PNC Virtual Wallet: Concept Map Redesign

Like many banking apps, PNC Bank’s Virtual Wallet has a plethora of functions and abilities. While not the worst banking app I’ve seen, the app still struggles with finding a balance between information overload and oversimplification. This week we were tasked with mapping out the current navigation and information architecture and then redesigning it based on our own needs.

The current state of the Virtual Wallet has several features that are working well. First, it gives a sense of security. I have set up Touch ID, so I was able to use my fingerprint. It also occasionally prompted me for my pattern passcode as well. The app would not allow me to take any screenshots, which while inconvenient for this project, did make me feel more secure. Additionally, the app does offer fairly easy access to the mobile check deposit feature, which is very important to me.

Current concept map of PNC Bank's Virtual Wallet App
Current concept map of PNC Bank’s Virtual Wallet App


As you can see in the above map of the current state of the Virtual Wallet, the home screen after I login is my account information for all of my accounts, including my bank credit card, my savings, and my checking, which is broken into two parts: spend and reserve. On the home page, this is set up as a long list. It includes every account I have with PNC, their balances, and their transaction history. This is not the information that I usually use the app for, so seems unnecessary to have as my default view. 

In my redesign, I changed the home view, as seen below, to include less information and better guidance. It now features several large categories, including Deposit, Pay Someone, View Balance, and a link to the menu. This facilitates the fast actions that I need, but still gives me the option to view all the details of my accounts, if I want.

Proposed changes to PNC Bank's Virtual Wallet App
Proposed changes to PNC Bank’s Virtual Wallet App

Typically, when I use the app, I am either depositing a check or paying a friend. For me, those functions are now listed prominently and have very few steps to achieve them. Mobile check deposit is especially important for me because, since moving to Texas, I am an out-of-state customer for PNC and I do not have physical places to deposit my checks. When I get checks, I want them to be in a secure place as soon as possible, so I don’t forget about them or, more likely, lose them. The redesign allows for quick mobile check deposits and peace of mind for me.

The second thing that I use the app for is paying other people. While I tend to use Venmo for paying friends, I still use my banking app for recurring payments (like paying my friend for our joint gym membership) and for paying people that don’t have Venmo and want money straight from my bank (like my past landlord). I made this feature prominent as well to allow for fast banking action.

In the redesign, I also realized that these main functions may not be most important for everyone, so I included a Set Home feature, which allows the user to select which three main functions they want to see on their own homepage. For instance, if someone would rather have the fast action to pay their credit card bills, transfer money between their accounts, and use the Punch the Pig feature for quick savings, they could change these in the Set Home feature and those would be the three categories (along with the link to menu) on the homepage. I’m sure as this project continues many other uses or desired uses from other people will come into focus, but for now, I figured making the homepage modular would allow people to personalize it for their needs.

Lastly, there were several redundant and unnecessary features. In the original design, there was a category in the menu called Account Activity, which effectively just took you back to the homepage. This was redundant and potentially confusing, so I did away with it. I also renamed a few things to make their function more explicit and clear for the user. I also broke up a couple categories to allow for quicker comprehension. For instance, Rewards and Offers were originally categorized together, but realizing that the Rewards were things that I could claim immediately and Offers were things I needed to sign up for (like new credit cards and auto loans), I decided to separate them.

In the breakdown of the app and the redesign, I was able to get a better understanding of the core functions of the app and discovered features that I never knew existed. From there, I was able to restructure the navigation and information architecture to better suit my needs as a user. Coming soon, I plan to get more feedback from others with the hopes of serving more needs beyond my own.



Cooking Creatively: An Ill-Structured Problem

For our last theory assignment of the first quarter, we read seven articles by different designers. Herbert Simon, along with Rittel and Webber all discussed ways to define and address ill-structured or “wicked” problems. These are complex problems that are difficult to solve or even address because of they’re ever-changing, interwoven with other issues, and often incomplete in their definition. Design is a problem solving process that can often work to engage with some of these issues. Simon argues that we face ill-structured problems in our every day life.

I think cooking from scratch could be considered an ill-structured problem. Of course, heating up a microwave meal is not, but as imagined below there are times when creating a meal that could be considered ill-structured problems.

