The Three R's Plus Design Thinking at San Diego's Urban Discovery Academy

The Urban Discovery Academy in downtown San Diego anchors the city’s emerging Innovation district and is a model for the power of Design Thinking. Faced with the closure of the private school their children attended, MaeLin Levine and a group of other parents created a unique kind of urban learning environment. Eight years later, the Urban Discovery Academy is going strong and just moved into a new facility. A vibrant brand identity and environmental graphics give visual expression to its mission and invite students to think like designers.

How to make a school

Establishing the brand-new school involved Design Thinking from the start, from an inventory of the current situation/problem to identifying target users’ needs and ideating solutions. “When we found out about the closure of our school, we wanted to keep the school community together, and we did that first by creating a ‘program’ within an existing underutilized, under-performing public school,” says Levine, principal of strategic visual communications studio Visual Asylum and a long-time design educator at San Diego’s City College.

The idea was great in concept, but not well received by the teachers’ union, since the district hired teachers to deliver the program. It lasted just one year. During that year, the group got busy researching how to create a new school and exploring what kind of school they wanted for their community. Ultimately, they decided to create a public charter school, and proceeded through a long line of hurdles, from school district approval to finding a facility, hiring staff and convincing people to donate and send their children to the school.

After being housed initially in a “broken-down medical facility” and later in an unused public school, in 2015 the Urban Discovery Academy moved into a new 36,000-sq.-ft. home in San Diego’s emerging IDEA (Innovation, Design, Education and Arts) District, an urban initiative that aims to create 13,000+ design and tech jobs in the next 12 years in Downtown San Diego’s East Village. The K-8 facility is not only a model charter school—fiscally sound, with high-achieving students and a wait list for every grade—it is also the first design and innovation anchor for the new IDEA district.

“We’re smack dab in the middle of the district and the first to exemplify what the city has been planning for the neighborhood,” says Levine. In combination with businesses like the Fab Lab and IDEA1, a new development encompassing creative spaces, housing and retail and restaurants, the Urban Discovery Academy is helping to foster a new “innovation economy” in San Diego.

The school’s new building communicates that vision both externally and internally, in large part thanks to Levine’s brand identity and environmental graphics.

Building an identity

Before the Urban Discovery Academy was a school, it was a brand. As the school was emerging into reality, Levine created a logomark and color palette befitting its urban mission. The logomark is a typographical treatment of the word “Urban,” with letters at varying heights suggesting a city skyline. The color palette is bright but also a little “dirty,” as Levine calls it, also reflecting the urban environment. The brand was initially applied to print collateral including brochures, ads and business cards, and later expanded to the school’s website.

“The identity was born out of the mission we outlined in our charter,” explains Levine. “We envisioned the school in the urban setting, right in the heart of the city, not in the surrounding neighborhoods. We wanted the students to learn as much from being part of the fabric of the city as they did within the school walls. So the brand is urban, vibrant, with colors showing just a little bit of grit, not pure. Our target audience is students who are motivated to learn and open to all, and parents who feel like they are part of the mission. Our donors are committed to us as well, and they represent a broad range of high-end business owners in the neighborhood who recognize the value that a quality school of choice brings to the overall community.”

With the opening of the new building, Levine and her team knew they needed to expand the visual vocabulary to create environmental graphics. They used the colorful building blocks of the original brand as the foundation for vibrant, illustrative murals, added simple forms such as circles for interior signage and created a variety of graphic solutions for donor recognition elements throughout the school.

Environmental graphics and signage needed to add impact, but on the cheap. (Levine’s work has been completely pro bono, but the signage fabrication budget was $30,000). So Levine’s team inserted them strategically, primarily in gathering spaces such as the school’s main corridors, its performance space (which is also available to the public as a meeting space) and the library. The building façade features not only the logomark in three dimensions, but colorful blocks integrated into the façade (exact Pantone-matched to the identity color palette) as well as a series of banners. Inside, large-scale vinyl murals bookend primary corridors and were a cost-effective way to add vibrancy. Signs are in acrylic with vinyl lettering. Creative place-naming resulted in room names such as The Hive (the school’s multi-purpose room including cafeteria) and The Stack (the library).

Levine says translating the print-based brand identity to the physical environment was a fun challenge. “Eight years ago we had no idea what the physical plant would look like. There was really no thinking about how we would want it to look and feel. We just knew that we wanted to visually communicate what was going on within the school and show it as a rich, vibrant, lively education environment with lots of exposure to creativity, including the performing and visual arts.”

When it came to inserting graphics into the floorplan, Levine found that once the building was framed, new and unexpected opportunities arose. “We had imagined some potential opportunities for graphics in a conceptual way, but once the building was actually being framed, we realized there were bigger opportunities in some areas that needed to be punctuated, like the ends of long corridors that needed some impact.”

Project-based learning looks a lot like Design Thinking

The Urban Discovery Academy’s driving mission is a project-based learning approach, meaning students learn experientially, by tackling a topic or project and diving into it. They generally work in groups on activities designed to answer a question or solve a problem. If this sounds a lot like Design Thinking, that’s no coincidence. Project-based learning shares many of the attributes of Design Thinking, and Design Thinking, says Levine, appears to be the “next big thing” in education.

“Design Thinking as a pedagogy is on the horizon to overtake STEM or now STEAM. Design Thinking is the next step.”

And the Urban Discovery Academy is leading the way toward incorporating Design Thinking into school curricula. The natural extension of its approach in the K-8 school, says Levin, is the addition of a high school that will fully embrace Design Thinking. And this week, the school has proposed the new school to the San Diego Unified School District for opening next fall.

“It’s more difficult to delve deeply into Design Thinking with younger kids because there are so many educational criteria to meet and iterating takes a lot of time,” Levine notes. “But in high school, there are great opportunities to embrace Design Thinking as a means to exploring and learning.” What will happen, Levine predicts, is that, “Over time, the high school program will solidify an approach than can trickle down into the lower school.”

In developing the concept for the new high school—which will be called Ideate High Academy—Levine’s group researched similar high schools across the country. They’re modeling their school on Miami’s DASH (Design Architecture Senior High School) and San Diego’s own High-Tech High.  

“We built an extraordinary advisory team of design influencers, architects, urban land planners, people from the sciences, and representatives of corporate America from innovation companies.” They’ve also forged partnerships with local higher-learning institutions including a community college and two nearby architecture schools. In combination with the IDEA District’s burgeoning enterprises, Ideate High Academy promises to be a bright spot in an emerging new innovation economy.


Client: Urban Discovery Academy

Location: San Diego

Design: Visual Asylum (logo/brand development, exterior color, interior design, environmental graphic design)

Design Team: MaeLin Levine, Amy Levine, Heber Miranda, Mariam Bier

Architect: AVRP

Interior Consultant: Lila Peji

Furniture: BKM

Signage Fabrication: SignAge Inc.

Photos: Stephen Simpson

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