A reflection on Closure

I’ve gotten a reputation for redesigning AC4D via blog posts. It’s a testament to the school’s openness and our relationship to the school as inaugural class that I’ve been able to channel my critical reflections into something proactive and creative. And I’ve realized that everything that the school has put forth this first year has been a stake in the ground—this is how we do things— and that without that initial catalyst, no reflection/improvement/differing opinions can be had in the first place. And I’ve grown a lot doing this kind of thinking and reflecting, and I hope none of it comes off as too critical because it’s all done with #ac4dlove and with the future in mind. Anyway, to end the year with more of the same, some of us felt that our graduation dinner was anti-climactic and missing something, and upon reflection I remembered and learned and wanted to share the following.

One of my undergrad communications professors told us that ceremonies served as punctuation marks in our lives. The graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and funerals mark the passing of time and let us pause to reflect and celebrate. I initially was going to write about the ceremonies of years past and how they were awkward yet necessary because they allowed us to step out of normal time by doing this weird pomp and circumstance routine. And only by participating in it were you able to feel the feelings you needed to feel in order to blah blah blah.

But then I realized that’s not what we needed more of this past week. Making the receiving of graduation certificates more staged or more formal wouldn’t have helped bring closure to this AC4D inaugural experience. What we needed more of was the reflection that ceremonies sometimes let us experience. What we needed more of was group reflection time—an AC4D members-only powwow instead of individual POWs.

Learning from Owl’s Nest

I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in the first Owl’s Nest: a weekend retreat for women who used the creative arts to engage community. Because the two creators of the Owl’s Nest were women as well as professional community facilitators, they did an exceptional job of structuring our introduction to and our exit from the Nest.


Though I do not remember the specifics of our first day activities, one thing I do remember is that we covered ground rules and did some games and activities before we had to introduce ourselves and give our spiels about our backgrounds. When you jump into introductions right away before having a chance to work with or even just hang out with people, the names and facts don’t stick because there’s no context. How much more impactful would it be to be introduced to your AC4D classmates after a day of working with them in a design bootcamp than it is to sit through an hour’s worth of intros only to forget everything and relearn people’s names over lunch.

Group Reflection

Even more powerful and more impactful was the way Owl’s Nest closed out our weekend work together as a group. First we had group reflection time: We did a Poster Dialogue activity where large sheets of paper were posted around the wall, a couple sheets for each of the following questions:

  • What was most important to you over the weekend?
  • What did you enjoy most?
  • What are you taking away?

People could write their own answers, read other’s answers, and comment on what others had written. Following this, the retreat leaders led us through processing the posters by holding a group conversation by reading aloud what we had written, asking questions, and letting people voice follow-up thoughts with the whole group. I could definitely see this being useful as a way to process and reflect on a period of collaborative worktime including design workshops, the last day of an individual class, or pre-graduation. And easily adaptable to whiteboards or post-its.

Group Appreciation

The other activity that brought Owl’s Nest to a fulfilling closure was a community closing activity focused on appreciation. We were about 30 people. We sat in a circle, and we took turns, each appreciating what someone else in the circle had brought to our experience together. Each person shared one thing about another person, and when it was your turn, you had to choose someone who had not yet been appreciated. Everyone in the circle got one moment to be honored by the group and one opportunity to share a story about someone else in the group. It may sound cheesy, but it’s incredibly powerful, period.

Three other variations on this activity came from my time as an after-school teacher.

  1. You can pass a ball of yarn from one person to another as each person thanks another. At the end, the facilitator walks around the circle and cuts the strings each person is holding and weaves a story: despite the fact that we may have to leave the group now, we will always hold a piece of our time together with us into the future (symbolized by the length of yarn we’re left with).
  2. On large sheets of paper one per person (possibly with respectively traced silhouettes if you’re working with small children), each person writes his/her name. Then the group walks around and writes good things or appreciations or thanks about others. These can be written directly onto the paper, or onto post-it’s or cut-out shapes that are then attached to the person.
  3. As a Badgerdog summer camp writing instructor, we had to introduce each of our students at the closing community reading before they came up on stage to read their work aloud. Each instructor did it in a different way, but most took the time to appreciate and say something uniquely observed about each student. It’s necessary to sometimes very publicly acknowledge and honor the specialness of individuals at the milestones in their lives, because it’s usually the most amazing people who are the most humble and sometimes the most insecure of us all.

