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.
Any chance I’ll see you there?
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?
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Just the other day, I experienced the challenge of mental models firsthand. I was working on a project in Photoshop after spending a significant amount of time working in Illustrator the previous week. The two applications look really similar, but when I started trying to manipulate shapes and use some of the tools I’d come to rely on in Illustrator, I kept getting error dialogue boxes.
I’m sure I hit the enter key harder than necessary in my effort to get rid of the error message. And I had a few choice thoughts for Adobe.
My experience and frustration happened because they way I thought something should work differed from the way it actually functioned.
This reminds me of a concept called the desire path. I’m sure most people have seen a desire path before–and have probably even contributed to making one. This kind of trail happens when people deviate from the intended path, usually for the sake of a shortcut. Like this.
Desire paths are a physical examples of workarounds. They visibly reveal what happens when the way something is designed and made manifest differs from what people expect or want.
And that’s part of the value of design research. Through observing people’s actions, we start to see behavioral trends. We notice patterns of how people naturally function, what they expect, where they get stuck, and where they carve out other routes.
So I’m starting to pay more attention to desire paths around me. It happens when I’m out for a run and see a shortcut tamped down by people before me, as well as at a coffee shop watching the barista move from the register to the espresso machine. It happens when I see people walking out the doors after a worship service.
And it’s also got me wondering… What desire paths have you seen in the church?
This is a banana:
It was the outcome of my first foray into Adobe Illustrator CS6. The still image likely betrays the angst and frustration that went into figuring out how to form a pretty basic shape. Managing the pen tool to create curves. Figuring out how to manipulate anchor points and handles. Learning a few basic keyboard shortcuts so I didn’t have to keep clicking back and forth between the vector image and the application’s panels and palettes. Cursing at my trackpad because I didn’t think to bring my mouse to class.
The next day, I tried again, this time with the help of a mouse, an external monitor, and a bit more confidence than in my first exploration.
Starting from scratch was much easier, and I discovered little tricks (through lots of Google searches) that led to this version:
Throughout the rest of the week, Adobe has made me feel like I’m in 8th grade again, full of drama and angst. My classmates and I have celebrated our accomplishments and discoveries, only to groan when we hit the next roadblock approximately four clicks later and resort to a series of Command-Z keystrokes.
Today, though, as I closed out an Illustrator file filled with a cluster of grapes, I realized I’ve only been working in Illustrator for a week. I’m surprised how quickly I’ve been able to move from complete novice to feeling comfortable creating objects in Illustrator.
And my surprise isn’t only about semi-successfully hacking my way through a complicated software program.
Matt and Pat, the instructors for our Studio class who are putting us through this emotional bootcamp, explained that these projects aren’t about fruit in vector format. They’re not about learning to use clipping masks or gradient meshes. They’re not even about Adobe Illustrator, really. Instead, Matt and Pat are challenging us with tools that will enable us to communicate and document ideas.
Jon Kolko’s words struck me in class the other day. When we’re creating a product or service–or even a presentation, there are lots of reasons not to do something. But it shouldn’t be because we can’t use the tools to pull off what we envision.
I’m definitely trying to embrace the messy, inefficient discovery process. Through the challenges, our class has started to bond and collaborate more deeply, and we’re discovering how scrappy and resourceful we can be–even working on tight schedules with minimal prior knowledge.
And I learned all of this thanks to a silly little banana.
(Also posted on the AC4D blog.)
Last Thursday and Friday, our AC4D class participated in a design boot camp. The two days provided a quick way to experience the design process from start to finish. We focused on this year’s theme of education and explored three phases–Ethnography, Synthesis, Prototype–which we’ll drill into with much more depth as the year progresses.
Chuck, Eli, and I teamed up to research college students who work while going to school. We had about 90 minutes to conduct interviews and gather as much data as we could during the ethnography phase. The three of us went to the University of Texas and Austin Community College campuses to talk with students. In total, I think we interviewed about 14 people. Not statistically significant by any means. On top of that, our results were probably more skewed because the semester hadn’t started yet. We came back with lots of notes and photos but weren’t very confident we’d have much to go on.
However, as we processed our research and started to synthesize it, we discovered some surprising insights we didn’t notice in the moment as we were speaking with students. (And we also developed a whole new list of questions we wished we could have explored!)
Ultimately, the storyboards and sketches we prototyped by the end of boot camp on Friday wasn’t anything we could have anticipated on Thursday morning. I’m not saying it’s an idea we’d actually be able to produce and sell–or that there weren’t other ideas we toyed with–but the process did help us identify some new insights and opportunities.
And more importantly, the boot camp reminded me that it doesn’t really matter where you start. The important thing is to start. Somewhere. And to be open to where the messy, iterative process will lead.
(Also posted on the AC4D blog.)
- Document everything.
- Design publicly.
Jon lifted up these two values during AC4D orientation yesterday. He was talking about how ideas are fleeting, but if we want to actually solve wicked problems, we need to make stuff. And in order to create something, it must be written down. Documented. Artifacts–which can take the form of sketches, notes, prototypes, models, videos, photos, and more–become points for communication and clarification. They externalize ideas and enable collaboration.
At one point, Jon said, “Have an idea? Make it. Show it. Create it. Draw it.”
And if I’m honest, that’s kind of scary. I’m no stranger to sketching on a dry erase board as I process an idea, but my scribbles usually consist of boxes and arrows. The thought of drawing people (especially while standing in front of other people!), intimidates me.
So after class wrapped up for the day, a small group started talking about our fear of stick figures. Jon gathered us at the dry erase board and gave us some tips for drawing people and hands, since we’ll be doing that a lot in the months ahead. And then an assignment: Draw hands and people. An hour a day. And see how much easier it gets over time. Here’s a snapshot from last night’s efforts:
Even with only a couple hours under my belt, I’m already feeling more confident. At the moment, I’m much better at hands than people (and at palms than knuckles), but I’m excited to keep practicing and discover how this skill will enable me to communicate ideas more effectively.