Mile Marker 301

Interview with the Founder (Summer 2007)

Rebecca Hargrave Malamud, founder of the Rural Design Collective, was recently interviewed by Linda Tarr of North Curry Community Radio. Much of the interview was not used in the final cut, so it has been posted here as a text transcript. You can listen to the final interview at NCCRADIO.org.

What is the Rural Design Collective?

It is a remote mentoring program with a local focus designed to help motivated, creative people begin a career on the Internet.

What motivated you to begin?

Wow - those kinds of questions are always difficult to answer. Influences and motivation. This is an overview of things that have motivated me on a personal level - I could infinitely branch off into much more detail.

Very early in my career, I met my friend, Richard Blumberg, as I have many of my friends - online. I was answering technical questions from designers all over town in this little underground BBS in Cincinnati called Public Landing. Everybody knew me as my avatar, the 1960's Smiley Face designed by Harvey Ball. Richard and I met face-to-face one day and decided we should create our own BBS, so we created a community service named Productivity Online - it was in 1991 before the web was popular. We got involved in our community and set up area businesses and organizations with their own forums. It was like a virtual reflection of our town. And as part of that, I started an ad-hoc consortium of designers all over the world -- hooking up our little First Class BBS to an Internet gateway (we had an office cat named Melissa who used to sleep on top of it). We shared tips and tricks and swapped files and fonts (freeware, of course) - and helped each other out through the budding maze of technology as computers were becoming popular in the design world. I have many strong friendships from that phase of my life. When the Mosaic browser came out, we all moved on to the Web.

Not too long after that, I met Carl Malamud, who invited me to design the Internet 1996 World Exposition. That was an amazing experience where artists, designers and technologists all over the world built pavilions and promoted the fair in their respective countries. We built the overall organizing fair site in an unbelievable flurry of creativity and email. And I wound up in Japan for the closing ceremony where we had a CD-ROM of the fair sealed in a time capsule in Kobe for ten years. It was just this overwhelmingly meaningful period of time in my life. The Internet literally opened up the whole world to me.

Then, when I moved here six years ago, I wanted to recapture some of that again. At first, I did a few local web sites - When I was a volunteer for the Sixes River Fire Department, I helped create a site for them and designed a custom patch as part of that. Then I designed a site for a local cranberry farmer (since redesigned) in exchange for a massive load of organic berries. And I visited Dement Ranch out of curiosity. I even got the idea for my personal logo - the walking-b-dot - based on the sign at the entrance of Dement Ranch. And I did numerous wacky, fun projects with my son, Nate. And I opened a gallery, because I had never opened a gallery before, and began mapping photos using a GPS and Google Maps. I had this not-yet-fully-formed idea of an ongoing web site that I would fund through the sale of art prints and then release the resulting code as open source. It wasn't long before I met other photographers, and I began mapping their photos, too. I did ultimately build a site, and released the code as I had hoped, which is now used by many people who want an alternative to the commercial packages available. Unfortunately, I haven't had time to upgrade it for some time now -- it is definitely due a release -- but, fortunately, it is because I am so busy working on other interesting open source projects!

Have you been involved in teaching before now?

I have never taught formally in a classroom - I do not enjoy standing in front of a group of people. I did have a design studio in Cincinnati for ten years, and I worked with the University of Cincinnati on summer internships. I am also currently collaborating with students from the UC Berkeley School of Information on a module for an open data project, prototyping virtual shelves for an online library.

Fortunately, the role of computers in the classroom is constantly being re-evaluated, and constructivist learning - where people prefer to learn through experimentation, receiving useful help and feedback - is becoming highly valued as a teaching method. It is good to see this shift of focus. Not everyone is receptive to passive lecturing. They prefer to learn in a more active fashion, conduct their own research, connect their own dots and go off and figure things out on their own. This is good, because I personally think we teach and learn from one another everyday. Every time I lift my computer screen, there is something new to research or a question to answer.

How did you find your participants?

At this point, through word-of-mouth. I may formalize the process in the future - I have discussed the possibilities of filing for 501(c)(3) status and getting more formal with a board and the whole bit, but part of that frightens me. At that point, I would probably need to review candidates and not trust my instincts as much. So I am not sure that is the right route for me or not. I like creative freedom and the corporate org chart tends to stifle that. The real world web-of-trust model works for me in my professional life. I have a pretty good track record for finding talented people.

I know that you are enthusiastic about the open source movement. Could you talk a bit about that and how the philosophy behind it relates to your role as a mentor?

I think I have jokingly said that I was open source before anyone knew what it was. I mean, in a way - I don't think people fully understand what it is yet. Everyone associates it with software code - but design is code, art is code, writing is code, information is code, a compelling debate or interesting conversation is code - the laws of our land are code. Ideas are code. So, in essence, we are all hackers when we publish innovative ideas to the web. Creative people need to create - period. They can and should be compensated - but in the absence of such niceties - they will continue to do so or cease to exist.

And anyone who writes code for the web is automatically open source whether they know it or not, And if you think you aren't, then you are fooling yourself. You shouldn't be on the web if you are afraid of people stealing your ideas (attribution and netiquette is important, but that is another story). Your ideas are the essence of who you are. The only thing that matters is that you can keep generating new ideas. Keep being you. I think copyright and patents have corrupted the creative mind. Let's come up with the next big idea, copyright it, patent it, bottle it and sell it. And then if someone tries to steal my idea - let's go to court! Where did all this nonsense come from? Just keep creating - isn't that what it is all about?

