Capture today for better stories tomorrow: Four prototypes

What if, instead of waiting until the end of your design work, you intentionally captured your story throughout? How do you go beyond daily journaling or the occasional photograph? The d.school fellows are here, and Wednesday afternoon we presented them with some methods they can use to capture their stories. The "we" in question is made up of Seamus Harte and me.

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On going forward & global impact

“Go forward not back.”

That’s what d.school co-founder George Kembel told me when we discussed my imminent return to Fidelity this past June. The conversation came after my memorable 10-month-long experience as a d.school fellow. During that time, I both took and taught classes, worked on a Fidelity project and collaborated actively with members of my fellows cohort.

Shortly after our fellows launch day, I returned to Fidelity and re-assumed my role leading design thinking in Fidelity Labs. Since my return, I’ve taken time to reflect on what I’ve brought back to my team and, of that, what has had the biggest impact.

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A not-quite-six-word story

Have you ever been asked to tell a story in six words? It’s an extremely powerful exercise. Go ahead, try it. While you’re working on that, here’s mine:

Three weeks here. Countless epiphany moments.

You probably have your own story by now. If you do, share it in the comments, and then allow me to get into my longer story. It starts with being committed, and the initial quote comes from everyone’s favorite green Jedi sage:

“Do or do not, there is no try.”

Bernie Roth, the d.school’s academic director and Rodney H. Adams professor of engineering, surfaced the relevance of Yoda's quote to the design thinking process for me.

Okay, let's move on. Next comes:

“Going all in.”

Before coming to the d.school, I had serious doubts about whether or not I belonged to this place.

On day two, we sat with David Kelley,  IDEO founder and Donald W. Whittier professor in mechanical engineering, for two hours. It became extremely clear to me, as he spoke, that I do indeed belong to this place. I was relieved. The d.school is about people who are going all in. In short: it's about people like me.

Being  Uncomfortable

A note on one of the d.school's many whiteboards. (Guido Kovalskys)
A note on one of the d.school's many whiteboards. (Guido Kovalskys)

Now, what about being comfortable. The d.school, at first sight, looks like a happy family living in the best possible house. Still, there is tension. Everything here seems to be set up to make you feel comfortable being uncomfortable.

Just look where people sit:

Try spending an hour-long seminar sitting on a foam block (left) or a bench (right). (Guido Kovalskys)
Try spending an hour-long seminar sitting on a foam block (left) or a bench (right). (Guido Kovalskys)

“Bong” goes the gong.

The d.gong. Seriously, it has a label that says "d.gong". (Guido Kovalskys)
The d.gong. Seriously, it has a label that says "d.gong". (Guido Kovalskys)

The gong, for me, works like this: Inevitably, it’s going to sound. We all know it. That knowledge drives us to create something we can show to the world when it is inevitably slapped. Even if our prototype isn’t perfect, it drives you to do something -- anything. Here’s the best part: We get another chance. We always get another chance.

Now, the most important question: Who am I designing for? I keep hearing the idea that having a deep understanding of your users leads to new perspectives. It’s a very powerful concept that sounds simple, but it takes time to get used to it and to fully embrace it.

If you ask me, an education entrepreneur, who I am designing for, the answer is easy: meet my son.

(Guido Kovalskys)
(Guido Kovalskys)

The lives under the labels

“Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life.” - Viktor Frankl 

I heart stories.  I absolutely love them. You can listen to them one person at a time, or feel them roll over you like the fog coming into San Francisco. They unite us in religion, culture and politics. They are the fairy tales, myths, and archetypes we pack our lives into, often without realizing it.

Anne at The Exploratorium's  exhibit "The Changing Face of What is Normal: Mental Health". (Emi Kolawole)
Anne at The Exploratorium's exhibit "The Changing Face of What is Normal: Mental Health". (Emi Kolawole)

Our introduction as fellows to the d.school started with stories -- six word stories. Ernest Hemingway is said to have answered a challenge to tell a story in six words that was so good it would make people cry. His story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

We were invited to craft a story that described our anticipation of the year. We were storytelling immediately. I was in heaven.

In the first weeks of orientation, our class visited the Exploratorium in downtown San Francisco. The d.school’s Director of Community and resident “maker”, Charlotte Burgess-Auburn, led us there to get our hands on science and observe how the museum invited its visitors to play. I, however, was attracted to the one place where I could stand back and read stories.

The Exploratorium is home to an exhibit called "The Changing Face of What is Normal: Mental Health." One of the exhibit elements features the belongings of 14 patients sent to the Willard Psychiatric Center, a mental institution in upstate New York that closed in 1995. The patients' belongings -- over 400 artifacts -- were discovered when the Willard was decommissioned, and range from books of philosophy to hand-sewn baby dresses and photographs. Many of the patients, after they arrived at the institution, never laid eyes on their belongings again. The suitcases and their contents serve as vignettes of their lives.

I stop for stories, and these stories -- these lives -- were no exception. That day, in a sea of living, vibrant people at the Exploratorium, I stood among the belongings of the dead.

Photographs rest in an exhibit at The Exploratorium. (Emi Kolawole)
Photographs rest in an exhibit at The Exploratorium. (Emi Kolawole)

Marshall Ganz, a longtime community activist and Harvard professor, asked, “Where do you go for hopefulness?  Where do you go for courage?  You go to those moral resources that are found within narratives and within identity work and within traditions.” In the first few weeks I have learned enough about design to know that it starts with empathy work.  How do we begin to see the world from another person’s perspective and then dive so deep that we take away insights in order to design something that meets their needs as opposed to our own?

We often want to label people or place them in a bin in lieu of taking the time to fully understand them. I have come to see real design work as the ripping off of labels to observe the messiness and beauty of an individual story underneath.

Take the residents of Willard mental hospital -- the books the chose to keep, the notes they made on the pages, the color of a tie they chose to take, or the photographs they wrapped in bits of lace. These objects represent the strength, humor and dreams that connect them back to us. They are what lie underneath the label "mental health patient", illustrating their essential, universal humanity.

Our uniqueness, strangely enough, is what we all share in common.

So, with that, here's my story. I loved the Navy, mostly because I got to lead and mentor sailors and midshipmen who wanted to better themselves and the world around them. Although I loved inspiring them to find their path, I never found my own. After starting four master’s programs that never lasted beyond one semester and taking organic chemistry and the MCAT’s (misplaced medical school dreams), I finally found my calling in design. Here's the problem: I have no clue how to go about pursuing it. That’s where this fellowship comes in. It’s a perfect mix of semi-organized learning and project-based application.

I am jumping into this fellowship as if it were a shit-cold lake. Thankfully, all the laughing kids are in the lake. So, come hell or high, cold water, I will be too.

My six word story: Party Starting:  Cliffs Available. Heroes Wanted.

What's yours?