Society and Success

The first week of classes at AC4D brought an anxious excitement to my classmates.  For me, it brought an existential crisis.  As I began to delve into the AC4D readings and projects by night, by day an internet powerhouse came knocking on my door and began a seductive recruiting dance, wooing me toward a full-time position.    For a few days, I put AC4D on the back burner and prepped myself for several rounds of grueling interviews.  Somehow I believed that if I could just get this job from “Internet Powerhouse” then it would validate me.   I would be able to update my Facebook profile with the name of a company that assured all of my 496 “friends” that I am indeed very happy and successful.  I would finally be aligned with an organization that made me feel good enough, smart enough, and successful enough.

The problem, however, was that I knew that with this reassurance would also come a compromise of personal values.  Working for “Internet Powerhouse” might have gotten me free lunch, but grandma said it best, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”  The cost of my lunch would be the loss of work/life balance and enormous amounts of stress.  Worst of all, I would be working for a company whose whole business model stood on tenuous ethical grounds.

After two years of doing good, fulfilling work in Ecuador, I found myself once again succumbing to the lie that money and status = happiness and success.   I was ready to make any compromise, drink any Kool-Aid, and jump right in.

I’m hesitant to fault my character or moral drive in this situation.  Rather, I believe this dilemma demonstrates just how pervasively the faulty definition of success exists in our culture.  In fact, when I first moved to Ecuador to volunteer, it took me a good six months to unlearn how the United States defines success and stop worrying about how I was going to justify the gap in my resume to future employers.  Apparently, it’s only taken me six months back in the United States to relearn what success is.

Where does this lie originate?  While there are probably multiple answers, I’ll propose two.  The first is that America is branded, and indoctrination begins in childhood.  When I was a kid, popularity directly correlated with how many swoosh marks appeared on an outfit.  Later, it became the type of car owned or the type of cell phone used.  Certain brands were perceived as better and smarter.  In turn, the consumer, by associating herself with the brand or object, was better and smarter.  What better way to permanently brand yourself than by working for a name brand company upon graduation? If one couldn’t secure that, why not work in a high-paying job and comfortably brand oneself with other items that exude happiness and success?

Another, more subtle factor influencing our definition of success and worth is language and particularly, metaphor.  In English, the value of individual human beings is mixed up with economics.  Donald Miller writes:

“What metaphors do we use when we think of relationships? We value people…we invest in people…relationships can be bankrupt…people are priceless…all economic metaphor.  We think of love like a commodity.  We use it like money.”

If I want to prove to the world that I’m worth something, what’s the best way to show that?  It’s easy – get lots of money.  It’s right there in the language that we use every day.

Thankfully, “Internet Powerhouse” did not offer me a job, but the recruitment experience forced me to reevaluate and remember why I came to AC4D in the first place.  I came to create a new definition of success, if only for myself.

Split Personality

Do you practice WYSIWYG for your virtual self on the internets? Justin posed this question to us asking whether you should split your social profiles: one for personal connections and one for professional connections. The transparency conundrum is increasingly valid and really depends on what works for you.

I’ve heard of people having a so-called separation of church and state when it comes to work friends and “real” friends. If you spend more time with these people than your significant other, I’m sure at least some bonds have been made so that you’re not eating Box-o-Ramen alone in the corner. Then why do we differentiate work vs. non-work friends? Is the connection less valid because we are forced to exist in the same physical space (to get paid), thus cutting down on the serendipity of finding a kindred spirit in the ether? Would that proximity and merging of similar people actually perpetuate authentic connections?

My boss just sent me a friend request! What do I do?!?This flash of fear was graced our status updates at one time or another. Does your boss need to see your party pics from two years ago? Does he/she really care that you ROTFL at every meme with Keanu? Does he/she want to make a valid personal connection with you or just try to figure out what all this Facebook stuff is about?

In a past life, I worked at a company with a very explicit social media policy stating that I was a representative of [redacted] at all times and must conduct myself in such a manner. I posted a status update one Friday afternoon that my co-workers were morons because they were just goofing off and not passing on the work I needed so I could leave at a decent time. Simple. Relatively harmless. Three weeks later my boss sent me a message one Sunday morning asking me what I meant by it and that I should remove it immediately since it violates the social media policy. At the time my posts were private only to my friends, so I was floored that a flippant reflection generated a response from a friend that also happened to be the guy that signs the checks. Ouch. From that point I learned about friend group filtering and censoring my reflection on social media. Sure that comment was about as insightful as “waiting for the bus…” but it was on a closed invite-only network where close friends could choose to ignore my inanity- at least until privacy policies changed again and all updates were free for all to see on the interweb, but that’s another post.

