Going to the Source

It is a fairly intuitive assumption that research is essential in beginning to understand a foreign problem space. AC4D takes us right into it with the first quarter’s research and synthesis course. Design research, guided by ethnography, is different than any research I’ve done before. It’s immersive, sometimes awkward, and very rich. I’ve spent the last week and a half running around the Austin area with my classmate, Jay, engaging with people around our selected focus: the environmental and public health impacts of intermediate* livestock farms and ranches.

*Note: the USDA classifies intermediate farms as “farms with less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income and a principal operator whose primary occupation is farming.”

Our meetings kicked off with some subject matter experts: academics, city officials, and professionals seeking to improve the animal product industry. Throughout these inquiries, Jay and I struggled to dig into a lot of the topics we thought would be primary concerns in this space: managing manure, emissions from transportation and livestock, and water quality. These yielded quicker, straightforward responses, while our discussions journeyed deep into topics surrounding food access, the weight of consumer demand, and the economics of urban farmland. When externalizing our data, our very initial inspiration, waste management, found itself in the lonely, far right, bottom corner of our board. Jay and I began to question our focus.

So, where do we go from here?

We needed to hear first-hand what the farmers are dealing with, so we journeyed out to two farms and hammered on our original environment-centric questions. My visits to both the poultry farm of about 1,000 birds and to the ranch of 50 purely grass-fed gave me a high I hadn’t felt before during this research experience. I had finally connected with the people whose activities I’ve been trying to understand! It seems pretty obvious that one should talk to farmers if his or her focus is around farms, right? Trust me, it was on our radar, but, when it came to fruition, I developed such a deeper understanding and appreciation for needing to go to the source of my research focus.

I’d like to share some of the things I learned on these two farms that challenged my initial assumptions and guided where I think I’m going next. It’s a small sample set, so there are likely some exceptions to these findings. One of my goals for the next week of research is to test and challenge these takeaways.


Waste is impressively minimal on small-scale farms.

The poultry farm we visited only has one element of waste, and that is duck feathers, which they compost. (Funny enough, it seems like there could be a lucrative market in selling those.) Everything else that could potentially be waste is either fed to animals or put back into the soil.

The cattle ranchers find themselves with a bit more materials, but it is all stuff that can be recycled or composted. Even the bailing wire is 100% recyclable.

I thought getting rid of manure may be a task some of these intermediate farms had to undertake, but it turns out it’s really hard to find any farms in the area that are getting rid of manure, let alone “natural” manure. If you’re looking for organic manure, then be ready to shell out some cash. No one seems to be giving that away.

Smaller farms are, by design, more self-sustainable, and they thrive off their carefully designed ecosystems.

Moving the animals around the farm is essential to fertilizing the soil and allowing the land to thrive. With a healthy ratio of animals to land, the pasture is able to take a lot of regenerative matters into its own hands. Certainly practices like rotating livestock, feeding the livestock a proper diet, composting, and fertilizing are important elements of human intervention. These farmers make informed decisions around how to work with nature instead of against it.

On another interesting note, the cattle ranch we visited doesn’t kill any predators, because they see them as an important part of the ecosystem. While others shoot coyotes, not a single coyote has ever hurt their cattle, so they leave them be.

Water contamination is hardly on these farms’ radars (nor on the protection agencies’).

When doing our initial secondary research, Jay and I found several websites talking about manure run-off into water sources. We figured that this must be something to dig into. Turns out, when you have a well-contained, manageable farm, manure goes where it’s supposed to, and not into nearby water sources.

Between farm visits, I spoke to a man who specializes in identifying potential sources of water contamination, and he continually re-iterated that we were way too focused on livestock farms; these weren’t the issue. To him, livestock farms are one small concern under an umbrella of hundreds. Adding to this thought, a professor at Texas A&M shared study results with us yesterday, revealing that wildlife, and particularly birds, are where we really need to focus our water preservation efforts.

So, again, where do we go from here?’ I thought to myself as we pulled away from the ranch.

