The Rise of the Compassionate Designer

Jon Kolko posted two bullet points in his syllabus on Monday that struck me:

  • What is the role of the designer in shaping culture
  • Given that the designer’s impact on society is diffused

The first bullet point reminded me of a 2009 article by Holland Cotter in the NYTimes, “The Boom is Over, Long Live the Art,” in which Mr. Cotter discussed the strength, newness and weight of art made during past periods of U.S. economic downturn, and during times of U.S. economic boom, art’s existence as something more akin to retail than expressive world-altering vocalization:

“The Reagan economy was creating vast supplies of expendable wealth, and the East Village became a brand name. Suddenly galleries were filled with expensive, tasty little paintings and objects similar in variety and finesse to those in Chelsea now. They sold. Limousines lined up outside storefront galleries. Careers soared. But the originating spark was long gone.”

This idea of “expensive, tasty little paintings” extends to our current consumer design goods: polite, inoffensive commodities like iPads, iPhones, or highly-curated commuter bikes. When one applies Holland Cotter’s art opinion to these design objects, they are easily digestible goods that lack the zing of the originating spark.  That zing is the ability of an object, a piece of art, or an idea, to shake and alter its surroundings for the good. The tidy Chelsea paintings were beautiful and alluring but did little to improve the status quo. Only when the stock market crash of 1987 shattered the art market (the same way it did again in 2008) were new voices, from previously marginalized populations, able to come to the fore. In the post crash ’80s and early ’90s, new voices gained foothold: gay and lesbian artists, feminist artists, Black artists, Asian artists, and Latino/Latina artists. In the absence of the dominant retail structures of the Chelsea art world, voices that were “unsellable” were allowed to surface. And in bringing to their art their recognition of personal struggle, these voices propelled everyone forward into a new awareness of race, class, gender and sexuality.

Socially just interaction design is a similar voice emerging. As we have watched once-solid economic structures crack, we realize the need for new approaches, not just in design of consumer goods or art-making, but in the way we operate within society. This is the rise of the compassionate designer. A designer now needs to operate within society with a wise and aware presence. They must acknowledge weighty problems with clear vision and permeate those problems with possibility.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on this need for societal shift in 1967 and it is deeply relevant still:

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

The concept of the double or triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) builds this possibility. When designers and artists (and businesses) can gauge their success based on amount of world-change in addition to cash-change created, we will have stretched much farther towards a “person-oriented” and planet-oriented society.

On to Jon Kolko’s second bullet point:

  • Given that the designer’s impact on society is diffused.

Designers are privileged to be in a position that allows them to create possibility. In this way, designers actually have a less diffuse impact on society than the average citizen. Having an impact is a compassionate designer’s job. A compassionate designer must make things that will change things. And if you remove the “things,” then the job is just to make change. Since even the smallest gestures on a day to day basis alter one’s surroundings, focused action on deliberately altering your surroundings only produces more. The more deliberate designers can be, the more intention they have towards real and productive change, the more they will accomplish. The call to action isn’t just, “work for the good,” it is “deliberately, decisively work for the good.” Any less isn’t fair to this big, messy planet we’re living on. That’s how radical, positive change is produced- through appreciation for the mess and fervent dedication to improving it. Holland Cotter had a proposition for how art students could be better equipped to do this:

“Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today.”

The program at AC4D is doing just that. We are designing in, and for, “real life” and opting to improve it. As we learn the skills to be interaction designers we are simultaneously learning how to do this work within the wonderful mess of the world. There is plenty to recognize and improve. Let’s get to work.

Week 1: Design, Society, & the Public Sector 1

We spent some time in class hashing out the differences and definitions of Art, Design, and Science. In most situations, when someone wants to discuss the difference between Art and Design I can easily get up and walk away, and I do. However, in the setting of a mutually exploratory classroom, it became clear that these definitions don’t come easily to anyone, nor are they fixed without definitions. I am attempting to resolve my irritation with this topic in general by finally coming out about my beliefs on the subject.

