TestLab Berlin: Design Adventures Abroad

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A new environment can stimulate inventive thinking that leads to brilliant design work—but according to the TestLab Berlin participants, it might just stir you to change your way of life, too.

TestLab Berlin is a study abroad program offered by Art Center College of Design that is structured as a series of immersive 14-week trans-disciplinary projects under the direction of Nik Hafermaas, graphic design department chair and executive director of Berlin Programs. Students from a range of studio majors offered by the college—including illustration, photography, environmental, interaction, product and graphic design—can apply to participate. Twelve students are selected to travel from Pasadena, CA to Berlin to work for a semester at Art Center’s pop-up design studio in the recently renovated Bikini Berlin, an historic 1950s urban marketplace and recreation center located across from the city’s famed Zoological Garden.

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Each TestLab is unique and forms around one core faculty member who runs the project along with additional guest faculty, lecturers and critics, both in Berlin and back in Los Angeles. Real-life design challenges are tackled in a studio setting, and past TestLab programs have focused on design innovation for retail and hospitality design.

Recently, Sean Adams, professor of graphic design and partner at the design firm AdamsMorioka, tackled branding with “TestLab Neo Americana.” Guest faculty and advisors included the following: Brad Bartlett, Candice-Leigh Baumgardner, Nik Hafermaas, Nicole Jacek, Noreen Morioka, Michael Sans and Ming Tai. As Adams and the students worked to reimagine integrative narrative brand experiences that transcend traditional marketing and promotion tools, they found a new way to approach design and life.

The Intended Lessons

In order to explore the combination of powerful brand narrative, Americanism re-booted, and pioneering ways of communicating, the students’ assignment was to imagine a fictitious brand, and then create brand touch points across print and packaging, motion and interaction, narrative spaces and emerging media. “The core of the project was to redefine Americana with a European millennial audience,” explains Adams. “How can we communicate the positive aspects of American culture today or in five years? We don’t have the luxury of the reputation as the ‘good guys’ in the world anymore. So what remains that has positive resonance?”

The students were asked to look at the influences of mobile and online media on brand interaction. They pondered how physical and environmental experiences create mnemonic equity that purely digital ones may not. A big goal was to rethink about how to boost the metabolism of American brands, both established and emerging, in the minds of young Europeans.

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Initially, four teams were created, but then reorganized into three larger teams to focus on key categories. This represents work from the travel team: Robert Cha, Charlene Chen, Michael Richardson, and Felix Soletic, are all Graphics majors who used the Beat movement, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and an anti-establishment approach to tourism, experience, and material goods.

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Working with the culture and people of Berlin, each team’s creative investigation led them to developing a brand, setting values and promises, and determining target audience and communications across all media platforms. This included nomenclature/identity, publications, online and social media, motion, media-techture, packaging and environments.

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The end deliverable was a presentation of this branding exercise via a movie or audio-visual presentation. There were hard deadlines and intense intermediate critiques along the way. Not all of the teams ended up with an objectively successful deliverable, but it wasn’t for lack of dedication and serious creative thinking.

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The Real Lessons Learned

There’s a reason that generation after generation of college students elects to study abroad: living and working in another culture is life-changing. The real value is the unexpected experiences that lead to intangible growth. The TestLab students took away a lot from Berlin:

Shifting Your World View

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Explore how design choices can be informed by the language of the cultural surroundings, and learn more about type selection, color usage, and more with this inspiring book.

With the total cultural immersion of TestLab, Berlin gave the students a very different perspective on their design practice. “My main goal was to grow and advance as a graphic designer, but also as a human being,” says Jeremy Cristiano. ”I learned that taking great risk, diving deep into research, living and breathing in the work, and being very resourceful will give you a strong, unexpected and brilliant project. Had we been at home in Pasadena designing for the same brief, it would not have been the same. I was isolated in a new world with no distractions, [and] every day I learned something new about my environment that added to my design process and thinking.”

“What I took away from this trip as a whole is a new appreciation of how a designer should live. We work in a fast-passed world and industry, and it’s easy to forget about the little things in the heat of the moment. Designers are nothing if we are starved without the small things of life that keep us creating, expressing, and making,” adds Murphy Armitage.”I gained, an introduction to a lifestyle where a person is taught, ‘work to live,’ and not to ‘live to work’ like we do in the United States.