Throughout the below comic are several author’s views about ways to address these problems. Buchanan and Pacione both see that design can be used beyond the designer. Although Buchanan makes an argument for design being a liberal art and Pacione makes an argument for design literacy, both argue that design can be practiced by everyone. We just need stronger defined methodology to enact it at a larger level. Wyatt and Brown’s view of ideation, inspiration, and implementation as spaces instead of a linear path helps establish the idea that one can go back and forth between them multiple times to come to a solution. Cross, de Bono, and Simon all stress the importance of being able to use your intuition as a guiding tool.

I, as the chef, choose to externalize ideas to gain more information about the problem, think more intentionally about the various tracks of addressing a problem, and learn to trust my intuition as I build it up over time.

An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen-01

An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 2 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 3 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 4 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 5 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 6 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 7 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 8 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 9 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 10 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 11 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 12 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 13 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 14 An Ill-Structured Problem in the Kitchen_Artboard 15


Homelessness in Parks and the Role of the Designer

After spending the last few years working to clean up local parks with volunteers, I can easily say that homelessness in parks is a heated issue in Austin. The below comic is partially based on true events that I experienced mixed with ideas from design experts.

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The general public often sees the homeless as the sole reason that the parks are trashed, dirty, or unsafe. After hearing a lot of complaints, the park department decides to close the bathrooms and showers in the park. Hobbes would say that the park department’s solution of closing the bathrooms and showers is one that will have unintended consequences. It is clear that the park department is not thinking about the system as a whole. Instead of addressing the root of the problem, their solution of closing the bathrooms, furthers the issues of trash because it leaves the homeless community with even fewer options to fulfill their basic needs.

Margolin argues that designers should be working to solve wicked, complex social issues. I agree that designers should use their process to help with wicked problems instead of mass producing useless products. Designers should work towards complex problems that benefit society, especially marginalized communities.

Unlike Pilloton, I don’t believe that designers need to commit their life to immersing themselves into a community, however, in depth, qualitative research is a must. Not being fully immersed into a community allows researchers to bring a new perspective to the issues. That new perspective combined with conducting rigorous and deep research will lead to empathy for the group, which will lead to strong insights and solutions.

As Spears suggests, the homeless face lowered cognitive decision making and willpower due to the fact that they have to make many important decisions throughout the day just to fulfill their basic needs. I think that addressing some of these large decisions first will assist in helping them to make decisions about smaller things in their life, such as disposing trash properly.

After talking with the homeless, I found out that they typically love the park and want to help keep it clean. I discovered that they like helping out when cleanups come through because he feels like he is contributing to his community. Whenever I encountered the homeless community in parks where we were conducting cleanups, I mentioned that they were welcome to join us. While not everyone that we came into contact did that, they often would take trash bags and cleanup their own area.

While that situation happened to me before I started learning about these new design ideas, I think that there are certainly ways to work with this population and address pollution in parks. The can for showers was an one idea that may help keep parks clean and allow for the homeless to address one of their basic needs.

As with any idea, I think that if this idea were taken to fruition, there would have to be check ins on the project periodically to understand how it affects the system at large, to see if it continues to deliver on it’s purpose, and to see if there were any unintended consequences of the introduction of this product into the system. All of these need to be looked at before scaling up and care needs to be taken before introducing these ideas in other populations or locations. Not every solution is a solution for everything.




Recycled Reads: Stories from the Field


We are team of student researchers at the Austin Center for Design tasked with doing design research for a local Austin organization over the next several months. Our team is working with Recycled Reads, which is a used bookstore and part of the Austin Public Library system. Over the last several weeks, we have been shadowing our participants, watching their behavior, and learning from them. From this research, we have collected many interesting stories from our participants. Here’s a sample of the stories we experienced in the field.


Where Stuff Goes to Die

Mitch has been with the Austin Public Library for almost 30 years. He actually retired at the  beginning of this year, but was brought back on by his boss because they had not yet found his replacement and they needed his assistance during the renovation of some of the library branches.

Mitch is the Inventory Specialist at the Austin Public Library’s Warehouse. The warehouse is a nondescript building on the eastside of Austin. There is little signage outside and it’s quite difficult to discern how to enter the building. Mitch found us outside, knowing that we would not know how to get into the building.

Mitch stands in front of rows and rows of stuff in the Austin Public Library Warehouse.
Mitch stands in front of rows and rows of stuff in the Austin Public Library Warehouse.

Since we knew this was the warehouse for the public library, we assumed that we would be walking into a warehouse full of books. We were wrong. We entered into huge, open room, full of stuff. As soon as we walked in, Mitch said, “This is where stuff goes to die.”

The Austin Public Library Warehouse is overflowing with old materials from the library branches.
The Austin Public Library Warehouse is overflowing with old materials from the library branches.

We follow Mitch around rows and rows and rows piled high and overflowing with stuff. There are tables, chairs, old shelving units, desks, pieces of lumber, old banners, and even expired fire extinguishers. Mitch is overwhelmed with the amount of things that the warehouse has to store. He tells us that the warehouse gets all of the furniture and random things that the library branches do not want anymore. All of it goes to the warehouse while they try to figure out what to do with it.

Some of the things go back out to the library branches, but a majority is being held indefinitely at the warehouse. Mitch is frustrated because the city makes it difficult for him to get rid of anything. Since the materials are obtained with taxpayer money, there are specific ordinances that dictate where the material can go and how the city can dispose of them. Mitch is disheartened and finds it challenging to get rid of anything because of the constraints the city puts on the materials.

Not only that, but Mitch is dealing with the whole library department. He says,

“We’re such a big department and we have so many locations. Another department might be just one building, but we have well over 20 buildings that we have to deal with. It’s a constant, constant struggle.”

Drowning in Books

Regina is a branch manager in one of Austin’s twenty branch libraries. While she may be a librarian, in her words, “She’s not the reading-ist lady in town.” She describes herself as a “programs person,” and it was evident from following Regina through the library, there are many different programs she operates.

The main floor of the library was clean, tidy, and humming with patrons when we visited. But as we followed Regina to the management area of the library, shelves were filled with a random assortment of items: art supplies, snacks for community events, and carts filled with books. We sat down with Regina in the library’s mechanical room, which had been converted to a small meeting space. Dealing with the flow of large quantities of books, materials, and supplies is a significant part of Regina’s job.

Regina carries books that were pulled from the shelves due to damage, old age, or underuse.
Regina carries books that were pulled from the shelves due to damage, old age, or underuse.


Regina explained, “We’re drowning in books.” She was referring to her branch, but also the Austin Public Library system in general. Like all branch libraries, Regina’s branch has a limited amount of shelf space, and in order to serve patrons with the best quality materials, library staff perform “weeding.” Weeding is the action of pulling materials out of circulation. A book may be weeded because it’s in poor physical condition, or it hasn’t been checked out in recent years. Regina showed us carts full of weeded materials: books, audio books, and DVDs.

Regina shows us carts of books, DVDs, CDs, and other materials that the library has pulled from the shelves or that people have donated.
Regina shows us carts of books, DVDs, CDs, and other materials that the library has pulled from the shelves or that people have donated.

After materials are weeded, Regina and her staff mark materials to be delivered to Recycled Reads. Regina communicated a sense of relief and gratefulness when describing Recycled Reads’ purpose within the Austin Public Library System. She mentioned, “It wouldn’t take us very long, about a week, until we were tripping on stuff…with very limited resources [Recycled Reads] makes it all go away.”


Making it all go Away

That brings us to Recycled Reads. From the front, Recycled Reads looks like an unassuming storefront in a small strip center on Burnet Road in north central Austin. We walked in the front door on our first day of research, and stepped into the atmosphere of a calm, welcoming used bookstore. In the large, open center of the store, patrons were reading and working on laptops, while others browsed shelves filled with books.

People browse, read, and work at Recycled Reads.
People browse, read, and work at Recycled Reads.

We were greeted by the manager, Mary – a petite 62 year-old woman with a big presence and a lot of energy. She took us through to the back room, and we were astonished by the sight of boxes upon boxes of materials. Some boxes were stacked in huge cubes on pallets, while others, on carts, were being methodically opened and sorted by staff and volunteers to go to the retail floor.


Boxes full of books in the Recycled Reads backroom.
Boxes full of books in the Recycled Reads backroom.

Mary explained that it isn’t just the public library that sends Recycled Reads its unwanted books and media, but that 50% of the donations they receive are straight from public donations. She said:

“They drive up here in Uhauls and pickup trucks, and SUVs, and Wells Cargo trailers filled with books, you know? And they have no idea, they have no idea what’s gonna happen with this stuff. They’re just so happy not to have to deal with it.”

Half of all materials that Recycled Reads takes in are public donation. Here volunteers help bring in one of those donations.
Half of all materials that Recycled Reads takes in are public donation. Here volunteers help bring in one of those donations.

We’ve learned through our research that people have an attachment to books. However, at a certain point people feel overburdened by their accumulations of stuff, and their sentimental attachment is outweighed by the need to be rid of it all. They don’t want to throw these books away, but they want them out of their consciousness, so they take them to Recycled Reads.

Recycled Reads is not only the reuse, repurpose, and recycle branch of the Austin Public Library, but they’re also a place for the public at large to donate their unwanted materials. Recycled Reads takes in 60,000 – 70,000 items a month. That’s 2,000 items a day! Most importantly, they’re taking items that would otherwise go in the landfill, and redirecting them to streams of further use.


Mitch feels overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff in the warehouse he oversees, and frustrated by an inability to get rid of any of it. Regina is always just at capacity with books at the library branch that she manages, and is so grateful to have a place to send the weeded materials and donations that pile up in her space. Individuals with too much stuff want to unburden themselves of their unwanted personal books and materials, but can’t bear to just throw them out. Recycled Reads takes on the responsibility of accepting these donations and weeded materials, diverting them from the landfill, and gives them further life. In the words of Regina, the branch librarian we visited:

“If I didn’t have Recycled Reads to launder my donations and grubby books, we would be in a world of hurt real quick.”


We presented our stories from the field to two members of Recycled Reads staff. Their reaction was positive, and expressed that our stories were an appropriate introduction to Recycled Reads. The staff also saw value as a conversation-starter to an ongoing conundrum to the city— the inability to get rid of unused materials. The staff believed our research had potential to be presented to City of Austin administrators, other city departments, and other library branches.


We are just completing week four of sixteen, concluding our data collection portion. We will transcribe every interview, post them around our workspace and immerse ourselves in the words and drawings of our participants. From there, our team will uncover themes in order to synthesize our research into insights.


The Limitless Nature of Data Collection

Over the last several weeks, we’ve been collecting data for our project with Recycled Reads. Recycled Reads is a part of the Austin Public Library system that helps reuse, resell, or recycle the old or damaged books from the libraries. We were aiming to interview fifteen people with the organization to gather the data for our project. During most of our interviews, we asked our participants to draw us the “Path of a Book” from start to end with Recycled Reads somewhere in the middle. Below is an example that a branch librarian drew for us.

This exercise required the participant to draw out the path a book takes from publication to Recycled Reads and beyond.
This exercise, called “Path of a Book” required the participant to draw out the journey a book takes from publication to Recycled Reads and beyond. The above photo shows one participant’s view of this path. 


While we started our interviews with the four employees of the organization, we quickly learned through this activity that there were many hands that books pass through in the “Path of a Book”. We decided to investigate as many pieces of this path as possible. After interviewing the staff, we expanded to the volunteers that work at Recycled Reads sorting and shelving the books and then the customers that come to buy used books.

Along the way we learned that branch librarians weed books, meaning they pull old, damaged, or overused books from the shelves, to make room for new materials. When these books get pulled, they go to Recycled Reads. To better understand this process, we knew we had to talk to some of the branch librarians.

Then, we realized that we also should talk to delivery services since they were the ones physically transferring the items between the libraries and Recycled Reads. So, we scheduled an interview with them.

But Recycled Reads’ circle of influence is even bigger than just the library system. Recycled reads also works with many other city departments. They partner with the Austin Resource Recovery, Office of Sustainability, and the Office of Economic Development. We wanted to know how they interact with these departments and offices, so we interviewed people at all of these places, too.

In addition to the offices and departments within the City of Austin, we also discovered that many of the discarded materials go to Goodwill. Fascinating, we thought.

Last week, I spent hours emailing, calling, and making new contacts with employees at Goodwill of Central Texas. I found out how they process books that come in, including those from Recycled Reads. This past Friday, I was excited to join the behind-the-scenes tour of Goodwill. We had already learned that once the books get to Goodwill some of them go out to the retail floor, but some of them, especially the damaged ones, get sold by the truckload to be pulped or recycled. I wanted so badly to know what happened to these books. Who is buying them? Are they becoming book pulp? Where do they get sent and what happens to that material after it’s pulped? I desperately wanted to finish the Path of a Book activity and understand the ending of the life of a book.

