Studio: Exploration through Medium


Joe Johnstons Star Wars concept sketch, traced with Sharpie
Joe Johnstons Star Wars concept sketch, traced with Sharpie


We’re developing illustration techniques in Studio. This week we were asked to choose 5 artists whose work we admire, trace 1 concept work from each person in 3 mediums and reflect on the process in a blog post. We must also explain why we chose each artist. The goal is to get a feeling for the hand and strokes of the different artists and to just draw as much as possible.

This assignment was thrilling until it came time to use an unfamiliar medium: Illustrator. I’ve used Illustrator to trace in work, create vector images and develop more tactile fashion illustrations but I’ve only used the program to paint or draw a handful of times. After five minutes of utter frustration two of my peers helped me get started with the brush tool and all of a sudden- a hidden world of tools was available. Let’s take a moment to enjoy the originals and my playful attempts to recreate them using Paper Mate Flares, Sharpie, and Illustrator.


Picasso’s career was full of twists and turns. He began his training in the classics then challenged preconceived notions of art with works like the one below, a simple line illustration of a horse. I visited the Museu Picasso de Barcelona 3 years ago and was awestruck at the shear breadth of his work. I can’t explain why but regarding his work has always made me appreciate my own abilities. It’s obvious I didn’t know him but I do not feel intimidated by his work rather it feels like an invitation to keep building.

The horse was simple to trace but Picasso’s line weight varies so gracefully that I wonder at what great speed he completed this illustration. You can’t help but feel motion by the curve of the horse’s neck, the intense hashmark shadow and the fluidity and change in line weight. Next I trace the work of an artist who draws more emotion in the faces of his undead characters, Tim Burton.

Picasso: sketch of a horse
Picasso: sketch of a horse, traced in PaperMate Flare
Picasso: sketch of a horse, traced in Sharpie.
Picasso: sketch of a horse, traced in Sharpie.


Picasso: sketch of a horse, traced with Illustrator brush
Picasso: sketch of a horse, traced with Illustrator brush


Tim Burton is the creative genius behind the first Batman film, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare before Christmas. I’ve always enjoyed his films and the unique characters he portrays. In 2009 a wonderfully curated selection of his work was on exhibit at MoMA in New York City. Some of the work and videos from that exhibit can still be seen by clicking here. His work was particularly great for this assignment because we’ve been practicing articulating people and each one of Tim’s characters projects a completely different emotion: dark and scary, pensive, sad and happy.

Tim Burton: character development sketch
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Tim Burton: character development sketch, traced in PaperMate Flare
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Tim Burton: character development sketch, traced in Sharpie
Tim Burton: character development sketch, traced with Illustrator brush


Next I chose Alvar Aalto, famed Finnish architect, designer, sculptor and painter. Few people know that I studied architecture for 2 years in college. I reveled in drafting and model building and was mesmerized by the development from concept to execution by architects like Aalto, Gaudi and Hadid. Light is an important element of any architect’s work but Aalto was particularly brilliant at filtering light. He was also concerned with the full execution of each work. He did not just develop the building, he gave attention to interior surface treatments, textiles and furniture. You can see more of his work here.

Original Alvar Aalto sketch
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Alvar Aalto sketch, traced in PaperMate Flare
Alvar Aalto sketch, traced in Sharpie
Alvar Aalto sketch, traced in Sharpie
Alvar Aalto sketch, traced with Illustrator brush


Alexander McQueen was an accomplished fashion designer. His collections were fragments of a dream- visions that could only be imagined. He kept journals and sketched very loosely, beginning with silhouettes then moving into refined detail. Here is one of his sketches in pencil and my tracings below.

Alexander McQueen concept sketch
Alexander McQueen sketch, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, Autumn/ Winter 2008
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Traced in Paper Mate Flare
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Traced in Sharpie
Traced with Illustrator brush


The last illustration I selected was a concept work for Star Wars. Joe Johnston is a film director but as also been a special effects artist, producer and art director. He He directed the film Hidalgo, produced Willow and worked on production for Batteries not Included. Prior to that he worked with George Lucas to develop concepts for Star Wars. In class we’ve just begun discussing storyboards and the importance of not holding anything too dear as scenes change and need to adapt in a collaborative studio. I’m glad Lucas and Johnston saved a few scenes from their original storyboards. Check out more by clicking here and enjoy my final tracing exploration.

Joe Johnston original Star Wars concept sketch
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Joe Johnstons Star Wars concept sketch, traced with Paper Mate Flare
Joe Johnstons Star Wars concept sketch, traced with Sharpie
Joe Johnstons Star Wars concept sketch, traced with Sharpie


Joe Johnstons Star Wars concept sketch, traced with Illustrator brush


We also worked in groups this week and developed playful visual concepts to improve libraries based on the following criteria:

  • To make the library more of a desired destination.
  • To provide 24 hour access.
  • To create opportunities for community engagement.

You can explore our library ideas by clicking here.


Contextual Inquiry | Homelessness and Technology

Focus & Topic:

Our group chose to focus on the issue of homelessness and the use of technology in the everyday lives of these individuals. As services, jobs, government, and information move toward the digital world, access to technology is becoming a basic human necessity and the homeless population must also keep up in some way. We wanted to see what challenges they face with accessing and using technology.


In order to gain empathy and understanding of what homeless individuals experience, we looked at 14 participants from various locations and sides of the topic. We performed several contextual inquiries, looking for people interacting with services or at locations that serve the homeless population in Austin, such as: Trinity Center, Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH or Front Steps), Salvation Army, and the Austin Central Library. We also conducted scheduled interviews, identified participants on the street, and at events.

