Quarter 1 – A full introduction to rigor | Quarter 2 – Applying Q1 learnings

 

A full introduction to rigor

This blogpost will be a combination of what we are currently doing in Research & Synthesis mixed with what was learned last quarter and how I am carrying it over into this quarter.

The course so far has been an intense whirlwind of a process. It seems we were taught all things at once, full on, in the first quarter:

  • Sketching and how to communicate your ideas through a wordless medium.
  • Theories about the role that design plays in our world. Accompanied by trying to wrap your mind around such mind bending ideas, we were tasked with refining 6 articles at a time into 1 storyboard comic of our own creation. This teaches us how to portray just the really juicy, potent and key aspects of the material to facilitate an understanding of the gestalt of a given space without needing to dive into the overly granular details and sectors that such theories entail.
  • Research & Synthesis methods for gathering data and insight about a given space. Our assignment was Short-term loans.

All of the classes appeared somewhat isolated and discombobulated at the beginning. Yet after a few weeks into the program, they all started to merge together. I see how the 3 skill sets of storyboarding, research and synthesis, and sketching tie together nicely to be able to cultivate persuasive arguments pointing towards new ideas. For me they were, all 3, almost entirely new categories of learning. It was a steep learning curve.

The purpose of this method and structure seems to be very deliberate. It seems to be set up the way that it is so that we are thrown into head-high water and are made to figure out how to handle complexity and rigor in our own way with rapid fire instruction. After trying any given task or methodology once we then are told, look for this next time, there is this method, for [said scenario] you can use these types of tools, this is a really useful way to think about [said subject]. The way it seems to work is that we have to try things ourselves. Through this trial and error finding the way that would feel most natural to us. Then from there we receive instruction for using methodology that we can integrate and use to reinforce our natural thought process around the task or issue. This style, whether intentional or not I still don’t fully understand, really helps with not just having a methodology drummed into your head. We didn’t learn a list of rights and wrongs. Instead, having tools handed to you that you can put onto the tool belt that you already have made for yourself, for the process, to make you more effective.

Following that, this cadence of ‘try, then learn the tools’ also seems to help with another facet of the world of design that has been taking shape in my knowledge base over the last couple months and that is that we, to a certain degree, were set up to “fail” in various ways. Which got us used to the fact that “failing” is the most immense opportunity for learning, and in design you need to have people tell you things you did wrong or better ways of doing things so that you can make whatever the thing is, better. It seems that this cycle will persist through anybody’s career in the design world. For the fact that, in applying design to complex social problems, you can’t ‘do it right’ there is no one-size-fits-all solution for such large scale, complex problems. So, try, learn, repeat becomes increasingly important and valuable in those types of messy situations.

 

Research – Applying Q1 learnings to ‘Food is Freedom’

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 In terms of Research and Synthesis I am entering this next phase of Research in Quarter 2 with much more comfortability. When recruiting research participants, I have put feelers out in as many directions as possible at the very beginning and have observed which ones are getting the results that I want. Which is funny because it’s still not working very well. It seems that working with any different ‘public’ requires completely different recruiting methods. The nature of this topic of research is a significantly different space. We are diving into access to food and low income populations’ relationship to food. In particular, healthy food. Last quarter I just mentally banked on that our first ideas would bring in all of the participants we would need, which was not the case. So, for that reason exactly I cast a wider net. However, it is seeming like more active, physical recruitment is what is proving fruitful for our team so far.

The team, being Sally, Conner and myself, chose the focus on low-income individuals and food access because we understand that food is one of the most essential building blocks of every person’s life. That alone illustrates the importance that it holds for each person and they can resonate with the conversations we are facilitating. We are defining ‘low-income’ as earning less than $10/hr or less than $18,000 annually. We defined it in this way because in Austin the living wage is $9.52/hr, minimum wage being $7.25. Another of our criteria that presented itself as a needed parameter was to state that we are looking for participants that have housing. We thought about, researched and found that when people do not have housing it fundamentally changes the food conversation. When you do not have a consistent place to live, in a very general sense, you are taking things day by day. It is hard to really be able to discuss routes for getting food and how one thinks about or values food when living day by day.

This topic is interesting because it has so much traction here in Austin. We have been in contact with multiple organizations that have their heads in the space and are taking some pretty potent and powerful steps. The Sustainable Food Center, Caritas, Foundation Communities and The Central Texas Food Bank are all taking initiative to educate people about healthy food as well as provide it to low income and at risk populations.

So far we have interviewed 1 stakeholder to get our minds in the space and discover what is possible and where we can go for effective recruiting. Accompanied by 4 participants that fall inside of our defined bracket. We have found an interesting array of ways of managing and relating with food. I have some further assumptions that I think I will hold onto until further data informs the truth.

