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Danny Rankin on Asking “Why” Questions When You Innovate

TEDxMileHigh Imagine speaker Danny Rankin is a designer and educator at the University of Colorado Boulder ATLAS Institute. His work explores subversive graphic design, material fabrication, game design, hardware hacking, sustainable agriculture, and large-scale installation art.

As a Kid, What Did You Want to Be When You Grew Up?

As a kid, I wanted to be an architect because I was obsessed with building elaborate cities out of Lego bricks. But in first grade, my math teacher said, “architects have to be good at math. Are you good at math?” At that point, I decided that instead of becoming an architect, I would find a career where I could avoid passive-aggressive math teachers. 

What Was the Biggest Turning Point in Your Life?

While in graduate school, I successfully taught a course to a large group of university students for the first time. At that moment, I realized that I was just as excited to teach design as I was to practice it. Before that, I had never considered working in higher education full time; now, I can’t think of ever leaving it. 

What Are Three Facts About You That Are Completely Unrelated to the Subject of Your Talk?

  1. When I was 15, my parents sold our house and moved us to a remote homestead in the Colorado mountains. They were certain the Y2K glitch was going to end society
  2. When I lived in California I was part of a two-person moped gang (technically the smallest possible moped gang). I still have my 1978 Puch Maxi Sport MKII
  3. I’ve been playing piano since I was 6 years old (and boy are my fingers tired!) 

Who Are Three People, Living or Dead, That Inspire You the Most? 

  1. My mom, Patricia. She is a hard-working artist and graphic designer. She started teaching me about aesthetics and layout design before I even knew how to ride a bike. She also didn’t take any sh*t from anybody
  2. Jeff Wysaski, a comedian, who creates amazing, one-off satirical retail products that he sneaks into stores for lucky people to find. His details are always perfect. Genius-level trolling
  3. Kevin Hoth, a photographer with an incredible aesthetic eye. He’s always doing amazing experiments to explore the process and physicality of image-making. Once at a gallery show, he printed images of gross objects on edible paper and then we ate them together. It was awesome

What’s Your Favorite TED or TEDx Talk?

I’m pretty obsessed with Stefan Sagmeister and I go back to his talk on Happiness by Design pretty regularly.  

It’s a good reminder to ask good “why” questions about the things we create.

What’s a Piece of Advice That You Live By or That You Give Other People Constantly?

Decide how you want to spend your time or somebody else will.

What’s the Biggest Challenge You Face in Your Day-To-Day Work?

My students get so obsessed with learning “the one thing” they need for their careers that they don’t take the time to just observe what’s happening around them. And often, this is where the best creative ideas come from. 

It is a struggle to get my students to care about the mundane, unseen, or seemingly irrelevant things around them in their pursuit of creative fuel.

It is especially difficult as they become increasingly anxious about what the future holds.

Name One Thing We Aren’t Spending Enough Time Thinking About as a Society. What Would Be a Good First Step?

The resounding call to infuse STEM curriculum into K-12 education might produce more capable students, but without an equal emphasis on design, students don’t learn to ask strong, critical “why” questions about the innovations they’re expected to create. 

We should be pushing to have Human-Centered Design added to school curriculums before college.

If You Could Achieve One Goal in the Next Year What Would It Be?

I want to watch two different Nicolas Cage movies every week for the next year so I can get through his entire catalog before we elect the next president. Why? Because sometimes I need distractions from (gestures broadly around at everything) and because inspiration often comes from unexpected places.

What Action Can the TedxMileHigh Community Take to Support Your Big Idea? 

Lean into the joyous discomfort of civil disobedience and fight for the protection of satirical speech, especially when it punches up.

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