A Dichotomy

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The past year of my life has been an exercise in extended exploration into being honest with myself. Last year at this time I found myself just having moved back to the States from a long time abroad, without a job, without a consistent place I was living, having just gone through a separation from my partner, a bunch of debt, shaky mental health, no clear sense of direction, and a lot of free time to stew on all of it.

I actually committed myself to consistent therapy and visits to the psychiatrist for the first time in my life (largely overdue, but still managing to take advantage of the the privilege I had of the remaining six months on my parents health insurance).

One of the activities one of my therapists had me do was a personal values activity where I highlighted 20 words from a long list that resonated most with me. From there I was meant to choose four that felt the most important at that time of my life.

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Here was my list at the time:

Belonging
Community
Creativity
Curiosity
Empathy
Diversity
Exploration
Fun
Growth
Health
Love
Loyalty
Making a difference
Improvement
Independence
Openness
Self-actualization
Self-reliance
Sensitivity
Stability
Strength

Feeling that I wanted to dig into this exercise a bit more, I took it upon myself to, instead of just choosing four words, group these words into four categories that I identified as being overarching value buckets that emerged.

Connect – Cultivate – Constant – Change

These were things I already knew that I valued, but seeing them in writing, and with some process behind them was clarifying and validating. I felt, and often still feel, like I need validation for these values because I see them as being in direct contradiction with each other.

I value freedom, exploration, curiosity, diversity, independence — all of which change, agency and fluidity. However I also value consistency, stability, community, belonging — all of which require roots and intentionality.

How can one cultivate stability and community while also living a fluid life full of exploration and independence? It’s not impossible, but what I have learned is that it is a challenge and requires deliberate moments of sacrifice. My own duality manifests and different personas in my own mind and body, asking me to make important decisions.

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There is an element of judgement that comes with this contradiction though. Often I find myself feeling broken or like I must be tricking myself. That there is no way I can be both of these things at once…that I should have to choose. That if I claim to be one way, I must be lying about the other. And lying is unethical…right?

Throughout the course of our coursework at ac4d, particularly in research, I find myself in situations where this dichotomy emerges. Because of the fluidity it implies, I find myself able to adapt to many situations, and to test my own ethical boundaries inch by inch. It’s in the afterthought that the self-judgement comes in. Does this ability and willingness to toe the line make me an unethical person?

In the work I’ve been doing, and somewhat through our discussions of ethics in class, I have been learning to pass these thoughts and situations through a few core questions:

  1. Don’t judge yourself.

Judging yourself and beating yourself up about the way that you are is a great way to have unstable footing going into any problem space. There is a way to be self aware and even self critical without being judgmental of one’s self.

2. Check in with yourself and ask every question twice.

Knowing that my values and my constitution is made up of an inherent dichotomy and ability to move fluidly between spaces, it’s important to ask myself the same question in a few ways. For example: Does not being fully transparent about the focus of my research to my interviewee make their consent to be interviewed null, and therefore unethical? First say – Yes, this was an unethical thing to do and here are the reasons why. Then say – No, this was not and unethical thing to do and here are the reasons why.

3. Don’t fight the tension, embrace the fluidity.

Rather than seeing this fluidity as something that I need to hide or fight against, I should embrace it as a part of me and as an actual asset to my abilities as a designer. Being more open to toeing the borders of ethical questions, being more open to things going wrong as a way of learning is all an asset. By checking in with myself, I can be in control of my fluidity and own it as a part of my process.

Which ultimately is my takeaway. This process of addressing the dichotomy inside myself is the base of my personal framework that I will be building on throughout the course of this ethics class. I look forward to continuing my work jumping off from this platform.

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Financial Inclusion and Women in the Sex Industry

 

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For the next 8 weeks, our team (Leah DiVito and Brittany Sgaliardich) will be working with Austin-based nonprofit JUST and help them to find new design opportunity spaces within their business model.

JUST.

JUST deeply understands the current community they serve. They focus on helping Spanish-speaking, female entrepreneurs by unlocking resources to help them thrive. They provide access to capital and coaching within a supportive community to build strong, trusting bonds which carry their clients through to their financial goals with peer-led groups. As JUST looks to expand their mission and future offerings, they want to better understand the financial behaviors of a wider audience. More specifically, JUST wants to understand how other underrepresented communities seek financial inclusion.

JUST has partnered with Austin Center for Design students to research new communities they can serve.

focus.

JUST’s mantra is Less Stress, More Joy. Our team resonates with this phrase.

Through interviews, activities, and observation, we hope to better understanding how women working in sex-related industries define and navigate their relationships to money.