Last Wednesday, we met with Matt and Jon during our class. While we had great progress on our “Stories from the Field” presentation, we were far behind on our transcriptions. While asking their advice for how to get the most out of behind-the-scenes tour at Goodwill, they told us to skip it. I was shocked. We had spent a lot of time setting it up, finding out all these pieces that touch the Recycled Reads process and I was invested. I was invested in the story and how the “Path of Book” ends. They explained that we had a lot of data to transcribe and to synthesize. Our goal was fifteen interviews and at that point, we had completed 25 interviews. We were well over our goal and we needed to stop collecting data or we would have no time to synthesize it.

I had been sucked into the weeds, swept up in the hunt for information, and intrigued by the unknowns, but I had to stop. We are working on a very tight timeline for this project and I realized that I could collect information endlessly, if I didn’t consciously cap it.

Early on in the program, our teachers warned us that we could spend an indefinite amount of time on identifying themes and insights, but they didn’t tell us that we could just as easily make the research process endless too. Our group could go on forever, following leads and threads, but at some point we have to stop. For this project, that time is now.

The Role of Subjectivity in Design Research

The past couple weeks, we have read ten articles by eight various designers. Below I’ve mapped each of these designer’s positions on a chart depicting whether we should be designing with or for the users and what level of importance the designer’s own subjectivity has in the design process.

William Gaver, Paul Dourish, and Don Norman all fell on the side closer to designing for their participants rather than designing with their participants. Although they each have very different processes, in the end, these processes ended up with more reliance on the input of the designer than the input of the participant.

Jon Kolko, Jodi Forlizzi, Christopher Le Dantec, Liz Sanders, and Jane Fulton Suri all fall on the side of designing with over designing for their users, of course each of them to varying degrees.  In her article “A Social Vision for Value Co-creation in Design,” Liz Sanders makes a case for the insightful applications of co-creation. This argument puts her at the far end of designing with the users as she proposes co-creation should start during the pre-design phase, specifically for societal design projects.

Along with the ideas of designing for or designing with, I also broke down the designer’s position on the importance of the designer’s own subjectivity. The ideas that a researcher needs to be objective and there should not be any personal bias in their work were strong pillars of research methodology that were hammered into my thought process from an early age by the hard sciences. As a Biology major, I was well versed in how to keep my subjectivity from creeping into the results. Repetition, statistical analyses, and statistical significance were all ways of correcting for bias and making sure that you had statistical significance to back up your analysis of the results.

For me, design thinking has been shaking this (once solid) notion of researcher objectivity to its core. In his chapter “The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation,” Jon Kolko writes that “Avoiding bias is irrelevant. The goal is not to be objective but instead to be rigorous.”

Where does my voice come into play? Where should it be present and where should it not be present? Am I getting subjective data from my participants? Were all ideas swirling around in my head as I learned new information about the design research process.

It was a difficult task to map out these authors from more subjective to more objective. I started mapping out each author individually based on their respective articles, but the amorphous nature of subjectivity kept evading me. After mapping and remapping where I thought each designer should go, I started to realize that my line dichotomy, subjectivity versus objectivity, was the problem.

Subjectivity can occur in many places within the design research process. We can gather subjective data from our participants and we can use our own subjective lens to analyze the data. As I was trying my best to position each of these designers onto the chart and understand their perspectives on subjectivity, I realized that it was necessary for me to break down subjectivity into participant’s subjectivity and designer’s subjectivity. The below diagram maps out the author’s position on the importance of the designer’s own subjectivity within the design process.

William Gaver falls at the top end of this spectrum with a high level of importance given to the designer’s own subjectivity. In his article, “Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty,” Gaver presents a very subjective method to studying participants. Not only is the data he collects from participants subjective, but his methods of synthesizing that information is also very subjective and carries a lot of bias from the designer.

As I went on to map out the rest of the designer’s positions, several of them resonated with me and began to help reform my perspective about subjectivity and its role in design research.

In her article, “Going Deeper, Seeing Further: Enhancing Ethnographic Interpretations to Reveal More Meaningful Opportunities for Design,” Jane Fulton Suri, states the following:

Many times when people describe the role of the researcher, they will comment ‘The researcher is the objective one on the team.’ Instead, we prefer to think of ourselves as people who immerse ourselves in other people’s subjectivities.

This idea resonates with me. We are immersing ourselves in other people’s subjectivity. The more we immerse ourselves in other’s subjectivities, the less our own subjectivity as a designer plays a role. Here enters Empathy.

