Prototype Year


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Gap year? Leap year? Sabbatical? A very busy break?

When people asked, "What are you doing this year?" I didn’t quite know what to say.

I went through a phase where I referred to it as my learning sabbatical, but that didn’t quite fit. Sabbatical shares a root with the Hebrew term “shabbat or Sabbath” which literally means a “ceasing.” This year wasn't about rest. A "gap year” harkened to those exploratory breaks associated with the bridge from high school to college or college to the real world.

For the mid-career set, there aren’t really terms, nor social acceptance, for a pause in one’s career and education. People pivot and become “career switchers.” Many use grad school to catch their breath, and deepen their debt load.  The intrepid may store up financial reserves and take extended breaks to travel, dabble, or serve. But often these decisions are met with glares and confusion by colleagues, family, and mentors.

After trying to explain Experience Institute and my own journey many times over, I blurted out in conversation:

“It’s like…a prototype year.”

It stuck. After reflecting and unpacking my background in design and learning, I became more convinced of the magic in “prototype year." What does it mean exactly?

Unpacking prototypes: Primitive forms and iterative processes

First of all, prototype means many things to many people — especially the design and engineering set. It’s derived from Greek (πρωτότυπον) — protos (“first, primitive, original”) and typos ("impression, mold, pattern, form”). Most are familiar with its engineering definition, simply stated by Bill Moggridge as "a representation of a design, made before the final solution exists.” These primitive forms test variables that a team is refining and can be expressed in a range of fidelity and mediums.


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However, as a process-based term, “prototyping” takes on new depths. Prototypes can be used early in a process to gain empathy and solicit insight from users. They can be used in brainstorming and conceptualization to demonstrate and “think aloud” with a team or client. And, of course, they are used later as a model to understand form and contextual use. Whether empathetic or exploratory, demonstrative or experiential, high fidelity or improvisatory — the act of prototyping is empowering.

My prototype year is all of these things. It is about empowerment and new experiences, insight and iteration — but on a personal level.

So what does prototyping learning experiences look like?

Design is a learning process, and learning can be a designed process

This intuitive blurting out of “prototype year” meant more than I originally thought. With a background of learning sciences and design research, it just fit.

The most powerful element for me is the idea of intentional experimentation. Rather than a checklist approach outlining endless goals, I had to be comfortable articulating and testing my personal assumptions and questions.

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I’ve found that outlining rich questions and assumptions biases me towards experimentation and reflection in a unique way. These hypotheses help me explore the nuances of work — the settings, skills, and subjects — I want to test. For example, I love creative facilitation and design strategy for social clients. What do these skills look like in a venture capital setting? Working intrapreneurially in a global corporation has been enriching, but what does this look like in an entrepreneurial context?

Pause and Prototype: The first step is the hardest

As I define each area of my career I want to test, I feel more empowered. Prototyping is the fun, albeit messy, part. It’s the pause that’s challenging.

However uncomfortable, creating liminal space in our lives in which to explore, learn, and reflect is important. To have a "learning society", we need to not only make more of these moments for ourselves, but encourage reflection and experimentation in others — long after the textbooks close. While I’m taking a year to experiment, these learning leaps don’t have to be dauntingly time intensive. How can you create moments to pause and prototype in your everyday?

Read more in my blog, Prototype Year, to find out about my year of experiments in work, learning, and life.

References: An evolving collection of references supported this working blog entry. Check out more of the links below from thinkers such as Donald Schön, David Kolb, Liz Gerber, and Björn Hartmann.

Student BlogsMelanie Kahl