What we talk about when we talk about ethics

Look no further from the morning briefing roll calls under the header TECH, and you’ll find articles on how oil data is the new tech gold rush; how China is using facial recognition technology to monitor and persecute it’s Uighur citizens, a religious minority; how automation threatens to widen the poverty gap.

Ethics feels like a big word for big ticket items. We can easily look to broad issues where there is a clear need for ethical consideration but I think ethics is the stuff of everyday life. If I were going to put that into designer speak, I might say ethics are embedded in interaction. See what I did there?

Often we think of ethics in micro and macro extremes. Micro: as a private, internal matter – a standard we hold ourselves against. Macro: as a BIG E question of life and death – who am I going to kill by the lever of a train? What’s missing from both of those extremes is the space in which we discuss the activity around making ethical decisions, something I’ll refer to as situational ethics.

The framework I shared in my last blog post felt, and is, incredibly personal. When I tried holding it against a question or an issue, it felt difficult to understand how I might apply this without the grappling being in the context of decision making with other people. Which brings me around to the situations in which we will be having these conversations – the workplace.

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Why it Matters

Earlier this month, there was a post to Medium from 12 employees of color within Facebook who had gathered together stories about the racist behaviors and actions being taken against them.

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 11.32.39 PMHow does this happen? Where are the colleagues? Why are they failing each other? If we aren’t addressing workplace ethics, how can we expect to have truthful conversations around ethics in the hypothetical or abstract? We need to create more capacity in our workplace to have supportive, dialed in conversations around ethics in that environment.

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Dynamic Scaffolding 

I want the function of the  framework to be one of support – to help me maximize the potential for growth and truth within those engagements. My framework, then, needs to have dynamic scaffolding to support how I might approach these steps in practice, at work.

Leaning into strategies I’ve learned over the last two quarters, as well as techniques I’ve tried during group facilitations, I can see how these could be used to ground, frame, and develop workplace conversation around ethics – to better explore and understand why we are putting something into the world and where intention vs impact come into conflict.

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Being Grounded Leaders

Resmaa Menakem is a therapist, licensed social worker, and police trainer and consultant who specializes in trauma work, addressing conflict, and body-centered healing. He writes about the generational trauma that white bodies, black bodies, and police bodies have inherited and how, often times, people go to a therapist to be around a grounded body. To experience what it means to be grounded in the world.

An ethical center is something that grounds me. It grounds my decision making, it grounds the way I lead, it grounds the way I participate in conversation. If I’m not actively and regularly bringing ethics into practice within my workplace, how can I expect to have conversations around power/privilege, risk/consequence, time/scale with those same decision-making teams?

From a credibility standpoint, if we’re going to be, not just designers but design strategists capable of being a touchpoint across entire organizations, I need to ensure that I’m addressing these questions:

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An Ethical Framework – For the Deconstructionist in You.

Q2 has quickly put into relief that make faster can be at the expense of think deeply. Or it can certainly feel that way. It’s pushing me to make and think and make and think faster than I feel capable of. In the last two weeks, our conversation and readings in Design Ethics have revolved around Privacy & Identity. My ability to learn new concepts (decentralized identity?) has been challenged by a more central question I have around how identity is defined in digital environments.

I wanted to present in class tonight about Amber Heard’s thoughtful NYT opinion piece in the attempt of answering the question, why does privacy matter? We’ve asked, a number of times, whether it really matters that a company knows where I am or what I like to buy. A position that, I believe, is fundamentally born from privilege. If we remove ourselves from the equation to consider this more objectively, we can see who else might be more at risk here.

The threat of revenge porn, or nonconsensual image sharing, is an enormous advantage for a person engaged in domestic abuse. According to a 2016 study from the Data & Society Research Institute, this threat is far greater among younger women and the LGB community.