The formal interviews we conducted were mainly with people who work at the many homeless service organizations and helped us get a better grasp on the facilities, options, services, as well as an alternate viewpoint of the homeless population from someone who works closely with them. Staff might share stories that homeless individuals might not think to, either because they are so ordinary to them or too personal. One challenge with interviewing staff, however, was that it often felt too disconnected. Because some interviews were scheduled in conference rooms or during non-service hours, we couldn’t physically observe their interactions with the community and so the interviews sometimes felt like a sales pitch on the idea of their services instead of helping us gain a better understanding of how and why people use them. We tried to combat this by joining a livable wages rally awareness day, organized by a prominent homeless community advocate, as well as observing one staff member as she handled day-to-day tasks while trying to answer our questions.

We used contextual inquiry for the majority of spontaneous interviews we conducted. Contextual inquiry allows us to go directly to people in their own environments and observe the way that they interact with the world in context. We can get a more personal insight into behavior and structure that the individual might not think to expand upon in as much detail in a formal interview or conversation summarizing their experiences.

We found people on the street and in places where services are offered. We quickly realized that abruptly approaching homeless individuals randomly, as three students with paper and recorders, caused suspicion and apprehension, as can be seen in our first participant’s description below, so we changed our methodology for approaching individuals on the street to put the conversation more in their hands, offering an equal situation. In these instances, we waited for individuals to ask us for money and offered an exchange of conversation about our student research project for $5. This seemed to alleviate suspicion and help folks be more open to talking to us about their experiences.

People & Stories:

We interviewed 14 interesting individuals. Below are five participants we think highlight the community and some of their experiences best.

“…getting a Texas state ID…if you’re not from here it’s hard…gotta get this, gotta get that. It’s a puzzle and if you’re missing one piece, fuck it. There’s no sense in trying to pull it together.”

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Denver was our first interview out on the streets. When we approached him, he was looking at a friend’s tablet computer. The stories that he told were generally about the chaos that is his life; inability to keep track of his belongings, trouble with the cops, and keeping up with medications. Denver indicates that he struggles with schizophrenia and ADHD, both of which keep him from holding a job. His record as a felon and lack of proper ID also keep him inert– stuck within the context of downtown Austin. He was engaged and interested in talking with us– happy to share stories and open about his experiences. In many ways, he presented himself as a performer. He shared a story about how he makes better money panhandling along the roadways and talked about the fact that everyone needs a gimmick.

“I’m gonna upgrade cause I’m gonna try and play into the bars- my partner here, Tre, he’s gonna help me out. I picked out a new guitar yesterday in a pawn shop on 7th. He gets a check once a month, he’s gonna break off and help me get the guitar. Instead of him blowing all his money in the first week, he can come and get 5 or 10 from me throughout the month…a little bank for him. I’m helping him, he’s helpin me.”

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Nomad presented himself as a touring musician that happens to be homeless. He makes a living busking around downtown Austin and has an addiction to the game of getting tips. He has a similar connection to his personal items to other people we interviewed– everything is disposable, temporary and subject to change. The freedom of his daily life is valuable to him and he lives one day at a time.

“I went ahead and gave that up and my sister got mad at me and said why don’t you just stay in long view and go to school for culinary arts and I said nothing here in long view I’m just looking at the same walls, same people, the same thing, and doing the same thing over and over.”

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Kevin is an ambitious and optimistic young man who dreams of being a culinary artist. He moved from a small town in Texas to Austin, after receiving financial aid to attend culinary school. When he arrived in Austin a couple of months ago, his housing fell through, due to an old misdemeanor that he says shouldn’t have shown up on his record anymore. Instead of heading back to his hometown, he chose to stay at the ARCH as a temporary means of lodging. He has a case manager at the ARCH and expects to find alternate housing in a couple weeks. He works as a dishwasher in a small restaurant while attending culinary school. As we are leaving Whataburger, he sees a woman in need and hands half of his burger over to her without a second thought. He seems to view his situation as a starting spot and full of potential. He aspires to travel the world and hope his culinary career path will help him achieve that goal.


“[The military] don’t really prepare you honestly, you just have to go out there and get it. I mean when I first got out of the military… my first job was jiffy lube. That was my very first job, which was horrible because it was part time, and it only paid you $200 every two weeks. It was hard compared to what I was making, but now I have a felony on my background … People look at the felony more than they look at my military service, and my felony will be almost seven years old … That’s what sucks about it. They don’t pay attention to my military. It’s like ‘hey she’s an ex-con, don’t want to hire her.’”

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Vickie served in the military for over ten years, then was honorably discharged. When we met her, she just got out of jail for violating her probation by not paying her fees for two months. She was sent to do a 90-day program where she lost her son in the process. She is now working with five different caseworkers to get back on her feet and get custody of her son back. She was never apart from her son up until that time. He is three years old boy, and she was emotional when talking about him. In addition to her son, she has a close bond to her parents in Hawaii, who help her out with phone bills and some finances. Her long-term goal is to go back to school to become a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor. She expresses feeling overlooked in the military and developing a dependence on other substances after she got back from Iraq. Her desire is to help other women who have experienced similar situations. Currently, she is living at the Salvation Army until she can gain employment and housing. She had a genuine, optimistic spirit and was determined to get back on her feet.

“We’re not here to fix them, we’re here to love them… We’re taking you as you are. We’re not trying to change you, unless you want to be changed.”

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Myra has been both volunteer and now staff at the Trinity Center for seven years. Trinity Center is a non-secular/pan-religious organization located in the St. David’s Episcopal Church, which offers services and case management, with no expectations on how/if people wish to change their situations. During open hours, they offer free access to two phones for national calls, three computers, a monitor which lists daily events in the lobby, deaf communication assistance, and address/mail services for homeless, along with various meals throughout the day.

