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This Is Why I Love CCA Secret Project

Bill Chien
May 14, 2016 · 8 min read

Everything seems so wrong yet so right. Crossing the Pacific Ocean to the United States, I’ve never thought that I could go this far in my learning journey. This is my first journal in Medium, and I am dedicating it to Secret Project and those who’ve been supporting me as friends.

The first time I heard of Secret Project, I was a freshman in California College of the Arts. It was my new friend Weiwei Hsu told me that I should join this “cool thing.” Although I was somewhat confused, what she described as an eye-opening experience deeply intrigued me. At that time, I was just an international student coming from a traditional Chinese education background, all of whom knows were endeavor to complete his Graphic Design BFA degree and fulfill his family’s expectation.

Secret Project, sounds kind of cool.

Seeking for similar cool experiences, along with Weiwei, my roommate Damon Lam and a friend, I participated TechRaking 7, an annual hackathon series put on by The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), which focused on the intersection of journalism and design, in late 2014. Amazingly, we were the only freshmen.

TechRaking 7 | Highlight

A challenge, sharpies, rolls of white paper, and endless brainstorming…For the first time, I experienced what it called “design sprint.” I was allocated to a team that includes me, two DMBA students and an experienced interaction design student. Unpleasantly, as the sprint went, I felt rather shallow; I felt that I knew too little too be qualified to talk. However, my will of fitting-in pushed me to keep up my pace and patiently listen to the discussions happening in my team. I was astonished by how my teammates were rapidly planning, generating, drawing, noting, communicating… I realized that such a process was something that I’ve never experienced before, and it was so fresh and cool.

I did it. I finally offered my idea, which was fresh and cool for my teammates too. The idea sparked another idea, which thereby became the turning point of the whole discussion. Utilizing all of my graphic skills, my role gradually became bigger within the team. I realized I could do this, just like anyone else. I just need more of such experiences.

On November 22, not long after TechRaking, I officially attended my first Secret Project Blitz with Workshop Residence in Dogpatch, San Francisco. I was glad that students across all levels and all disciplines are welcome to experience this two-day design sprint. Therefore, I had more confidence in myself. Secret Project redefined the process of a design sprint. I didn’t need a entry level of some sort, and I could just participate right in. The design process—Think Wrong was introduced by John Bielenberg, one of the faculties of Secret Project, in the very beginning of the blitz.

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Think Wrong Practices |

The experience was unexpected for me.

Sometimes it could be challenging for an ESL student like me, especially the Get Out session. As one of the small teams in the blitz, we were expected to go out, talk to strangers, see things and get inspirations, and then to report back our discoveries. For the first time, I actively talked to a stranger with my shitty oral English, which ended up being a failure due to time constraint. However, that was a nice try.

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Sticky Notes + Sharpies = Random Words

Sometimes it could be fun. There was a session when everyone used a sharpie to write down whatever words came to mind. It could go as crazy or as ridiculous as it could, and those words were where ideas started sparkling from. At that moment, every participant was an idea-generator, an unconscious one. I felt empowered and free to write down anything I want.

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Moose Condom | Creative Kit

I couldn’t imagine what amoose condom looked like, but that was one of the favorite words we voted on the table. It became my team’s final concept—a DIY kit for creators or makers who want to make something out of cloth scraps.

For me, every blitz was a magic outside of a classroom. The outcome was unexpected; the experience was unexpected; and the people were unexpected. In the end, I leaned something unexpectedly—whether that’s communicating, physical skills or thinking process. I never underwent such surprising leaning experiences in a class. Never.

Weiwei, Damon and I somehow became Secret Project’s loyal fans, and we participated every single blitzes we possibly could. Although Short blitzes were decent experiences, constraints still existed. Because of the limited time, projects were remain in concepts; teammates would only be acquaintances rather than friends…something more was always aspired.

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Secret Project Alabama | Participants: Andrea Lacorazza, Bill Chien, Damon Lam, Matthew Lew, Weiwei Hsu | Faculties: John Bielenberg & Marc O’Brien

In March 2015, CCA Secret Project initiated 7-day blitz in Greensboro, Alabama. It was spring break, so Weiwei, Damon and I all participated with great curiosity, since none of us had ever been to the South. Surprisingly, the destination was strangely attractive! That was a totally different world compared to San Francisco. People were friendly; houses were vintage yet alluring. There was no start-up culture, no design culture, no high-end living style. The only thing matters was the community (and maybe catfish?).

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Greensboro Downtown

As a Secret Project team, five students coming from different backgrounds lived together, explored together, brainstormed together, and made things together.

Conclude the journey with two words: LIFE CHANGING.