The farms we visited have their processes down, but do all or most intermediate farms? Further, our country heavily relies on commercial agriculture to meet our demand for animal products. How do these industrialized farms fare across our environmental and public health concerns? How large can we scale while still maintaining the serendipitous balancing effects I witnessed on the farms I visited?

Spending hours on these farms showed me that some people DO have it figured out. They can raise animals humanely while progressively making their land richer and making a living. I now see the issue as less with being able to farm sustainably, and more with being able to farm in a way that gives back to the earth while also meeting growing global demand for animal protein. Is this possible? Currently, there’s no strong, clear alternative to our nation’s farming practices that wouldn’t carry with it harmful food security tradeoffs.

Experts I’ve spoken with have all ended up at the consumer. In order to alleviate pressure on livestock farmers and give them flexibility to implement more ecologically responsible practices, we need to alleviate consumer demand. So, then, how do we realistically influence consumers to reduce their animal product consumption? From there, if we are successful at reducing animal product consumption, how will this impact the pressures placed on produce and grain farmers?

Each messy problem keeps leading me to another connected and equally messy problem!

I had thought that going to the source and conducting diligence around my initial focus would take me back into that focus. Instead, it reinforced a lot of the connected issues that have been pulling me in other directions. I now feel more empowered to pursue the questions that have been calling out to me, and I definitely would not feel this way if it weren’t for engaging with the heart of my research focus.

With that, I suppose you can’t predict what you will get out of engaging with the primary stakeholder you are trying to understand. You can expect the engagement to yield fruitful guidance in framing what you want to want to solve, while at the same time leaving you with that same, ever-pressing question:

Where do I go from here?

School Lunch Menus: Future à la Carte

There’s this special kind of feeling when someone hands you over a brief for a design project. Personally I can describe it as a mixture between anxiety and excitement. You read the topic and you already start thinking about what you’re going to do – products, tools, materials, interactions, branding? But, when you’re learning how to conduct design research, you need to remember to take a step back – your experience is not the only one that counts, therefore, your solutions are probably lacking some serious intervention from the outside in.

Set the table

And then your mentors hand you over your research topic: “Animal Food Value Chain” – think about it. So simple and yet so complex. We could even say that our lives have evolved around and thanks to this topic, and therefore, so many systems have been created due to the need and demand of animals and food.

To narrow down the possibilities and create our focus, each member of the team raised the questions that immediately came to mind, and with affinity diagramming we created patterns that slowly started taking us to a potential area of focus:

What are the factors and actors that influence school menu planning specifically around animal based food products.

The interest was there, we all consider that a healthy diet is key to a good academic performance. But we’ve also learned that various perspectives of what a healthy diet should look like differ from context to context, priorities to priorities. But after we discussed enough about what we know or what we think, it was time to hand the microphone to humans in a school setting.


Tell me about yourself…

When conducting a contextual inquiry, you approach someone and your intention is to know how to talk to them, so that they can tell you their story as it relates to a subject in particular; they’re in their space (be it work, home or car) and you’re there to learn from them. Your conversation has a goal – you want to know what a person in particular has experienced that will guide you closer to uncovering a problem.

So we went on a Contextual Inquiry adventure and approached an Austin charter school’s food service staff – that was Laura, or the coolest Food Service Director that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing- and believe it or not, we didn’t talk about food half the time.

So far, we have discovered that school food staff not only works with the common goal of feeding children healthy and delicious food to warm their hearts and give them energy. Their goal is to instill them good eating habits and taking them away from potential metabolic diseases that are related to bad eating practices. Their goal is to empower students at a young age, and guide them towards reasonable decision making so that they can continue pursuing good choices and do so all their way to college and adulthood. They think about the children’s future and they cook with that in mind.

What about the beef stroganoff?

Creativity is the fuel of makers, artists, designers, performers, chefs, etc. We’ve learned that cooking might sound fun for some, but it can become quite complex and can even inhibit your creativity when you have to work under so many constraints and government regulations. Laura and her staff seem deeply passionate about what they do. If they could improve the service, they would buy all locally sourced food, they would have more vegetables and fruits for children, and make the serving bar lower so that the little kiddos can have a good look at their bright colors and choose the one they like.