Myra retired from a thirty-year career with the newspaper and started volunteering at Trinity Center to get out of her comfort zone and gain empathy, which happened almost immediately. She and other staff refer to the homeless population who use their services as “neighbors” because they live right next door. Due to various laws, such as “no sit/no lie” ordinances and urinating in public, she says that it is basically a crime to be homeless because once these issues get on your record and rack up it’s basically impossible to get housing. She uses Facebook primarily to spread the word when materials are needed for the population, such as dry socks that were in high demand after the recent flooding in May. She and another co-worker did a 24-hour retreat where they slept outside and ended up walking seventeen miles because “you gotta keep moving.” She lobbies for public restrooms and is angered by the drug population who prey on the homeless. She spoke about many instances of how blessed the community she serves feels and appreciates everything she has much more because of her work with them.


Pretty quickly, we discovered that we would get people to open up more, if we just asked individuals about their day-to-day experiences and listened to their stories. At first, we’d mostly looked for individuals using some form of technology, but it became apparent after just a few conversations, that technology is being regularly used , in some form, and it was more interesting to uncover technologies being used or desired than it was to ask about specific forms of technology we had pre-defined.

We learned that people living on the streets have a great capacity for change in their lives and have varied relationships to technology. One major theme in the use of technology was connection to family. During our research, we discovered that many participants kept up with family and friends via Facebook and cell phone. They do so via smart phones, using computers at service locations (ARCH, Trinity Center, Salvation Army, ARCH) or their own personal computers and devices.

Though some of this population are unemployed, many are employed and are trying to transition out of homelessness. Some use websites like Indeed and Craigslist for temporary/permanent employment, while others use temporary agency services and the rare opportunities where they can apply to jobs, in-person. Case management and housing services are mostly handled via phone call, text, or online. As technology develops, it is becoming a necessity that people be able to access information and applications for services or correspondence online.

We are eager to go through our transcriptions in greater detail and uncover the patterns we may have missed when wrapped up in conversation, in order to synthesize and develop insights on inspiration for what to do next with this very engaging and challenging topic.

Research: Fieldwork Presentation

Our design research project is focused on trying to understand what it feels like to navigate financial choices and financial management. Last week, we presented 5 of our 15 participants to the rest of the cohort and AC4D guests. Our intention was to build empathy with our audience through storytelling, probing, and reflecting on our participant’s lives and the behaviors that give us a peek into a deeper thread of their life.

We interviewed 15 participants through a local co-op and non-profit offering accessible resources. Throughout our design research, we blended and emphasized qualitative data methods and participatory design methods. We intentionally built this into our research plan because we believe that as designers, you can only gain insight through rigorous experience and observation in people’s lives and not simply by what people say. To express this, we created a Financial Mapping exercise that asked participants to connect stickers which represented thematic groups to their own answers, asking probing questions in response to what participants shared. For example, we asked participants to list out their bank accounts, investments, savings, debts, goals, challenging financial situations, hoping to better understand a high level view of how participants worked with their present financial place of being.


Amy is a free-spirited designer who has ambitions of becoming a performing artist. At an early age, she acquired a shopping addiction that led her to shape feelings of shame, guilt and self-judgment around money and spending. In order to free herself from these feelings, she created a mental relationship to her old habits, and the new habits she wanted to introduce, in the form of a two “guys.” She calls her evolving relationship with these new habits her Money Honey. This Money Honey has allowed her to associate spending with feelings of empowerment and wealth. This internal relationship she keeps better allows her to manage her spending and focus on purchases that will bring the most to her life.

At this stage, she does not hold a traditional investment account but instead prefers to consider her talents and the items she buys to advance her career such as, audio equipment and a computer, as her investments. She is very concerned with how her spending and money management affects her ability to give back and says, “I’d rather define myself by what I’m giving to the world than by what I’m taking from the world.” While she primarily utilizes online banking resources to help her manage her day-to-day expenses, it is these inner-connections that play a larger role in the grand picture of her financial goals.


We met Jolene at a local charity. Jolene lives with her boyfriend, who is on social security. Together, their expenses come to about 30 dollars a week. For the rest, they rely on a myriad of social services available in the Austin area. Their collective competency in navigating the use of these resources gives them a certain kind of stability.

Jolene told us that some people, when they come to a place like the charity store where we met, that some people have what her mother called “hungry eyes”. That means that they take whatever they see even if they don’t need it. Jolene took a lot from her mother growing up. She taught her the difference between penny-pinching and being tight. Being tight is being a miser, not wanting to help others. Penny-pinching allows you to give of yourself.

One day, she’d like to plan events in Vegas. She says she’s not looking for what she calls “dream cash”. She just wants to be comfortable. $100,000, $200,000, $300,000 dollars a year, and she’ll be good. These are aspirations that do seem achievable. However, there’s a gulf between her goals and the realities of her financial life with no clear way for her to overcome it.


We met Martha through a friend. She and her husband were able to qualify for an affordable housing program that allowed them to purchase their home for two-thirds of the market price with a small amount of fixed equity that accrues each month.

Martha and her husband have had some rough patches. Actually, she told me they have rough patches all the time. She works part-time, in part to spend time with her son but also because of health issues. Her husband is a freelance photographer. His income is very inconsistent and has been practically non-existent for long periods of time.

In spite of seemingly ever-present struggle, Martha and her husband have a generally positive and non-cynical outlook. They were very quick to tell me a story of how great their bank is because of an encounter they had with them. They had just received an iPad and an iPhone from their family for Christmas. These were left on top of the car as they drove off to return home and they felt careless with their family’s generosity. They called the bank to see how they could replace the gifts with an insurance claim. They were told there was nothing that could be done. They hung up the phone. Five minutes later, the bank called them back and said, why don’t we do it under your auto policy? Which is something they hadn’t thought of before. The fact that the people at the bank went out of their way to help was unexpected and celebrated by both Martha and her husband.

