Make Me: A Transmedia Experience about Diversity

Make Me was a transmedia project developed to raise awareness about the negative effect that binary gender roles have on an individual’s outward expression of identity. The project involved both a physical installation and a digital component.

The physical installation consisted of a mannequin, a variety of clothes, and a sign that said, “Make me beautiful” or “Make me handsome.” The installation traveled to different sites around Muncie and Indianapolis and the goal was to see how different participants interpreted such a gendered adjective in the instructions. Would people actually be predisposed to dress the mannequin in a tutu if they were told to make it beautiful?

The digital component was an online gallery where we paired photos from each of the installation sites with quotes from interviews that explicitly addressed binary gender roles. Whereas the goal of the physical installation was to let people explore what “beautiful” or “handsome” meant to them, the website would drive home the message that people’s assumptions about what men or women should look like have real-life consequences.

Okay, so that was the project itself. But, really, this whole experience wasn’t just about making something that furthered a social justice issue or raising awareness. It was about learning to apply the process of design thinking to a transmedia experience. So although, arguably, you could say that we did help people think more about the consequences of binary gender roles or at least provided a fun art installation for people to participate in, that wasn’t actually the important part. The important part is what the participants didn’t see.

Make Me is significant to me because it was the first time in this program that we as students led ourselves through the design thinking process and were expected to come up with a product. Previously in the semester, we’d been given pretty strict guidelines as to what we could build and how the process should go week by week. With Make Me, we were given a timeline and roles that team members had to adhere to, but the rest was up to us. Well, as up to us as it could be when everything was decided by usability testing.

If you’re not familiar, design thinking is a process where a team designs a product that solves a problem. So you follow a set path – you identify the problem, research the problem, brainstorm ways to solve it, prototype those solutions, and test the solutions. Ideally, you also do this iteratively, going back to certain stages when things didn’t work properly. In Make Me, we never quite got to the iterative part, but we did go through all the stages! That felt like a victory, at least as a first semester master’s student.

I consider myself a creative person, and sometimes an artist, so it was difficult for me to accept that with Make Me, I was not in control – the user was. In fact, the whole idea for the installation, or “the thing with the mannequins,” as we called it, was not any of the team’s first choice as the prototype to develop. However, every user that we tested with loved the idea. So that was what we had to build. The biggest failure of the project is that when you look at it, it’s not actually transmedia in its truest form – it is a physical installation that just happens to have a website tacked onto it. This goes back to an issue in our brainstorming phase where we had good ideas for physical projects and good ideas for digital projects but maybe didn’t push the ones that combined the two as much. In an ideal, unlimited-time-and-resources design thinking universe, at that point, we would’ve taken the core idea for Make Me and gone back to the ideation process to figure out how to actually incorporate different platforms. But it’s never an ideal universe.

Instead, we got hung up on how to create a mid-fidelity prototype, which boiled down to how we could get a hold of mannequins, clothes racks, clothes, and other production elements in about ten days over Thanksgiving break. CraigsList is really an amazing place. In the end, we pulled together something presentable that did show us what possible problems would be with a larger scale version of the experience – wind blowing over clothes racks, for example, or users putting the clothes on themselves instead of the mannequins.

So yes, Make Me was a success in a lot of ways – as a team of graduate students, we identified a problem we cared about and used the design thinking process to try and solve it. Was the end product a perfect example of a transmedia experience? Definitely not. But we learned. And the most important thing I learned is that sometimes, it’s okay to say, “No mannequins.”