All posts by Bethany Stolle

On Empathy

Photo: Dan Terpstra (
Speaking at PechaKucha Grand Rapids. (Photo: Dan Terpstra,

I recently gave two talks at two very different conferences. One was a pecha kucha (20 slides, 20 seconds per slide) at the Midwest UX conference [video], and the other was a TED-style talk for The Summit youth ministry conference [video available for purchase].

Even though the audiences were very different, both talks ended up revolving around design and empathy.

And building those presentations was hard, scary work. I bounced drafts past friends and colleagues. After a late-night run-through with another designer (only two days before The Summit), I ended up rewriting almost the whole thing. I knew I was onto something important, but I was really nervous to give the talks.

Because I don’t feel like an expert on empathy. Or design. Because I still have a lot more to learn about ministry and theology.

Because I don’t like feeling vulnerable.

I procrastinated. I rehearsed. I downplayed what I was going to talk about. I wrote out notes because I didn’t trust myself to remember. And when the time came, I still stepped in front of the screen–half because I thought I had something worth sharing, and half because I was beyond the point of being able to back out! And I shared stories about a number of people I’ve met over the last year through design projects at AC4D and sparkhouse. Listening to and empathizing with them…and being changed in the process.

That’s what I know most about empathy.

Empathy changes power dynamics. As a designer, the stuff I make impacts what other people do–and in the world of ministry, it can even change what others believe. I have a disproportionate amount of power. But practicing human-centered design and embracing empathy shifts the power from me creating stuff for others to us making things together.

And empathy isn’t just a tool I pick up and use to understand and learn about others. Done right, empathy changes me too. It makes me accountable to others. Vulnerable.

But I wouldn’t go back to living primarily in my head, which feels more comfortable to me. No, because empathy is integral to my life as a designer. And as a person.

Design, Ministry, Life, Learning

I recently graduated from the Austin Center for Design.

Just a month ago, I was siting at my desk, surrounded by boxes of design books and clothes and sparkhouse curriculum and office supplies as I packed up for my return to Minneapolis.

I’m back to working fulltime on sparkhouse projects again. Jesse Jack and I are continuing with Kites & Ladders, a company that came out of our work at AC4D that seeks to amplify the voices of people with autism. And I’ve got another project in my back pocket to bring together all this design stuff I’ve been living with all this theology stuff I’ve been doing for the last decade.

Because now when I talk theology, I can’t help but think about design theory and methods I’ve learned over the last year. (Externalize everything. Sketch ideas. Design with vs. design for. Develop empathy through ethnographic research. Iterate. Iterate. Did I mention iterate?)

And one place I’m excited to explore these ideas around theology and design is at The Summit, put on by The Youth Cartel in November. I’m one of the speakers, and I can’t wait to learn from everyone else who will be there.

Here’s a promo video they released with clips last year’s conference, and be sure to check out details for the rest of the event. (And the reduced Early Bird rate runs through mid-July.)

The Summit 2013 from The Youth Cartel on Vimeo.

Any chance I’ll see you there? 

For my Dad

I’m sharing an email I sent to my dad, who spent over 20 years as a volunteer first responder and firefighter. I grew up in a town of about 500 people, and Dad was one of a number of men and women who were willing to risk their personal safety to serve and protect the community.

* * *

Volunteer Firemen

Dear Dad,

I’ve been thinking about you a lot for the last few days. Especially after the West, TX, fertilizer plant explosion.

I stopped in West when I was driving up to Dallas from Austin for a conference back in November. They’ve got a well known convenience store called the Czech Stop, which as been serving kolaches 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, for over 20 years.

The town is small and reminded me of Clinton. Ortonville. Morris. Close-knit, hardworking community where individuals help each other because everyone is related or might as well be. Tough people who come together through trials and emerge stronger than the powerful devastations.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about emergency workers. In West, volunteer fire fighters responded when the plant started on fire. Several people killed in the blast were emergency personnel who signed up to protect their children and friends and neighbors.

I remember riding with you, Dad, when you were fire chief and took the trucks out to run safety checks make sure the equipment would be ready in a time of need. You let me turn on the sirens.

I remember hearing your pager’s crackled voice every night at 6 pm. Sometimes I got to dial 911 to report that the test came through.

