Why this feels right

You know you are on the right track when you are surrounded by a group of people who are all saying the same thing:

I am super excited. I got bored. I didn’t want to get too comfortable. I want to grow. I want to create. I want a better world. I want to spend my time on things that matter. I believe we can do good and make money at the same time. I believe design shapes culture, which shapes everything else. I love that I am a part of the inaugural class. I love the diversity in the class but our paths are crossing. I just got to Austin. Can we get to work yet? I had doubts, but I’m over them. And, did I already mention I’m super excited?

Well, looks like there is only one way left to go – Forward. Even if it really has to take 10,000 hours of hard work.

And it begins.

In order to begin moving forward, we must first know where we stand.  The orientation on Saturday provided the forum to learn just that.   We were all finally able to meet and share stories, backgrounds, fears, hopes, and intentions.  We now know where we stand, it’s officially time to start putting one foot in front of the other… there is much work to be done!

Innovating for the Poor

A topic that interests me a lot is how to innovate products for the economically challenged. Today, I came across an awesome interview with professor Anil Gupta of IIMA (Indian Inst. of Management, AHD).

http://www.designobserver.com/changeobserver/entry.html?entry=12691

The interview is a great read in its entirety. However, if I have to take away one point from this interview, that would be the following –

Some position the poor at the bottom of the economic pyramid, but this does not equate to a lack of knowledge, values and social networks. I prefer to see the poor as a provider than a market — with their limited material resources driving knowledge-intensive, informal innovation. Through providing incubation and development support, patent and intellectual-property-rights assistance, marketing advice and microventure funding, we seek to support the creativity that already exists at the grassroots.

This is on the lines of several free thinkers (including C.K. Prahalad) who view the BoP as a market in its own right. Every technology or service serves two basic purposes IMHO – Offer value to its users by elevating their level of experience and generate a revenue while doing so. If both the things are achieved, it is a successful product/service. Any successful idea in history can be mapped to the above two points. The BoP market is different and unless the dynamics of the market are clearly understood, innovation is not possible. Also, I believe that innovation should be locally targeted. The “locality” of target should be the society for which the innovation is being created. A mobile banking app that is targeted for tech savvy baby boomers may not be acceptable for a BoP population.

Selling to the poor is very similar to any selling (in spirit). The means are certainly different.  The bulk of BoP population is stuck at the bottom of Maslow's pyramid trying to procure basic needs. This is a problem a lot of NGOs are working to solve. I believe that one big problem is point of view of lot of people where financial pyramid is super imposed with Maslow's hierarchy.

IMHO, this is one of the pitfalls several NGOs and Non-profits fall into. I am not saying that helping with basic needs is not the right approach; that is noble and important. However, we need to elevate the society to a level from which they can help themselves. And we should do it by creating opportunities in terms of products and services targeted towards fostering innovation and enterprising spirit from each member of the society.

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Change Starts Today

My biggest takeaway today is that social change starts today. Right here. Right now. All too often I’ve heard of people having a want to donate support, but only after a personal comfort zone has been established. One could discuss Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to justify this behavior, but as an old professor told me, “All models are wrong, some are useful.” Change may operate on opportunity and hard work, but will most likely never succeed based on convenience.I feel very empowered after hearing my classmates speak about their respective backgrounds and intentions. I am surrounded by faculty and students that are by “do-ers,” a trait that inherently raises the bar to great heights. The curriculum appears to be strenuous yet rewarding in a timeframe that I’m sure will fly by amazingly fast.Monday may be the first official day of class but my wheels are already turning.

A Phenomenon in Making

C4D commenced officially today! We had an orientation today and it was an amazing feeling to share the room with a bunch of bright and inspiring folks.

The  best part of the day for me was to hear the stories of all the ten students (excluding me ;)). Everyone had a story, a connection to a cause they believe in, a genuine interest in inflicting a positive change in the society.

