Reimagining Market Dynamics: Market Issues Related to Design

The last decade has seen a growth of design in large corporations and a more nuanced understanding of the value designers bring to business, organizations, and product or service problems and opportunities. Design has been heralded as the prime mover for startups. Provocateur Bruce Nussbaum argues that “we are seeing a dynamic expansion of the scale, range, and power of traditional design. It promises to revive a broken VC model…” [1] It’s increasingly recognized as a key differentiator for bringing industry disruption and changing the face of business and society, and – as Luke Williams describes – it’s about “inverting or denying industry clichés [in order to arrive at] significant business breakthroughs.”[2] There appears to be general consensus amongst intellectuals in technology and business that design is a non-aesthetic and non-trivial part of solving problems, and provides value in the context of the marketplace; a recent Reuters article proclaimed that “The new breed of ‘user experience’ designers – part sketch artist, part programmer, with a dash of behavioral scientist thrown in – are some of the most sought-after employees in technology.” [emphasis added]. [3]

As design has “arrived”, we are now able to broadly advance the discussion around design-impact in a given market to consider the relationship between designerly ways of thinking, and traditional economic or market issues and trends. This may lead us to collectively make wiser design decisions, or it may help us re-evaluate assumptions about how a marketplace should be structured or moderated with relationship to creative thinking and decision making.

My hope with this post is to identify the large areas of intersection between design and market forces, to describe places where further commentary, research and discussion are necessary, and to offer a view of where more or revised economic and policy interventions might be necessary.

Design-driven Intellectual Property is Uniquely Messy

Intellectual property, and the ability to patent a particular invention, has been a part of the fabric of American culture as long as our nation has existed. The amount and type of litigation related to IP enforcement has recently come under scrutiny, primarily driven by technology patents related to mobile phones and other hand-held devices. Larry Lessig, a well-known law professor at Harvard, has described that “’novel,’ ‘nonobvious’ or ‘useful’ is hard enough to know in a relatively stable field. In a transforming market, it’s nearly impossible for anyone – let alone an underpaid worker in the U.S. Department of Commerce who spends on average of eight hours evaluating the prior art in a patent and gets paid based on how many he processes – to identify what’s ‘novel.’” [4] Lessig’s point is apt, and is more pronounced when considered in the context of interaction design or “user experience”. Interaction design is frequently not visible, and although it can be described through narrative and other artifacts, the description is commonly not rich enough to appropriately capture the actual experience. It’s quite common to hear designers say things like “you just need to try it,” implying a sense of tacit knowledge established through experience. It’s extremely likely that the same underpaid worker at the patent office is not likely to be trained in or experienced with judging the novelty, patent-appropriateness, and ubiquity of a flow through an interface or a designed-shift in behavior, especially if they need to actually experience the innovation to understand it.

Additionally, the uniqueness of an interaction in the larger context of a product suite or brand experience is difficult to rationalize. Consider the absurdity of Apple’s granted patent application for Slide-To-Unlock [5]: it’s hard to substantiate the need for protection on such an inconsequential piece of a larger whole, and it’s easy to see how this type of nuanced protection can quickly become unsustainable. One might patent “Tap-To-Take-Photograph” or “Double-Tap-To-Check-In” with equal justification, and with equal absurdity.

Additionally, innovation always requires a creative recombination of existing ideas, which implies that there will always be some form of bleed-over from an invention into existing creative precedent. Designers learn – and are explicitly taught, in school – to utilize and generously borrow from existing ideas, themes, patterns, trends, and concepts – and recombine them in interesting ways. The majority of incremental innovations that occur in industry might be seen as obvious, but only in retrospect. It’s difficult to discern what creative innovations should actually be protectable when comparing them to the fairly standard but dated test of “new, useful and non-obvious.” The US Patent Office may have set an unfortunate precedent by allowing protectable but incremental innovations, and it’s now necessary for a comprehensive re-evaluation of terms of protection for design patents, particularly for user interfaces, user services, and other forms of behavioral design.

Iterative Design  Has Market Consequences

Designers work in an iterative fashion; they produce something, try it with people, learn about the results, and make changes. This process has recently been adopted by various startups under the guise of “lean” – rapidly producing the smallest possible thing, and then understanding how people respond to it (and learning if they are willing to pay for it). This idea of iterative design has consequences: it is not simply a neutral empirical test. Iterative approaches to product design actually change both individuals and the market in which these iterations are attempted. The first is less interesting in the context of economic observation (although of great importance for considering ethics of design); the second has tremendous, but subtle, consequences. These consequences are evident in the culture of silicon valley, where these iterations provide clues to large corporations as to potential new disruptive services and business models. Competitive audits, performed by consultants and innovation agencies, constantly identify fledgling design activities in incubators and accelerators and map these to market axis in an attempt to drive corporate repositioning. The iterations leave traces, and the traces infiltrate the less agile corporation – which is a financial powerhouse, able to influence, lobby, or otherwise buy a competitive edge.

