Building Girls Guild

(or, How We’re Making a Community of Makers)

But first, a shameless plug.

We’ve entered Girls Guild in the GOODMaker Art Everyday Challenge in hopes of funding our pilot and launch, and voting ends soon (03/30 at noon PST). Please, pretty please, lend us your vote.

Girls Guild

Thank you!

Anyway. What is all this? How did we get to this point? Three months ago Girls Guild was a nebulous idea manifested only on Post-it notes–thousands of them, whole walls of them, but a flimsy, fluttery foundation nonetheless. Mere weeks ago it had graduated to become a design, a fledgling prototype taking its first steps into the wide world… or at least, the world wide web. Now, it’s a service. It is (although personally I still feel wildly audacious saying it) a business. At least, it will be, once we pilot.

For right now, what it really is, is this: Girls Guild is a community bringing together girls with artists and makers for an apprenticeship in the skills and practice of making.

That could change tomorrow. Pieces of it probably will. But that’s what we’re working on this quarter: refining the business model to its essence so that we can pilot it, test it, and then continue refining and testing until we’ve found the seed of something we can grow.

This is not an easy process.

We didn’t expect it to be, but still. It’s hard to expect the emotional grip of the roller coaster until you’re on the ride. I know that’s a clichĂ©d metaphor, but I like it anyway because it’s really very apt:

roller coaster

The above is a generalized diagram of our process. The specifics, for us, include repeated refocusing of our service to hone in on making the connection between girls and artists/makers, while cutting out ourselves as mediators as much as possible. That has required us to rethink our pricing and revenue model, which was hazy to begin with, then oversimplified for a while, but is finally starting to take shape, we think. Maybe. Meanwhile we’re actively recruiting artists to lead pilot sessions over the coming month, and pursuing contacts at schools and youth organizations who might be able to help us spread the word to teenage girls and get them interested.

Along with all of that, we’re also trying to look a little further down the road to plan our launch after we graduate in May, which means putting together a solid business model, practicing our pitches, and thinking about possibilities for funding. We expect to have to get creative about this, since typical investment tracks seem much better suited to profit-driven tech start-ups than to a social enterprise like ours. That’s what leads us to things like the challenge posted above. We’ll continue to explore our options as we look to launch and grow, but for now even a small amount would be a big help in getting started.

Wanna lend a hand?

Please vote. 😉

Design and the Difficulties of Complex Problem-Solving

by Jaime Krakowiak & Diana Griffin

Interconnected. Globalized. Complex. These words describe not only our contemporary world and the systems we’ve developed to deal with it, but also, equally, the problems that plague it. As these problems increase in scope and impact, we struggle to redefine them, to pin them down so that we can get to work on solving them. Increasingly, however, we have been forced to recognize that such problems are by definition indefinite and ‘unpindownable’. These complex problems pose particular challenges for design—a discipline widely understood as an approach to solving problems. Complex problems may, in fact, be unsolvable; the difficulties they present in their mutability, messiness, and expansiveness must be addressed by creative insights applied strategically on a scale that design is currently unequipped to carry out. It will require a fundamental shift in society’s understanding and perception of design, brought about by a shift in the understanding and perception of their role by designers themselves.

The complexity of contemporary problems was already being expressed four decades ago by theorists such as Herbert Simon, who compared well- and ill-structured problems, while Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber formulated a definition of wicked problems that would later be taken up by Richard Buchanan. Their definitions of ill-structured and wicked problems overlap in the shared recognition that these kinds of problems are elusive, mutable, and confusing—resisting definition because their definition is constantly shifting. Buchanan sums up this issue as one of indeterminacy: where determinate (well-structured) problems have definite, identifiable conditions, the conditions of indeterminate (ill-structured, wicked) problems are fluid and unfixed. Like liquid mercury, these problems can be made to appear solid and bounded when considered from outside or applied with artificially structured definitions, but any attempt to intervene reveals their amorphous nature as they slide, shift and reform, avoiding imposed solutions. In the course of these amoebic changes, a complex problem often merges boundaries with neighbouring problems, so that the systems surrounding each become messily entangled. And in a world of globalized systems, such shifting, tangled problems quickly expand their reach to a scope previously unimaginable.

