You really are creative
Wish you were one of those people blessed with creativity? You’re already one of them, says a life-altering college course.
By Laura Merisalo
Taking Linda Menck’s Introduction to Visual Communication class is like learning to be a kid again, one poised to succeed in a grown-up profession.
Anthony DiSanto, Bus Ad ’17, signed up for her class in the final semester of his senior year, and it transformed his worldview. “It brought me back to when I was younger, to when everyone used to draw and build,” DiSanto says. “I am finally coming back to looking at the world as a kid,” able to discover new possibilities in even the most mundane matters.
Take a stick on the sidewalk, for example. For a kid, it isn’t just a bit of debris cluttering the path, something to kick aside. Viewing it with a fresh perspective (the entrepreneurial mindset Menck teaches), he says, “It’s a sword or a wand.”
Menck’s fresh perspective, gained over the past three of her 16 years as a professional-in-residence in strategic communication at Marquette as well as the dozen years before that working as an adviser to the Student Media Advertising Department and then the director of the Wakerly Lab, drives her curriculum.
It began to take shape when she reconnected in 2015 with a former student, Megan Carver, Comm ’08, associate director of the Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship.The center, once housed within the College of Business Administration, was moving under Marquette’s newly created Office of Research and Innovation, and allowed for expansion of innovation and entrepreneurship programs across campus. “We recognize the intersection of disciplines provides the greatest opportunity for innovation,” Carver says.
“Their goal was to get more faculty involved from other disciplines … and she knew that if anybody would want to be involved in this whole innovation, entrepreneur thing, it would be me,” Menck says.
A domino effect ensued. Menck met Dr. Jay Goldberg, clinical professor of biomedical engineering, at a Kohler Center event. He was intrigued by her visual communication course, which then focused on teaching students to use visual storytelling to communicate technical ideas to non-technical audiences. “Our engineering students need this,” he told Menck and invited her to a three-day faculty training session in 2015 as part of the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN), a national network of 30 institutions formed to forge an entrepreneurial mindset among aspiring engineers.
“It was a room of engineers and me, and it was really uncomfortable,” Menck recalls. “But I remember walking out of there thinking, ‘It’s not just engineers who need an entrepreneurial mindset. It’s every student at this university.’”
Dominoes continued to topple as Menck applied KEEN principles — the three Cs of an entrepreneurial mindset: curiosity, connections and creating value — to revamp her Introduction to Visual Communication course. “Mindset is different from skill set. It’s a way of approaching your life and your world … and creating value.That does not just mean monetary value, but value to humanity, and that’s Marquette’s mission,” Menck says. “I thought, ‘This needs to be in the world of communication.’”
Uniting entrepreneurism, engineering and communication creates a natural and essential nexus, according to Menck, Grad ’97. Indeed, she believes the three Cs of an entrepreneurial mindset should be expanded to include a fourth C, communication.
Engineers “want to tell you all the specs of this thing-a-ma-bob that is going to change the world,” Menck says. “But when you get to the point where you are talking to a venture capitalist, they don’t care about the technical aspects.That will come down the road.”
In the real world, an engineer, or anyone, may have only five minutes to sell an idea, Menck says. Storytelling with visuals, she says, is the most powerful way to do it. “They have these tremendous, amazing ideas that are going to change the world, but they need to work with our Comm students to make that happen,” Menck says.
Creative storytelling is a key focus of Menck’s project-based class that centers on teams of students puzzling through challenges using design-thinking, an approach that involves literally sketching out thoughts and solutions. Students rely on visual techniques, such as mind mapping, through which they use words and images to depict as many ideas as possible, culling a handful as priorities for fuller development.The class culminates with pitch presentations as each team tries to sell their ideas in just a few minutes.
Since its evolution began, buzz surrounding the class has grown. The new iteration of “Intro to Visual Comm” lures students from other colleges, with somewhere between a half and a handful being communication majors. Such diversity winds up being a boon for Diederich students, says senior advertising major Rebecca Streightiff. “You are with engineering, health sciences, education and business administration majors,” Streightiff says. “You have all those different mindsets in one course … working on the same project, and that (diversity) is how you come up with the most innovative products and solutions.”
DiSanto agrees. As a finance major, he says, “You get pretty focused. Everything is rigid in terms of structure. … Fresh eyes, a new perspective can help down the line as you apply it to what you are focusing on.You can create value through it.” Reigniting innate creativity and rebuilding creative confidence are among Menck’s goals. Her first question for students is: Who among them is creative? Few raise their hand.Yet most are more creative than they know or allow themselves to be, typically doubting themselves because of a trigger moment in their youth that quashed their belief in their creative abilities.