The conversation distresses me because it exposes my weakness, my insufficient defense of Art in this world, because despite feeling like my life is dedicated to it, it really is constantly under attack, at least the concept of it if not actual work itself. I find the definition process grotesque and analytically perverted, because from my eyes, every element of language and culture is an attempt to ultimately reach the creation level of Art. To define it is to pin a butterfly and call it Nature, it is the existence that is all around us at all times, it is consciousness expressed. Art is sacred.

Design and Science are not. They are a means of creating understanding and solutions to things. They are informed by and used in Art, but they are ingredients in a human matrix that are limited by the edges of that matrix. Art extends beyond the edges of the matrix and can be recognized and appreciated across cultures for which Design and Science are so dissimilar as to not bridge. The infusion of Art into Design and Science is what has at times, breathed life into the fields. Both Science and Design can, have, and do give life to Art in turn, but it is not dependent on these fields for expression, whereas I argue that both of these fields are following paths that are created by Art, even if it’s being generated by a designer or a scientist, because their work and discoveries inevitably open the conceptual landscape for more Art, which will fill it in and flush it out much faster than Design and Science could ever do.

Art is a river, Design and Science are boats in the river. I believe my (our) role at AC4D is to learn how to guide boats in the current that open up new, uncharted channels for human passage.

Do It Again

Last week’s orientation at AC4D wasn’t your usual meet & greet and tour of the campus. It’s a three-bedroom house on the East Side, there’s not much to see.
But there is A LOT to learn.

In the first three days we not only developed a working idea of design, we applied it in the form of a mobile app that would make student’s higher-education experience more valuable. Breaking up into small teams, each group of AC4D students took different paths through the process of ethnography, synthesis & prototyping.

Dave, Eric & myself headed to UT Austin campus with the very general question of whether students found the school beneficial toward their personal goals in education. We walked away with insights into what students found lacking and what they found most valuable. A common thread in discussions with students was the usefulness of mentors and other advisory figures. So, with the restriction that it had to be in the form of a mobile app, we spent the next day and a half developing a program that would connect students with tutors.

The principle that Jon Kolko (teacher & founder of the school) was acting on with this three-day boot-camp was something akin to muscle-memory. Create a mental map of where we are headed over the next nine months of the program so when we do it again, we are already familiar with the steps.

Today an app. Tomorrow the world!

What is design anyways? Musings on just what it is we're doing

As I understand it, the main goals of our “Design, Society, and the Public Sector” class with Professor Kolko are to: 1) give us context to where our program interacts with these big ideas (more on semantics in a minute!), as well as 2) a vocabulary with which to speak about them.

1) If we don’t understand the context within these ideas exist, we’ll be like chickens with our heads cut off, not quite knowing what to work on, or judge how our efforts may or may not impact society.  We certainly wouldn’t be able to work as effectively together as a class because we’d lack that shared understanding.  Probably a lot of other not so good stuff, either.  While my ideas around context are still a bit airy (due to still lacking context!), I’ll move on to item 2).

2) It has hit home at least 100 times since being accepted into the program that I could communicate better around what I am doing.  Each of those 100 times has started off with “so Eric, what are you going to be studying?” In a specific scenario, my buddy Francis asked me via gchat about my short bio.  “I understand the vast potential that design thinking has to change the way people approach their health – sounds great Eric, but what does that mean?”  I’ve intermingled ideas of interface design, user experience, dialogue, behavior, and technology, among plenty of ums and ahs.  I’ve been so excited about the idea of the program for so long that I’ve forgotten that I’d need to explain to others what it is I will be doing and how I will be going about it.

So let me get back to the title of the post.  What is design anyways?  For the first part of Monday’s class, we debated what it is and isn’t, and how it relates to the other large pillars of art and science.  I’m looking right now at my evernotes, and I’m going with this definition.  Design is purposeful creation, driven by wanting to make life better in a practical sense for other people.  I get this.  It is both a process and a desired outcome.  This differs from art, which while certainly can be purposeful, has less tangible goals of interpretation or evoking emotion.  Design differs from science in its desired outcome – science’s goal is tangentially related to improving daily human life, but often discovering truth is just as important.

To finish off my musings, I’ll take on the definition of interaction design AND clear up my perspective on design thinking.

