Staying true to tinkering

I know this blog usually goes unread, and I only sometimes update it, especially lately. It's neglected. I feel like I can only post when I have something super interesting or insightful to share. Which...must appear to mean I never in the presence of insightful things or am not insightful myself. Not the case. Moreso that I haven't had ample time to reflect.

Since moving to New York, I've been overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with the busyness and mayhem of the city, of its commuters, of its obligations and responsibilities. I'm overwhelmed by the rodents in my walls scampering up, into, and across the ceiling each night. The gluten free options for lunch. The number of guys in the city. How much everything costs. The number of smells. How loud my neighbors can be. The number of puddles in the streets unrelated to weather conditions.

I'm also overwhelmed (and deeply humbled) by the different skillsets of many of my colleagues at work. The amount of newness in 6 months... new projects, new co-working relationships, new ways of thinking, new ways of approaching problems. My immediate reaction to all of this was to understand as much of it as I could in order to somehow capture and organize all of it. Put it in my pack and whip it out at some future time. There's just too much of all of it to appropriately continue with that means of attempting to understanding so much stimuli.

So, let's go back to the basics. Breathe.

What do I like? 

tinkering. learning. understanding. building. cross-disciplinary collaboration. pushing forward by failing a few times and figuring it out. Lots of questions- "why this? what if this? I don't understand this."

What am I good at?

I've been trained using a methods-based approach to understanding people... Their aspirations and their painpoints... and using that knowledge as power to figure out 20 different ways of solving them and building hacked-together solutions for 10 of them. 

What have I done? 

In school, I used to go out of my way to do stuff that wasn't required. I entered competitions to figure out how to create (and build) stuff to help people save energy. I worked with and coordinated a team to create a new conference model and put it to the test. I went to India and put methods to use in totally different parameters and cultures. I learned how to code and made prototypes more complex than I needed to, just to see if I could do it. I worked part time in various innovation groups, between Booth School of Business innovation teams, briefly with the group from MonekyBars, and for a few months at a startup called Raise. I didn't have to do any of those things, and yet, as exhausting as all of that sounds, it was energizing.

Now I find myself asking, what am I doing now?

It's likely part of the reason I feel a little disoriented... not identifying the things I'm doing now that ground me. But I am doing things. So for a moment, I'll reflect on things I have done since moving to New York that go above and beyond client projects at work.

1. Designing workshops and tools

I worked with a colleague from Moment to design a 2-day workshop during the second year of BarnRaise (so happy to see our conference continue through the dedication of current ID students!!). We worked through the schedule, methods and touch points for the collaboration. 

I still found myself asking- what's the value prop for attendees? Sure, they come to the conference for the experience and the networking. Sure they want to hear from a few keynote speakers. I started to think about the companies that sent these participants, and about our practice at Moment to share highlights about what we learned at conferences with the office when we return. I realized participants might need something to help them explain what they learned to others... something they could refer back to in order to apply the methods we used at the event. 

I decided to make a little methods booklet. In it, I included all of the methods we intended to teach during the workshop, including a description, a template, and a real example. It was a huge success. I had printed extra copies just in case we had extra team members, and though we didnt, all of my copies were gone by day 2, with attendees asking if they could take a second back to their office. I was even later told that one of the faculty members at ID jokingly said something along the lines of "With things like this, you don't even need to come to school!" (I'm honestly not sure if that was meant in a good way or not). It was a labor of love, and I assembled the content, created and photographed the examples, printed and assembled the materials, and even printed little M's on notebooks to accompany the booklets. I owe a big thank you to Arielle Giczkowski for creating the visual system and skinning all of my pages. She's an awesome designer who's better at graphic design than I'll likely ever be (but can still aspire to!!).

 Our Awesome BarnRaise 2015 Team

Our Awesome BarnRaise 2015 Team

2. Learning a (coding) language... and then teaching it

After the holidays, I found myself with extra time at work because my team had finished our current project and I hadn't been assigned to a new one yet. You might joke that it's the "new American dream" to do as little as possible and get paid the maximum amount as possible. Maybe that's true... but I can't do it. I need to be doing something, working towards something, moving forward in some way on something. So... I taught myself how to use a program called Framer. In short, it's a tool that can create more robust and realistic prototypes using CoffeeScript. Coming out of school, I felt comfortable enough making prototypes using CSS and HTML, and then Googling around to find Javascript snippets to throw in as needed to make my thing work "good enough" to be believed. Learning the language of Framer forced me to really get into the weeds with Javascript and really understand what I was coding to the point that I don't even need to reference the language much anymore (well, at least for the basic stuff). I made a couple dinky prototypes to test myself. It was fun. But I felt like something was still missing.