There is a consequential result of this type of fast-follower culture, and as our financial systems struggle and discontent grows with the financial divide in the US, a re-analysis of Joseph Schumpeter may be necessary, particularly to understand his prediction of the demise of capitalistic structures. Schumpeter identified a form of “creative destruction”, upon which disruptive innovation emerges to challenge and ultimately erode old, tired ways of approaching business. Iterative design is the spark of these disruptive efforts – the first glimpse of them in the marketplace – and begins to support this notion of constant and dynamic market momentum. But Schumpeter goes on to argue that a form of congealing of creative efforts will naturally take over the free market, where “Innovations would no longer be connected with the efforts and the brilliance of a single person. They were increasingly to become the fruits of the organized effort of large teams. This would be done most effectively within the framework of large corporations.” [6] As the single entrepreneur was supplanted, Capitalism would give way to a form of Corporatism, which would encounter increasing critique and violence from the masses.

And this is precisely the social, economic and political climate we seem to find ourselves in today. If Schumpeter was correct in predicting these changes with such accuracy, it is useful to consider the remainder of Schumpeter’s argument: as he describes, socialism will eventually replace capitalism, unconditionally.

A Pursuit of Scale Drives Blanding

Design is about humanizing technology and increasing the quality of the human experience. But as design is seen as a differentiator in big business – a way to escape commoditization, and a way to drive branded change – success becomes inextricably tied to marketing efforts related to scale, units sold, profitability, and the amplified spread of a design through mass production and social distribution or sharing. This pursuit of scale has a natural tendency towards “blanding”, as features, aesthetics, and designed personality and eccentricities seem to regress to the mean of acceptability. Put another way, a company will minimize innovative components to mitigate the risk of adoption and to overcome the cost of execution, while emphasizing components that are considered “normal”, “tablestakes”, or “expected.” This can be attributed to the need to map a design solution to marketing segmentation, in order to cater towards an aggregate and amorphous representation of a user. This has the confusing and subtle consequences of offering a product that provides some experiential value to everyone, but never provides all of the value to anyone.

This is most striking in the determination of feature sets for mobile devices. Typically, a marketing team will conduct a competitive audit in an effort to understand the various elements necessary to achieve brand parity. This audit, combined with a focus on internal strategic imperatives (“focus on social sharing!” or “celebrate device convergence!”) will result in a feature specification, or product requirements document, which is then used to provoke design activities. Market segmentation will create tiers of product offerings, adding or removing features and creating bundles of capabilities in an effort to appeal to a particular user group. Customization and pricing is tied to this segmentation, resulting in the types of devices, service offerings, and product releases we see at various consume electronic conventions.

This process is a result of a homogenized view of the “right way to launch a product”, much of which is codified in MBA programs and in the early experiences marketers have when entering the workforce. And as a result of this homogenization in process, which is itself a result of a focus on scale and sharability, we diminish the value of the innovative “design thinking” that might come from an extremely local focus on user wants, needs, and aspirations, or that might arrive as a result of playful creative exploration. These local solutions will, by their very definition, appeal to fewer people, but will have a higher degree of appeal; this is the problem, and opportunity, of breadth vs. depth.

Big-Data Experiences Are Colliding With Advertising Intent

We’re only beginning to understand the promise of Big Data, which has been afforded to us by cheap hardware sensors, a ubiquity of data capture infrastructure, and the human urge to share interesting content. Big Data has the powerful ability to change the way we see the world around us; it encourages “regular people” (read: people who aren’t technologists or designers) to understand their bodies, their actions, and their environments with a more nuanced and thoughtful level of detail, and to make changes to their behavior based on this understanding. For example, products like Fit Bit, Nike+, or the Body Media arm band allow us to gather different feeds of data related to our bodies – body temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure – and see relationships between this data and our food intake, our interactions with our friends, and even the way we choose to go to work or attend different events.

This is a huge advance for the human race, as we can begin to visualize and understand how complicated natural phenomena occur over time, without really needing to understand the complex science behind these phenomena. We can identify potential correlated or causal relationships in our own lives. And, once we visualize and understand these phenomena, we can take action to correct things we don’t like – such as unhealthy but habitualized behavior.