I’m continually trying to remind myself, ‘during interviews, ask the hard questions!’ When someone shows emotion, dive into that! Throw all societal normality’s for conversation out the window. The uncomfortable zones is often where the juiciest information is. Don’t be afraid to take control, stop them in a ramble, hold them off on a tangent, lead them in a new direction, interrupt.

We just revamped our discussion guide based on our first couple interviews. After our last interview I became very illuminated about my lens about this topic. We had some questions in our discussion guide that were heavily pointing towards eating out, which work in some situations, but in some situations that is not even on the table of possibility. So to reestablish our questions based on a more wide angle lens of what we possibly may find felt like a step that will bring confidence and rich data out of any interview in any environment.

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A question I have been continually asking myself is ‘How fully can I get in their environment?’ Once we got into the data last quarter I felt like I had been an observer of the space I hadn’t been IN the space, I hadn’t BEEN the space.

Now I will momentarily speak to myself. Synthesis, data sense making, takes more time than I think, synthesis takes more time than I think, synthesis takes more time than I think. Give it the time it deserves. During synthesis, write down all of the facets of the mechanism, write, write, write, draw, write, write, write, draw, draw, draw feel confident in what you find. If you’re not confident, it’s not there yet. Metaphors are the best for helping you step out of the space and still see the trueness of the behavioral mechanism. Utilize them! When presenting, be intentional. Tie a cohesive narrative through all participants. What is your point? The findings don’t matter unless you have come to some focal point. You build the walls and frame prior to handing somebody your gem through the box and frame you have established.

Overall, the nature of the way subject matter is delivered in this course is easily consumable and digestible for me because I thrive on experiential learning and putting things into my own context.

 

I and we are excited to share our further findings and creations for the next 21 weeks.

Attacking Concept Mapping

Complexity is fascinating. When I say complexity i’m talking about all of the details that exist at every level of zoom on a sector, service public, problem, or product. The exponential growth of complexity and the way it is weaving into the tapestry of our lives is pretty ridiculous. In every interaction, the interdependence on at least half a dozen other systems is present. I cannot help but see this. My mind does it now automatically. There is a succession to everything, everything you do, see, smell, eat, play with, work on, everything. It is most often times, not explicit what the steps were to bring you the experience you’re having. To be able to make sense of it, though, and communicate the sense you made is a different ball game altogether.

This brings me to our Rapid Ideation and Complex Problem Solving class where we are creating a concept map, a sensemaking tool, to be able to understand the ins and outs of the AT&T mobile application. Like I said, I observe the worldly systems with scrutiny but have not done so as much with mobile applications. My approach with apps is generally, go in, understand what I need to understand, and get out. Especially with an application as monotonous as AT&T. It has been intriguing applying that systems level observation to the mobile space and seeing that, just like in larger systems, each step is so vastly important when every furthering step is building off of the last. In concept mapping the goal is to express the relationship each function has with each other function. In the first iteration the line between literal connections and informative connections was hard to find and balance. My first creation was speaking to the literal flow of actions within the app. ‘From ____ you access _____ to get to _____ type of connections.’

myAT&T Concept Map

Through critique I came to understand that concept maps were, more so, used to illustrate the breakdown of topics underneath an umbrella topic (in this context AT&T) and the relationships and impact that they all have on each other. Which informed me I needed to take a few more passes of iteration. I think affinity mapping helped with the second phase of this process. It allowed me to more easily pick up on subtle similarities and connections outside of the literalness. Why are two things connected outside of all obvious surface level descriptors?

And after multiple iterations that thought process brought me here:

AT&T Concept Map v4

Overall, I learned that complexity is easily harnessable with the right tools and some thorough analysis of what is important. I’m looking forward to reversing the utilization of concept mapping to foster optimal states of flow that naturally make sense.

The Schooling Brain

-The way our brains operate = the way our world looks-

How do you justify what the “right way” to learn is? Is the rationale because it gets you a job, the job makes you a lot of money, and it’s easy? Is it about how you like to think? Is it about your passion? Did you decide to learn because you were “supposed to”? The question is, what is being created? In you, and in the world.

The brain is a powerful instrument with intricate functions. It is also like clay. Clay in the sense that the exposure you immerse it in comes back around through your expression in the world. There are arguments in all directions alongside what I am saying. As is true with any topic about the way people do things.

If you teach a man to fish, he learned how to fish! Now he can go and get better at fishing, he can teach other people how to fish, he can sell the fish he catches, there are a multitude of ways he can use that skill.

If you teach a man the science of fish, he understands fish! He can study where in the world has the best fish and why, he can discover what fish do when they aren’t on a humans plate, he can find out nutritional facts about fish and who should and shouldn’t eat them. There are a multitude of things he can do knowing the science of fish.

