Be Advised: Researching in Unknown Territory

Greetings, AC4D blog reader. You may have heard the penchant for ambitious projects at this school. You heard correct. The latest topic and mission will be with us through April 2019- college persistence and completion.

Our focus is how advisors create a meaningful relationship with their advisees. In other words, we’re researching how people talk with one another. Or, how they build trust. Or, how they show others a pathway to be courageous learners in their college career and beyond.

Ambitious? Too broad? Naïve? Maybe. But that’s the beauty of being in this school. Our aim is to complete 10-15 hours of research in the next two weeks, and begin to form dozens of concepts, which may number in the hundreds in the coming months.

I’m not the only one in my cohort who has a slight indifference to the topic. Spoken from a college graduate myself, I know the hypocrisy in making such a claim. My chance to go to college was determined by my parents choice to live near excellent public schools, the support of my family, and the financial backing of Dad co-signing a student loan, much more than it was my academic ability. And that same degree I’m half-complaining about led in some way to all the decent income I’ve made, the ability to live and work in Japan and Tanzania, and to form a decent sentence.

A four year degree is still the most common catalyst that fuels a living income in the U.S. I’m fortunate to have one. My dispassion stems from the feeling that this topic is well-trodden territory. For public policy academics. For educators everywhere. For the ED-tech community. And yes, for designers too.

But this feeling- wanting to do something new, something big, something different- that’s learned. And my college experience helped solidify that. So I shall do my best to let my dispassions be deterred, because creating a transformative learning experience for one other person is worthwhile. Be advised.

How’d you get your values?

Here’s a quick profile of my values:

  • 40% Catholic
  • Golden-rule centered ethics
  • Heavily family influenced
  • American, but not fervently patriotic
  • Belief in the dignity and possibilities of humankind

Broad, sure. But I’ve been trying harder to analyze my particular values this last week of our Theory course. This is because as we read from the pantheon of design gods, there’s a heavy emphasis on should. As opposed to Science, which defines what is. 

“Should” is a statement of intention and value. Often when we use “should” we’re subconsciously supporting ancient beliefs, passed down through people, books, and institutions. “We should have universal health care.” Sometimes we drop the word for emphasis, “Freedom of religion is a human right.”

My insight from this week is this: design can be about making what should be, but designers cannot define values (or don’t display any particular knowledge in that department). This means as designers we must look to other sources to guide our work. As I enter into quarter two of this school, I’m looking to have an ongoing discussion of finding common ground on values, and the best environments in which to do that work.

Below is the short story I created that speaks to this insight:




Recycled Reads: Themes from the Field

Recycled Reads is our team’s client during the first half of our AC4D year. Recycled Reads is a used bookstore within the Austin Public Library (APL). It’s an affordable resource for the community providing 25 cent kids’ books, $1 paperbacks and $2 hardcover books, among other materials. While the store is packed with formerly circulated APL materials, it is also a donation and recycling center for the public, where their donated material is either sold or recycled.

The kid's corner at Recycled Reads.
The kid’s corner at Recycled Reads. Most of these books are 25 cents. 

Over the past month, our team has interviewed and observed a selection of 24 people who work, volunteer, or are customers of Recycled Reads.

The Theme-ing Process

After transcribing our interviews, we broke up each transcription into discrete thoughts, which we call “utterances”. We printed these utterances, cut into small squares and posted on foam boards in our studio. Next, we began the process of marinating in this data – reading, re-reading, and discussing connections, for the goal of identifying thematic patterns. As a team we worked together to discuss the patterns we saw emerging, and started to draw inferences from similar thoughts, seeking the deeper meaning behind the words. We grouped similar utterances under a theme which stated those thoughts to an underlying behavior or attitude.

The Hidden Value of Books
From this wealth of information, we uncovered nine themes that resonated with us. Each speaks to an overarching thread: Books are not merely objects, but facilitators of experience for a reader.

Experience in general is varied and personal, and the same is true with reading. People read to get different types of experience: entertainment, to self-educate, to educate others, and to explore interests. Reading is an active as opposed to passive activity, and the experience is unique to each person. Recycled Reads provides access to these experiences by providing books and other materials at very low cost with a unique, constantly-shifting selection of inventory.