But while we now face a huge opportunity in understanding the patterns that surround our lives, this opportunity is running head-first into advertisers, who see a different but equally massive potential in Big Data. Google, Facebook, and likely Apple, Microsoft and other large device and software manufacturers are in a unique position to sell this data to those who want to optimize their marketing efforts through unique profile-based targeting. It is only when one purchases a Facebook Ad or launches an AdWords campaign that one truly understand the frightening power of profile-based advertising, which leverages the same Big Data to display advertisements only to those likely to transact. The intent for these companies is not to use Big Data to empower consumers, but instead to utilize the same data to treat consumers like consumptive sheep. Consider the not-so-distant-future of Facebook’s Ad Platform:

A Design Fiction: The Promising Future of Facebook Ads

There exists a need for legislation in the US to define policy related to data ownership and portability, providing power to individual consumers to own, audit, loan, and retract data about themselves, and to manage the increasingly vast digital definition of themselves.

Equally problematic is the existence of often misaligned privacy laws in foreign countries, forcing irrationally branched design solutions based on locale. While the promise of a unified, world-wide privacy policy is quite obviously a pipe-dream, it would behoove the United States government to understand this issue and begin discussions with policy makers in other countries around unification of ideals.

We Need Legislation In Support of Remix Culture

Some of the most interesting services to launch in the last six months emphasize a second-generation of user-generated content related to content organization and containment, where people are able to organize, remix, share, and discuss media in structured environments. Pinterest and tumblr offer services that focus on unique “containers” or “objects” for content, where a user acts as a curator or organizer rather than a producer or creator.

Design-driven solutions typically recognize the limitations of a given audience and attempt to support that audience by offering optimized tools and capabilities. In this case, audiences of both services may not have the ability to create raw content from scratch, but are afforded the ability to mix, mash, and otherwise combine content into new forms.

Yet existing copyright law and the precedent of DMCA-driven takedown notices have forced a strange set of rules for these companies, which manifest in their terms of services. The original terms – which were recently revised, due to a public outcry of dissatisfaction, included:

By making available any Member Content through the Site, Application or Services, you hereby grant to Cold Brew Labs a worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free license, with the right to sublicense, to use, copy, adapt, modify, distribute, license, sell, transfer, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, stream, broadcast, access, view, and otherwise exploit such Member Content only on, through or by means of the Site, Application or Services. [7]

These services, likely by both legal and financial need, transfer litigation responsibility to end-users. This presents a strange collision of innovation related to the “network effect”, where mass audiences consume, change, and share content, and the existing legal structures related to copyright enforcement. This may soon create an equally strange clash between existing media conglomerates, like News Corp or NBC, with equally affluent financial services offerings, like Union Square Ventures – VC for the aforementioned services. But irrespective of this potential fallout between financial powerhouses, there exists a need for forward-thinking legislation related to the existing fair-use doctrine, with a redefinition that expands the boundaries of an individual creating an entertaining or satirical mash-up. And, there exists a need for social-media companies like pinterest and tumblr to take a more progressive stance towards their user-base, embracing the experiential qualities of their design over the legal norms of protecting their own interests. These companies need to support their users in challenging unforgiving and irresponsible copyright laws.

Normal Incentive Structures Are At Odds With Design Intent

In both large corporations and startups, an incentive structure focused on growth and wealth is colliding with the incentive most designers realize and embrace: making quality products that improve the quality of life. In large corporations, a pursuit of quarterly profits provides a constant distraction from execution and follow-through. Reorgs, refined priorities, and a knee-jerk reaction to industry news constantly confuses and disrupts design-driven approaches to product development, with valuable work shelved or redirected as a result of a stock-price-driven fire-drill.

The same incentive structure, albeit with a much longer outlook, exists in circles of venture capital. For startups funded by a typical VC, there is an expectation of a financially solvent exit within 3-5 years, producing 5-10 times the original investment in newly created wealth. This exit is usually in the form of a buyout or merger, but could also be the result of taking a company public. But the pursuit of the exit places constraints on the original product offering, including an artificial timeframe for success, artificial financial goals based on initial valuations, and an artificial demand to scale, quickly. Counter-intuitively, these pressures can serve to actually stifle innovation, as evidenced by the education startup space and the role of Blackboard, the industry incumbent. Rather than compete with startups, Blackboard buys them, and this acquisition strategy leads not to a better product for consumers but instead to the extermination of existing innovations.

In a healthy market, a product or service acquisition should be a positive event, producing value not only for those acquired and their investors, but for the consumer and community at large. That statement is echoed by both Henry Ford and Peter Drucker. Drucker says that “It is the customer who determines what a business is … what the business thinks it produces is not of first importance”, [8] and Ford agrees: “Power and machinery, money and goods, are useful only as they set us free to live.” [9] Clearly, the intent of our capitalistic structures are failing us with defensive, non-productive acquisitions like those described above.