I remember several times when your pager would squeal and the cadence of your already-quick pace (a distinct heel-to-toe cowboy boot rhythm) would speed to a run as you hopped into the old Dodge, flipped on the headlights, flashed the hazards, and rushed to the fire hall.

I remember hearing stories about how you were a first responder, which inspired my own desire to become a volunteer EMT and first responder. I remember coming home from emergency calls and not providing a lot of details–but knowing through our dialogue and the way you looked at me that you understood.

So I’ve been reflecting on West, TX. On the events from Massachusetts that have been playing in the background all day. On the wisdom of Mr. Rogers who told kids to “look for the helpers” when they are afraid.

I’m proud to be your daughter, Dad. And along with my prayers for peace and protection, I’m giving thanks for you and all the helpers.

I love you,

What is “real beauty?” A response to the latest Dove campaign

As soon as I saw the latest video from Dove’s “Real Beauty” initiative earlier this week, I tweeted the link, saying I want to show it to every teen girl I know.

In the video, women sit in a curtained-off area and describe their appearance to an FBI-trained forensic sketch artist as he renders their portrait. But the video doesn’t stop here. Earlier in the day, these women had conversations with strangers (with no explanation why). These strangers then enter the room and go through a similar process—but instead of talking about themselves, they describe the women they conversed with that morning.

The result literally illustrates the women’s negative self-perceptions when the two different sketches are matched side by side.

This is part of a larger campaign Dove has been running to showcase “real beauty”—but not without controversy. And I agree—there’s plenty that’s not-quite-right with what Dove is doing.


I still want to show this to all the teen girls everyone I know. I want to watch it multiple times for myself.

Because it’s a chance for critical reflection. To talk about media and manipulation and motivations. To help young people become savvy about advertising. What is Dove selling here? How does it reinforce or conflict with other messages we hear around us?

Because body-bashing happens, and Dove’s campaign can spur conversation about about imago dei and what it means to be made in the image of God. The video isn’t perfect, and that’s why it shouldn’t stop us.

Because it’s a good reminder that our self-perceptions are skewed. And to reframe how we see ourselves in both theological and practical ways.

Because all of us are more beautiful than we think.

And we are more beautiful than Dove thinks…because we are more than beauty.

Teaching Wisdom

I just read a blog post written by Amy Jacober over on Theological Curves. She is a professor with a Ph.D. from Fuller Seminary and has written a book on practical youth ministry. In the post, she recounts an interview for a teaching position at an academic institution where the interviewer asked how she would teach in a way that would protect the faith of male students who don’t believe women should be in leadership roles in ministry.

I am grateful to be part of a faith tradition that has been ordaining women for decades and recognizing female leaders for even longer. But the question Amy reflects on has deeper implications and pops up in other variations across the church, so I wanted to share this paragraph that resonated deeply with me:

We do a disservice to young people when we refuse to pose controversial topics or present a variety of views as valid. We breed future ministers who fail in reflective practices for fear that their precious theological glass houses will shatter. We dishonor God when we treat young people as if they are pathetically fragile in the name of preservation of faith. Assuming these same young people are created in the image of God… That god too is fearful and unreflective.


I am not interested I dismantling faith. I am however interested in helping young people, men and women, to be in ministry for the long haul able to draw strength in the face of diversity and new ideas.


Read the rest here.

Rejection Therapy


As a designer as aspiring entrepreneur, I try to build small-scale rejection and “failure” early into my process so I can improve what I’m making. As a theologian, I think and speak about it a lot, usually in the abstract. As a human, I fear it.

But this video of Jia Jiang’s talk at TEDxAustin has given me another way to think about rejection. Please take a few minutes to be inspired by this video, and then I’d love to know: What do you think about “rejection therapy”? Would you ever do it?

So you’re a designer?

When I tell people I’m studying at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D), the first response is usually something like, “I haven’t heard of that school before, but that’s cool.” Followed by, “So is that like fashion design or graphic design?”