A customer describes a book he wouldn't have otherwise bought. But Recycled Reads affordability allows customers to explore new experiences.
A customer describes a book he wouldn’t have otherwise bought. But Recycled Reads affordability allows customers to explore new experiences.

We saw certain tendencies emerge from our process, and then we defined themes within larger theme categories, below in bold:

Emerging Theme Categories
Ownership & Experience

Theme 1: Children need to own their own books in order to control their experiences.

Theme 2: People select books based on a reflection of how they see themselves, who they want to be, and the type of experience they desire.

Connecting with Others
Theme 3: People recognize a connection between the subject of a book and a person in their life and then, gift books as a means of making that connection tangible.

Theme 4: People desire to share their love of books and reading with others.

Changes with Life Stages
Theme 5: People’s relationship with books changes with their life stages.

Validation of Donations 
Theme 6: When people donate books, they give away pieces of themselves.

Theme 7: When there is monetary value placed on donated books, it belittles the emotional value people have for them.

Theme 8: People trust Recycled Reads to do the right thing with their donated materials by passing them on to others.

Theme 9: Staff and volunteers at Recycled Reads feel the need perpetuate the perception that all donations have value.

A customer at Recycled Reads shows us a list of books he plans on donating.
A customer at Recycled Reads shows us a list of books he plans on donating.

Recycled Reads’ Reaction
We presented the above themes to Recycled Reads’ staff, bolstering our themes with interesting utterances, stories from the field, photos, and observed behavior.

After our presentation, we asked the staff members if they found anything surprising in the themes we presented. One staff member pointed out most of the themes weren’t surprising because, as staff, they are intimately aware of people’s relationship with books. She did say, however, that being presented with these themes affirmed behaviors that she’s familiar with from her career developed over a 17-year career.

However, theme category four, “Validation of Donations,” was met with interest and surprise. Upon reflection, the staff member said that she realizes that she does validate donors when they bring items in, but she had never considered it consciously. The staff and volunteers of Recycled Reads intuitively validate donations, but she hadn’t realized the underlying need for that reassurance. Now that she’s been made aware of that need, the staff can be more aware of the potential difficulty donors have in that situation, and do more to acknowledge it.
Our team is excited for progressing these emerging themes to develop insights for Recycled Reads, and create visualizations of insights for Recycled Reads to consider implementing in the future.


A Designer’s Carol: An Early Christmas Story

A Designer’s Carol is my attempt to synthesize the writings of seven design thinkers into a narrative comic strip. I will not be present for a live presentation of tonight’s work with my classmates. In planning, I knew I would need to create a narrative where a fellow student could simply press “play”. I recommend watching the video below next, which will make the rest of this post more coherent.

As it turned out, taking the “live” element out of my presentation played to some of my strengths as a storyteller. I was able to mix audio, perform accents, and enlist my fellow students to help. I had a vision and stuck to it. It also clarified the skills I’ve got a long way to improve, including sketching and digital illustration.

There’s serendipity to my absence tonight. I’m joining my sister who’s in town for the Austin premiere of Little Women, a feature length film she directed and co-wrote. It is her directorial debut, and she was fortunate to get a substantial distribution deal, which is rare for a small-budget independent film. Yet, as potential audience increases, so do critics, as does pressure. At AC4D, “You Are Not Your Work” is oft-quoted and useful advice, and it applies here.

I had to create a simple narrative in a 1.5 week span and deal with the critique of 15-20 individuals, while my sister has to manage letting go of 2+ years of work, simultaneously traveling to promote the film, all while hearing thousands of critiques of her work, with no ability to change the original creation.

Designers and artists share this conundrum of creating work with passion and empathy, and then being forced to let it go, potentially dealing with disdain from the audience. It’s difficult emotionally. I was reminded during my small assignment how important being a member of a team helps to create a sense of passion and support during the work. And regardless of the outcome, enlisting a  team makes me eager to jump into the next assignment.