Sure, some of you already have a work account and a personal account. This could save face and minimize awkward water cooler moments by accepting all co-worker friend requests. But is that really you? Is the profile set up for their benefit or yours? Does a watered down connection add richness to the social dialogue? Probably not, but it’s a boundary to keep work friends at arm’s length and an extra degree of protection in case you slip up about your lazy/inept/crazy/stinky coworkers.

What if I put it all out there?Justin Petro made a great point that, “You are your own brand.” For better or worse, that means making the pixels on the screen represent your virtual self as closely as possible. Maybe you’re a jerk- good. Maybe you’re a rambling Pitchfork junky- good. Your love for I Can Has Cheezburger and Swiss Design can actually add depth to your persona (well, maybe…). Living out loud with life turned to eleven may be the best thing your brand can do for itself. Every nuance of your online persona makes you just a little bit more unique when seen in summation. I have actually won clients with my About Me page because it “adds personality” to the typically lifeless portfolio site. Publishing that page for the first time was actually a little nerve-racking, but it now proves that I’m a unique little snowflake- just like everyone else.

Per the suggestion of Jon and AC4D, I am beginning to embrace living virtually in public by posting more and more of what makes me, well… me. As Sesame Street as that sounds, the culmination of being authentic with yourself and your brand could foreseeably reap rewards down the road since you and your persona are the same person. Though a WYSIWYG world may not be the answer, authentic connection is a start.


Yesterday in class we did an interesting brainstorming activity. We were asked to pick 3 things we like and 3 pet peeves and then put them together to form topics. At one time I did alot of whitewater kayaking and moving water is one of my favorite things. One of my pet peeves is quick judgements. Combining these two items led me back to thinking about whitewater kayaking in the context of design. The speed and power of the water in kayaking does not allow for much overthinking. Usually if you spend too much time thinking when you are in a rapid rather than doing and reacting you wind up upside down or worse yet swimming….

This reminds me of the “doing” part of design. Successful businesses are in part about timing. The product or service needs to be produced when people need it, so if we spend too much time overthinking and perfecting items that niche may already be filled by someone else. As well, I think the ability to respond and react in design is important. We discussed in class the idea that you prototype and release ideas quickly, but that is not the end. Designers need to reflect and revise items based on feedback from users, stakeholders and their own reflections. It is more a circular than linear process.

All of this is not to imply that a designer simply reacts and releases products. A great deal of thought, creativity, caring and strategy go into success. However, I think that it is important that once analysis is done and decisions have been made it is important not to let fear creep in and lead to “overthinking”. Perhaps I can learn a lesson from my kayaking here as well. You “scout” and analyze difficult rapids before you run them. This is the time to pick them apart and find your route. However, once you are in the water you must be confident and attack the route you have chosen.

School is teaching us to think and create. As well, it emphasizes do not “overthink”. It is better to share ideas for discussions and reflection to occur and than we can go back and revise, revise, revise…..

Please welcome new faculty member Suzi Sosa!

Austin Center for Design is proud to welcome Suzi Sosa to our faculty. Suzi, a veteran of the thriving social entrepreneurship scene in Austin, is the Founder and President of the MPOWER Foundation, a non-profit operating foundation dedicated to the empowerment of the underserved. Suzi is passionate about social entrepreneurship and social capitalism and seeks opportunities to harness the speed, scale, and creativity of the private sector with the compassion, transparency, and stakeholder models of the non-profit world. Her background in is international development economics, and she has a Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. She co-teaches Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas and is a Judge for the Dell Social Innovation Competition. She is a founder of RISE.

We’re thrilled to have Suzi joining our existing faculty. Welcome, Suzi!

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain part 2

This is the second exercise I performed from the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Book.  I was excited to hear today that Saranyan bought the book on his Kindle and is joining in the fun.

The exercise for today took only about fifteen minutes and you could do yourself quite easily, as the book authors have posted it as an example on their website.

The basic premise of the exercise is that they force you into a verbal ‘L-mode’ of thinking by having you draw one half of the vase/face and then retrace it specifically calling out the names of the forehead, nose, chin, etc, as you trace them.  Then you immediately try to draw the other side and it’s surprisingly difficult.  To finish the drawing you have to pointedly switch your mind to the spatial ‘R-mode’ and think about the lines apart from the symbolic concepts of noes or eyes.  It took me a couple of mental tries to get back there, as you can see from the faint, erased lines.

Anyway, the exercise is short, and it provides an interesting perspective into some of the workings of your mind.  Give it a go if you have a chance!