I’ve described six problems in the way design is considered within the context of business. I do not purport to have the solution to these problems, although I have suggestions to managers at large companies, founders at startups, and to our politicians, based on my own experiences. The fact that design is finally considered of consequence within the larger conversation of capitalism is extremely positive. The fact that there exist so many areas of opportunity for improvement is to be expected, given the relatively shallow understanding of design within most decision making circles. My hope is that this article is sufficient in causing executive-level decision makers to question their behavior and habits, and in causing the conversation of design-driven innovation to elevate to a level of policy and responsibility.

  1. Nussbaum, Bruce. Accessed on March 19, 2012
  2. Williams, Luke. Accessed on March 19, 2012
  3. Shih, Gerry. In Silicon Valley, designers emerge as rock stars. Accessed on April 16, 2012
  4. Lessig, Lawrence. The Problem With Patents.,1902,4296,00.html Accessed on March 18, 2012
  5. Spradlin, Liam. Apple Granted Slide-To-Unlock Patent, Bearing On Android Yet To Be Seen. Accessed on March 18, 2012
  7. Yung-Hui, Lim. Pinterest Revises “Terrifying” Terms of Service, Soon To Release Private Pinboards and API. Accessed on April 16, 2012
  8. Drucker, Peter. Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.
  9. Ford, Henry. My Life and Work.

It’s Hard, and I’m Just Not Passionate About It.

Words that make me cringe. I get frustrated and annoyed with things just like anyone else, but I’ve never felt the sentiment of these sentences – yet I’ve heard them from entrepreneurs looking to start their own companies, from consultants working on projects, and from people trying their best to orbit the giant hairball that is a Fortune company. It’s typically a plea for approval, even when said casually over a beer; the long, unspoken form is “It’s hard, and I’m just not passionate about it, and I’m thinking of giving up – will you tell me it’s OK to give up, so I’ll feel better about it in the morning?

I’ll offer a quick anecdote, and then I want to poke at these words a little and see if I can understand them better, and perhaps offer advice on how to overcome the emotions of these ideas.

When I was at another educational institution, I worked on proposing a new graduate degree in Interaction Design. This effort took approximately a year, and required crafting a proposal, socializing it with various Vice Presidents, presenting it to peers at a Curriculum Council, refining it based on feedback, and ultimately, pushing forward a vision that serves students and a profession, while trying to navigate a highly political environment. It’s like any other design activity in a big institution: it was hard, and I had to be passionate about it all of the time. I ran into all of the political bullshit you would imagine (“Interaction is too vague; why don’t we just call it a Masters in Multimedia?”), and some that would surprise you (a Dean of Liberal Arts that was adamant, to the point of blocking the proposal entirely, that anyone who teaches qualitative design research must have a PhD in Anthropology).

I failed in getting the proposal through, and as a result, I left the institution. The experience had all the makings of “It’s hard, and I’m just not passionate about it.” But in reflecting on my efforts, I never felt that, and I have some thoughts about why.


“It’s hard.”

There’s a challenge, and it’s wearing me down. Can you produce artifacts along the way that illustrate forward momentum, and force yourself to reflect on those artifacts occasionally? The longer you approach a difficult problem, the more likely you are to feel a lack of forward movement. I was able to see evidence of my effort in things as small as the incremental filename/number of the proposal document (38 versions of this thing?) and in the physical curriculum map that I taped to the office wall.

I need skills I don’t have in order to succeed. How can you get those skills, or find someone who has them to help you? I had never proposed a Masters Degree before, and I had no idea how to do it. I reached out to some faculty who had successfully defined and proposed new programs, and asked for their advice and support.

My confidence in my own abilities is low. Your confidence in your own abilities needs to be irrelevant to you; that is, while others may have the emotional need to see you as a rational, confident contributor, you need to ignore the idea of confidence entirely, and have a laser focus on your work. I’ve found a simple internal dialogue works for me; when I catch the little voice questioning if I can do something, I quite literally tell myself, in my head, “Shh. I’m working.” Believe it or not, it works.

Things are outside of my control. Of course they are! The bigger your project, and the more impact you’ll likely have, the more people that end up getting involved and the more actions you’ll encounter that literally don’t make any sense. Throughout the process, dial-up the empathy and try your best to see the world from someone else’s perspective. With my proposal, I didn’t do this: I kept thinking, over and over, “Why are they being so stupid?” I’ve since learned a better question to ask: “What perspective do they have that’s causing them to react to my proposal in such a different way?” Force yourself to consider their perspective.