So far, exhaustive and tedious processes make Laura’s job less enjoyable than she would like it to be. We wanted to uncover what were the factors and actors that influence school menu planning specifically around animal based foods? We have gotten our answer fairly quickly. Now the question is, who are we designing for?

Where’s the value? Or how I got lost in the haze.

As a student at the Austin Center for Design in his first quarter, I am learning how to practice design research. Design research is a process for uncovering opportunities for innovation within complex human-based systems. As fledgling design researchers, my class was tasked with understanding the animal product value chain within Austin. My team decided to narrow our focus to understanding the distribution chain between farmer and restaurant. We have been practicing ethnographic techniques for producing qualitative data – interviews, stories, photos, drawigs, and observations – which we will learn to synthesize later in the course. Practically speaking, this means my teammate and I have been traveling around Austin speaking to farmers, restauranteurs, a food distributor, a farmer educator, and a meat manager for a grocery store. We are attempting to get at how the distribution chain is experienced on the human level through the stories of the people that interact within the problem space on the day-to-day. We want to analyze the mundane in order to find something extraordinary and unexpected – to discover insights that are meaningful and actionable.

What my research looks like
What my research looks like

Just three weeks into the project and I am already swimming in data – transcripts of hour long conversations, physical and remembered images, sense experiences, participant constructed artifacts, my teammate’s perspective, and my own baggage – all of these bits and pieces contribute to how I am trying to make sense of the food distribution chain. I feel like my head is in a thick fog of information. Listening to how people make meaning of their work is endlessly fascinating and complex. So far, I am finding that to stay somewhat grounded, to stay focused on what I am researching, I look for themes that connect all my disparate experiences. (Even though the teacher practitioners keep reminding the students not to make sense of the data right now. That’s what we will do during the synthesis phase.)

In fact, as I write this blog entry, a clear theme starts to emerge: how the food value chain is co-constructed. The first interview my teammate and I conducted took place on a local farm. We were led on a tour by an energetic and industrious farmer who is just as passionate about the feel of healthy soil as she is in talking to potential future farmers at the local elementary schools. She consistently returned to where she finds value – in keeping the community healthy through nutritious food. She has been committed to farming for years sustained by the beliefs like that when a mustard green is bitter enough, it will help consumers eventually avoid hefty medical expenses that consuming non-nutritious food will lead to. One of the most salient moments happen when she plucked two pods of okra and urged us to eat it.

And so, we did.

Lovely okra

Much like Proust’s madeleine, as I tasted the okra, I got lost in memories. Though unlike when Proust was brought back to his childhood at first taste, I got lost in memories I never participated in. They were the memories of the local landscapers that contributed to the compost on the farm that ultimately led to healthy bacteria rich soil. They were the memories of the decades of love that the owners of the land had put into tilling the land, the necessarily accurate data collection, and 20 year long relationships between the farm and community that support the farm keeping in operation. This bite of okra represents how rich the ethnographic research experience is. I get to experience first hand the product value chain.

And then, as my teammate and I meet other actors along the value chain, we learn about how  they contribute to the flow of value from the nutrient rich soil and eventually to the plates of (discriminating? – need to research) consumers.

In the abstract, value is easily translated into monetary terms — how much something is worth in dollars and cents tells the world how much it should be valued. And this perception then reinforces itself – if today I paid x amount for a carrot, I demand that tomorrow that price remain stable. Yet, as my team has worked its way through the value chain of food, we have discovered other forms of value from the perspective of the humans who interact with the product before it lands in front of the customer – rich relationships between a food distributor and the farmers he trusts to work with (he often gets lost in conversation on his pick up route as he gabs with the farmers he has been working with) and the restauranteur at a high end restaurant who pridefully lists all of the vegetables local farmers are currently harvesting (because to excel in the farm-to-table market you “gotta be in the game”).

As my team and I move forward in our research, I start to see gaps in our information. How do customers perceive value? Why do they choose to eat the way they do? How does distribution support or inhibit the value chain? Where are there disruptions that may lead to a monetary devaluing of products? How can the perceptions of food providers contribute to or inhibit more sustainable farming practices and fair exchange?