Interaction design – I’m not so great at math, but I think that interaction + design = interaction design.  So glad I already figured out half of the left side!  Interaction is a mutual or reciprocal action or influence (thanks  To me this invokes a sense of volition – in our context, “people” must be engaged to interact.  So in putting this together, interaction designers are tasked with creating purposeful engaging experiences that will make life better for people.

To me, design thinking is about adapting the design process for strategic decision making to solve the right problems.  While many software companies now have UX teams, to me it seems like they often work on tactical system tweaks or on directives from above; areas they must “beautify” and simply make more usable.  This is a useful activity, but while designers at that point can think about redesign, the opportunity to gain truly important insights are diminished because the problem is already assumed.

In the design process, there are ideas of both discovery and synthesis.  In a human centered design approach, discovery is understanding context within a problem area – for example, if I want to know more about the needs of women in the workplace, I engage with them there.  Whatever the methods of inquiry, to me this boils down to “looking.”  Synthesis is the process of uncovering patterns by combining what I’ve observed with my own innate understanding – I think of this as “seeing.”  It is throughout the process of discovery and synthesis that the problem statement can be refined – are we solving the right problem to start with?

Designing thinking more than ever needs to be applied in healthcare.  I believe by spending time with patients in their settings of care, whether it be the home, office, or clinic, we can gain insights that inspire the creation of products or services where there currently aren’t.  Patients must be the focus.  Why?  Because their day to day behaviors and decisions have the largest impact on their overall health.   While the seed of a great idea may be formed at that stage, it will take appropriate implementation – both rapid prototyping and co-design methods that engage patients – to flush out powerful solutions that can change behavior.



Week 0: Orientation

Orientation week was so packed that I didn’t really begin to un-pack it until it was over. Like watching a season of a tv show all at once and then spending the days following sifting through the plot lines connecting dots and re-examining characters. “Wait, did that happen? How did that work? How many of them are Cylons?” I suspect the entire series of the weeks of this year might run the same way, I’m hoping in a less paranoia-inducing format, maybe a different TV show.

Day one was spent on introductory information about the program and the personalities that make up the program, including our new classmates. The day left me feeling as unhinged and overwhelmed as the first day of kindergarten. I definitely feel like a kindergartener in this field, I may be in the least familiar territory I’ve ever been in an academic classroom. Considering that I was looking to learn things that I couldn’t anywhere else, this is not a surprise, but it ‘s not comfortable either. That’s the uneasiness I’m working out.

Days two and three were an immersive accelerated introduction to the year to come. I liked the processes we explored, finding all of the information new and useful. We talked to people on the street, we culled and sorted data, we generated ideas, and we created a means of communicating an idea as a product. That is all stuff I want to know how to do!

The party was noisy, hot, and fun. I’m looking forward to getting started on the classwork and to knowing who all those people at the party were.

Design Boot Camp: A Reflection

Last Thursday and Friday, our class participated in a design boot camp. The two days provided a quick way to experience the design process from start to finish. We focused on this year’s theme of education and explored three phases–Ethnography, Synthesis, Prototype–which we’ll drill into with much more depth as the year progresses.

Chuck, Eli, and I teamed up to research college students who work while going to school. We had about 90 minutes to conduct interviews and gather as much data as we could during the ethnography phase. The three of us went to the University of Texas and Austin Community College campuses to talk with students. In total, I think we interviewed about 14 people. Not statistically significant by any means. On top of that, our results were probably more skewed because the semester hadn’t started yet. We came back with lots of notes and photos but weren’t very confident we’d have much to go on.

However, as we processed our research and started to synthesize it, we discovered some surprising insights we didn’t notice in the moment as we were speaking with students. (And we also developed a whole new list of questions we wished we could have explored!)

Ultimately, the storyboards and sketches we prototyped by the end of boot camp on Friday wasn’t anything we could have anticipated on Thursday morning. I’m not saying it’s an idea we’d actually be able to produce and sell–or that there weren’t other ideas we toyed with–but the process did help us identify some new insights and opportunities.

And more importantly, the boot camp reminded me that it doesn’t really matter where you start. The important thing is to start. Somewhere. And to be open to where the messy, iterative process will lead.