And then I got stumped. I don’t know if this is a trustworthy white paper. I don’t actually know how to interpret quant data – it’s a language I can’t get into. Do I look at this through the lens of power and privilege? Am I already doing that? Do I look at this through the lens of impact over time and scale? Risk and consequence? Also, I still don’t really know what blockchain is or cryptography or RFID. I want to know more about the internet of things and predictive analytics. All topics we’ve brushed against that will be important to understand as I head into the future, never mind this field.

Ethical lenses to consider

In the absence of a baseline level of knowledge, I’m skimming the surface of the Fourth Revolution I didn’t even know I was in. What feels accessible to me – what feels like something I can unpack – are words like identity and privacy and trust. I need to zoom in before I can zoom out. I need to be in language I can hold.

Which led me to this: a strong opinion, loosely held.

The Deconstructionist

It felt important to articulate a way forward, to cutback through the swamp of new information to first, locate self. In the quick clip that is Q2, I felt like I was losing grasp of this. The framework, as presented, is informed by the personal drivers exercise we did at the outset of this course – borrowed from Pivot by Jenny Blake. The principles that inform this framework are borrowed from The People’s Institute for Survival & Beyond as well as dRworks free resource in understanding and dismantling characteristics of white supremacy culture.

All that being said, loosely held is the operative term here. I would love to be challenged to consider what else might be true and welcome any feedback you might have.


Part Three: Themes Among Gig Economy Workers

This is part three in a series about our research in partnership with JUST, an Austin-based nonprofit that seeks to build resilient communities through financial inclusion. For Part Two:  Researching The New American Dream with the Gig Economy go here.

Our Focus

We’ve continued to refine our focus to understand how the resiliency and values of on-demand gig economy workers impact their goals and financial decisions. We’re thinking of this with respect to understanding how the gig economy is supporting a “New American Dream” – one that values flexibility and freedom over stability. 

What is the on-demand gig economy?

Technology platforms that fulfill user demand with immediate access to goods and services. Examples include rideshare, food delivery, grocery delivery, scooters, household chores, pet services

Our fourteen participants work across a variety of platforms, for a myriad of reasons. For some, gig work is supplemental to a full-time job; for others it provides income during a transition period between jobs. The work can help them achieve specific goals, make ends meet, or provide flexibility to pursue other endeavors.


Patterns emerged through the contextual interviews we conducted which were aimed at understanding the mindset and behaviors participants have related to gig work, decision making, and personal value systems. 

Here are two of those themes and some of the stories that supported those themes.

I have a lot of unrealized potential. 

Of the gig economy workers we spoke with, one of the most common themes that we heard was a perception of having unrealized potential. Whether they were enjoying gig work or just doing it to survive, most had a nagging feeling that they were capable of much more professionally. They aspired to careers as varied as a doctor, musician, social media celebrity, Salesforce admin, entrepreneur, substance abuse counselor, and were all at various stages of realizing those ambitions.


Leo is 20 years old. On the day we spoke with him, he’d just completed his first two deliveries with Favor. He needed to earn gas money so he could drive his belongings from his parent’s home in Cedar Park to a house in south Austin where he would be moving in with his brother. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-20 at 2.47.20 PMLeo sorted his cards, rapid fire, in two piles. For someone who said he didn’t feel confident enough, he certainly attacked the activities with gusto. 

When we asked Leo to build out a dream web, he quickly drew three circles shooting out from the center. Stability feels like a relatively new concept to him, as a young man striking out in the world, trying out jobs to see what suits him. He takes classes, on occasion, at ACC but his real passion is the gym. “I’m just trying to get shredded. Super shredded. I just take off my shirt and I can see everything. I want that.”

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The oblong circle at the bottom of the page remained empty and when we asked after that he paused, looked at us, and said, “Since I love the gym so much and I feel like something’s been telling me that I can get famous, for real. I don’t know if you get those feelings, but something’s been telling me that I can possibly get famous. I don’t know. It’s just been in the back of my head.” 