At the Owl’s Nest, in between and after our closing activities, we also completed individual written evaluations, packed and cleaned, said goodbyes. Many of us also went to Trudy’s afterward for drinks and food where other ‘outsiders’ joined our group. But because we had already reflected and closed our weekend retreat together, everything else fell easily into place.


Now, in hindsight, I think AC4D students and faculty should have just gone out for drinks together before our graduation dinner—members only, no guests allowed—to shoot the bull, reflect on the year, and say all of the things we needed to say, out loud and to the group, as uncomfortable or as squirmy as they may make us feel: all the “thank you’s” and “can you believe that” and “so proud’s” and “omg’s” and “I’m so glad to know you” and “this was fucking amazing, holy fucking shit…”

Because holy fucking shit, Mr. Kolko and Mr. Petro, a year ago none of this existed! And look what you created! And how the fuck did you manage to bring together such an incredible and inspiring and amazing group of people? And kudos on a damn good first year.

And thank you.

AC4D in Core!

Some of Austin Center for Design’s student projects are featured in a recent Core77 article: “AC4D: One year later, Innovating solutions to address Homelessness.” Check it out here!

Our Commitment to Low Cost, High Quality Education

As we end our first year, I want to reiterate a fundamental value of Austin Center for Design: A commitment to affordable, quality education. The relative cost of graduate study in the US has grown out of control in the last few years, and I’m not the first to point out the untenable prices of higher education. Author of DIY U Anya Kamenetz asks “What’s to be done about dropout rates and outstanding student-loan debt that currently totals over $730 billion, or $23,200 per graduating senior in 2008?”

A design degree from any of the top schools in the country, such as CMU, Pratt, or Parsons, will run $32,000 a year, and the two year total of $64,000 will take most students close to 10 years to pay off at a monthly rate that rivals their rent. Students’ collective focus is shifting from a “winner takes all – house, car, and garage” lifestyle to one that’s more thoughtful, methodical, and purposeful, yet without a giant paycheck, this tuition rate appears absurd. With $64,000 in debt – likely on top of $150,000 in undergraduate pain – it’s difficult to imagine a new alumni embracing a risky job or opportunity. Yet it’s precisely those risky jobs and opportunities that we are hoping will solve societal woes – innovators and entrepreneurs.

MIT Media Lab’s new director Joi Ito has made affordable education a primary concern, and it’s clear that the school is responding to popular pushback against high tuition rates. I’m hoping to see drastic cuts in the tuition rate at MIT (both graduate and undergraduate tuition without room and board is $39,212 per year – that’s a quarter of a million dollars for an undergrad and grad degree), but I’m not optimistic – I understand the economics and politics of an endowment, and tuition rates generally go in one-direction only. SCAD – where I used to teach – pays its president just shy of two million dollars and demands a graduate tuition of $30,960 per year for a graduate degree. How can a student hope to pay this off in their professional career?

I wonder if these schools might think creatively about their business model – they are, after all, giant businesses – and find a way to subsidize the majority costs of the endowment in another way. What if universities pushed harder to encourage technology transfer, claiming minority investment positions in startups and helping find practical uses for the research that’s conducted in most research institutions?

It’s time that design schools took their user-centered design methodologies to heart, looking at their users – that is, their students – in a more humane light. Burdening a student with such phenomenal debt at such an early stage of their careers is criminal. The cost of education seems to be unrelated to the quality of delivered product – it is not an equitable exchange. And of all subjects, design claims a fundamental responsibility to change the world for the better, demanding empathy with users. Why, then, do we continue to put such a cost on this responsibility?

Austin Center for Design exists to transform society through design and design education. We hope to be able to utilize our tuition revenue in the future to fund the startups and entrepreneurs that complete our program – to create startup-specific scholarships and help these students achieve their visions. As we enter our second year and explore the legal logistics of this, we turn to our colleagues at other more seasoned and established design institutions and ask them to do the same. Consider how you can lower the cost of tuition, fund the passions of your alumni, drive innovation in the model of funding education, and change the way the educational system works in the US. I have no doubt that design will drive a charge for social and cultural change, but the scale of this impact will remain artificially constrained until our graduates can embrace financial risk where it counts – not when they enter school, but when they launch their own businesses.

