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7 posts from August 2016

"Making Models: R&D in the Social Sector" in frog's Design Mind


This week, I published an excerpt from my dialogue with Renuka Kher from the new book LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways for Design in Social Innovation in frog’s Design Mind magazine. You can read the excerpt here.

I’ve collaborated with Renuka on multiple initiatives between Tipping Point Community and global design and strategy firm frog, including T Lab. T Lab is a six-month long program that brings together nine Problem Solvers to design and test new solutions to help with pressing social issues in the Bay Area, such as access to child care, availability of early education, and support for people recently released from prison.

In this excerpt from our dialogue, we answer questions such as:

  • What should R&D should look like for nonprofits or nongovernmental organizations seeking to create new social services?
  • How should funders approach the notion of “risk” when investing in social impact work?
  • What skills should designers have to successfully participate in social impact work?
  • What kind of time commitment should a designer make when working with a nonprofit client or a community group?

The book is beautifully edited, designed, and printed—you can learn more about it here and get it on

Challenge: Sounds Like a Story

Sounds Like a Story - Challenge


For three years, I taught a class at California College of the Arts' BFA in Interaction Design program about the use of story in product design. For the first half of the semester, sophomores created a wide variety of stories as art in physical and digital media. For the second half of the semester, they would then create the same types of stories in the context of design problems. The challenges we used in the class and as homework were in the style of what you’d find in Creative Workshop, but focused on stories as the material output. As an example: Students would get comfortable making sequential art, then use the same tools to generate product scenario storyboards. They would create hypertext fiction with a series of random story prompts, then use the same medium and tools to help shape a design research readout.

In the process of creating the class, there were many story-based challenges that we couldn’t fit in. This was one of my favorites. Please do let me know if you try it, and are interested in sharing the output!


Sounds Like a Story
Time limit: 2 hours
Tools: Audio recorder, sound and/or video editing software


Go out into the world and quickly collect a set of non-verbal sounds with an audio recorder. In a sound or video editing program, arrange those sounds into a 60-second audio segment that you believe a listener will respond to as a story. Write out on a sheet of paper what you believe the story is trying to express. Find someone to listen to your audio segment, give them a separate sheet of paper, and ask them to write out what they think they’ve heard. See if the listener will write out a story as a result of listening to the audio segment, and if the details of their story resemble yours. 

Take it further:

Instead of making your own recording, start your work with a recording from an online archive of royalty-free audio. Try to limit yourself to just one or two audio files, and work quickly—it's easy to get immersed in the editing process.


Need some inspiration to get you started? Check out the podcast The World According to Sound by Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett, where they create 90-second sound collages that will stretch your brain.


The above image is from Public Domain Pictures and available here.

Handmade Illusions

Todd McClellan - Old Wind Up Clock from 20x200

Consider this thought experiment: I give you two books. One of them looks like it was produced by selecting photographs on your hard drive and publishing a hardcover book through Apple. If you had created it, you would have spent about ten minutes putting it together in iPhoto. In the other book, it looks like the photographs have been hand-printed on archival paper via a giclee printer and mounted into a hand-stitched hardback book, with a few alignment errors and flaws. 

Which book would you rather have? Why?

Now, imagine that there are 5 copies of the Apple-produced book, and 200,000 copies of the one that appears to be hand-printed. Which one would you rather have? Why?

I wonder what new platforms will emerge to exploit perception of handicraft, and what new technologies will enable them.

One of my favorite pictures we own is from 20x200. (The above image by Todd McClellan.) Their platform does an excellent job of balancing limited editions with affordable access to art, though by “limited” we are talking about a few thousand prints. 

But if an artist wants to reach the largest possible audience with their work, they will pursue multiple routes with the same work. Hence, the photographer also sells a hardcover book with the same photographs for $20.23.

I like this print better on my wall than in a book on my coffee table. But I wonder what stories I would tell myself if the photographer had printed it for me by hand.

What Is Hard to Discover

When reading The Information by James Gleick, the following quote from Charles H. Bennett leapt out at me: “The more subtle something is, the harder it is to discover.”

So many ways to read that statement. 

I am bullish on the Internet, but one of my fears is that decades from now, art forms that trade in subtlety will become like the Cook Islands. Few people will have heard of the place. Very few people will live there. The tourist trade will not be brisk.

There have never been so many ways to take an idea and broadcast it to the universe writ large. And yet the more subtle your idea, the higher the risk that it will be disregarded until someone invests the attention to discern it—no matter how many eyeballs might consume that idea. 