Peeling the Onion of Design Research

“It has often felt like I am an infant taking steps without knowing where the other foot will land.”

We are in the third week of Austin Center for Design however, at this point, I feel like it has been three months. That is not to say that those three weeks have been terrible but it has often felt like I am an infant taking steps without knowing where the other foot will land.

Design research is such a fascinating subject to be learning but it is completely foreign to the type of research I learned while attending business school as an undergrad. In undergrad I focused on market research and statistical analysis, methods that are closely related to this type of research but are used for very different reasons,  and in design research it is more based on “gut feelings” and, sometimes even throwing out the rules entirely.

I make it sounds like I am put off by this way of doing things but, when I take a step back from it, I am actually enjoying myself a great deal. Some of the interviews and inquiries I’ve done have been so profound and interesting that it almost pains me that I have but five more weeks in IDSE101 and only a few more days left in research before switching to synthesis. My team and I have gone on some great interviews and I have learned so much about animal food products that I would have otherwise never known.

“For the first time since the beginning of the program it made me feel like a great designer…”

Today’s research was particularly interesting. I was given the opportunity to tag along with two other AC4D members on a contextual inquiry they had arranged with a local rancher over in Bastrop, Texas that supplies meat for restaurants in Austin. For the first time since the beginning of the program it made me feel like a great designer and it gave me perspective of what we are attempting to understand through the research process. The first hour or so of the interaction we discussed several things about her ranch and the processes that she goes through on a day to day. As the interview went on She became even more comfortable (and way more talkative!) and she opened up about the difference between European to American cultures in terms of buying foods. She pointed out many interesting accounts, like that people in European cultures buy meat based on quality and ask questions about their meat, while most Americans want consistency with their food, specifically their meat. She spoke many concerns regarding this topic and the back and forth we had created a rapport that I hadn’t yet had with a participant. This is one interview out of the many we have done as a group so far but it was a turning point for me at a point where I was beginning to feel run down and unenthusiastic about the process.

I am glad to see some progress in my abilities to facilitate interviews and even more than that I like the fact that I can see what my work is building towards in the design process. I am excited to further my progression in design research and I know that I have a long way to go before I can start getting really good data for designing great products and services, but it’s encouraging to finally take a step and not fall on my face. I am not great at research, by nature I am probably better at creating graphics and visual design, but I am not discouraged by my inadequacy. I am eager to learn more because I have confidence that at the end of it I will be self-assured in my ability to perform design research at a high level.

“Weird” Meat and Tomato Metaphors

Josh leaned in closer to the food truck window, trying to get his mike up by the owner. “You didn’t try the duck?”

The man was already shaking his head. “No. No.” He went on, spinning a hypothetical: “You’re 26, so your age, you never eat tomatoes. Are you ready to eat tomatoes?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “No. You will avoid – your stomach will refuse it.”

This from a man who had immigrated to America from Baghdad after the Iraq War. His wife had just told us how she sometimes cooked lasagna for their family at home, a dish they certainly didn’t eat back home. Here laid bare was the contradiction many of our research participants embraced.

You see, my little design research team of three has been looking into people’s experiences with meat off-cuts and exotic meat. After interviewing consumers, butchers, chefs, and subject matter experts, we had begun to see that just about everyone viewed some animal part or species as disgusting, and they often thought this new food item would make them physically sick. Nevertheless, upon questioning, these same people often had tried a wide array of meats and meat cuts other than the ones you would most commonly find in the grocery aisle. These conversations have shown my team that you can never really take people’s assessments at face value when they say they just eat the normal stuff. Normal in Baghdad was camel. Normal in Florida was gator and frog legs. As a consequence, whereas before I sometimes never got to it, after the first few interviews I have definitely always worked in an activity in which I give people a piece of paper listing (with images) different animals. This has become a great tool for getting people to remember and relate stories about which animals they have tried out. This gives us much more rich data about which animals and animal parts are “clean” or “healthy” and why or how those attitudes change. So maybe we will be able to entice the 26 year-old Josh’s of the world to down some metaphorical tomatoes someday.