“That’s why I will always speak well of them.”

Martha looks at paying her bills as a moral duty. She doesn’t like “breaking the rules”. In fact, when talking about not paying this or that bill on time, she said that felt like “being in trouble.”


Tiffany is a badass anarchist who swings back and forth from participating in “the system” and trying to not be a part of it. She grew up poor, frugal, and internalized a story of “If you can make it, it might not be as good as the real thing, but it’s good enough.” This follows her into her 20’s where she spends roughly $150 a month besides $500 in rent, $30 of that being for pet care. Tiffany supports local stores despite knowing they aren’t cost effective, and, shops from Amazon from time to time. She rounds out her banking account, keeping it with “three zeros” and moving the rest to her savings. For example, if she has $1350, she will move $350 to her savings so her account will have a “clean” $1000. At this time, Tiffany is working on giving herself permission to spend money because she feels a crippling guilt and anxiety whenever she spends. She has a job for every dollar.

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Ralph recently graduated from college studying engineering and has had a shift of income from $400 monthly to $70k annually. He grew up privileged, went to private school, and describes himself as growing up frugally being middle class, that if it wasn’t necessary (such as cable, internet, etc) they didn’t have it. He has never had a financial hardship and attributes that to his carefree nature about money and salaries. Ralph manages a large co-op’s finances and has a manual method of physically moving stacks of checks and receipts from one side of his table to another to represent the process happening in his mind. He streamlines the financial process by having one checking account where every transaction filters through for the co-op. Ralph tries to live frugally and maintain the lifestyle he had in college because “It’s hard to go back once you become accustomed to a certain level of spending and lifestyle. It kinda boxes you into that, so anyway, I feel freer not being reliant on a large amount of money.”

Our next step is to synthesize all the data—the stories we’ve collected—with the hopes of better understanding the nuances and universal truths of how people use money in their personal lives.

Misty – Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

I tried several attempts at this comic, but they all felt too idealistic and as though I were trying to argue for design research a bit too much.  As I read Dan Norman’s article on technology first, innovation second, I couldn’t help but be argumentative. I’m in school for design research, after all. Though, try as I may, I couldn’t get his thoughts out of my head.  Technology first — inventions must exist before we can make them better.  They start clunky because the inventor is doing something new, so of course it won’t be user friendly. Over time, people use it, parts become cheaper, designers make it easier for humans to interact with, and it’s used for new things.  It’s innovated.

I don’t like this word.  Innovation.  It feels like a fancy word a designer made up to expand upon invention.  The underlying theme of each of these articles is inspiration, not innovation, I think.  Bill Gaver seeks inspiration in the ambiguous open-ended cultural probes, Liz Sanders in co-creation and co-design. Indeed, working collaboratively assumes many minds to the one mind.  Of course new ideas will happen and inspire.  Paul Dourish discusses the importance of context and engineers working together with designers to make both the technological advancements and social aspects work together intuitively.  It is the user who decides whether technology goes anywhere and the inspiration for iteration.  Jon Kolko seeks inspiration in synthesis of design research. By doing contextual inquiries, observing and getting to know people intimately, new problems are uncovered and begging for resolution.

It’s all very inspiring and an exciting path to be on, but as our technology advances, it seems that more and more, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Designers tend to iterate, using existing technology, to make some new thing.  It’s called innovation because it can’t be called invention.  Inspiration leads to innovation, but I agree with Don Norman, that rarely does it create new technology altogether.  It’s not that the designers do nothing, I think Don Norman (and I) might be suggesting that we make a shout out to those before us, who helped make our inspirational ideas possible.


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What adds value to design?

We had a series of readings last week that each touched on a different aspect of value in design. Each author had vastly different opinions on where in the design process user-engagement adds the most value.


What adds value to design?


 Don Norman values innovation above all else. He defines innovation as technological advancement. He posits in Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf that radical advancements in technology are the only way for design to move forward. A user may tweak a design once it is on the market to shift its use from something periphery to a human need, but use follows technology.

Jon Kolko values understanding and empathy. He gains these through design research, by “[learning] from people to emphasize people, rather than technology or business.” He stresses that design research is a way to inspire new ideas and find design opportunities, not a sure-fire pathway to innovation.

Paul Dourish is a technologist himself, working in the field of ubiquitous computing. He believes that value in design derives from context. Context is ever changing, and dependant on multiple factors including social interaction and activity. A design that is valuable in one context may need to shift functions to remain valuable in another.

Bill Gaver values the insights of a designer above all else. He uses a research device called “Probes” to get inspiration from the user. But really, that’s all he hopes to get from the user: inspiration from the designer. He discourages people from using his “Probes” to ask pointed questions or try to find specific data points. He believes researchers should use results from the prompts in the “Probes” as a sort-of filter for their own thoughts, to let inspiration seep through.

Liz Sanders values community co-creators. She emphasizes bringing potential users into the design process to help make the design and see it through to market. She believes that everyone has a desire and ability to create, and that designers should harness that ability to create products with communities.


How does user-engagement affect design value?

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Don Norman’s article posits that design research can be used to make some small incremental changes in a revolutionary design, but iteration is generally working within the framework of something that already exists. It may shift the design slightly, change a few features, but redesigning some revolutionary technology is unlikely to do much more than that. I agree with this premise, but I believe there is a way to use design research with new technology that may make the technology more successful at the outset: if you can fill a need with your product rather than waiting for someone else to find it, your product will likely be adopted sooner. Just having a ‘new cool thing’ doesn’t mean much without a need.

