UT Senior Design Show, with a social slant.

I checked out the opening reception for the UT Senior Design Exhibition this past Saturday, and was delighted to see sustainability and social issues taking the stage in many of the thesis projects. There are three education-related things I was able to take away from this show:

1. Topics of social consequence are interesting to design students as an application of their process and skills (yay, and duh).

2. Due to the vastness and complexity of these topics, they often require conceptualization and abstraction to be remotely understandable in a short period of time (e.g. a semester).

3. There is a serious (and wholly necessary) shift happening towards the generalization of design practices, where a solution to a “visual design problem” can now take the form of a product or service, and vice versa. This generalization is great in that it forces designers to derive solutions agnostic of a format, however leads to a lack of depth in any one particular practice.

There were a few approaches that were shared by multiple projects; for example, using board games to extrapolate roles and variables that contribute to the confounded nature of wicked problems. Brandon Gamm’s Drug Games (shown below) is his commentary on the inefficiency/inaccuracy of the criminalization of drugs in the US:

This work-in-progress 2-player board game is a rhetorical argument against current US policies for combating drug abuse. It is a blatant call for legalization over criminalization.

The government player uses largely ineffective law enforcement and treatment pawns to stem the addiction brought on by the cartel player’s ever-increasing drug supply. The government player’s only hope is to legalize the cartel’s drugs, removing the profit margins that make illegal drug trade so attractive.

This game approach is also adopted literally by Carrie Gates, Meagan Greenwalt and Jennifer Boram Kim in Reuni, a board game which creates a medium encouraging negotiation and compromise, which they believe could be leveraged help to reunify North and South Korea.

A few projects focused on reframing perspectives, such as Blue Cube by Teddy Vuong, which aims to create a meme that is antithetical to marketing and advertising. There is definitely a thread of pushing/reinterpreting social and practical norms running through the show.

A neat highlight of the show is the recap of The Sustainability Project – a series of concept proposals for initiatives that might make UT more sustainable and heighten awareness among the UT community. These team-generated solutions ranged from a wayfinding system that considered the campus and its sustainable practices as a system (including an iPhone app), to a points-program which takes a gaming approach to create competition and reward the most sustainably-minded students with school swag.

It was interesting to see how different projects were approached, and how varied the outcomes were. I’m looking forward to seeing how UT’s design department carries and evolves these themes throughout the next few graduating classes.

The exhibition runs through May 22, and is worth checking out if you get the chance (here’s the link again). There are also some gorgeous prints and other non-related work in adjacent exhibition spaces.

Note: The waste from the show is aggregated and displayed as part of the exhibition, (I’m assuming) modeling after Trash Talk, a frog design effort in 2007-2008. Neat :)

The Demise of Institutionalized Social Services

Are we coming upon the end of institutionalized social services?

By “institutionalized”, I mean large, anonymous, process-based systems that serve a mass quantity of people, poorly – rather than a small quantity of people, well. We see institutionalized social services in health care, education, and government.

This is not an issue of government intervention or free marketism – at least not directly. Instead, it appears to be a coalescence of personal care, personal education, and technological enabling.

Consider Hugh Dubberly’s recent article in interactions magazine, where he notes a similar trend: “Reframing health as self-management parallels similar trends in education, where we increasingly recognize students manage (or design) their own learning, and design practice, where we increasingly recognize users manage (or design) their own experiences. Perhaps these changes are part of larger trends, the democratizing of professionalism and the shift from a mechanical-object ethos to an organic-systems ethos.” This trend helps to explain the recent fascination with design in the context of big business (or perhaps the fascination helps to explain the trend); the designerly way of considering problems is organic, not linear, and certainly not driven towards algorithmic repeatability.

In some ways, the institutional services that may be rapidly failing us – health care, education, and government – mirror the commodity object markets that have emerged in consumer electronics and car manufacturing. And the reasons may be the same, but made much more acute by the personal interactions necessary in a service: “users” are more different than the same, can not be easily segmented or chunked or profiled, and can – with the aid of education and technology – provide the same service offered by the institution, but _in a much better fashion_.