I’m not given the time to do what needs to be done. There are 168 hours in a week, and if I get a nice night’s sleep, there’s close to 120 left. I view my 120 hours as full of huge potential: think of all the things I might do! You can prioritize your time any way you want, but I think it’s important to be conscious of your priorities, and so I try to articulate them to myself: I put my projects into mental buckets, and continually revise which buckets get the most attention.


“I’m just not passionate about it.”

I don’t feel good when I’m doing it. I think this is actually a distraction, and not really about passion. I’ve found, for myself, that this feeling usually has to do with the items above: a lack of visible progress, a lack of dedicated time, a mismatch between my abilities and the challenge of the task at hand, or something going on in my life that has nothing to do with the work. And all of these things are under my control: I can change something to improve them.

I don’t really have an opinion about it. Force yourself to have an opinion about the importance of your work at a “thirty-thousand foot level”. This opinion can change, and should change as the work evolves and you gain perspective from others. But the strength of design work comes from constantly having an opinion, and manifesting this through a particular level of craft and follow-through of execution. In the case of my proposal, I felt strongly that interaction design shapes culture in a positive way, and that teaching students interaction design would help the world be a better place. That’s huge and lofty, which is, in its amorphousness, strange and foreign. But it provides a reason for doing the work in the first place.

I don’t care if it succeeds. Passion is contagious, and so is apathy. If you don’t care, no one else will, either.


It’s hard, and I’m just not passionate about it” is rarely about difficulty or enthusiasm. I’ve found that it’s usually about other things, things I can manage, change, or otherwise control. If you find yourself in the apathy conundrum, try to use different words to describe your situation, and you may find that you just need to reframe from a new perspective.

Thoughts on Design Portfolios

Designers are typically judged based on their portfolio of work. When I worked at frog, I encountered lots of unsolicited portfolios. The sad reality of sending a portfolio to a consultancy is that your chances of getting a job are a weighted dice roll, based on a mixture of extremely fast first impressions, serendipitous timing, and who you know. When I would receive a portfolio from someone I’d never heard of, I tried my best to actually look at it, but if my schedule was three-deep back to back meetings all day long, the email was ignored. Sometimes, if the sender got lucky, they might send it on the same day that a plea for hiring went out, usually based on a sales cycle accelerating or a deal closing unexpectedly. In these cases, they got the benefit of the doubt. And, in the cases where the email comes with a recommendation from a friend, I couldn’t help but be interested to see the work.

And so, if you made it past the “luck” phase, I would open the .pdf or click the web link.
At this point, you might stop and question things like “HR departments”, “your resume is on file”, and “just apply through the website”, which are probably all good ideas, but that – in my experience – are giant black holes. The human connection is huge.

This portfolio shows what a candidate has done, how they’ve done it, and how proficient they are at it. The “it” has traditionally been print and industrial design, and since these are visual end-artifacts, it’s easy to show the output, and the process is equally as visual.

But designers who work on software, systems, and services encounter a challenge: how do you show the output, and the process, in a meaningful way? Here are some pragmatic pieces of advice that I found myself wishing I could have offered, as I reviewed portfolios. Your mileage may vary, and all usual caveats about how impersonal, cold, and unforgiving agency life is apply.

General Advice
You may be the best generalist in the world, and it might be emotionally difficult for you to pigeon-hole yourself as a “type of designer”, but if there’s an open rec for a “visual designer”, that means the firm has money allocated to hire someone who does visual design work, and a need for that type of work. Your great wireframing skills are a nice supplement, showing you can work in a broader team, but at that critical moment of initial portfolio review, show what the rec asked for.

Your portfolio doesn’t need to be big. In fact, the best portfolios I reviewed usually had two projects in them – one that showed breadth, and one that showed depth. For example, it might contain a project that illustrates the entire design process, end to end; this illustrates if the candidate understands how design works, is familiar with a collaborative and user-centered approach, and thinks about things iteratively. Then, the second project offers only examples that show proficiency in an extremely focused skill area, such as wireframing, icon development, sketching, motion graphics, and so-on. This area of focus shows how the candidate can be resourced on day one: they can be put on a project that’s billable.

