Passing the torch

It’s with pride that I announce the new Director of Austin Center for Design, Ruby Ku. Ruby is an alumni of Austin Center for Design’s first graduating class. She has held roles of Interaction Designer at Thinktiv, Co-Founder of HourSchool, and VP of Product at Aunt Bertha. She has been a teacher and mentor here at AC4D, and now, she’ll take over setting the vision for the school as well as running the day to day operations. As Ruby takes over, I’ll be stepping down as Director, but will continue to act as an advisor, and to teach at Austin Center for Design.

When I reflect on my teaching and my experiences at AC4D over the last few years, here are some of the highlights that I am proud of.

Together with several of my friends and colleagues, we started Austin Center for Design in 2010. We managed to secure a building for the low cost of $0 (thanks Thinktiv), attract 10 amazing students who made a huge leap of faith to engage in a new program, and recruit exceptional faculty to help teach these students. We worked through the painful legal logistics of running a school, and while we were overwhelmed with the experience, we were blown away by the outcome. The inaugural class was scrappy and lean, and we’ve retained that sense of speed in our curriculum development and program changes. We’ve also retained a focus on social entrepreneurship that’s been with us from the start. We found a large and passionate community of people interested in learning and helping out. We experienced the pains of a startup, and as a result, we were able to empathize with our students who simultaneously pursued their own entrepreneurial journey.

Over time, we outgrew our space and secured a new facility. In this space, our program evolved to focus more explicitly on the relationship between social entrepreneurship and interaction design. Students learned competencies in designing for behavior change, and learned theory and method that would help them take on the complexity of social problems. They explored service design, design theory, entrepreneurial practice, ethics of design, and the craft of making. These early students helped us iterate through our course content, and set a precedent for our reinvention of our curriculum each year. And these early students are now in positions of management and influence at consultancies and corporations, making broad change.

In 2013, as we arrived at a permamant home, we grew into a much more refined and professionally active organization. Over the course of the next four years, we:

Finally, I’m extraordinarily proud of all our 52 alumni have accomplished. They have started companies, like HourSchool, Girls Guild, and Love Intently; they have joined socially minded companies, like Aunt Bertha and The Australian Centre for Social Innovation; they’ve contributed to civic engagement by joining the City of Austin’s innovation initiatives; and they’ve developed a strong presence at leading corporations like GoogleX, HP and IBM, and at leading consultancies like Chaotic Moon and frog design. 93% of our alumni are professionally employed in design related careers, where their mean salary is $99,195. 86% of our alumni are happy in their roles, and they report being challenged, fulfilled, and empowered. In a word, our alumni are autonomous: they are each setting a career and personal path, and achieving what they desire. Most importantly, our alumni remain connected to one-another as a community – the AC4D student alumni community is one of the most caring and supportive that I’ve ever seen.

As I reflect on my experience, I feel very lucky to be surrounded by supporters, and very proud of all we’ve achieved. Thank you to this community of friends, alumni, and my parents in helping shape my vision for Austin Center for Design, and supporting the school. Ruby will begin the next chapter of AC4D with a great network of support, and she needs no wish of good luck – I know she’ll do great.


Announcing our 2016 Design For Impact Workshop

Austin Center for Design is pleased to announce and host our 7th annual Design For Impact Workshop on March 5th, 2016.

This one-day workshop will teach you how to design for impact—how to use the design process to focus on big social problems, like homelessness and poverty or our broken education system. This design process includes ethnographic immersive research, synthesis, and rapid ideation. These are all skills used by practicing designers in their day to day jobs; in this workshop, we’ll use those same skills in the context of Wicked Problems.

This all-day workshop is held on Saturday, March 5th, 2016, from 9am – 4pm, at AC4D. Learn more about the event here, or sign up here – there are a limited number of seats, and we sell out quickly each year.

Approaches and Methods for Social Interventions

In class last evening, we explored work by Bill Gaver, Professor of Design at Goldsmiths, and Liz Sanders, Associate Professor at Ohio State University.

Bill Gaver’s work on cultural probes offers a formalized method for injecting creative prompts into peoples’ lives in order to gather qualitative research data about their dreams and passions. These probes are created as incomplete artifacts; the user completes them, and returns them to the design researcher for analysis. This fosters a sort of displaced-dialogue between designer and “non-designers”. This is juxtaposed with contextual inquiry, a methodology that attempts to capture realistic behavior but without an explicit focus on aspirations; CI is typically aimed at understanding what people do and why they do it.

We examined the work – written in 1999, and then revisited in 2004 – in a context of emergent information technology and human-computer interaction. In the early 2000s, typical innovation processes focused on the low-hanging fruit of motivated design requirements: “I conducted research with users, saw a problem, and fixed it.” In this context, there is a one-to-one relationship between the problem and solution, and the designer’s research objective is to find those problems.

But various trends have pushed design higher in the value-chain, and the body of literature related to design-led innovation is now richer and more thoughtful. Consequently, a design-research approach focused on non-motivated design requirements is now increasingly leveraged by innovation consultancies. In this model, designers seek empathetic provocation, and the ability to leverage the provocation rests on the shoulders of the designer during design synthesis: they need to make sense of the data they’ve gathered and frame it in a way that identifies a set of human insights. The problem-solution match is fuzzy, interpretative, and subjective.

Gaver’s model of probes forces this interpretation by celebrating the subjectivity of user creations, and urging designers to avoid arriving at “comfortable conclusions”; designers need to celebrate each individual extremity rather than allow a blanded regression to the mean.

Liz Sanders, writing with George Simons, describes how co-design can be leveraged by introducing “collective creativity as it is applied across the whole span of a design process.” In this model, a designer brings the people that are impacted by a design into the process not as stakeholders (people who may show up for one or two meetings), but as core team members.

As Sanders describes, “The earlier in the design development process that co-creation occurs, the greater and broader the likely impact.” This means that bringing users into the research and synthesis process will result in the meaningful creation of value, and she describes that value in terms of monetary, experiential, and social reward.

Our class conversation explored how a more democratic design process may be threatening to some designers (“I honed my craft for years, and now everyone’s a designer?”) However, the reality of tacit process knowledge means that the designer will always have an authoritative role in the process. But this authority is somewhat balanced by the tacit knowledge of the end-user, who is an expert in whatever subject matter the design team is engaged with. In many ways, this relationship results in a transdisciplinary approach, bringing an expert in subject matter with an expert in design. But it demands the designer’s role shifts from one of visionary to one of facilitator, and that implies a new set of skills for design – skills like conversation, listening, teaching, and leadership.

The fundamentals of contextual inquiry provide a means for pursuing empathy, by placing designers in context where they can form a master-apprentice relationship with the people they are serving. The process of cultural probes introduces provocation, forcing a designer to tell stories of what they saw and why they saw it. The philosophy of co-design brings end-users continually into the creation process in order to leverage tacit domain knowledge, to further reinforce an empathetic approach, and to offer additional domain provocation.

Building a Design Perspective on Community Engagement

Our discussion in class last evening centered around the opportunity and challenges of embedded, contextual research. We started with an article from Emily Pilloton, in which she describes some of her work at Project H, formerly located in Bertie County, North Carolina. As Emily describes, lasting involvement through design research requires three qualities:

  • Proximity – simply being there, in the place you seek to design with and for
  • Empathetic investment – a personal and emotional stake in collective prosperity
  • Pervasiveness – the opposite of scattershot, involvement that has impact at multiple scales

In Emily’s model, co-creation requires embedded work that’s aware of emotional (and often unspoken) community boundaries and that integrates those who use, enjoy, or experience a given design into the context of building that design. “To take it one step further, you can’t design effective solutions for people unless you make your clients or end users part of the design process—cocreating systems that will work for and be owned by them. To do either of these things, you simply have to be there, present in a place, and part of the community.” Our discussion focused on the nature of community, and on the relationship – and distinction – between doing design work and doing volunteer work.

Our second author, Victor Margolin, wrote – in 1996 – of two competing forces, or frames, through which design is considered (pdf link). In the first model, called the Expansion Model, “the world consists of markets rather than nations, societies, or cultures. Products function in these markets as tokens of economic exchange. They attract capital which is either recycled back into more production or becomes part of the accumulation of private or corporate wealth.” This positions design as a fundamental and strategic economic lever: a force in business that contributes directly to long-term financial viability and profit.