AC4D Startup Pocket Hotline in the news

Austin Center for Design students Chap Ambrose and Scott Magee noticed that the front-desk attendant at the local homeless shelter was overwhelmed. With a line of homeless out the door and the phone ringing off the hook, the attendant – likely making minimum wage – was unable to help any one client in a meaningful way, and was left to sacrifice depth for breadth, moving the line along and giving just enough information to get the phone calls to stop. With so many people interested in volunteering and helping the homeless (the Christmas dinner service is all full, thanks), why is there such a lack of professional, qualified help answering the phone?

Chap and Scott developed Pocket Hotline, an application that can route support calls to anyone qualified to answer. Instead of the calls ringing at the homeless center, a volunteer can receive calls on their mobile phone whenever they are “on call”. Pocket Hotline gives the phone operators a searchable index of information at their fingertips, allowing them to answer questions quickly and effectively.

Chap and Scott set up a pocket hotline for Ruby on Rails support, encouraging novice software developers to call in and talk to an expert. Rails Hotline was picked up by Hacker News, and in just a few days time, they’ve:

Congrats, guys, for a great and public entrance into the startup scene. Your product is solid and grounded in some great user-insights; you are performing an excellent service. Keep it up!

Marketing 101 from @getmetacos

So whut had happen wuz: Hour School was like, “Yo Scott, whut joo know bout marketing?” And Scott was all like, “Bring it.” And lemme tell ya, dat boy Scott dropped some dope wisdom on us.

If you want some framing and language and context and understanding to enhance your nuts and bolts and excel spreadsheets, read on. Because theory + practice = rainbows and unicorns!

Everything is marketing.

Marketing is not a 4-letter word. Everything you do is marketing: your name, your brand, your words, how you present yourself, your Twitter handle, your tone, your product, your customer support, everything. In the end, the culmination of how people perceive your company can be affected by any of those pieces (for better or for worse).

Marketing is about understanding how people see you, and how they hear you.

The 4 P’s

The 4 P’s are something you learn in school when you’re starting off as levers you can adjust. You end up internalizing them, and then no one ever explicitly talks about them in meetings.

  • Product: Creating value means understanding your product market fit and making sure you fit within a niche where your product and values align with your customers’. Just talk to people, and find out what their needs are. (Ahem, design research.) So much of typical marketing = broadcast. Don’t settle for that. Find the right people, and position it for them.
  • Price: Projecting your value and aligning it with other’s perceived value.
  • Place: How are people going to find you? How are they going to find out that you’re good? Where are they when that happens? Use customer journey maps and temporal zooms to understand those touchpoints.
  • Promotion: Quotes from your customers speak volumes. Transfer of trust is very real. Find a way to have a connection to the person/industry. Craft specific messages for specific audiences. “No one wears a sign on their head saying ‘I want your stuff.'”

The most important P

is of course patience. Do it right. You only get one shot with some customers. Listen to them.

Marketing vs. Sales

  • Marketing = demand generation: who you are, where you are, how do people get to you. Go to where the people already at (fish where the people are already at.) Don’t create new behaviors; discover existing behaviors. Make it so simple to work your product/service into their normal patterns, they can’t not use this next great thing.
  • Sales = conversion: how do you get them to do this action or to transact? Awareness is well and good, but to be sustainable, you need to generate revenue, so you can get a return on your investment.

Read startup-marketing.com

Great posts, for example this one on Lean Marketing Basics that take cues from Lean Start-Up values. Basically, be smart about your marketing: don’t just throw money at old broadcast mediums when you could be creating more personalized messages.

  1. Minimize waste via sophisticated metrics (Understand where your $ is going with stuff like google analytics, measure it, understand whether it’s good or bad, adjust as needed, so you’re not throwing money away.)
  2. Understand your customer’s values. (empathy)
  3. Optimize the funnel (typical funnel 1% transacting = good But if you find the right people to market to, you can make the funnel more of a cylinder. Don’t waste your money bringing in non-qualified leads at the top. No reason to market at people who aren’t your customer.)