Historically, barriers such as credit scores, collateral, and track record have excluded people from starting and growing a business. Similarly, women working in the sex industry face barriers which keep them excluded from financial resources and financial institutions. We were also inspired by the emphasis on trust and community as a core pillar of JUST’s mission. We understand our research moving forward will require an inherent level of trust from the women we speak to.

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goals.

We have set clear goals to guide us through the course of conducting our research.

1.  To build empathy with women so we can better understand what it’s like to work in an industry where sexuality is implied in monetary exchange.
2.  To understand how emotional and practical relationships with money affect financial decision making.
3.  To observe the formal and informal financial planning strategies of women in this industry.
4.  To understand the role community plays in navigating the benefits and challenges unique to this industry.

We are looking to speak with:

  • Full or part-time exotic dancers currently working in Austin or other cities in Texas
  • Women who are formal exotic dancers in Texas
  • Women currently working as for-hire dancers in the Austin area
  • Waitresses and bartenders working in women-only environments where their sexuality is implied in their role in Austin

methodology.

We hope to spend 30-60 minutes with each woman we speak with, observing them at work (when possible), and then doing activities to dig further into their personal relationships with money and their financial decision-making. All interviews will be anonymized and this data will be used for research purposes only.

help us with our research.

We need help connecting with women participants. If you or someone you know may be interested in chatting with us, please reach out to design4women@ac4d.com to get in touch. Your perspective is incredibly valuable to better understanding and ultimately designing solutions for this unique group of workers.

As students working with a nonprofit, we appreciate your willingness to help both us and our community.

Austin Center for Design
Austin Center for Design (AC4D) is an educational program uniquely focused on applying design principles to address social and humanitarian problems. Explore more of our philosophy and approach here

Why serious creativity should be funny

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I’m here to convince you why serious creativity should be funny.

So, my secret vice is that I watch a lot of stand up comedy. I mean a lot. It happened really slowly. I went from hating stand-up to being the person who watches the new Netflix stand-up special the second that it hits the web. It started because I would put a special on while I was drawing for a few hours, because it was something that I could just listen to and didn’t really have to watch, but also that was light while still engaging and thought provoking. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and it seemed like a logical jump to another form of audio enterntainment. What started as an experiment slowly became more of a pattern. I found that I was choosing to listen to standup more and more often while I worked… but also while I did other things like clean my house or cook. In conversations with friends, I found myself referencing things that comedians said in stand-up specials that I’ve watched… and I eventually realized that maybe I was a straight-up fan.

When I watch the news or think about political or polarizing topics, I often find myself remembering a particular bit of a particular comedian and find myself smirking while listening to something horrible. I’ll smirk while I listen to news about abortion rights or police violence in Ohio (where I’m from), not because I think these issues are funny or because I’m a wildly insensitive person, but because in order to cope with my own absolute horror and discomfort, I simply HAVE to find the humor in it. Or at the very least the absurdity. The only way to get through the harshness of the realities of humanhood oftentimes is to find the humor, even if it’s wickedly uncomfortable…and laugh about it. If we aren’t laughing, we’re crying. And I’ve spent too much time crying. Crying about my rights to my own body, crying about the slow-cook death of the planet, crying about the separation of immigrant children from their parents. As it turns out, you can spend a lifetime and a half crying and being completely immobilized.

However, when I’m laughing…my mind is firing. If my depression is paralyzing, my humor is activating. My most hilarious and witty friends keep me on my toes and force me to keep up with their quick associations, unlikely observations and edgy provocations. They constantly challenge me, and the payoff of playing the game with them is the satisfying dopamine hit of a good laugh.

I have a small team for my design research course here at ac4d, and I feel lucky that the three of us are able to get into this space, even if the face of intense amounts of stress. Without these moments of hilarity mixed into our process, we would burn out so much more quickly. One can only discuss “monetary inequity in developing communities” for so long without feeling like they want to collapse on the ground in exhaustion and despair. Humor energizes us, it keeps us awake, and it forces us to break out of the same old tired loops that we enter when we are too in-the-weeds with our project. It also loosens us up. Sometimes I can feel the four black walls closing in around me when I am in the thick of synthesis. Humor blows down those walls. We create space when we allow ourselves to make a joke. We are more creative when we can forgive ourselves if we don’t approach a problem with the most ‘correct’ or most ‘sensible’ mindset. We work BETTER when we give ourselves this space.

This is the inspiration for how I want to approach wicked problems as a student of social design, and as a designer in general. I want to remind myself that I need to allow this humorous aspect of coping, and humorous reasoning with problems into my design process. I want to provide myself the space the comfort in understanding that these tendencies are a valid way to approach issues that are difficult, confusing, complex and sensitive, and that I am actually a better designer for it.

