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How to cope with designer's block

Andreas Gerolemou strips divination of its mystery. His "Apprentice Guide" looks at African folklore and uses its essence to devise a clever tool for designers to solve problems.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 09-10-2008

The next edition of MaHKUzine, the Utrecht School of the Arts’ journal of artistic research, will be out later this month. Master graduate, Andreas Gerolemou’s “The Apprentice Guide” is featured. Here he describes his guide as an alternate to old-fashioned brainstorming.

When a designer hits a wall she needs a way out. The usual method is a brainstorming session with trusty colleagues who throw words and techniques on the table until the right solution is found.

But Andreas Gerolemou, inspired by the practice of divination in his African homeland, has devised a new way to cope. He calls it “The Apprentice Guide” and his thesis on the topic will be published in the next edition of MaHKUzine.

Divination is like fortunetelling for the community. “While fortunetelling is for individual gain, divination is for the good of society as a whole,” Gerolemou explains.

The actual diviner is a keeper of culture. Like a priest, he is a community elder who people look up to. When the community faces a problem, they caucus with the diviner and ask open-ended questions. He then responds by throwing the contents of his treasured bag of objects down onto a map mat and interpreting their spatial relations.

It’s more than just superstition. The placement of the thrown objects is random, and the interpreted relationships between the various objects, like animal bones and gemstones, have been carried down through generations. But more than definitive answers, the diviner offers a fresh perspective on a problem. “Objects usually represent constants like time and patience,” says Gerolemou, “so the answer might be as much about a community conversation as it is a firm recommendation.”

This only works because many traditional African cultures believe in the power of ancestral spirits and nature. “The technique can’t exist without a strong cultural context because its strength lies in how it is perceived,” Gerolemou says.

Gerolemou’s idea, then, was to remove the mysticism by transferring this system into the context of contemporary design and the various dilemmas designers face. During the design process, a designer stagnates due to a lack of, or too much information. Either way, a block prevents progress.

Gerolemou put together a bag of everyday objects and a corresponding list of forty words that recur in design discourse like eliminate, complete, protect, attach and nurture. Pairing the objects and the words is a personal decision.

So imagine, for example, it is the early stages of a design project. The designer realizes that two different concepts collide. Opening her bag, she throws its contents asking, “How should I combine these two concepts?”

The objects land and the designer can set about interpreting their topography in relation to each other and also the mat. According to the personalized code, a matchbox-car might symbolize "dissect" and an eraser might symbolize "surrender". The matchbox-car and the eraser will in turn be influenced by which part of the mat they fell on, a corner symbolizing "expedience", for example.

“The interpretation, then, would be something like, ‘The two concepts should be dissected and analyzed. Through this analysis an expedient or practical attitude should be adopted so as to identify one surrendering concept,” explains Gerolemou.

And that’s just a reading of two objects. As more objects are considered, a fuller journey of shifting perspectives begins, which all helps the designer to come closer to solving her dilemma.

"The Apprentice Guide" offers a fresh perspective; it pushes designers outside their predictable thought patterns and offers new insights. “I think this works because it really dares the designer to consider things differently,” Gerolemou says, “and that is the best way to access anyone’s inborn creativity.”

The Apprentice Guide is published in full at

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