Student Takes Secret Project Abroad

Wei Wei Hsu

One of the mantras of CCA’s Secret Project is, “If your dream can be accomplished in your lifetime, you aren’t thinking big enough.” Perhaps that’s why second year Interaction Design student Weiwei Hsu hit the ground running after just a few experiences with the project.

Led by award-winning designer and faculty member John Bielenberg, Secret Project is a cross-departmental effort that puts CCA’s “make art that matters” motto into motion.

Through a course and a series of blitzes, Secret Project aims to inspire problem solving and diverse thinking via rapid prototyping using existing resources. The program launched in 2014 with a string of workshops that soon attracted something of a following.

“During the last academic year, John and I were running these ‘blitz’ workshops. We did six to eight of them and Weiwei and her friends always showed up. They were awesome. They always came and gave it their all,” says Marc O’Brien, Graphic Design adjunct professor and co-captain of Secret Project.

Hsu’s first experience with Secret Project was a blitz in East Palo Alto partnering with Google in which participants brainstormed ways of encouraging community interactions to create a safer environment.

“[Secret Project] is fresh and has the potential to turn ideas into something real,” says Hsu.

“The weekend workshops were great, but short. The spring break trip in Greensboro, Alabama, was a seven-day experience branding a campaign for a school that made us feel like it was more than just a workshop.

"It’s a way of learning why people do what they do, and I thought it would be great to bring it somewhere else.”

A Bigger Blitz

Inspired, but looking for a more in-depth experience, Hsu pitched a more robust project to O’Brien and Bielenberg -- to bring the intensive thinking of Secret Project far beyond the design-centric minds of CCA students to her home country of Taiwan.

“On the way to the airport in Alabama, I spoke to Marc. He just said, ‘Make it happen.’ So I brainstormed with my friends and parents to build it out,” says Hsu.

To O’Brien’s surprise, the idea had flourished more rapidly and attainably than he expected. Within a few weeks, Hsu had found willing participants and a client, TouCheng Farm, ready for a weeklong summer blitz.

“I made a Facebook event page with information in Chinese and English.  Everyone was sharing it and that’s how we got it going. We found a client who would let us stay there for a week -- a farm built to be a tour site for city people to experience farm life,” says Hsu.

Brainstorming Abroad

From July 18 to 24, O’Brien and 15 cross-disciplinary students from CCA, University of British Columbia, Hong Kong University, National Chiao Tung University, and others moved in together on the farm for a week of critical thinking and problem solving.

O'Brien explains: “We were very honest with the client. We said, ‘we’re here to make something, but we don’t know what it is yet.’”

Following the steps laid out by Secret Project’s previous workshops, the students wasted no time learning about their client’s current issues before breaking into groups to dream up innovative solutions.

“[The farmers] talked to us about their problems. They needed to improve on getting customers our age. They have families with little kids coming in and offices doing teambuilding exercises, but not college students. Since we’re all students, we worked on how to attract more people our age,” says Hsu.

“In Secret Project, we make observations by doing something called 10×10×10. We go 10 places, talk to 10 people, and come back with 10 stories. We learned that their bamboo forest is pretty special -- they are the only farm in Taiwan with that kind of bamboo, but they never [capitalized] on that.”

Selling the Farm

“During the days we were there, we went through every stage of the process,” says O’Brien.

With students majoring in computer science, philosophy, psychology and other disciplines outside of the usual art and design studies, the learning curve was a bit tougher to begin with, but the conceptual ideas came back more diverse.

Focusing on the goal of bringing in people in the 18 to 35 age demographic, the groups came up with ideas ranging from a scavenger hunt type of game utilizing smart phones and selfies to developing a range of products that employ the detoxifying power of bamboo charcoal -- a trendy product that could easily be sourced at the farm.

Though not on the trip, John Bielenberg offered critiques and support via Skype, while O’Brien set out criteria to keep in mind.

“On the last day, we pitched our ideas to the owner and her family. They offered helpful feedback for the process, along with an invitation to come back and implement the ideas,” says O’Brien.

Added Hsu: “They were surprised by what we could produce in just a few days.”

The teams are hoping to reunite to take up TouCheng Farm on their generous offer as well as bring their problem solving approach to cities like Taipei.

“There is a startup scene there that wants to implement this approach, and there is an interest in bringing this to other universities. Students just aren’t exposed to this kind of thinking -- whether you’re in art school or not.

"We received testimonies from students saying this project changed their lives and the way they thought about everyday things. It was a powerful experience for all of the students,” says O’Brien.