Explorations & Audience

Early Explorations

My first thesis proposal, April 21, 2010, and response from Liz Danzico, April 26.

I still hold the naive belief that design can change the world, even if that world exists only in the narrow context of one person’s daily life. As I learn more about design, process, activism, education and social change I have revised my simplistic notion. It’s not design that changes the world, it’s people. Every transaction depends on relationships shared between people.

A designer is only one person making a difference, and the ability of that one person to move a mass of people through design is powerful.

Organizations like All Day Buffet, Kickstarter, and others have already discovered this and are using grassroots people power to enable big ideas. Author Clay Shirky writes about social network innovation in his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. More than ever, there are places online where individuals can easily connect to a community of like-minded people to share knowledge, resources and social collateral.

I have many questions in mind, and I’m not exactly sure where the problem exists, if at all.
Some questions to lead my investigation:

  • How does the new norm of creating online social networks and communities change the way we interact with people in our offline lives?
  • How is a friend whose intimate Twitter stream infects your thoughts six times a day different from a person you meet and share a coffee with once at a conference?
  • How do our online and offline networks support each other?

The Start of my Reading List:

  • The Wisdom of Crowds – James Surowiecki
  • Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business – Jeff Howe
  • Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations – Clay Shirky
  • Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age – Clay Shirky

Exploring My Interest in Social Networks

“I’m interested in the intersection between our online lives and our offline lives. How are our relationships mediated and defined by technology?”

These were the thoughts bouncing around my head as I headed to Austin, Texas for an internship during the summer of 2010. I spent my copious free time reading books and articles about social media, relationships, and the way humans behave on- and offline as a result.

Selected Articles

Why Everything Sucks, Why That’s Awesome, and How It’s Changing Us3

Derek Powazek
Learning happens at an accelerated pace on the internet because of our heightened access to educational materials, and because we have more free time to practice the things we learn. I was interested in Derek’s theory that we will become experts faster because of this effect.

“An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube”6

Michael Wesch
Amazing! Watching this video was a major turning point in the independent research I was doing. It goes through the history of the social internet. Michael Wesch creates a lot of education-focused videos in his research. My excitement for thesis was reignited after seeing his work.

By Design

Ralph Caplan
This tiny book details Caplan’s observations and realizations about the way in which the world around us has been designed.

This quotation especially stood out to me.

“Students are not the product. The only educational product schools can be reasonably charged with designing is the educational environment – not just the classrooms and dormitories and recreation centers that college presidents dedicate their energy to acquiring, but the situations in which students interact with each other and with faculty members.” (Caplan, 148)4

Christopher “moot” Poole: The case for anonymity online5

“It’s important that people can have a place to go online where they’re anonymous and can say whatever they want.”

In this quick TED talk Christopher Poole talks about the creation of 4chan, an underground social network centered around message board conversations. It got me started thinking about the importance of anonymity and privacy in our online lives.

Yeehaw! Austin bound, y’all.

June – August, 2010
I decided to take an internship in Austin mostly because I was curious. Would I like living in a city other than New York? (The answer is no.) The chance to get out of town seemed like a great opportunity to do good work and try something new.

I sublet my crappy NYC apartment and upgraded to a swank one-bedroom with a pool in Austin. I tried a lot of new things: meat, nature, two-steppin’ and bluegrass music to name a few. I compiled a list of highly recommended breakfast taco locations and went on a mission to try them all. I lived with only a bicycle and access to public transportation during the sweltering summer in a desert state founded on the promise of oil and independence.

When I returned from my summer in Austin I had a long list of discoveries I’d made; things I learned about work, life, and myself. I was surprised by all I learned, many of which were unexpected lessons that had nothing to do with interaction design. I came back relaxed and revived with a new perspective on my work, not even realizing how much I had changed course.

The Path to Education

Starting with Teacher-Student Relationships

Carmen and I began work on Project: Interaction back in New York in the fall. It quickly ate up all our free time and consumed a lot of the energy originally planned for thesis. With little sleep and free time I realized I would need to consolidate some of my efforts. I wanted to leverage the research I had already completed, and also take advantage of the time I was spending in classrooms.

I established a new direction for my work, applying my early research of online and offline relationships to the things I was observing in schools.

In September I said:

I’m making a product or service to be used by New York City high school students and teachers that preserves rich interactions between teachers and students when classroom learning is substituted with virtual lessons.

I constructed a short presentation to explain my thinking to the thesis panel.

“School districts are moving toward automated and computer-based instruction that allows them to save time and resources in the classroom. With this change we’re losing an essential element of what makes teaching so effective; the interpersonal relationships between teachers and students are often more important than the curriculum and content being taught.”

The presentation of my new direction was poorly received. It seemed like I was trying to push myself in the wrong direction, away from the thing I was truly passionate about: design in education.

Funding Project: Interaction

September 15, 2010 – October 14, 2010

At the end of our first summer of planning Carmen and I realized that Project: Interaction would need to be funded by someone other than two poor graduate students. We launched a Kickstarter project to acquire some start-up capital. Kickstarter is a group funding platform for creative projects where project creators set a monetary goal and set their own time limit for reaching it. If the project doesn’t reach that goal within the allotted time it will not get funded.

Full of optimism and naive confidence, we created a video illustrating the need for design education and defined a set of rewards for our project backers. In the first few days we got a huge spike of activity, which came to a halt after about a week.

Suddenly I had a terrifying realization that we had asked the “world” for a whole lot of money.
Our networks combined weren’t big enough to generate our $7500 goal. Did we really have a good reason for needing it?

In our remaining three weeks we exercised our creativity in the ways we marketed and promoted Project: Interaction. Through the content we generated on our blog and the real-world outreach we did we met a larger, more diverse group of people than we had planned. We made a lot of new friends, found some fans, and realized exactly how important our mission was.