Imagine trying to solve such a big, messy, shifting problem. What does it take? For Simon, it simply requires enough information from long-term memory (experience), instructions (strategy), and the external world (context), in order to create a well-structured problem out of one aspect of a larger ill-structured problem. What this computational theory fails to account for, however, is the ability to then make the connection from one well-structured aspect to another. How does the problem-solver move from one stepping stone to the next when, in a complex problem, the shape and position of each step is fluid and changing? In the context of design as a problem-solving activity, the ability to make such leaps comes from creative insight.

Philip Johnson-Laird in his essay “The Structure of Problems” begins from the Gestalt definition of insight as “a creative process… that depends on a sudden restructuring (UmstruktuierWlg) or recentring (Umzentrierung) of the perceptual field” (4). Note that he calls it a process; insight is not just the “Eureka!” moment, it also includes the strategic process that enables that sudden flash of understanding. By undertaking this process, which according to Johnson-Laird consists of mechanisms that form tactics, that in turn form strategies, one can develop the range of experience that informs and enables a sudden restructuring of perception, that is, insight. That insight can then become a mechanism in the next cycle of the process, eventually fuelling further insights. Carrying out a cyclical strategy of creative thinking should then enable problem-solvers to make the connections between different aspects of a complex problem, thereby moving towards a solution. So why, then, are complex problems still unsolvable?

The answer to this question lies in a simple matter of practical limitations. Both Simon’s process for structuring ill-structured problems and Johnson-Laird’s development of a strategy for creative thinking rely on accumulating a wealth of experience to be applied and evaluated in the real-world context of a problem. That accumulation, application, and evaluation takes time—much more time than any single person, or even any one organization, can put in before the problem placement (in Buchanan’s terms, the tools “from which the designer fashions a working hypothesis suited to special circumstances” (18)) evolves beyond the current scope of the problem-solver. In short, there are not enough people working on these problems; we need more problem-solvers—more designers.

The problem of getting more designers may seem apparently simple—just train more designers—but it is itself a complex problem. In order to train more designers, there must be a three-part shift across society in the way that design is perceived and understood.

  1. A shift in design literacy. Chris Pacione, in his article “Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy,” calls for a widespread increase in design literacy. He believes that ubiquitous design literacy will usher in a new age of innovative problem-solving, and makes reference more than once to the idea that ‘everyone can design’. A more precise statement is that everyone can understand design, or should be able to; everyone should learn the basic skill sets of design thinking, as they do the basic skill sets of scientific or mathematical thinking. By incorporating the skills of design literacy—creativity, empathy, abductive logic, and so forth—into our education system, everyone would have a stronger base of problem-solving skills, and more people would have the opportunity to pursue those skills to the level of rigor and expertise that defines a designer.
  2. A shift in design as a discipline. Before such utopic notions of widespread design literacy can find a grounding in reality, however, there must first be a shift in the perception of design’s role in our society. Educators and policy-makers will not see the value in incorporating design literacy into their curricula until it is accorded an equal value to the core disciplines of the arts and sciences. Buchanan claims that design is a new liberal art, an art of experimental thinking. As such, it belongs neither as a subset to the traditional liberal arts, nor to the sciences, but is a discipline of its own, on par with each. In order to facilitate design literacy as a tenet of education, design must first solidify its own legitimacy as a discipline and as a profession.
  3. A shift in what it means to be a designer. The first step in achieving this legitimacy is for designers in their own practices to define and accept the responsibility that accompanies the role of designer. Until designers consistently practice their craft with integrity—a recognition of the consequences of their work, and a sense of responsibility for those consequences—design will not be respected as a discipline. Designers, on an individual level as well as collectively, must approach their work with serious intention before design will be taken seriously outside of the profession. Designers must imbue design with substance, and value that substance as much as its trappings of cleverness and aesthetics, before design will be seen as substantial and accorded value in the wider world.