I just re-read a novel whose ideas took me fifteen years to grok, in terms of the layering and subtlety. My mind was blown as a result. I had to give it my due attention for days. Again.

What algorithms will reward this type of re-reengagement? Will Amazon really tell me to go back and read again that book I bought in 2006, because it thinks I’ll find it more enriching today?

Data Doesn’t Tell Stories, People Do

Once Upon a Time Chart

Many years ago, I was interviewing a portfolio manager about how he uses financial information. He said something that has resonated with me to this day: “Every number that I include in my quarterly reports to clients has a story behind it. I won’t meet with my clients until I know what that story is—no matter whether it’s good or bad about their portfolio’s performance. Otherwise, they’re going to bring their own story to it.”

It’s a common error of judgment for designers to assume they know what stories will be told from data. We create donut charts and graphs and tables and many other sorts of data visualization that are meant to communicate particular meanings. 

But data doesn’t tell stories. People do. 

Ask yourself: “What stories do you think people will bring to the data?” Take your designs with real data in place—if legally allowable—and see if the story in your head and the story that your users tell you are the same. 

You’ll always be surprised at what you discover.

Bespoke Ubering and Old-School Blogging

We were having a snack with our friends Penny and Dan before they went to a show in downtown Oakland. Our car was around the corner, and we offered them a ride to the concert. “It’s okay,” Penny said. “We don’t want to be a bother. We’ll just take an Uber.” Mary insisted on giving them a ride, so we walked back to our apartment to get our car. When Penny got in, she said: “Thanks so much for the bespoke Ubering.”

I feel this way about the economizing of blogs. I said a while back on The Twitters that blogging had become like the community farmer’s market, while the Mediums and Pulses of the world were the supermarkets. Most people/authors gain huge benefits from their participation in platforms versus old school blogging or (god forbid) writing an article for a print publication. The tradeoff, however, is hidden in the fine print: The content can be leveraged in relationship to syndication, advertising, and other forms of monetization that are outside the author’s means of control. Few of those things matter until you want to do something with your content other than retweet it. Perhaps we will only have our organic free-range blogs distributed at

That may not matter to you. The Internet exists to copy information, yours and mine included. But we are still limited to those shapes and forms by which our copies transition from physical to digital mediums. Some are classical in form, some are just down the street.

When I look at Tumblr, I see a new incarnation of the florilegium. When I look at Nextdoor, I see the coffee shop bulletin board with its passive-aggressive notes back and forth about who left the king-sized mattress on the street corner. When I look at old-school blogs, I see the brightly colored community newspapers you pick up at the grocery store when you’re heading for the exit. (Just without the eye-piercing ads for local plumbers and medical marijuana distributors.) They sit in the bright green rack next to those large candy machines that dispense gobstoppers for 25 cents. You leaf through them, and something catches your eye that you wouldn’t have learned any other way. If it’s relevant, you pass it along to someone else. If it’s not, there’s a convenient recycling bin in the corner, which you can hit up before you catch a Lyft to your next appointment.

I'll Be Brief

When I was a baby, I didn’t start speaking until I was over two years old. When I started talking, it was in complete sentences.

For me, writing has always been a way of feeling out what’s complex or hard to understand. When writing things down, I often feel like I need to get out a complete thought—even if that means going to a level of systematic depth that the communication may not require. 

While this habit may be rewarded for the creation of design documentation or books, it doesn’t always lend itself to open dialogue and public discourse. Blaise Pascal once said in one of his letters to a friend: “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” No mathematician worth their salt would circulate their ideas until they could express them in their most elegant, defensible form. 

Right now, I’m most interested in writing short forms, and how they add up to dialogues where ideas can riff and play off each other in rapid, improvisational fashion. I find myself admiring the required restraint in this call and response. While short forms of writing don’t always result in a concise QED, they do offer trailheads to other vistas you can explore on your own power.

This is the terrain we traverse today. Many of us spend our days conversing in Facebook posts and tweets and instant messages and texts and Slack and so forth—but how good are we really at that as writers? In our craft?

If you’re doing it right, you know based on how other people respond to the words. Not in a creepy, Lexicon sort of way, where poets can make you do whatever they want—in their tone and mood.

Nineteen years ago, I remember editing an interview by a famous writer, where he said that he wanted to be capable of shifting your emotional state while reading one his stories based on how you transitioned from one syllable to another in a single word. At the time, I thought he was crazy. A paragraph or a sentence, sure. But in the middle of a word?

Now, I’m not so sure. There are so many pieces of writing we encounter today where reading only a few words will start your blood boiling, and there’s a tiny input box beckoning to you for a response.