The Austin Center for Design is a new school aiming to bridge social entrepreneurship and interaction design. Core77 asks Jon Kolko, the school's director, to fill us in on what's coming up for September.
Core77: We are excited about the new school you've started, the Austin Center for Design. Can you tell us more about it?
Jon Kolko: The Austin Center for Design [AC4D] is a school intended to teach interaction design and social entrepreneurship. I have some lofty goals for the school: to transform society through design and design education. My vision is that the hard work and dedication that designers put into making physical products, digital artifacts, and strategy work for the Fortune 500 can be redirected towards large scale social concerns, and that new business models can be created to make this redirection of talent sustainable for all involved.
C77: How would you describe the overlap/relationship between interaction design and social entrepreneurship? How do they inform and benefit one another? Why is it important to teach them together?
JK: I take a broad view of interaction design, which is the design of behavior. Interaction design is typically conflated with computing and digital design, and many interaction design solutions have a digital component. But interaction design has a strong history as a discipline focused on behavioral change. And from this perspective, it's the perfect pairing for social entrepreneurship. This form of design is starting to get tremendous respect in business as a strategic differentiator, as interaction designers are typically good at holding complex problems in their heads and considering the repercussions of a small change in a larger system. Social entrepreneurs are thinking about new ways to drive social change while considering new business models and financial structures. In both cases, skills like facilitation, complex system modeling, and physical and digital prototyping are critical.
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C77: Can you describe the curricular structure of the school? What degrees are being offered?
JK: The program is supportive of multiple disciplines—it's not intended only for designers, but instead for anyone that is interested in learning the process of social innovation. I've had a lot of interest from designers, but also with computer scientists, engineers, marketers, and artists. Students who complete the program receive a certificate in interaction design and social entrepreneurship, and my intention is to seek accreditation within five years in order to offer graduate-level design degrees.
C77: Why start a new school now?
JK: We seem to be at a point of coalescence, where the talent supply and demand and the socio-political environment are beginning to achieve synergy. To be more specific, there are a lot of designers that are fed up with our existing corporate system and the consumptive culture that we may have inadvertently contributed to, and simultaneously, there's a hurricane of momentum behind issues like sustainability, social innovation, and design for the bottom of the pyramid. Designers have, for the most part, always been aware of social responsibility (Papanek is, I think, required reading for more designers), yet it seems to have taken a number of major events to mobilize our creative forces to make change. The failing banks and the economic recession are the backdrop for action.
C77: What opportunities do you see for the school to directly engage this growing momentum in the real world?
JK: The program is about learning-by-doing, and a majority of the program is focused on a real design problem with a real client—a corporation, NGO, or not for profit that is already engaged in humanitarian aid and can benefit from a design perspective and design approach. I have no misconceptions about the speed of which massive changes comes about. While students will make an immediate impact in their course work, that impact will be shallow. The real goal and the real intent is to take the long-view of cultural change, and realize that these students will apply this work over the course of a career. In twenty or thirty years, they will have had deep influence and made meaningful change.
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C77: Who are the people that you see embracing this the most? Who is the school for?
JK: There are two generations that seem to be most attracted to Austin Center for Design. The first audience is the millenials that are starting to hit the work force. I have a ton of alumni that are employed in what would have been considered dream design jobs even five years agomdash;and they aren't happy, because they feel a lack of meaning in their work. They want harder problems to tackle, and a more direct sense of fulfillment based on their work. They are perfect candidates.
The second core audience was a surprise to me; I've had a hugely positive response from those in their late 30s or early 40s, who have achieved success in their careers by any traditional metrics, and are now looking for a new set of challenges. They are managers in consultancies and large Fortune enterprises, and now they are looking to redirect their work by tackling more meaningful problems and by contributing in a more immediate way. These professionals have enough knowledge and experience to realize how truly meaningful the economic recession has been, and to be able to contextualize the fall of GM as an indicator of large-scale change.
AC4D is focused on true interdisciplinary work, and engineers, computer scientists, marketers, and business professionals have all expressed interest in the subject matter. Social change seems to be somewhat of an equalizer.