Sadistic Dentists + Design School = Uncomfortable Learning (the good kind)

Dentists descended upon my second grade classroom to dispense red dye tablets we were forced to eat. The dye was designed to target dental plaque: only clean teeth escaped the bright red stain. You could, for the rest of the day, see who was and wasn’t a very good brusher.

Nobody warned us the dentists were coming.

The red-tooth image has stayed with me and the plaque dye metaphor is one I use frequently in work and in life. At the moment, the boot camp we just completed is the red dye, and I have found plenty of plaque in my thinking. And not just in the places I would have expected. I was planning on needing to brush up on software, design principles, trends and such. Nobody warned me how profoundly foreign it would feel to collaborate.

Which, what?  I work with people. I’ve worked with people for a while now. This is not a mystifying process. Surely I can collaborate.

Clarification: routine collaboration is one creature. Collaborating in work that expresses your fundamental passions is another beast altogether.

When I’ve taken art classes or worked on my own projects, there’s never been a question of ‘our’ work. The studio classes I took privileged personal expression: my experience, my photograph, my sculpture. Mine. It feels super strange to work in tandem with others on something that feels so personal, so creative, so much like art. Bad? No. Unexpectedly disorienting? You bet.  The same exhaustion when I try to function in a foreign language. Exciting, daunting, big. And not remotely where I was on guard against glaring red splotches.

Design Literacy

Over the past year, there’s been a lot of talk about how everyone should learn to program. I’ve heard some good arguments either way. As a lifelong programmer, I’m all for this. But programming is making, and if you want to achieve specific results or outcomes, basic design thinking can go a long way, and I’d love to see a similar push for democratization of literacy in design thinking. There are two recent examples where I think a little more design literacy could have helped.

Lesson 1: design is not about pretty or shitty. Despite its brevity, this Venture Beat article (“Screw Design and Get Data“) can’t seem to make up its mind about the definition of design. Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger network, is not saying design is unimportant. His point is that for their customer and business needs, they prioritize data collection and analysis over the aesthetic appeal of the site. As a data-driven company, you can be sure that if they identify a page component is leading to bounces (exits from the site), they will make modifications to change that behavior. That’s design, and Huh says as much:

“When making design changes, Huh said, Cheezburger looks at four things: desired outcome (business outcomes, not warm and fuzzies), intended user, data on the existing condition, and data on the new condition when the company retests for validity.”

This is not too dissimilar from the process of design thinking which includes extensive research, testing, implementation and iteration using lessons learned from each step.

In closing, the author paraphrases Huh with “you don’t need great design to have a successful design.” My takeaway is not “screw design,” but rather you don’t need beautiful aesthetics to have a successful product. Design is the process by which you determine what successful is and how to achieve it. Obviously Huh gets this, but he and the author’s expression of design in this context is muddied.

Lesson 2: ignore design thinking at your own peril. As we build products, objects, applications or services, we constantly make decisions, and we bear responsibility for the consequences and impacts of them. Dalton Caldwell is hoping that his new service,, will become an alternative to Twitter as users and developers become discontent with increasingly restrictive Twitter policies. In order to avoid repeating Twitter’s mistakes, Caldwell felt is was important for people to pay for the service, rather than be beholden to advertisers. So in addition to designing APIs, documentation, and the other parts of the new platform, he had to design a business model that would help pay for it. He used a Kickstarter type of model where users paid $50/year in advance, and developers paid $100/year in advance.

Caldwell has documented how he arrived at those price tiers (See the FAQ section on this page), but some are wondering if that pricing is creating a “gated community” or “country club” of mostly white, male and technically privileged users. The debate centers around whether the current demographic of is a reflection of early adopters and societal disparity in general, or if the structure itself is creating this. Jamelle Bouie sums it up nicely:

“In a world of huge racial and class disparities, ostensibly neutral procedures and parameters can yield non-neutral results…. wasn’t envisioned as a service of mostly white, mostly male, and mostly affluent people, but the conditions of its creation have created exactly that.”

I agree that wasn’t envisioned as a country club, but I would also argue that the if you are creating a social network, you must consider the type of community you are trying to build. is very early stage, and is very much a prototype, so in that sense, they have time to adjust and learn from this feedback—which is very much part of the design process. Sadly, some initial reactions are to take this as criticism of intent rather than early warning signals to recheck design assumptions.