That’s not to say that doctors, teachers, and politicians have no purpose in this utopic post-institutional service infrastructure (although one might argue the last point). In the same way that designers build experience frameworks for people, so too will these professionals begin to control more of the experiential and behavioral qualities of their services. In many ways, this begins to feel like the true democratization of design, and the designers themselves can begin to support other professionals in humanizing the technology associated with their professions.

And so the doctor no longer “treats the patient” by addressing the discrete symptoms that make up a discrete problem. Instead, he works together to build a lifestyle health plan that’s unique for the individual. Why are you getting a cold every other week? What types of food do you eat? Let’s observe your exercise routine. Perhaps the doctor will spend a day with a patient, observing his life and proposing changes both nuanced and large.

The teacher no longer “teaches the student” by delivering content to be “learned”. Instead, they work with students individually to build an educational plan that’s unique for the individual. You learn best visually, by making things? Great – let’s apply that in everything from science to physical education. Most interested in things relating to guns and weapons? Fine – we’ll use that as a backdrop to describe math and physics.

Sounds silly – like some social pipe dream? It might be, but it’s starting to happen all around us. Nutrition coaches go shopping with clients, watching how they shop and then helping them correct their behavior. Schools like The Big Picture offer the one on one learning (and in many cases, one student with three teachers) described above. Clearly, the deinstitutionalized services require a dramatic shift in the number of hours spent between professional and “user”. But that’s a part of the larger trend Hugh describes above – the shift towards a organic-systems view of the world, where efficiency and number of customers served are simply irrelevant metrics to track human services.

Synthesize: Are Wicked Problems Solvable?

[Background: I’m in Sweden, acting as the Entrepreneur in Residence at Malmo University]

We had a successful first Synthesize discussion at MEDEA, in which we asked and attempted to answer: Are Wicked Problems Solvable?

The conversation identified that there are a number of ways of addressing Wicked Problems, and because of the scope and scale of these problems, it is likely a combination of approaches that will offer the most benefit. Designers are drawn to these problems likely because of the long relationship between design and problem solving; many designers consider themselves problem solvers first and stylists second. There are several design-specific commonalities of wicked problems that distinguish these from more typical artifact-based design problems (“design a chair” or “design a new website”).

  1. In wicked problems, the number of stakeholders are larger, and frequently, these stakeholders have competing (and often illogical) goals. For example, consider a seemingly positive activity like bringing computing power to African students – something at the heart of the OLPC project. The solution of OLPC touches at least the following stakeholders: the governments of each country involved (in Africa, this includes Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Mozambique, and South Africa); the World Economic Forum; Quanta Computers (the ODM for the computer); the UN Development Program; fuse-project (the designer of the hardware); Pentagram (the designer of the software); MIT Media Lab (the originating educational research institution); Fedora/Red Hat (the operating system); and many, many more. The likelihood of alignment between these agencies is low without a tremendous amount of facilitation, project management, and personal appeasement by a centralized coordinating agency.
  2. The content is politically charged. The OLPC is an example of a placement-shift, where the expected and obvious form of the solution is purposefully altered. One assumes that, in countries with massive poverty, the best forms of aid are water and food. Yet the OLPC project ignores both of these, characterizing them as short-term solutions to larger problems. Instead, education is necessary in order to drive self-sufficiency; it’s the “teach a man to fish” adage, embodied in silicon. This is, obviously, highly controversial. In fact, the OLPC site has an entire section on their website dedicated to refuting what they call a myth that “You’re forcing this on poverty stricken areas that need food, water and housing rather than a laptop“; in their refutation, they state that “It is difficult to argue that education is not a necessary component to poverty reduction, probably being more effective than food donations or development aid; it is even more difficult to argue that children can be taught without books.” Negroponte addresses this directly in an interview with 60 Minutes:

    Leslie Stahl: You go into countries in which there may not be enough food, where the children may not have good enough education to even teach them to read; why a laptop? It almost sounds like a luxury for these people who need so much more than that.Nicholas Negroponte: Let me take two countries: Pakistan and Nigeria. 50% of the children in both those countries are not in school.Leslie Stahl: At all?Nicholas Negroponte: At all. They have no schools, they don’t even have trees under which a teacher might stand.Leslie Stahl: You’re saying give them a laptop even if they don’t go to school?Nicholas Negroponte: Especially if they don’t go to school! If they don’t go to school, this is school in a box.