Frustrated in the face of inequality

Over the past number of years in my adult life, I have had compounding experiences which have led me to become more and more disillusioned with the inequalities that human beings face on this planet.

I have traveled the world to learn about issues that people around the world face, and how they are approaching problems in their own ways. But ultimately I have been left feeling powerless to be a part of any sort of solution.

My focus has gradually shifted from being concerned more with the outcome of my own life, to being concerned with how to position myself to be the most impactful to create a better world for all lives. This is not a small burden to take on. I have often felt extremely overwhelmed, depressed, and powerless in the face of what seem to be endless problems of inequality, misunderstanding, greed, and ignorance.

In reading Margolin, I was most affected by the framing of the “global situation”. Our expansionist societal trajectory is something that I have toiled immensely over, but never had the vocabulary to articulate in terms of design frameworks. The idea of a society which succeeds in attaining an equilibrium seems extremely far fetched to me, and that we have defended too far down our own rabbit hole of capitalism to ever dig ourselves out. But the sentiment being described in terms of design thinking is new to me, and sparks a moment of hope in me that others have the same thought process as me.

I took this as an immediate direction to the Pilloton reading, which emphasized proximity to a community in order to understand the nuance of their problems. I inherently believe in concept, and I really value being a part of a community, as well as working with that community in order to create sustainable change. In my last full time position I worked for the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation planning events for their public park. I hoped that I would be able to see the impact of my work on the ground with the communities I was serving, however, a lot of the impact of my role was clouded with the politics of non-profits, budgets, partnerships and funding. I also became disillusioned with the way this particular non-profit was affecting adjacent underserved communities near downtown city limits. I was shocked by the way that these issues were being essentially not being addressed, or actually being ignored in public dialogue.

I was also moved to feeling by the various articles about non-profits on both a local and international scale. Before coming to ac4d I heavily explored my desire to make a career of the non-profit sector. I started off in the arts thinking that I could make a difference in that realm, and after getting fully spent of the pettiness and corruption of arts funding, I moved on the environmental non-profits, only to experience similar kinds of leveraged relationships, emphasis on numbers rather than actual impact, as well as lots of turn-over in staffing and chaotic leadership. It left me feeling very disdainful about the effectiveness of non-profits all together. I felt that this was particularly addressed in Hobbe’s article about international development, which addresses this issues but, even takes it a step further when these operations that are essentially missing the mark upscale. Scaling only escalates the emphasis on numbers, dollars and appearances completely at the detriment of actual impact or fulfillment of their mission.

While all of the authors that I already mentioned somewhat validated feelings that I already had about how to approach issues of poverty, the one that I will likely take with me the most in my future as a designer and as a “social entrepreneur” was Yunus. Yunus is the author that left me with the most hope. The idea of a social business being self sustainable seems like the most likely way that I, personally, will be able to live a financially sustainable lifestyle, be creative and innovative, while also attempting to affect change to a wicked problem. I lean towards wanting to activate the Bernays in me to build a social business which uses elements of subtle persuasion, but persuasion for what I believe to be social good. While I know there could be unintended consequences, I believe that our global situations are all reaching a head and that we MUST take direct action, and we MUST have courage and fortitude in the face of the worlds problems. Or else there may not be a world left.

To believe or not to believe….

The value of design synthesis lies in the space between concrete human needs and squishy human desires and dreams. It is the ability to reconcile these two very real modes of the human experience that makes the designer special. It is what makes them valuable to any process, because processes are a human creation in their own right. A human way of coping with reality.

I worked through these readings feeling that each author was grasping at a way of reckoning with their own human limitations. Defining those limitations is difficult for everybody, but especially for those who’s responsibility it is to understand other people and change their lives for the better based on that understanding. There are other careers that immediately address improving, or even saving, other people’s lives. We place a lot of trust in our counselors, doctors, and lawyers, for example. We hire them with the expectation that they understand the human condition, they are trained and have special skillsets that will help us. We imagine that prospective doctors, lawyers, or counselors have natural and accelerated skills working with and understanding people that we may not possess ourselves.

Based on our readings from the past two weeks, I believe that we should take a designer’s role in our lives as seriously as we might one of these other widely respected professions. This round of readings largely paints a picture of a designer as being a person who is meant to think holistically. We sit with that ambiguous space between logic and emotion. We can integrate the implicit knowledge and intuitional judgement that we possess with the expressions of others to attack problems from an elevated level.  Regardless of human’s ability to know one’s self, there are limitations of our languages to describe the essences of our needs and feelings. It is the designers job to extract those essences, synthesize many types of qualitative information, and tell those stories to others so we can all have a better understanding of our world.