By bringing design thinking into the creation process, we can move beyond thinking of design as a concept about visual appeal, but rather as a process, not an end result. Additionally, this understanding could help communities talk more constructively about the consequences of decisions and then move to mitigate them, rather than argue over their intentions.

Any easy way you can do this right now is to start getting more feedback. Try to remember what seemed like an innocuous decision you recently made in creating something (a product, document, service, object, etc). Then think of someone who uses or is affected by your creation. Tell them what the options were and how you arrived at your decision. Ask them how that affected them. Would they have made the same decision, or picked something you didn’t even consider?

This is a great start to get beyond the preconception of design as the end result, but as a process to help you achieve desirable outcomes and avoid unintended consequences.

Ready, set, draw

  1. Document everything.
  2. Design publicly.

Jon lifted up these two values during AC4D orientation yesterday. He was talking about how ideas are fleeting, but if we want to actually solve wicked problems, we need to make stuff. And in order to create something, it must be written down. Documented. Artifacts–which can take the form of sketches, notes, prototypes, models, videos, photos, and more–become points for communication and clarification. They externalize ideas and enable collaboration.

At one point, Jon said, “Have an idea? Make it. Show it. Create it. Draw it.”

And if I’m honest, that’s kind of scary. I’m no stranger to sketching on a dry erase board as I process an idea, but my scribbles usually consist of boxes and arrows. The thought of drawing people (especially while standing in front of other people!), intimidates me.

So after class wrapped up for the day, a small group started talking about our fear of stick figures. Jon gathered us at the dry erase board and gave us some tips for drawing people and hands, since we’ll be doing that a lot in the months ahead. And then an assignment: Draw hands and people. An hour a day. And see how much easier it gets over time. Here’s a snapshot from last night’s efforts:

Even with only a couple hours under my belt, I’m already feeling more confident. At the moment, I’m much better at hands than people (and at palms than knuckles), but I’m excited to keep practicing and discover how this skill will enable me to communicate ideas more effectively.

A Dash of Design Research and Synthesis

Today was Day 1 of bootcamp, a deep dive into the methods and processes of design research.  Design research is an approach to understanding the context of a subject area (in our bootcamp case, the problems facing education in the US) through emersion and guerrilla ethnography techniques.  To start, we were asked to come up with a problem focus that would drive our next few hours.  Dave, Will, and I, joined together as a group by our commonality of “awesome bicycles”, determined we would go to UT Austin to find out if students of various years had found their passions, and what tools had helped them get to the point of being driven toward that goal.  All of us could relate with a period of indecision in our lives where our future professional directions (and majors or focus areas) were murky and characterized by a number of negative emotions.  By understanding student experiences, our goal was to identify patterns of influences that ultimately defined student’s choices and successes.  Idea synthesis and prototyping (making) come tomorrow.

The most difficult part of the experience for me was starting.  Getting out into context by nature is uncomfortable.  In a certain sense, I felt like those individuals that sweep down onto innocent passers by declaring “give a minute to save the environment?” with their clipboards in hand and me with my head down as I walk off.  Who am I to interrupt a student?  Or anyone else for that matter?  Once we explained our goals briefly – who we were and what we were trying to find – students readily gave their time.  This was an issue that they could instantly relate to.  I’m sure there will be more difficult contexts in which to enter – clinics, hospitals, peoples homes – but having this boot camp will surely make that process easier when the time comes.

Given my inclination to work in healthcare, I can’t help but turn my mind to the value of design research and to comment on an article recently published from the Boston Globe entitled “A new generation of tech entrepreneurs seeks to reinvent healthcare.” You can find the link below.  The main issue I potentially find is that companies may be doing product development in a vacuum without a potential market.  Naomi Fried, CIO of Children’s Hospital Boston, sees that lots of activity is occurring but is unsure that all of this activity will produce (any) long term value.  Reading between the lines, it seems like some of these companies may need to conduct the very kind of research that we were engaged with today, BEFORE spending lots of money on product development and launch.   True human context and needs (do we need headbands that will help us concentrate??) should drive their innovations.

See the article here: