AC4D Students Kat Davis and Ruby Ku in IxDA's Student Competition!

AC4D is thrilled to announce that our students Kat Davis and Ruby Ku have advanced to the second round of the IxDA’s Student Competition; the second round will be held in Boulder during the IxDA national conference.

Kat and Ruby submitted a quick video of the work they’ve been doing throughout the quarter; you can view it below:

Congratulations, Kat & Ruby – great job!

Announcing the Availability of Exposing the Magic of Design

We are proud to announce that the Director of Austin Center for Design, Jon Kolko, has published a new book with Oxford University Press. Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis is the first book to focus on the exciting part of the design process that lives between ethnographic design research and form giving – the ambiguous spot where innovative ideas come from.

There are three goals for this text. The first goal is to present a theory of design synthesis in a simple and concise manner. This theory is based on academic research and discourse, but presented in a way that is clear and valuable to a practicing design manager, designer or design researcher. This theory of design synthesis can then be used to substantiate single methods of synthesis.

The second goal is to offer a rationalization of why design synthesis is important, both in a general sense (“why should I care about this at all?”) as well as in a more immediate sense (“why should I care about this right now?”).

The final goal is to present a set of actionable, learnable methods for design synthesis that can be applied to any design problem. Practicing industrial designers, interaction designers, interface designers, and designers of other disciplines can use these methods to make sense of complicated design problems and to move seamlessly from various forms of research to design. The methods can add a systematic sense of rigor to an otherwise subjective, often introspective process.

You can read more about this book, and purchase it online, at Amazon.

Strategies for improving the quality of care for the homeless

Students at Austin Center for Design have spent the last eight weeks working to better understand the systemic view of homelessness in Austin – a problem that’s visibly present to those of us who work and live downtown, and a problem that seems to be intractable. Our students have worked with stakeholders at Austin Resource Center for the Homeless to understand some of the issues they face, and they’ve immersed themselves in the culture of homelessness in order to better empathize with those affected. On Saturday, December 18th, the students presented their work-in-progress (primarily design research and synthesis) to the Director of Development and Communications at Frontsteps, Mitchell Gibbs, and to Dawn Perkins, the Community Relations and Volunteer Coordinator. The response was excellent – Mitchell described that the students had effectively shifted his perspective on the topic, and had opened his eye to a new way of understanding. Students will continue to work through design over the next sixteen weeks, with the intention of creating working software, service, and product solutions to help mitigate the issues they’ve uncovered.

Students have spent time sleeping on the street, volunteering at the computer lab, volunteering at soup kitchens as well as conducting interviews. Many of the interviews involved participatory activities as well as questions and answers. Students have met with case managers, organizing staff at Front Steps and other organizations, individuals on the street, clients of the organizations, and funding directors to gain understanding of the complexity of the issue.

Below is a brief summary of the students’ findings; you can read more in the attached documents (see below).


Our research changed our perception of homelessness. The project became about the individuals we spoke to and their stories. Through our conversations we realized that society’s perception of homelessness is wrong. The perception of many is formed by the image of the “man on the street with a sign and a cup”, but that describes a very small portion of the population. In fact, many of the homeless – the “clients” – are women and children or adults that recently lost their jobs. Our research uncovered other perception issues surrounding organizations addressing homelessness; we’ve separated these into four categories. While these are specific recommendations for ARCH, there are obviously generalities that can be applied by other organizations, in other cities, that are focusing on the same topic and dealing with many of the same issues.

1. Treat donors like advocates. Currently, the majority of the funding for Front Steps is from the city of Austin. This funding is restricted, dependent on the political climate, and often attached to specific programming. Nearly all grants, in fact, are attached to specific projects, and nearly all forcibly reject funding for administrative tasks and activities. Encouraging individual donors will help diversify funding for Front Steps in the future, and will allow for a more fluid use of funds as appropriate within the organization. To shift towards a more individual-focus for donations, it’s critical to treat donors like advocates, and to arrive at this, the following strategies can be used.

  • Share the stories of your clients with the community. Provide opportunities for individuals to connect to the people rather than the problem. There are a number of vivid and impressive success stories that occur at ARCH and through the various case management activities, but these successes are often lost in the larger view of the “intractable problem.” Celebrate the successes, and share them proactively.
  • Develop internal programs to educate staff and the board about funding, with a specific emphasis on empathy and relationship. Help them understand it is not about asking for money. Track supporters first, donors second, and provide opportunities for your donors to share their stories and become advocates.

2. Make space for planning. Embrace the constraint of a limited staff, and give yourself the runway to take a broader view of the work you are doing. Instead of reacting to your clients’ most urgent needs in the heat of the moment, anticipate and proactively plan to help them meet their more important and long-term goals. By taking time to reflect, you’ll be able to build on what is already working. Creating breathing space for your staff to get out of crisis mode will shift the tone of your organization. Make time to plan like an architect. Build blueprints based around your mission and your client experiences. Become proactive, rather than reactive by considering the following tactics:

  • Find space and time in the work week for planning and collaboration among staff members. Design opportunities for staff to share success and frustrations with each other in order to improve the overall approach.
  • Dedicate team members or specific times for “fire fighting,” so not all staff members have to man the front lines every day.
  • Plan for common client challenges. Design strategies to address client needs before challenges turn into crises, and before clients have to ask for a solution. Create a culture of action, where individuals are empowered to try things that may be outside of the confines of a specific set of policies or procedures .

3. Support understanding through rigorous data collection. Clients want to be understood. Collecting data can be challenging, but it is an important part of providing great service, as the more data and understanding you have about your clients the easier it is to develop appropriate programs (not to mention fund them!) Standardizing procedures for data collection and focusing on the clients will improve Front Steps’ overall understanding of the clients.

  • Standardize procedures and implement consistency in your communication amongst the staff and to the clients. This will help make the procedures easier to understand.
  • Collect the client information in a tiered fashion, thereby breaking the data gathering into chunks. Expedite registration by providing access to registration forms online and printed forms at ARCH that can be filled out before they meet with staff.
  • Develop systems that facilitate easy sharing of data between agencies. Link the IDs clients are using between the agencies, so they do not have to repeat the in-take process.

4. Empower clients to help one another. Clients have a lot to offer and want to help. Providing opportunities that incorporate fun and collaboration will give them new opportunities to explore and discover their strengths. Focusing on strengths and building their confidence will improve their self-perception. Clients are your biggest advocates; think about how you can create an environment that unlocks clients’ skills and their potential by trying the following tactics:

  • Design programs that focus on the clients’ skills and passions in addition to their needs.
  • Create opportunities for the clients to collaborate and help others based on their skills and knowledge.
  • Design opportunities that incorporate the ideals of play and fun for the clients to explore new interests in a safe environment and build social skills.

Download more information

You can download the final report provided to ARCH, and a series of printable posters with these main ideas, below:

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.

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:

Design for Impact Boot Camp – Video

On April 24th, a number of individuals participated in our first Design for Impact Boot Camp, focused on poverty and homelessness. In collaboration with frog design, and with the generous facility support from Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, participants spent a day investigating how the design process could be applied in the social space. The goals were simple: to offer participants an introduction to the high level process for approaching large-scale social problems from a design perspective, and to better understand the challenges associated with these types of problems.

Design for Impact Boot Camp

On April 24th, a multidisciplinary team of 22 designers, technologists, and students took part in an all day Design for Impact Boot Camp. Co-sponsored by AC4D and frog design, the day-long educational experience was intended to introduce a high level process for approaching large-scale social problems, and the challenges associated with these types of problems. Additionally, the Boot Camp provided a framework in which to experience the research, synthesis and ideation processes as related to design for impact, and introduced the vocabulary necessary to speak about strategic design work, in the context of designing for impact.

    The boot camp was held at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, and with the generous facility support of Front Steps, the group was able to perform guerrilla ethnography with the homeless, the shelter security, the various volunteers, and the staff that work at Front Steps.

    You can browse through some of the lecture material that was introduced during the day:

    An introduction to Designing for Impact, by Jon Kolko. In a group conversation, participants examined the precedents that have been set in the social innovation space, discussed the holistic process of design, and began to understand why the methods of design are most appropriate for tackling these complex social problems.

    A Process for Seeing: Guerrilla Ethnography, by Lauren Serota. In the first session, the group talked about how to practice guerrilla ethnography, by using sketching visualization methods, rapid photography, and in-context conversations in order to engage with target audiences. Then, in groups, the participants tackled a design problem related to the context of poverty in Austin, Texas – and engaged the community by practicing the guerilla ethnography methods just discussed.

    Understanding Insights and Themes, by Jon Freach. As the group began meaning-making,  insights and themes began to emerge. Jon described how to capture high-level takeaways from research, and how to form actionable design directives out of these conceptual frames. Then, participants extracted insights and themes, and positioned these elements in the context of the initial design brief – designing for impact, and producing new products, systems and services.

    Externalization and Rapid Modeling, by Matt Schoenholz. The group focused on how to externalize this data and form visual representations of it. We modeled the data gathered, and created representations to capture the high level takeaways from the streets in order to build frameworks for creating new idea.

    Rapid Ideation, by Justin Petro. The insights and themes that have been extracted were then visualized. Justin introduced a structured form of ideation in order to focus on a new ideas, and described how to connect these new ideas to potential sources of funding, in order to understand their feasibility. [worksheets here]

    Here are some pictures of the day:

    We’ll have the actual design ideas presented on the site in a few days – and we’ll be sure to post when the next Design for Impact Boot Camp is coming up.

    Creative designers typically produce stuff – toasters, websites, airplanes, and cell phones – for mass production by large, for-profit corporations. These designers frequently bemoan what they observe to be a misappropriation of their talent – that their creative efforts are misguided, and the hard work and energy they are putting into product development is lacking integrity or honesty. Rarely does their work have a humanitarian element to it; the corporations that hire designers are fundamentally interested in appeasing their shareholders.

    Designing for Impact is an overt redirection of these creative design efforts, in order to tackle the large-scale humanitarian problems that plague our country and our world. The design process is purposefully applied to issues of poverty, access to clean drinking water, equality of education, and other large problems, and the outcome is a combination of products, services, and systems that are intended to better the human experience.

    After taking part in the boot camp participants will have:

    Acquired a high level process for approaching large-scale social problems, and understanding of the challenges associated with these types of problemsExperienced the research, synthesis and ideation processes as related to design for impactGained empathy with a target, at-risk populationAcquired the introductory vocabulary to speak about strategic design work, in the context of designing for impact

    Design for Impact Boot Camp – sponsored by AC4D&frog design

    frog design and Austin Center for Design are pleased to announce and host a one day Design For Impact Boot Camp. This free event will be held on Saturday, April 24th, 2010.

    After taking part in the boot camp participants will have:

    1. Acquired a high level process for approaching large-scale social problems, and understand the challenges associated with these types of problems
    2. Experienced the research, synthesis and ideation processes as related to design for impact
    3. Gained empathy with a target, at-risk population
    4. Acquired the introductory vocabulary to speak about strategic design work, in the context of designing for impact

    This aggressively-paced boot camp is intended for designers, technologists, marketers, and other professionals who are interested in extending their skill set into the realm of social innovation and design for impact. All levels of design ability are welcome; the only pre-requisite is passion. There are limited participant seats, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

    Learn more at