C77: On that note, what sorts of practitioners/educators/academics will be teaching at the school?
JK: I have an interesting mix of educators and advisors lined up, and I hope to dramatically grow the diversity of the group over the next year. Jon Freach has tremendous experience in the corporate system through his tenure at Texas Instruments, in design and architecture consultancies, and in working with some of the true shapers of the discipline of interaction design, like the late John Rheinfrank. Justin Petro is firmly entrenched in the entrepreneurial scene in Austin. I've got a great team of advisors, including Liz Danzico and Emily Pilloton. Jeff Daniel is the CFO at Collaborative Research, a strategic planning firm dedicated to supporting public health and social-service organizations in their pursuit of federal financing. Ultimately, I think I have a great mix of academics, practitioners, educators, designers, and entrepreneurs to help support and drive this idea forward.
C77: Why Austin?
JK: Austin has a supportive economic climate, one that embraces social change, the entrepreneurial attitude, and combines a great history of for-profit technological incubation with a fairly liberal mindset. It's a technology hub, home to companies like Dell, AMD, and Freescale. It has growing startups, like Bazaarvoice and Home Away. There are a number of mid-size consultancies and agencies in Austin, including frog, Alamofire (which makes Gowalla), project202, Razorfish, and thinktiv. And, there's an influential venture community that is increasingly aware of the lucrative potential in companies focused on social change. As an example, MPOWER Labs is an incubator focused on startups that will be both financially successful, and that will help the world's underserved. It's a unique model for VC, and one that's incredibly successful.
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C77: What makes this program unique?
JK: The course has a unique focus on interaction design (designing for behavior) and social entrepreneurship. There are a number of schools that emphasize social entrepreneurship, but few that approach large-scale humanitarian change from the perspective of design. Our course includes ethnography and empathy, visual culture and sketching, iterative refinement, and a culture of hypothesis-driven prototyping. Additionally, the course emphasizes design judgment—that not all projects are worth doing, and that designers have a responsibility to critique not only the final artifact but also the subject matter.
The course is short—it's a year longmdash;and it's held on nights and weekends, so students can continue working while enrolled. It's relatively cheap ($8000 for the year-long course). And the engagement style is intense. Classes focus on learning by doing, on a combination of lecture, studio, and real-life immersion, and on a constant refrain of "empathy, prototype, abductive logic." Each 8 week period includes methods, theory, and application, and we've identified a number of rigorous and critical outcomes that define successful completion of the course. These include outcomes like "Students will demonstrate a comprehensive process for solving complicated, multi-faceted problems of design" and "develop original design solutions and approaches to large-scale social problems." I'm quite confident that anyone can learn how to do design; our classes are intended to leverage and enhance existing passions, and to really help the student transform their world view.
C77: "Empathy, prototype, abductive logic..."
JK: Right; these are the pillars upon which students can build some amazing designs, and can begin to have deep and meaningful impact. Empathy requires ethnographic research and immersion—it requires getting as close to another person's situation as possible. The school teaches methods of applied ethnographic and cultural immersion, driving empathy and understanding of people in dramatically different social situations and economic situations. Prototyping is the need to embody an idea in a tangible format—so instead of just talking about ideas, or policy, or the potential changes that will occur, students quickly try things and observe how ideas, interventions, and new artifacts and systems work and change. It's the same philosophy that's helped both Stanford and MIT be successful—you need to try things, and fail, and iterate. And that's the last point, that of abductive logic. Austin Center for Design fosters an environment that's supportive of informed hypothesis-driven design—where students seek enough data to understand, but then make a leap based on their interpretation and synthesis of data in order to create new contextually sensitive design ideas.
C77: What's next? How can people find out more?
JK: We're accepting applications now, and we'll be holding a Design for Impact Bootcamp on April 24th, where prospective students can get a feel for the type of work we'll do and the pace, and culture, of AC4D. People in Austin who are interested in learning more can sign up here for this day-long immersion.