Because of our dedication and ability to think about the problem in new ways we exceeded our goal with a few days to spare.

A Better World by Design

October 1–3, 2010
Excerpt from an October 4 blog post:

Carmen and I went to Providence, RI this weekend for the Better World by Design conference, put on entirely by Brown and RISD students. We were excited and inspired by what other students and professionals are working on in the topics of urban renewal, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.

We met a lot of new friends and ran into some old ones, too. We had a great lunch with Robert Fabricant, VP of Creative at frog design and one of our SVA faculty members. He was excited to hear about the progress we’ve made with Project: Interaction over the past six months and we were happy to get the update on his work, too. I was especially excited to see my former colleague Kendra Shimmell from Adaptive Path speaking on the health care panel. She’s a lively and enthusiastic voice in this niche design community, and an asset to any conversation on the topic.

Design in Education

My first idea for studying design in education was to research teachers who are using design-based practices in their classrooms. Early on I discovered the work of Meredith Davis7, a design researcher and educator at North Carolina State University. Meredith has devoted her career to studying the impact of facilitating learning using the design process. Her book, Design as a Catalyst for Learning8, is one of the few exhaustively researched, comprehensive publications on the topic.

In the beginning I was hopeful that working with design-based education was the right path for my thesis work. I observed teachers who were using design in their classrooms, and I had an interview with Adam Royalty, one of the design researchers promoting design thinking in schools through Stanford’s K12 Lab. I learned that there was a wealth of resources available for teachers who wanted to use design thinking in their schools.

My optimism began to fade as I continued to research my core audience by observing teachers in action. I realized that most K-12 teachers have never heard of “design,” “design-based learning,” “design thinking,” or “design with a capital D.” As an outside observer I was able to make connections across the audiences I was researching, but it seemed that no one practicing design methods was talking to the broader educational community.

I started wandering again:
Should I continue to design for a niche group of educators practicing alternative methods or focus on a solution that can be used by all teachers?

Invent Design Change

October 10, 2010
Excerpt from a October 12 blog post:

Over the weekend we set up space at Re:Form School in SoHo, joining them in their three day gallery show to promote arts education in schools. We had a blast!! We were there for three hours and had a steady flow of folks coming to our room. We were excited to share our project with them and they were very happy to share some sketches with us.

We asked everyone who came by to help us by contributing a sketch or an idea to our wall of Post-It art, focusing each mini-drawing on the words invent, design or change. Everyone jumped in to help out and add their voice to the wall.

By the end of the day we had a huge collection of art, a full email sign up sheet and no business cards left. We talked to countless inspiring teachers and enthusiastic artists and designers. We are so happy that our program is a catalyst to connect all of these thinkers.

edcamp NYC

December 4, 2010

Excerpt from a December 7 blog post:

I gained a great number of insights this past weekend when I attended edcamp, an unconference for innovative educators. I was most stunned to see the proliferation and acceptance of new technologies among this group of people, but it turned out to be the right group of people for me to talk to. The folks at the conference were exactly the kind of teachers I’ll need to adopt my product if it should ever hit the market.

I learned a lot more about the other stuff that goes on in teachers’ lives, too. Most of my observations have been in schools in classrooms, where there is a very focused activity happening. Being at the conference all day was a great way to see the side conversations and ephemeral qualities that make up teachers’ lives.

In addition to the ephemeral stuff I picked up, I saw firsthand just how much teachers love Twitter. I was amazed at how active all the conference participants were on Twitter, with 4-5 Tweetdeck panels open and running. It’s true! They like to share. They just need a super easy way to do it.

Finding an Audience: Progressive Educators

In December 2010 I attended edcamp NYC, an unconference devoted to K–12 Education issues and ideas.9

The conference is part of a grassroots movement in education reform, and its attendees and supporters are some of the most innovative educators in the field. When I walked into the gymnasium at The School at Columbia University I was instantly overwhelmed by the excitement bubbling around the room. Everyone was enthusiastic about what they could share and learn from each other! There was an unmistakable difference between these teachers’ attitudes about education and learning and the teachers who I had visited in my previous classroom observations.

I discovered that this small slice of teachers refer to themselves as “progressive educators.” They’re using a range of innovative, creative methods to facilitate their students’ learning and exposure to knowledge instead of teaching in a traditional format using rote lectures and testing. They are the early adopters of new education methods, and they’re passionate fighters, defying the rules and regulations that go against their beliefs.

There is not one single doctrine for practicing as a progressive educator, though many teachers are using the same methods in their classrooms and find it helpful to have a common language for talking about how they teach. I observed that inquiry and project-based learning (PBL) were the most commonly used practices, and both methods sounded very much like the definition of “design-based learning” from the work of Meredith Davis. Armed with this new information, I refocused my thesis on an audience of progressive educators using these new methods in their classrooms.

Definitions of Learning

“Inquiry-based instruction is a student-centered and teacher-guided instructional approach that engages students in investigating real world questions that they choose within a broad thematic framework. Inquiry-Based instruction complements traditional instruction by providing a vehicle for extending and applying the learning of students in a way that connects with their interests within a broader thematic framework. Students acquire and analyze information, develop and support propositions, provide solutions, and design technology and arts products that demonstrate their thinking and make their learning visible.”10

Design-Based Learning
“Design-based learning (DBL) is a form of project-based learning in which students learn what they need to learn in a just-in-time fashion while trying to design something.”12

Project-Based Learning
Project-based learning is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges. With this type of active and engaged learning, students are inspired to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they’re studying.11


My thesis advisor, Ben Fullerton, is based out of San Francisco. Most of our meetings were conducted over Skype.