  3. There are more significant repercussions of both good and bad actions. Speaking directly to design judgment, this becomes a barometer to gauge impact. By designing coffee mugs and shoes and cars, we design behavior implicitly and in a diffused fashion. By designing for impact and addressing wicked problems, we design behavior explicitly and in a direct manner.

I look forward to unpacking this a bit more on Friday, at my MEDEA talk this Friday, and then throughout the remainder of the discussion series. The next discussion is scheduled for Tuesday, May 11th, at 1pm. The topic will be “What is the role of prototyping in the context of a large-scale social problem?

See you there :)

[Crosspost to the MEDEA Blog]

There are a number of ways of addressing Wicked Problems, and because of the scope and scale of these problems, it is likely a combination of approaches that will offer the most benefit. Designers are drawn to these problems likely because of the long relationship between design and problem solving; many designers consider themselves problem solvers first and stylists second. There are several design-specific commonalities of wicked problems that distinguish these from more typical artifact-based design problems (“design a chair” or “design a new website”).

1. In wicked problems, the number of stakeholders are larger, and frequently, these stakeholders have competing (and often illogical) goals. For example, consider a seemingly positive activity like bringing computing power to African students – something at the heart of the OLPC project. The solution of OLPC touches at least the following stakeholders: the governments of each country involved (in Africa, this includes Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Mozambique, and South Africa); the World Economic Forum; Quanta Computers (the ODM for the computer); the UN Development Program; fuse-project (the designer of the hardware); Pentagram (the designer of the software); MIT Media Lab (the originating educational research institution); Fedora/Red Hat (the operating system); and many, many more. The likelihood of alignment between these agencies is low without a tremendous amount of facilitation, project management, and personal appeasement by a centralized coordinating agency.

2. The content is politically charged. The OLPC is an example of a placement-shift, where the expected and obvious form of the solution is purposefully altered. One assumes that, in countries with massive poverty, the best forms of aid are water and food. Yet the OLPC project ignores both of these, characterizing them as short-term solutions to larger problems. Instead, education is necessary in order to drive self-sufficiency; it’s the “teach a man to fish” adage, embodied in silicon. This is, obviously, highly controversial. In fact, the OLPC site has an entire section on their website dedicated to refuting what they call a myth that “You’re forcing this on poverty stricken areas that need food, water and housing rather than a laptop”; in their refutation, they state that “It is difficult to argue that education is not a necessary component to poverty reduction, probably being more effective than food donations or development aid; it is even more difficult to argue that children can be taught without books.” [http://wiki.laptop.org/go/OLPC_myths#You.27re_forcing_this_on_poverty_stricken_areas_that_need_food.2C_water_and_housing_rather_than_a_laptop.] Negroponte addresses this directly in an interview with 60 Minutes:

Leslie Stahl: You go into countries in which there may not be enough food, where the children may not have good enough education to even teach them to read; why a laptop? It almost sounds like a luxury for these people who need so much more than that.

Nicholas Negroponte: Let me take two countries: Pakistan and Nigeria. 50% of the children in both those countries are not in school.

Leslie Stahl: At all?

Nicholas Negroponte: At all. They have no schools, they don’t even have trees under which a teacher might stand.

Leslie Stahl: You’re saying give them a laptop even if they don’t go to school?

Nicholas Negroponte: Especially if they don’t go to school! If they don’t go to school, this is school in a box.

[http://www.olpctalks.com/nicholas_negroponte/olpc_60_minutes_interview.html]

3. There are more significant repercussions of both good and bad actions. Speaking directly to design judgment, this becomes a barometer to gauge impact. By designing coffee mugs and shoes and cars, we design behavior implicitly and in a diffused fashion. By designing for impact and addressing wicked problems, we design behavior explicitly and in a direct manner.