One afternoon, I plopped down in the seat next to the only other guy in the office that knows how to use Framer and asked an incredibly random and ballsy question: What if we tried to teach everyone else in the office how to use this thing in a way that isn't scary? (Keep in mind, there are some people in the office that don't code at all). Framer has a TON of resources to scavenge through to pick your way through the basics, but it's still rocky. Their "learn" section only gives snips of code (when you want more context) and their "docs" section is like jumping off the diving board into what you think is the deep end but turns out to be the entire effing ocean. What I realized is that I really wanted a "dictionary" with the following information for all of the basic elements of the language:

Keep in mind, this is a work in progress, and hasn't been visually designed yet. It's a content dump. I literally just figured out how to export working gifs from indesign into epub documents this afternoon.

  1. The layman's way of explaining a term (example: Interactions, Triggers, Things that start animations!)
  2. What term Framer uses in the code (following the same example: "Events")
  3. What the syntax for this command type
  4. Different (within reason) versions of this that you might need ( layer.on Events.Click vs. layer.on Events.MouseOver)
  5. Full set of simple, actual working code
  6. An idea of what that code looks like in action (gifs, images, whatever to get the point across

... and to think, a couple weeks ago, I had no idea how to use this program. This is what I live for.


3. Reinventing experiences

Once again, beyond the scope of my work at Moment, I find myself excited about the opportunity to get involved with planning and designing something noteworthy in New York. It's still in the works, so in the meantime all I can say is that there's a lot of energy going into the effort, and I'm honored and ecstatic to play a part in its creation. More on that when I can actually say something with more substance. (Could this one be any more cryptic?)

4. Leaving the comfort of familiar walls

I've been attending AIGA and IxDA events in the city for the last couple of months. Albiet, I still would love to go to more events than I go to now, I think it must be an ongoing ramp up to get as involved and active in these New York chapters as I was in Chicago. Even tonight I was at an AIGA event hosted at Parsons to learn more about the elusive and inspiring Google Creative Lab. 

Being an outgoing introvert, schmoozing and talking with important, famous, and meaningful people (or really anyone for a longer-ish period of time) is hard. It's like lifting weights: the first few minutes isn't too bad (you might even find yourself gaining some false confidence), but after a few reps, you start to feel the burn, and if you go too long, your limbs start to feel like jelly. I find myself trying (and only somewhat possibly succeeding) to balance the awkwardness inherent in chatting with strangers and my zeal for nerding out about design and its integration and adoption within other environments, without presenting myself the wrong way... whatever that is.

Still, that uncomfortness is the spice of life or whatever. 

So, what does all of this mean? 

In no certain terms, I have no idea other than I'm slowly starting to find myself after drowning in the overwhelming elements of a new city, new job, new people and massive amounts of everything else in the process. With the Moment office opening in Chicago, one of my coworkers asked me today as we walked to the train if I ever thought of moving back there. I'm stuck between wanting to return back to the comfort of friends and proximity of family (not to mention the cheaper standard of living) ...and the maturing notion that being uncomfortable in this overwhelming city is OK, and might even be a good thing for me in the long run to develop as an individual and experience more things in my life while I'm young and active.

You know what they say, hindsight is 20/20. I'm sure things will work themselves out however they're supposed to.

I will try to update this more frequently with the things I'm getting involved in. I feel like this task will get easier once I'm as settled in New York as I was in Chicago (which will take some time). 

Until next time,


I'm back, in NYC, and the future of design?

