Fat Bear Week and “The Redesign”

Are any designs truly original? We examine Fat Bear Week to explore the question.

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“It’s Time to Vote for the Chonkiest Bear in Katmai National Park,” a recent LiveScience header proclaimed.1 “Bear 435 Holly is the 2019 Fat Bear champion. Will she keep her title in 2020?” asks a photo caption on NPR.org.2 

Before and after picture of Holly the bear after immense weight gain.
“435 Comparison 2019” by NPS Photo/ K.Stenberg and NPS Photo/ L.Carter is in the public domain. https://www.flickr.com/photos/katmainps/48844493933/in/photostream/

It is Fat Bear Week at Katmai National Park, a tournament bracket featuring before-and-after pictures of twiggy bruins in June turned beefy ursidae in October after a summer trying to stuff themselves with spawning salmon (See the before-and-after picture of Holly above). The National Park Service states their summer eating behavior simply: “The brown bears of Katmai are eating machines.”3 Judging by the graduating girth of Holly from July to September, we concur.   

What people who participate do not always realize is that this strange remix of Jenny Craig weight-loss pictures, March Madness bracketology, and American Idol-style popular voting actually leads to learning. Voters may not realize that as they vote for the particularly chunky Holly (a crowd favorite and former champion) they are internalizing knowledge about bear behavior, habitat, and ecosystems. This particularly clever type of teaching seems tailor-made for our current age of information sharing, where creating a quick impact using humor or controversy simply draws more of our precious attention. 

Yet, this clever learning design isn’t that clever right? It is not truly original, right? All Fat Bear Week does is steal from others successful social contests and events like Shark Week, professional sports, and gimmicky websites from the early 2000s.

A group of impactful scholars called the New London Group wrote about this exact type of remixed design. They called this “The Redesigned.” They stated that The Redesign (capitalized as a proper noun), is “neither a simple reproduction … nor is it simply creative.”4  

“The Redesigned is founded on historically and culturally received patterns of meaning.” In other words, people interpret and understand things differently based on their own history and culture. “At the same time [The Redesigned] is the unique product of human agency: a transformed meaning.” In other words, we as humans have the ability to rethink how we interpret or understand something. “And, in its turn, The Redesigned becomes a new Available Design, a new meaning-making resource.” In other words, The Redesigned helps us, as humans, reinterpret, re-understand, and, in essence, create a completely new understanding of something.

What the New London Group argues is that no design is truly original. Fat Bear Week, for example, is founded on historical and cultural meanings attributed to brackets, weight loss pictures, public voting, etc. For example, when I see a bracket, I know I am looking at competition or a tournament. When I see a before-and-after picture I know that I am looking at an ad for weight-loss (though Fat Bear Week pokes fun at this meaning by highlighting extreme weight gain). However, in rehashing all these elements and playing with these historical and cultural ideas, the National Park Service (NPS) has in fact created something that has a new meaning. Hence, the NPS, in effect, designed a new meaning-making resource by posting pictures of fat bears next to other fat bears and asking the public to vote.

No designs are truly unique or truly creative, but good designers recognize and play with this understanding. They use the historical and cultural patterns of meaning making (e.g., how others understand something) to their own advantage to create something new. For designers of learning, this means embracing the complex patterns of meaning making that our students have toward technology, school, and other things. 

But most of all, vote for Chunk. I stan for Chunk. Voting ends very soon, vote here: https://explore.org/fat-bear-week 

Chunk the bear, before and after picture.
“32 Comparison” by NPS Photo/ B.Lutes and NPS Photo/ A.Gantt is in the public domain. https://www.flickr.com/photos/katmainps/48844503518/

  1. https://www.livescience.com/vote-in-fat-bear-week.html 

  2. https://www.npr.org/2020/10/02/919411655/voting-opens-for-katmai-national-parks-iconic-fat-bear-week 

  3. https://www.nps.gov/katm/learn/photosmultimedia/brown-bear-frequently-asked-questions.htm 

  4. The New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard educational review, 66(1), 60-93. 

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