Design for Impact Boot Camp – Video

On April 24th, a number of individuals participated in our first Design for Impact Boot Camp, focused on poverty and homelessness. In collaboration with frog design, and with the generous facility support from Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, participants spent a day investigating how the design process could be applied in the social space. The goals were simple: to offer participants an introduction to the high level process for approaching large-scale social problems from a design perspective, and to better understand the challenges associated with these types of problems.

Art and Design research, at 1:56am (due to jetlag)

I had dinner last evening with Bo Reimer, his wife Maria, and their friend Julie Ault. Julie, one of the cofounders of Group Material, is working through her PhD in Art (not in Philosophy, nor in Art or Architectural History – it’s a doctoral degree in Art, and I suppose my surprise that such a degree even exists illustrates my own lack of European academic culture and tradition – although Julie did mention that it’s a fairly new idea even in Europe). Julie described some of the challenges facing the academic community of artists who are pursuing this advanced degree, and they are strikingly similar to those facing the academic design community – primarily, defining what “rigorous research” means in the context of the discipline (in this case, Art or Design), and illustrating to the Scientific community that the research is, in fact, as substantive as research a Scientist may conduct, but is quite different in actual content, method, and dissemination.

In Design, Jodi Forlizzi and John Zimmerman have been actively forcing a conversation of the role of interaction design research in the traditionally scientific (and applied, as engineering) discipline of Human Computer Interaction. In many ways, their research into the role of research (yowzer!) might be seen as polemic – as they both fight for tenure, they are looking for precedent into the nature of design in a traditionally scientific community, and how to best substantiate the rigor of the work we do, given it is not repeatable (and repeatability isn’t even a goal of design). And to compound the problem, the design research described in the academy – “case-based research, design in the support of HCI research, critical design, and research through design, where understanding is codified into an artifact that in turn evolves new research questions” – is an entirely different body of knowledge and work than design reserach in professional practice. In the latter, designers work (often for a client) with users to understand their latent wants, needs, and desires, or simply to understand the problem space a given problem exists within. In the former, design researchers work to literally advance the body of knowledge of designers. This is an advancement void of context of a professional problem or a client, forcing the question: is design always applied?

I had nearly an identical conversation with Alex Kirlik and David Weightman when I was visiting UIUC several months ago, except in Alex’s case, he was struggling with the role of research in Human Factors. While arguably HCI, human factors and interaction design are “simply” lenses upon the larger context of Design, it’s fascinating to see how disconnected the entire conversation in academia is from in professional practice. For I can guarantee that none of my colleagues at frog design read to this part of the post, as the entire conversation is deemed (in a highly pejorative stance) “just academic”.

For discipline that have a large connection to an applied context (like design), and for those that have an unfortunate public reputation of lacking rigor (like art), this disconnect will only grow unless it’s explicitly attended to in a language that both camps, the academics and the practitioners, can value. And at least for the discipline of design, and presumably for the discipline of art, the need for a connection between practice and academia is timely, as cheap and powerful technology has afforded an opportunity for coallescqnce of applied work and intellectual work that can benefit all of culture and society. I intend to speak, at least, to this opportunity at my upcoming talk in MEDEA.

Strange Bedfellows: The social human factors of distance learners and the homeless, Part 1

“It is in social situations that most of the world’s work gets done.”Erving Goffman

I have an odd job. I watch what people do, ask what they think and how they feel and then try to make sense out of it to design a better situation for them. Recently, I found myself studying two different groups of people who share a condition – students who get their degree online, and the homeless; both are unable to gain access to communities they desperately need.