App Prototyping, Round 2

This time, a video demo of the app formerly known as ‘Community Cooks,’ currently known as the Johnson’s Backyard Garden (one of the local CSAs) ‘Fresh Ideas Exchange’. The animations have somehow gotten lost in conversion; working on figuring that out. In the meantime, voilĂ :

App demo video

App demo page

Designing for "Deep Interactions"

Position paper #3 for IDSE 102 – Design, Society and the Public Sector, by Jonathan Lewis & Diana Griffin.

Experiences are important. They teach us what is right and what is wrong. They shape our beliefs and our preferences; they make us who we are and who we will become. Experiences can lead to growth or destruction. This premise should spark little contention, but we begin here because we believe that its implications are significant when played out in full. Consider the theory of John Dewey, in which experience is defined as the interplay between internal and objective conditions in a given situation. Experiences exist in continuity, building upon each other, leading always to growth, change or reinforcement, whether positive or negative. Because experiences have such pervasive effects, it is vital that we—in the collective and individual sense—examine the questions, “What are we experiencing?” and “How are we affecting what others are experiencing?”

So, what are we experiencing? To answer that question, we must look at the interaction between external and internal conditions that make up experiences. While internal conditions are unique to every individual, external conditions are, on a broad level, shared by all within a common culture. In our culture, where some digital device or technology is always within arms reach, most experiences are in some way influenced by digital technology. What effect does this have? In his speech to the German Informatics Society given in 1990, Neil Postman argues that technology has brought a bombardment of information of such relentlessness that ultimately we have become indifferent towards everything. He asserts that with millions upon millions of sources of information available to us, our foundational understanding of what should cause surprise, fear, sadness, excitement or joy is warped. He calls upon his audience to care less about information and more about things that matter, stating:

“There is no denying that the most prominent uses of computers have to do with information
The computer is an answer to the questions, how can I get more information, faster, and in a more usable form? But now I should like to put some other questions to you that seem to me more reasonable… If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information?”

In the two decades since Postman posed those questions, the pervasiveness of digital technology expanded, and designers and technologists came to recognize the reality of the information overload Postman described. To help navigate this ever-widening sea of information, many designers are turning to experience or interaction design as new approaches, hailed for their ability to humanize technology. By focusing on the human experience to create things that are: learnable, memorable, efficient, satisfying, poetic, beautiful, and usable, these emerging disciplines are expected to help us solve the problem of managing the constant flow of information around us. Now, we find that things created to facilitate this human-technology dialogue—in other words, interactions—are now everywhere. In short, ‘interaction’ is the new ‘information’. Consider your everyday experience of technological interactions, or take ours as an example: as we write this paper, one of us has 38 internet browser tabs and 14 computer programs currently open, while the other is conducting a one-minute experiment to see how many browser tabs can be opened on a 13-inch laptop; the result is over one hundred. Each of those tabs and programs offers a multiplicity of different interactions, and those are only on one device. We could also look at smartphones for another example; there are over 6000 applications in the productivity category of Apple’s App store—most of them created to help us manage the overwhelming number of interactions in our day-to-day lives.

Today, rather than “informing ourselves to death” (the title of Neil Postman’s 1990 speech), we are now interacting to death. Taking the above quote from Postman and substituting the word ‘interaction’ for ‘information’ yields equally valid questions:

“… If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of interaction? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of interaction? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of interaction?”

You may see these questions and think, “Yes.” But rather than a lack of any interaction, such interpersonal breakdowns are usually due to a lack of a specific kind of interaction, and may be exasperated by the ubiquitous presence of other, negative kinds of interaction. If interactions are the molecules of experience, and our experiences are as often as not mediated by technology (at least in the culture within which we are writing), we must ask, what kinds of interactions are we facilitating when we create new technologies, and how do we facilitate interactions that don’t lead to breakdowns? What kinds of interactions lead to a life focused on the things that matter?