Working through these readings, I found that most to all of these authors used the concept of context as a way of describing this holistic approach to problem solving, however they all addressed this from very different angels.

My X axis lays these authors out on a framework of “designing with” and “designing for”. This with and for changes meaning slightly across authors, fluctuating between ‘with end users’ and ‘with other designers’ and ‘with other people in the system’. Essentially this axis refers to how much the designer is considering other perspectives as a part of their process.

My other axis relates to this idea of human essence. Some authors ask us to dive deeply into the lives of others and to suspend our own life experience to better understand theirs. Others place less value on this idea, and ask us to consider it when thinking about the value of context, but to remain ultimately distanced from the emotional experience of the end user or other player. Finally there are those who place less value on the role of the designer as a whole, and therefore do not see our holistic approaches to work relevant at all.

This type of empathy, the toeing of the line between emotional immersion into a narrative & keeping a safe distance sounds daunting to us as budding designers. However we practice this much more often than we realize. Think of reading your favorite novel or going to the theater. We all have the ability to (and very often enjoy to) jump fully into a narrative that is not our own. But when we read a novel, we also have no problem maintaining maintaining a sense of self, and while still feeling the feelings of the characters for the time, we can still think critically about the plot without losing our grounding in reality. This experience can be framed as the suspension of disbelief. We can, for a time, give up our own critical faculties to believe something outside of our experience or logic.

For the purposes of this project, I selected the authors that resonated with me most within this framework to discuss in further detail.

My Y axis has one end labeled “suspending disbelief”, referring to how much importance the authors place on on the ability and willingness to suspend disbelief as a part of their design process. The other end of the axis is labeled “resistance to suspension of disbelief”, referring to how the authors consider the importance of remaining grounded in their methods during their process.

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Who holds the power?

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Role of design in society. What is it? Who has the authority to say? How many correct answers are there?

After zooming in and out and in again on the five different texts with which we began our design theory adventure, and after much page flipping and self scrutiny, I eventually managed to piece together a few ideas that felt like they were worth shaping into a coherent takeaway that others could understand. For my presentation I decided to run with the one that felt grandiose and perhaps a bit dismal. But it is genuinely the way I found myself reading these texts, and what I found myself taking from them.

Idea: Design can be used as a powerful tool that will either empower everyone to become better thinkers and problem solvers or will be misused by a few as a weapon that disarms the masses unwittingly.

All of these readings were about the role of design in society as being a crucial tool in shaping our futures, but some see it in as an accessible tool for all, and others as a tool able to be utilized in an impactful way by only a few.

My scale of importance is based on the theorist’s insight into the ways that we, as the general populace audience, are empowered to utilize their insights for change, or left powerless by them.

I will break this down by position starting with the theorist who I find to be the least impactful to me in this framework.

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Vitta is intent on pointing out the metaphorical death of the designer in society. He sees the mass consumption of objects as cheapening the role of design, and sees a movement towards the cheapening of the power of objects themselves as they become more diminished to mere fetishized merchandise. This is all fine and well, but when I read Vitta I don’t see where I fall in this. The objects I posses tell a story about me, even if some are just shallow signifiers, and I am not offended by this role objects play in my life. Why should I care about the death of Vitta’s designer? And what am I supposed to do about it? Quite frankly, I don’t see this as being the most powerful way we can consider the role of design in our complex society.

Oh, Postman. I love your fatalist perspective on innovation. I think it is enchanting and dramatic and dystopian, and I have come to some of the same conclusions as I interact with my society filled with ‘fake news’ and exhalation of progress towards a “smarter” civilization of technology. Postman heeds a warning to a roomful of powerful and influential makers in society, urging them to think hard about all sides of the die when creating something new in this growing field of technology. He urges them to consider the consequences fully and to understand the weight of that responsibility. He describes us as being lost in a shuffled deck of cards, drowning in an ocean of information that keeps on growing in the name of problem-solving, and with no tools or guide to sort through it, no life raft to keep our heads above water. If this is true, and I often feel that it is, then that hopelessness that I get when I know I am drowning is not only justified, but isn’t in my power to fix or sort through. It is in the hands of others. My unexamined life is not worth living. I, an average good samaritan, have no way of arming myself against the chaos of “progress”.

Bernays discusses human beings in a very impersonal way. While he directly calls out that it now “the privilege of attempting to sway public opinion is everyone’s” he then goes on to describe all the ways that it is really only in the power of the elite, the special, the beautiful, and the remarkably ambitious to do so. He throws the general public a bone here and there rather disingenuously, claiming that if we learn to express ourselves, then we can do it too. But ultimately, he mostly discusses how susceptible people are to change their opinion and behavior if presented with the right set of well designed circumstances. As a reader, I do not get the sense that I am among those that how this power to influence, and I am rather scared of it and feel the need to look over my shoulder and wonder who put my opinions in my own head.

