Category Archives: Design

Are you laughing enough?

Seriously, are you having any fun?

No matter how passionate you are about your career/cause/job, or how important/critical/time sensitive it is, I don’t think you’re doing it right if you aren’t laughing. Not like a hyena, not like the Joker from the 1980s DC comics, not like an Elmo doll. More like the Dalai Lama, or Lily Tomlin, or Missy Eliot. You know those people are conscious, and working hard, and finding the humor and joy in their world. You can too.

Let’s talk about some ways to bring healthy laughter to your workplace or class or project.

Telling a story on yourself

Sometimes if we’re a manager or a teacher or in some other position of power we don’t want to show any vulnerability. If we could all just tell meaningful, funny stories about times that we learned something the hard way or the dumb way, we’d model growth, learning, and demonstrate trust in our colleagues. I promise you, the times that I’ve shared moments of young dumbness, my students, have gasped, laughed, and trusted my authenticity.


One of the moments from my last job that I treasure is the time that my boss imitated the Prancercise lady to put me into a better mood. One of the lessons learned was that prancercise IS a good work out. But I also took note that my boss and I bonded over foolishness. Whatever tiring task I was working on, was made easier by our brief break. Sometimes it can feel like to be “productive” you have to be task-driven, but that 5 minutes looking at a lady with a prominent camel toe can give you the drive to get back to work.

Hyperbole and Wordplay

For me and my nerd friends, playing with the words we use– the sound, the spelling, the semantics– becomes a way to enliven our discussions. With my students, I consciously and unconsciously pepper my speech with regional idioms and colloquialisms. Sure, if I was designing classes for international classes, I’d use standard business English, but I’m not. My students live in Central Virginia. When I use some silly expression, it becomes a teachable moment, but with humor. They ask me what on earth I said, shake their head at Americans, and then usually ask me for clarification that’s been puzzling them from a previous conversation.

Unacceptable Forms of Laughter 

There is absolutely no place for laughter that comes from a place of derision, humiliation, racism, sexism, or othering of any sort. Yes, laughter can be a way to bond, and form community. It can also be used to humiliate and cheapen people in power differentials. Stop asking, “Do you mind if I tell a racist joke?” The answer is yes. Yes, yes I do mind if you tell the racist joke. Besides the fact that as a white person I don’t find it funny, I also see that the black server who doesn’t have the power to tell you to shut the hell up, feels ostracized. I see that if your Hispanic dishwasher is laughing along, it’s not in good humor, it’s going along to get along. I see that the laughter that your “joke” caused is malicious and hateful. I see that your “joke” continues racist norms, even if you proclaim that you aren’t a racist. As always, be aware of power differentials, and be kind.

Building Experiences Youth Conference 2015

This past weekend we had an amazing time at the first ever BE Youth Conference. Over 3 days 11 youth and 15 adults, one baby and one falcon came together to:

  • Make pizza
  • Bind books
  • 10891934_10205948761945270_1854783206660880486_n
  • Design a personalized flag
  • Set goals and expectations
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  • Discuss college and career
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    With Permission from Peggy Harrison

  • Share life stories
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  • Explore available scholarships
  • 150103-0409

    With Permission from Peggy Harrison


    With Permission from Peggy Harrison


    With Permission from Peggy Harrison

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  • Learn to knit and crochet
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  • Begin saving for the new year
  • Learn about car maintenance
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  • Share meals
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  • Hold a falcon
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  • Meet new friends
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  • Share cleaning responsibilities
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  • Hug and Laugh

It was magical.


Thank you to Peggy Harrison for sharing her photographs.

7 Steps to Designing or Modifying Objective-Based Activities!!

This past Thursday I was lucky enough to get to present at the NASAGA conference in Baltimore. I’ve been involved with NASAGA since 2004 when I got introduced to this wonderful group of trainers, teachers, and designers. I’d really suggest attending next year’s conference in Seattle if you are wanting an infusion of creativity and inspiration.

This presentation came from seeing the disconnect between activities, learning objectives and evaluation in much of the training that I see. I want to see better matches between what we are teaching and how we are evaluating learner’s performance.

While these are presented as 7 discrete steps, it’s likely that a designer would need to revisit earlier stages to make adjustments as needed.

Determine the Goal

This is the big picture goal. Examples include: Students will develop their reading skills or The team will build stronger relationships. These fall within a continuum that could be goals for 6 or 60 year olds.

Identify Required Prior Knowledge/Analyze the Learners

First the designer must determine where on that continuum the learner lies. Letter Name recognition or college-level comprehension? Are these sales associates just beginning their careers, or are these executives selling at the enterprise level? There are tons of cultural, cognitive, language, developmental factors that you need to be aware of as you design effective learning activities. So who is our audience? And what do they know?

identify Realistic Objectives for the Length of Session and Audience

This is where the designer decides what specific things our participants will be learning or doing. Objectives are performance based and verb-oriented. Some examples of objectives are:

  • Recall and state the 50 state capitals of the USA, or recall and state the features of a Ford 150 pick up truck
  • Compare and contrast the features of two competing products
  • Use proper placement and form while running
  • Create a personal goal statement
  • Improve confidence in ability to perform

Choose Performance Benchmarks

How do we “grade” our learners? Too often I see scores of multiple choice being the only way we measure learning, when in actuality we really want to know that they can perform tasks in the workplace, or that they are building foundational skills. We do need numbers, or qualitative rubrics, or rated rubrics. I’m enough of a pragmatist to know that we need reportable outcomes to funders– whether they’re our state governments, or donor or our managers. Here are some ways that we can describe performance benchmarks:

  • Correctly spell 8 out of 10 words.
  • List at least 5 differences between 2 products
  • Match at customer attributes to the best available product
  • Run a mile in 10 minutes or less
  • Create one software routine that can correctly manage user input

Scale Story and Time to Create a Metaphor

The most effective training takes an authentic real-life performance task and scales to the “classroom” so that the class performance most closely relates to what the learner will need to do out in the world. The prime example of this kind of emulation is a simulation– Military video games, or NASAGA member Chuck Petranek’s drinking game. While a video game can give us amazing immersive graphics, it can be as simple as having a chip represent an alcoholic beverage. Sometimes metaphors can become belabored and unwieldy– and the focus becomes on replacing the relationships. We want to have stories that are simple and support the learning objectives– It certainly can be tempting to provide overly complex stories, but scaling back and focusing on the learning objectives helps focus on the important stuff, not building overly elaborate fancy worlds.

Develop Participant Activities

Activities can be individual, team, face to face, online, merged, games. We have whole arsenals available to us. We can do a better job of convincing our stakeholders to use a variety of activities when we can clearly connect them to learning outcomes.

Select Debrief Techniques

How many times have evaluation at the end of a course devolved into a certificate of completion for the student, and a survey for the instructor? That’s not enough .One of the ways that gamification can really be effective is providing a more compelling feedback loop– badges can be great motivators, and can track varying levels of mastery. Points boards can be used effectively (and carefully) to foster competition. BUT, this is only the beginning. If I had my druthers, we would see more integration on training and feedback into the workplace, or school setting. People often see training outside of their workplace performance, and really, it would be good to tie annual reviews/reflection all of the rest into our training.

Midtown Kids’ Activities

This past beautiful Sunday, the very delightful Midtown Street Fair was held. In addition to the Midtown Photo Scavenger Hunt, I put together 5 activities oriented towards children and the young at heart. As usual, when I designed these activities, I kept in mind cost, reuse of found materials, and multiple modalities of play. In addition, I wanted the activities to connect to one of the businesses in the Midtown Business District.

Coded Messages

This activity was a substitution code using the phone dial pad numbers to represent the letters. For example, 228 would represent the word CAT. This activity required only paper print outs and was distributed by CenturyLink.
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Pasta Picasso

Here pasta, paste and paper were provided to let participants glue patterns onto pages. The nearby Italian restaurant, Orzo, was the inspiration for this activity.
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Coloring Cupcakes and Cows

Pearl’s Cupcake Shoppe and the Teeny Tiny Farm provided the topics of choice for the coloring pages.

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Draw Your Dreams

There’s something magical about having a stretch of heavily used asphalt closed to traffic. It’s an opportunity to use one of the simplest children’s toys, sidewalk chalk.

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Photograph by Rich Tarbell

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Diving for Pearls

At $15 this was the most expensive activity, and one of the most popular. Public, a restaurant specializing in Oysters made me think of searching for pearls. photo 3 (3)

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Photograph by Rich Tarbell

Photograph by Rich Tarbell

Let’s Get Physical

If you ever see an old fashioned treadmill for $10, BUY IT. It will be the best money you will ever invest in exercise equipment.

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2 Ways 2 Play (Midtown Photo Scavenger Hunt Preview!)


When you attend the Midtown Street Fair this Sunday, September 21 from 1-6pm, presented by the Midtown Business Association (with a tremendous amount of work by the indomitable Laura of the Blue Moon Diner), you MUST play my street game “Midtown Photo Scavenger Hunt”. It’s gonna be fun!!! Below are rules for the phone-full, and the phone-less.

How to Play (21st Century Rules)

  • Go to the event on the Facebook page.
  • Look at the pictures posted in the Scavenger Hunt Album (on Sunday, over-eager peeps!)
  • See if you can find each of the letters on the West Main Corridor.
  • Take a picture with yourself in the picture.
  • Post on the Midtown Charlottesville Facebook Page and/or the Midtown Street Fair event page.
  • Gloat over your cleverness.

How to Play (20th Century Rules)

  • Pick up a paper copy of the Scavenger Hunt.
  • Write the business/location of the photo on the respective line.
  • Gloat that the NSA probably hasn’t been tracking your every footstep for the last hour (at least through your phone).
  • Go buy a smart phone.

And no, no prizes, just satisfaction and fun. Next year, baby!!

For the Designer Types, there’s some further words below.


  • Engage and entertain visitors to the street fair
  • Encourage visitors to walk the length of Midtown by having photos from all 5-6 blocks
  • Promote visibility and awareness of businesses

Required Supplies/Resources

  • Website/Facebook (design, 21st)
  • Smart phone camera (design, 21st)
  • Printable copies (20th)
  • Graphics program for picture cropping/arranging (design)

This was a delightful, relatively lo-fi game to design. As usual, a lot of designing went on in my brain. Initially, I was going to post little plastic figurines around mid-town and allow children to collect them, but that required collecting stuff, and hiding it around the day off– too much work when I knew that there would be plenty of other tasks that morning. I started thinking about the beauty of signage– and then thought– wait the businesses have letters! And then I thought, what could it spell? Ah, Midtown… It then took a brief walk to find fetching letters to illustrate my words!

If you liked this game, remember I am available to design custom games for your special event! Please contact me at!