Episode 2: Education & Design: Tom Gattis, Owen Foster, and John McCabe

About the Episode

Host Monty Bruell talks with Tom Gattis, Owen Foster, and John McCabe, co-founders of Aether Learning. Aether Learning challenges conventional wisdom about how design is taught to students and practiced by professionals. This episode was recorded during SHiFT, a design camp of makers, thinkers, designers, and creators held in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

Behind the Scenes of Ep. 2: A Camping Trip in Alabama

I have to admit that I enjoy learning about wines from around the world. Every time I open a bottle of wine, I think about how many different corkscrews have been invented to accomplish what I perceive to be a fairly straightforward and simple task. There are corkscrews that twist, those that use leverage, and even some that require batteries. I’ve even encountered one or two that I was never able to figure out how to use. Needless to say, my favorite corkscrews are those that under promise and over deliver, the simple tools that just work easily and flawlessly time after time.

I tell this story about my fascination with corkscrews as a means to illustrate the importance and pervasiveness of design in our lives. From the toilet paper holders in our bathrooms to the cars we drive, virtually everything we touch began with a design and a designer who envisioned it. Some items work so well that we marvel every time we use them, while others seem to torment us as cruel pranks engineered by some evil designer for his own wanton amusement. How can great design and lousy design exist side by side?

Tom Gattis, Co-Founder of Aether Learning, says that it boils down to a combination of there not being enough good designers and a general lack of empathy. Tom believes that great design focuses on the end users of products, not just the end use. Great design is an opportunity to do kindness for strangers.

Tom and his partners, Owen Foster and John McCabe, created Aether Learning 5 years ago to challenge conventional wisdom about how design is taught to students and practiced by professionals. Tom, Owen, and John want to create disruptive models of learning and spread their gospel of unconventional thinking around the globe.

Recently, I spent a few days with the Aether Learning team and about 100 campers at SHiFT, a design camp set on 7,000 acres in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Aether has conducted 7 SHiFT camps over 5 years, with each camp having its own particular theme. The theme of the most recent camp was “Simply Complex.”

Most campers slept in tents, creating their own village of sorts upon arrival at Day 1 of camp. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me to learn that I slept in an air conditioned silo that had been renovated as a bunkhouse (though I did use the communal bathrooms). Two core tenets of SHiFT are to push boundaries and create community. Campers quickly learn that working together with one another will be central to their success.

A typical day at SHiFT begins with breakfast together at the Rattlesnake Saloon in the open air, sheltered by a humongous rock overhead. Next, there is usually a speaker, who introduces that day’s theme and activity. Then campers disperse to attack that day’s challenge, leading up to a bigger project at the end of the week. Campers come together for dinner at the end of the day to share stories and enjoy a presentation or entertainment. Finally, each day concludes sitting around a roaring fire being led in discussion by one of SHiFT’s partners called Igniters. Then it’s time for lights out and getting ready for the day ahead.

What I have gained from my SHiFT experience is a deep respect and appreciation of design and its capacity to create good in our world. Tom, Owen, and John aren’t trying to create carbon copies of themselves. They aspire to create a next generation of designers better than themselves.

Aether Learning and SHiFT are truly magical. Please take a minute to checkout my conversation with Tom Gattis, Owen Foster, and John McCabe on Studio Next. You may subscribe to Studio Next on iTunes or at www.yourstudionext.com. Also, find some really cool stuff at www.aetherlearning.com.

Think about design the next time you turn a doorknob, cook a meal, or drive a car. Design touches our lives a thousand times every day.


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