So, a ton has happened since whenever I wrote something last. Major milestones:

  1. Graduated
  2. Got a job
  3. Moved to NYC

So, now I'm here, working for an awesome company with some fellow alumni, to try and solve some interesting, hairy problems. I'm also learning a ton of relevant skills that tend to cover more of the tactical targets of a digital consultancy, like how to keep very very very detailed wireframes in order, how to create xd spec documents (oh the joy of meticulous design), and a reality check on how fast-paced New York city is. I constantly feel exhausted, but excited and exhausted (which is better than either of the alternatives). I'm excited for whatever project I'll be assigned to next, and am so thankful for the affordances and values Moment shares with its small but unique community- like supporting learning outside the office, and encouraging us to apply to speak at conferences.

I'd love to start off on my *knock on wood* new-found promise to actually write more often with a summary and reaction to a talk I went to this evening through AIGA/NY. Daniel Stillman posed the question: Is Design Too Important To Leave To Designers?

...great question.

His answer, much like my own, went as follows: No.... ok, well, probably not... ok well, it's complicated. It is complicated though as you start to think about all the different types of organizations that could benefit from design and all their different structures and values and chains of command and ways they make decisions, and the list goes on. 

One of the many opinions from people he knew the shared reactions of his discussion topic.

ps.... love the use of "nons" to describe non-designers. Really creates an "us v. them" feel. (I hope you can feel the sarcasm radiating from that statement.

Long story short, he agreed that if everyone in organizations knew a little more about design, designers themselves would probably get to be included in more of the important questions that frankly, aren't currently left up to designers- so decisions could be made more holistically, as teams, instead of through the process of segmented decision-making (business people make the "business" decisions, designers make the "design" decisions... etc.)

^^ That's what makes real, impactful, holistic design so freakin' hard.

He goes on to discuss how design is valuable in all stages of product production, and how users share some responsibility as consumers to understand the costs of their consumption (I'd say, both in terms of resource use/sustainability and also socially... knowing what they're giving up in exchange for cheaper products and services, like their privacy, power of choice, etc.)

Overall, it was a very refreshing talk. It was reminiscent of the lessons we were constantly being told of at the Institute of Design. I miss those broad talks, the constant reminders of our duty as designers to move beyond production and consider how we might integrate into companies and make the most change. About how to challenge orthodoxies and the nature of corporate values (not the pretty nice ones they put in pamphlets, but values in terms of priorities and pecking order) to build empathy for the people they're building products and services for. It's a bit radical.. and it takes a good balance of cynicism, respect, humility, patience, and charisma to pull off a successful change, but hopefully I'm working up the knowledge and patience to get there one day.

I'll end this with a question for you- the same question he left us with. What role does the future designer play in design? I really liked the 'midwife' example- where we aren't 'birthing' design, but rather helping to bring it to life. 

Free stuff for designers, Systems in Sustainability, Empathy, and Finding Beauty in the Invisible

My life is complete. Take a look at this free repository of stuff for startups, designers and more!

It's been a crazy week over here in Chicago- Between interviewing for jobs, getting a few offers, starting part-time work for the duration of school and trying to figure out my future... I've had less time for reflection than I'd ideally like. That said, all of those things haven't stopped me from going to lectures and speaking sessions to learn as much as I can before school is over (Although, admittedly, I can feel senioritis nipping at my heels as a race to stay away from the urge to do less than my best). 

I'll do a short recap of some of the events I've been to lately and if you're interested in going to any events of the same nature, definitely check out AIGA events, IxDA events, and of course events at IIT Institute of Design for the rest of the spring!

Bringing a Systems and Design Thinking Approach to Complex Sustainability Challenges

Peter Nicholson and Lyndon Valicenti from Foresight Design Initiative stopped by to talk about systems mapping and how to understand the drivers and possible interventions in the very complicated system which is sustainability. Foresight Design Initiative is a multifaceted innovation and education nonprofit he established in 2002, so they've had some time to get their hands dirty in complexity. I felt really personally drawn to this topic given my three years working within developing university sustainability metrics and creating programs and projects to promote behavioral and organizational change. It was HAIRY. It was difficult. I fought the man... a lot. Actually "we" fought the man- I worked with an amazing team of engineers, business students, and architects to get the school physically and socially up to speed for sustainability initiatives... and even when I left, there was still a ton more to do. Our work was never over.

Language/Alignment were of particular interest. One of the main issues they brought up was getting everyone on the same page in terms of, well, terms! I noticed this in my experience as well. For example, imagine you're talking about water. Take a look at the number of different things they found out people were talking about when they said the word "water".