Leo’s goal is to start a YouTube channel where he can chronicle fitness routines and inspire others to do the same. Leo spoke about the confidence he gained over time. He’s been working out regularly for the past four years and this commitment is an accomplishment he’s proud of. At the same time, he expressed uncertainty about taking the next step. The potential he sees in himself feels stymied by the gap between an idea and the making of it. “I feel like I have a lot of knowledge to tell you what you have to do in order [to get in shape]… I’m not where I want to be. But I know I have enough knowledge. I just haven’t done it. I just haven’t done the work, but I just have it all here.”

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Leo often turns to YouTube or Instagram to learn how to work out properly. Growing up with the digital age, he uses these platforms to hone his craft, find inspiration, and connect with like minded people. “I saw this YouTube video of this guy talking about his life. He said, ‘Your twenties are the most important age because that’s when you’re a money making machine.’ I liked that video. It motivated me.” For Leo, his potential is an immediate opportunity to seize on. 


Tracy recently moved from College Station where she earned a masters degree in biomedical science at Texas A&M. She’s working at a car dealership and needs to sell fifteen cars each month to cover her expenses which include a $2300 rent and over $200,000 in student loans. We asked if she’d looked into finding work in her field but she wants to go back to school and is looking to make the most money so she can afford those next steps. “I was the secretary at a medical school when I decided I’m tired of doing shitty jobs…There were kids there [in their second year] that didn’t know as much as I did. Surely, I’d have a shot at getting into medical school.” 

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Growing up in foster care, she hasn’t had the safety net that many of her peers did. She went from living in a homeless shelter to living in a college dorm. Tracy spoke about wanting to be part of the middle class – something that felt just within reach but unattainable at the same time. “I’m 34, I don’t have a house, I’ve never been able to afford a new car. By most people’s standards I work a shitty job. Dangit. If nothing else I want to know how to break into the middle class club. How can I be like that? Why does everything have to be so difficult?” For Tracy, the potential is there but the access is not. 


Travis likes that he can read New Yorkers all day at his full time job at the laundromat but he doesn’t always get paid on time, and his manager lives in Houston. When we met him, he was picking up Favor gigs to keep him afloat until he hopefully gets paid. Not getting paid isn’t the only thing he dislikes about his job. He also feels like he is not living up to his potential while working in that role. “The laundromat job, I feel like a robot could do that. And I just feel useless there. I like jobs where I feel like I’m making a difference in the community and helping people.” 

Screen Shot 2019-11-20 at 2.49.35 PMPaychecks can be a moving target.

Travis moved to Austin when he was 17 ½. He struggles with a stutter and social anxiety – impediments that felt too great in high school so he homeschooled his way to the end of it. He scours job listings on Craigslist and thinks about going back to school as a way to get access to jobs that would be more fulfilling. “Most of the job listings say you have to have a degree in something. I want a better job, where I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile and helping in the community.” 

He recently sent $500 to his Mom to help with a medical bill. She was a stay at home parent and has been struggling financially since his father passed away six years ago. It’s always been weighing on me because she helped me a lot with money when I was 19. I want to make sure she’s happy and comfortable now, because she’s dealing with a lot of health stuff. I’m constantly thinking of ways to send her more money.” He hopes that once he has a more stable source of income he can better support the people who have supported him throughout his life.

Screen Shot 2019-11-19 at 5.20.50 PMTravis’ dream web includes making a beautiful record, school, having a good career path. 

I avoid thinking about consequences because they seem outside my control.

An assumption that we were interested in validating was that gig workers would be naive to the risks and costs associated with their work, and thus were not effectively taking those into account when deciding to do gig work. What we found was much more nuanced than just simple naivete. Gig workers told us that they were acutely aware of risks and costs associated with the work that they were doing, and actively avoided thinking about those negative consequences as a survival tactic. The cognitive and emotional load of considering these factors was more than they were willing to bear.