Quoting Anne Frank – “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

The people sitting in the class today had realized the true meaning of what Anne Frank referred to. The step they took to be part of this wonderful program is a true indication of the intention to improve the world immediately. For instance, Julia moved from Paris and Alex moved from San Francisco. Actually, only two people are from Austin. And, that to me speaks volumes about the commitment.

The philosophies of Jon (and Justin?) is very similar to what I believe in. One needs to make money while doing something substantial and meaningful. Good work and good money are not mutually exclusive. This is what C.K. Prahalad talked about in “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid”, and this is the type of social enterprise I am eager to create.

I had awesome discussions about a “Random act of Help” project with Scott and Chap. I will post more details about it once I figure it out even more clearly. And another thing, the PGV (Personal Growth Video – Jon's right, this does sound like a harmone name) is great too. Answering the two questions (What I think and feel) is an interesting exercise. I am curious to track the evolution of my own thoughts. Right now, I think that irrespective of the differences in culture, thought, education, upbringing, one thing is common across all the 11 students – “A true desire to make difference”. And that my friends, is beginning of a phenomenon in making!

-Saranya

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AC4D Kicks Off Tomorrow!!

Tomorrow, Austin Center for Design will hold our first orientation session, meet our first class of students, and enjoy our first welcome party. I’m super excited to welcome such a talented group to the school.

During our first quarter, we’ll focus on fundamentals. I’m going to be teaching interaction design theory, exploring discourse related to interaction design and encouraging students to formulate their own views on some of the complex problems that face our profession and our world.

Lauren Serota is going to be teaching Interaction Design Research and Synthesis. Students will learn how to conduct various forms of ethnographic and immersive research, and will gain confidence in the design methods and techniques required to fully understand a social problem space and to empathize with those affected by the space.

Justin Petro will be teaching Prototyping, encouraging students to utilize digital tools, templates, and repeatable and effective methods in order to quickly visualize their ideas and design solutions. Students will learn how to craft comprehensive digital interactions, and how to think about the “making” parts of design.

We’ll do our best to post as much content as we can online, and students will be blogging regularly. While our immediate goal is education of our students, we’re also intending to elevate the discourse of the field and profession; you’ll see lots of free content for educators, and a fairly transparent indication of the design process necessary to pursue creative-driven social change.

This school has been about ten years in the making, and I’m blown away by the support I’ve received from friends and family, and from the design community at large. Thanks for your help, and I look forward to engaging in an ongoing discussion as the school grows and evolves.

Meet AC4D's Inaugural Class

I’m thrilled to announce that Austin Center for Design’s inaugural class will begin their course of study in a little over two weeks. You can learn more about our students here – note the diversity of backgrounds, the professional experience they’ve gained, and their common desire to do work that’s meaningful.

  • Scott Magee is a top-performing creative professional with extensive experience in human-centric design.
  • Ryan Hubbard is a systems engineer transitioning into the world of user-centered design and social entrepreneurship.
  • Monique LaLonde is a Senior Designer at Razorfish, where she develops ideas and creates design solutions for clients like Dell, Microsoft, AT&T, Chrysler and Audi.
  • Saranyan Vigraham is a senior engineer at Qualcomm.
  • Christina Tran is a storyteller. She has experienced life as a journalist, designer, teaching artist, volunteer, writer, photographer, and world traveler. She aims to delight, inspire, and make a positive impact through her life and work.
  • Ruby Ku is a designer and technologist, who wants a better world, and is working to achieve that.
  • Kristine Mudd is a designer who enjoys the discovery, play, analysis, and exploration that is part of her everyday life.
  • Chap Ambrose is driven to design and develop useful and generous things.
  • Julia Moisand is an information and interaction designer. Her professional practice is guided by a people-centered approach to communication and visual representation.
  • Alex Pappas is a Senior Designer at Wild Planet Entertainment. Prior to working at Wild Planet Entertainment, Alex contracted with Motorola, New Balance, and other leaders of the Fortune 500.
  • Kat Davis is a business analyst, a legal assistant, and a world traveler.

