Feelings are Design Insights

While doing design research I try to listen to myself as much as I do everything else.

How do I feel about this situation? Anxious, awkward, excited, satisfied?

This week Scott and I did some quick and dirty testing by giving away McDonald’s gift cards to people panhandling along the road with signs. We then tracked their balance online to see if the cards were redeemed.

It was satisfying to give something away that you knew could not be misused. We were excited to constantly check to see if the cards had been used yet. A couple of times there was traffic behind us so we just had to hand out the card without any conversation, which felt very transactional and inhumane.

How can our final design incorporate those positive emotions and avoid the others?

Reflection is required for impact

Some of the stuff I made when I worked at Project HOME.

When I worked at Project HOME, an organization addressing homelessness in Philly, I noticed a lot of things that I could design and improve. Better signage, better forms, nicer marketing materials, pretty menus at the cafe, improving training programs, an easier way to organize job listings for clients, etc.

I completed most of these things. I’m not sure they mattered.

I also wrote proposals and plans for larger projects; rethinking some existing services and creating new programs. However, none of those ever got done.

When an organization works with people in crisis, it’s very hard not to feel like every moment must be accounted for. It is exhausting just to maintain the existing processes and procedures, rarely is there time to think about improving things.

This is a pattern that we’re seeing while researching homelessness in Austin. Organizations that don’t explicitly set aside time for reflection default to crisis mode.

Looking back after four years, the only thing still in use at Project HOME is a tool that made it easier for the staff to submit and review incident reports.

So just like webkit won’t accept patches that make it slower, in order for a new program or approach to be successful it must reduce the workload of organizational staff and increase reflection.

My First Quarter at AC4D

The following is my attempt to summarize and reflect on my first eight weeks studying at the Austin Center for Design.

The great:

  • Amazing students with varied talents working together.
  • Experienced professors (who still work in their field) sharing insights and leading discussions.
  • Designers working on real problems (homelessness, sustainability, education).

The difficult:

  • Big time commitment.
  • Learning to be okay with failure.
  • So far, more review than new.

First the great.Without hesitation I think any designer or creative person looking to make a difference should attend the school. The people you will meet and the process you will learn will inspire you and drive you for years.

The students are inspiring. I’m reminded of my sophomore year in college when I started to feel normal. I was finally around people who had similar passions and desires and dreams. When a small network rejects mediocrity an explosive inspirational energy is created that feeds itself.

I feel a similar energy forming here around social problems.

Now the hard.I did not anticipate the time commitment required to attend school. I’ve gone before, but I did not factor in all the new activities and responsibilities I have now (consulting, marriage, startups). I kind of figured it would be like adding one more client to my workload, but really it’s like three new clients.

I use to unwind by learning new stuff or building things or playing with friends. Now my days are filled of client work, nights with class, and the weekend with both. The rest of my life is spent scrambling to complete assignments or attempting to enjoy a relaxing meal with Maura.

I do think it’s possible to work full-time and attend AC4D, but you just can’t do anything else. No side projects, no overtime, no traveling, no going above and beyond at work, nothing but school (or face the consequences).

The consequence is failure. I have had many jobs and worked on a smorgasbord of projects. With the exception of a few scheduling slips, I have delivered what I said I would, when I said I would. I am knowledgable and dependable and deliver exceptional work to my clients. This is why I have more work than I can handle at a healthy rate.

Remember when I said school was a client? That’s how I first felt. I could do not let them down, they were counting on me. Very quickly a time crunch made me rethink this stance and I realized, “I’m the client. I’m paying to be here. I’m here to learn as much as I can, not to deliver perfect work on time.”

For better or worse, this has been my coping mechanism for the past couple months. Every week I am forced to make compromises on what to work on. Client work is at the top of that list, then any team project for school involving other students, then the projects I’m most interested in, lastly the projects I’m not into. Unfortunately this means the projects I don’t want to do (admittedly probably the most academically stretching for me) are the ones that don’t get done.

It’s also frustrating to feel rushed in everything you do. Working thoughtfully and meticulously is near impossible when there is an overflowing dam of work backing up behind you.

My final bitch is that the first quarter consisting of design theory, contextual research, and prototyping felt like a lot of review to me. This won’t be the case for most people. I guess I’m unique in that Jon, the director of the school, taught a large portion of my undergrad program. (So far this quarter is already much different.)

In summary.I love school. It is great and difficult.

My goal for the next eight weeks is to spend more time reflecting in posts like this. I would also like to identify one project a week to be meticulous about, and attempt to do something for each assignment.

(Thanks to Alex for inspiring me to take the time to write this out.)

I'm Chap. I start businesses. Let's get together.

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The Pixar Story

I got inspired by the book I’m reading, The Pixar Touch, and used it for my sketch story in IDSE103.

