Orientation Recap

In the past few days I have learned a lot about design strategy and the creative mind you need to get this done. The bootcamp was about ¨Food Trucks¨, for starters I don’t know anything about that business, but I was curious to learn how they get things done in that small space. I learned a lot that even if you plan things, like in this case the questions we were going to ask the food truck owners and employees, out there all the planning changes and you have to always think about the main questions and stay in focus. I found it very difficult to make questions about something I didn’t know where I was going, protects I have worked in, you first get the main concern or problem and then you make questions around it to try and answer the problem. But certainly this was interesting.

We had so little time to get every activity done, I sometimes burned by brain and couldn’t work for 5-10 minutes, just looking at the texts and not knowing what I was reading. Obviously I did not feel comfortable because every activity was about getting outside of your comfort zone and play with it. Like for example, talking to people that are working in rush hour, was very difficult for me, I felt like I was in the way and they didn’t want to talk to me about my school project, and I totally understand them. Other things I got to feel where insecurities whether I was going in the right path, but in the other groups sketching presentations I got to see that we all arrived to different concepts and there really is no right or wrong in the process, you just have to get to the end. I felt also very proud of the ideas we had as a group at the end with so little time. I am looking forward to learning this times ten this year.

The Neuroscience of Taking a Leap

What is it like to learn something new? While I have learned many things as an adult—coding and skiing are the two that come to mind first—I haven’t been a student in a formal educational setting since finishing undergrad at 22-years old. There are many ways that my current self feels different from the 22-year old version of me that was taking classes at UCLA. Stronger sense of self, a better and more nuanced understanding of the ways the ‘real world’ works, tons of life experiences, more thoughtful communication and empathy skills, better self-care habits and a healthier lifestyle. Things just keep getting better. So school should be better, right? Yet, adult learners often struggle in ways that younger learners do not.

I had an early observation about this while I was in college. One of my roles while working for my college’s outdoor adventure department was facilitating programs at the ropes course on campus. We had many student groups who used the facility, in addition to youth summer camp programs and corporate team building events. One of the most frequently used elements of the course was the Leap of Faith, a telephone pole that participants would climb, carefully balance on top of the wobbly pole, and then jump from the pole to a trapeze swing several feet away, all while on belay. I observed a range of responses to this challenge from participants of all ages, from eagerness to indifference to abject terror, however, there were patterns in how each age group responded to the challenge.

Elementary school students demonstrated the least fear. I remember belaying whole groups of eight- and nine-year-olds who completed the task with total indifference. Without complaint or reservation, like little lemmings they lined up and jumped off the pole, just completing another task that an adult had told them to. Brush your teeth. Clean up your room. Do your homework. Jump off a thirty-foot tall telephone pole and grab a trapeze that looks impossibly far away. They seemed to have trust in us, trust that we wouldn’t tell them to do something that they couldn’t or shouldn’t do. And they seemed to have trust in themselves, that they would try this thing and succeed or that at least if they didn’t succeed that the consequences would be insignificant. To be nine-years-old is to inhabit a world full of things you can’t do. Algebra, driving a car, roasting a chicken, amongst many others. Succeeding or failing is more situational than definitive. A nine-year-old is not a person who can’t do algebra, just one who can’t do algebra yet. The emotional and identity costs of trying and failing are low.

With our corporate groups, people were usually between the ages of about 25- and 50-years old. We would budget the time needed for a group of twelve adult participants to complete the Leap of Faith as double or triple the time needed for a youth group. Physically, it’s not much more challenging than climbing a ladder, but the mental and emotional anguish I saw people experience betrayed how different this experience was for the adults. There was lots of crying. Many people refused to even attempt it, to put a harness on and step onto the first steps just inches off the ground. People stood at the top of the pole for five, ten, thirty minutes contemplating their jump. People’s bodies would shake in response to the fear. Halfway up they would change their mind and start climbing backwards down the pole.