Melissa, a Lyft driver in her 60s who has been driving several days a week for the last two and a half years to her supplement social security income. She told us that there were several things that she was actively avoiding thinking about: retirement, getting into an accident, and the risks involved with inviting strangers in her car. When we asked her for specifics about her plans to retire or contingencies plans for car trouble down she either changed the subject or pointedly told us she did not want to think about those things. 

“I try not to [think about getting into an accident]. There’s so many things to worry about. I try not to put them at the forefront of my thoughts. It’s just like being scared of your passengers. You sit around and think about that all day, you’re going to get pretty frightened, whether there’s a reason or not.” She was purposefully deciding to not think about the risks she faced working as a contractor and not being covered by an employer’s liability insurance or workman’s comp insurance.

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We also heard from Holly, an Uber driver who was working hard to maintain her optimism in the face of a assuming risks with high consequences as a driver. She told us,  “Good thing [insurance is] covered by–I don’t know how it works, actually. I’m making a lot of assumptions. And I haven’t looked into it. I don’t want to know. I’m gambling. I’m gambling with it honestly.” She was afraid that finding out more about her situation would lead to more stress in an already unpredictable work environment. To not know, and to avoid thinking about not knowing, allowed her to opt into an “ignorance is bliss” mindset.

We also saw gig workers that were not just avoiding thinking, but also avoiding doing. Joey is a gig worker who does deliveries for Favor. When we asked him if he sets aside money to pay self-employment taxes on his income from gig work he told us, “I’m supposed to, but no. I haven’t done my taxes for a long time. I just don’t think about that. I don’t put no energy into it.” 

He always paid income tax when he had been an employee, but paying the taxes he owed as a contractor didn’t seem worth it given how little he was making. He knew that the government would likely track him down and make him pay eventually, but that is a problem he plans to address later when he has more income. “I’ll have to deal with it when the time comes. As of right now, I have not been being disciplined and sticking that money to the side. ”

Far from being naive about the costs and risks, gig workers told us that they were aware that they were assuming risks and bearing costs, and that they preferred to practice a self-aware form of avoidance. They are compartmentalizing to avoid the negative emotions they experience when confronting the vulnerabilities of being a gig worker.

Client Feedback

We were joined this last Saturday by JUST founder, Steve Wanta, Director of Design and Research, Erica Ortiz, and consultant and AC4D professor, Emiliano Villarreal. We presented these themes, along with two more. The two themes above were the ones that were most resonant for the JUST team. They mentioned they also saw feelings of unrealized potential manifest in the entrepreneurs their organization serves. The theme of avoidant thinking was also something that they had observed with some of their clientele.

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Next Steps

Our next presentation with JUST will be around the insights we develop out of these and other themes. What resonates with us, and what resonates with our client, will ultimately determine how those insights shape our design recommendations. We will continue to share our progress and process with you and are available for conversation any time: gigeconomy@ac4d.com

Designing for Value Systems – Part II

In Part I, I spoke about the conversation and activities I facilitated around making value assumptions of our partner organization, JUST, and the clients they serve.

Wanting to plumb this a little further, I’m speaking tonight about trust. JUST lends, not on credit score or collateral, but on trust. Tonight, however, I’m doing a 5 minute presentation on another company that’s built around the value of trust – Airbnb. Notwithstanding current news, we had been reading Laura W. Murphy’s report from 2016 on Airbnb’s Work to Fight Discrimination and Build Inclusion.

Yesterday, Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky issued an email,  subject: In the business of trust. This was in response to the Orinda shooting that happened at an Airbnb rental last week and a Vice report on predatory scams.

Chesky wrote, “People need to feel like they can trust our community, and that they can trust Airbnb when something does go wrong… We intend to do everything possible to learn from these incidents when they occur.”

I initially wanted to pose the question of what does trust mean to you?, and I realized that might get us into a definition space. So I’m pivoting slightly because trust is really a product of relationship. When you trust someone, how does it feel? What is the quality of trust that lingers? 

To help us answer this question I’m asking the class to engage in a quick one-minute exercise – rapid ideation! free association! Go!