Our quest for empathy and understanding our participants helps us ultimately become less subjective. While we can never truly be another person, as we immerse ourselves in their subjectivity, we can start to see through their lens and this changes the influence of our own subjectivity. It moves us from relying on our own thoughts and opinions to relying on theirs and, in a sense, we as designers become more objective.


The above chart maps out several prominent designer's views on designing with or for the user and the importance of the designer's own subjectivity in the process.
The above chart maps out several prominent designer’s views on designing with or for the user and the importance of the designer’s own subjectivity in the process.

Ode to the Whiteboard

Stop talking and go make something. This has been a common mantra of AC4D since day one. During orientation week, we didn’t have time to get into the weeds. Each piece of design research was introduced and acted upon so quickly that we had no time to digest what was thrown at us. We just went through the motions as best we could and made decisions quickly about what we thought was the best course of action.

Now, we are on our first major project, sixteen weeks in length, and even though the timeline is still very quick, there are more opportunities for interpretation, second guessing, and miscommunications.

During our first week with Recycled Reads (our organization for this project), we had lined up five interviews. We felt pretty good about getting them scheduled and going to them, we even got a decent amount of them transcribed. Then, last week hit.

We still had many hours of transcription to do, we had nine interviews lined up, and we were emailing, calling, and coordinating with potential participants for even more interviews. There were a lot of moving parts and a lot of opportunities for miscommunication.

Our group wanted to be as efficient as possible, but we also needed to be on the same page to do that. Having three people on the team meant three interpretations of the assignment and three perspectives about how to do it best. We regrouped on Monday last week and quickly realized that we had a lot work to get back on the same page.

We started discussing our agenda and the best way to tackle it, but some wanted to take on things immediately and some wanted to talk through all of the tasks and then break them up. Frustrations grew. Everyone was trying to get things done, but did not know how to discuss how to get things done.

While I was sitting there listening to my two teammates each verbally describe how they thought something should be done and each of them growing more and more frustrated by the other not understanding their point of view, I realized that to me they were saying the same thing. They were both describing the same process but just using different words to say it. I got up and drew out what I thought they were describing. It was a rough drawing, but as I drew it, I asked them if that was what they were trying to say and they both agreed that it was.

Although I think most people tend to think of themselves as being able to verbalize their meaning well, things get lost in translation, especially if you don’t know the other person very well. Drawing ideas out, even if it’s just a quick sketch, helps to illustrate the point in a new way.

After that experience, we have put our whiteboard to good use. Whenever we feel our words are not effective enough, we draw it out. When I need to conceptualize systems, relationships, or interactions for Recycled Reads, I draw it out. It might not be a perfect representation of the situation, but it’s an opportunity to communicate and then when it’s out there, it’s an opportunity to build upon it, to make it better. This week was all about the whiteboard and making something, even if it’s a pretty rough illustration.

Rough illustrations on our, now indispensable, whiteboard.
Rough illustrations on our, now indispensable, whiteboard.

The Start of Interviews

During week two, our group finally solidified an organization to work with for our four month project–Recycled Reads. After confirming with the organization, we started setting up times to do contextual inquiries with the staff and volunteers. We managed to get in five interviews during our first week of interviews.

To manage all of these, our group constantly checked in and timeboxed all of our activities. The hardest part of the week was having to go into interviews, enjoy learning from our participants, and then have to leave to go work on other assignments.

A couple days this week, we went in and interviewed our scheduled participant for two hours, then they would tell us ‘so-and-so is also in today, do you want to talk with them?’ Of course we did, but we had to leave to get other work done. We could probably bounce from participant to participant for an entire day. Maybe we will work out a day to do just that, but for now, timeboxing is a must.

It was great talking with our participants. I’ve already learned so much about the organization and how it operates. All of the interviews have been very informative, but I often find myself leaving with even more questions and curious about new things.

This week, we hope to schedule more interviews with people in different positions outside Recycled Reads, but within the library system or the city to understand the perception of the organization from a variety of people. I’m looking forward to seeing where some of our threads lead from last week and where new perspectives will take us this week.

Design, Society, and Responsibility


How a Bunch of Old White Men View the Role of Design in Society

Focusing on the role of design in society, we synthesized several works from philosophers over the last century during our classes this week. Specifically, we broke down works from Edward Bernays, Maurizio Vitta, John Dewey, Victor Papanek, and Neil Postman. In the diagram above, you can see those five authors mapped across a line based on their view of the role of design in society, from “Less Important” to “More Important”.

