealthy dose of multitasking, practitioners face an additional challenge of overload. Straining to meet both work deadlines and familial ambitions, working professionals struggle to maintain a relationship with the academy, remain informed with current design dialogue, or make time to reflexively consider their own modes of practice with their peers. Still, we espouse the value of ‘studio culture,’ and the necessity of collaboration.
We must engage this era of superabundance more fully by establishing reputable and accessible platforms that intensify dialogue, enrich learning, and deepen curiosity. There is opportunity for both innovation and entrepreneurship where existing institutions fall short—a condition primed for designer aspirants and experts alike to self-educate, find a voice, gain an audience (or client!), and collaborate across geographic bounds. In the Information Age, designers must take advantage, identifying ourselves as digital tastemakers, mentors, and lifelong learners above the din of superabundance. But how might a digital ‘studio culture’ accelerate our own knowledge, practices, and ultimately the professional discourse at large, and what tools or platforms are at our disposal? Enter sectioncut.com, a web-based platform contingent upon this time.
FOUNDATIONS & FORMWORK
Building A Trustworthy Web-based Community
In 2013, four former studio-mates and graduates of University of Michigan Taubman College founded Section Cut. Together we held two decades of experience in professional practice combined across an array of work settings, but were arguably most deeply impacted by our shared experiences of graduate school. There, we benefited from an incredible cohort of design peers dedicated to making one another better, and a faculty truly invested in teaching. The culture of discourse and knowledge sharing established within this ecology was sorely missed, but remained profoundly impactful—so much so that each of us returned to academia as students, educators, and administrators.
But are the social and educational benefits found in studio culture ecosystems truly impossible to emulate in the ‘real’ world? The Section Cut project aims to challenge that claim by demystifying design education and serving as a platform to make design culture accessible to all. By leveraging several conditions of the Information Age—most notably skill sharing, networking, and publishing. As founder Robert Yuen explains: “I started Section Cut to curate tools and knowledge from my extensive network (which now includes some of the most exciting and forward-thinking minds of our discipline) to better educate and spread awareness of resources for designers.” So we built a website, and asked our most highly regarded peers to begin an act of mass curation and digital knowledge sharing.
A Network of Diverse Curators
At its very foundation, the Section Cut project is a curated collection of design resources; an instrument actively built and maintained by design-savvy Curators. This community is comprised of many designers and architects, but not exclusively! The only requirements for participation are a sensibility and an opinion, and we believe that establishing this relatively low barrier to entry creates a democratic, participatory platform for design culture. Ranging from ambitious students, to established professionals, to the occasional e-stranger, those individuals who take the initiative to curate adopt Section Cut as a dimension of their online identity.
To establish initial credibility and excitement around the project, Section Cut invited notable members of the design community to engage in conversation via our GIANTS! Podcast. GIANTS are actively recruited online or in person via our Curator network—invited to share their unique perspectives and agendas within design, but also to model the curation process by contributing resources to our community that have been most valuable to their professional growth and expertise. The series kicked off its inaugural podcast featuring Rahul Mehrotra, renowned architect and educator. Since launch, Section Cut has hosted interviews with fifteen ‘GIANTS’—including Alexandra Lange, Nader Tehrani, and Rosa Sheng.
The Best Design Resources
All resources submitted by Section Cut audience (users who signup and login) are vetted by the project co-founders, and all ‘testimonials’ are reviewed for quality of writing to ensure that the Collection maintains the highest of standards. Ranging from hardcore architectural theory texts, to beautifully designed products, to helpful workflows for practicing designers, every item—every tool or text—comes with a testimonial outlining its specific excellence or utility. To date, over 130 Curators have contributed over 1,000 resources to the Section Cut Collection. This trusted library provides the DNA for higher forms of educational and cultural writing on the website that seek to inspire, empower, and instigate knowledge building across the design community.
Teaching From The Middle
The strength and uniqueness of Section Cut is its formidable synergy with the academy and its representative voice of emerging professionals. All four co-founders are educators and/or administrators at separate accredited schools of architecture. Armed with ongoing experience as educators and as former students, the Section Cut co-founders experience a daily feedback loop that aides in discerning the emerging concerns of their respective programs. While mass curation in and of itself is a powerful tool, the resultant ‘Collection’ serves as a backbone for more significant contributions to the education of the Section Cut community and in real life settings at institutions our Curators engage.
The Section Cut Digital Lecture Series
Section Cut leverages its growing resource collection and its moniker to form weekly ‘Choice Cuts’ – thematic sets of resources tracking alongside the academic calendar. By filtering the books, web tutorials, and lectures elevated to the Collection, the project team identifies thematics that aspire to reinforce or accelerate student learning. ‘Inspiration Station’, ‘Visualizing Big Data’ and ‘Designing with Climate', are examples of these informed knowledge sets, intended to stimulate self-led learning, research, and production. Each semester, a selection of these weekly thematics is formalized as a lecture series, keying into timely agendas in the context of the semester. When published, each ‘cut’ is evaluated by the community. What’s missing here? Is that book really the best resource for detailing, or making, or mapping? The cycle of curation begins anew; the Collection refined.
The (Studio)Culture Series
With a growing set of Curators, the project team sets out to leverage the network’s expertise through original tutorials and opinion editorials that shed light on challenging issues—a form of mentorship to its growing audience. Collectively, these ‘Culture’ posts perform as an informal online studio environment. The project team solicits and co-authors original work in the form of interviews with design ‘Giants,’ workflow ‘How-Tos’, and op-eds by current faculty and practitioners termed ‘Sage Counsel,’ conspiring to instruct, inspire, and boost design thinking skills next level.