I learned a lot about persuasion as a 19-year old coaxing thirty-something Jenna from Accounting to jump for the trapeze. And I also found myself wondering about why adults responded so differently than the kids had. In neuroscience classes, I was learning about the structure and function of the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is most famous for not being fully developed until our mid-twenties. It’s one of the evolutionarily ‘newer’ parts of our brain and is especially well-developed in humans as compared to other animals.

Its functions include “abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes)” (Science of Psychology). Or more briefly, it helps us predict the future consequences of our behavior and choose the options that are the best for ourselves and our community. An asset in most context.

How might this part of our brain affect our willingness to jump for a trapeze or ability to learn something new? A young person with a brain that doesn’t perceive the future consequences of their choices, and doesn’t effectively choose the best options from a range of what’s available has little reason to opt out of taking the leap. They’re in the moment. As they climb each step on the pole, their evidence that they can do it is the fact that they are doing it, the possibility of a negative future outcome doesn’t distract them from the moment at hand. And they aren’t wasting energy or focus on entertaining their other options (climbing down, not doing it at all, stopping midway to cry).

It’s likely that there is an evolutionary advantage to being a young person who doesn’t have a fully functioning prefrontal cortex. Your main focus as a child and adolescent is accumulating experiences and knowledge. Having ‘good judgment’ at this stage might be counter-productive if it limits your access to new experiences or your openness to failure. The late development of this part of our brains is likely a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘bug.’ As an adult learner, I worry about the potential for this part of my brain to be counter-productive when trying to learn something. I worry about the way my brain might be biased against new experiences, taking risks and exposure to failure.

In my first week at AC4D, our instructors have been giving us guidance to ‘trust the process,’ to steel ourselves for harsh, honest criticism, to not be overly fixated on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways of doing things, to focus on the process rather than the destination. They’ve been recommending that we turn off our prefrontal cortex and engage habits of mind that were more familiar to us as children.

Already there have been plenty of opportunities to take risks and to fall short. Interviewing ten people in 2 hours to research the food truck industry looked more like six for my group (or maybe five or four and a half, depending on how you counted). Defining 300 unique ideas that would solve a problem. (We got quite a bit closer to that one.) Drawing vignettes of several of our ideas. (None ended up being something I felt particularly proud of.) Each of these experiences evoked reservations, self-doubt and vulnerability that I likely did not experience as a kid learning new things. I found myself distracted by wondering, “Am I good at this? Am I ever going to be good at this?”

As I sketched I fought to impulse to look at other people’s work as a means of affirming that I was doing it right. As we put ideas on post-it notes I found myself fixating on the number of ideas generated rather than just being in the moment as we developed ideas. As I transcribed interviews I scrupulously recorded every syllable because it seemed like the ‘best’ way to do it, efficiency be damned. As the weeks continue I’m going to practice self-awareness around these paradoxically unproductive prefrontal competencies, to lean into the ambiguity, live in the moment, trust myself, and leave behind the fear of failure that keeps us from taking big leaps.

Orientation Reflections: Trusting in the Process

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

In May 2014, just about this time five years ago, I was doing some random Google searches. This doesn’t sound important, but it is part of why I am here at AC4D today.

I’d been trying to figure out for a while how to marry my interests in creative work and making a positive difference in society. “Social impact design,” “social good design” and other similar phrases led me to several grad school programs across the country. I had already been considering grad school for some time before, either for writing or nonprofit management. But these new programs I was encountering were not what I expected. 

Where the two former subjects were interesting and seemed like logical steps for my career, design thinking was compelling and just felt right, though I couldn’t yet understand why. 

Jump ahead to present day, August 2019. I’m now a more experienced graphic and visual designer: earning an associate’s in graphic design, serving on the AIGA Austin board, and working in the industry for nonprofits and then as a freelancer. 

I had applied to AC4D a year and a half earlier, after amassing a portfolio I was proud to showcase. After a long while of thinking it wasn’t going to happen and continuing my professional life elsewhere, the opportunity to attend finally arrived.

Somehow, even though this had been my goal for over five years, I got cold feet.

