Mid-Century Sense

How can mid-century advertising help you make sense of your design work?

Seamus Yu Harte
Tried and Tested
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Purpose for Students
Get Equipped
Date Added: 
June 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

"Mad Men" was a popular TV show that focused on the people and work of advertising agencies in mid-century America. "Mid-century Sense" is an activity inspired by this era of advertising and designed by Grace Hawthorne and Seamus Yu Harte to help students navigate ambiguity by quickly shifting an ambiguous idea into a concrete advertisement.

By giving very specific constraints around how to express an idea (Title, Tagline, Copy, Image) and only allowing 10 minutes to create an advertisement, students can quickly "fill-in-the-blanks" to shift from abstract to concrete, rather than be bogged down by the dreaded "Blank Page."




The activity was originally designed for a course titled "Abstract to Concrete" where students focus on building and flexing the specific design ability of moving from abstract to concrete. In this course, there is an activity or two that will lead up to "Mid-Century Sense" so that the students have an ambiguous idea to use in the activity.

Since then, the activity has been used in other ability-focused design courses (e.g., Creative Gym) and as a tool for students in full-quarter design courses (e.g., Design for Data) and in learning experiences with project partners (e.g., SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) used this exercise to share their learnings from a design workshop with folks that weren't able to attend).




Shifting from an ambiguous idea to a concrete advertisement is hard. We have found that the more constraints you put on it—the easier it becomes for the students. For example:

Time: 10 minutes is fast! But it will keep the energy high and focused.

Materials: We bring in magazines and allow them to cut/paste images from them. But if you don't have magazines, pens/paper works, too.

Content: We ask students to express the idea with a Title, Tagline, Copy, & Image.

Example: We like to play a clip from Mad Men to set the mood and we then show some examples of mid-century advertising so they get the point.

Design Abilities Used

This activity helps students navigate ambiguity by providing very specific constraints to help them experiment rapidly with how to move an idea from abstract to concrete. In doing so, they engage their abilities to communicate deliberately and build and craft intentionally. Since the activity is done so quickly, they are nearly instantly able to reflect on their work and see how it will help them move the idea forward.


Designed by:

Seamus Yu Harte
Seamus Yu Harte
Story Designer + Lecturer, Stanford d.school
Grace Hawthorne
Grace Hawthorne
Adjunct Professor, Stanford d.school + Founder, Paper Punk

Design Abilities Used

Experiment Rapidly
Build + Craft Intentionally
Move Between Concrete + Abstract
Communicate Deliberately
Learn More about Design Abilities 


This resource is the original work of the Designer(s). I/we give permission for it to be licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

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