Advanced Academic Partnerships
As the project has gained audience, exposure, and infrastructural capacity, it has naturally grown to support academic institutions in more direct ways. To date, these partnerships have taken the form of web-based media sponsorship of institutional events, web presence for student research groups, online infrastructural support for the classroom, and over a dozen in-real-life workshop partnerships with notable institutions. This list of potentials is perhaps best exhibited through ongoing work with a home-base institution—the Boston Architectural College. Here, Section Cut serves as an auxiliary online course platform, a teaching resource for adjunct faculty, and as curricular supplement for workshops that augment the academic year.
For example, in the fall of 2014, Section Cut served as the online home for the course "Sustainable Building Systems," led by Section Cut Co-founders Dan Weissman and Kyle Sturgeon. The platform’s online infrastructure afforded students resources beyond the typical learning management system provided by the institution in a far less visually challenged format. In addition to the syllabus, students were guided to digital and book references that would aid in their coursework, and all course communications were centrally located. In less formal instances, adjunct faculty have found value in the site as a platform for communicating precedents, or pre-existing web tutorials. By simply entering a link and providing a descriptive testimonial, these resources are added to Section Cut, made available to students via a single, continuously updating web-link.
The Epistemology Of Section Cut
Section Cut seeks to operate across a broad epistemological structure. Considering the pyramid of knowledge above, Section Cut’s data can be viewed as the resources submitted by Curators - the building block of understanding. Information is akin to the explanation of a set of given resources via a testimonial, or a tutorial for using a specific tool. For many technically oriented web platforms this is the limit of endeavor. While often seeking higher aspirations—to imbue knowledge, and hopefully, wisdom upon their students—websites like Lynda have yet to successfully address issues as complex as design thinking.
While all forms of Section Cut content aspire to take part in wisdom-building, wisdom in design truly comes out of an intersection between the development of intuition and the application of specific technical knowledge — a process of design-thinking that requires robust feedback mechanisms to engender, generally in the form of instructor critique of student work in real time. For this, a hybrid of the how-to workflow and the open-ended design problem is most explicitly substantiated via a workshop. Through workshops, the project team hybridizes the digital with the in-real-life, pairing web presence with classroom presence to create a locus for wisdom building.
In 2014, the Section Cut team was asked by Jason Young, former mentor and recently appointed Program Director at the University of Tennessee Knoxville School of Architecture(UTK), to design a series of workshops. Young noticed a critical deficiency of ‘digital literacy’ at the institution; students tended to focus on traditional modes of design methodology and eschew the digital formats/modes of thinking prevailing in advanced contemporary academia. Leveraging its own experiences and recent teaching, the Section Cut team partnered with UTK to develop the grounds for an extracurricular workshop series.
Termed ‘Digital Deployment,’ the workshops serve as scrimmages—brief forays into forms of digital practice that, while only a weekend-long each, have far-reaching implications for how students engage and exploit 'the digital' in their design work. Quick, extra-curricular, and embracing a posture of slight absurdity, the workshops provide an opportunity to explore new tools and techniques for design practice in a low-stakes environment. Digital Deployment arms students with tools that impact design thinking, one weekend at a time. On multiple occasions, Curators have been called upon to serve as supplemental guest instructors, suggesting the potential for the project to serve as a bullpen of adjunct educators—brokered through Section Cut—when particular expertise are required.
Since beginning work at UTK, Section Cut has expanded its workshop presence at the Boston Architectural College, developing capacities in digital literacy, fabrication, and providing the school with added social media presence.
The 'Double Agent' Business Model
The Section Cut project would not be possible without two essential conditions: a continued connection to institutions of architectural education and the resultant technological liberties of the Information Age. With a core team of four founders located in three different cities, and a worldwide network of Curators, Section Cut claims the advantage of multiple ‘local’ academic institutions, but also the disadvantage of a solely digital collaboration to maintain and develop the project. The team relies heavily upon services such as Slack, Appear-In, Dropbox, and Google Docs to conduct its work—powerful cloud-based services that would have been unheard of over a decade ago. In true entrepreneurial spirit, these same applications are being integrated in the project’s most recent incarnation to provide services such as virtual desk crits, discussion boards, and password protected file management.
Alongside the educational mission of Section Cut is an aspiration to craft a self-sustaining project. In recruiting a collective of hundreds of well-informed designers, the phenomenon of emergent, group-based intelligence becomes amplified to an unprecedented degree. This incredible resource of social capital is put to good use in the act of mass curation. Who better to inform a decision regarding which chair to purchase, or which tool, than one who trades in the act of design? By limiting the pool of potential curators and eliminating sponsored promoters from the equation, Section Cut is able to form the first iteration of a well-informed marketplace, where everybody wins—consumers find direct access to better products, and designers either benefit commensurate to their effort and merits or find resources to help advance their craft.
As the discipline of architecture attempts to renovate its core competencies, standards, and values, it is also expanding into new territories—testing the bounds and potentials of new engagements. Section Cut exists within that expanded condition—as both a partner and constructive critic of the state of architectural education, and an entrepreneurial design practice—made possible by the Information Age.
Many questions remain. How will the academy and architectural practice at large react to the project? Which dimensions of the project will gain the most traction, and what cloud-based innovations will continue to provide opportunity for growth and development? Should Section Cut attempt to become the world's first cloud-based school of Architecture? Should it is serve as a union for adjunct educators? What is clear is that Section Cut is testing the expanded field and leveraging the power of numbers to shape new forms of knowledge for design aspirants and experts alike.