Everything is Made up and the Points Don’t Matter

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by JON KOLKO, Vice President of Design, Blackboard

As children, we view the world as fixed. In the US, kids learn that red means stop, Columbus had three ships, and the police are there to protect us. We learn culture as immobile and that we have a place in that culture, and this place is reiterated continually by our socioeconomic situation and the people we see around us. As we get older, some of us experience this perspective shifting. We realize our own volition to change our circumstances and circumstances of those around us, and we begin to understand that through the long, arduous slog of work and research, we can positively impact some of the fundamental truths of our world.

But many never experience that shift. They grow older and still see rules as boundaries, history as a simple single-threaded narrative, and the hopelessness of many of the world's social ills as unavoidable and immobile. There's an unpleasant inevitability in this perspective, and over time, it breeds a sense of despair.

The Austin Center for DesignI consistently see signals of this inevitability in my incoming students of design, and I work to change it. These students – typically 26 or 27 years old, with some industry experience under their belt and the appropriate pessimism in their attitude – join me at Austin Center for Design to learn interaction design and social entrepreneurship. These are overlapping disciplines that have a number of methods, skills, and processes, and we teach those to our students. Skill acquisition in these areas is difficult, but in many respects, it's a "rinse repeat" form of teaching; there are exercises, principles, and pedagogical structures that make learning nearly inevitable.

But I've come to see that the most successful of our students have a worldview shift during our program, an entire change in their demeanor towards the built world around them. They come to see rules as malleable, power structures as changeable, and culture as embodied. They see design as a vehicle for slow but influential behavior change, and they recognize that over time, this behavior change impacts the landscape of the world. Over the course of the program, they see that they can design things (products, services, interactions, and policies), and these things cause the world to change. This view is naively optimistic, but in that optimism comes power, and in the naivety comes action.

Call this worldview or outlook or perspective "autonomy in decision making". I reflect a lot on how some of my students gain this autonomy, some don't, and why the educational process that supports this shift is extraordinarily emotional. There are four key phases that I see over and over in my students that describe this journey.

Stage 1 - Optimism and potential

When students encounter design, they quickly see its potential and embrace its optimistic stance. This optimism is grounded in design theory that references cultural change and social benefit, and through high profile, quick-read examples in magazines like Wired or Fast Company. Never mind the innocent or unsophisticated nature of this view, as it serves to first foster external motivation, and then intrinsic motivation. In this phase, students learn the pragmatics of applied ethnography, of contextual behavioral research. These skills are easy to acquire at a basic level of proficiency. Spending time with people, and realizing that spending time with people is a valued skill, underscores the natural feel of a human-centered design process. Simultaneously, students learn to sketch scenarios, and as a result, they begin to see the benefits of basic visual communication. They can help people see through complexity and gain clarity, and this in turns builds trust. Students feel empowered as they see the initial value of design as a problem solving approach.

Stage 2 - Frustration of process and skill acquisition

Just as this empowerment is building, so too is a feeling of frustration. Students have ideas to help people, but don't yet have the ability to match their execution to their vision. The output isn't high enough fidelity, the thinking is vague, and the complexity of the problem space seems insurmountable. This is the "muddy middle" of a design problem, and this is the first time students have encountered such a place of ambiguity. Students are learning to interpret research data, to synthesize observations into themes, themes into insights, and insights into provocations. There is no right answer, no teacher's edition; they look to the instructor for directives, but there are only suggestions. Even as the process becomes a point of grounding, the tedium of iteration, the constant critique, and the slow, almost unperceivable improvement in quality grinds away at confidence. Many students feel like giving up. Some do. Most cry, unleashing an emotional outburst that often surprises even the student.

Stage 3 - Insight and Confidence

And as this stage of anxiety and frustration peaks, a switch is flipped. Students begin to gain familiarity with synthesis and visual sense making, and start to see connections between disparate ideas. They have marinated in the data of their research to a point of tacit knowledge, and they begin to structure higher-level stories around multi-faceted ideas. They diagram these structures, visualize the stories, talk new stories into existence, and begin to have one cultural epiphany after another. They present the value of design to people outside the walls of our school, and as they describe this value over and over, they come to believe their own words.

Stage 4 - Autonomy in Decision Making

The result of this process is consistently the development of autonomy in decision making. Students that make the journey realize that they can describe a vision of the future and articulate a plan to get there. They can prompt forward momentum by making. And by seeing culture as malleable, they come to understand that ideas don't change the world, but actions do: design changes culture. Students realize they have some degree of control over the Way Things Are.

Empathy, Inference, and Making

It takes countless hours to learn design. But the skills of design are well articulated, and methods are well documented, and there are great mentors and teachers who can support this process of learning to design. But harder and more important than the skill acquisition is an entirely philosophical, attitudinal shift.

At the core of this shift is learning to gain empathy, to gain confidence in inferential leaps, and to work through ambiguity with iterative making. These capabilities support a worldview of autonomy and an identity of volition. By learning to see the world through the eyes of others, design students can better see and articulate artificial boundaries or constraints around a problem space. They can triangulate on an opportunity space that's contained by attitude and opinions of constituents. This adds clarity to ambiguity, and paints "objectivity" around subjective circumstances. Inferential leaps of logic help students see opportunity instead of problems, so they can consider how the world might be if things were different. These jumps recognize the impermanence of group behavior and attitudes. And by making things, design students describe these opportunities in a concrete way, tell stories about changes, and make concrete the abstract. Through making, they create room for dialogue, conflict, resolution, and forward movement.


Steve Jobs influenced many things, but perhaps one of his largest contributions is how he embodied creative confidence. As he describes, "Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again." Everything around us, except nature, is made up. We can shift what feels fixed or predestined by design.

Jon Kolko is Vice President of Design at Blackboard; he joined Blackboard with the acquisition of MyEdu, a startup focused on helping students succeed in college and get jobs. Jon is also the Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design. Jon is the author of four books; his most recent is Well Designed: How to use Empathy to Create Products People Love, published by Harvard Business Review Press.


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