Unleashing creativity, however, is essential for divergent thinking, which Menck describes as airing a bevy of ideas to discover inventive and innovative solutions.
“People tend to think you are either born creative or you are not,” Menck says. “I don’t think that is true.You can practice divergent thinking.”
Many students are leery, at least at first, particularly those in majors such as business administration, which may not seem to skew creative. Among the design-thinking processes Menck teaches is to flesh out ideas via sketchnoting, so class supplies include a sketchbook and colored markers.
“To tell an econ or business administration major that they are going to draw, they freak out,” she says.
But they come around.
Erica Day, a junior economics major, signed up for Menck’s fall 2016 class. Since friends who took the class gushed that it was “awesome and amazing,” she expected it would be a great experience, but not necessarily one that would be tangibly enduring. But by the time Day bumped into Menck at the Brew Bayou during finals week in spring 2017, she plainly brimmed with gratitude, telling Menck her class “changed my world.”
Day shared with Menck how she applied mind mapping — the visual diagramming of ideas she learned in Menck’s course — to her poetry class the following semester. With the title of the poem at the center of the page, she sketched in possible interpretations. “Poetry is not my thing,” Day says. But by using the design-thinking process, she visually mapped out and ultimately crystallized her ideas so she could analyze “and figure out what this (poem) might be. I got an A.”
Menck’s class not only gave Day a new perspective on how to think, but the challenge she and her peers took on as a class project created an opportunity for her to leave a lasting legacy at Marquette.
In fall 2016 the class challenge came via the Athletics Department.The objective: Figure out a way to boost student attendance at basketball games, which had dropped despite discounted tickets and free transportation to the BMO Harris Bradley Center, home court for the Marquette Golden Eagles.
Menck’s 40 students that fall represented a mix of majors: business, arts and sciences, engineering and communication. Among the ideas were cheaper brats, beers and burgers, and better transportation.
A common theme was that students want more tradition, a sense of community, a personal experience. And each team agreed a key way to build community and a personal connection to the games was to give the Golden Eagles’ mascot a name.
Day continues her work on that challenge via a student committee to come up with a name for Marquette’s mascot. (Spoiler alert: Iggy is a top contender, to align with St. Ignatius.) Day and Menck were at once awed yet not quite taken aback by the idea that a class project could lead to an abiding difference.
“You can make change, and that is really what it is all about,” Menck says.
Tapping into one’s creative side is imperative in today’s highly visual world, Menck says, as “we’re moving beyond the idea of the knowledge worker to where it is really important to use both sides of your brain and to think creatively because that is where innovation comes from.”
An entrepreneurial mindset is not relegated to the realm of startups, she says. CEO surveys consistently reveal that top executives seek creative thinkers, people who can tackle challenges and innovate even within a larger organization.
Since friends who took the class gushed that it was “awesome and amazing,” Day expected a great experience, but not necessarily something tangibly enduring. But by the time she bumped into Menck during finals week in spring 2017, she brimmed with gratitude, telling her former teacher her class “changed my world.”
In spring 2017 students made their final pitches at the 707 Hub, a new student-initiated innovation space supporting idea generation, entrepreneurship and social innovation across campus.The space is also home to the Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship and the Social Innovation Initiative. With its movable glass walls, exposed structural elements and tools such as a 3-D printer, it’s the hottest space on campus. And Menck was involved in the 707 Hub’s early development stages through Carver. At the grand opening in March, she and some of her students were there wearing blue and gold 707 HubT-shirts just like the staff and others involved in the planning process.
Menck sustains her connection to the hub, in part by sharing it with her communication students. She encourages them to use the space and build relationships, kind of like I did, to meet these other great students who are doing great things. And they need your help … to communicate their great ideas and be part of these innovative and entrepreneurial teams.”
“Communication has got to get out of the communication building,” Menck says. “We can’t just be in our own little silo. We have to get our students to work with other disciplines. That is just the way our world works now.”
Such collaboration, Menck says, “is the future. You’ve got to be entrepreneurially minded.That is where the job growth is.”
Streightiff is fully on board and is crafting a self-designed minor that, for now, she dubs Leadership and Innovation, which springs from her experience in this course. She also is a University Innovation Fellow, a national program based out of Stanford University that empowers students to become change agents at their schools.
Among her goals as an innovation fellow, Streightiff says, is to integrate entrepreneurial mindset learning campuswide, “trying to get Marquette overall to be more like (Menck’s) class.”
“The fact that all of these other students from other colleges are coming to the College of Communication really reflects our college in a great way,” Streightiff says. “It is bringing a new way of thinking into our college, helping our students to be more innovative … and opens our audience, helping to make our college more diverse.”