Project: Wedesignawesomethings! A Youth Community-Design Apprenticeship Program.

Posted on July 23rd, 2010 at 8:08 am by in Our Work

Project: Wedesignawesomethings! A Youth Community-Design Apprenticeship Program.

Project: Wedesignawesomethings!
Location: Chicago
Project Director: Alex Gilliam for the Chicago Architecture Foundation and After School Matters
Year: Summer 2010

What the heck is Tajmah making? An Aqua Man costume? Is Public Workshop gearing up to compete with Speedo?

No sir, no mam.

It’s one of our early prototype oven mitts for a local Chicago baker named Anne. You see, Anne bakes the most amazing bread but given the tremendous dexterity required to make her very unique type of bread, she refuses to wear oven mitts and thus burns the bejesus out of her forearms.

Tajmah and Yaro (that’s Yaro’s arm in the mitt) are part of a prototype youth community design apprenticeship program that Public Workshop is working on for the great folks at the Chicago Architecture Foundation (here) and After School Matters (here). The program intentionally embraces the value of engaging young adults in positively changing the world around them yet challenges how they might do that, with real clients and real projects.

Quite frankly there are few precedents for this, particularly at the scale of nineteen apprentices. I have personally set up a number of programs that do this but at a much smaller scale, with a very different purpose. In these cases a few hyper-talented youth are seamlessly integrated within an architecture office to add value to the firm and their partners’ work while giving the young adults a degree of responsibility, experience and support that most people twice their age have never enjoyed- AND they completely flourish.

But a stand-alone, youth-centric community design studio with nineteen apprentices (a one point five staff members), some of whom are mostly interested in just having a job for the summer? There’s Sweat Equity in New York (here) but again, a much smaller entity with a highly competitive hiring process. And of course I have set up a number of design-ed programs such as the Charter High School For Architecture and Design that engage a similar number of youth but the end goal is not a usable final product for a client but the success of a student- two very different animals for teenagers.

What would the organizational design of the office look like? What can they produce in six weeks that truly is of benefit to our clients and not just a mock-up or prototype? How do you establish a culture of excellence and relentless questioning with a group that size, in a work environment (a public school) where they are conditioned to be otherwise?

We have just a couple of weeks left in the program and I must say that it has been a really interesting ride thus far.

The things that have worked?

Creating an organizational design that functions like a real office in which people work in small teams to manage various aspects of the business- design, research, marketing, business- has been great and has allowed the teens to find something they really enjoy doing but to still be in the midst of the design process. The scale of the projects we’re doing has also been a success but the big surprises have been the role of making our own healthy food (as a part of design) and documenting our successes, and failures through video- both been huge hits.


Establishing the culture of excellence and relentless exploration that is absolutely essential to getting great things done is really hard with nineteen apprentices working in an environment where they are conditioned to underachieve (a public school). Yes, they are doing great things but the difference between nineteen apprentices and fifteen or fifteen and twelve is huge.

What’s next?

Well, we’re not done yet, we still have to wrap up our oven mitts for Anne and we just started designing micro-farm stands for a local burgeoning farmer’s market.