The Many Hats of Distribution Man


Joe sat across from us in his the fluorescently lit office, his employees shifting products into boxes on the other side of his two windows. He leaned back, and rolled his eyes towards the ceiling as he thought about what he was going to say: “Let me tell you an anecdote, I won’t use any names.”

Joe is pretty much the only farm to table food distributer in central Texas. He got his start because he “wanted a life change” and he “likes food”, which feels like a simple and honest way to start a business.

“I used to bring food to this one restaurant guy” Joe’s story wove among his own thoughts of how to explain a thing to two earnest and unknowledgeable grad students. I scrambled to take notes, piecing his words together, while my research partner facilitated the interview with a stoic, yet curious face.

Joe proceed to tell us about how he lost business from one restaurant owner, because the man started buying his food straight from the farmer instead. He knew this because he would see the man at the Farmer’s Market buying directly from the same farmer he would deliver food for. The twist however, was that this restaurant owner ended up coming back to Joeohn, asking to do business again. The restaurant owner had experienced a series of food orders that he had throw out due to a less than perfect appearance of the veggies.

The restaurant owner ended up losing money, not saving, by bypassing the distributor. And he told Joe, “I know you won’t screw me” as his main catalyst for returning as a client.

Joe told his last part of the story with a hint of pride in his voice. It’s always nice to be the guy that provides value, the guy that can be trusted. However, what I learned from this story is that Joe has another role I didn’t realize before. Joe is the mediator between farmer and buyer, with the task of knowing the wants of the restaurant buyers, wants that are apparently unknown to many farmers. He wears the hats of Quality Assurance Guy, Interpreter, Supervisors, as well as Delivery Man.

There is more than a distance gap between the person on the farm and the person with the chef’s knife. There is a mentality disparity, with very few people acting to bridge the two ways of thought.

Joe, along with another person we spoke with on this topic, expressed the importance of educating farmers on how to work with restaurants. As though the concept of frequent communication and honest management of expectations was a foreign concept. The truth is, although most people (farmers and restaurant owners included), would tout the importance of effective communication, rarely it is executed well. And that can be said across multiple types of business and human transactions.

“You don’t sell a 7 pound zucchini to a restaurant, you give it to the pigs. Some farmers don’t get that.” Joe noted.

A farmer’s proximity to the earth gives them the attitude that all food from the rich soil is valuable. A restaurant owner’s proximity to the customer, breeds the attitude that food must be pretty. And a customer’s distance from the farm is what created the “pretty food” expectation in the first place.

The reason this anecdote was significant is because it caused a shift in my thinking. Distance, perhaps, is the ultimate communication barrier, because it provides the context from which we communicate. Even with all the technologies in the world to shrink the gap, none of them can account for the breakdown in communication that happens when two people are looking at the world through very different lenses.

This became the focus for our research project. We began listening for these invisible gaps in the food value chain that were hiding behind the multiple desires, value systems, and definitions of common words our participants shared with us.

“Distribution is key!” Joe repeated this last phrase. I think he is right, but for more reasons than the physical movement of food products. Distribution is key because the communication gap, not merely the distance gap, is still so large. Those moments of connection when food travels from one man’s hands into another’s is the opportunity for insight to pass between professions. And it’s these same moments of connection that my research partner and I aim to learn more about.


A glimpse inside the kitchen

From the outside, the building is unassuming – brick, short, and with a simple, flat facade. As we walked through the front door, however, we immediately heard the chatter of teachers in the school cafe and the clanking of dishes, the whirring of washers, and the banging of ovens in the cafeteria kitchen. We began our first design research project for the AC4D design program just a few weeks ago, and our focus is to learn about the factors and actors that influence school food service. The day we walked into that school was the day I really got a taste of just how little I knew about the world I was about to design for. It’s now clear to me just how important contextual research can be to paint a more rich picture of that world and to inform our design.

Up until that point, our team had lived in a world of stickies, conversation, laptops, and the interior of the AC4D classrooms, with occasional breaks for tacos nearby. We talked in class about the importance of user interviews and ethnography to gain a fuller perspective of our research topic and to develop greater empathy with the people we would design for, and as we delved into scoping out our research topic, it felt alive with curiosity, questions, confusion, personalities, and debate.

