6 Essential Skills for Design & Social Innovation

Students and job seekers frequently ask me about the skills that they need to succeed at Foossa, the community-centered design and strategy consultancy that I cofounded, or in a related career path. I came up with this list as a starting point for anyone interested in using design as a tool for social innovation.

1. Write Well

Being a strong writer goes a long way. Clear writing signals that you can think clearly and communicate effectively.

Craft compelling stories. Appeal to the heart and to the head. Be persuasive. Be concise. Be memorable. 

2. Prototype 

Prototyping could mean making something out of popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners to coding the minimum viable version of an app. You don’t necessary need high tech prototyping skills, but you do have a bias toward action.

You learn by doing. You learn by making. You prototype to learn. You can think visually and sketch out maps, diagrams, and charts to help inform your thinking. Your sketches could be doodles on Post-Its rather than museum-worthy masterpieces, although strong drawing skills are certainly a plus.

3. Code Switch

You speak the language of business. You speak the language of your clients and of your customers. You speak the language of social innovation. You understand how to define a theory of change.

You know how to reinterpret a creative brief to get down to the essence of what the needs really are.

You can get by in the language of designers and technologists enough to be able to collaborate with them effectively and to manage multi-disciplinary teams. You understand the basics of visual language, from hierarchy to typography. Bonus points if you can code in a programming language.

4. Make Stuff Happen

You know how to manage projects from inspiration to implementation. You break down difficult and complex tasks into manageable steps. You find the courage to put stuff out in the world to see what happens. You iterate until you get it right. Then you iterate some more.

You make community happen. Bring people together and get them involved in collaboration and co-creation. This could mean hosting an event, facilitating  a meeting/workshop, or community-managing an online discussion forum. 

5. Give and Receive Feedback

You know how to conduct a design critique. Help your teammates improve by giving critical insights and new perspectives into their work. You can give and get feedback without making it personal.

You make it about the creative brief and shared goals rather than just your personal opinions and preferences.

You learn how to filter the feedback that you get into “advice to implement” and “advice to take with a grain of salt.”

6. Document, Document, Document

My professors really drove this point home in my masters program. Make sure you document your work, whether it is through blogging, journaling, photos, videos, or a combination of the above. You will need it one day in the future, whether it is for a portfolio or for another project. Pictures, or it didn’t really happen.

This list is a work in progress. What skills would you add? Let me know in the comments.

P.S. If you are considering grad school to help you acquire some of theses skills, check out the MFA Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I teach there. 

Imaginary Islands, Cybernetic Cannibals, and NEO TRIBES

My latest thoughts on community building, republished from Medium

Founding Myths

I was born on the island of Taiwan, and I currently reside on the island of Manhattan. Both are terra firma, hard and fast granite bedrock.

But I also inhabit imaginary islands: online groups, forums, and other virtual places which bring to mind the dated term, “cyberspace.” Here I commune with like-minded souls with shared interests.

Other imaginary islands exist in the physical realm, but they are ethereal and fleeting in time. Festivals and conferences bring together communities of shared interest for a set period of time. Then we disperse. We may reconvene after an interval or fork forever into smaller cells distributed around the world.

My fellow humans on these imaginary islands are neotribalists. We equally reject the rigidity of traditional tribalism as well as the isolation of industrial individualism.

We form imaginary islands as safe spaces for our freak flags to fly free. Imaginary islands are unbounded by physical distance, as we unite with others of mutual interest and shared spirit across geographies. We form archipelagos of fellowship across expanses. Our imaginary islands can be open to everyone or hidden to all but insiders.

The Truku (also known as the Taroko) people of Taiwan have a saying, “the land is blood, the mountain is home.” The Hawaiians have a related saying, “He ali’i ka ‘āina, he kauā ke kanaka.” The land is a chief; man is its servant. These sayings reflect the indigenous worldview where the land owns the people and not the other way around.

But what happens when the “land” that we inhabit is virtual? What happens when we inhabit imaginary islands, shifting cartographies made up of networks andrhizomes in perpetual flux? We craft our communities, our imaginary islands, with intention. How do we belong to these artificial lands. How do our imaginary islands shape us and own us?

Tupi, or Not Tupi

To answer these questions, we will need new stories, new myths, and new truths. We need new stars to guide our way and to connect the far-flung archipelagos of our imaginary islands. We will need to construct new chimera: new combinations and reconfigurations, new ways of doing and of being.

We the neotribers, the inhabitants of imaginary islands, are like cybernetic cannibals, in the spirit of Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade’s Cannibalist Manifesto (Manifesto antropofágico).

We adapt, appropriate, and remix from a variety of cultural sources. One of the iconic lines of Andrade’s manifesto is “Tupi, or not to Tupi,” a linguistic pun that brings together references Shakespeare and to the Tupi indigenous peoples of Brazil.

In a discussion of cybernetic cannibalism, Lawrence Lessig explains:

we could describe it using modern computer terminology as kind of read-write culture. It’s a culture where people participate in the creation and in the re-creation of their culture. In that sense is read-write.

