AC4D Inaugural Year – a FAQ

AC4D received a very strong group of applicants for the 2010-2011 inaugural year, and they’ve shown a tremendously positive and pro-active attitude in reaching out for more details about the program. I’ve captured some of their questions, and my responses, here.

  1. Would you consider the intensity and rigor of the program on par with nationally recognized graduate interaction design programs?Yes; it’s as intense and demanding as any program you might recognize. The program workload will be large, but not overly so. I can imagine one working at a design consultancy that requires 40-50 hours a week of your attention while attending class; I could also imagine one working retail or service[restaurant, coffee shop] as a way of creating a definitive structural gap  between your work life and school life. As a point of reference, the program is 15 hours of “face time” a week [M/T/W/T, and S], and you can estimate that the out-of-class workload is at least that and at most double that. So, worst-case is about 45 hours a week. But I would bet that those hours are  fun, intellectually stimulating, and invigorating.  For reference, there are 168 hours in a week :)
  2. How would the design, brand, and creative companies you’ve mentioned on the AC4D website look differently upon someone with a masters degree, as opposed to a certificate? How much weight would the certificate credential carry in the professional design world?In many cases, I think what’s less important than the degree or certification is the reputation the institution has that offered the credentials, and it’s my goal to elevate AC4D’s reputation to be equivalent to a “top tier” university. It’s already getting there, as we’ve gotten some great coverage in Forbes, the New York Times, and Fast Company. When we review applications at frog, we look primarily at the portfolio and relevant experience; the actual degree itself is not nearly as important as the proven track record.
  3. In general, do you envision the program as a professional design program or as a program that teaches design approach to students who will then return to their pre-AC4D disciplines?  Where do you see, or do you see, people obtaining jobs after completing the program?I would anticipate that students take three paths once they complete the program at AC4D. First, students may return to their “old job”, but with a new perspective and skillset that enables change from within. I’m hoping the number of students choosing this direction is small. Next, students may enter existing structures of non-profit, policy, planning, and humanitarian action and drive a design perspective (which is almost always foreign to these institutions). Finally, what I hope for the most, is that students will start their own businesses, launch their own products, or create their own services based on the work they’ve started at AC4D.
  4. Do you envision that students will have the complete skill set needed to take projects and ideas beyond the scope of the year and actually bring them to fruition through venture capital or will more business skills need to be obtained?The program can’t teach everything in a single year, but my hope is that students gather enough skills, tacit knowledge, and experience to be able to launch their own companies. And the expectation is not that you do it alone – it’s also that you build enough of a network through the school (with other students, the faculty, and the large network we have) to reach out for help when you need it. Austin has a great set of resources for technology development, design, and entrepreneurship.
  5. Could you illuminate the types of backgrounds and experiences of those that have applied or confirmed acceptance to the program?I’ve been thrilled by the multi-disciplinary group that’s applied. Applicants have included a ruby-on-rails software developer, a visual interaction designer, an art director, at least four print designers, an MBA, a toy designer, and a systems engineer. It’s pretty eclectic. Nearly all of the applicants have about five years of real world experience in their area of expertise.
  6. Do you envision solutions that come out of the class being built into social enterprises or carried forward by the clients and partners?Yes, I hope so. In working with real companies or agencies, we’ll tackle real problems. As an example, I’m speaking with the ACLU of Texas to determine if there’s a way to help them solve a system problem of brand awareness, interaction, and access to information through a sponsored project; if this occurred, this wouldn’t be “an exercise”, as we would interface with the stakeholders of the organization and actually implement our ideas.
  7. What are your thoughts on building design capacity in areas that are more local and more invested in solving large social problems, such as training foundations or NGOs to use the methodology?  If we believe design is a process that can be learned by anyone, is it more important to figure out how to teach the design process in an appropriate time frame to local people in the country, location, or context where a social problem exists?Yeah, completely agree. The twist to this is that we need to be able to teach and do; the problem with “design thinking” is largely that it implies an exclusion of “design doing”. So we completely need to teach the various non profits how to use design to their advantage, but they need to learn not only the philosophy of design but also how to actually do it. That takes time and a great deal of passion (clearly).
  8. What is motivating you to start this?  I’m curious as to why you teach and why you want to solve social justice and environmental problems.  What is your philosophy on why these things matter?In one regard, it’s a purely selfish pursuit. I’m good at design, and I feel like my abilities are wasted by offering my talent to massive corporations that are ethically questionable, while there are obvious problems that can be better served. I’m very convinced that design education sets in motion cultural trends; you can see a lag of about 10-15 years from when Bauhaus ideals were taught to when they started permeated the world. The same is true for the form teaching at Pratt. The same is true for integrated product design teaching at Carnegie Mellon, and the same is now true for the “design thinking” stuff coming out of Stanford. If I start teaching this pedagogy, and the school is successful, and students are successful, I’ll have helped – in 10-15 years – contribute to the type of change I would like to see in my world.