Attention to detail matters, a lot. In this very first moment, where someone hasn’t seen your work before and you’ve made it through the cold-call luck round, you have about 10 seconds for an arrogant, over-extended, tired creative director to poke at your material before they find something they don’t like and leave. This translates to:

  • No spelling errors, of anything, anywhere
  • Things in a grid line up exactly (to the pixel)
  • Use Helvetica, Futura, Frutiger, or Meta, and nothing else, unless you actually know what you’re doing
  • The .pdf you send is less than 3 megs
  • The URL you send is actually live
  • The cover letter that you send to frog doesn’t explain why you would be great for the job at IDEO (you would be chagrined to know how frequently this happens)
  • The imagery you include has been cropped, color adjusted, and otherwise manipulated to be appropriate
  • Use big pictures. Little itty-bitty sketches indicate a lack of confidence in the work. Be big and bold.

Design Research
When showing design research, it’s tempting to show photographs of people, particularly of people’s faces. This is irrelevant to someone judging your portfolio. Who are these people? Why are they relevant? What did you do with them? You could explain this in the accompanying text, but at that first glance, no one is likely to actually read that text. Instead of pictures of people, show imagery that includes insightful evidence of workflow, artifact, or space problems – and circle and annotate the important part of the image, so it’s super obvious.

When I review DR portfolios, I care less about your ability to plan and execute design research, and more about your ability to synthesize and make meaning out of the data you found. This means showing diagrams, insights, quotes, and other things that led you to big, important takeaways for design.

Taking pictures of post-it notes is really fun. I do it a lot. But showing pictures of people moving post-it notes around in your portfolio isn’t interesting and doesn’t add any value to your story. Showing pictures of post-it notes themselves isn’t that interesting, either.

There’s an expectation that someone getting a design research job knows how to conduct standard design research. If you’ve done something particularly unique, emphasize it. Did you join the girl scouts to understand teenage girls? Get a job at a grocery store to understand the supply-chain process? Work through co-design activities at a retirement home? Show the unique stuff.

Visual Design
A strong visual design portfolio shows a breadth of platform expertise. This includes designs for web, various mobile platforms, television, print, packaging, motion, and so-on; it illustrates that a consultant can work on a broad array of billing programs.

Show exploratory process. While the final artifact is nice to see, it’s also useful to see how you arrived there. Did you pick a direction on day one, or explore multiple styles over time?

Try to show that you can both take an existing brand language and extend it, and create a new language from scratch. If you never did these things in school, assign yourself a project and do them yourself.

Include both conceptual (blue-sky, experimental) and pragmatic (utilitarian, transactional), because if you can do both, you’ll be in huge demand.

Interaction and Service Design
An interaction and service design portfolio seems nebulous, because these ideas are so big and broad. But while the discipline is huge, the job you are likely applying for is much smaller in scale, scope, and expectation. Research and identify the discrete skills that a particular job expects, and be sure to illustrate competency in these skills. This probably means showing:

  • The ability to produce scenarios and storyboards, showing people in a context using a designed artifact
  • The ability to describe software using wireframes, comps, and interactive prototypes
  • The ability to sketch interfaces, rapidly, in an exploratory manner
  • The ability to use diagrams to sketch complex systems
  • The ability to create a visual map showing how a service extends across touchpoints

Don’t use lorum ipsem, ever, for anything. Include real content in all of the work you show, illustrating that you understand the vocabulary and contextual cues of a particular discipline

Think through all interactions in a given context, even if you don’t intend to show those. Just because you emphasize a particular linear path through an interface or service, there are other things that a user can do at any given stage. By showing these in your work, you indicate to a reviewer that you are thinking comprehensively about a system.

Include an exhaustive level of detail in screen designs. Try to make your work look as real as possible, by including contextual clues (browser chrome, a sketch of a kiosk surrounding a touchscreen, a user’s hand on a mobile phone), detailed form design for controls and inputs, sketched illustrations of framing imagery (rather than big square empty placeholder boxes), etc.

If you can create working or quasi-working digital prototypes, do it – this is a great way of showing you really consider how interactions should feel over time. But if you include these on a website, make sure they work, and make sure it’s clear what features and functions are prototyped and which aren’t functioning. Give the reviewer a clear path through your UI.


I hope this is a helpful overview of things I would look for in reviewing portfolios. Keep in mind that my intent was to fill specific roles at a specific consultancy, which had extremely specific needs related to the core business, resourcing, utilization, and so-on. A different business will look for different things. Good luck :-)


You might also enjoy reading 7 Steps to a Kick-Ass UX Portfolio, by Will Evans or Five Steps to a Better Design Portfolio, by Jeff Veen.

Where do Design Ideas Come From?

I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion at Union Square Ventures yesterday, organized by Gary Chou and Christina Cacioppo. The focus of the panel was on the topic of “what should I make”, and we bounced around to touch on issues of process, insights, founders, and funding. I spent a bit talking about insights, and here’s what I talked about.