1974 Ed Catmull graduates from Salt Lake City University where he developed many of the fundamentals of computer graphics and imaging.

1975 John Lassiter enrolls at California Institute of the Arts to study animation.

1979 Lucasfilm starts a research lab to explore digital film and sound editing and accounting. eventually attracting Catumull and eventually Lassiter.

1986 Lucasfilm’s computer division releases the Pixar Image Computer. It flops.

1986 Steve Jobs purchases the computer division at Lucasfilm, which is renamed to Pixar, Inc.

1990 Pixar animates television commercials for Listorine, Life Savers, Pillsbury, and other household brands.

1995 Pixar releases the first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, directed by Lassiter.

1998-2006 Pixar releases Monsters, Inc and 5 other feature films which are all commercial successes.

2006 Disney purchases Pixar for $7.4 billion, where Catmull and Lassiter now lead the animation and creative departments.

Softballs and Swords: The Personal Style of Prominent Design Figures

Every designer has a point of view. We work relentlessly to articulate it to the design community, and more importantly, potential clients. Each talk we give, book we write and design we touch is another calculated message meant to emphasize our perspective and argue it’s validity.

As a relatively inexperienced designer, I am fascinated by the way that well-known professionals choose to present themselves and craft their public caricatures. Their message and mystique blend as we consider the validity of the messenger. Some designers thoughtfully construct their haircuts and vocal timbre and others craft articles and papers.

On the one side, designers are passionate people. We care about our work. We’re not happy to sit quietly at the assembly line of culture, consuming whatever falls off the conveyor belt. We want to stand up, make some noise, and have a hand in the direction of the things. We are naturally curious and have to find out the answers for ourselves. This is why I think that a lot of designers can be classified as “Brave Knights”.

Brave Knights are driven by their convictions. They write manifestos and laws. Knights are warriors in the board room and assholes in critiques. They shoulder the herculean task of pushing quality through the toxic sludge of corporate culture.

The epitome of the Knight is Victor Papanek. In his book, “Design for the Real World”, he manages to condemn the entire industrial design profession, preaching responsibility and thoughtfulness to a field he sees as out of control. He writes, “industrial design has put murder on a mass-production basis.” He is driven by an unshakable faith and uses his platform to speak in absolutes and with sincere intensity.

Another example is Patricia Moore’s championing of the universal design ethos. Her efforts are heroic: a female designer in a male dominated field, courageously advocating for older and less-able users, and placing herself in physical danger to better understand her users.

Many of the champions of usability and human centered design are Brave Knights. (Jacob Neilsen also comes to mind). But, great designers are also sensitive. They have highly developed skills of empathy. Some designers build their public image around this vulnerability, I dub these “Softball Coaches”.

Softball Coaches are slow to speak. They carefully examine the larger implications of their actions and creations. They are happy to stand on the sidelines. They take a more moderate approach when expressing their theories and dispensing judgement.

Allan Chochinov is a good example of a Softball Coach. He prefaces his “1000 Words: A Manifesto for Sustainability in Design” with “I don’t like the word manifesto. It reeks of dogma and rules–two things I instinctually reject.” And his rules; do no harm, stop making crap, think about the consequences–are innocuous even to the most hummer-driving, meat-eating designers.

I find it difficult to speak in absolutes and naturally lean towards this Softball Coach persona. However, when comparing these two, clearly the Knights are leading the conversation.

I’m reminded of one of my old bosses, Sister Mary Scullion. She is absolutely convinced that everyone must have a clean, safe place to live. Regardless of income, criminal history, or mental state. She is not deterred by the practical implications of such a vision. She simply knows it is right and spends her life sharing her vision publicly and working towards it.

And it’s happening. She successfully lobbies local government and receives support from patrons who believe in her cause and her conviction.

This is what I’m working towards; complete dedication in a worthwhile mission and the fearlessness to shout it from the rooftops.

Designers find and connect the dots

In high school I dabbled in lots of mediums: photography, video production, web design, graphic design, fine art and other things. I remember being frustrated that as a freshman at college I was suppose to pick one of these disciplines to focus on for the next four years.

Then I found the industrial design program. I saw all kinds of creations tumbling out of department: photographs, videos, 3d models, and more. I instantly knew that it was the major for me.

As I got deeper into the curriculum I found out that not only did industrial designers create in every medium, we also borrowed methodologies from an ever wider range of professions.

A primary focus of my education was using contextual research, personal interviews, and other techniques developed by anthropologists to observe and understand how people used products and the personal relationship that people form with the things they use and experience.

One of the foundational classes that I’ll be taking this quarter is Interaction Design Research and Synthesis (taught by the fabulous Lauren Serota) which builds on a lot of this stuff. I’m very excited about spending time sharpening my skills and looking at all of this stuff anew. This definitely one of the skills I haven’t been using near as much as I could.

First class is tonight, I’ll let you know how it goes!