Week 4 Reflection: Lessons from the Marshmallow Kid

Teaching Improv Comedy 

For five of eight years of living in Austin, improv comedy was a significant part of my life and work. I ran a youth program, “AP Comedy” for the New Movement Theater (currently the Fallout Theater) and performed regularly as a musical improviser. Improv and its training of action over deliberation has many useful life lessons, but it wasn’t until this week at AC4D that a previous 6th grade student of mine, the “marshmallow kid,” came back to me.

The Marshmallow Kid

The marshmallow kid did not have many friends in my improv class. He was odd, but accepted as a member of the class troupe. I gave him his nickname (behind the scenes) because every scene he performed involved marshmallows. “I’m the marshmallow King!” he’d announce, taking the lead at the top of a scene. Or in a another scene between two firefighters: “The school is full of marshmallows!” he’d explain to his scene partners, throwing a wrench in their established scene environment. I imagined him plotting on the wings of the stage about how to fit his favorite candy into every scene imaginable.

As we developed a relationship, I was able to ween my student off his metaphorical marshmallow obsession by guiding him to un-think before a scene, but once in a scene, listen to what’s been previously established by his troupe mates.

How Improv Works

An improv mentor of mine explained this concept with the Venn diagram below.


Two people enter a scene typically one before the other. Each inhabit different characters, and in some cases, completely different worlds. It’s a mistake to believe that every scene must be dominated by one character, the scene playing to their world. Or that each scene must be a complete merging of the two. The magic of improv comes from two different characters finding a scene while keeping their own worlds as characters.

Acting, the AC4D Way

Now let’s replace Character A and B with AC4D students. The same concept applies, we as students are coming in with different learning styles, communication methods, we are in essence, different characters with a common goal in mind. Similar to improv training, at AC4D we are required to act, iterate, step back, repeat. Like the best improv scenes, they rarely begin with a plan in mind, and a mindless gesture or spoken line often ends up with productive results. It doesn’t always work. Just like improv, the earlier you can fail, the faster the lesson can be learned, and the project, product, or AC4D assignment improved. We all have preconceived notions about what the finished product should look like, or we have worries that a first draft of a work will be sloppy. Sometimes we will we get in our heads like the marshmallow kid. But if we respect each world of our AC4D classmates, but limit deliberation in favor of creating or visualizing, we can grow as students and end up with unexpected, powerful results.

The Practical Maverick: A Design Research Coaster

I do not recommend riding the rollercoaster in the diagram below.  Instead, view the coaster in terms of our latest assignment for our AC4D Theory class. We were assigned to create a 2×2 axis which represents eight different design professionals point of view on the topic of design research.

I chose to rank and group these professionals on two different axis:

  1. Vertical Axis: Is the professionals work practical; in other words, can their work be put to use in the field, or is it more dense, theory-based, or philosophical (impractical).
  2. Horizontal Axis: Is the professionals’ work better described as “designing for” users or “designing with” users .

Each researcher is an individual cart on the coaster, listed by their last name. Going left to right:

  • Don Norman’s cart is alone, as his perspective is that of a provocateur. Norman thinks inventors should invent, designers should stay out of it, only making tweaks to the invented thing to make it user-friendly. He’s also self-doubting of his claim, leading to great discussion, but not much of practically in the field.
  • Gaver is different- I view him as the design-artist. He designs with potential users, but in his words, his method of involving cultural probes are geared toward designing for pleasure, not utility. I look forward to trying some of Gaver’s methods, but for this design student, less practical for social entrepreneurship work.

Finally, we come to the long connected cart of six different design professionals that are designing with and designing for, practical use. They are connected because they build on each other’s work, even though chronologically I have taken some liberty.

  • Dourish is the theorizing academic. His writing of “context” as an action, and of the value of “ordinariness” speaks his strong influence of each designer above him. Yet, as a dense academic, his work is not immediately applicable in the field. As we cross the threshold into practicality, I’ve placed Fulton-Suri and Forlizzi together; they share a penchant for user-centeredness and prototyping that can be practical, but when precisely these methods should be used are a bit unclear. Le Dantec is the applicable design academic, who has used the methods of the professionals around him to research the world of homelessness, with a rare combination of rigor, from both design research and traditional academic research methods.
  • And finally, Jon Kolko, the founder of AC4D in the lead cart. Hold your thoughts of unnecessary flattery, Kolko does not teach this class. Part of Kolko’s position here may be to the order in which we read these pieces- his was last. But last for a reason; Kolko synthesizes the work of those connected to him, and writes with a clarity that is cross-disciplined. He takes the theories of those below him, cuts the fat off the theory, and pulls the preceding carts closer intoo practical use.