In the context of design and innovation, an insight is a provocative statement of truth about human behavior. Insights are one of the main output of design synthesis, and so by definition they are interpretative and subjective. That’s a lot of words, so let me try to explain what I mean by way of an example.

One of our startups at AC4D is a company called Feast For Days. The premise is simple: get together with a group of people, cook together, and take home enough meals for a week of eating. Founders Jonathan and Ben arrived at this seemingly simple idea through the process of design. They observed and interacted with lots of low-income shoppers and families, and through these months of research, they gathered raw data around shopping and eating behavior. They noted that:

These statements are true, at least for those that they observed. These factual statements become the foundation upon which insights are formed.

Then, through a series of synthesis methods, they came to the conclusion that:

This is a jumping off point that builds upon the facts, and it’s an interpretation – an assignment of meaning to the data that was gathered. This interpretation may be wrong, because it’s a guess. It’s a good guess, but because of the complexities of culture, there’s no guarantee that it’s right.

Finally, they identified insights based on their interpretation. These insights – these provocative statements of truth about human behavior – look like this:

Each of these is a “statement of truth” because each takes an authoritative tone, even though each statement is not necessarily true. This authoritative tone makes it possible to use the insight as a point of departure to identify design constraints. Each of these insights is about human behavior, as they describe actions, emotions, and other aspects of motivation. And each is provocative because it acts as a logical gatekeeper: based on the statement, other things have to logically follow. For example:

These final points are design constraints: they become the boundaries that dictate what the product or service should do, and they indicate how it should be done.

If you examine this process, it’s one that starts with fact, and makes assumptive and inferential leaps on top of the facts. Each leap is a step away from something we are sure about, and so each leap is risky. This is the risk of innovation: it demands that someone makes inferences, and not only makes them, but builds upon them. The larger the leap, the more likely it is to be wrong. But with a larger leap comes a more unexpected innovation: a more jarring, differentiated, and unique idea.

You’ll also note that, when moving from initial interpretation to insight, new knowledge and assumptions were introduced.

These additions come from within the designer, and speak to the role of experience. The more things the designer has experienced, the broader a palette of extra knowledge they have to leverage, and they can use this to further build upon and refine interpretations in order to arrive at unique and useful insights.

In bringing this full-circle to the question of our panel, this process of observations, interpretation, insights, and constraints acts as the process of identifying and defining “what should I build”, and it even offers support for the next phase of design: “how should I build it?” It’s a rigorous process, one that can be done in any context that involves people, and one that’s guaranteed – not to develop ideas that are marketable, valuable, or even useful, but to identify new ideas that are grounded in the complexities of human behavior and culture.

Girls Guild Pilot sessions are open for sign up!

A community connecting artists and makers in apprenticeship.

Happy Spring!

Diana and I have been hard at work meeting with fabulous artists, makers, and business women across Austin to curate our first pilot guild sessions, and we’re super excited to show off our core group of makers!

Artists and Makers

We’ll be holding our first pilot session with jeweler Anna Gieselman, the woman behind Rarewears, who will be holding a session on how to make elegant hoop & bead earrings as well as wire and bead necklaces on Sunday April 15th, 4-6pm! If you know any girls between the ages of 12 and 19 who would be interested, have them sign up to work with Anna!

Our subsequent pilot sessions will be happening throughout April and May with various ages, 12 and up. Please pass along the Girls Guild website to any teenage girls or parents of young women who might be interested in working with one of our makers!
Most of the sessions will last 2-3 hours and then we’ll ask the girls to provide us some feedback on it afterwards so we can design the sessions to best fit their needs.

We’re so excited to be piloting soon, and we’re honored to have your support!
As always, send us an email or Facebook message with any insights or ideas you may have. And we would be eternally grateful for any contacts to schools, girls organizations, or individuals who might be interested in our pilot!

Happy Making!

Cheyenne & Diana
Co-Founders of Girls Guild
@thegirlsguild | Facebook

HourSchool gets some great press!

The HourSchool team recently generated some great press, with a writeup in both AGBeat and in the Huffington Post. From the HuffPo article:

We are born to learn. The innate ability to learn is within us, regardless of our current situation. No one need ever be overlooked or written off. When we look at people on the street, do we acknowledge them as talented human beings with potential to grow, potential to contribute more, potential to teach?

HourSchool does. The online platform enables anyone in your community to create a class related to something they’d like to learn or something they have to share. These classes happen in cafes, homes, and offices around town.

You can read the rest here.

Building Girls Guild

(or, How We’re Making a Community of Makers)

But first, a shameless plug.