Enter the inner critics and naysayers: How does this change my plans? What about all the other projects I’d started in the meantime? Why do I need this anyway? What if I’m not good at it after all? What if I can’t take it? What if I change all my plans, and then fail at this? (My brain can be a hyperactive place!)

One way I often dial down that noise is to educate myself and do research. I did the needed probing to calm my monkey mind, to reassure myself this is a step in the right direction. But I still wanted to ensure my mindset was in the right place. The Sunday before orientation week, I visited someone that reminded me of one of my greatest values: trust your intuition. 

I can move forward even on an unfamiliar road. I don’t have to, nor should I try and control everything. Doing this doesn’t mean I’m abandoning everything else. Release, and let things fall in place.

On the first day of orientation, Ruby walked us through expectations of the program and the three pedagogical tenants of AC4D:

  • Make Things.
  • Build Empathy With People.
  • Make Inferences. Trust Your Intuition.

When I saw this exact same phrase mirrored back to me in the official introduction to our experience here, I knew it was an important message. I know I’m in the right place.

And I know that message will be continuously countered through the course of the year. I have been impressed with AC4D on several points, one of which is their total transparency about how challenging this program will be. 

In day three of orientation, we conducted our first practice round of field interviews. I have done AC4D bootcamps and similar design thinking interviews before. But for some reason, preparing our questions for this one and the prospect of having to talk to strangers scared me in a way it hadn’t before. Enter the inner critic again: are you sure you’re up to this? This is the real deal now! What have you signed yourself up for?

And my counter-message to myself: Trust your intuition. Trust the process. Trust you deserve to be here as much as anybody else. 

I trust my personal background and prior design experience will be valid and useful through the course of the year. By the same token, I expect those same experiences may be a hindrance in stepping outside of my own understanding. I trust I will resist change, embrace it, and shed my ego when necessary. 

Finally, I trust I will build the skills necessary to exercise true autonomy — even if I don’t know what that looks like yet.

Orientation Week & Food Trucks Fight Famine

Freedom is hard to navigate if you have never had it before. During freedoms of my own I’ve felt myself discovering that there is no north or south anymore. Right or wrong is out the window, and questions may make your freedom harder to navigate. Unfamiliarity is hard to lean into and being asked to do it on the spot has been very challenging. It reminds of times where people shout, “Do a kickflip!” at skateboarders as they drive by in a car.

One of our teachers suggested to bid farewell to family and friends for the next while as we’ll be rather occupied with the program. Upon hearing that I feel that I am supposed to be here. I feel relieved to be somewhere that asks you to bring and use what you know already to a situation but forget all of it at the same time.

I learned you can’t please everyone. Especially employees of food trucks, at two o clock in the afternoon, in Austin, Texas during the month of August. I learned I have to practice silence, listening and comfort. I’m scared, un-prepared, excited, and ready. I learned that a Tuesday afternoon can generate a whole bunch of post it’s, and some really amazing (and not so amazing) ideas.

Reflection on Bootcamp

It’s been eight years now since I’ve been outside of formal learning experience and I was a bit nervous before orientation week.  I’ve known design by browsing the web, taking online courses from design practitioners back in Russia, and exercising my creative juices by doing things in Sketch/Photoshop.  However, AC4D is an entire new chapter in my life since, for the first time, I’ve got a chance to work together with a group of fellow students and get the feeling of the rigorous process that every designer has to go through in real life.

I’m mostly introverted person and a not-an-easy conversation starter. Sometimes I can be shy and awkward but in the first day Ruby welcomed us to AC4D community with her introduction story and I felt “oh, I can do this, I can also share my story in a similar way”. It felt a bit therapeutic (in a good way) when we all shared our stories before AC4D and got to know each other surprisingly on a  genuine level.

During the Bootcamp there were ups and downs that every designer has to go through. For me personally the synthesis and generating  insights sessions were the most difficult part. While words would come out of my mouth they felt more like butterflies; wisping away what I truly meant. The goal is to come up with concise & sharp phrases that serve as a foundation for future sense-making and idea generation.  Exploring this unknown territory where you follow your intuitions, with no defined right or wrong, can be disorienting. Purposefully, design strategy does not give the tools to prove or disprove designer’s prepositions at this point.