After completing research for a distance learning client at frog, our project team discovered that most of the student-participants are lonely and lacking confidence. They think they are the dumbest ones in their class and trudging behind everyone else and yet they don’t know who their classmates are or whether THEY are good or bad students because, well, they can’t see them! Lacking the social meter that actual classmates in a classroom provide keeps them from calibrating their own progress. We also found that low self-esteem was widespread among the diverse group of students we interviewed and it affected their motivation, confidence, and performance in their studies. As we prepared for our AC4D Design for Impact Boot Camp last Saturday, I was curious to see if there was a parallel between those students we talked to and the homeless people we would be studying because both seemed to be held in a captive and disheartened state by their circumstances.

Walking to work a few days later, I passed by some homeless men and women and wondered why many of them talk to themselves in public (and, presumably in private). Is it mostly drugs and mental illness or are there other social factors in play such as the loneliness that results from lack of companionship? Could it also be a reinforced rejection of social norms? Like, implicitly, “Fine – if you aren’t going to treat me like part of your society, then I’m not going to behave like I’m part of your society.” Although our day-long work session at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) didn’t quite get to the bottom of this issue, it did show me that homeless people, similar to distance learners, take a hit to their sense of self because they lack a normal volume of everyday interactions that us social creatures need to stay emotionally stable, such as chance encounters with people we know, eye contact, ordinary talk and conversation, glances, and posturing. We take this “sense-data” for granted because it is usually transmitted to us through our own impressions of very subtle, everyday exchanges but it is deeply felt and directly informs our actions. For example, if I was having trouble understanding Professor Kolko’s lecture on design frameworks, I might look around the class to see if others appeared as perplexed as I was before raising my hand to ask a question. And, if I were waiting to cross the street on a nice day at lunch time I might make eye contact with the person standing right next to me and nod my head in order to graciously acknowledge his sharing of street corner space. Erving Goffman refers to this behavior as “the slightest of interpersonal rituals, yet one that constantly regulates the social intercourse of persons in our society.”

So, what social human factors, tactics, and technologies should we consider to help the homeless improve their bearing and relations with others? And, could these same methods also help those distance learners who are held captive and home alone? In my next post, I’ll talk about personal skills, engendering community, establishing “co-presence”, setting and meeting small milestones, the role of affirmations, and the importance of gradually building social capital. Stay tuned.

Design for Impact Boot Camp

On April 24th, a multidisciplinary team of 22 designers, technologists, and students took part in an all day Design for Impact Boot Camp. Co-sponsored by AC4D and frog design, the day-long educational experience was intended to introduce a high level process for approaching large-scale social problems, and the challenges associated with these types of problems. Additionally, the Boot Camp provided a framework in which to experience the research, synthesis and ideation processes as related to design for impact, and introduced the vocabulary necessary to speak about strategic design work, in the context of designing for impact.

    The boot camp was held at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, and with the generous facility support of Front Steps, the group was able to perform guerrilla ethnography with the homeless, the shelter security, the various volunteers, and the staff that work at Front Steps.

    You can browse through some of the lecture material that was introduced during the day:

    An introduction to Designing for Impact, by Jon Kolko. In a group conversation, participants examined the precedents that have been set in the social innovation space, discussed the holistic process of design, and began to understand why the methods of design are most appropriate for tackling these complex social problems.

    A Process for Seeing: Guerrilla Ethnography, by Lauren Serota. In the first session, the group talked about how to practice guerrilla ethnography, by using sketching visualization methods, rapid photography, and in-context conversations in order to engage with target audiences. Then, in groups, the participants tackled a design problem related to the context of poverty in Austin, Texas – and engaged the community by practicing the guerilla ethnography methods just discussed.

    Understanding Insights and Themes, by Jon Freach. As the group began meaning-making,  insights and themes began to emerge. Jon described how to capture high-level takeaways from research, and how to form actionable design directives out of these conceptual frames. Then, participants extracted insights and themes, and positioned these elements in the context of the initial design brief – designing for impact, and producing new products, systems and services.

    Externalization and Rapid Modeling, by Matt Schoenholz. The group focused on how to externalize this data and form visual representations of it. We modeled the data gathered, and created representations to capture the high level takeaways from the streets in order to build frameworks for creating new idea.

