The Strange Connection between Entitlement, Social Innovation, and Interaction Design

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After teaching at Savannah College of Art and Design for close to five years, I found myself with over four hundred alumni, and I keep in touch with a large quantity of them through email. A strange pattern started to become evident in our communications: a lot of them are unhappy.

Our Passionate Youth

Students would contact me and describe how miserable they were with their jobs, asking for advice on new career paths or even entirely new professions. It wasn’t that their bosses were mean, or that their working hours were awful; it wasn’t even the larger issues we’ve all dealt with in the business context, like the misappropriation of designer as stylists, or the prioritization of technologists over designers. Instead, I began to hear how the benefits of ‘flow’ and ‘being creative’ and ‘solving really hard problems’ were being grossly outweighed by feelings of insignificance and irrelevance. My alumni were at the forefront of design, working at major consultancies and the heart of the Fortune 500 – and they didn’t feel like their work was meaningful.

I think many of us have confronted a similar feeling in their career, and we’ve rationalized meaning into our jobs. We’ve told ourselves that we were making the world a better place by making objects of beauty, or by increasing the usability of software, and that seems to satiate the concern, at least temporarily. Or, we’ve embraced management, and tried to mentor and guide other designers who were struggling with skills, theory, or career path development. And in many cases, even if these things didn’t pay off, we’ve stuck with jobs that we weren’t particularly fond of, because we had mortgages to pay and families to feed.

But for my alumni, and for the graduates that make up the 55 million millennials in the US, this doesn’t cut it. As a gross generalization, they don’t want the kids, the house, and the two car garage, and so they also don’t want the platitudes of staying the course and doing what you don’t want to do and it’s just a job. Simply, they feel entitled to a career that’s important and that contributes in a meaningful and powerful way to build a better world around them. As they find themselves in a workplace where they are designing diapers, or websites, or even the coveted jobs of designing cars and shoes, the realities of a career supporting destructive, consumptive behaviors just doesn’t seem to jive. And as they watch the banks collapse and the government flounder and the earth implode, they seem to experience a sense of personal longing – a longing for a job that matters.

This isn’t hyperbole. This is the conversation I’ve had over, and over, and over again with my alumni, and I’ve come to a simple conclusion. The creative class of 20-25 year olds won’t be satisfied playing under the old rules. Their goal and primary motivator isn’t financial capital or social capital; it’s personal recognition of meaning. This isn’t surprising, given their cultural backdrop of reality TV and Facebook profiles, and I’m certainly not the first to point this out. But the most interesting part of this desire for recognition is how it relates to the need to right the wrong and fix the broken. There’s a need – an entitlement – to work on big projects, projects with impact, and to be publically and loudly recognized for their creative efforts.

The creative class of 20-25 year olds won’t be satisfied playing under the old rules. Their goal and primary motivator isn’t financial capital or social capital; it’s personal recognition of meaning …  a need – an entitlement – to work on big projects, projects with impact, and to be publically and loudly recognized for their creative efforts.

Our Broken Educational System

Combine this pattern in the guise of modern design education, where integrated efforts between business and design are somehow seen as novel and well intentioned design educators dread the  curriculum council and petty turf war of tenure. Close to six years ago, when I was proposing a Contextual Research Methods course at Savannah College of Art and Design, the Dean of Liberal Arts essentially filibustered the course, blocking its passage through the approval process for close to a year. The reason? He felt ‘ownership’ over all aspects of research, and since no one in the design department had a PhD in Anthropology, how could they possible teach a course in contextual design research and ethnography?

These silly displays of infighting are present at nearly every educational institution in the world, and it’s against this backdrop that the aforementioned entitled students find themselves looking for direction and guidance. To be blunt, they don’t care about the credentials of their teachers; they care that their teachers are knowledgeable and passionate. They aren’t looking for incremental aspects of change that play in the context of the old guard; they see through these small steps forward in a time that requires new approaches and new passion.

There are some fantastic educational programs that have reacted to the changing space of design. New transdisciplinary efforts at Parsons have great potential; existing efforts like the KaosPilot School in Denmark serve as a template for new educational models. But these programs are the exception, and the design students graduating from schools of Art and Design are still learning the tired design-as-form-giving approaches of Bauhaus-driven foundations.

Students at universities frequently suffer the same lagging curricula, as the pace of academic change is slow. A few schools have managed to keep pace with industry, or even lead industry in a particular direction. The well known d.school program at Stanford, under the leadership of  David Kelley and Larry Leifer, and the Rotman School of Management, under the leadership of Roger Martin, have helped advance the role of designers in corporations to unprecedented levels of access, and have helped substantiate design as an independent and worthwhile endeavor.

These programs prepare students for bringing the intellectual power of design to the boardroom to solve the gnarly problems of corporate strategy.