On Education

There’s a great new article by Dennis Littky in interactions magazine that describes his model for the future of education – one that he started focused on K-12 education, but has now extended into the college world as well. This makes a nice parallel to both Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on education, and Anya Kamenetz’s Fast Company cover article.

I’ve also contributed my own thoughts to the mix, which you can read here or below:


On EducationRecently, an article by Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, in which she paints a picture of how much education has changed, was featured on the cover of Fast Company. First graders use proprietary software and hardware; curricula self-adjust to the pace of the students; and the massive amounts of content presented on the Internet have democratized – at least on the surface – the challenge of access.

Large companies like HP are offering integrated packages like TeachNOW (designed in cooperation with frog design), which gives teachers a bird’s-eye view of the classroom and allows them to directly connect to packaged content sources. Connexions offers a similar content repository, in open-source fashion, of more than 16,000 reusable models with names like “serial port communication,” “the biopsychosocial model of health and illness,” and “Indian classical music: tuning and ragas.”

We are seeing a fundamental restructuring of delivery mechanisms, and a similarly rich restructuring of content (along with a healthy rejection of the age-old autocratic state content mandates). Yet until quite recently, we hadn’t seen the same scale of change in the pedagogy—the instructional styles used to impart knowledge and utilize the delivery mechanisms. And while study after study has rejected rote memorization and the homogenized learning encouraged by No Child Left Behind, alternative models of education are still characterized as “fringe.”

In this issue, Dennis Littky offers a provocative new model of K–12 education, one that emphasizes learning by doing, realizes individual differences in learning styles and approaches, and encourages apprenticeship learning over textbook learning. Fundamentally, Littky is arguing for the experiential learning promoted by John Dewey—and this is nearly identical to the process of design research and synthesis described in this issue by Katie Minardo Scott.

Designers use synthesis to quickly learn new things and integrate new perspectives with their existing worldview. They are, to some degree, experts in learning, and the critical ingredients seem to translate to a strong pedagogy of education. These ingredients include primary and generative research, active participation, critique and coaching, and the ability to take risks (and potentially be wrong) without negative consequences.

The similarities between the process of design and the process of learning in Littky’s school are striking, and he’s not alone in pursuing a new, designerly approach. His educational model is one of several, which may form a zeitgeist: We may, in fact, be perched on the brink of an educational revolution. And so, I offer a series of predictive recommendations about the evolving nature of education and how to best structure both pedagogy and content to succeed in the coming educational shift:

  1. Assume that anything is possible. As an educator you quickly become aware of the relative boundaries of your students, and it’s easy to set expectations based on these perceived limitations. Traditional teaching models are quick to group students by these segments—usually defined by socio-economic boundaries—and these segments have unusual staying power. The educational revolution to come will operate with the assumption of adequation, where students are empowered to try.
  2. Understand the “whole student.” At all levels of education, the homogenous body of knowledge that is taught en masse has come to mirror the assembly line, with teachers focused on their own tasks with no awareness of the larger  context. The educational revolution will empower teachers to support a whole student, realizing that any factual content needs to be positioned in a much larger and broader context.
  3. Leverage the content democratization afforded by technology. It’s almost colloquial to espouse the rich benefits of Internet content, yet in many educational settings, this repository is ignored. Traditional, and highly conservative, textbooks are used, which are neither engaging nor as broad in focus. During the educational revolution, educators will be empowered to draw from a wide assortment of content repositories, sources, and mediums.
  4. Reject the delivery limitations prescribed by technology. The majority of software intended to support online learning is abysmal. Blackboard, one of the most popular tools for online delivery, is described as a “horrendous monstrosity and the people who created it should be ashamed” [1]. As a result, the experiential qualities of online delivery may suffer for reasons entirely out of the educator’s control. During the educational revolution, we’ll see educators actively refuse to use subpar products, and we’ll witness an increase in hybrid approaches to teaching—models that combine a digital component with in-person, collaborative sessions augmented by traditional tools like whiteboards and Post-it notes.
  5. Create a safe environment for learning experiences. Perhaps the most important aspect of successful education is the idea of empowerment: creating an environment where failure can be explored, instead of simply trivialized, and where students can learn to be more effective learners. The educational revolution will bring a change of project-based learning, where the cycle of rote memorization, test, and pass/fail is replaced by an iterative approach of informed trial and error.

I’ve started Austin Center for Design to help drive this revolution; similar programs are creeping up all over the country and the world. Technology is enabling a number of these ideas, but they are fundamentally human. It is interaction design, and behavior, that will act as the driving force behind the educational revolution of the next century.

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]