Jon Kolko dives into behavioral research when starting a new design project. He encourages designers to step back and use design synthesis as a method of rationalizing and substantiating their thinking. Synthesis allows designers to use what they learned from watching the behavior of potential users to translate an “opportunity into specific design criteria.”

Paul Dourish is really focused on the technology of ubiquitous computing. He seeks to understand content of human interactions and actions and how they work together to form context. In his article, What we talk about when we talk about context he doesn’t discuss what kind of objects he’s building, but instead focuses on how we should be looking at social context in technology, which leads me to believe that he is letting the data guide what he builds.

Bill Gaver utilizes user-engagement earliest, and lets it go soonest. He doesn’t want to really understand the people he connects with through the “Probes,” he wants to let his own mind build their stories. It’s impossible to know if he interprets the results in a way that makes sense to the participants because he doesn’t for clarification. This style of design research has a huge risk of gross misinterpretation.

Liz Sanders engages with users early, but doesn’t let go. She wants designers to fully empathize with community co-creators to make something unique and valuable within that community. Sanders stresses that diversity is a key driver for collaboration, but I worry that having designers work so closely with communities that members of that community are co-designers and co-owners, may eventually stagnate ideas, lead to problems with leadership, especially if members of the community are always co-creators and not just creators.

Charlie’s Fried Chicken Challenge

The definition of value, innovation, and context are a few terms as designers we continually try to understand.. This week we debated the different viewpoints of Paul Dourish, Jon Kolko, Donald Norman, William Gaver, and Liz Sanders.

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In the beginning, the restaurant owner Charlie notices business is slowing down and his frustration of not being able to find good Fried Chicken in his town. He presents the challenge of $2500 and for them to come up with the best-fried chicken recipe in two weeks. The challenge is a representation of a cultural probe because how the chefs approached the challenge speaks majorly about their personality and behaviors.

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Gabe immediately decides to purchase technology and understand the science behind making the perfect fried chicken. Donald Norman poses the argument that innovation comes from technologist and design research is better for iteration. This is also what Dourish describes is the mindset of a Positivist. Gabe represents both the technologist and the Positivist.

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On the contrary, Ben steps outside and immediately starts asking people around in the local community about their favorite flavors in food. His tactic is a representation of Kolko’s tactic of design research and building empathy. He also represents the phenomenologicalist in the story in gathering quantitative data. Based on the feedback from the people he met on the streets he decides use the money to go to India to experience and better understand Indian cuisine.

Upon his arrival, he meets a local chef who excitingly shows him around India bringing him to the best markets around town.

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They begin the creation process as Sanders talks about in her article. The mentions the four levels of creation, doing, adapting, making, and creating. Syed and Ben go through the creation process together also known as Co-creating.

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As his context changes and he conversates with the lady on the plane, he is reminded of the sweet Korean BBQ sauce and gets the idea to add it to his recipe.

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Ben’s chicken wins because it has the perfect mixture of savory, sweet, and tanginess. It is unlike anything that Charlie has ever tasted and he is thrilled.

At the end, they work together to create an even better iteration of their fried chicken alone. As designers, technologist, and inventors, the best innovations arise from co-creation and collaboration. Surely, either chicken would have been delicious alone, but together, it’s unlike anything before.

Dourish talks about the positivist v.s. phenomological view points and how it applies to context. Ben’s journey is a representation of how context is a verb rather than something that can be quantified. It is constantly changing and parallel to time. As Ben’s context is changing, it enables him to gather deeper insights into creating something never created before.

Both approaches Kolko and Norman’s approaches serve a purpose. However, I believe, when the two come together is when innovation and design are most useful. While analyzing Norman’s argument, I recognized he did not imply design research or building empathy is irrelevant but more so to just make something. I know this is one of the most valuable lessons I will take away from AC4D.

Innovation in a pair of Socks


Inspiration comes in many forms- from desert landscapes to scientific exploration to seeing someone struggle and realizing a way to help them. Inspiration can lead to great design but when does creation prove to be useful or meaningful, to have value? Where does technology come into play and what is innovation?

Last week in Theory, we discussed excerpts regarding need, value, inspiration, context and innovation by five authors: Don Norman, renowned technologist and professor; Jon Kolko, designer and AC4D founder; Bill Gaver, Professor of Design at Goldsmiths University of London; Liz Sanders, Design Researcher; and Paul Dourish, computer scientist and professor at the University of California. In this post I review their arguments, filter their positions through my own lens, and illustrate those positions with a comic.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.003Let’s begin with Don Norman.

In “Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf” Norman writes several purposefully controversial remarks about design research and innovation in order to provoke us to “reconsider ideas they take for granted.” The final statement he makes, attempting to sum up many diverse arguments against Design Research is, “One thousand years ago people did not have a need for email or not even for the telephone: It took the existence of technologies to make these activities possible, which slowly determined the need.”

Yes, as new technologies are developed, they can become a need but need does not arise from the invention of the new technology- it moves to the most valuable iteration of that technology.

Our needs are basically unchanged from early man- we need to eat and drink, sleep and communicate with one another. Have we built socially and technologically advanced ways of doing that? Yes, but every major shift in technology came from a previous major shift.

A cell phone is a perfect example. Although the technology is imaginative and now very valuable, it was preceded by the once valued landline telephone. That was preceded by morse code and before that was smoke signals. Each advancement was considered innovative in their time.

Innovation is the advancement and eventual adaptation of technology. New technology can only be innovative if adopted as useful or meaningful by the end user, not the creator. Kolko refers to Vogel’s definition of innovation as “a valued leap from the viewpoint of the consumer.”

So let’s explore this idea with a comic about ancient technology, re-applied: socks.