    Rapid Ideation, by Justin Petro. The insights and themes that have been extracted were then visualized. Justin introduced a structured form of ideation in order to focus on a new ideas, and described how to connect these new ideas to potential sources of funding, in order to understand their feasibility. [worksheets here]

    Here are some pictures of the day:

    We’ll have the actual design ideas presented on the site in a few days – and we’ll be sure to post when the next Design for Impact Boot Camp is coming up.

    Creative designers typically produce stuff – toasters, websites, airplanes, and cell phones – for mass production by large, for-profit corporations. These designers frequently bemoan what they observe to be a misappropriation of their talent – that their creative efforts are misguided, and the hard work and energy they are putting into product development is lacking integrity or honesty. Rarely does their work have a humanitarian element to it; the corporations that hire designers are fundamentally interested in appeasing their shareholders.

    Designing for Impact is an overt redirection of these creative design efforts, in order to tackle the large-scale humanitarian problems that plague our country and our world. The design process is purposefully applied to issues of poverty, access to clean drinking water, equality of education, and other large problems, and the outcome is a combination of products, services, and systems that are intended to better the human experience.

    After taking part in the boot camp participants will have:

    Acquired a high level process for approaching large-scale social problems, and understanding of the challenges associated with these types of problemsExperienced the research, synthesis and ideation processes as related to design for impactGained empathy with a target, at-risk populationAcquired the introductory vocabulary to speak about strategic design work, in the context of designing for impact

    Changes in Design Education

    Andrew Maier recently posted a thoughtful essay on the changing nature of design education. It’s similar in criticism as a piece I ran a year ago in interactions magazine by Meredith Davis, who speaks of the need to reinvent design education; unlike Meredith, however, Andrew comes to the conclusion that designers need to take responsibility for their own career. Implicit in his article is that a graduate program isn’t going to build a career for you – and that money spent in grad school may be better spent on books with similar content.

    For students who have a background in design, experience in design, and raw skills, Andrew’s totally right: they can drive their career any direction they choose. One soon realizes that a career is a narrative, and it’s one that can be completely designed and controlled. Want to do the speaking circuit? It’s easy – find a compelling story to tell, and practice the speaking skills to support it. Looking for the corporate job driving brand resonance? It’s an easy position to get, and there are pretty tactical ways to formulate a portfolio to attract the right recruiting efforts. And the content in the $70 textbook Andrew writes about [presumably Beyer and Holtzblatt’s Contextual Design]? Yeah, you can read the book and learn the “right process” [which is, of course, never actually done the way it’s written in the book].

    But there’s two main contexts where a formal graduate program makes a ton of sense, is worth the money, and plays a critical role in the advancement of our profession.

    The first is in attracting adult talent to the intellectual process of design. This talent likely already has “experience” in the world, and so a four year degree with foundations studies isn’t going to cut it. For people in the middle of their career, a structured set of classes and a rigorous process is necessary. The rigor of the engagement drives personal “realignment” and the formal structure – and the simple fact that there’s a substantial financial investment at stake – seems to make people take the education seriously, where reading a book might not be as quickly absorbed.

    The second is in opening new doors to new opportunities, those that are too big to be studied in isolation and too complicated to be processed implicitly. These are the problems that are tackled at the HCII at CMU, and at Austin Center for Design, and at most graduate programs – and they are tackled through project work, in groups, with real stakeholders, in a supportive environment. I don’t think that one can fundamentally leapfrog these educational settings, as it’s tremendously difficult to simulate project-based design work.

    I recently authored a piece for interactions that won’t get printed for a few months, but touches on this very issue. In the piece, I describe five predictive recommendations about the evolving nature of education, and how to best structure both pedagogy and content to succeed in the coming educational shift. I’ll share two of them here:

    • Reject the technical delivery limitations prescribed by technology. The majority of software intended to support online learning is abysmal [Blackboard, one of the most popular tool for online delivery, is described as a “a horrendous monstrosity and the people who created it should be ashamed” [http://ask.metafilter.com/17980/Do-you-use-Blackboard], and as a result, the experiential qualities of online delivery may suffer for reasons entirely out of the control of the educator. 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.
    • Create a safe environment for learning experiences to occur within. Perhaps the most important aspect of successful education is the idea of empowerment: of 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 – pass/fail] is replaced by an iterative approach of informed trial and error.