We’ve entered Girls Guild in the GOODMaker Art Everyday Challenge in hopes of funding our pilot and launch, and voting ends soon (03/30 at noon PST). Please, pretty please, lend us your vote.

Girls Guild

Thank you!

Anyway. What is all this? How did we get to this point? Three months ago Girls Guild was a nebulous idea manifested only on Post-it notes–thousands of them, whole walls of them, but a flimsy, fluttery foundation nonetheless. Mere weeks ago it had graduated to become a design, a fledgling prototype taking its first steps into the wide world… or at least, the world wide web. Now, it’s a service. It is (although personally I still feel wildly audacious saying it) a business. At least, it will be, once we pilot.

For right now, what it really is, is this: Girls Guild is a community bringing together girls with artists and makers for an apprenticeship in the skills and practice of making.

That could change tomorrow. Pieces of it probably will. But that’s what we’re working on this quarter: refining the business model to its essence so that we can pilot it, test it, and then continue refining and testing until we’ve found the seed of something we can grow.

This is not an easy process.

We didn’t expect it to be, but still. It’s hard to expect the emotional grip of the roller coaster until you’re on the ride. I know that’s a clichéd metaphor, but I like it anyway because it’s really very apt:

roller coaster

The above is a generalized diagram of our process. The specifics, for us, include repeated refocusing of our service to hone in on making the connection between girls and artists/makers, while cutting out ourselves as mediators as much as possible. That has required us to rethink our pricing and revenue model, which was hazy to begin with, then oversimplified for a while, but is finally starting to take shape, we think. Maybe. Meanwhile we’re actively recruiting artists to lead pilot sessions over the coming month, and pursuing contacts at schools and youth organizations who might be able to help us spread the word to teenage girls and get them interested.

Along with all of that, we’re also trying to look a little further down the road to plan our launch after we graduate in May, which means putting together a solid business model, practicing our pitches, and thinking about possibilities for funding. We expect to have to get creative about this, since typical investment tracks seem much better suited to profit-driven tech start-ups than to a social enterprise like ours. That’s what leads us to things like the challenge posted above. We’ll continue to explore our options as we look to launch and grow, but for now even a small amount would be a big help in getting started.

Wanna lend a hand?

Please vote. 😉

Pitching our Businesses

Hello friends! This week at AC4D we are learning how to pitch the social businesses we have been working on. Here is my first online attempt. Is there any way I can make the pitch clearer? What do you think I should consider adding or removing? I would love to hear your feedback. You can e-mail me at or tweet me at @bdfranck. Thanks for your support!

Founder Thoughts

Alex and I always talk about how we need to write more, do some writing first thing in the morning before diving into emails, get things out of our heads onto something tangible. Yet, it still doesn’t happen as often as we would like.

But here’s a start, some raw thoughts from the week.

On taking money
We’ve gone many months without outside money. We came this far by putting in our own savings and a ridiculous amount of generous help from friends and supporters. Well, money is running out and we need to raise some. But we’ve always had a lot of hesitations when it comes to taking other people’s money. Since day 1 we’ve always wanted to learn to make money, not raise money. The idea of bootstrapping was always more appealing to us than the idea of “being funded”. At the same time, I think we are also just nervous. Nervous about the responsibility. Here’s a thought I had the other day: I probably wouldn’t be as nervous if I was borrowing the exact same amount of student loan to pay for a 2 year master degree. It would’ve felt like the most normal thing to pay a huge sum for my education as an investment, and I’ll pay it back through years of hard work afterwards. When it’s viewed that way, investing in my own startup all of a sudden feels like a much better deal. I have control over what I want out of it, and I’m learning more everyday than any degree would be able to give me. Speaking of defaulting the responsibility to someone else – “I paid you tuition so now you’re responsible to teach me everything to be successful.”

On building supporters
It’s easy to want to stay in the studio. All the work that needs to be done! Someone’s gotta do it right? Recently, I have a new found appreciation for getting out and building connections. And I don’t mean the “networking” sessions where you exchange business cards but in reality everyone just really want to talk about their own startups (us included!) I mean building deeper connections and a group of supporters in Austin, with other groups that are doing amazing work such as PeopleFund, Center 61, The Next Fest, Aunt Bertha, Urban Roots, Four Teachers, to name a few. As much as sxsw has been overwhelming, because of our active outreach lately, we have met some really great people and felt that we are much more rooted in Austin than we were two weeks ago. Starting a business is an emotional journey. Having people around who understand makes you not die.

I have thoughts on some other topics, but haven’t articulated enough to write about yet.

I feel fine. Recovering.