BAR HARBOR, Maine — On Saturday afternoon, in a red-shingled building at College of the Atlantic, a small group of students met with a designer from Belfast, and over the next few hours set out to fix the world.
How they would do so, they weren’t quite sure.
When discussing ideas, the post-earthquake crisis in Haiti came up several times. Being students at COA, an environmentally conscious school that offers degrees in human ecology, they also came up with broad goals of strengthening the local community, perhaps by making sure there was ample locally produced food and energy sources.
The ideas were scribbled on a green movable chalkboard, which stood a few feet away from a counter-height design table at which the students sat on metal stools while munching on corn chips and donut holes.
That’s when designer John Bielenberg opened a dictionary.
Bielenberg, who’s led similar sessions in Alabama, Iceland, and Costa Rica, wanted to inject some random ideas into the process to spur creative thinking — a process he calls “thinking wrong.”
After dividing the students into three groups of three people, he told each group to randomly pick two numbers, which he used to choose words out of the dictionary.
One group was given the word “astrophysicist.” The second got “dependent.” The third: “swallowtail.”
The groups took pens and, on large pieces of paper, began writing down ideas and words that sprang to mind from the ones they were assigned.
“You can go anywhere you want,” Bielenberg said. “Don’t even worry about Haiti at this point.”
The session was part of a weekend, 48-hour design blitz at COA led by Bielenberg and aimed at teaching students how they can use creativity to address the world’s problems.
Bielenberg, who has won more than 250 design awards, founded Project M in 2003 to encourage college-age people to think of design as a means to solve not just physical challenges but social ills.
“The status quo is not acceptable,” the soft-spoken Bielenberg said, referring to what he said are dynamic changes occurring globally in technology, the environment and the economy. “I believe people this age are the ones that will really change [the world].”
Project M has tackled many problems in and out of the United States.
What exactly the COA group wanted to design — be it a campaign, an interactive community space or program, or even a video or performance of some kind — was not decided Saturday afternoon. Bielenberg said that often his creative sessions, which can last as long as two weeks, act as a seed for a larger plan that doesn’t come to fruition until later.
Dru Colbert, who teaches art and design at the college, said that Bielenberg normally works with design students but that several people — including some international students — who attended the COA session Saturday have not had formal design training.
The goal of the blitz, she said, is not to zero in on one topic and to crank out an approach for dealing with it right away. The broader purpose is to foster a forum where community members can come together and develop ideas about what issues they might want to address and how to do it.
“It’s not always the best thing to arrive at a solution really quick,” she said. “I was really encouraged with this mix of people coming together.”
More information about Project M can be found on the Internet at www.projectmlab.com.
For more on the COA session, pick up Monday’s Bangor Daily News or log on to bangordailynews.com.