Earl is an early man. He sleeps in caves, kills animals for food and drinks water from glacial melt. Earl has a problem- his feet are always cold and they get blisters from walking around. Earl tries and succeeds to fasten a covering for his feet from the hyde of a wild animal. Earl has invented socks or shoes or both.

In this ancient instance, a need developed and Earl looked for a solution in his natural environment. Need preceded invention and technology. But this is the dawn of man- let’s flip to more modern time, the 70s.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.005Vast technologies have change the shoe market. Nike storms onto the scene in the 70s with simple shoes to support the burgeoning indie running movement.

A couple of decades and several incremental improvements later, the shoe is relatively unchanged. It is a multi-layered outer meant to be comfortable but remain rigid for support. It’s made of dozens of materials and although it’s better-looking, the fit is clumsy and ill-suited to the variety of feet in the world. It causes runners grief but it’s the best we have so we deal with it.

Again, need comes first: a need for a material exponentially different than what is currently available. Where can Nike begin? They decide the best place to get a feel for what runners are experiencing is on the track and on the streets but why is going there so important?

Design_and_Innovation_comic.006In “What we talk about when we talk about context,” Paul Dourish guides us through a complicated web of evolving definitions of context. If we think context is fixed then we can definitely design something brilliant for runners from the confines of an office. By doing so, we limit technology to existing and definitive constructs. If we think of context as a product of each individual interaction between every person and their environment then we need to go see the activity being done, do it with someone, share in that experience, and observe what happens. Only then can we create something that is truly adaptable and valuable to the ever-changing human experience. Paul goes on to write,

“Users, not designers, determine the meaning of the technologies that they use, through the ways in which they incorporate them into practice. Accordingly, the focus of the design is not simply “how can people get their work done,” but “how can people create their own meanings and uses for the [product] in use”; and in turn, this suggests an open approach in which users are active participants in the emergence of ways of working.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.007The Nike research team hangs out with runners. They stretch with them, run with them and cool down with them. They talk about everything- all within the context of each runners life.

Something keeps happening. They watch over and over as runners take off their shoes and socks and put a fresh pair of socks on. They ask why and the runners explain, “it feels good on my feet- like a second skin with some support.”

Ah-ha! The Nike design research team strikes gold! “Let’s make shoes for runners that feel like socks!”

Design_and_Innovation_comic.008The Nike researchers return to what they call, Innovative Kitchen.  They figured out a few years back that if they wanted to stay at the front edge of the marketplace, they needed to work with specialists in every facet of their business, including the most important- the end-user or customer so they developed a lab of sorts to make space for collaboration.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.010Each author, whether or not they touch on it in these readings, believes in studio culture: artists, tinkerers, engineers, designers, researchers, programmers, scientists- great minds under one roof, focused on a similar topic, challenge or problem.

Liz Sanders and George Simons write, “Co-creation […] involves the integration of experts and everyday people working closely together. […] Multiple divergent points of view need to be expressed, listened to and discussed. Empathy between co-creators is essential.”

They take it a step further. “Moving co-creation from the company to the people it serves […]” has the greatest potential to create social value. How do we do that in a real life setting?

Design_and_Innovation_comic.011The Nike team does this by welcoming runners into their collaborative space to work alongside designers, programmers, engineers, and scientists as “co-designers” as they attempt to develop a valuable product.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.012The team is assembled. There’s just one problem. No one has any clue how to make a supportive, breathable, lightweight running shoe that’s like a sock.

This brings us back to Norman who says, “new technologies […] inspire technologists to invent things.”Design_and_Innovation_comic.013New and interesting technology was once a novel thing- something that we reveled in, that we were excited to see just because it was shiny and new. Today, technology is ubiquitous. It’s not enough to say what new and shiny thing can I invent? We are flooded with technology and therefore you have to ask, “what should I create?”

Design_and_Innovation_comic.014In this instance, the Nike team is inspired by their customer- runners. They have a collaborative team synthesizing runner interviews and observations into opportunities for design. By keeping the customer or user at the center of their process, each designer is confined to a specific set of needs and simultaneously free to search their environment and new materials for potentially useful and meaningful technology.

We make space for new technological advancements because we are empathetic to our customers or users and understand their needs.Design_and_Innovation_comic.015A team member comes back to the Innovation Kitchen with a photo of a suspension bridge and old bridge plans drawn by engineers in the 1930s. He spreads the images on a table and the team embarks on a 4 year collective journey developing a new fiber called Flywire. Out of that comes the Nike Flyknit- the lightest, best-fitting, least wasteful shoe to ever hit the market. Runners and walkers alike snatched up the Flyknit and with their adoption, have made it a truly valuable product.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.016Why is this my illustration of value? Revolutionary tools existed before we made use of them. It is only through their use that become valuable to us and the same goes for other species.

A new product or service can be inherently valuable when we put the end user at the center of the design process.



For the second assignment in our Design, Society, and The Public Sector class we were asked to visually explain the intent of the authors we read this week.


Don Norman
Norman, a consultant, is seen as one of the founding fathers of interaction design
Jon Kolko
Kolko is the founder of the Austin Center of Design (this school).

Paul Dourish
Nourish is a professor at the University of California Irvine
Bill Gaver
Gaver is a professor at Goldsmiths at the University of London
Elizabeth Sanders
Sanders is a professor at the Ohio State University

While each has a different slightly different take, there was a great deal of overlap. In particular, each was presenting an argument on how design and technology might actually bring value to different communities.

As I reviewed the content I realized that the arguments aligned with a topic in which I have a fair amount of experience – education. The comic is a critique on the idea of innovation and a method that can add value to students and educators around the globe.



Story Behind the Story

Below I have outlined my interpretation of each author and how his or argument shaped my comic.