Activity Prompt #1: Quick Draw

Draw someone you trust – your lover, your mechanic, your friend, your colleague, your dentist. How do they make you feel? Write it down. What is the quality of trust that lingers, that allows you to build a relationship with them?

Keeping that person in mind, I want to show you my Airbnb profile:

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Here you can see I live in Austin, Texas. I have 1 review. I have verified checks and I can be pretty cute when I’m not at wits end. But damn if this doesn’t feel lacking. How does this convey trust worthiness? How does this build trust with another person?

Activity Prompt #2: Build a better profile

Keeping in mind the person you’ve just drawn – hopefully you’ve tried this at home as well! – think about what you would want to build around that person. How can you design something better – to honor and extend the quality of trust they provide to you?

For all the trappings of the site – the branding, the experiences, the promises, the bottomless scroll of beautiful places – the profile page is severely basic. For a company built around the value of trust, they do little to bake that into the first interaction a host might have with my profile and, vice versa, that I would have with a potential host.

It seems Airbnb’s idea of trust revolves around the way people interact with the platform. Which implies that I’m trusting a corporation – something that feels entirely unreasonable to me. As I understand it, corporations = bodies of people operating within structures of power.

It makes me wonder if the powers that be understand what trust means outside of the way they consider trust as a tool of business – part of a practice, part of a transaction. Because the most critical point of establishing trust – between two actual people – is completely overlooked.

Possible Futures

When I think of my friend, Erica, I think of her as an easy person – an easy person to be with. I think of trust as having a quality of feeling and being at ease with another person.


I don’t mean to imply that everything I love about Erica should be built into or shared with a broader audience. But considering a real person helps me understand what it means to have, and appreciate, trust.

If I were to redesign profile pages for Airbnb, I might consider how I could build in opportunities to establish a trust connection in a more meaningful, considered way. I would include some of the things my friend likes to do – drink coffee, go for bike rides, look at art, travel.

Maybe it would make the profile picture a moot point. Maybe it could be another way of matching her to hosts who could personalize recommendations based on her interests or abilities. Maybe hosts would have their own version of this. I think there are lots of ways to consider how to shape this.




Designing for Value Systems: Part I

Last week I led a 30 minute, focused conversation connecting the readings on dark patterns in UI with the mission statement and value promise of JUST – our partnered client in this years Capstone projects.

The goal was to make assumptive leaps around what other values we could tease out of the organizations message – values that might pertain to the organization, the clients, or both. And then to see how these values emerge, or don’t, through examples of dark and light patterns in user interface design.

Setting the Stage

I wanted to preface the conversation and activities with two takeaways I’d had from our introductory session with JUST President and CEO, Steve Wanta, and their Director of Design and Research, Erika Ortiz.

They both spoke about using intentional friction on two levels – to create space for mental slack, and also to nudge toward a desired behavioral outcome that would be beneficial to both JUST and their client. Additionally, there was a curiosity around wanting to understand how JUST could manufacture role models or ‘aha’ moments to inspire, educate, or empower.

I wanted to present both of these takeaways as something to hold in the back of our minds as we moved through several exercises.

Activity #1 – Making Value Assumptions

Lauren read aloud the JUST mission statement and value promise. Using Scattergories boards and a sand timer, we took 3 minutes to unpack what values might be important to JUST and their clients.

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Sean added these to a white board as we called out one value at a time, crossing off duplicates as we went.


As a facilitator, it was exciting to witness the energy and curiosity that created. While I intuitively grabbed the game on my way out the door, I hadn’t anticipated how it could be structured into the conversation until we were all interacting with it.

We were all surprised to see how many we had come up with as several of us expected to have the same set of answers. There were some hmm’s and ahh’s.

The conversation that followed led us into how and when we consider a person’s values – at what stage of the ‘design’ process? Does it begin when we engage them in conversation? Is it when we start to move from problem space to opportunity space?