So, what do learning those 2 things do for our world? Look for the final impact outcome of all of this hubbub. It is interesting to think about the impact being the real reason for why you’re doing what you’re doing. Are your ideas creating difficulty and problems for future generations? How fully can we consider the outcomes of our creations and consciously build a vision that fits into the collective needs of all. Call me idealist, I think the empathetic designer can get pretty damn close.

The road to actionable inspiration

Insight into a problem is the point. It is the point from which all significantly measurable successes have come from. The vantage point from which you see the fundamental little knot in the side of the system you are looking at varies every time. Increasingly is seems prevalent the role empathy plays in this game of finding the problem. Regarding our research project on Payday loans a mentor said to me, “dont you feel like you owe it to them to create something for the predicament they are in now?” That statement really got my mind whirring. The responsibility that comes along with insight becomes more and more prevalent as you gain the skills to effect change and do something about it. The first step is insight, to speak in broad strokes.

The second step takes a more nebulous form. It is the “why?” Why care? Why “waste” your energy running all over the place for something that is so drastically uncertain of working. Where does the persistence of a “why” like those of Steve Jobs and Mahatma Gandhi come into play? The answer that wants to come out of my mouth is, through some undefinable set of experiences, they adopted a system’s betterment as more important than their own identity or even survival. They wanted to raise the bar of accepted equilibrium. They saw opportunity rather than inconvenience or a daunting task. This is the more important facet. When a person has a range of experience, high high’s to low low’s or vice versa, they know that a shift in paradigm is possible. Things can go from 1-10 in a heartbeat, so why shouldn’t they? To stay in the 8-10 range for too long becomes all you know and you begin to look down on the 1’s and 2’s. To be in the 1’s and 2’s you start to have remorse for the people at the top of the chain. Those people that have swung the spectrum know that everyone is an equivalent human being and circumstances are finite.

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Why go volunteer? What’s the point?

 

The Hidden Agenda

 

Non-profit organizations are often social innovators of one form or another. They are social hubs for ideas that are difficult to monetize but bring value to people’s lives. For this fact they are fascinating to walk into and experience what a disjointed, often revolutionary, out of the box idea feels like. An interesting combination of intention without the solidity of refined execution.

This past week I “infiltrated” a non-profit restaurant, disguised as a volunteer. This sounds mischevious but I am just experiencing some left over deleriousness from “free association”. The restaurant session left a juxtaposition in my head, one of simple minded, meditative wisdom and unsure confusion.

This non-profit is an all organic, macrobiotic restaurant whos mission seems to be something along the lines of supporting community and serving whole, fresh, nourishing foods.

The model of a non-profit restaurant is intrigueing because as soon as you place the nutrition and freshness of food before the profit it will bring you, a major shift has happened. This shift from monetary gain to social impact is a monumental step in the concepts of what a food establishment means to us today. And begins to clearly outline the value of the non-profit.

So there I was, pulling up in front of my volunteer opportunity, ready to identify breakdowns and areas of improvement for the business. I find parking,

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pay for it. $4.50 for my time to volunteer. Okay… am I being a complainer trying to identify areas for improvement already? I continue with my colleague, not bringing it up but beginning a thought process regarding the relevance of problems in context.

We get inside and I voice that we would like to volunteer. The lady hands us aprons and motions us into the kitchen. It felt like we were transformed into a different identity utilized for cooking delicious, healthy food as I put on my newly found apron and bandana that I was told to bring for my hair.

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When we had finished readying ourselves, it was unclear what we were supposed to do. The mind jumped into business “breakdowns” again. “No process for onboarding volunteers.. Raarahhrahaah etc.” I then ask the lady who looks like she must be in charge what we can help with. She asks in less than fluent english if I know where the “walk in” is. I have been here once before, so after the 3rd time she voices it to me I understand, say “yes”, and proceed to get “6 cauliflower heads, 3 bunchs of celery and a bowl of carrots.” We are sent into the “walk in” alone and are trusted to do so which felt cool to immediately be part of the team.

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After returning, and not knowing what to do for a few minutes after setting the veggies on the table, I then get passed to a woman with less fluancy than the first and do not understand what she is asking me to do. “Another business breakdown?” my mind accuses.

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Through inference I understand what she is talking about and move into position to wash some carrots.

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Im standing there scrubbing 2 dozen carrots and thoughts start to cross my mind of how much food preparation is necessary on a global scale, daily. Especially here in the United States, with our love of all things fast and delicious, the processed foods take precedent. But, in most cases, somewhere back down the food production “assembly line” there were people that prepared some piece of our food for us. As i scrubbed 24 carrots, more than I ever have before, I realized the scale that these activities are executed. “Do I really know what i talking about?” said the inner dialogue.

I then start chopping. And thinking. Chopping, thinking.