Don Norman
Norman is of the opinion that innovation is derived by transformative technologies. He goes on to state that design research will identify methods in which to implement those technologies but that the technology itself is the innovation.

As for my comic, I wanted to focus on the fact that while certain technologies have been hailed as transformative innovations, they have not lived up to those claims. An example of this is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program started in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte, formerly of MIT’s Media Lab. His vision was to provide quality educational materials to students in countries that have little access to information. He planned on doing so by developing a wifi-enabled laptop that could be produced for $100. Unfortunately, not only was the laptop more expensive, the program was poorly implemented. Rather than understanding what the students and educators needed, OLPC made an assumption. They believed that providing a cheap laptop, that had several basic applications and could access the internet, would ensure students in underserved countries would have access to a quality education. This was not the case, the laptops underperformed, the software did not adequately support the students, and were ultimately not used by the communities they were meant to serve.

Jon Kolko
Kolko states that for a technology to be truly innovative one must first conduct design research to better understand a population and their particular needs and then the technology must be able to scale.

I take a similar stance – and perhaps that’s in part why I’m a student at AC4D. It is my contention is that innovation is derived from understanding the needs each learning community. I believe that we can ensure more students around the globe have access to a quality education by first understanding the needs of the communities which we serve. Only then can we identify technologies that will best support that community and ensure success. By understanding the community and the available technologies we are able to build curriculum that is culturally appropriate. But for that approach to be innovative it must scale. I argue that by identifying technologies that are consistently utilized, accessible and reliable by people around the globe will ensure that such a curricular approach could scale.

Elizabeth Sanders
Sanders believes that idea of co-design is a key driver for creating valuable designs. She states that the value of a design is derived from both designers and non-designers collaborating on a project. She states that such an approach, having non-designers begin to create, builds a sense of ownership and an outcome that the designers alone could not have anticipated.

I have worked on several community design projects. Most recently collaborating with a neighborhood in San Francisco. Working along side those community members built a sense of trust and excitement that led to insights that we would not have been able to otherwise uncover. In this story I take a similar approach stating that if we work with a community leaders we not only build an understanding that honors its culture and accessible technologies but create a sense of empowerment and ownership in the community that would not have been otherwise developed.

Bill Gaver
Gaver explores the idea of cultural probes as a means of accessing ideas without context. He focuses on the idea of using collected data as a means to inspire not interpret.

By considering the available technologies and incorporating ideas inspired by outside industries  – like mobile banking via SMS and downloadable content as a delivery mechanism – the designer and community leaders are able to design culturally appropriate curriculum. Additionally, as the educators who will teach the curriculum are trained, they will be exposed to new ideas and data as a means of inspiring them to personalize the curriculum and make it their own. In this case, I argue that exposure to ideas outside the context of education will inspire both the designers and ultimately the educators to think differently about the ultimate design and instruction of the program.

Paul Dourish
Dourish believes that value of a technology is defined by how it can adapt to the context in which it utilized. Rather than having a technology be defined by static data, he believes that it should adapt to its environment and adjust its approach accordingly.

Students’ needs and the conditions in which they learn differ around the globe. The curriculum and technology cannot be static lesson plans. The lessons as well as the technologies must be easily adaptable to anticipate and honor the differing cultures, needs of the students, and the environments in which they learn. I content that by building technologies and curriculum that can manipulated and utilized in a variety of ways we will ensure that such an approach brings value to the communities it is meant to serve.

Bill’s Dragon


The readings for this two week period highlighted differences in approach to creating new things. I can’t say that I fundamentally disagree with any of the positions presented by the authors, so the cartoon that I have developed to illustrate these positions reflects some general points of inspiration that I connected with. In “Bill’s Dragon”, the dragon is carelessly dropped into Bill’s life without instruction or context. I was inspired by the examples shared in William Gaver’s writing related to “Probes” and the value of uncertainty. The dragon is a metaphor for this idea. The start of the relationship between Bill and the dragon is defined by conflict and represents the “ugly” phase of product development required in Don Norman’s approach to finding purpose for technology in people’s lives. Bill then takes the dragon out of the context of his home and begins to understand how it impacts his life wherever he goes…he starts to see value in the dragon after seeing how others respond to it and pondering interests that they have in common. I do take some exception to the way Liz Sanders/George Simmons present the concept of “co-design” and “co-creation”. Their position oversimplifies the relationship between designers and their products. This cartoon paints the “co-creation” portion of the story as the least productive. They focus on the obvious utility of a dragon and do not try to dig into the range of possibilities. Once Bill gets past this co-design effort, he begins to look at the dragon’s needs to find mutual value. This is when the dragon transitions from a utility to a partner…Bill ends up developing a major connection to the dragon and cannot imagine his life without it. This is what “value” is all about.

I can relate some major themes from the readings to the movie “Big” (1988). There is a scene where a character presents a “building that turns into a robot” and a range of market analysis that supports the idea. Meanwhile, Josh Baskin (who has the mind of a 12-year-old) is playing with the toy and chimes in with “I don’t get it”. In frustration the presenter reiterates the market data and everyone passively nods. Josh then launches into a brainstorm about the robot turning into a bug, etc. What is meaningful here is that a non-expert (Josh Baskin), who is the target audience for this new product, is in the board room and expresses innovative ideas based on his perspective. A rapid session of co-design begins and the group finishes the meeting with a huge range of ideas to investigate. I think that this movie scene summarizes some key takeaways from the various authors and points of discussion.