 May I present to you... "water"

May I present to you... "water"

Another point they made was about systems mapping. Given that I'm a class on this particular subject, I found this part of the discussion extremely relevant. They mentioned that the first time you're trying to map something, the messier it is the better. Peter actually said if it's not messy, you probably aren't doing it right. See below for iteration 1 and who knows (a closer-to-final iteration).

 rough diagrams.. "the messier the better"

rough diagrams.. "the messier the better"

 a much more organized systems map of the mess to the left

a much more organized systems map of the mess to the left

I wondered if I could connect them with my old gang and get some great mutual work done together to systematically map all of the programs and progress being done and possibly discover ways to integrate sustainability goals into university policy and other metrics. Who knows- at least I passed on their names! I'd love to stop back at my old office in 5 years and see what progress and what changes have occurred. If Dion is reading this, pencil me in ;)

Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love

This was a great talk about startups and balancing measures of success (qual and quant), but it didn't really go into as much on the 'empathy' side as many of us were hoping. 

That said, he left us with some great advice and I'd love to share a little bit of it here. One of my favorite quotes he shared is below- It talks a bit about the power and urge to rely on quantitative data. He strongly believes that there's a certain level of "gut" feeling that goes into the equation. I'm not sure if I agree with the statement, but even in research, I know researchers employ a little of their gut in their translations.

See below:

 My favorite quote from the night

My favorite quote from the night

 How can I bridge the gap? 

How can I bridge the gap? 

If you're interested in the topic, you can pick up a copy of his book on Amazon.

Post-Design: Finding beauty in the invisible and the changing role of the designer

Lastly, I attended a talk by Lauren Serota who leads global research, strategy and design projects both independently and with Studio D Radiodurans. She talked a lot about what design "is" and where it falls short... in terms of adoption in society, and she's totally right.

 Preach, girl... preach!

Preach, girl... preach!

When people think of designers, a good majority of them think about designing "products". I think of products as things that you can touch and feel. I think of many forms of graphic design like print media as products. They often times deal with mechanical complexity. Yep, people know graphic designers, interior designers, and industrial designers. Good. Got that. 

Software designers are next- most software companies these days understand that they should probably hire a ux person or team. I'd say it's a little less defined still though, given how many companies consider "ux" to be something different. From wire framing to research... there's not a ton of consistency. Even in many of my interviews, I found there was a need for a lot of clarification about what type of job role I was envisioning versus what the company was looking for. And average Joes are even more confused about what user experience and interaction designers are in the world of electronics and software. 

Lastly, and probably most powerfully, is the inherent impact of design within policy. Imagine if laws had iterative phases following their passing which helped close loopholes and modified language after passing? No more hidden agendas in bills would simply be allowed to pass and left for the masses to struggle with... because new laws would likely require revision to better meet the intention of the authors and the best interest of the public. What if citizens were able to co-create their laws with their representatives in a way that we can't currently do? It would POWERFULLY CHANGE how our country was run and represented. It would engage citizens and create the type of change needed to address the rot of corruption. Design in policy is incredibly powerful... so powerful in fact, that I often wonder if designers are purposefully left out of the equation so as to not destroy the power structure in place. Even at my undergraduate university, where the administrative organization, oversight, and redundancy has touched many of the students who struggle with the system from the user perspective- design could powerfully reframe problems the school faces and challenge the orthodoxies of "the old ways" of doing things. Change is a scary thing though, and the entity undergoing that sort of revolution needs to be welcome to it and embrace the uncomfortable nature of adaptation. That school, much like our government is probably not ready to accept that sort of change quite yet. I think when it comes down to the wire, when there's a decision to "do or die" so to speak, that's when the organization is ripe for change and ready to claw their way back up the uncomfortable path of change or go under. So how do we kickstart this major overhaul to the entity that rules us? I'm not entirely sure. I would love to hear opinions from others.

Lauren asked us to consider three fundamental questions. I'll list them here. Obviously she went into detail but I figure you've read enough for the day. If you want the full presentation deck, I'll see if I can embed it below.

Have a wonderful evening, world! Thank you for sharing in my thoughts!