stretch quests: searching for discomfort, as design practice

chair on stage

I’m on stage. I’m nude, and I’m reading the first chapter of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. This naked reading is my 40th birthday present to myself. I’m uncomfortable, keenly aware I am at least 15 years senior to all the other readers; that this post-baby, post-breakup body feels foreign to my senses. And I’m thrilled to be there.

“I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly — to insult ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felttipped pen.” Kurt Vonnegut

I am a good reader. I have a presence in front of an audience that’s borne out of my academic practice. I’m confident in my decision to recite, not sing, the Star Spangled Banner allowing for the sarcasm, so beautifully weaved into Vonnegut’s text, to spill into the audience.

But I’ve never performed on stage*, I am very uncomfortable displaying my pubic hair, and even more uncomfortable with the idea of accidentally encountering one of my students…while naked, on stage**.

Incompetence, discomfort, and a mile in her shoes

I’ve been a designer for 20 years, and a design educator for 13. I consider moments of vulnerability — of deliberately stepping into discomfort — critical to my design practice.

I have 3 primary reasons for seeking situations that make me uncomfortable or that highlight my incompetence:

  1. While the act of design making is still, at times, excruciating, the process of meeting it head on, working through its problems, and trying out, testing, and executing solutions, has become second nature. Every problem is a journey, with some journeys simply more complex than others. As my level of proficiency in and comfort with design has increased, I have been prone to forgetting what it is like to do something for the first time and, most likely, to fail at it. Since I teach undergraduate design students, I need to remember — viscerally — trying, failing, and trying again, so I can have compassion for their journey.
  2. Unfamiliar situations place me at the mercy of others. I am no longer the expert in the room, nor the one who’s in charge. I have to listen to understand, follow directions, and trust that another person has best intentions.
  3. Living as a white, cis, middle-class academic in a major Canadian city, I have to be deliberate if I am to engage with people, communities, or situations that are outside of my micro universe. If I fail to step out of my carefully-constructed comfort zone, I will continue to perpetuate (and, likely, defend) elitist, privileged, and harmful design practice.

Stretch quests: deliberate forays into discomfort

I tend to gravitate towards the uncomfortable, but I’ve noticed that isn’t always the case for my design students. Most are local to our institution; many come from the rural areas surrounding the city. We will get a few mature students each year, but most enter the program right out of highschool, with little travel or diversity of experience under their belt. They are predominantly white and middle class.

This year I borrowed an activity from my colleagues in business and marketing***, assigning a series of reflective tasks to those in the 1st year graphic design class. They are asked to complete a series of quest(s) in each of the following 5 categories:

  1. Mental
  2. Physical
  3. Social
  4. Professional
  5. Curiosity Conversation

For each quest, they record their level of comfort on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 is comfortable and 5 is way out of their comfort zone). They rate each quest on the comfort scale, first, before they engage in it and, second, after they’ve completed the quest. Then, they are asked to reflect on the experience, with a focus on insights regarding their personal growth rather than a description of the activity.

The objective of these quests is to push against their comfort zone; to try new experiences or talk to people who they consider remarkably remarkable or very different from themselves.****

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Anais Nin

How different is different?

While many of my own quests, and the examples I’ve seen from our students, might seem like breakfast cereal to some, the appearance of adventurousness isn’t the point. This exercise is intentionally designed to be a personal journey, though students are asked to share their process with their colleagues (with the option of elaborating, directly to the instructor).

  1. Each person, individually, brainstorms experiences that challenge their comfort zones. I then ask them to reflect on what scares them and why, and to consider stepping into some of those fears, if not directly, then through a “No, but…” alternative.
  2. Sharing our experiences provides us with the opportunity to consider quests beyond our radar. We are also reminded that every person has a “zone of discomfort” — what is familiar to one, is foreign to another.
  3. With each (some fingers crossed) positive experience during a stretch quest, we are encouraged to take new chances, try new things, and meet new (wonderfully different-from-us) people. This is the reward, and positive reinforcement to continue venturing outside of our little bubbles.

On being a tourist

The first time we try anything new we are all, essentially, tourists. And tourists, for fair reasons, have a bad rep: we can be loud, obnoxious, disrespectful asshats.

The problem isn’t the visiting, it’s the attitude. In the classroom, stretch quests provide me with the opportunity to talk about entitlement and privilege; to reflect on otherness; and to encourage learning that comes out of good will, and an openess to vulnerability.

Reading naked, while terrifying, meant that I shared the stage with women from different backgrounds, with different reading interests and body types, and with diverse reasons to want to be there. Each one brave. Each one vulnerable and exposed. And each capable of holding space for the others.


* Fine, I have, but I was five and I tripped over a giant, wooden rooster.

** This actually happened. She was there to support her roommate, who was one of the other readers.

*** Thank you to my dear colleague, Patrick Moskwa, for introducing me to this idea.

**** I will update this post with examples of what their quests as they complete them.

Also, a huge thank you to the YYC Naked Girls Reading and, specifically, Keely Kamikaze, for an amazing and very uncomfortable experience.