Expanding on our Universal Design discussion

In our last theory class with Kolko, we discussed and debated and tried to wrap our heads around: consumption, universal design, and usability. Big stuff.

I want to offer some additional notes about universal design. We read a very brief article by Patricia Moore, one of the leading thinkers in universal design: an approach that advocates designing products and environments to be usable by the greatest range of people possible.

This contradicts a well-known design maxim that “you can’t solve the problem for everyone,” and that it can even become counterproductive in terms of time, cost, and efficacy of the product itself.

It’s natural and understandable for designers who have experience in today’s industry to begin thinking of the constraints that designing universally would put on a project, and you get into circle-talks about not being able to design for everyone and the impracticality of the idea. The danger is if the approach of universal design—and its inherent respect for the people who we are designing for—get thrown out (baby with bathwater).

With all the big ideas we’re discussing, there is a spectrum of action: it is one thing to talk about them on a theory level, it is another to believe them and incorporate them into our personal philosophies, it is another to practice them in our day-to-day jobs, and it is another to try to change the system to accommodate for fundamentals from the get-go.

I came into class last night already believing that universal design is a given and should be included in the design process. But that’s because I’ve already thought about this a lot the past few years. I participated in AIR-Austin (Accessibility Internet Rally) twice learning about and designing websites for non-profits that were accessible for the blind and visually-impaired…and anyone else who uses adaptive technology…and anyone who was on a low-bandwith connection who wants the option of skipping flashier design components.

I also had the good fortune to take an education course called “Individual Differences” with Dr. Jim Patton during my semester at the University of Texas’s College of Education. A handful of years ago, this class probably would have been called “Special Education” which leads me to…

Notes on language

It is more appropriate and more respectful to refer to someone as a “person with a [disability]” instead of “[disabled] person.” They probably don’t let their disability define them, and we shouldn’t either. And when considering most things, before automatically assuming anything as a deficit, consider: what is normal? FYI, we cover how to differentiate instruction for students with “gifts and talents” as much as we cover how to adapt for students on the Autism spectrum or who have some hearing loss or those students who identify with the Deaf culture. (If you spent part or all of your K-12 education bored, more attention to individual differences or “universal design” may have helped.)

Bonnie Consolo is a mother with a great sense of humor, who lives without arms; she is not an “armless woman.”

Additionally, thinking about something like ADA building code laws, consider the difference between:

  • A person in a wheelchair is handicapped.
  • The person’s environment is what handicaps a person in a wheelchair.

(Are you disabled because you’re a biker, or does your environment handicap you based on your choice of transportation?)

Observation Opportunity

As part of the Individual Differences class, we had to take a tour of the Assistive & Instructional Technology Lab on campus in Austin. Although not all of us can go undercover as a person of advanced age like Patricia Moore did for years to gain the insight and empathy to champion universal design, we can do much to observe and learn about current technologies and opportunities in the area. The AT Lab is set up with rooms meant to evoke a home, a workplace, a classroom, and an early-childhood setting. One of the first things they have you do is tie a rubberband around your fingers to test out the silverware.

One thing that struck me was how much of the technology was not what we would consider “high-tech,” and I think that’s an instructive way to redefine and think about innovating. It doesn’t have to be a computer-powered gadget. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a wider grip or a magnifying glass.

I would guess you could call them and arrange a tour even if you aren’t a UT student. If you can’t make it, their webpage has photos of and descriptions of many of the technologies they feature at the lab.

Doing it is hard

Designing with the universal design approach is hard. I have to admit I don’t have any experience getting a product to ship, so I don’t know of all the hurdles in the way. (Maybe that’s a good thing for now. I can bump up against them when I get there and not design with them in mind as blocks.) The same is true of designing sustainably and for usability and for social impact.

We’re spending a few more weeks synthesizing positions and opinions to begin to form (or reform) our philosophy about design and our role as designers. First we have to talk the talk. Then throughout the next years, we have to prove that we can also walk the walk.

I.W.A. : Interaction with Attitude

Alessi Starck Juicer

While discussing Kees Overbeeke in class tonight, Jon asked me if every interaction needs to be exhilarating. At first I thought no… then yes… then maybe. Upon returning home, I saw my Alessi Starck Citrus Squeezer brooding in the corner of my kitchen. Waiting… Glimmering… Beckoning me to juice something…  Knowing I’ll be back…

It’s mere presence on the counter has generated countless conversations ranging from a “Mars Attacks!” homage to a self defense device. The simple act of extracting juice from citrus transformed from a chore into an experience. A “common household product” could be captivating, moody, smart and seductive, yet remain useful.

Sure, the luster has worn off over time but the ability of design to eliminate the mundane and possibly encourage trial is intriguing.