In the second model, “The premise of this model is that the world is a system of ecological checks and balances which consists of finite resources. If the elements of this system are damaged or thrown out of balance or if essential resources are depleted, the system will suffer severe damage and possibly collapse.” Margolin calls this the equilibrium model, although it could just as easily be viewed as the ecology model. Design’s role here is separate than and extracted from the context of business.

The idea that design can be extracted from business is surprising only if you haven’t considered design as a discipline on its own, a discipline that can be applied “over” or “through” other aspects of culture. In fact, design can be just as easily (and artificially) embedded in government, family, or anywhere else that we find technological advancement encroaching on human life.

Our final readings investigated Jane Fulton Suri’s views of design synthesis (pdf link), a process of making meaning out of data. For Fulton Suri, design research (and the empathy that is such an integral part of it) is only a means to an end. “We would like to emphasize that the deeper, more meaningful, and more enduring value comes not from the observations themselves. This value comes from the quality of interpretation and synthesis applied to the observations, the freshness of insights surfaced, and the effectiveness in influencing how companies respond.” Research prompts interpretative analysis, and this form of synthesizing data is often driven by reframing a problem in a new context.

All three readings question and challenge the quality of designing with, and for, people in social contexts. It is impossible to explore wicked problems without touching on the ethic of design. I encourage my students to build a level of skepticism around design in social contexts, one that understands and trusts the design process but realizes the artificial and often temporary relationship forged through design research. If you aren’t intending to embed yourself in a community of use for the long haul (and often, even if you are), it’s simply irresponsible to drop a design into context without truly marinating on the potential consequences. For students, this considering is the act of forming a critical design perspective.

Communicating Ourselves Through Brand

In class last night, I led a discussion of readings by academics Maurizio Vitta and Richard Buchanan.

Vitta – in an article titled “The Meaning of Design”, written in 1985 – laments a process of pop-culture identification, by which people gain a sense of self only through consumption. For him, products offer only semiotics, not functionality, and goods become embedded with deep cultural significance. The process of consumption becomes the only tool to leverage for communication, where a consumer signals to the world around them that they are the “type of girl who drives a BMW” or “type of guy who shaves with a straight razor.”

If products are to be only superficial vessels for communication, the role of design becomes equally as trivial: “Thus, at the very moment when the sphere of the designer’s intervention is taking shape, and is delineated in all of its complexity, his or her role runs the danger of fading into an ambiguous mist in which it may even be reduced to a mere signature placed on the products.”

I’m not sure Vitta could hone in on the “Target Problem” any more directly: in this world, there is no toaster, no toast, and no Philippe Starck. There is only the Philippe Starck brand, which you can choose to align yourself with or avoid, in order to make a statement about yourself to everyone else.

We juxtaposed Vitta’s writing with Dick Buchanan’s essay, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking (one of my favorite; I remember reading it when I was a freshman studying with Dick, and feeling the powerful new perspectives the essay unlocked).

Central to this reading is Buchanan’s framing of design as a “liberal art of technological culture.” A liberal art broadly describes a set of knowledge, skills, and literacy necessary to participate in culture. If design is a liberal art, one that allows us to better manage the complexities of technology amongst the natural, a literacy of design is necessary for all of those who participate in culture – indeed, for all people. Technology here does not refer to digitization, but instead to the art of experimental thinking: to the process by which designers introduce novelty (or “strangeness”, or “newness”) into our lives. This framing of design positions us to better negotiate innovation, invention, and consumption; it gives us a frame, a vocabulary, and a manner in which to make sense of “advancement”.

Simply, this design literacy gives consumers a way out of the trap described by Vitta. In the same way that a study of the humanities empowers a richer, more multi-faceted examination of culture, a study of design provides an intellectual depth in which to reflect on the designed world. It gives consumers a new context in which to examine products they buy, a perspective that is neither focused on utiltity (function) nor on Vitta’s signification (communication to others). A broad study of design allows consumers to embrace other qualities of owned artifacts: experience, emotion, nostalgia, and meaning.


Consumption and Manipulation

Last night, our class discussed readings that focus on consumption and manipulation. We synthesized work from Allan Chochinov, Victor Papanek, and Edward Bernays.