Set marketing/sales goals, and make sure you achieve them. When things aren’t working, good marketers turn the magnifying glass back onto themselves; bad ones just throw more money at it.


Be consistent in all of your messaging. If you’re consistent, your message will get across. Nuances may get seen by outside as something different. (e.g. if you’re selling your product to three different groups, you may be tempted to talk about it in a different way to each, but it’s still the same product; don’t confuse people)

Makes it easier for others to be able to describe it to other people, makes it easier for others to evangelize for you.


Someone else is probably already doing it; look at what they’re doing for free research. What’s working, what’s not?

Don’t forget the basics

  • Find out people’s intents and motivations
  • Get to where they’re at and other people like them
  • Visualize the experience. Think through every detail of your business as if it’s successful. Work through details such as: in an ideal world, how would they find you? what’s their first experience with you? when would they realize they’ve found something great? what would you be doing when they found that out? why would the user think it’s great or important?

Key questions

  • What would make you do this again?
  • What would make you want to tell someone else about this?
  • How do you make your customer kick-ass? How do you make them awesome?



Mad props to Hour School and Scott Magee for throwing down and helping a sista out with her humble start-up marketing plans.

An Interaction Designer at 3-Day Startup

40 people.  3 Days.  5 startups.This weekend, I participated in 3-Day Startup with the goal of launching a technology company in three days, on no sleep, and with people I just met.

The weekend started out with everyone pitching their ideas and then voting with their feet which project to work on.   I chose Tripgather, a data aggregator for travelers because I liked the people on the team.  I am lucky to work with amazing, passionate people every day at AC4D and was happy to have a similar privilege at 3-Day Startup.

Our team:

  • Jonathan Spillman – UT MBA, awesome leader, idea man
  • David McCleary – UT Masters in Engineering, Mr.Make Things Happen in business and marketing
  • MacKenzie Seale – UT Finance undergrad, content guru, Miss “I’ve never talked to random people, but let’s do it.”
  • Garrett Eastham- Computer Science whiz from Stanford, who Jonathan rightly called the “Michael Jordan of programing”
  • Levi Lalla- Engineer from MIT who just happens to also front-end code with the best of ’em
  • And me, AC4D interaction designer

What do you do with an interaction designer?

At our first team meeting when I announced my role, I got a few understanding nods from the programmers and understandably blank stares from the rest of the team.  What does an interaction designer do? More importantly, what do they do at 3-Day Startup?

My short answer – nothing and everything.  Here’s where I found myself:

  • Traditional Design:  An “agency” of three graphic designers worked with all the 3DS teams, and they were awesome.  I worked with them to help make our visual language matched our overall product message.

  • User Research: My heart leaped with joy when our whole team enthusiastically wanted to talk with customers.  I pushed for design research open-ended conversations rather than trying to collect quantitative data through surveys.    Steve Portigal’s got some great wisdom on the perils of bad surveys here and here.

  • User Flows:  What does a user expect to see?  What does a user want to see?  What user flow goes with our pitch story?

  • Pitch: Pull out the post-it notes.  Let’s craft a story that anyone can understand and that clearly tells the problem we’re trying to solve (Justin Petro would be proud of the post-its).

Looking back on the weekend, on the surface, it looks like I did nothing.

I didn’t present.

I didn’t code.

I didn’t do the financial model.

I didn’t do the graphic design.

Hell, everything I did was thrown away.

The home page I designed? Scratched.

The user flows and wireframes on the whiteboard?  Erased.

The post-it notes used to craft our pitch?  Trash.

But I couldn’t be more pleased. All that throw away meant that over the course of 3 days, we were iterating, reframing, and finding new and better ways to tell our story.  That’s what an interaction designer does and that’s what I brought to 3DS.

Healthcare marketing AKA games AKA interaction design

When I started writing this post, it was about marketing trends in healthcare. Rereading the draft, I realized they were actually gaming trends, and that they apply to interaction design in general. But those are all just surface key words. The reason these ideas resonated with me is because of the opportunities they open up for forward-looking and people-focused designers.