And when you create something - do it so other people can build on it and share it. Or build something that benefits the common good. Don't lock your creativity behind a cage of laws and litigation just because you think somebody else will steal it. Just keep creating, and in the end you will be richer for it. The alternative funding models will fall into place, be it a paycheck, a gratifying gig or good karma.

Given the 'anywhereness' of the internet, what led you to offer this opportunity to young people living here in your south coast community, rather than to individuals you could have offered it to over the web?

I am raising a child here, so I do have a local interest in providing opportunities for young people to channel creative, positive energy. However, my program is not exclusive to young people - although I do prefer the idealism that generally accompanies youth.

Nor is my program exclusive to the locale. I do plan on releasing my curriculum as open source on the Internet so motivated individuals from anywhere can gain from it. Or improve it.

What is important about the 'Rural' aspect of your design project?

I am sure you have heard the saying that the Internet is the world's biggest small town - a global village. I remember when it was a small town - I built my first site in 1992. But it still is a small town. It's a bunch of small towns. Little pockets of knowledge you have to know where to look to find, and hidden out-of-the-way places, and networks of people that stick together because they respect each other and have known each other for years. The only thing missing is geographical location - a virtual community can still be small and span the entire globe. The ties that bind are the camaraderie, the work you leave behind and the power of your collective ideas.

I also have strong childhood memories of rural Kentucky - my Grandparents owned a little airport in Elizabethtown. My Granddaddy worked for Sears and Roebuck and decided he wanted to follow his own path. He did just that. And the two of them designed their own home and owned a Model-T and raised six kids and had a pet skunk in the outhouse and when we went to visit, we would get to ride around in the car or go up in the plane. Those kinds of childhood experiences stay with you your whole life long.

As my work on the web has matured, I tend to be influenced by the work of artists and engineers that have an impact in physical rural locales. Samuel Mockbee, the architect who started the Rural Studio in Hale County, Alabama is a great inspiration. He built poetic structures out of recycled materials to beautify that area and teach young students the importance of working as citizens of a community.

I am also intrigued by the art of Duane Flatmo (he also makes really cool kinetic sculptures) - he orchestrated the Rural Burl Mural Bureau project in Arcata, CA, for a number of years. I am sure that anyone out here who has driven through Eureka and Arcata has seen the murals in that area. Many of them were created by Flatmo with area youth under his guidance to beautify the area. The Rural Design Collective has the same type of idea - except our murals are online. We are helping our community beautify its virtual city.

To get a little closer to home, Tobe Porter has been a tremendous inspiration. I have been working on a project called Open Library, and watching the progress of the construction of the Port Orford Library was a recent creative influence I value greatly. To see the plans, charts, and newspaper stories become real was so inspiring. She made me believe anything was possible.

And although this gets out of the original 'rural' context of the question, I would be remiss not to mention my friends Aaron Swartz, the unstoppable social activist who invited me to participate on the Open Library project, and Jeffrey Zeldman, whose work, business savvy and An Event Apart conference are beyond category.

What have you learned in this process?

That if you have a good idea -- something you really believe in -- you should do it instead of waiting for some external validation. I was able to do it (it wasn't easy), and I will always be glad that I did.

What has surprised you about this project?

The support on a local and global level. I put an ad in the local indy paper, Port Orford Today, to announce the program as well as sent email to my friends and colleagues online. I received an enthusiastic response from both. I created a project pool based on these responses so I have a wealth of work for future mentorees. I have many people interested in being potential partners or advisors - I still have a lot to work out in my next proposal.

I am also very pleased with the caliber of talent in the area. But that wasn't really a surprise - I knew going in that there is a lot of talent here. Nichole and Levi are prime examples.

Beyond the technical skills that you offer your participants, what else do you think is important to share with them?

My mentorees learn-as-they-earn. They work on real projects that help their community or establish their credibility as a professional. They complete the three months with a real project and real client relationships under their belt. Something that they can call their own.

In some vague way, I hope to help them gain a sense of online independence or identity, I think the birth of the web marked the dawn of a period of great individuality - and people are starting to get comfortable in that world. I would like to help others get started (and show that you don't need to be part of a strip mall to do it). You should establish your own presence to help the web reach the full vision of what it can be. It's not that different from community radio in that respect - just a different medium, and a potentially broader reach.

And I do hope they leave the program believing that they can make a difference, and in the power of their ideas.

Do you imagine this project continuing in the future, and if so, how?

Currently, it is personally funded. But now I have a better idea at how much the real costs are and how to manage it. I plan on working that into my next round of grant proposals. Which might mean applying for 501(c)(3) status. This is an option - but I am hesitant - because my heart is in creative work - not meetings, paperwork and negotiations. I like peer-to-peer interaction - I think that is why I chose mentoring as a model for the Rural Design Collective. I have always learned through work.

Is there any kind of support that you would like to have for the project for it to continue?

I am also exploring the idea of private funding, perhaps by setting up a foundation. One of my goals in the three-month program is to target a potential client base for the mentoree. We had a bona fide paying gig come through the studio that helped support the costs of the summer program - that establishes credibility for the program and helps build confidence in the participants. I would like to thank Ginney Etherton for being my first official patron. I want to explore this business model further - or a hybrid between private and public funding. And matching mentorees up with potential future clients based on their creative skill. I am, after all, trying to give motivated people skills to make it on their own.

What questions, if any, would you like to be asked, in this interview, or by the people you are mentoring?

Are there more questions? :-)



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