Allan Chochinov’s 1000 Words is a manifesto for sustainability in design. We discussed his premise that sustainability can’t be a “nice to have” – it needs to be as integral to production as form, or brand, or engineering. For a designer to pursue this agenda, they need to have some level of authority, they need to be prepared for a long-haul fight, and they need to understand the financial implications of seemingly well-intentioned suggestions for product changes. Chochinov’s second core point – that we should be designing and considering systems before artifacts – carries the same implication. Designers need to move up the strategic value-chain, so that they can drive product or service ecologies rather than focusing on producing single point solutions. A junior designer or a contracted vendor will be unlikely to propose a sustainable solution that requires a change in supply chain, distribution chain, or forces additional long-term investments in a service infrastructure. A senior team member – one that realizes how to champion for their ideas internally – will be more likely to couch their suggestions in business success, and will be more likely to find their ideas implemented.

Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World (pdf) is a similar form of manifesto, but one that offers a much more blunt critique of design education. As Papanek describes, “Design graduates leave our schools with some know-how, a great many skills, and a certain amount of aesthetic sensitivities, but with almost no method for obtaining any basic insights.” This lack of process means that they then suffer from both selection problems (they choose the wrong problems to work on), and execution problems (they focus on adjusting styling, material, or ergonomics, rather than pursuing insights and wholesale behavior change). When these designers encounter a problem that requires the creation of new knowledge, these designers are unable to produce meaningful and rich innovations; in Papanek’s language, they lack the ability to develop new content. For him, the change necessary in design education is simple: “to instil in the designer a willingness for experimentation, coupled with a sense of responsibility for his failures.”

Edward Bernays has been called the “father of public relations.” He observed the ability for a strong and focused leader to manipulate public opinion, and realized that he could harness that opinion to drive an agenda. In Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How (paywall), he outlines a boilerplate for manipulating large groups of people. His process is fairly simple:

“As a matter of technique they decided to dramatize the year’s campaign in an annual convention which would center attention at one time and at one place upon the ideas they stood for…

The next step was to decide how to make it most effective…

The third step was to surround the conference with people who were stereotypes for ideas that carried weight all over the country…

The event naturally gave the Association itself substantial weapons with which to appeal to an increasingly wider circle. Further expansion of these thoughts was attained by mailing reports, letters, and other documents to selected groups of the public.”

This is a process we see carried out over and over again, most obviously at the annual Apple WWDC. The yearly convention becomes a spectacle, and the spectacle is strategically positioned to be most effective (“One more thing…”) People who attend are influential media figures, and the circles of media increasingly widen (and flatten to a shallow consumptive desire) to the lay consumer. For Bernays, this process is not only ethical, it’s critical: “This is an age of mass production. In the mass production of materials a broad technique has been developed and applied to their distribution. In this age, too, there must be a technique for the mass distribution of ideas.”

In an attempt to synthesize these readings, we discussed the relationship between ideas, and one of the most interesting threads to me was the idea of applying Chochinov’s call for systemic thinking – and consequences – to Bernays’ view of the mass distribution of ideas. Current marketing has perfected the process Bernays describes above, but often treats it in isolation from a larger ecological story. A spectacle event needs to treat the spread of ideas in the context of brand narrative, and simultaneously realize the consequences of driving mass consumption. Simply, marketing now finds themselves squarely in the consequences business; their trash mountains are not physical, but societal. Our norms and culture are the output of these efforts.

Design Research: Focus, Context, and Partnership

We’re starting to learn about design research in class, and I spent yesterday’s class teaching about the three core pillars of contextual and behavioral research: focus, context, and partnership.

Focus describes the goal trajectory of your research – the container you put on your frame of reference in order to drive participant selection and identify where to conduct your research. It reveals data, but it also conceals, because you’ll be tempted to only pick up signals related to your focus. A good focus helps steer context selection.

Context describes the interrelated conditions in which work and play are done – the environment, social setting, and culture. Arguably, it’s one of the most important parts of design research, because getting into context allows you to witness real behavior rather than gather summary data. If you spend time at a homeless shelter, you are in context; if you bring homeless people to your design studio, you’ve sterilized the research. This means you won’t encounter the societal fabric in which your participants’ wants and needs occur. You won’t meet their friends or their supporters, and you won’t see how the policies of the shelter work for or against them. You won’t see the community, or the noise, or the serendipitous encounters. Getting into context is harder than bringing someone to you, and it gets particularly difficult (both logistically and ethically) in settings with at-risk populations or dangerous environments. Perhaps that difficulty signals something of the importance of the task.