In this sense, as we are reading and writing our culture, we are terraforming the imaginary islands that we inhabit.

Lessig’s idea of a read-write culture echoes Henry Jenkins’ concept of participatory culture:

For the moment, let’s define participatory culture as one:

1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

4. Where members believe that their contributions matter

5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

May the neotribes that we form aspire to be participatory cultures.

Dreamers and Doers

As neotribers, let us dream big but also stay rooted in pragmatism.

Bruce Lee taught us: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

This teaching echoes the motto Wakon-yōsai (和魂洋才 “Japanese spirit and Western techniques”) from Meiji-era Japan. The island nation had just emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation. It found itself vulnerable to Western colonialist powers with superior technology. The motto was an invocation to adopt new methodologies and new technologies while preserving a spirit that was authentic and grounded in “Japaneseness.”

Of course, there are many ways to critique and deconstruct notions of cultural authenticity, but the point I am trying to make is, how do we adopt or create new technologies and new ways of organizing ourselves that reflect the spirit to which we aspire?

The recently-departed activist Grace Lee-Boggs reminds us: “We need to grow our souls.” Activism and philosophy must work together in tandem.

Warnings

Back in 1977, Marshall McLuhan warned of the violent tribalism of the global village. He derided this tribalism for being “collective and without any individual consciousness.” But we have also seen that individualism taken to an extreme can lead to loneliness and alienation. May neotribes find a middle way in between these extremes.

We can learn from the new nationalisms like the Scottish and Catalan sovereignty movements. While they reject the status quo of the nation states in which they are currently a part, they simultaneously embrace a united Europe and membership in a larger international community. These are nationalisms with more open access to identity and belonging. They eschew the old violent tribalism of blood and soil. Neotribes aspire to be both grounded in the local and connected to the global.

We acknowledge that our blood is mixed, are cultures are mixed. Our destinies are intertwined.

When talking about neotribes, we must be careful not to fall into the old traps of neo-colonial “primitivism.” None of that “noble savage” narrative here please. We must learn to incorporate without (mis)appropriating. We must decolonize and deconstruct ourselves first in order to build something new. We must first empty our cups.

By imaginary islands, I mean “of the imagination.” We are communities of shared interest who dare to dream, who dare to explore, who dare to imagine what might be possible. We must be careful not to allow our imaginary islands to become pure escapism. We must also engage with other communities and tribes outside of our own, to negotiate the global commons and the other shared spaces of our common humanity.

In the Polynesian legends of the Māori of New Zealand and the of native Hawaiians, the ancestral homeland is called Hawaiki. Some anthropologists think that Hawaiki refers to Taiwan. But the truth about Hawaiki is lost to history and immortalized in myth.

In other legends, Hawaiki is also the underworld or the world of the spirits. In other words, Hawaiki is an imaginary island, a utopia, a “no place,” an imagined place. A destination always a bit past the threshold and out of reach, but a perpetually in our hearts and minds.

Our imaginary islands, the homelands of our neotribes, are like Hawaiki. We belong to these islands, and we belong to each other.

Learn more about Neotribes here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. What do “community” and “neotribes” mean to you?

“It’s Not Warming, It’s Dying” Finds New Life as Designer Bags

An advertising billboard becomes a space for socially-conscious art and then transforms into sustainable bags and accessories.

This is the story of a three-way collaboration between Lamar Advertising Company, the largest out-of-home advertising company in the United States,RAREFORM, a Santa Monica-based producer of bags and accessories repurposed from billboards, and Milton Glaser, the legendary artist and designer famous for creating the I ❤ NY logo.

Last year, Glaser launched the “It’s Not Warming, It’s Dying” campaign to create new urgency around the issue of climate change and to shift the language and narrative away from benign terms like “global warming.”

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This year, Lamar Advertising has provided a billboard in Los Angeles at Crenshaw Boulevard and West 59th Place to showcase Glaser’s “It’s Dying” campaign. The billboard with Glaser’s artwork will remain on display until the end of October. After the billboard comes down, RAREFORM will repurpose Glaser’s artwork into approximately 300 limited-edition backpacks and accessories.

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Designers and artists like Glaser looking to make a statement about environmental sustainability have the challenge of walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Campaign collateral like buttons, stickers, posters, and billboards all require natural resources to produce and often turn into waste after they have served their purpose. This collaboration between Glaser, RAREFORM, and Lamar provides a system for the sustainable reuse of these materials.

For designers working to be more sustainable, the lesson here is to think beyond creating collections for a single season, and instead design systems for reuse and transformation across the lifecycle of a product.

At the end of November, RAREFORM will host a gallery show in Los Angeles. The exhibit will feature exclusive videos, photos, and products from the collaboration, as well as some of Glaser’s other work.

Learn more at igg.me/at/art-lives.

A Bronx Tech Tale

Innovation in tech education and job creation from the birthplace of hip hop

Exit the subway. Walk by a check cashing service and under a freeway overpass, past some guys chatting on a stoop at three in the afternoon on a Wednesday. Across the street there is a hot dog factory and downstairs a methadone clinic. The business people and civil servants in crisp suits that I have been trailing to our destination look out of place here.

