Interaction Designer and Social Entrepreneur

So the school part of AC4D is over. But I think all of us recognize that this journey has just begun and I hope to continue to use this as a platform to articulate our thoughts, state our opinion, and design publicly. Coming into AC4D with some socent knowledge and having immersed myself in the ixd world for the last 8 months, I have been internalizing how the two worlds fit together, what they mean to me, and how I would talk about them. As Frank Chimero wrote, “Writing pushes forward”. So I figured the only way I would be able to figure that out is to begin writing about it. These are more of my general thoughts about the industries so they will sound awfully obvious to the AC4D students, but do comment and add to this if you agree/disagree.

First and foremost, there’s this common ground: Both interaction designers and social entrepreneurs aspire and have the ability to create something new in the world that fundamentally disrupts the way things are currently being done.

Now I want to talk about why I think they need each other.

Why SocEnt needs more IxD’s thinking+doing:

1) The What – build solution based on people’s needs, not what feels good

Some social enterprises get a lot of press. Compelling photography combined with a charismatic leader are very PR worthy and easy to get lots of people excited. But as many have already written about, solutions that just “give” instead of building a community’s capacity to help itself does not solve anything. Akhila Kolisetty gave some solid examples in her recent blog post on some American’s attempts to tackle social problems – “TOMS shoes’s model of distributing free shoes undermine the local economy; voluntourism or ‘slum’ tours where rich Americans go abroad to see how the poor live in slums; Greg Mortenson building schools which ultimately end up as empty buildings when no one has bothered to properly train and pay teachers or make sure the school is what the community really needs.” Akhila was right when she said, “There is a lot more we can do to simply ask the community, What is it that you need, and how can we help you get there? There is a lot more we can do to serve their needs, rather than our agendas.” And this is exactly the place for more design research. Drawing from ethnographic techniques from other social science disciplines, design research is a process to uncover issues that are deeply embedded in culture and often aren’t expressed immediately. Whether through immersion or co-designing, design research helps everyone at stake get to a solution that they all care about, have a shared value in, and would be accountable for.

2) The How – learn how to make stuff so social entrepreneurship can be accessible

A lot of great work is being done in the social innovation arena. But the output is often in the form of whitepaper, conference panels, blog posts, and a lot of discussions around what great potential we have to end poverty and what great era we’re in to change history. Many in the field also believe “thinking is action”, leaving a lot of young people feeling this: “OK, I’m inspired, but now what? If I quit my corporate job tomorrow, what can I do? How do I begin working on problems that matter if I don’t find working at the soup kitchen or applying to the peace corp compelling?” I shared those same sentiments a year ago, which was what led me to apply to AC4D. Recently, more and more socent grad programs are incorporating design thinking into their curriculum. But design is fundamentally about making, and that the power of design thinking will not be realized unless it’s coupled with the making part of design. I have reflected upon this after IxDA this year in my other blog post here. Jon Kolko has also recently written about the role of designer in a startup and the qualities of a designer that are so essential to making ideas happen. More aspire-to-be social entrepreneurs will find themselves in a much better place to “know what to do next” if they learn “how to make”.

Why IxD needs more SocEnt’s thinking+doing:

1) The What – to solve problems worth solving and develop a sense of purpose

Thousands of talented young people graduate from design school every year, then go off and work at prestigious agencies where they create yet another app for the big telecommunication company or another iteration of the logo for an airline. It’s no longer news that my generation does not aspire to that type of work. We want to work on meaningful problems that change the world for the better, even if it means walking away from the big fat paycheck and living like a college student again. The social entpreneurship arena has nothing but challenging, meaningful, large-scale social and humanitarian problems. Education, health, environment, the hardest problems all in front of you and you can tackle whichever to your heart’s desire. As Gary Chou from Union Square Ventures has said, “A lot of people in the tech world talk a lot about how in order for an entrepreneur to be successful, they have to be passionate. But what hit me was that I realized that you can’t be passionate unless you have a sense of purpose about something. It’s sort of a precursor.” You don’t find meaning by being comfortable at a cubicle, nor talking about what you’re passionate about all day. You find meaning by stepping up, admitting that designer has a responsibility to create a better world, and act on it.

2) The How – a great product is not enough to solve the problem

Designers are driven to build beautiful, desirable things. They care about the user experience and the aesthetics, but not a lot of them think about how they get funded, how they get to market, or how they get into the hands of the end users. Designers feed off from being able to tackle a complex problem and create an awesome solution for it. But they get bored when they have to deal with the logistics, the project management, the cost and benefit analysis. But if the most awesome thing ever designed has nobody there to build it, fund it, launch it, support it, and use it, it’s a waste of time and money, and certainly doesn’t do the world any good. Great solutions almost always need an entity (a business/organization) in order to do all of the above. Thinktiv’s CEO Jonathan Berkowitz wrote that in order to navigate the challenges of moving something from Powerpoint to Production, a vision for the company needs to have 3 dimensions: a problem solving strategy (product or service), a customer acquisition strategy (sales and marketing), and a monetization strategy. As social entrepreneurs can no longer ignore the need to learn how to make, designers also can no longer ignore all the things that need to happen to bring their design to market.

There is so much great talent in the IxD and SocEnt worlds, but too often they work in silos. More people need to learn to cross the artificial boundary, take the best from both fields, and transform themselves into someone who can 1) create with a rigorous design process, 2) driven by an entrepreneurial spirit to challenge status quo and create something for the betterment of the world.

Interaction designer and social entrepreneur are great on their own, but better with each other.

There’s a common idea that a startup – especially a technology startup – needs to be founded by someone with experience in either business (usually product/brand management) or technology (usually back-end software development). But I think the ideal founder of a startup is a designer, and I think that it will increasingly be design-driven innovation that will bring large-scale change (and financial success) to the startup landscape. To be clear from the start, I don’t mean “designer as the beret-wearing-pixel-pusher” that you might be picturing, although there are certainly designers that wear berets (usually raspberry – the kind you would find at any secondhand store) and push pixels. I also don’t mean “designer as the I Took One Class Called UX Fundamentals In Business School”, although there are a lot of people who took one UX class in business school who are now calling themselves designers.

I mean an honest to goodness, experienced, craft-driven, reflective practitioner who has learned to design by designing, and who views design as a way of thinking about solving hard problems.

I realize how loaded the word design is, and what an awful taste it can leave in the mouth, so I’ll do my best to explain here what this means to me, and I’ll explain why one of your founders should be that person.

Design is a process of problem solving, and designers are trained to proactively drive new ideas, connect things that aren’t immediately and obviously connected, and – most importantly – to create compelling visions of the future that emphasize a better way of life. Designers are fundamentally storytellers, and good ones are able to create artifacts that show the story instead of just tell the story. Consider these as the three major pillars of value that a designer-as-founder will bring to your company.

1. Proactively drive new ideas. There’s a common point, in the roadmap of a startup, where the founders begin to really examine the competitive landscape of products, systems, and services, and feel concern around differentiation. It’s a point where there’s a lot of anxiety around speed and innovation, and a point in time that can quickly become reactive. “They have checkins, and group coupons, and native apps, and just got a valuation of thirty billion; WE need to have checkins! We need group coupons! Bring on the native apps!” But design is about offering a proactive, new look at things; it’s about presenting a state that doesn’t yet exist. Designers seem to have visceral reactions to competitive analysis, and it may be because they simply don’t see the value in copying what the competition has done. Been there, done that – the challenge is in proactively predicting what’s coming next.

2. Connecting things that aren’t immediately and obviously connected. Designers use provocation (“What if” style of thinking), scenarios, and reframing (looking at things from new perspectives) in order to make connections that are either implicit or completely unprecedented. In the context of a startup, this might be the ability to derive untapped value from an existing asset through innovation, the ability to reposition an old idea in a new context and discipline, and the ability to identify new markets and connect them to old products (and vice versa).

3. Visualize a narrative of the future state of things. Simply, designers are dreamers – dreamers who have visualization tools and are able to paint a tangible version of their dreams. Everyone dreams, and everyone can offer their views about what the future can and should hold. But it’s pragmatic design skills – the ability to draw, to create visual renderings, to produce a video, or to create a comic-style storyline – that make the dream tangible. Because once the dream is tangible, it can be shared, it can be critiqued, and most importantly, it can spread passion. The dream of the future is the hook that gets a development team fired up or an investor excited. They can see the end game – literally – and realize why the vision is worth their time, effort, and money.

It’s a great time to be a designer, because design – under the guise of UX, interaction design, or any other fancy term – is increasingly recognized as a fundamental ingredient in innovation. I think it’s more than that – I think it’s fundamental in setting strategy, too, and I think one of your founders should be a designer.


A reflection on Closure

I’ve gotten a reputation for redesigning AC4D via blog posts. It’s a testament to the school’s openness and our relationship to the school as inaugural class that I’ve been able to channel my critical reflections into something proactive and creative. And I’ve realized that everything that the school has put forth this first year has been a stake in the ground—this is how we do things— and that without that initial catalyst, no reflection/improvement/differing opinions can be had in the first place. And I’ve grown a lot doing this kind of thinking and reflecting, and I hope none of it comes off as too critical because it’s all done with #ac4dlove and with the future in mind. Anyway, to end the year with more of the same, some of us felt that our graduation dinner was anti-climactic and missing something, and upon reflection I remembered and learned and wanted to share the following.

One of my undergrad communications professors told us that ceremonies served as punctuation marks in our lives. The graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and funerals mark the passing of time and let us pause to reflect and celebrate. I initially was going to write about the ceremonies of years past and how they were awkward yet necessary because they allowed us to step out of normal time by doing this weird pomp and circumstance routine. And only by participating in it were you able to feel the feelings you needed to feel in order to blah blah blah.

But then I realized that’s not what we needed more of this past week. Making the receiving of graduation certificates more staged or more formal wouldn’t have helped bring closure to this AC4D inaugural experience. What we needed more of was the reflection that ceremonies sometimes let us experience. What we needed more of was group reflection time—an AC4D members-only powwow instead of individual POWs.

Learning from Owl’s Nest

I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in the first Owl’s Nest: a weekend retreat for women who used the creative arts to engage community. Because the two creators of the Owl’s Nest were women as well as professional community facilitators, they did an exceptional job of structuring our introduction to and our exit from the Nest.


Though I do not remember the specifics of our first day activities, one thing I do remember is that we covered ground rules and did some games and activities before we had to introduce ourselves and give our spiels about our backgrounds. When you jump into introductions right away before having a chance to work with or even just hang out with people, the names and facts don’t stick because there’s no context. How much more impactful would it be to be introduced to your AC4D classmates after a day of working with them in a design bootcamp than it is to sit through an hour’s worth of intros only to forget everything and relearn people’s names over lunch.

Group Reflection

Even more powerful and more impactful was the way Owl’s Nest closed out our weekend work together as a group. First we had group reflection time: We did a Poster Dialogue activity where large sheets of paper were posted around the wall, a couple sheets for each of the following questions:

  • What was most important to you over the weekend?
  • What did you enjoy most?
  • What are you taking away?

People could write their own answers, read other’s answers, and comment on what others had written. Following this, the retreat leaders led us through processing the posters by holding a group conversation by reading aloud what we had written, asking questions, and letting people voice follow-up thoughts with the whole group. I could definitely see this being useful as a way to process and reflect on a period of collaborative worktime including design workshops, the last day of an individual class, or pre-graduation. And easily adaptable to whiteboards or post-its.

Group Appreciation

The other activity that brought Owl’s Nest to a fulfilling closure was a community closing activity focused on appreciation. We were about 30 people. We sat in a circle, and we took turns, each appreciating what someone else in the circle had brought to our experience together. Each person shared one thing about another person, and when it was your turn, you had to choose someone who had not yet been appreciated. Everyone in the circle got one moment to be honored by the group and one opportunity to share a story about someone else in the group. It may sound cheesy, but it’s incredibly powerful, period.

Three other variations on this activity came from my time as an after-school teacher.

  1. You can pass a ball of yarn from one person to another as each person thanks another. At the end, the facilitator walks around the circle and cuts the strings each person is holding and weaves a story: despite the fact that we may have to leave the group now, we will always hold a piece of our time together with us into the future (symbolized by the length of yarn we’re left with).
  2. On large sheets of paper one per person (possibly with respectively traced silhouettes if you’re working with small children), each person writes his/her name. Then the group walks around and writes good things or appreciations or thanks about others. These can be written directly onto the paper, or onto post-it’s or cut-out shapes that are then attached to the person.
  3. As a Badgerdog summer camp writing instructor, we had to introduce each of our students at the closing community reading before they came up on stage to read their work aloud. Each instructor did it in a different way, but most took the time to appreciate and say something uniquely observed about each student. It’s necessary to sometimes very publicly acknowledge and honor the specialness of individuals at the milestones in their lives, because it’s usually the most amazing people who are the most humble and sometimes the most insecure of us all.

At the Owl’s Nest, in between and after our closing activities, we also completed individual written evaluations, packed and cleaned, said goodbyes. Many of us also went to Trudy’s afterward for drinks and food where other ‘outsiders’ joined our group. But because we had already reflected and closed our weekend retreat together, everything else fell easily into place.


Now, in hindsight, I think AC4D students and faculty should have just gone out for drinks together before our graduation dinner—members only, no guests allowed—to shoot the bull, reflect on the year, and say all of the things we needed to say, out loud and to the group, as uncomfortable or as squirmy as they may make us feel: all the “thank you’s” and “can you believe that” and “so proud’s” and “omg’s” and “I’m so glad to know you” and “this was fucking amazing, holy fucking shit…”

Because holy fucking shit, Mr. Kolko and Mr. Petro, a year ago none of this existed! And look what you created! And how the fuck did you manage to bring together such an incredible and inspiring and amazing group of people? And kudos on a damn good first year.

And thank you.

AC4D in Core!

Some of Austin Center for Design’s student projects are featured in a recent Core77 article: “AC4D: One year later, Innovating solutions to address Homelessness.” Check it out here!