Finally, partnership describes the relationship you try to forge with your participants, and the goal is a specific form of partnership: a master/apprentice relationship, where you are the apprentice. You are there to learn, and the person you are conducting research with is the teacher. In a typical art studio, an apprentice would work for many months to understand the craft of the master. They would ask questions, but mostly, they would observe. And they would try things, slowly building up both confidence and skill. The same are true in design research. This is a long process, driven by small amounts of behavioral questions, and complete with hands-on experience.

There’s nothing easy about design research. It’s socially awkward for most people, logistically difficult, time consuming, and – in many humanitarian contexts – emotionally draining. But it’s fundamental to pursuing understanding and empathy.

Theory in Art, Science, and Design

During our first class of 2014 last night, I introduced the students to our first interaction design theory class with a discussion around the disciplines of science, art, and design. It’s tempting to focus on design as a blend of science and art, positioning it as part analytical and part creative. But, like science and art, design has its own set of characteristics that allows it to act as a unique discipline.

Art is often driven by the desire to create, raise awareness, or cause people to question things around them. Artists frequently emphasizes the subjective and emotive qualities of aesthetics, and as a result, the output is highly personal and embedded with meaning and message.

Science is driven by the desire to understand, to identify, to know, or to solve theoretical problems. Scientists embrace objectivity and truth, and pursue an agenda of understanding through inductive and deductive logic. This requires a rigorous sense of control and the ability to suspend subjective emotional judgment.

Designers are often driven by the desire to help people, to make life better, or to solve practical problems. This requires the ability to frequently consider and seamlessly switch between the logical and the emotive, and to trust informed intuition related to empathy and understanding. It’s about problem solving, but because designers make things, design is also about aesthetic judgment and sensibility.

The three disciplines can be neatly described as distinct, but of course, the reality is much fuzzier. There is no line where one “stops being scientific” and starts “being designerly”, and it’s probably a losing exercise to try to develop a rigid disciplinary framework. Instead, it’s important to me that students realize design has the ability to stand on its own, and need not be defined relative to something else.

Like art and science, design is rooted in history, and is deeply influenced by “what came before.” It is intertwined with culture, and has a set of methods and techniques that take years to master – just like art and science. Design method and outcome are subject to criticism, just like in other disciplines. And most importantly, just like one can teach and learn science or art theory, so too can one teach and learn design theory. Part of this education is focused on making and responding to things – treating design as a noun. And part of it is focused on process and method, treating design as a verb. Learning theory informs both views of design, and helps qualify the role, responsibility, and character of the designer. By establishing a platform of design theory upon which to build a design practice, students of design can become reflective practitioners, rather than just producers.

Innovation and Statistical Significance

During our fourth day of orientation, students at AC4D started learning about the process of extracting insights from data. Inevitably, the topic of statistical significance was discussed. Surely we can’t trust these insights? We only talked to five or six people; these people weren’t randomly selected, and they might represent an anomalous point of view.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had this conversation, I would have enough money to change the course of K-12 education to be less focused on analytical thinking. Our efforts to quantify, track, and measure everything have left us in a place where creative insight and provocative thought is almost automatically tempered by a desire for proof. Roger Martin describes that “the enemy of innovation is the phrase ‘prove it’“, and he’s right. During the process of insight extraction and envisioning the future, ideas are fragile, and if you work in a culture driven by data, it’s likely that your idea won’t ever get a chance to grow past their seedling stage.

Simply, statistical significance is irrelevant during research and early stages of innovation brainstorming, because the goal during insight extraction is provocation, not prediction. Designers who are synthesizing research data aren’t trying to make mass generalizations based on what they learned from a few. Instead, they are trying to provoke new realities and look at the world in new ways. It’s a playful process, not a scientific process. And it happens best when it’s separated entirely from a conversation of market forces.

Will this idea scale? Who knows? There’s plenty of time to push ideas through the analytical bean-counting reality of bringing a product to market. During research and synthesis, focus on a local view of product-market fit, one that punts on topics of scale and instead emphasizes emotional value. Give your little happy seedlings of innovation time to grow before you spray Excel scale models all over them. *

* I recognize that the metaphor is terrible. Still, I had a funny mental image of a spreadsheet being sprayed all over my garden, so I went with it.