The following caught my eye in this post about gamechanging trends in healthcare marketing (pun not intended, I’m sure):

Kinect SDK could open the door to the next big thing in UX: This is a fantastic one – Earlier this month, Microsoft released a software development kit for its motion-controlled gaming system Kinect. That means third parties (like us) will be able to develop games and experiences that work on Kinect. You can imagine how this could reinvent how we think about UX. Today, most of the experience revolution is happening on the touch screen (in the apps and tools we’re developing of iPads and other slates.) Kinect opens up the potential of creating motion-based interfaces that connect with real-world human behavior.

Many of the early announcements around the Kinect SDK include examples alluding to Minority Report and Wall-E, and paint pictures of its use in people’s homes or offices. But I’m much more intrigued by the idea of something like this in a hospital or a doctor’s office, where there is a lot of natural movement and interpersonal connection. Motion-based interfaces remove the middlemen screens that come between many of our existing people-to-people interactions, as we move further toward the internet of things.


The first post led me to this one about what the Madden NFL Game can teach us about healthcare education/awareness campaigns. Instead of PSA’s, posters, and Facebook pages, let’s embed messages where they make the most sense and meet people where they are. That phrase gets tossed around a lot in my world because I value the idea, and this is a great example of that.

Instead of creating a PSA about concussions during football games and encouraging people to sit out after receiving one, NFL Madden from EA Sports started incorporating the scenario into their video game.

…the folks that developed the game recognized an issue with their sport and the well-being of its athletes and they chose their game as a means to address that. The reasons why this will probably be the most effective way to educate kids about concussions are simple. First, you’ll reach a huge proportion of them where they are (opposite signs in a doctor’s office) and likely disproportionately reach actual football players too. You put the injury in context of something they can understand. That is, if a concussion happens to your player in the game, you see the effects in real-time. You see the impact and the announcers reinforce it. As a player, you can’t help but absorb this, as the game stops for a moment while a replacement comes into the game. What will eventually happen is that players of the game will alter how they play the game to reduce the chances that their key players end up with a concussion (Madden NFL developers plan to make certain hits in the game result more often in concussions). Consciously and subconsciously this changes the way you think about the real game of football as a player too.

This will work to educate the people that matter: football players, coaches, and parents of football players (who also will be playing the game). It will work because it will reach this audience where they are, with a message that is very much in context of what they are doing at that moment, at a time when they are receptive (whether they know it or not) to receiving this message, and in a form that’s simple to understand with clear cause and effect.

Why now is the time to be in #IxD and #SocEnt

We are interaction designers. We are social entrepreneurs. We want to work toward social change. We want to make an impact. And we want our lives to have meaning. The moment is more than ripe. The possibilities are breathtaking if you think about where we are now as…
  1. As designers and the general public start to embrace that design is a verb, is a liberal art, is a collaborative effort, and is about the WHY. (Questions designers were asking during ‘one day for design,’ curated by Frank Chimero.)
  2. As technology makes the boundaries between the internet and life “so porous as to be meaningless.” (Beautiful and thought-provoking presentation on what’s Beyond the Mobile Web.)
  3. As we infuse ethics, commitment, values, and creativity into all of our work, no matter the channel or platform or means. (What nuns, yes nuns, can teach you about social media)


Theory of Social Entrepreneurship

AC4D is a different kind of school. We quickly realized on day 1 of student orientation that we were all here to work toward social impact. There weren’t going to be endless discussions about whether or not we should be “doing good” because it was pre-defined and a given in all of us as AC4D students. As Steve Portigal observed after guest lecturing:

The school is focusing on applying design to social change, but the discussion is about the problem solving power of design – to understand, reframe, and innovate, rather than an excess of earnestness or worrying. I suspect their point of view is maybe what you could call post-worldchanging…of course you want to address homelessness, let’s use the tools we’ve got to look at it.

We can’t just talk the talk; we have to walk the walk.

The great thing about the mix of method and theory classes we’ve been getting in Interaction Design is that we can both walk the walk while being able to talk the talk. We are able to frame our work within the larger context of the design community while understanding the history of what’s come before us.

We are missing the same kind of framing in the world of social entrepreneurship. We need a “Theory of Social Entrepreneurship” class to support our real work in the social enterprise space.