Activity #2 – Matching Values to UI Design

Using some of the examples from our readings of bad UI as well as several examples of good UI – that the internet graciously culled for me – we asked ourselves two questions:

Based on this list of value assumptions, does this example support, reinforce or engage a user in their values? Or does this example negate, subvert or devalue a user based on these values?


The exercise created room for conversation, particularly around those examples that weren’t so easily placed:

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We closed out the conversation with a question borrowed from the Liberating Structures library of exercises. By then we’d run out of time to reflect on this together. In the future, I would anticipate this potential outcome and print a takeaway so folks could consider this on their own time, and perhaps spark conversation down the road.

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As I understand it, good facilitation is a product of thoughtful preparation – considering what the boundaries of the conversation should roughly be, what activity could promote understanding, curiosity or engagement. It also requires leadership – to know when to reel a conversation in, to push it forward, or pull in perspectives that might be missing.

In writing this post, it was tempting to set down words that are buzzy – that make sense on a “smart” level. But when I step back to think about the experience, I take myself back to the feeling. What did I feel during that process? What did I notice in other people? What was the energy? What was the vibe? The tone? When were people engaged or disengaged? What visual cues communicated this to me? Did they like it??

Facilitation Rubric

This diagram is a rough stab at visualizing what goes into thoughtful preparation for me. The questions I’m asking afterward are similar to the questions I’m asking at the outset. How can I set a stage with these in mind?


Here are a few things I would refine in the future:

  • Include a clear objective and takeaway on the slide deck! Since I was using one it would have made sense to clearly state this and use the deck as a tool for helping people digest the goal and the desired outcome.
  • Get into the activity quicker to allow more time for group reflection and conversation, both during and after.
  • Tell people what they’re in charge of rather than asking them to volunteer for roles. Everyone is expecting, and needing, that kind of take charge confidence.
  • Prepare a takeaway in the event your conclusion builds toward reflection, or something that begs further consideration.

If you have additional thoughts on how I could build or improve on the activities listed above – please reach out to me!



Resonance in Storytelling.

I was deeply moved, some years back, when I saw this video. I think of it quite frequently and the central question the artist asks – who does sound belong to?

As I’ve been reflecting on what makes for effective storytelling the word that immediately comes to mind is resonance. When we want to develop connections through storytelling that are deep, full and reverberating, how do we tap into the quality of resonance? What is resonance?

“Resonance describes the phenomena of amplification that occurs when the frequency of a periodically applied force is in harmonic proportion to a natural frequency of the system in which it acts.”

Looking at Newman

When something resonates, it leaves a lasting impression. You create new space in your self to accommodate, or you fit the new information into existing space that houses likeness. I wondered if, being tapped into resonance, would enable us to more readily tap into resonance with our audiences, our publics, our clients. 

Patterns of Resonance

There’s a relationship here between resonance and intuition. When we tap into our intuition to guide us, are we also tapping into moments of resonance that have instructed us and helped to shape our intuition? Could externalizing our patterns of resonance teach us something about ‘the intuitive or serendipitous quality of [a designer’s] work?’ (Buchanan)

“Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as being functional, and to express ourselves in media other than words or symbols.” (Brown & Wyatt)

Looking at Klein

If our credibility rests in our ability to make compelling arguments, to tell stories that are relevant and meaningful, then achieving resonance becomes evidence that we’ve tapped into what matters. Harmonic proportion is critical at every juncture of the design process – in the brief, during research and ideation, in articulation of the process, and, ultimately, in the outcome itself.




The Problem with Problem Solving.

I once went to a writers conference where Salman Rushdie talked about “the danger of the metaphor” and it’s the only thing I took from that experience. The danger, he was saying, is that a metaphor creates permanence in the association of things to ideas. 

I was vaguely thinking about this when I was trying to develop the narrative for a story on poverty. What would a person experiencing poverty say? How would they think about the relationship of themself with their circumstance? 