Things we experienced

  • Meeting inspiring social entrepreneur Pam Dorr & H.E.R.O.
  • Visiting H.E.R.O projects.
  • Meeting new people & an awesome friend named Zev.
  • Feeling the haunting vibe of the town.
  • Visiting Rural Studio projects.
  • Bonfire Bonding night.
  • Talking to locals.
  • Figuring out a challenge & Think Wrong.
  • Watching movie Selma & visiting Safe House Museum.
  • Visiting an old opera house.
  • Making things with paint, bamboos, and balloons.
  • More…

Because of these small experiences, and thanks to Secret Project faculties John and Marc O’Brien, I had countless first-times, which would’ve never been possible if I had limited my learning journey at CCA campus.

Things we helped

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The branded Martin Stewart School | Helium

Inspired by Pam and H.E.R.O, a catalyst for the local community, we helped branding the relocated Martin Stewart School—a school offers education opportunities for dropped-out youth in Hale County. After thinking wrong, we decided to named it Helium, as a metaphor for “lifting youth.” We also started an campaign that attempted to raise fund for the school.

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Making = Fun | Photo credit : Matthew Lew + Bill Chien

Why was it life-changing? My definition of a designer and what a designer can really do was broadened. Living and exploring in Greensboro, I realized that designers in the town were not fancily defined as designers; they were people who have creative skills; they were all helpers, facilitating building the community; they were people who could’ve have a great design career or a decent job in big cities, yet they chose to come to a small town and make positive changes.

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Secret Project Utah | Participants: Bill Chien, Isamu Taguchi, Weiwei Hsu, William Felker | Faculties: John Bielenberg & Marc O’Brien

This year in March, Secret Project lunched another 7-day journey Tour de Pando. Between San Francisco and Green River, Utah, we drove through 866 miles, with our mobile studio—Airstream D.A.M.O.N, to and fro.

Once again the journey opened my eyes. Escaping from city, I witnessed the beauty of nature, nature of all kinds. From warm to cold, plain to plateau, desert to snow lands…I was passing through various geographic scenery, as if I was reading a living geography text book. Surprisingly, I got a sense of what “wild west” look like after a few stops in the middle of the trip. City of Green River, our destination, is a small city between states where tourists often pass by.

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We were in Green River | Side of the Epicenter building.

Conclude the experience with one word: AWESOME.

Things we experienced

  • 26 hours road trip.
  • Camping and karaoke nights.
  • Sleeping in the Airstream.
  • Campfire nights with hobo packs.
  • Visiting the largest and oldest organism on the planet—Pando.
  • Hiking in Grand Wash.
  • Visiting Epicenter.
  • Touring around Green River.
  • Visiting abandoned military bases.
  • Hiking and camping in Great Basin National Park
  • More…
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Tour de Pando Moments | Photo credit: William Felker

Road trip and tours were moments of the journey that enriched the experience and stimulated inspirations for the trip or for ourselves, but as design students, we also wanted to help once we could.

Things we helped

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Working on the roof | Photo credit: William Felker

Similar to Pam and H.E.R.O’s roles in Greensboro, Epicenter is a organization in Green River that provides housing and business resources and promotes the arts, and thereby build up Green River’s rural pride and pioneering spirit. The second day after we arrived, we started our “Neck Down” session—helping Epicenter to remove damaged roof of an old house. That was my first time doing such kind of heavy duty, and I was addicted to it! The essence of physical helping genuinely excited me, because I could finally escape from my laptop for a while. However, that’s not the only help Secret Project team offered.

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Reporting a new concept to a local business. | Melon Vine Grocery Store | Photo credit: William Felker

Epicenter pointed us to two local stores who needed boosts for their businesses. After talking to people in charge and getting to know the story, we did a rapid blitz and presented back our concepts and solutions. Different from analog projects we did in school for design critiques by designers, we utilized our skill in the real world, and help non-design people side by side. That was the moment intrigued me.

There is a reason why I call these longer blitzes “creative journeys.” Compared to two-day blitzes, seven-day journey gives us more time, more interactions, more memorable moments, more experiences, and, of course, has more impact on participants.

What experiences did CCA Secret Project created for its participants?

So much. That’s my brief answer. If I must answer specifically, especially for those creative journeys, here’s the list:

  • Meeting experienced/extraordinary people.
  • Interdisciplinary knowledge learning from teammates.
  • Physical skill learning.
  • Team bonding.
  • Real-world problem knowing→brainstorming→making→presenting.
  • Opportunities of volunteering.
  • Opportunities of traveling and touring.
  • Unexpected stuff & more.

Most importantly: getting inspired and making positive changes.

I cannot appreciate enough how much CCA Secret Project, alone with John, Marc and Secret Project alumni, has been influencing me to become a curious, courageous and generous student. It is Secret Project that broadens, enriches and challenges my experience in CCA. It makes me question more, think more, and act more. It elevates my life value both as an Chinese student and a human being. That’s why I love it.

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