But in a way, we didn’t really known anything about our topic until we arrived to the first school cafeteria.

We arrived at the school, and the noise, sights, and people who we had previously only talked about came to life. In fact, most of what we saw and heard we hadn’t even talked about or imagined. The teachers’ separate cafe and meeting space, distinct and shielded from the din of students in the cafeteria; the cafeteria workers’ conversations in Spanish; the very small staff that ran a huge cafeteria operation – these were all unforeseen details of a world that kept unfolding before us, proving the topic more complex with every new glimpse inside it.

This was clearly not the world I imagined. Indeed, the world is not what we think.

I think of a school cafeteria, and images from sitcoms immediately come to mind. Or maybe images from my own experience attending school come to mind. Or else images sparked by news articles and stories about school cafeterias come to mind. When I tried to imagine the world of school food service prior to this visit, these images were likely feeding my imagination. But all these sets of images are blurred by vagaries of my own memory, and more importantly they represent superficial impressions of that domain as a whole.

During our first visit, when we met our participant, she didn’t look anything like what I imagined a school food service director would look like. What’s more, during the interview, instead of viewing her job as a relentless barrage of administrative and regulatory tasks as I had projected, she painted a quite different picture for us. When we asked what feedback she got from parents, her response was that yes, she does get feedback, requests, and complaints – and she completely understands parents’ earnestness to communicate with her. After all, she’s responsible for feeding thousands of other people’s children, and it’s an honor and a huge responsibility.

How did I never think of it this way? This food service director has a strong emotional connection to her work, and an immense responsibility and connection to that charge. But for some reason, my mind was busy with looking at the emotions that may arise due to faults or snags in the system, administration, or logistics. This insight into how she sees her role and her responsibilities could be central to a design solution. It could inspire solutions that create more caring, devoted, and responsible school nutrition services for thousands more children. If I had projected my lens on her role, making administrative tasks easier, that would likely have inspired a much different and likely less effective, energized solution.

Over and over, throughout that first visit, the world I only faintly had imagined grew bigger, more complex, more rich, more connected, and, in a way, more incomplete. Our minds want to make things whole, so we imagine we see the whole. This illusion of wholeness, of the completeness of our knowledge, however, can be the undoing of the solutions we strive to create. Once we assume we know the whole picture, we stop learning and developing an even more complete picture that can be used to inform the design process. Contextual design is a process that not only gives designers a better picture of the world they’ll design for but also reminds them of how incomplete their ideas are. It is certain that our perspectives are far, far from complete. To put another way, every meal has a story, and if you want to know what’s on your plate, it’s best to look inside the kitchen and ask the chef – but even then, it’s just a glimpse.

Finding focus: are you my mother?

In the Interaction Design Research and Synthesis 101 course at Austin Center for Design, we are learning the methods of qualitative design research and synthesis used to study complex problems, such as technology, behavior, and society. As students, we are learning techniques and processes to gather data in the field, rigorously analyze that data, and gain insights, meaning, and trends.

Getting started and fumbling (in the dark seems harsh, but perhaps) along the way reminded me of the classic childhood book, “Are You My Mother” by P.D. Eastman. A mother bird goes off to find food for her unborn bird. Meanwhile, back at the nest, the egg “jumped and jumped. Until…” the little bird pops into the world and asks, “Where is my mother?” That was the start of the bird’s journey to meet a wide-variety of characters as he asked his burning question, “are you my mother?”

Are you my focus?

After learning our topic area—the value chain of food produced from animals—we strived to determine a focus for our project. In class, professor Lauren Serota highlighted that “focus is the point of view you take while conducting design research. The focus is an active perspective that helps you find the right people and ask the right questions. It’s an anchor for your research.”

Karen Holtzblatt wrote that a project focus is important because “it tells the research team what to pay attention to—of all the overwhelming detail available, what matters for the design problem at hand. Before starting a project, the team defines the problem to be solved, the users who are affected, the relevant activities and task, and the relevant situations and location.”