Welcome to Austin Center for Design, everyone!

The Puzzle of Bruce's Zeitgeist

Co-Design, a form of participatory design that engages with users as fundamental experts in their unique cultural context, has been a general part of humanitarian design practices for at least forty years. It’s had proponents that include Pelle Ehn, who positioned Co-Design (or “Scandenavian Design”) as a form of democratic leveling of the field for union-based trade workers, and Liz Sanders, who describes how “regular people” can make creative suggestions that are then further translated or facilitated by designers towards a culturally sensitive design solution. Many books have been written about designing with people instead of for them, and it was even the original name of the well known DR conference held at IIT each year. Co-Design has had equal enthusiastic backing from Shelley Evenson, John Rheinfrank, Dick Buchanan, Terry Winograd, Brenda Laurel, and all of the others who helped shape the core theory of interaction design that many of us now hold as true and base.

So it came as some surprise to me to read Bruce Nussbaum’s reflective piece “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?”, which attempts to cast humanitarian design as some form of genius-based exportation of value structures. Bruce is as seasoned in history of design academia and practice as any expert in the new “design thinking”, so I was surprised that he overlooked such critical historic positions as Wittgenstein, who positions language as a unifying equalizer for communicating values (in this case, between “designer” and “consumer”). And he seems to have skipped the Heideggerian approach from Terry Winograd, or the work by Dreyfus and Dreyfus – all of whom cast humanitarian design (in all cases, design in the workplace as a social equalizer) as a form of value understanding and translation, rather than value application. And it’s strange that he overlooked Jan Chipchase, of frog design, who describes how immersion-based ethnography as critical to understanding, much prior to ever creating any form of translation or pragmatic design effort. And it’s equally as difficult to understand why he cast Project H in such a negative light for not taking on the problems in the United States, as that’s exactly and precisely what they are doing right now.

Bruce is a smart man, one that I respect a great deal. So I’ll take Bruce’s article less as an argument against humanitarian-focused design, and more as an indication that AC4D’s mission statement is dead on – it’s in line with what Bruce feels is the new Zeitgeist of things worth writing about. Austin Center for Design exists to transform society through design and design education. This transformation occurs through the development of design knowledge directed towards all forms of social and humanitarian problems.

AC4D Inaugural Year – a FAQ

AC4D received a very strong group of applicants for the 2010-2011 inaugural year, and they’ve shown a tremendously positive and pro-active attitude in reaching out for more details about the program. I’ve captured some of their questions, and my responses, here.

  1. Would you consider the intensity and rigor of the program on par with nationally recognized graduate interaction design programs?Yes; it’s as intense and demanding as any program you might recognize. The program workload will be large, but not overly so. I can imagine one working at a design consultancy that requires 40-50 hours a week of your attention while attending class; I could also imagine one working retail or service[restaurant, coffee shop] as a way of creating a definitive structural gap  between your work life and school life. As a point of reference, the program is 15 hours of “face time” a week [M/T/W/T, and S], and you can estimate that the out-of-class workload is at least that and at most double that. So, worst-case is about 45 hours a week. But I would bet that those hours are  fun, intellectually stimulating, and invigorating.  For reference, there are 168 hours in a week :)
  2. How would the design, brand, and creative companies you’ve mentioned on the AC4D website look differently upon someone with a masters degree, as opposed to a certificate? How much weight would the certificate credential carry in the professional design world?In many cases, I think what’s less important than the degree or certification is the reputation the institution has that offered the credentials, and it’s my goal to elevate AC4D’s reputation to be equivalent to a “top tier” university. It’s already getting there, as we’ve gotten some great coverage in Forbes, the New York Times, and Fast Company. When we review applications at frog, we look primarily at the portfolio and relevant experience; the actual degree itself is not nearly as important as the proven track record.
  3. In general, do you envision the program as a professional design program or as a program that teaches design approach to students who will then return to their pre-AC4D disciplines?  Where do you see, or do you see, people obtaining jobs after completing the program?I would anticipate that students take three paths once they complete the program at AC4D. First, students may return to their “old job”, but with a new perspective and skillset that enables change from within. I’m hoping the number of students choosing this direction is small. Next, students may enter existing structures of non-profit, policy, planning, and humanitarian action and drive a design perspective (which is almost always foreign to these institutions). Finally, what I hope for the most, is that students will start their own businesses, launch their own products, or create their own services based on the work they’ve started at AC4D.
  4. Do you envision that students will have the complete skill set needed to take projects and ideas beyond the scope of the year and actually bring them to fruition through venture capital or will more business skills need to be obtained?The program can’t teach everything in a single year, but my hope is that students gather enough skills, tacit knowledge, and experience to be able to launch their own companies. And the expectation is not that you do it alone – it’s also that you build enough of a network through the school (with other students, the faculty, and the large network we have) to reach out for help when you need it. Austin has a great set of resources for technology development, design, and entrepreneurship.
  5. Could you illuminate the types of backgrounds and experiences of those that have applied or confirmed acceptance to the program?I’ve been thrilled by the multi-disciplinary group that’s applied. Applicants have included a ruby-on-rails software developer, a visual interaction designer, an art director, at least four print designers, an MBA, a toy designer, and a systems engineer. It’s pretty eclectic. Nearly all of the applicants have about five years of real world experience in their area of expertise.
  6. Do you envision solutions that come out of the class being built into social enterprises or carried forward by the clients and partners?Yes, I hope so. In working with real companies or agencies, we’ll tackle real problems. As an example, I’m speaking with the ACLU of Texas to determine if there’s a way to help them solve a system problem of brand awareness, interaction, and access to information through a sponsored project; if this occurred, this wouldn’t be “an exercise”, as we would interface with the stakeholders of the organization and actually implement our ideas.
  7. What are your thoughts on building design capacity in areas that are more local and more invested in solving large social problems, such as training foundations or NGOs to use the methodology?  If we believe design is a process that can be learned by anyone, is it more important to figure out how to teach the design process in an appropriate time frame to local people in the country, location, or context where a social problem exists?Yeah, completely agree. The twist to this is that we need to be able to teach and do; the problem with “design thinking” is largely that it implies an exclusion of “design doing”. So we completely need to teach the various non profits how to use design to their advantage, but they need to learn not only the philosophy of design but also how to actually do it. That takes time and a great deal of passion (clearly).
  8. What is motivating you to start this?  I’m curious as to why you teach and why you want to solve social justice and environmental problems.  What is your philosophy on why these things matter?In one regard, it’s a purely selfish pursuit. I’m good at design, and I feel like my abilities are wasted by offering my talent to massive corporations that are ethically questionable, while there are obvious problems that can be better served. I’m very convinced that design education sets in motion cultural trends; you can see a lag of about 10-15 years from when Bauhaus ideals were taught to when they started permeated the world. The same is true for the form teaching at Pratt. The same is true for integrated product design teaching at Carnegie Mellon, and the same is now true for the “design thinking” stuff coming out of Stanford. If I start teaching this pedagogy, and the school is successful, and students are successful, I’ll have helped – in 10-15 years – contribute to the type of change I would like to see in my world.

On Education

There’s a great new article by Dennis Littky in interactions magazine that describes his model for the future of education – one that he started focused on K-12 education, but has now extended into the college world as well. This makes a nice parallel to both Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on education, and Anya Kamenetz’s Fast Company cover article.

I’ve also contributed my own thoughts to the mix, which you can read here or below:

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On EducationRecently, an article by Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, in which she paints a picture of how much education has changed, was featured on the cover of Fast Company. First graders use proprietary software and hardware; curricula self-adjust to the pace of the students; and the massive amounts of content presented on the Internet have democratized – at least on the surface – the challenge of access.