I always thought my strengths were in visuals but surprisingly during the drawing vignettes exercise I felt lost at first recognising that my drawing   techniques has never changed since I was a 7-year old kid. There are three things to consider when drawing this exercise. The first is how to pick the subject matter so it communicates the core of your idea. Second is to keep in mind the composition choices ahead of time and the third is an amount of detail to put. My vignettes were not as effective as I expected and I hope that I can speed up my workflow in the future and become a better visual communicator at the end of the course.

I particularly enjoyed the ethnographic part of design research. It was fun to be outside in spite of 103 degrees and talk to strangers. I liked the humanity of it when you force yourself to be present, open to another individual and try not to over judge or overthink what is happening in front of your eyes.  I also found that idea generation is not as difficult. It is exhausting sometimes but stretches you in a good way letting you think of every existing technology and cultural experiences to provide a context and get an inspiration for a next idea.

Overall, I feel inspired to continue to explore what it means to see and think like a designer. I hope that this coming year will be challenging and  productive so I can grow professionally and personally.


Work in Progress or Progress through Work.

I kept hearing the word ‘intense’ as I met with former alum and looked into the program. Trying to wrap my head around what to expect I asked, what does intense mean?? How does it look? How will it manifest? How can I prepare to manage intensity?

There are certain knowable factors that I could rearrange to prioritize this program – assuming a part time job, meal prepping breakfast and lunch, buying a car, getting one good fuss free haircut, cancelling every streaming service. I met with designers and alum to understand what their life was like and to try to grasp the meaning of intensity within the program. How do you balance work/life/school? Can you? I heard useful tips along the way – embrace the criticism and learn from it – but I also heard that you just don’t. Balance as I may want to conceive it will not be a reality and, in a way, it’s helpful to abandon this idea of perfection around balancing all things.

Ultimately, I realized I can’t over anticipate this. At a certain point you have to stop hemming and hawing and asking around. Answers don’t come from investigation alone – we arrive at those through lived experience and by fumbling through process until we understand our own. This week has taught me how very little I know and how very much I will be stretched. Somehow, rather than feeling daunted by this, I feel energized.

Bootcamp has helped crystallize the goal I have for being in this program which is to leave AC4D as a design strategist, as a team player, and as a better human. I’m going to learn how to use creative, analytical and empathetic skills to design programs or processes or, dare I say, solutions that will drive us toward a more empathetic, more connected, and more human centered society. Creating meaningful social change through design is still an unknown to me. I can only discover the how and the mechanisms and the processes by which we create that by giving myself permission to try and permission to fail. But most importantly, by putting in the ‘ducking’ work.


AC4D Orientation Diaries

Day 0.5. Couldn’t sleep much the night before the first day of orientation. It was 2 AM and even the humming of The Office’s dialogue failed to self-medicate as it loyally has before. The anticipation wasn’t a feeling I was completely unfamiliar to, but it did feel new.

Day 1. “Make things, build empathy, trust your intuition.” It sounded like a holy trinity I was prepared to make a career out of. I scanned the room and it seemed my classmates felt similarly. I was increasingly excited to get to know them. Ruby later reintroduced the concept of wicked problems and dispensed its many definitions. One definition stuck with me. “Every wicked problem is a symptom of another wicked problem.” In my former engineering classes, most problems were isolated cases with clear, definitive answers that were either a product of optimization or ruled by the law of physics. This was going to be very different.

Day 2. In our first assignment, we tested our design research skills while interviewing local food truck staff, owners and managers. I felt vulnerable but motivated by the challenge. How do you learn from people in the context of their lives? Find problems? Form understanding? Build empathy?

As it turns out, it’s pretty tough. I realized active listening is a muscle I might use less often than I’d like to think. And how do you ask poignant open-ended questions that lead to meaningful discoveries? I always thought empathy shaped my daily perspective, but practicing empathy in the context of design felt unfamiliar. While at moments I felt awkward or unnatural, I was energized knowing I had room for so much growth.