Regardless of position, the six connected rollercoaster researchers who design with users (and are practical in the field) are those that will most guide my work moving forward in AC4D.



Week 3 Reflection: So Damn Lucky

I’m lucky. Fortunate. Privileged, also, but I’ll get to that in a future post.

I’m lucky to be a student at 34 years of age and feel as my best future work is ahead of me. That’s in spite of the ups and downs of AC4D’s intensive program, and the nature of working in a new, small team. This past week was challenging in regards to teamwork. I had difficulty communicating with my teammates on a few occasions, as we differed on how to set an agenda, decide how things should get done, and even how much time per day we should be available on Slack, the online chat/email replacement that serves as our main communication method.

When teammates get frustrated with another, and emotions rise, I’ve learned it’s better to ride the waves of emotion rather than jump off the boat, or, spontaneously leave the area to breathe. It’s not comfortable. None of us prefer confrontation. No one wants to hear yelling or see tears, or push someone to that point. But we learned to confront our communication challenges directly (and sometimes the next day) so that problems don’t fester and become worse.

Having a tough conversation had the best result I could have hoped for. There’s always going to be disagreements about how work should be done. Yet, when you can have a direct conversation about what’s working and what’s not for you personally, and leave others that space as well, you grow together as humans. I have a greater appreciation now for Susi and Kelsey as people, (and as teammates) than ever before.

I also reminded myself to look up and appreciate the journey. Whenever the to-do list becomes long, I need to remind myself I live in a free society, I’m a full-time student for the first time in 13 years. I don’t own a home, but I live in a great one. I have a wonderful yard, a lazy cocker spaniel to pet, and friends and family that support me. So far I’ve put myself in a position to make AC4D’s process stick, and put to hard-earned lessons to use. I’m trusting the process, and appreciating how lucky I am.



Ancient Human Needs: Five Thinkers on Design

In the sixty-two years between 1928 and 1990, there was no shortage of public intellectuals who argued about what humans should achieve or how we should reach those ends. Our first assignment for Design, Society, and the Public Sector involved reading works by five different figures, all influential in either public relations, education, or design.

The image below describes the usefulness of these author’s theses to myself, a novice designer operating in a social-impact space in 2018. One of the difficulties in our assignment was deciding the criteria by which we would judge “importance” of each author’s work. I decided to change “importance” to “useful,” in part because I want these works to inspire my own design philosophy, and in part because “more useful” to me means “more actionable.”

Let us start from the least useful. Edward Bernays was a grandson of Sigmund Freud and is credited with developing public relations, propaganda, and the advertising industry in America. Yet just because we’ve been living in a world Bernays helped shape does not mean his theory is useful in 2018.

Maurizio Vitta seeks to form a theory of design, and comments effectively on how mass production weakens the designer and the objects created by designers. But Vitta’s dense theory ends up only commenting, instead of recommending how designers can adjust their practice for better ends.

John Dewey was a master educator who laid the groundwork for alternative or experiential learning throughout the early 21st century. His thesis speaks loudly to those who wish to create transformative experiences for students. I see part of AC4D’s curriculum and practice within Dewey’s ideas. His thesis is important, useful, yet specific to education.

Our final two thinkers, Neil Postman and Victor Papanek, speak to designing, inventing, and creating for deep, ancient, human needs. They are less concerned with the new, the flashy, the gadget or information delivery device, and instead write to the weaknesses, stigmas, and intellectual conformity that leads many designers to solve for false problems. Instead, they argue, we must form a clearer concept of ourselves, and design for the needs of the Earth and humanity itself. These thinkers both form the basis of a personal design thesis, and give me inspiration to act for the greater good.

Influential Thinkers Rated by Usefulness to an Ethically-Minded Designer