City of Austin partners with Austin Center for Design to tackle Civic Engagement

City of Austin’s Innovation Office has partnered with Austin Center for Design to explore the topic of civic engagement as the city continues to evolve rapidly. The goal of this partnership is for AC4D students to engage with Austinites, identify patterns and insights, and use this research to design and develop ideas to improve civic engagement. On Saturday December 16, 2017, students will present their initial research findings to the public at their East Austin campus.

“Our goal is that this effort doesn’t just end up being another 100-page pdf sitting on someone’s desk. A big part of our design process is to co-create with our participants, design publicly, and figure out small ways to prototype ideas. When it comes to civic engagement, the process itself is as important as the end product.” said Ruby Ku, director of Austin Center for Design.

As part of AC4D’s Interaction Design & Social Entrepreneurship program, students immerse themselves in a wicked problem for a 24-week capstone project. The 2017-2018 class marks the first official partnership with the City of Austin’s Innovation Office. For the first half of the project, students have immersed themselves in city council meetings, community events, and shadowed residents, city stakeholders and service providers. Student groups have honed in on civic engagement problems as they relate to low-income communities, the young populations, and long-term homeowners in East Austin.

Members of the public are encouraged to attend the presentations to review initial research findings. After this presentation, students will use this research as foundation to design and develop ideas in various opportunity areas identified. Stay tuned for more showcases and presentations during Spring 2018 as the ideas begin to take shape and get piloted.

To RSVP for the presentation on Saturday December 16, 2017 at Austin Center for Design, visit here. Space is limited.


Interested in tackling wicked problems? Applications for Austin Center for Design’s upcoming 2018-2019 class are due by January 15, 2018. Additional program and application information is available at http://www.ac4d.com/apply-and-enroll/application-information/.

Event Recap: Designing for Social Good, from Startups to Government

At Austin Startup Week this year, the City of Austin Innovation Office convened a panel of designers who are reshaping sustainability, government services, and public health.

Panelists included Melissa Chapman, Senior Designer at VA Center for Innovation; Jose Colucci, Director of R&D at Design Institute for Health, Dell Medical School; Roman Gonzalez, Founder of Gardenio; and Ben Guhin, Senior Advisor for the Design, Technology and Innovation Fellows Program at the City of Austin.

Moderated by Austin Center for Design’s director Ruby Ku, the panelists shared the projects they are tackling and the unique challenges they face from creating new ventures or initiatives within large organizations.

Designers as Facilitators

Designing for social good often means going beyond designing products and services, rather it requires developing a new culture for organizations and communities to think about problems and work together differently. In essence, designers take on the role of a facilitator.

“With big problems like homelessness, affordability, and democracy, there is no single product owner you can get your requirements from.” Guhin reflected on his journey on creating and leading the City of Austin’s Innovation Fellows program. “Designers must create a conversation and learn how to add people into the design process.”

“It becomes easier to facilitate if you don’t parade the word design around.” With her work with the Veteran Affair’s office, Chapman has to remember that stakeholder have different motivations and vocabulary. “The interests of the designers, users, and investors can vary widely, so designers must be ready to tell their story in different ways.”

While some panelists find using the word “design” hindering in their work, Colucci and his team take a different approach at the Design Institute for Health. “We try not to hide the word design. We try to convey the idea that everyone can be a designer in their work and teach methods of design, ideation, and not think of anything as final. Designing something is always an attempt to get better and improve.”

Don’t Forget The Bottom Line

As a relatively new space, most social impact projects operate in startup mode. That requires designers to simultaneously think like any business founder. This is true whether one is starting a new venture or a new initiative within a larger organization.

Gonzales is the founder of Gardenio, a platform that empowers people to grow their own food. Most questions he gets are around how his endeavor is going to be a viable business. “At the end of the day, [impact investors] are still investors and want some kind of return so we need to show that we have financial and social impact.”

The City of Austin started their Innovation Fellows program with almost no funding. Guhin and his team had to be creative on how they could prove value in the early days. They decided to start with a consulting model and partnered with departments on projects they were already working on. “That’s how we established our early brand last August. Now in our second year, the fellowship has more work than we can accomplish.”

Do the Work

The panel ended with advice for people who want to do this type of work. While Gonzales advocated for being your own boss, Colucci urged designers to consider whether their goals are better served by working in an existing organization and trying to improve them instead.

At the end of the day, all of them concluded that developing your chops as a designer is the most important thing. “Just do the work. My advice is choose a problem or website and do it better. Give yourself a project and also develop your philosophy on what kind of problems are worth solving. Doing the work is what helps you get better and develop your design muscles over time.” said Chapman.


To read the full transcript, please visit here. 

Event Recap: Making Design for Good Part of Your Career

To wrap Austin Design Week, AIGA Austin hosted a panel discussion featuring local designers about how to make design for good part of your career. This latest installment in AIGA’s Changemaker series brought together designers from all career stages who have committed to make giving back part of their everyday lives.

Panelists included Lauren Serota, Austin Center for Design founding faculty member; Adam Butler, founder of The Butler Bros; Victoria O’Dell, Brigade Captain of Open Austin; and Alan Holt, Principal Designer at the City of Austin. Sam Kapila, a designer and educator, moderated the panel at Funsize Studios.

The event was overflowing, attracting both existing designers and educators involved with social good and citizens simply interested in how to give back to their communities.

Understanding Design for Good
Despite different backgrounds and clients, all designers agreed that intention is key when solving social problems.

“Design for good, for me, is considering the potential implications of my involvement and what the outcomes might be of my work– hoping it’s net positive and deciding when not to involve myself if that’s not likely,” said Serota.

Working as a Principal Designer for the City of Austin, Alan Holt is not only concerned with how to make great public spaces that are beautiful, but how do we create public spaces that are sustainable and connect us together?  

O’Dell has already discovered to only commit herself to projects that she truly believes in and that will positively impact her community. “Design for good for is the integration and elevation of ideas that will help everyone,” said O’Dell.

Serving Your Community
People and communities are at the core of designing for social good. Prior to becoming a designer for cities, Alan Holt started at a boutique architecture firm designing for elite New Yorkers. Once moving into the public sector, he realized he could help give a voice to the people he serves.

“On a day-to-day basis, I’m working in a world of politics where some people can say yes, and some people can say no,” said Holt. “Who I really feel I need to serve are the people who are oftentimes most powerless in that conversation. As designers I believe we can bring something unique to that conversation just because design is a radical act.”

Designing for your community can be as big Austin’s South Central Waterfront Initiative, a $1.2 billion dollar project Holt is spearheading in Austin, to starting a simple campaign to encourage community through waving. In 2013, Butler noticed hostility between cyclists and drivers in Austin — so he fought back through a simple act: waving. His agency developed a local campaign, which was later integrated into efforts in Austin and ultimately picked up as a statewide campaign in Rhode Island.

Designers not only have the power to create products and processes, they can also help spark conversations in communities. Serota views this as the biggest challenge and opportunity for success in her work. She advises that allowing your idea to expand, evolve and live in the world independent of you is what makes it more powerful.

“It’s probably 90% of my time now — to produce an environment that is conducive to inspiration coming forward and everyone feeling ownership around it,” said Serota.

Ultimately, community and intention are at the core of designing for good. Even though O’Dell is new to her career, she has already discovered that “to make anything good happen, you need to talk to people.”


CHANGEMAKER is an AIGA Austin initiative that unites teams of creative professionals with nonprofits and social change organizations to use design thinking, sustainable frameworks and creative tools to help advance their mission. Inspired? Sign up here to learn how you can help build a movement for change.