Day 3. Time to make sense of it all! Jon said, “Words become semantic containers for ideas,” and I slowly recognized how heavily design research relies on verbal language. We transcribed and collected the words of our participants into “utterances.” With these utterances, we tried to find meaningful patterns shared amongst them and later transformed those themes into insights. Words carried weight in every step of this process. Are design and language working in parallel? Or are they just one the same?

We later selected an insight and were tasked with creating multiple variations of ideas which addressed it. Generate 300 concepts. Iterate and diverge. I experienced a moment of nostalgia while practicing this way of thinking. It felt like something I often used in childhood but forgot as I got older. Although the exercise was tiring and challenging, it was ultimately liberating.

Day 4. We attempted to visualize our ideas in practice. We were tasked with creating a sketch for five of our previously generated ideas. This process also felt somewhat foreign. As I tried to sketch each idea, I witnessed the idea reshape and refine from my initial perception of it. The ideas slowly began to transform and awaken.

Day 5. Reflecting over this week and everything that had to happen for me to make it here – AC4D is far from home, but exactly where I’m supposed to be.


Personal Reflection: The Highs and Lows of AC4D Bootcamp

Our 3-day bootcamp just wrapped, and I’m invigorated, excited — and exhausted. We condensed big ideas we’ll use throughout the entire program into three days: user interviews, theme finding, insight development, ideation, sketching, and presenting. 

I’m not exhausted for obvious reasons: our days weren’t long, we didn’t have reading homework, and most of our tasks were fun. I’m tired because this week forced me to stay present, get uncomfortable, and challenge my “normal” thinking patterns.

Stress Graph - Week 1

My “anxiety graph” this week

Normal first-day jitters were high, but I quickly calmed down when Ruby reminded us why we are here: to make things, build empathy, and trust our intuition — the three pedagogical tenants of AC4D.

So what did I learn?

I need to think bigger. After working in corporate environments for the last six years, I’ve taught myself to value feasibility, profitability, and efficiency above all else. 

Our bootcamp was centered around exploring challenges specific to food trucks. We cold-intercepted users, transcribed interviews (something I thankfully have experience with!), created utterances, found themes, and then the hard part began: creating provocative insights. 

My first  “provocative statement” was “food truck owners should make prioritize making SoPs to avoid serious issues”. Not so provocative, right?

After some nudging from Jon and a lot of discussion, we landed on:

“Food truck owners resist delegating responsibilities in a highly transient workforce for fear of operational breakdown. Management should be non-hierarchical and compensate all workers equally.”

Is it feasible? Is it profitable? Is it efficient? We don’t know, but it definitely inspired us. 

Then came the hardest part of the week: ideating three hundred ideas from this one insight. 


We got our first flood of ideas out quickly. Then we had to challenge ourselves: is it a product, service, policy, environment, or system? How, where, what, who, when, or why? 

We recommended a lot of accidental big-brother, socialist, capitalist, ethically questionable, idealist, and random ideas. Then came sorting. 

To find our “best” ideas, we used three criteria:

  1. Impact: Does this impact the people we are trying to serve?
  2. Feasible: Could this exist – on earth?
  3. Mission: Does this reflect our “should” statement?

Through sorting, we stack-ranked 15 ideas, and then sketched out five. As someone with limited sketch experience, I struggled to not constantly critique myself. (How do people draw hands really?) Luckily, we were constantly reminded to not judge ourselves. 

Then we listened to our classmates’ concepts, shared our sketches, and from there — we could relax. The rest of the afternoon we spent learning Sketch, which has been a breeze (so far). I’m sure I’ll struggle more once I move beyond circles and rectangles.

Ultimately, I feel really excited for the months ahead. And I hope to fulfill AC4D’s promise of autonomy — and never feeling stuck again.

AC4D Orientation: Complete

Today marks the last day of AC4D Orientation. I entered the week thinking things would start off nice and slow—we’d get to know each other, talk about the courses we’d study, some overview of topics, maybe a brief introduction to the skills and techniques we’d be learning. We did do all of that, but it wasn’t slow. It was a deluge.

