A Focus on Founders: The Anatomy of a New Design Education

There are a number of elements that are common and fundamental to a solid design education. These include studio courses, a combination of methods, theory, and practice, small class sizes, and room for growth through informed trial and error. But what about producing founders, entrepreneurs who will start their own companies to drive social change through interaction design?

You’ll typically find the founder-model of education in business schools, where students end their programs with a pitch or “demo day” that displays their new idea to a group of potential investors. How about combining this with a user-centered approach to social innovation?

In this article, I’ll describe the intent of this approach we have at the Austin Centre for Design (AC4D), articulate some of the results, and offer some reflections on challenges I see our alumni — and future designer-entrepreneurs — facing as they continue to push their companies forward.

The Intent: Disruption

In a word, the intent of our educational model is disruption. At AC4D, we intend to empower our alumni to make a difference in the world, using the persuasive, thoughtful, and provocative ualities of design (or “design thinking” combined with “design doing”) as the mechanism. We feel strongly that design is a powerful force in shaping human behavior and culture, and that this force can be directed. The qualities of this discipline are largely evident and embraced in our corporations – look no further than the humanization of technology offered by Apple, and our willingness to celebrate their every new product launch. Apple asks, and elegantly answers, a question: how can we best design technology to support a popular culture and lifestyle?

But there’s another question that we ask, and strive to answer, and this question is more important: what should we design, in the first place?

But there’s another question that we ask, and strive to answer, and this question is more important: what should we design, in the first place?

The answer to this is disruptive, and controversial, for three reasons.

First, it implies that we can (and must) place a value judgment on our productive efforts as designers, and that not everything is equally worth our time and attention. Put another way, it implies that we must judge the value of a design. We’ve all likely heard that it’s “not ok to judge”, or that we “shouldn’t be so judgmental.” And if design work is judged at all, it’s commonly evaluated based on superficial qualities of aesthetics. Instead, let’s provoke our students to find their own answers to this question, and to examine the societal value of a design.

The answer may be difficult and threatening. It pokes at our careers, and for many of us, our careers are representations of ourselves. But if we recognize the power of design, and also recognize the finite length of our careers, we arrive at an interesting place – a place that demands we focus only on the most pressing, demanding, important, and critical work.
Consider that, in your career, you have about forty or fifty good, productive years to work.
Should you really be focused on creating a new UI for a thermostat? A new facade for a banking website? A new operating system for a mobile phone? Or are there other things – things that are more financially, culturally, or spiritually more valuable – that you could, and should, be doing?

Second, by questioning if all design efforts are equally valid, we force a conversation of cultural relativity, perspective, and shares values. We spend a lot of time discussing the qualities of values, morals, norms and ethics. We examine examples from other cultures, learn about and practice methods of empathy through ethnography, and discuss and debate the various methods of “designing with” vs. “designing for.” Again, these are challenging conversations. They threaten our views of a marketplace with produced goods and obedient consumers, they challenge the view of designer as rockstar or god, and they fundamentally change the skills a designer needs to be successful. If we are empowering others to design with us, the things we make, tools we use, and way we talk about our work changes dramatically. It’s not about “making the perfect thing” – it’s about providing enough tools that other people can make their perfect thing.

Finally, our initial question – what should we design, in the first place – alters the conversation about “career.” When we start to question the fundamentals of our industry and the economic system that contains it, we arrive quickly at a rejection of “corporate vs. consultancy”, “job titles”, and the other baggage of our jobs. Our students may still end up in traditional jobs, but our ideal outcome is that they go on to form their own paths by starting their own for-profit or double-bottom line enterprises. We emphasize financial independence, where students can support their operational costs and avoid the pitfalls of traditional nonprofits with their endless cycle of grants. This requires fundamentals in accounting, budgeting, and estimating demand – all skills taught in business skills, but things rarely covered in design courses. And it requires a degree of confidence, something that’s hard to teach in any program.

The Results: Four Successful Companies

Our process has been successful. In our first year, we converted four projects into companies. These are described, briefly, below.

