Islands Of Brilliance: Autism & Inspiration

We all know the hustle and bustle of getting to work, (getting there on time), getting shit done, and then going home to do it all over again, but last week I was able to break that work flow for one hour each day to work with Islands of Brilliance, and I was reminded why I fell in love with art and design in the first place.

Founded by Mark and Margaret Fairbanks, Islands of Brilliance is an organization that pairs designers with children on the autism spectrum. In Mark’s TED talk, he explains that a key characteristic of autism is perseverance, which is a hyper fixation on a subject or a thing. His son Harry’s area of perseverance is trains. Once they realized that they were able to enter his world through conversations about trains, they noticed that Harry began to enter their world when he took an interest in using Mark’s design software to create trains, thus Islands of Brilliance was born.

By creating projects that are centered on their area of perseverance, over the course of one week, a group of 8 students work to create a poster with their mentor using Photoshop and Illustrator.

I was paired with Anna, a 26 year old who has hopes of gaining more training to possibly explore a career in graphic design.



Over the week, Anna and I worked together with the goal of making a poster; and Anna did just that plus two more. We started at a conceptual level of thinking; what is the story you want to tell? After learning about her family, hobbies, and the things she likes, she decided to make a poster surrounding three things she loves; her uncle Al, her dogs, and her golf cart.


I was surprised and impressed by how quickly Anna was able to replicate the steps I taught her. We started with the basics of Photoshop, and then quickly moved into understanding layers, selection tools, masking, and even image cutting. She was able to watch me instruct her how to perform a task, which often had 5 or more steps, and she was able to quickly remember which tools to use and the steps to creating the same outcome. Anyone in the design world can understand that learning these tools takes years of practice, but Anna was able to pick them up faster than I was able to explain them.  And then she moved into Illustrator (which I will admit I still consider myself a rookie at) and she began to learn those tools just as quickly, and how to move objects between the two programs.



At the end of the week, all the students in the class presented their work to a room of family, friends, designers, and colleagues, and Anna presented hers with pride. I was overwhelmingly proud of how she spoke to the room full of people about her finished piece, as she had wanted me to speak for her every day prior.

AnnaPoster (Print) (1).jpg

The experience that Islands of Brilliance gave me is immeasurable. Being able to step away from the mundane work flow and be reminded that there is and always will be a sense of wonder, storytelling, and friendship through design is what we all need every now and then.

And that’s brilliant.

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