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What I came to was, with all of the seemingly minor and minescule breakdowns in systems and organization that I was seeing, I really didnt have context for what the overarching mission was. What was their primary service? Because, after being a volunteer I dont think providing that experience is the crux of their existance. I do think that it would be valuable for all people to experience cooking in that way, in touch with the food and rigor etc. However, I think Casa De Luz’s mission is much more community oriented, the service being a space to eat, talk and thrive. Volunteers having to pay for parking or being uncomfortable about language barrier is not their primary concern.

I must say the ladies cooked all of those veggies I chopped into some delicious flavors and I am grateful that they choose to feed people in that way every day.

 

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I plan on putting context as a higher priority than insights into possible innovations from here on out.

Studio class has been expansive for me so far. I came in thinking “I suck at drawing” and through the guidance and rigorous practice I am learning skills and a belief in myself that probably doesnt come until you get curious about the way your arm moves and draw 400 circles and straight lines etc.

Critique is gaining relevance and value in my mind everyday. To see something critically through your own lense, to be able to have that ability, is one thing. To allow, or force, yourself the humility to put your creations up on display and have them be torn down by constructive betterment possibilites offers you the chance to see how what you do impacts other people. Those learnings can reach much wider and farther than the piece of work you are showing at that moment. It is difficult to fully do that for yourself. To bring the learning into new experiences rather that it staying as an isolated iterative betterment.

Practice, practice, practice, critique, critique, is what creates fidelity. Finding the time for that is a different story, but to do it provides you with a new form of communication that can say 1000 words with the flick of a pen. Im grateful.

The role of Design in Society – A comedy of errors

Design in Society Comic

Our first theory assignment: how to place the role of design into the scope of society and the globe and create a comic to explain it.

 

The focus was on 6 articles by prominent designers and theorists regarding ways that they have used, implemented and thought about design. The majority of the articles were very academic, which was a shift from the types of reading I have been engaged in in recent years. That was an enjoyable change that also took a moment to get in the flow of. We were asked to read all 6 articles over the past week and a half, and create a story line by synthesizing the information.

 

My personal focus for telling the design story came from a desire to see if I could not only synthesize the information, but also make it cohesive. Where are the connecting points? How would they collaborate if they had to?

 

There was cohesion in the topics of inspiration and diversity, which are two pieces of my life that keep me driven day by day.

 

Reading these articles was interesting because there really wasn’t a right or a wrong. We would discuss them in class but it really comes down to each individual’s perspectives, the ways in which we see the world, and the experiences that have shifted our personal paradigms. Value is placed on the most meaningful times and experiences in our lives, so to apply that to design theory gets tricky in the same sense that wicked problems are tricky because you cant definitively say “this is the way that it is.” There is no equation that gives you the right answer. I love this about design and problem solving, but it makes it difficult when synthesizing a variety of ideas and ideals.

 

Thinking about this project was very intriguing and fun for me…until I actually started trying to do it and realized there are infinite ways to portray the information, but I have to pick only ONE. The main reason I am taking on this endeavor at AC4D is to learn how to bring all of my ideas together and put them into action. I need methods and personal infrastructure on how to do that and this was an immense first learning in iteration, and just having to choose one of a million options and move forward. I love creativity, and got stuck too long in the space of trying to make it creative rather than thinking about all of the work it would take to bring the idea to actuality in physical, digital, and presentable forms. I spent a long time coming up with the “perfect” concept, even longer coming up with the dialogue and then thought, “ok, those are the hardest parts… now i’ll just sketch it, toss it into illustrator and google slides and be done.” I will be watching whatever comes after “I’ll just” in future. Things always take longer than the mind can picture it. So the sketching was not as easy, the “tossing” it into illustrator was somewhat easy, and then exporting the file into google slides was nerve-wrackingly difficult, especially 15 minutes before class started. A main thing that I learned from said process was that creating something “perfect” in one format doesn’t mean it will be perfectly presentable. The full application of a creation needs to be considered all the way through ideation and iteration. Which leads me to my presentation. I, the presenter, was battling with my comic, the presented, because I had created a stand-alone item and not considered the “is it presentable?” factor, nor had I allowed time to iterate on it. I have not had that much adrenaline and cortisol in my system in years. It was honestly traumatizing. All the way through it I was wishing that I could do it again, which is utterly ridiculous considering I was just in front of my class trying to speak. It was a flop in my book. I was not ready, therefore not confident. I felt like I wanted to run out of the class and scream.

 

I will not be doing that again. For upcoming assignments I plan to do a full round of ideation and creation as soon as possible, leaving the ample time for iteration. I learned a lot from this assignment, cortisol and all. I enjoyed the reading and love considering ways that design plays in our daily lives and the how and why of its origination. The DO is where my focus needs to be oriented.

 

Thank you for your time.
Elijah Parker