  • Patient Nudge
    After observing the limited time and resources case workers have to manage an increasingly large at-risk population, Ryan Hubbard and Christina Tran developed an online compliance and persistence tool. This tool – Patient Nudge – allows a care provider to automatically check in with a large population via SMS, aggregate results into compelling visualizations, and identify outliers in the data.
  • Hour School
    Through participatory design research, Ruby Ku and Alex Pappas observed a dramatic change in self-esteem when the chronically homeless were empowered to teach something to their peers. The homeless have skills – often robust technical skills, such as information technology or medical abilities – yet are rarely provided an opportunity to utilize these skills in support of one another. Ruby and Alex developed Hour School, an online service that identifies people in your social network who can teach specific skills, and helps support the creation of impromptu classes.
  • OneUp
    As Kristine Mudd learned more about the homeless teenagers in Austin through immersive research, she identified a particular at-risk group – teenage girls – as exhibiting signs of low self esteem. This lack of confidence made simple tasks – like opening a bank account or applying for a drivers license – seem impossible. She developed OneUp, an online tool that breaks down these tasks into small, manageable pieces, rewards the girls for completing these tasks, and shows them a sense of measurable progress.
  • Pocket Hotline
    While conducting ethnographic research at a local shelter, Chap Ambrose and Scott Magee observed an overwhelmed and poorly trained desk attendant try to answer a variety of questions about services and operations. Through a process of prototyping and testing, they’ve developed Pocket Hotline, a distributed call center application that routes customer support calls to volunteers’ personal cellphones. They’ve spun off a variant of Pocket Hotline for the Ruby On Rails community — Rails Hotline —  which has generated some great press.
Nudge Concept

Nudge Project

The Challenges: Sustained Focus

I’m excited to see our educational model leading to success, and I hope other design programs begin to tackle some of the fundamental issues I’ve described above. But as I reflect on our first year, there’s one main challenge that I see in combining interaction design with social entrepreneurship. That challenge is on sustaining the focus, passion and interest of our students after they graduate.

Roger Martin describes the knowledge funnel as a progression from mystery to algorithm. Designers (and other passionate, curious people) look at the way things are, see a mystery, and wonder how they can unpack it, understand it, fix it, or improve it. Good businesses manage to package their efforts into an offering, and then duplicate this offering over and over and over. This emphasizes efficiency, with a focus on cheaper, better, faster. Martin notes that designers typically lose interest once the mystery is gone; for them, the most exciting and interesting part is solving the problem, not operationalizing their solution.

And this poses a problem for designers acting as entrepreneurs: how can they remain focused, passionate, and excited during the process of packaging, refining, detailing, and producing the actual offering?

Wow can designers acting as entrepreneurs remain focused, passionate, and excited during the process of packaging, refining, detailing, and producing the actual offering?

Our students ended their education with working prototypes of their ideas, and with a roadmap towards a successful commercial launch. But that roadmap requires months of hard work, always with an eye on an idealized end state and with blinders on to the churn and chaos of the world around them. And simply, this focus is hard. Very hard. Incubation efforts exist to help, and we’ve explored our own formalization of incubation. But fundamentally, this seems like the largest challenge for programs like ours, and it’s a problem I look to the community for help and support in solving. How can we better support design-driven entrepreneurs as they formalize their companies, drive towards their vision, and act to drive large-scale behavioral changes? What support structures, services, and new tools can we offer them as they pursue their dreams?

I’m proud to be a part of what’s emerging as the new design, a form of design that’s rigorous, empathetic, and magical. This new form of design helps to disrupt conservative models of commerce, and rejects assumptions related to “career path.” I hope we can help formulate community-driven guidance for the new generation of entrepreneurs, those focused on social change and on bringing innovation to problems worth solving.


Header image CC David Roessli

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.

3 comments on this article

  1. Mide S on

    Great article, Jon. It’s always good to encourage creative types to develop business skills as well. Freelancers need this all the time.
    As a SCAD alumni, feel proud you worked there.

  2. Susan Whitnall on

    Nudge seems suspiciously similar to an existing (now-defunct) company called Nudge that did basically the same thing: http://www.nudge.com.au