Category Archives: Reflections

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.

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?

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.

What Do You Desire?

In Lauren’s class a week ago, we were talking about why research methods matter for the design process. One important reason comes down to mental models–or how a person imagines something works.

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?

(A variation posted on the AC4D blog, image: Kake Pugh)

What I Learned From a Banana…

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.)

Design Boot Camp: A Reflection

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.)

Ready, Set, Draw

  1. Document everything.
  2. 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.

(Also posted on the AC4D blog, and swing over there to see what some of my classmates are thinking about…)

I’m (Re)Imagining Christianity

Adam Walker Cleaveland, pastor/blogger/thinker, is currently running a series on (Re)Imagining Christianity. He posed two questions and asked a number of people to write guests posts with their responses:

  1. What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that must die so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?
  2. What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that we must hold onto and live out more fully so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?

I feel honored to share my thoughts alongside folks like Landon Whitsitt, Tony Jones, Carol Howard Merritt, Clint Schnekloth, Lars Rood, Sarah Bessey, and Troy Bronsink, among others. Here’s an excerpt from my post on nostalgia in response to the first prompt:

I think we face a similar case of nostalgia in the church. The state of the typical American church is a little unsatisfying, so we long for “the good days.” When denominations were growing and thriving. When people were biblically literate. When youth ministry and worship didn’t need to compete with sports practices. When families worshipped together, and kids dressed up and sat quietly in the pews during worship. When… When… When…

It makes me wonder, When? When did church actually look like that?

I have a suspicion that those days never really existed. Or if they did exist, they weren’t as perfect as people imagine.

Read the rest here.

The series will have a number of posts through late-April, so be sure to keep checking Pomomusings for the latest reflections and to share your comments.