I’m in the South Bronx attending the grand opening celebration of the Urban Development Center, or UDC for short, a partnership between software consulting firm Doran Jones and workforce development non-profit Per Scholas. Doran Jones provides software engineering and testing services to major financial and media companies. Per Scholas is a 24-year-old educational non-profit focused on providing tuition-free training to prepare its graduates for jobs in the tech industry. The UDC is part of a movement to “reshore” tech jobs that have been offshored to places like India back to the United States.

Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas, kicks off the grand opening of the Urban Development Center.

Plinio Ayala

The UDC is in full-on party mode today, but on a previous visit, I could see the team in action on a typical work day. With an open floor plan, bright cheery colors, the flickering of computer screens and the tapping of keyboards, the vibe here feels a lot like many other tech companies. There are not yet any motivational posters on the walls nor a foosball table in the lounge, some of the typical trappings of a tech startup, but give it time, as they have just recently moved into the newly-renovated space.

Other elements are starkly different. Diversity is one of them. Almost all of the employees come from minority groups underrepresented in the tech industry. More than half of the employees are women. Most of them have come through Per Scholas’ workforce development training courses. These training courses attract a wide array of people, ranging from young people without college degrees looking for job opportunities beyond service and retail, to older career changers, to the long term unemployed.

We are also in one of the poorest congressional districts in America. It is a community lacking in opportunity, but certainly not lacking in creativity, determination, and grit. This is the birthplace of hip hop after all.

Tristan Delgado, software tester at the UDC

Tristan Delgado

I meet the upbeat and confident Tristan Delgado, a 26-year-old Per Scholas grad who is currently working at the UDC as a software tester for Doran Jones.

I’m thriving in a real career that I never before knew existed. I love being a software tester. I’ve been exposed to so many different types of technology and software. I even do games testing on the side as well. That’s been pretty sick….As soon as I got into this field, I was able to actually start affording – you know – living. These are livable wages. Before I came into software testing, I looked forward to a 25 cent raise in my check. That’s how gritty it was.

But Tristan is still plenty gritty, if by “gritty” we mean “driven.” He commutes by bicycle 17 miles each way from his home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to the UDC in the South Bronx. Tristan had previously dropped out of community college but ended up completing two training courses with Per Scholas. He then worked with another tech company before coming back to take a job at the UDC.

Like Tristan, most of employees at the UDC are software testers. Software testing is a largely unknown and unseen part of the tech industry. This is the kind of tech work that is making sure that things like corporate intranets and our online banking apps work properly. It’s not sexy. It’s not disruptive. But it’s essential.

And it’s a tremendous market opportunity. At the UDC, Doran Jones is offering software testing talent to major corporations at rates that are competitive with the competition in India and with the added benefit of being just a 30-minute subway ride rather than 16-hour flight away. In addition to being in the same time zone, software testers at the UDC also bring the competitive advantage of native English proficiency and greater cultural proximity to their clients than the overseas competition. All of this matters for the precise and demanding problem-solving necessary for good software testing.

At full capacity, the UDC has space for 450 software testers and is rapidly building a client base to reach this capacity. As part of the partnership agreement, Doran Jones has agreed to fill at least 80% of these positions with Per Scholas graduates and will be sharing 25% of revenue with the non-profit. The innovation here is in the talent pipeline and the business model.

Matt Doran, founder and co-CEO of Doran Jones

Matt Doran

At the opening ceremony, Matt Doran, founder and co-CEO of Doran Jones, announces that an existing client wants to nearly double the number of testers that they want to hire at the UDC. The mood is jubilant and optimistic, but there is still much work to be done to convince more corporations to hire US-based talent for software testing.

Matt recently told Wired Magazine about a potential hedge fund client that turned down a proposal from Doran Jones because “our guys don’t look like the traditional consulting firm.” There is a lot of work to be done to convince potential clients and to shift cultural perceptions, but you can feel that change is happening, and Doran Jones and Per Scholas are driving it forward.

Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones

Keith Klain

“Cheers to all the determined people out there… No more excuses,” exclaims Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones, as he gives the final toast to celebrate the opening of the UDC. This is the Bronx after all, known for its grit and determination. Just as when hip hop emerged here decades ago and changed the sound of music in the United States and worldwide, the movement that is emerging here has the potential to change the face of tech. No more excuses.

Olivia is a 14-year-old high school student collaborating with Doran Jones to build an app for her school

Olivia

This story has also been published in the Huffington Post.

Thinking Architecture

Dr. Tracy Ann Essoglou wants you to stop trying to be a “thought leader” and get ready to practice “thinking architecture” instead.

Dr. Essoglou is a culturescaper, thinking architect, and founder of Situation Design. We connected online through my previous post about #WeWashing in the so-called “sharing economy” and decided to meet up over coffee, where we discussed topics ranging from art and activism, to philosophy, wisdom and design.

One key takeaway from the conversation that really resonated with me was her use of the term “thinking architect” rather than the well-worn buzzword “thought leader.”

Read more on Medium>>

 

Thinking Architecture