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The first phrase that came to mind was “climbing out of poverty.” It’s an oft used phrase that reinforces poverty, and by extension, the poor, as existing on a lower rung. It implies the upward mobility we all aspire to, the economic freedom that must be *just* within reach. No? 

In the attached story I use the ladder as both a metaphor and a material object to demonstrate how the authors we’ve read might consider the problem of poverty and how best to address it. 

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Beyond that… I’ve been thinking about the Problem of Pilloton. While I appreciate the long-term for local approach, it also strikes me as myopic. I want to ask, when that approach works, can it be scaled? How can it be scaled? Which is, really, the problem with problem solving. I do think there is an answer to this but I want to acknowledge that instinct also comes from a cultural and social history of colonialism and, frankly, a personal history with white saviorism. That what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. 

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I’m not sure how to reconcile the space in between but I’m continuing to reflect on and consider that the primary role of a designer is that of integration. Integrating language with the activity of it (Dewey), integrating context with content (Dourish), turning inward to self-evaluate best practices – measuring impact against intention (Hobbes, Fulton-Suri) – and, more recently, the responsibility of finding equilibrium, locally, before considering the bit about expansion so that can happen more deliberately, more purposefully (Papanek, Margolin, Pilloton). 

Lastly, poverty isn’t the problem of poor people, it’s a problem of power. We have a responsibility, as designers focused on the social impact of our work, to become aware of our power as gatekeepers.*

Thank you for reading. If you’d like to connect, I can be reached at allison.kissell@ac4d.com. 


*this was introduced to me by the People’s Institute for Survival & Beyond, in the context of their work in undoing racism. Racial oppression is one of the root causes of poverty in this country and becoming aware of our power as gatekeepers is one of their ten proven steps for undoing racism.

Beyond the Horse

A cup of coffee (content which is both functional and social) doesn’t exist without the activity of a global system of persons (context as activity continually reproduced through interpretation and reinterpretation, individually or collectively). In the case of coffee that global system involves people planting, growing, harvesting, processing, auctioning, exporting, shipping, importing, transporting, roasting and brewing. What feels like such a simple, given pleasure is actually a highly complex global commodity that equals varying degrees of livelihood for very many people. 

At the cafe level, we brew coffee considering three important variables – strength, extraction and brew ratio. Plotting the relationship between these factors, we aim to achieve the optimum balance that will produce the most naturally occurring sweetness in that coffee.

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We use tools like refractometers and smart scales and thermometers and cupping spoons and grinders. And we rely on science and math and graphs in addition to our own palate, developed over time and with practice. Often times we will understand palate as intuition and lean more heavily on this because nobody wants to do math at 5am in the morning.

Why is this relevant to understanding the role of design research? Context isn’t just ‘there’, Paul Dourish writes, “but is actively produced, maintained and enacted in the course of the activity at hand.” I believe what Dourish is driving towards is that context and content are not mutually exclusive but produce meaning and value when we consider the interplay and interconnectedness between the two. 

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The graph is charted to reflect how the methodologies described by each author are indicative of an approach more concerned with Designing With People, as in participatory design or co-creation methods, versus Designing For People, as in product ecology or experience prototyping. The Y axis is reflective of the authors bent – towards a focus on content, as in objects, technologies or interventions, versus a focus on context, dynamic interpretations which are continually reimagined and sustained by activity or interaction. 

Through learning about different design research approaches, and considering the ethical implications of each, I’ve developed my own perspective on what the role of the designer is in 2019. We are given access to many opportunity spaces through individual stories which is a privilege and a responsibility that we shouldn’t take lightly. What’s lacking from the conversations about the functional and social roles of designed objects, technologies or interventions is the possibility that those can also have an integrative role. 

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Today’s designer should consider their role, then, as one of Integration. Not only integrating context with content but also, bridging the divide between an organization and its people; merging the functional with the social; and cultivating participation between the designer and their publics. 

I’ll leave you with a quote from the spiritualist, Parker Palmer, that was instrumental in my decision to leave the coffee industry after fifteen years. It compelled me to consider how else I might participate in the world and ultimately led me here. 