 

But what if the same educational model was presented with a focus exclusively on transformation of our world around us? The students are clamoring for it, and the world is seemingly ready to embrace a model that doesn’t position corporate vs. consultancy, with the occasional NGO thrown in for good luck. This isn’t even a new idea, as it was fundamental to the design philosophies of Buckminster Fuller and Victor Papanek, and taught (to me, and countless other generations, at Carnegie Mellon) by Richard Buchanan and Craig Vogel.

Transforming the Wicked Problems

It’s in response to these students, and to these traditional problems of academia, and in the spirit of Buchanan and Vogel’s teaching that I’ve started a new educational institution: The Austin Center for Design. The program is entirely focused on Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship, with an explicit spotlight on designing for massive change and social innovation. The center exists to transform society through design and design education. This transformation occurs through the development of design knowledge directed towards all forms of social and humanitarian problems.

I have no misconceptions that designers can ‘solve’ massive problems, or even approach them on their own without collaboration from other disciplines. But I feel strongly that designers make great agents of change and can champion new and novel approaches to old and tired problems. The best indicator of design success, in my experience, is a passion to make an impact, and I see a generation that is wildly passionate about addressing social problems.

I feel strongly that designers make great agents of change and can champion new and novel approaches to old and tired problems … and I see a generation that is wildly passionate about addressing social problems.

I hope other educational institutions can escape from the lackadaisical pace of academic change, and I intend to publish the entire curricula that is developed at AC4D to help support other like-minded faculty who may be stuck pushing the curricula-change rock uphill. The problems to tackle are big enough to escape ego; one school can’t possible support the talent necessary to mitigate the large-scale social problems of poverty, equality of education, or health and wellness.

These are problems worth solving.

Top image: One Laptop Per Child / cc attribution 2.0

Jon Kolko

Jon Kolko is the Executive Director of Design Strategy at Thinktiv, a venture accelerator in Austin, Texas. Jon is also the Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design, an educational institution teaching interaction design and social entrepreneurship. Prior to joining Thinktiv, Jon has held positions of Principal Designer and Associate Creative Director at frog design, a global innovation firm. He was also a Professor of Interaction and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he was instrumental in shaping the Interaction and Industrial Design undergraduate and graduate programs. Jon has also held the role of Director for the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), and Editor-in-Chief of interactions magazine, published by the ACM.

9 comments on this article

  1. Hey Jon,
    I find this post really, really interesting. As someone who has studied design work, I see a lot of threads worth exploring here.

    First and foremost, I ask myself, is this “generation” more or less alienated than generations past? )I put it in doubt quotes because I scoff at the notion of “milennials” being a distinct group.) In other words, these alumni that are asking your advice, are they somehow qualitatively MORE alienated than previously? Or are they perhaps affected by a cultural shift of work norms?

    I suspect it’s a combination of both. We know globalization has transformed the workplace. Technological change has actually centralized control, contrary to what it appears to do. Time zone shifting is common, and work’s conception oftentimes is nowhere physically related to its execution.

    Also, however, we are living in the quintessential neoliberal society. We are exhorted to always do more, be more, to self actualize. These younger designers were raised when such norms became cemented. I’m a GenXer; we were raised to be suspicious of our employers because we saw all our parents get laid off and we had no jobs waiting for us when we graduated. Younger people instead saw unbelievable prosperity. They also were imbued with a sense of self-improvement that past generations could not rival.

    “Entitlement.” This word troubles me. It suggests that they expect something they don’t “deserve.” I think that’s unfair. No, worse, I think it’s falling into a trap that everyone older, wiser, richer, and more powerful falls into. “Oh you [ women/people of colour/left-wingers/environmentalists ] act so ENTITLED.” It’s a backlash phrase from [ washington elites/chauvinist men/first-world governments ].

    I think we have a cultural shift here.

    And finally, as someone who does have a PhD in sociology, well, I’m kind of proud of that credential. It trained me well and gave me skills that are unique. Not that I’m bragging… ;)

  2. Tema frank on

    The problem is that not everybody is capable of innovative , creative work. And our schools are churning out kids with a desire for meaningful work but not the skill set nor the understanding that even important work has some tedious elements. All exciting all the time cannot exist.

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  6. Hi Jon,
    Thanks for this. We’ve been sensing the same thing, thinking about the same thing. Can hardly get through a week without meeting someone else who feels this same frustration. Very glad about what you’re doing at Austin, and very excited about your last paragraph here — the news that you intend to publish your curriculum. I’m eager to find ways to create channels for the people you describe in this article, and for the applied spread of material like your curriculum.

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  8. Sean on

    The problem is that not everybody is capable of innovative , creative work. And our schools are churning out kids with a desire for meaningful work but not the skill set nor the understanding that even important work has some tedious elements. All exciting all the time cannot exist.

  9. My Jon Kolko Fandom++ with this article. As a 28 year old interaction designer what you’re saying rings true as if you were sitting in on my mid 20′s career conversations. And you worked in the word ‘gnarly’. Bravo.