Thoughts on consumption… and cloud services.

Greenpeace’s recent attention on data centers has lead to a bit of thinking, which lead to a spooky realization: we are further and further abstracting our consumption.

Let’s think back (this is highly generalized and simplified): First, we abstracted our means of obtaining food from hunting and gathering to relying on commercialized agriculture, allowing us to stop seeking and rather simply acquire food. Next, with industrialization came outsourcing of product, thus we were no longer strongly associated with the production of the objects we were using (and a much wider range of objects were available to us at a rapidly decreasing price point). After that came outsourcing of production of food and tools to overseas sites, removing even our geographic ties to how the things we consume are made in order to get them made ” better,” faster, and cheaper.

As we’re in the thick of a domestic (American) movement of going back to basics – desiring a part in the development and cultivation of things we consume that are physical (like food, furniture, the objects we use) – we’re becoming tremendously reliant on less tangible things like network-based services, and these things rely on data centers that are enormously energy consumptive (amazingly, the EPA’s already on it). However, since these services are more and more removed from us – similarly to how manufacturing was from the industrial revolution on to offshoring – we’re not quite savvy as to how much we’re consuming, and in this case it’s rather difficult for us to even understanding what it is we’re consuming in the first place. We want to know where our things come from and want them to be sustainable, not made out of plastic, locally grown, etc, and we’re visibly conscious of what we’re buying, eating, and doing – what kind of car we’re driving and how we’re doing our part to save the earth, so to speak. All this as we’re developing patterns of using technology in a way that’s extremely wasteful, if in a way that is invisible to us.

So, how do we solve this? Do we educate on the practical underpinnings of technological advancements the same way we’ve (reactively) been educated that plastic is bad, local is good and that single-body aluminum MacbookPros are more material/production efficient? As product designers, we were tasked with addressing “sustainability” long before the term or concept were part of the public vernacular – so is it now our responsibility to address this new means of consumption in order to design more responsible behavior into products?

Note: There are some interesting advancements made in this space, such as Google’s goal to recycle a majority of water used in their data centers.

Austin Center for Design in Forbes Magazine

Director Jon Kolko is interviewed in Forbes Magazine, discussing how design can change human behavior: “Good design is design that changes behavior for the better. I think it needs to take into account the context of the environment, of the human condition, the culture and then attempt to make the things you do – make us do them better, make us do better things.”

Read the whole article here.

Austin Center for Design in the New York Times

Austin Center for Design is in the New York Times; as Allison Arieff writes in her commentary The Way We Design Now, “If not objects, what? It’s a dilemma closely mirroring that of the larger American economy, which has been shifting steadily form manufacturing to service. In response, design schools are scrambling to offer curricula that moves away from what Jon Kolko describes as ‘the Bauhaus, form-giving stuff.'”

Read the rest here.

Design for Impact Bootcamp – Videos Available

Here are the instructional videos from our Design for Impact Bootcamp; please feel free to share these and use them as inspiration for your own Bootcamp events.


Jon Kolko describes how the Bootcamp works, and gives an overview of design process:


Lauren Serota provides an introduction to ethnography as a mechanism for gathering data from users:


Justin Petro describes the importance of a monetization strategy when developing for social change:

Synthesize: What is the role of Synthesis in the process of design?

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

Our fourth Synthesize session focused on the nature and role of design synthesis as a method of generating knowledge and leveraging the nuances of both a unique design problem and a unique designer. We began by discussing the role of synthesis in a normal product design cycle, one that works through research in order to arrive at new design ideas. The factors that lead to this “newness” are both embedded in the data of the design problem itself, in the research that is conducted, in the data gathered from the research, and in the designer who undertakes the research.

While there were a number of similes offered to describe the process of synthesis (like a jigsaw puzzle, like a stew), the one that seemed to resonate the most was of a puppet master, a marionette controller, pulling strings connected to various pieces of data and flexing various cords connected to design potential. The more cords (the more data), the more the puppet can do – but the more complicated the process of control becomes. In that space of synthesis, an experienced designer then is able to trust both intuition of process, and previous knowledge (knowledge both about the subject matter of the unique design problem as well as the tacit knowledge of methods) and is negatively constrained only by time. One can approach a design problem, then, with full faith that a solution will be forthcoming – if only the rigorous process of synthesis is given its due, and the designer has a hearty pool of data upon which to draw.

[Crosspost to the MEDEA Blog]

A Design Checklist for Social Innovations

Recently, I’ve been struck by some noticeable patterns that impactful social innovations share. While many successful consumer product and service designs are inherently complex (and the social kind is certainly no exception), there seem to be at least five apparent characteristics of effective social entrepreneurship:

  1. They are social. It might seem obvious but it’s worth noting that a design for a distinct society has to take hold in the community of people that it will serve and perhaps beyond. In that scenario community members purposefully transact the value of the design or certain properties of it. For Project Masiluleke (which means “lend a helping hand” in Zulu), frog designed a transaction that enabled widespread awareness of low-cost diagnostic HIV processes and tools for people in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa where infection rates are over 40%. A text message sent to people containing an 800 number starts an exchange of information that ultimately leads to a visit to a clinic where they can get a self-testing kit, and the message encourages healthy preventative behaviors even if they don’t.
  2. They are small. Remember those little yellow rubber wristbands that appeared on the scene 6 years ago? The Livestrong wristband is, on average, a two or three inch diameter piece of silicon that sells for a dollar each, or in packs of 10, 100, and 1,200. They quickly became a worldwide fashion statement and continue to raise loads of money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation in addition to influencing the fundraising efforts of many other charities (to date, they have hauled in over 500 million dollars for the LAF).
  3. They are simple. The Hippo Water Roller is a plastic barrel formed in two parts that can hold 22 gallons of water and was first used in Kgautswane, South Africa. The original model was recently redesigned by AC4D advisor Emily Pilloton’s firm Project H to reduce production and shipping costs. The idea itself is visually striking and dead-simple: instead of transporting 5 gallon buckets on their heads multiple times a day over rocky roads and through dense heat, poor, frail women can now push a bright blue barrel that carries significantly more water and cuts down on their trips, freeing them up to meet other needs.
  4. They are skillful. Mothers 2 Mothers is a counseling service in Africa that employs HIV positive “Women Mentors” to counsel HIV positive mothers. Nearly 2,000 mentors counsel about 20% of the HIV positive mothers on the continent, but the service wasn’t originally designed that way. Mitch Besser was working as a doctor at a clinic in South Africa and finding it hard to explain to affected mothers how they should begin treating their disease. So, he had some of his patients – also HIV infected mothers – do it for him. These women had the empathy, nuance, and communication skills to get through to women whom they shared a condition with and help them navigate the road to better health.
  5. They are scalable. A few years ago Dr. Peter Provonost of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine created a five-step checklist for doctors and nurses to follow when inserting intravenous lines. His advice was simple and included washing hands, using antiseptic at insertion points, and other straightforward instructions that were easy to follow and therefore easy to adopt. These educational, memorable, and actionable steps were put into practice by a lot of staff members: after 18 months of using Dr. Provonost’s checklist Michigan ICUs said they saved an estimated $175 million and about 1,500 lives.

Social, small, simple, skillful, and scalable. Consider this checklist when designing your next social innovation.

Synthesize: What is Design Judgment?

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

Our third Synthesize session today focused on the nature of criticism, judgment, and point of view – and the nature of cultural performance in determining good from bad.

We started by framing the role of judges, and the larger legal profession, in determining legal precedence and in forging new rules and consequences. While judging is commonly thought of as an objective measure, it’s actually quite interpretative, as it requires assumptions to be questioned, criterion to be both developed and embraced, and societal norms to be utilized as points of departure. Laws are political tools, and there’s a series of layers atop precedence, including interpretation, morals, norms, social status, and all of the baggage that comes with being in a particular group (political, racial, social, economic, or otherwise). There’s also a fairly fundamental relationship between technological advancement, behavior, and laws as a way of constraining, shaping, or directing potential behavior. And courtroom decorum creates a show, which is a performative way of externalizing decisions that are, for all practical purposes, already determined.

Then, we shifted to examine the role of judgment in design, and not surprisingly, the parallels are striking. Designers judge by comparing design solutions to existing design solutions, themes, or trends (often implicitly), and productively gathering and generating knowledge by extracting patterns, components and reusable elements. It’s an interpretative act that is often political. Like law, a more thorough read and understanding of history can lead to a more thorough synthesis (and therefore, a more rigorous and rich criticism or judgment can be formed). And like a courtroom, we’ve created a show – through design awards, magazines, conferences, and the like, to create a performative manner of showing our design decisions.

Finally, we spoke of curation from an art and design perspective, identifying the power system that exists when one is able to judge simply through selection. This is non-generative; the inference was made that perhaps the electoral democratic system is a curation of policy through proxy, which seemed to have as much of a negative response as the idea of a design curator-as-designer.

Ultimately, the conversation highlighted the complexity of design as a cultural phenomenon. In the same way that “laws are always political”, so too are designed artifacts always political. And so too is design judgment always a political statement, argued from a political perspective.

[Crosspost to the MEDEA Blog]

Synthesize: What is the role of prototyping in the context of a large-scale social problem?

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

Our second Synthesize session led to a great discussion about the topic, “What is the role of prototyping in the context of a large-scale social problem?” After describing the various forms of prototyping available for two and three dimensional design, we began to investigate the tools available for a four-dimensional design problem, such as a digital prototype or a service. It quickly became apparent that a design prototype in this time based context needed to provoke – it needed to create a new situation that could be observed and then critically analyzed. This is the role of interactive prototypes – interactive simulations aren’t simply “higher fidelity paper prototypes”, as there’s a deeper level of provocation that occurs once the user can enjoy a more emotional set of interactions that come with a temporal prototype.

Social problems, however, don’t afford provocation in the same way as do less time critical, anxiety ridden applications or products. And, the entire span of time that is relevant changes dramatically when thinking about social problem solving; instead of considering a single “use case”, use exists and extends over a period of time that can extend into years or decades. Our group used an earthquake as a point of conversation, describing how a prototype could be introduced into a situational episode (perhaps a play, body storming activity, or method acting). But that situational episode need not be at the heart of the earthquake itself – provocation can occur throughout the six or nine months following the devastation, and with various degrees of response. In all cases, a prototype would quickly ally with a certain set of stakeholders and would then become political in nature.

The conversation quickly turned to one of appropriateness, and the language of design shifts from “design for” to “design with”. Yet as is always the case with a conversation of design as a service endeavor rather than an autocratic activity, this is threatening – it pushes the role of designer as genius creator to one of designer as facilitator or educator. That can be unsettling for some, as it appears to question our entire role. That’s not the case, and Jonas Löwgren was quick to point out the largest contribution a designer can bring is our tacit and intimate understanding of materiality. That’s evident in the craftsman model of industrial and furniture design; for the interaction designer, the materiality is still critical, but is much less visible. For our material is either bits and bytes, in the case of digital embodiment, or the psychology and perception of people, in the case of human behavior.

[Crosspost to the MEDEA Blog]

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.