We used an affinity diagram, multiple iterations, and team discussions to land on our research focus: we aim to learn what factors and actors influence school menu planning particularly around animal-sourced food products.

Are you my problem?

We chose schools because there is an opportunity to make a difference today and tomorrow: institutional food programs represent a significant budget and related choices on how to spend it, and a child’s nutrition and relationship with food may set them on a path for their entire lives.

At this point in the research project, we are beginning to get overwhelmed with the sheer number of key players and influencers we have uncovered. For example, to name just several:

  • Administration: district-level, school principals, and leadership
  • School: teachers, nutrition, and food staff
  • Policy and finance: federal, state, and local government
  • Influencers: activists, NGOs, lobbyists, big money/business, etc.
  • Vendors: producers, suppliers, food commodity program
  • Key relationships: co-op procurement, nutritional associations

Our completed and pipeline interviews primarily draw on administration, school staff, and parents (and students) for contextual interviews, and influencers and vendors as the subject matter expert interviews.

As we begin to develop a plan to integrate participation design methodology, we find ourselves asking an important question: who is our customer? Due to the nature of the learning situation, we did not wrestle with that question earlier, so we have a luxury of being our customer. For our purposes, one could say that the customer—that we might co-create a solution with—is the food/nutrition staff such as the food director and executive chef whose roles are deeply embedded with school food services. With our broad list of factors and actors, the customer could be anyone.

You are not!

I find myself wondering if better criteria and focus would have helped the bird find his mother sooner. He spoke with cows, construction equipment, dogs, and more. At the same time, what would he have missed if he only asked animals with feathers? With that said, to understand the factors and actors of such a complex ecosystem like school food programs, a funnel type approach where we start broad and then quickly narrow might be the best approach.

“Yes, I know who you are,” said the baby bird. “You are not a kitten. You are not a hen. You are not a dog. You are not a cow. You are not a boat, or a plane, or a Snort! You are a bird, and you are my mother.”

Suspending judgment and embracing ambiguity is important as we try on the design researcher role. The questions we ask. The questions we learn over time to ask. Who we ask. Who we do not ask. Tossing the discussion guide aside as our curiosity is sparked in the moment. Our research focus continues and what we learn along the way is important for our project and our educational journey to becoming designers.

The Magician.


When a young magician completes his studies, his is endowed with a sense of duty to create good. So he sets off into the world of people, and as it happens there are people with problems everywhere you go

He happens upon a group of people looking for food. Luckily, a magician is great a figuring out what the problem is immediately. Emily Pilloton warns, “you cannot design solutions for people who need them unless you fundamentally understand the problems,” but confident in his untested solution, he creates for them field and introduces the group to agriculture. 

What’s happened here can be summarized by Victor Margolin

  • We have a desire to help
  • Our experiences are framed in a value structure unique to our country
  • We try to drive change in a geographic area
  • We inadvertently or explicitly export our value structure

When the magician returns, he realizes that for some reason his solution didn’t stick. Maybe the people just didn’t “get it”. Luckily, he has a solution. As Bernays claims, all it takes is one small, powerful group to sway the larger public in its attitude towards ideas. And after all, this for their own good.

So he creates two influential leaders to guide them. Bernays says that anyone may try to convince others and to assume leadership on behalf of his own thesis. It is the power of the group to sway the larger public in its attitude towards ideas.  This is exactly what the two helpers do.

The first Helper teaches the people Margolin’s expansion model. He shows them that markets drive the world and the path towards happiness is the consumption of goods.

The second Helper believes in Margolin’s equilibrium model and teaches them that the world is a set of ecological checks and balances.

Allowing themselves to be influenced by these two flashy leaders, the people have what John Dewey would call, “miseducative experiences”. They learn a way to live, they learn a way to think about themselves, they learn what they should value, but they don’t learn to think for themselves. 

When the designer comes back, he sees collision and chaos.

Some of the people, influenced by the expansion model hustle get more and more things. They begin to identify with the these objects. A women is no longer a woman, but known as an estate owner after amassing an enormous field.