Readings presented by Paul Dourish, William Gaver, and Liz Sanders/George Simmons focus on the creation of value and context. Dourish’s assertion that our context will begin to fill with things that communicate and feed on context is not lost on me. I can imagine a future where infrastructure is in constant communication with municipalities and various specific services within a system. This is the future of cities and service. This idea is closer to the “positivist” ideal than the “phenominalogical” in many ways, but I suppose it is possible for such utilities to benefit from dynamic artificial thinking. The idea of context being dynamic, even within a system that is judged based on predictability, is something worth working toward.

As for Gaver and Sanders/Simmons, I came away delighted by one and suspicious about the other. The concept that brings them together is the notion of “creative needs”. I agree that most people are creative, but that they believe they are either not creative or that their ideas are not valuable. This holds back a huge amount of creative content. The Sanders/Simmons writing goes about organizing this sort of output as a function of “co-creation” and within a “value chain” that includes monetary, experiential, and social contexts. Some of the classifications and categorizations outlined in this writing are quite useful in discussing design process with people that may not be used to such discussion. In contrast, Gaver’s discussion of influence, ambiguity and indirection as a tool to get inspiration from others is far less contrived. As much as I believe that everyone has the ability to be creative, I believe that they have a greater capacity for play. This writing describes how an interactive and vague “Probe” can get rich responses from people…although not always actionable.

Two early readings related to design research as part of innovation were contrasting. Don Norman’s assertion that design research does not lead to innovation is not well supported in the context of how AC4D presents design research, and seems generally outdated. However, I don’t disagree with his assertion that innovation is incremental. New things often go through “ugly” phases where they are slowly tuned and refined based on use. One could argue that this is an inefficient process, but almost all products must go through this stage regardless of development method. In contrast, Jon Kolko’s writing outlines how design research can be used as a point of inspiration and fuel synthesis. The presence of new technology is a factor in these new ideas, but not a driver. I think that the design industry is under the increasing pressure of “accountability”…and Kolko’s brand of design allows design teams to develop products that are founded on direct needs. What could be more accountable than that?

Theory: Storyline Presentation

My Storyline (PDF)

For our theory class, we read five articles by the following authors…


Each of the authors discuss that holiest of grails, innovation, but each article addresses a different aspect of innovation or way to do it. Taken together, the overarching message is about empowerment—understanding what the various roles are in the design process and how to help people engage effectively in that process.

In order to synthesize the readings, we wrote and illustrated stories exploring the ideas. My story (PDF) begins with Sir Roger, a fearless, time-traveling knight who is also a designer in the King’s Royal Army. He seeks the grail, the secret of innovation.


Sir Roger travels to the 21st century and encounters a series of very helpful designers willing to tell him what they know about innovation.

Don Norman is looking at the way that organizations are approaching innovation today and sees an unwarranted focus on chasing revolutionary innovations. Those are the innovations that have only been seen a few times over the past century—e.g. aviation, telecommunication, refrigeration. Norman says it’s the smaller, more incremental type of innovation that yields the largest bulk of value over time.


He sees organizations looking to design research as the silver bullet of innovation. He argues that design research can’t be the driver of profound innovation because design research is about uncovering needs, needs which are only brought into being by the existence of technology in the first place. If the technology doesn’t exist, Norman says, the needs don’t exist.

This brings us to Jon Kolko’s article on the value of synthesis in driving innovation. Kolko and Norman are using different definitions of innovation, so their arguments may be somewhat isolated from each other. Norman goes back and forth between describing innovation as new technology and the application of that technology in the form of products. Kolko cites and uses a particular definition consistently: “… the key is that an innovation is a valued leap from the viewpoint of consumers.”


Norman doesn’t give a thorough account of his conception of design research. However, my interpretation is that Kolko believes in the value of design research over and above what Norman is willing to give it credit for. For Kolko, the research provides qualitative data. It is synthesis, as a method of turning data into knowledge about the complexity of a problem space, that Kolko tells Roger is the driver of innovation. However, he is also careful to say that although synthesis can yield knowledge, it does not tell you what problem to solve or how to solve it.


Sir Roger continues on his quest for the secret to innovation. He encounters Paul Dourish, a computer scientist who also thinks about social science. Dourish is looking at the way people have approached the design of systems and finds it unsustainable. That approach is couched in the positivist tradition, a school of thought that says there are objective realities apart from the perspective of people. This is unsustainable because this approach is fundamentally incompatible with the way that humans interact with the world around them, which is more inline with the phenomenological tradition. This alternate tradition says that there are no stable, objective social truths, that “context” (all of the relevant attributes of one’s experience) is created dynamically through interaction. The implication is that there are opportunities for innovation in the design of digital systems. We have the opportunity to align these systems with the way that humans think and behave. The following example shows this contrast.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 5.01.59 PM

At this point, Sir Roger has been told that the key to innovation is the following:

  1. Empower the inventors.
  2. Empower the designers to understand complexity.
  3. Empower the users.

That’s when a couple of other designers ask if they can add to the discussion. Liz Sanders and Bill Gaver and proponents of participatory design, a branch of design where “non-creatives” (those not already in the design process) are explicitly included through activities that allow them to create “one-of-a-kind items”. For Sanders, this is the key to a more sustainable future where not only monetary and brand experience value is created, but also social value. People, Sanders says, have a natural desire to feel creative and connect with others. Through co-creation in the design process, non-creatives are empowered to contribute and even take ownership.

Gaver offers an interesting clarification to all of this, that there is a difference between designing for utility and designing for pleasure. He says that because human beings are irrational and even absurd, that we must revel in those aspects of humanity if we are to design pleasurable interactions. To get at these hidden worlds, Gaver has created what he calls Cultural Probes. These are subjective, open-ended prompts for people to create things on their own, like a recording of their dreams or a picture…


This is it for Sir Roger. He now sees that the secret to innovation is not about empowering any one group. It’s about empowering everyone to participate in the design process effectively.