GET SCHOOLED: HOW XQ IS RETHINKING EDUCATION FROM THE GROUND UP
Whether you were homecoming queen or thought high school royally sucked, there seems to be a consensus that what you learn in the classroom often fails to prepare you for what comes next. "XQ: The Super School Project" looks to change that by entirely rethinking high school. Funded by Laurene Powell Jobs and Emerson Collective, XQ is a $50 million initiative whose goal is to inspire educators and students, as well as leaders from other sectors, to brainstorm, build, and implement new approaches to high school education in an ever-shifting world.
We spoke to WNW Members #9904 Heather Larimer and #10213 Danielle Flagg, who (with a lot of talented support) were tasked with the tall order of creating the brand and voice of XQ. Their goal was to establish an identity that would engage the national community to weigh in on how to evolve high school education from its archaic, factory-based model. It's great to hear that Heather and Danielle, who put so much of themselves into this project, were given just as much in return. As Heather puts it, "I really felt like it was the most holistic, brain-stretching experience of my entire career, or uh, career(s)." Danielle adds, "It’s ironic that this brand is about rethinking education, about teaching and learning--because the process of building this brand radically 'schooled' me (in a good way)."
Tell us a bit about your creative backgrounds.
Heather: I’ve been a copywriter for about ten years, but before that I’ve been a journalist, a fiction writer, and a writing instructor at a community college. So working on this project was such an incredible, almost serendipitous opportunity for me. I was able to bring a very unique set of skills to the table: the journalistic ability to find a compelling angle and tell a story in a powerful and well-paced way, my first-hand experience with how badly our high schools are failing to educate kids, and then brand-building, conceptual, and copywriting skills. I really felt like it was the most holistic, brain-stretching experience of my entire career, or uh, career(s).
Danielle: I have been in Adlandia for 25+ years, After graduating with an art history degree from a liberal arts college, I began as a creative director’s assistant in NYC, then became the first employee of a creative start-up, where I did a crazy range of things: interior design, HR, office management, I.T., eventually honing in on design and art direction. Next was Wieden+Kennedy for 17 years, followed by 6 months in Ethiopia on the Nike Foundation Girl Effect, and most recently TBWA\Media Arts Lab (Apple) and MAL\FORGOOD! I’ve realized over the course of my career that I gravitate towards chaos, situations that require a lot of spontaneity, multifaceted skills, and CAN DO spirit. The XQ Project fits my life’s path perfectly in this respect! It was constantly evolving, always challenging, and so meaningful. It’s ironic that this brand is about rethinking education, about teaching and learning because the process of building this brand radically “schooled” me (in a good way).
How did you come up with the name XQ: The Super School Project?
Finding the right name was like threading a needle at arms’ length; it took us months! The education field is pretty cluttered with names. We wanted something modern, enduring, and even “curious”, that didn’t sound like a “product” or, conversely, a government initiative. We had epic naming sessions and, in one of them, Member #1880 Kevin Li threw out the odd-sounding term "XQ." We then started thinking of that as an interesting way of delineating knowledge that diverges from the “fixed” notions of IQ or EQ. To be successful today, students need knowledge that's variable, and flexible, not static or easily quantified--but that’s not what they’re getting in public high school. The ambition of the project is to create a new, more relevant kind of learning and knowledge. And in doing so, supercharge our schools for the future.
"We then started thinking of [XQ] as an interesting way of delineating knowledge that diverges from the “fixed” notions of IQ or EQ. To be successful today, students need knowledge that's variable, and flexible, not static or easily quantified--but that’s not what they’re getting in public high school."
What was your creative approach to the 4-minute XQ video that is essentially a pitch of the entire project?
It’s such a rare opportunity to do a piece this length vs. an “ad”. So that was thrilling, to be able to tell a deep story, and pose an argument. We knew that this video would potentially get used in a variety of ways: to pitch to policymakers and activists, to explain the project to people in the field, to galvanize constituents, etc. So, we felt that the two most important things to establish were that A) American Public high school is in crisis, totally failing to prepare kids for the future, AND that B) the crisis of high school has a massive impact on the entire world- on global technology, public health, economic stability, and so on. Visually, it was interesting to try to find images that were inspiring but not directive or overly specific. Because the whole point of the project is that NO ONE really knows what a Super School will look like--it’s all going to be new and revolutionary. The process of the video was intensely educational for us—we didn’t know how antiquated the system was, or how well-meaning and democratically minded its origins were. Once we started to learn the real story, we felt so passionate about telling the world how ineffective this vital public system is. We really put our hearts into it!