Social Entrepreneurship is a bit easier to explain, but the concept of Interaction Design is foreign to many people. But Jon Kolko, the founder and director of AC4D, recently had an article on Huffington Post which describes why I’m studying design:

This triangulation of technological advancement, the “experience economy,” and the offshoring of manufacturing has recast the word “design,” and positioned design as a fundamental discipline for managing the complexity of the future. Simply, designers humanize technology. Designers are trained to embrace chaos and complexity, to hold multiple and often competing ideas in their heads at one time, to be flexible and nimble in the face of changing constraints, and most importantly, to visualize concepts, systems and services that don’t yet exist. Designers tell stories about how the future ought to be.
(read the full article)

Yes, I’m learning my way around sticky notes and sketchbooks and Adobe Photoshop and CSS and Keynote. But it’s in service of developing empathy, collaborating with others, envisioning a better future, telling stories, and working to address “wicked problems” in the world.

If that sounds like something you’re interested in, check out the article. Then read Wicked Problems or come to Austin on Saturday, March 9, for a Design for Impact Bootcamp, which runs through the design process in a one-day format that weaves together theory and hands-on practice.

Becoming a Designer is Ruining Me

I’m at a national youth ministry conference this weekend. I love coming to this event because I get to meet passionate youth workers and reconnect with friends whom I see only once or twice a year. The schedule is a bit ridiculous because when youth ministers put together an event, the formal event activities run from before 8am to nearly midnight, with social time following the closing events. (These must be the same people who organize lock-ins.)

The one down side I’m experiencing during this event has happened because I’m in design school right now. We’re studying service design and also learning practices to develop empathy for participants in a service or system and ways to prototype and test ideas to make sure the outcome addresses the users’ needs. As part of this, Jon Kolko has challenged us to start noticing the designed elements in our everyday lives: The materials in a pen that affect the way we use it. The buttons on software applications that indicate whether you’ve activated a button or switch. The details we take for granted when they work well and that aggravate us to no end when they don’t fit our mental models.

Now I’m thinking about design in new ways, and I can’t turn off this way of seeing the world around me. Frankly, it’s a little irritating because I see problems and broken stuff everywhere. Some experiences in the last day:

  • I can never successfully swap calls when I’m leaving a voicemail and the person calls me back mid-message. (I’m pretty sure the voicemail usually ends 10 awkward seconds of silence or “Hello? Are you there?” before I realize I’ve hung up the real call and am still recording.)
  • I had to ask four people directions to the hotel registration area because I parked in the adjoining conference center and could not figure out where the bridgeway was or which escalators to use.
  • The light switch in my hotel room is so aggravating! For some reason, this double switch plate controls the room’s lights–AND the bathroom light. I’m used to switching on a light when I enter a room, so every time I walk in the bathroom and shut the door, I get have to walk out and flip on the light. (And if I were staying here with high school youth, I can just imagine how many kids would end up showering in the dark when a roommate flipped the switch on them–accidentally or intentionally.)
Why is my hotel bathroom light switch OUTSIDE the bathroom door?

Yes, I know the inconvenience of a poorly-placed light switch isn’t a wicked problem. However, it’s been a little reminder to my budding designer that the decisions we make–intentionally or unintentionally–impact the interactions people have with their environments and one another. Our designs have consequences.

* Gah! In the middle of writing this post, I went to refill my water class and ONCE AGAIN groped the textured wallpaper before remembering there wasn’t a plastic plate nearby.

On Boredom (and Church)

I had the pleasure of hearing Genevieve Bell speak at the Design Extravaganza in Austin a week ago, and her talk blew me away. She wove together a narrative about the history of our Terminator-style “machines will kill us!” fear. Along the way, she revealed the value of an anthropological approach in upending the cultural assumptions we bring to addressing problems and identified several changes that lead to socio-technological anxiety. (I’ll post a link when the video comes online.)

Anyway, with her talk still poking around in my brain, I went to watch her TEDx Sydney talk from a year ago. In that presentation, Bell lifts up the value of boredom.

Sidebar: I must say, her speech was particularly convicting as I watched it on my laptop…while eating dinner…and attempting to ignore the nagging thoughts about a couple freelance projects, two final presentations, and a diagram that I need to create before the first quarter at AC4D wraps up on Saturday. (Oh, and I’m also working with my team to frame up next quarter’s research projects so we can submit proposals to get access to some area schools…)

Near the end, she offers an example of a church in Korea and suggests that church can offer a place where people have a different relationship to time and space. I’d suggest watching the talk in full, and I’d love to hear your take on her proposition.