just the beginning

We had orientation this weekend and met everyone. I am very excited to spend the year working with such a talented group of people. The image is a small collection of some common ideas, thoughts and themes that were part of the weekend and show a small piece of what lies ahead. The work begins with the first class tonight.

Allan Chochinov – Manifesto for Sustainability in Design

blogged about my thoughts on this in my new “design thoughts” blog (http://design-thoughts.posterous.com). I felt this would be more appropriate here as my friends and professors might add to the discussion. So, here it goes…

This is part of a class reading at AC4D.


I was reading through this and it stuck me that I could break this down into four groups. The numbers in the parenthesis indicate the corresponding points in Chochinov’s manifesto.

1. Responsibility (1 & 2) – This relates to social and personal responsibility of your own design. One must be conscious of the fact that design multiplies and reaches unanticipated corners of the world. It is hence a responsibility not cause damage through design.

2. Attention (3 & 4 & 10) – Paying attention to what you are designing and who you are designing for is critical. Also, it is important to pay attention to what the context. Design is a way to solve problems and that should be the focus. There is very little place for personal ego. Pay attention to what exists around you and what you can leverage to solve a problem. Creation of a new solution should be a natural evolution and not a forced step because of wrong reasons.

3. Empathy (5 & 6 & 9) – Empathize with the users, their environment, your environment, your home, planet and everything that you can empathize with. Understand what you are designing for and if your intended audience resonate with your emotions while they use your design. Design is about making connections, on an emotional level. Observe nature and how the planet works. Your design need not go against the creative flow.

4. Common Sense (7 & 8 ) – Use common sense while designing. Challenge the urge to showcase your design skills with an actual need for that work. Use quantification to your advantage. The results of a design are almost always quantifiable. If you cannot quantify, then maybe it is time to rethink.

The above discussion to me, summarizes the entire Chochinov paper. I think it is common sense and I would be surprised why somebody would not think on the above lines while designing. Again, I am new to design, hence there may be things that I cannot yet see. However, as an exercise, it would be interesting to keep in mind these 4 points while evaluating any design

Why this feels right

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

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

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

And it begins.

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

Innovating for the Poor

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


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

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

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

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

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


Change Starts Today

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

A Phenomenon in Making

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

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

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

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

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

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



AC4D Kicks Off Tomorrow!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet AC4D's Inaugural Class

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

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

Welcome to Austin Center for Design, everyone!

The Puzzle of Bruce's Zeitgeist

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

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

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