In an effort to create products, services, and systems that cultivate the right kind of interaction, the field of interaction design has turned to ethnographic methods to gain an understanding—or a “thick description,” as Clifford Geertz terms it—of users’ needs. Ethnographic methods originated in fields such as anthropology and have been modified by designers and “design thinkers,” as Jocelyn Wyatt names the interdisciplinary participants in the resulting collaborative design process. Such processes are developed to empower users by intimately involving them in creating solutions to the problems that affect them. The assumption is that if the people who will be affected by the design are involved in the creative process, they will direct the designer to create the appropriate kind of interaction for their situation.

These methods are not without flaws, though. One problem we see with this approach to design is that it still operates within the same value structure that created the problems it attempts to solve—in our culture, the value structure that believes that helping us manage the flotsam of interactions we find in a sea of information is the most helpful solution. We are not arguing against the use of ethnographic methods in design; these methods are invaluable for bridging the gap of understanding between the designers and the people affected by their designs. However, well-implemented ethnographic methods may just as easily have led to the creation of one of the 6,000 productivity applications available for your iPhone as to the creation of a truly meaningful and necessary design solution.

To create the right kinds of interactions, designers must have a strong understanding of the kind of interaction they are striving for and this understanding must transcend and sometimes trump information gathered using ethnographic methods. In a recently published article, Bruce Nussbaum claimed that, “ethnography is too shallow for what we now need. We need to go much deeper into the historic context and wider into the lateral connections of people in society.” We posit that such a depth of understanding leads to the kind of interactions designer should strive to facilitate—what we call deep interactions.

This concept of a deep interaction is grounded in the recognition that humans are finite beings whose cognitive, emotional, and physical faculties can only be directed towards a limited number of things. The framework for deep interactions is most clearly understood when viewed against what we consider to be shallow interactions. The following are comparative statements chosen to help assist in understanding the nature of a deep interaction:

  • Doing fewer things better. Whereas shallow interactions focus on enabling people to do more things (managing their multiple to-do lists, for example), only so more interactions can take place.
  • Enabling reactive emotionss. Whereas shallow interactions lead to a numbing of emotional reactions, making it difficult for individuals to experience surprise, joy, fear and sadness.
  • Focusing on local. Whereas shallow interactions focus on making infinite global connections, deep interactions focus on knowing and caring about individuals and the environment around you.
  • Encouraging mindfulness. Whereas shallow interactions lead to tasks being performed mindlessly, deep interactions lead to mindfulness of what you are doing.
  • Prioritizing thoroughness. Whereas shallow interactions make speed a priority, deep interactions make thoroughness a priority.

To illustrate how interactions can be viewed with an understanding of deep interactions, we will compare two of Google’s mobile platforms: Google Orange, an SMS application popular in Africa and the Middle East, and Google App for the iPhone.

Google for iPhone
Owners of Google’s iPhone application can access most of the features of Google’s online offerings at close to broadband speed. These include but are not limited to search, Gmail, reader, news, documents, calendars, and maps.

  • Doing fewer things better vs. more things easier
    – No: Gmail allows for multiple email accounts to be added at the same time, and gives notifications when a new email is received, enabling people to manage more and more accounts and relationships. Additionally, calendars allow for the scheduling of a day down to the minute.
    – Yes: Documents allow for the creation of one artifact that can be worked on collaboratively eliminating the need for time spent creating many versions of something.
  • Enabling Reactive Emotions vs. Numbing of Emotions
    – No: Google reader and google news contribute to the information/interaction overload that causes people to be jaded about all that is going on in the world to the point where nothing is surprising and nothing leads to action.
    – Yes: Users have the option to limit what they read through lists and filters.
  • Focusing on Local vs. Global
    – No: GChat treats users that are 3,000 miles away the same as users who are 3 feet away.
    – Yes: Maps allow individuals to navigate their local environment.
  • Encouraging Mindfulness vs. Mindlessness
    – Mindless: Google has a picture search that allows users to take a picture of something and search for it online, running the risk allowing individuals to gain most of their knowledge through visual picture searches.
    – Mindful: Google allows users to turn notifications off allowing them to be in the present.
  • Prioritizing Thoroughness over Speed
    – Thoroughness: Google searches are incredibly thorough.
    – Speed: Google prioritizes things for you in their searches.