Working Out of Your Comfort Zone

Working 8,000 miles from home pushed everyone outside of their comfort zones. In addition to learning how to live in a different country, the students were forced to do work-arounds with equipment. Necessity bred ingenuity, with teams solving problems in completely new ways. Like most designers, the students worked up to the last minute creating their team presentations. Without high-powered computers, glossy printers and other technology readily available at the Pasadena campus, everyone was always improvising.

fela(border)“We were thrown into a completely new and unfamiliar environment. That challenged everything I knew about design in a sink-or-swim situation. I wanted to see growth in myself as a designer in an extreme way, and I did,” says Cristiano.

One of the most demanding aspects of experience for the students was simply working in teams. “As a Graphic Design student at Art Center, we often work on one-person projects, and I was pretty used to working alone,” says Charlene Chen. “[Because] TestLab was a trans-disciplinary project, I learned a lot about working as a team and the importance of communicating with your teammates.

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This represents work from the entertainment team: Murphy Armitage, Jessica Cha, Jeremy Cristiano, and Paola Meraz, who are all graphics majors, explored the American idiom of Speakeasies and hidden cultural signifiers from sub-cultures that needed to maintain secrecy: Jazz and Prohibition in Chicago and Harlem in the 1930s, LGBT bars in San Francisco in the 1950s, and Freeform and Hip-Hop in the 1980s.

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Vitess black.

Aligning Your Process with Other Creatives

“TestLab Neo Americana” progressed in an iterative manor, with several interim presentations reviewed by guest faculty. Feedback was incorporated or rejected, and teams made creative decisions together to refine their work. This meant students had to constantly align their design process with teammates and mentors.

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In this course, Margaret Hartwell, author of Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists, demystifies the concept of archetypes and offers a hands-on approach to adding archetypes to your strategic and creative toolkit.

“Sometimes I would think too much or be too afraid to even start in a direction if it wasn’t that clear in my head yet,” says Michael Richardson. “In Berlin I was working more efficiently and differently than I was used to, in a more analog way. My process was raw and honest, which was a strong point to our project, so it helped form our final aesthetic.” It’s something Richardson has since adopted wholeheartedly. “This is how my process unfolds now, and I feel it fits me well.”

“As team culture, it was intimidating,” admits Natalie Liu. “Even though it was hard for us, we had a lot fun experimenting with a bunch of ideas. Because our process was all over the place, we had a lot of brainstorming sessions that helped our group bond. I also had the honor to work with talented designers from different disciplines like photography and advertising. This was my first time working with such a diverse group that it was great seeing how other majors think and problem solve. 

Thriving in Teams Comprised of Different Personalities

Life in the Test Lab could be very stressful and intense at times. Reconfiguring team personnel, abandoning ideas and implementing new ones, and dealing with a variety of personalities were all part of the experience within a constant 24/7 live/work situation.

“Working together became difficult, even though we all had the same goal to achieve,” confesses Richardson. “Looking back at it, I am happy we all experienced that struggle together because now is the time to do it, to make our mistakes and learn from them while we are at Art Center. To everyone else in the program, you drove me nuts, but I love you all!”

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Asked if he’d do it again, Sean Adams says, “Absolutely. It’s hard, hard work and takes a huge amount of energy, but it’s an adventure. The solutions are inspiring, and I know this is an experience that is life-changing.”

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This represents work from the culture team: Austin Ho, an advertising major, Alice Le, a photography student, and Quiton Larson and Natalie Liu, who are both graphics majors, worked with three possible foundations: Las Vegas and the culture of chance; the intercontinental railroad of the 19th century and the ephemeral nature of boom and bust towns; and American activism from the Revolutionary War to the Black Panthers as a basis to bring art to people.

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TestLab Berlin Continues at Art Center College of Design

The current TestLab,“Berlin Unplugged,” is an experimental term where students work without computers and smartphones for the first six weeks, using exclusively traditional analog methods and techniques to create powerful communication. Graphic Design Department Chair, Nik Hafermaas says, “We do this not out of any sense of being anti-technology, or out of nostalgia for old ways of working, but more to pause and step back for a moment from the contemporary digital imperative, to slow down and experience unmediated reality.” This TestLab allows students to analyze what happens to our ways of seeing the world and to our working methods in this process of being unplugged.


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