On Tuesday we went out and spoke to ten food truck workers to learn more about the process of cooking in a food truck. We only barely put together a focus statement, so our interviews felt somewhat aimless, although we took in lots of interesting information. I thought for sure we would have trouble getting food truck workers to tell us about their jobs for 10 minutes during peak lunch hours, but everyone was surprisingly open. A German man named Karl sat down and told us all about his experience cooking doner kebabs for Americans. Alejandra invited us into her kitchen to show off her Honduran food, and Jose gave us some free samples as he told us about his Puerto Rican cuisine.

Afterward, we transcribed our interviews, separated our utterances (interviewee quotes) by idea, and looked for inferred likeness between utterances that we would use to create connecting statements that illustrate underlying themes in the nature of their work. This was difficult work! All of our interviewees talked about similar things, but many of our connecting statements felt like “red trucking”—making obvious statements based on similar facts that were mentioned by multiple parties (e.g., “space in food trucks is constraining”). Jon let us know that these statements were, as he put it, weak. He was right.

In the end, we managed to put together four themes, and were then tasked with creating 300 insights—statements including an inferred observation and, most importantly, a provocation. The provocation is key: a suggested course of action that, if our inferred observation is true, could upend typical behavior and result in new ways of working that are more efficient or more beneficial for those involved.

Creating provocations is hard. Not all of our not-quite-300 insights included provocations. A lot of them felt like suggestions to do things that smart food trucks already do. But a few of them, such as our rental system for cooking equipment, felt like it could genuinely improve food truck workers’ lives, eliminating hours of work from their day and reducing the capital needed to get their business off the ground. Everyone uses equipment. But does everyone need to own and maintain their own equipment? After so many hours of painstaking thinking, the insight felt revolutionary and rewarding.

We then received introductions to drawing and the Sketch tool. I will need to brush up on my skills with both to ensure effective communication of ideas. As a writer, I know that visual communication is both extremely important and something that I have weakness in, so I look forward to developing this ability.

Having taken a couple interaction design courses previously, much of this week’s activity felt like an in-depth refresher as opposed to something brand new. However, I know there is still much to learn—and argue about. While brainstorming insights, Jon pushed our group to hold divergent ideas simultaneously in our heads, pushing us to explore extremes so that we can best come up with new perspectives. In one instance, this involved exploring some very uncomfortable possible “solutions.” I look forward to further studying the ethical dimension of this work, as it’s clear that it will be of key importance if we are truly to use design to transform society for good.

Reflections on AC4D Orientation 2019

Orientation week at Austin Center for Design is coming to a close.  In a very short period of time, our class of twelve was introduced to a wide variety of topics and activities.

At it’s core, design strategy is about experience, emotions, and stories. Humans are inherently emotional and irrational, and I found it both interesting and refreshing that design not only allows for that, but embraces and builds for it. I was also excited to learn what a creative process design strategy can be. It’s iterative and offers a lot of freedom. There’s ambiguity and there’s space to explore.

Our first project was a sprint to speak with food truck owners and employees, synthesize what we learned, and make inference which led to ideas. Generating hundreds of fresh ideas was a fun but taxing activity. It felt like flexing a muscle that I hadn’t used in a very long time.

Our instructor reiterated several times that it was important to trust the process. It was tempting to jump ahead and think about potential solutions while still gathering information. But, the fast-pace of this first assignment was a great way to test and see the value of that advice. Ultimately, many ideas and inferences came to our group while staring at our sticky notes that we never would have thought of two steps earlier.

The initial overview of Design Strategy has me looking more critically at the narratives being communicated to us every day: the places we live, the clothes we buy, the cars we drive, but also the way we build relationships, spend our time, and structure our lives. How much of this is being influenced by a thoughtfully crafted external force? What are the implications? Is that good… is it bad? How do we know?

I do know that I’m excited for these next 8 months and excited to dive right in.