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Losing the Battle for Brevity.

For the last several weeks we have been reading the work of designers and theorists – Maurizio Vitta, Neil Postman, Victor Papanek, John Dewey and Edward Bernays. The goal of which is to think critically about the merits and role of design in society, and to consider the ethics & responsibility we have to the objects themselves as well as the persons for whom we are designing. I should say in learning to design for people, we are really learning to design with people. 

I’ve identified a key concern that each theorist discussed and how those concerns inform the functional methods that are proposed, the ethical implications that creates in our role as designers and finally, how the progression of their ideas mimics the structure for how we are learning design research here at AC4D. 

Vitta sees material objects as “confirmation of the prevailing values” as they offer insight into the production and manipulation of social meanings or social logic. He is quick to recognize that a ‘culture of design… is meant to suggest the totality of disciplines, phenomena, knowledge, analytical instruments, and philosophy that the design of useful objects must take into account.” He charges designers to think critically about what we design and why. In other words, he speaks to the notion that we ought to find problems worth solving – something we are afforded through the flexibility of the medium and the framework for social analysis it provides. 

While his address isn’t directed to designers, Postman offers up the need for an organizing moral framework to emerge as we are largely unable to parse through the overabundance of information. The problem however is that most of this ‘filtering of knowledge’ is done by people in power – people with special knowledge and special language that reinforces the status quo while restricting access to the common folk. Design has the potential to make our lives more meaningful and more humane and the sensemaking process requires we learn from diverse perspectives and experience as that allows greater access to new insights and avenues for inquiry. 

What do we do once we’ve made sense of the problem? Papanek argues that problem solving is more difficult when we can’t access creativity and creativity, he argues, is inhibited by perceptual, cultural, emotional, and associational blocks. He speaks about a need to broaden our scope of experience well beyond the limitations of our own and suggests rapid, free associative ideation and iteration as one method for countering these blocks and incorporating new ideas. He summarizes Postman’s argument in saying, “By bringing more than one language to bear on a problem, we obtain more insight.” 

Even though he wasn’t writing for the design profession specifically, I found Dewey’s thinking around experience to be the most actionable in terms of designing. He explains experience as a moving force which made me think about the way we can build on experience for cumulative effect with the purpose of fundamentally altering attitudes, habits, or behaviors. Generally, if we are concerned with addressing problems worth solving then we are also concerned with needing to influence majority opinions and democratize access by designing with the actual views of the actual public. 

He goes on to argue that we need to articulate what experience means before we can begin to create for experience. He wrote, “of, by, or for… each [is] a challenge to discover and put into operation.” I found it so interesting that the person who dedicated the most time articulating around the necessity for defining experience was also the person who most understood that, while thoughtful articulation is a critical component in the design process, there is an activity of language that needs to bear itself out. Clear and coherent ideas are only valuable insofar as they are practically organized and executed. Naturally, I’m beginning to drink the language kool-aid of this program and Less Talking, More Doing came to mind. 

Lastly, Bernays – the mastermind behind the propaganda machine. While I don’t think Bernays thinks very highly of people and sees them as easy pawns, what he offers to my perspective on design is the real need to cultivate buy-in when bringing something new to market. Shifting public opinion relies on broad acceptance and is most quickly achieved through group adherence and the cooperation of major stakeholders. Building on the recurring theme of language, Bernays argues for an economy of words – adapting messaging for clarity and accessibility so ideas can quickly flow across a variety of platforms. 

Ultimately, after we’ve discovered problems worth solving, after we’ve done sensemaking of the information gathered through a user-focused research strategy, after we’ve done hundreds of ideation exercises to arrive at meaningful insights, and after we’ve built something real and tangible to bring to market, we owe our stakeholders a value proposition that shares a compelling vision for the future. 

This has been my takeaway. Bless your heart if you’ve read this far.

lil lil

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.