Google Orange
Google Orange is a partnership between Google and the French telecom company Orange. It allows SMS phone subscribers in parts of Africa and the Middle East to access Google Services. One of the main features is conducting Google Chat conversations using text messages. Users will be given a certain amount of free text messages per month as an incentive to using this service.

  • Doing fewer things better vs. more things easier:
    – More: More text messages could lead to more individuals and relationships that need attending.
    – Fewer: SMS access to Gmail could allow for better communication in jobs previously unavailable to people without internet access.
  • Enabling Reactive Emotions vs. Numbing of Emotions
    – Numbing: Google news and Gmail could cause users to become jaded about current events.
    – Normal: Users have the option to limit what they read through lists and filters.
  • Focusing on Local vs. Global
    – Global: Google Chat treats users that are 3,000 miles away the same as users who are 3 feet away.
    – Local: Text messages allow for users 1 mile away to easily connect with each other if transportation is not available.
  • Encouraging Mindfulness vs. Mindlessness
    – Mindless: SMS enabled chat often takes a significant amount of time causing users to perpetually have their face buried in their phones.
    – Mindful: Google allows users to turn notifications off allowing individuals to be in the present.
  • Prioritizing Thoroughness over Speed
    – Thoroughness: Google searches are incredibly thorough.
    – Speed: Google prioritizes things for you in their searches.

These two examples illustrate the point that whether a product, service or system will lead to a deep interaction is oftentimes ambiguous. Yet the answer to this question is vital to the world that we continue to create through the experiences that we influence with our technologies. It must be our goal as designers to create things that lead to deep interactions, ultimately leading to positive life- and culture-shaping experiences.


Dewey, John. “In Need of a Theory of Education.” Education and Experience. 1938.

Postman, Neil. “Informing Ourselves to Death.” Speech to the German Informatics
Society. Stuttgart. October 11th, 1990.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. 1978.

Wyatt, Jocelyn and Tim Brown. “Design Thinking for Social Innovation.” Stanford Social Innovation Review. Winter 2010.

Nussbaum, Bruce. “Want to Know More About Bruce Nussbaum’s Creative Capitalism? Read On.” Fast Co. Design. October 12, 2011.

Quick & Dirty Business Model, Pitching and Prototyping

The Task, Part 1: Looking at the findings from our initial stage of research, pinpoint a problem area and develop a business idea that solves it. Ben and I had visited and observed local CSA farmers at work for our research, and one problem that had come up was the difficulty of recruiting new CSA members, due to the barriers people perceive around cooking with CSA produce – not knowing how to cook and otherwise use up all those vegetables every week.

My Solution: Community Cooks, a CSA-based cooking school in which the weekly classes are focused around the produce in that week’s CSA box. People signing up for a CSA could add on cooking classes with their subscription (either a full session to match the length of their subscription or a short session for the first month of their subscription), and people interested in trying a CSA could also try out the cooking classes by paying a drop-in price. The instructors would be recruited from the more-experienced cooks among the CSA membership, and would be paid per class taught. Check it out in more detail in the PDFs below:

Community Cooks pitch (PDF)

Community Cooks business model canvas (PDF)

The Task, Part 2: In class last week, we had a surprise trip to the farmer’s market to test our our pitches on real people. We went around the market in pairs and threes, approaching people and asking them to judge our pitches. Over the course of the morning we got a lot of practice with on-the-spot presentation skills, and learned mighty quickly to cut to the chase and be clear and concise and on-topic (although that is still easier said than done). Watch one of my pitches below:

The Task, Part 3: Our follow-up homework this week was to adapt/develop our business idea into a mobile app, create a digital prototype, and test it on at least 3 people. After a lot of rough sketches on paper, talking it through, and scribbling some more, I settled on an adaptation of the original Community Cooks idea to fit the context of a mobile app. Instead of cooking lessons, the app facilitates finding and sharing recipes based on local food. It has a focus on products and produce from local farms, which the farmers can update when things are harvested. When it came to digitizing the prototype and getting into the more formal testing style, I had a chance to refine the features based on each person’s feedback and reactions to the app. See a video of the latest test, and check out the full PDF prototype below:

Community Cooks app prototype (PDF)

Some thoughts on the process thus far:

1) Ideas are fun. Business ideas are hard. It’s one thing to come up with the grain of an idea as a potential solution to a problem, it’s another thing to flesh it out into a business idea, and it is a whole ‘nother thing to actually consider it in terms of viability and think about things like costs and revenue, distribution, and resources. My eyes actually glazed over a bit just typing that sentence. These are not things I’ve every really turned my mind to before, and it has been ridiculously intimidating and challenging trying to get my head around even approaching this kind of thinking. At the beginning of this quarter I posted about how I was setting out to embrace the idea of entrepreneurship, but embracing the actual gritty, grimy details of it is going to be the real challenge for me.

2) Ideas are fun. Talking about ideas is hard. Short and sweet still doesn’t come easily for me, and will take a lot of practice, rethinking, and revising, over and over and over.

3) Ideas are fun. Sketching ideas is fun, too. Stopping myself from going too high-fidelity, too fast (like, the second I touch a computer) is hard. I think I missed a lot of opportunity for feedback on the barebones idea of my app because people looked at the design-y rendering and got caught up in the details of layout and wording instead of considering the worth and usability of the actual functions themselves.

Onwards and upwards from here, I suppose.

Getting uncomfortable with what's comfortable

“You have to get comfortable with what you’re comfortable with, and get uncomfortable with what’s comfortable.” That was some of the advice given to us last class, and in that spirit, I’ve been trying to get uncomfortable with words and more comfortable with visuals. Thus, I’m resisting the temptation to launch into a lengthy preamble to this week’s assignments, and just get straight to the pictures.

The latest iteration of my brand statement, in (sort of) poster form:


And, some stories about how food gets from a local farm to the table:

a kid’s story about brussel sprouts

a critic’s story about brussel sprouts

a CSA member’s story about brussel sprouts

CSAs & the Community: a Contextual Inquiry

In the past few weeks, we’ve begun our design research process, looking into the overarching topic of food as a social issue. For the contextual inquiry phase of our research, Ben and I chose to look at trends in locally-grown food, and within that topic, we established as our specific research focus the goal of exploring the role that CSAs play in the food culture of the community, and vice versa, the role that the community plays in the operation of CSAs. By observing community relations and outreach at various CSAs, we hoped to discover why people are drawn to engage in local agriculture practices and how the CSA facilitates that engagement.

We chose to seek farm operators as the participants in our contextual inquiry in order to learn about the different methods and avenues they use to engage members and volunteers. We contacted various CSAs in the community and arranged visits to three farms; Natural Springs Garden, near Lake Travis, Tecolote Farms in Webberville, and Springdale Farms in East Austin.

By going through these contextual inquiries, we discovered that it’s important to be flexible and not carry too many expectations into the process. While we had told the participants that our focus was around their community relations, it was hard for them to grasp what exactly we wanted to see. The challenge for us was to convince the farm operators that it was interesting and worthwhile for us to actually watch them, for example, go through the process of writing a tweet or posting to facebook or their blogs. It took a lot of gentle persistence to get them to show us their computers and office spaces at all. It took a few tries for us to learn the art of said persistence, requiring a trial and error process of asking, rephrasing, and asking again to be shown what we were interested in seeing. On the other hand, we learned that by asking open questions we could learn a lot; people love to share their story and what they’re passionate about.

Although we both went into the contextual inquiry phase with minor trepidations, we found that it was not as intimidating as we’d imagined. The process was both interesting and exciting for its opportunities to get a glimpse into people’s lives and livelihoods, particularly since the farmers we spoke with were generous with their time and knowledge, and passionate in communicating their experiences and values. We’re looking forward to the chance to continue our research and refine our interviewing skills during the next phase of our research.