  • If the history of Xerox Park and Lisa and desktop publishing enrich our understanding of what is possible in our interaction designs today, the history of philanthropy and social finance and the sustainability movement give us a frame of what social entrepreneurship means in today’s world.
  • If we must read and engage in critical class debates about John Dewey and Richard Buchanan and Emily Pilloton to be able to attend IxD11 and not feel like a noob, we must also read and engage in critical class debates about Muhammad Yunus and Jacqueline Novogratz and Jeff Skoll to start to find our place in the SocEnt space as well.
  • Our stimulating discussions about the hot questions in design today (design with vs. design for; the role of technology in our lives) should be partnered with stimulating discussions about the hot questions in social entrepreneurship today (measuring impact; how does scale affect impact; passion vs. burn-out; legal structures and not getting sued by shareholders).

A couple of our classmates have been living in this stuff for the past couple of years and know how to talk in the language of social entrepreneurship. And while they were sometimes frustrated with the all talk and no walk of their previous SocEnt communities, we are now in danger of the opposite. I’m lucky enough to be able to pick their brains.

I’m starting to understand that SocEnt in the U.S. is different than its movement in Canada or the UK, and I’m starting to see why I’m still struggling to fit in. In other countries, SocEnt is tackling urban planning and local community issues. In the U.S., the SocEnt projects that get the most buzz and the most traction are targeting developing countries and the bottom of the pyramid. In other countries, SocEnt is tied to universities, research grants, and government money. In the U.S., our funding comes from VCs and philanthropic investment funds—and I’m not sure how funding of research (not just tech R&D) plays into it all yet. (Hope Lab is an interesting model: non-profit org that funds research and development, eventually spinning off social enterprises such as Zamzee.)

I’m wary of VC funds because I can’t guarantee 10x return if I’m operating a double- or triple-bottom-line business. My solution is to simply bypass it altogether (without much critical thought into the matter). I’m sure some debate and discussion would at least help me see my options more clearly.

I also believe that social enterprises and typical business ventures are different and require different types of incubation. Yes, they share the same backbones of business, and yes, fiscal sustainability is tantamount to success. But there are some new core questions that social entrepreneurs have to weave into their start-ups. How do you get your business off the ground while fueling your mission at the same time? How do you define success, and how to you measure that? How do you position yourself in the current marketplace? Cliché but: where is the line between you and your business, your passion and your investment?

Then throw in the questions that design brings to the picture of enterprise…let alone social enterprise. For most entrepreneurs, proof-of-concept and market validation typically come after you have a working beta, whereas designers create their products out of user research and synthesis and have to prove fiscal traction in addition to market validation.

Typically, we find MBAs with a business know-how searching for their passions; in SocEnt, we get reluctant innovators pursuing business know-how. Where do we interaction designer social entrepreneurs fit into these frameworks? We come at it from multiple sides, trying to make things meet in the middle. We’re making it up as we go along, as all adults do. Out of the frying pan into the fire.

Here are some examples of social enterprises that might provide some clues:

  • Tom’s Shoes
  • Catch a Fire (channel corporate employees to do pro bono consulting)
  • Ecojot (recycled paper notebooks)
  • Seventh Generation
  • Para Vida (coffee)
  • Better World Books
  • Good Capital (investment firm that invests in social)
  • Ben and Jerry’s business
  • Brand Aid Project
  • Root Capital
  • O Liberte (shoes)
  • Acumen Fund
  • Grameen Bank

Web sites where the debates are happening:

Books to whet your appetite:

  • David Borenstein: Social Enrepreneurship – What Everyone Needs to Know
  • Jacqueline Novogratz: The Blue Sweater


  • A Better World for Design
  • Harvard Social Enterprise Conference
  • re:Vision 2011
  • RISE

Incubators focused on social enterprises:

  • Unreasonable Institute
  • Good Company Ventures
  • Echoing Green Fellows

[Thanks to Hour School co-founder Ruby Ku for a lot of the above links and resources. In the spirit of Hour School’s mission to transform learners into teachers, I believe either she or Ryan Hubbard is fully capable of teaching a kick-ass course in IDSE 402: Theory of Social Entrepreneurship.]