"Both of us came from Wieden+Kennedy, so we had a shared language and approach that was really important when things got intense. It almost felt like we were bringing a metaphorical baby into the world, with all the ups and downs and a total inability to 'let go'."
Who or what inspired you when shaping the voice and brand of XQ?
So many things. Working together was incredible; we learned a ton from each other, and had such complementary strengths. Both of us came from Wieden+Kennedy, so we had a shared language and approach that was really important when things got intense. It almost felt like we were bringing a metaphorical baby into the world, with all the ups and downs and a total inability to “let go” (ha!) And the agency MAL\FORGOOD, and our incredible clients at Emerson Collective, are mostly women. Brilliant, passionate, creative women. It was so completely enlivening to be able to spend time with them and put our brains together on such a critically important project.
There were so many elements to the building of the brand. The look and feel needed to be fairly consistent overall, but the campaign storytelling started with Jessica Williams “landing” in New York City as an urban astronaut, rallying people to wake up and see how damaged this system is (through confrontational humor). So while her parts were fun, the longer format piece needed to be more educational; the social needed to feel intriguing and friendly, but pack a punch. The campaign’s job was to ultimately engage the national community to weigh in on how education needs to change.
"The campaign’s job was to ultimately engage the national community to weigh in on how education needs to change."
The whole vernacular is an optimistic, playful, modern, even “fun” take on the future of education. Visually, #4750 Max Erdenberger and Megan McGinley worked on the brand identity and they were very drawn to the feeling of stencils, which are by nature democratic, scrappy, ad-hoc. #10348 Mike Calvert - the lead art director who blew out the brand design, logo, and campaign - created something that feels as if it being immediately constructed, always evolving, modular. Member #8840 Christian Laniosz made it a conversational and compelling interactive experience. The language needed to be arresting; for example, the headline "America, We Have a Problem." Eventually, we were able to land on the universal call to action as RETHINK HIGH SCHOOL—which is inviting and spotlights some of the systemic problems. We rotated that construct to include lines like, RETHINK SEAT TIME; RETHINK MEMORIZATION. Linda Knight helped spark this direction and #5527 Cat Doran was instrumental in developing the voice and tone.
Is the failure of the current high school system an issue you'd been interested in prior to this project? What was your own high school experience like?
We both want to be explicitly clear that these were our individual experiences and in no way representative of the brand or opinions of our client or MAL\FORGOOD.
HL: I went to a great public high school in downtown Omaha. It was the best school in the state, housed in the beautiful former state capitol, and anyone in the city could go there. I had a great high school experience, but I learned so much about the state of public high school by teaching community college students for six years. I was disturbed by what they didn’t know, but I was far more disturbed at how deeply they had internalized their negative experiences- they believed that school was stupid, that they were stupid, that teachers were adversaries, and that learning was something to be avoided. When I saw how little positive input it took to turn someone around, it made me realize that they hadn’t been connecting with any of their teachers. That said, it’s dangerously simplistic to blame teachers, who are every bit as victimized by the system as students are.
DF: I did not know the depths of this archaic system until delving into this project. I knew that unfortunately people have to move their entire family or rent a zip code to get their child into a passable and supportive public high school that would prepare them for college. My high school and junior high experiences were both uniquely great, but were not public. I credit my learning to not only creative environments and exposure to new and interesting ways of thinking, but to my extremely impactful teachers. I also was surrounded by great sports programs, which I feel are a huge influence on learning and human dynamics/leadership.
From what you’ve learned throughout this process, why do you think the high school system remains so archaic?
Again, we are speaking from our personal observations, not the position of the brand or our client.
Money does not appear to be the problem. That’s the greatest misconception. We learned early on in the project that the world “experimental” is not a word any parent wants to hear. As much as people love the idea of a cutting-edge education, no one wants to be a guinea pig. So it seems fear has been a huge factor. And then, there’s standardization and measurement which were once really important tools of democracy, designed to guarantee equal education for all. Now those same well-intentioned ideals are a huge obstacle to change.