Large companies like HP are offering integrated packages like TeachNOW (designed in cooperation with frog design), which gives teachers a bird’s-eye view of the classroom and allows them to directly connect to packaged content sources. Connexions offers a similar content repository, in open-source fashion, of more than 16,000 reusable models with names like “serial port communication,” “the biopsychosocial model of health and illness,” and “Indian classical music: tuning and ragas.”

We are seeing a fundamental restructuring of delivery mechanisms, and a similarly rich restructuring of content (along with a healthy rejection of the age-old autocratic state content mandates). Yet until quite recently, we hadn’t seen the same scale of change in the pedagogy—the instructional styles used to impart knowledge and utilize the delivery mechanisms. And while study after study has rejected rote memorization and the homogenized learning encouraged by No Child Left Behind, alternative models of education are still characterized as “fringe.”

In this issue, Dennis Littky offers a provocative new model of K–12 education, one that emphasizes learning by doing, realizes individual differences in learning styles and approaches, and encourages apprenticeship learning over textbook learning. Fundamentally, Littky is arguing for the experiential learning promoted by John Dewey—and this is nearly identical to the process of design research and synthesis described in this issue by Katie Minardo Scott.

Designers use synthesis to quickly learn new things and integrate new perspectives with their existing worldview. They are, to some degree, experts in learning, and the critical ingredients seem to translate to a strong pedagogy of education. These ingredients include primary and generative research, active participation, critique and coaching, and the ability to take risks (and potentially be wrong) without negative consequences.

The similarities between the process of design and the process of learning in Littky’s school are striking, and he’s not alone in pursuing a new, designerly approach. His educational model is one of several, which may form a zeitgeist: We may, in fact, be perched on the brink of an educational revolution. And so, I offer a series of predictive recommendations about the evolving nature of education and how to best structure both pedagogy and content to succeed in the coming educational shift:

  1. Assume that anything is possible. As an educator you quickly become aware of the relative boundaries of your students, and it’s easy to set expectations based on these perceived limitations. Traditional teaching models are quick to group students by these segments—usually defined by socio-economic boundaries—and these segments have unusual staying power. The educational revolution to come will operate with the assumption of adequation, where students are empowered to try.
  2. Understand the “whole student.” At all levels of education, the homogenous body of knowledge that is taught en masse has come to mirror the assembly line, with teachers focused on their own tasks with no awareness of the larger  context. The educational revolution will empower teachers to support a whole student, realizing that any factual content needs to be positioned in a much larger and broader context.
  3. Leverage the content democratization afforded by technology. It’s almost colloquial to espouse the rich benefits of Internet content, yet in many educational settings, this repository is ignored. Traditional, and highly conservative, textbooks are used, which are neither engaging nor as broad in focus. During the educational revolution, educators will be empowered to draw from a wide assortment of content repositories, sources, and mediums.
  4. Reject the delivery limitations prescribed by technology. The majority of software intended to support online learning is abysmal. Blackboard, one of the most popular tools for online delivery, is described as a “horrendous monstrosity and the people who created it should be ashamed” [1]. As a result, the experiential qualities of online delivery may suffer for reasons entirely out of the educator’s control. During the educational revolution, we’ll see educators actively refuse to use subpar products, and we’ll witness an increase in hybrid approaches to teaching—models that combine a digital component with in-person, collaborative sessions augmented by traditional tools like whiteboards and Post-it notes.
  5. Create a safe environment for learning experiences. Perhaps the most important aspect of successful education is the idea of empowerment: creating an environment where failure can be explored, instead of simply trivialized, and where students can learn to be more effective learners. The educational revolution will bring a change of project-based learning, where the cycle of rote memorization, test, and pass/fail is replaced by an iterative approach of informed trial and error.

I’ve started Austin Center for Design to help drive this revolution; similar programs are creeping up all over the country and the world. Technology is enabling a number of these ideas, but they are fundamentally human. It is interaction design, and behavior, that will act as the driving force behind the educational revolution of the next century.