Papanek begins to steer the ship out of the storm for the common folk. While he does begin his paper with a very dramatic and heavy claim that industrial design potentially the (second) most harmful profession in existence, what he is really doing is setting the stage to position the role of design in society as being extremely powerful and important. He wants the reader to take it very seriously. He claims that with proper use it “can and must be a way in which young people can participate in changing society.” Unlike Vitta and Postman, his words feel more to me like a call to action for all human beings. Through vivid examples, he places all humans as having a tendency to conform in a society that encourages same-ness. He also describes the cultural, associational and emotional blocks we have. However, he explains that they are not inherited, but learned and, thus, able to be overcome. He even provides a few small tools we can try to change how we go about tackling problems (like the Eskimo dot test and the Arcturus IV experiment). With a diversity of experience and by intentionally taking on problems outside our familiar experiences, we can grow. These sound like attainable actions to me.

Finally, there is Dewey. Dewey lays out a theory of experiential continuum, meaning that all experience are impactful and that they will lead the experiencer to a subsequent direction that will lead him to another, compounding experience. He piece is also a call to action from everyone who participates in a system where they interact with others (so…everyone). He asks us all to be thoughtful and cognizant of our actions, because we “live from birth to death in a world of persons and things which in large measure is what it is because of what has been done and transmitted from previous human activities”.  This theory lifts every action we make to be a meaningful one, and that attitudes are the essence of the soul. I think that this piece is most useful because it frames design’s role in society in a way that allows you to find your place as a designer of experiences wherever you might stand. It humbles you to realize that if you are successful and are lucky enough to have general good fortune, this is a result of compounded experiences that others created for you. If you find yourself in a less than desirable position, that’s okay, but your actions still mean something in the continuum of the collective human experience. We can change our systems.

I do not argue that my interpretation of the value of these positions applies to everyone, as everyone has different perspectives and life experiences. Someone who was born into unfortunate circumstances which have only led to more unfortunate circumstances might say that Dewey’s theory sounds like a curse. But while perhaps this interpretation is specific to my personality type, life experiences and personal morals, regardless, all of these theorists give clues to your personal power to change society through design process.

Time to Reflect…

Going into this past week I anticipated feeling very anxious. Normally I might make myself sick with nerves, somewhat pointlessly, about almost every aspect of starting something very intense and new like the ac4d program. A few of these aspects might be… 1) meeting my classmates who I know I will spend so much time with in the next number of months , 2) meeting my Q1 teachers who will be the ones guiding my future journey into the design sphere and 3) trying new things at a very condensed pace. All of the potential anxiety being amplified by adjusting to a new city, new roommates, the Texas HEAT…..and being rather alone.

I found, however, that I was more confident than I expected once I was actually in the room, and re-contextualized my mindset to consider that I am not the only one who probably is feeling these things. And while my experiences might not be the same as others, hopefully they have prepared me for the journey ahead in my own way.

Through the mini lectures and activities, I found myself invigorated by all of the topics and processes we touched on that we will learn over the course of this year. I also found myself at peaceful terms with the idea that I am jumping with both feet into this process knowing that there will be times that my head will dip under the water for a few moments.

The experience of the bootcamp challenged me in ways that I did not expect, and that I don’t think I could have envisioned or articulated before trying it.

I felt the strain of trying to flow freely with the wide-open process of thinking divergently to harness creativity. It’s simultaneously a process of thinking really hard and also loosening up your mind up and trying to push out of your regular safe patterns. I could feel the rustiness of those muscle that haven’t been flexed in a while. It sometimes felt like trying to crush a can with your mind by staring at it a hundred different ways….and then slowing remembering that you can just pick up the can and crush it. Or maybe crush it with a shoe. Or crush it with a car. Or just throw it out the window entirely.

I learned that idea generation is both easy and difficult. It takes a lot twisting around and rethinking bad ideas in order to find that one good one you wouldn’t have been able to come up with right away.

I learned that listening both with your heart and your ears is essential to getting to the core of an issue, and that the designer’s personal instincts and intuition (rather than metrics and quantifiable justifications) play more into the process than I necessarily realized or considered. I think that I built on what my idea of  empathy-in-action means.

Finally, I learned that while design strategizing feels new and difficult, it is not as completely inaccessible as I could have imagined, and I can now more clearly see the future me that hopefully will come out of the program empowered to create new and awesome things.