She’s fallen into an experience that Vitta would summarize by saying: “The individual is overwhelmingly surrounded by goods, constrained to use them only as a way to portray themselves to others”.

Other people, living under the equilibrium model are subject to their goods being taken. They starve and don’t know how to help themselves

The young designer is distressed to see his design cause such chaos and sadness.  His original solution created unintended consequences, just as Hobbes states: “When you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected”. 

He falls into the pit of despair, and the people don’t know what to do. They have had a series of miseducative experiences through the teachings of the “Helpers”.

That is until…

His next idea!

Realizing that he never understood what these people needed in the first place, he decides to flip the script. The magician gives all the people their own wands. Then instead of leaving, as he was so apt to do in the past, he decides to stay. Taking Emily Pilloton’s advice he grows roots and strives to depth over breadth, and scattershot methods of “saving the world”.
The young designer, no longer the master and manipulator of the people, spends his days alongside them learning. They teach him how they live, and he develops deep relationships.

Steve the Elephant


Steve is an elephant in high school. Steves best friend is Susan the elephant. Steve is secretly in love with Susan but he doesn’t know how to get her to think of him as more than just a friend.

One day, Steve sees his friend Allen wearing brand new Jordan sneakers. Susan also sees this and she starts to think that maybe Allen is cool because he wearing them. By that association Vitta would say that Allen bought the shoes to say something to the world himself through wearing them. By wearing Jordan brand sneakers that are cool and hip, Allen himself is cool and hip. Susan and Allen begin dating shortly after. Steve assumes that the only reason Susan likes Allen is because of his cool sneakers. So, Steve begins to think up ways that he can impress Susan in order for her to like him. He can’t just buy new sneakers because Allen already did that. Steve doesn’t know a lot about Susan’s likes and dislikes when it comes to her tastes in men so this begins to become a problem for Steve.

Steve decides to consult his brother Alfred, a sociology professor at Stanford, and he suggests that Steve should employ the position of Emily Pilloton and assimilate into the culture of his target audience in order to achieve empathetic investment. Through doing this Alfred was also using the position of John Dewey in educating pupils in a way that creates situations that make them more curious about learning.

Steve thinks about what his brother Alfred said and decides the best way for him to figure out what Susan likes is pose as a girl elephant and be around girls as much as possible for a few days. He decides to do this experience over at the rival high school where none of his friends will see him.

Steve quickly becomes friends with a group of popular girls at the rival high school finds out that they really dig elephants with hip glasses and beards. They went on and on about how much they love the lumberjack look and two of them even had boyfriends that had beards and glasses. Steve decided he had done enough research at that point that he had found a solution to his problem. He could grow a beard and buy some glasses and easily make Susan fall in love with him because he knew that she would like those changes. This form of manipulation that Steve is expressing go along with Edward Bernay’s point that in anyone can manipulate public opinion, but, you must first understand your subjects intimately in order to do so.

In the weeks following his research Steve progressively starts to grow a beard. After coming back from a long break from school Steve, already with a full beard and new specs, sees Susan walking towards him in the hall. He stops and asks her if she notices anything different about him. Susan says that she notices the glasses and beard and she thinks they look weird and kind of gross. Steve is confused! “What went wrong?!”

Steve goes back to his brother Alfred, confused and angry at him for sending him on a wild goose chase, and Alfred tells him that he should have realized that just because he figure out what some girls like doesn’t mean that’s what all the girls like and it may not be what Susan likes. This is similar to a position of Michael Hobbes that just because you test something and find success with that group doesn’t mean those results are universal to scale over broader demographics. Something that works with one group may not work with another very similar group because they each have separate factors that come into play.

Alfred then instructs Steve that he now has two choices: He can act on the expansion model and keep trying new thing, after new things, after new thing to impress Susan and potentially see their relationship change for the good, or he can preserve the friendship they have now and continue to watch that blossom into a great thing.

According to Alfred he has to choose one or the other, but according to Margolin he would saying choosing one or the other is detrimental to the entire situation. Margolin would say that choosing both or going back and forth would be better practice.

Cartoon – Steve the Elephant
Steve The Elephant