    I think the point Andrew is making is sound – that education needs an overhaul. I’m pretty excited to be a part of that revolution.

    Another Attempt at Design Certification

    Conversations of official design certification have come and gone over the last few decades, with little traction. There’s another attempt to organize designers – in this case, graphic designers, who seem to focus exclusively on logos and static websites – and the attempt seems exclusively focused on the fly-by-night $200 website shops that deliver precisely on their promise: pay $200, and get a website that’s worth approximately the same.

    I’ve always had an immediate and negative reaction to the idea of some official certification board – similar to the process of AIA certification that an architect must achieve – but I’ve never really tried to analyze why. I think I’m at a point where I can formulate several reasons why it’s a non-starter.

    1. The conversation almost implicitly reduces design to aesthetics, which is increasingly the least relevant and appropriate use of design talent. The “bad design examples” provided on the site are gratuitous looking, and that’s where the conversation starts and ends. There’s no mechanism to judge the interaction design, the functionality, the cultural need, the benefits to users, the value provided to the company, or any of the other facets of a design problem. And while design aesthetics aren’t entirely subjective, the resonance of visual design is obviously in the eye of the beholder: Not ironically, I found the design certification site itself to be poorly thought out, with an ugly information hierarchy, a sophomoric use of type, and silly clip-art icons added without clear rationalization.
    2. The idea of certification is presented as a method of protecting those who purchase professional design skills. I’m not aware of any data – qualitative, quantitative, or otherwise – that indicates these people need protecting. It’s far-fetched to assume that one who purchases a $99 logo has a deep and passionate need for a strong, well thought out mark and identity package. When you buy a car for $400, you don’t expect it to last very long or be very effective. This idea of “protecting the purchaser” seems like a ruse to protect the fragile aesthetic sensibilities of designers who just don’t like ugly design work.
    3. The one reason that might be appropriately provided FOR certification is almost never considered: that design has a cultural resonance of equal or greater weight than law or policy, as design decisions are reproduced in mass and permeate the visual and semantic landscape of our world. And even this is mitigated at both a federal and a local level, through the use of bans on billboards and requirements about misleading advertising.

    It feels like those clamoring for a professional body of certification are trying to protect a profit margin on a skill that may have already been commoditized. The rallying cry to “empower business” isn’t necessary: designers are empowering business through intellectual, strategic and appropriate design work.

    Big Buckets of Money

    I met with Justin Petro yesterday to do some final logistics planning for the bootcamp, and we were discussing the part of design process – ideation – where ideas start to build and evolve, and new ideas form. He described how important it was to tie these to “a big bucket of money”, even at this early stage, in order to explicitly shift the focus of social innovation from altruism (and likely unsustainable) to profitable (and therefore able to take a long view). I started thinking about what big buckets of money are actually available for social innovators to tie their ideas to, and came up with this list:

    1. Direct sales profit, product. Someone directly pays for an artifact.
    2. Direct sales profit, service. Someone directly pays for a service.
    3. Indirect sales profit, service. Transactional fees are extracted from a third-party exchange.
    4. Venture capital. Private equity, with an expectation of 5-10x return on 3M+ in 3-5 years.
    5. Angel capital. Start-up financing, with an expectation of a 10x return on <2M in 3-5 years.
    6. Foundation grant money. Large grants coming from private foundations, usually spooned off the top of an endowment.
    7. Private-sector grant money. Small grants coming from wealthy individuals, with an implicit expectation of some form of organizational control.
    8. Government grant money. Small to large grants, coming from agencies like NSF or the DOE.
    9. Government contractor money. Small to large contracts, coming from agencies like DOD or DARPA.
    10. Long-tail internet grants. Micro-grants aggregated through a service like Kickstarter, FundableIndieGoGo or ChipIn.

    What other big pots of money am I missing?