At the far left side, closest to “Less Important”, is Edward Bernays. Bernays believes that manipulating public opinion is more important than design. He believes that anything can be sold to the public and public opinion is actually quite easy to sway. Bernays, in fact, outlines ways to manipulate public opinion in his article, aptly titled, “Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How”. Although he states that anyone can convince anyone else of anything, it is clear that one must have power and influence to do so effectively.

Moving towards “More Important”, we come across Maurizio Vitta. In his article, “The Meaning of Design”, Vitta harps on the idea of designed objects as simulacrums, or images representing something. He explains it as people consuming objects to communicate a piece of their identity to others. He’s touching on the idea of objects as status symbols. Their consumption is no longer mainly based on their function but on what they communicate to others in society. Vitta believes that designers should get back to designing more for use or function and less based on what is consumed by the masses.

While John Dewey’s article, “The Need of a Theory of Experience”, focuses on traditional education and the new wave of experiential education, his arguments can be extrapolated to design and designers. Dewey would see the designer as an educator, crafting experiences for others. In this regard, Dewey would believe that the role of design would be quite important in society. Designers would need to develop empathy with their audience to understand the problems that should be solved and to understand their perspectives. Dewey would support human-centered design research.

Continuing towards a view of design having a more important role in society, we come across Victor Papanek. Papanek’s emphatic tone in his article, “Design for the Real World”, creates a loud, resounding voice highlighting the dangers of design. Papanek believes that designers should experiment thoughtfully and take responsibility for their failures. He believes that designers should work on problems worth solving.

At the far end, voicing that design plays a very important role in society, is Neil Postman. In his speech “Informing Ourselves to Death”, Postman argues that design and innovation have unintended consequences and designers should take care to thinking of those before creating things. Similar to some of the others, he also expresses that designers should not create just for their objects to get consumed, but should be focused on problems worth solving and understanding people other than themselves.

While these five authors gave a great start on the view of the role of design in society, it struck me that all of them were old white men. I look forward to reading more opinions and thoughts from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives on the role of design in society. 

AC4D and One Other Thing

The first official week of classes ended today. My one word to describe the program thus far is all-consuming. It is not only time-consuming, but also mentally and emotionally consuming.

Last Monday, in our first official class, we were given our first assignment. This assignment was to find a business with a humanitarian focus and convince them to take on a four month long project with our group. We needed to identify businesses that met our criteria, schedule meetings, pitch our ideas and our work, solicit $1000, and an agreement to not only take a detailed look at their organization and spend hours interviewing and watching their employees, but also post our journey publicly on this blog. It was a big ask. And we were given a pretty aggressive timeline to complete this mission–less than 48 hours.

Our team got together and hustled the rest of Monday and all day Tuesday and Wednesday. We identified around 20 businesses, contacted around 10 of those, and made physical visits to five of them before class on Wednesday (and several more after that). We went with the one we felt were closest to getting a yes from and created a research plan for that organization.

Since we didn’t have anyone committed to paying us money for our work by Wednesday morning, we still had to keep the wheels turning. So, while one of us started on the research plan for the organization that we thought was our best bet, two of us went out to visit more business in the hopes of getting one to sign on. We went to five businesses that day with varying success of talking to people, but no success in getting anyone to sign on. When we returned to AC4D, we began hitting the research plan full force. We had to complete the research plan, a presentation of the plan, and post it to the blog by 7pm on Wednesday. We managed to do that but the plan was pretty frail and there was no time to fix it. We muddled through our presentation with very weak arguments about why we did the things we did.

Those two days were a whirlwind, for sure. Spending 14+ hours a day at the AC4D building, getting home late, emailing people at all hours to set up meetings, reaching out to people you barely know or don’t know at all to hopefully make a connection, made for a pretty busy week. I’m sure it will only continue to be busy from here.

Before I entered into my year at AC4D, I met with a lot of alumni to get their perspective and what I hope was a truthful account of what the program was like. Several of them told me that AC4D was the most intense or hard or challenging year of their lives. They told me that “You get AC4D and one other thing. That thing can be working out, it can be a job, it can be a relationship, but you only get one other thing outside of AC4D.” And now, after a week of classes, I can see why. Even though our group was efficient, hard-working, and determined, we still ran out of time and there was certainly no time to do anything beyond our AC4D assignment.

For now, I will stick with my goal of trying to have AC4D, exercising, and a relationship with my fiancé. All of our dates will just have to be at the gym.