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.Read More
Here are the initial reactions of my friends and family when I told them I was named a Stanford d.school fellow:
- Concern: "Did you quit your job to become an interior designer?"
- Shock: "Are you getting another degree?"
- Confusion: "Isn't that out of your field?"
It was easy to answer those questions:
- Not really.
- Not sure.
But there was one more reaction -- confusion -- expressed in the following question: "What is the d.school and what will you learn there?" That’s the question I struggled to answer.
I’m a social worker by training and a human resources strategist in the federal government by practice. So it was difficult to tell people how I ended up at the d.school. I tried many times to explain it to others and, in the process, to myself. Most of the time the explanations looked like this:
- "The d. school is an innovator incubator. They focus on innovators not just their innovations." (This usually prompted the follow-up question: "Okay, but what does that mean?")
- "I'm going to learn about the design process from a human-centered approach. Check out their Web site." (I admit, that one’s an easy cop-out.)
- "I'm going to work with other fellows from very different backgrounds and disciplines on projects that will make people's lives better." (Here’s the question I kept asking myself after saying this: "Doesn't that happen in lots of places?")
In short, I was not completely confident I knew what the d.school was or what I would learn there. I felt like an impostor. Did anyone at Stanford read my essays? Did they review my resume? Did they understand the ridiculously large scope of my project?
My palms were sweating when I arrived on the first day of orientation. But as each day unfolded, and I met with d.school faculty, staff and alumni, it became evident that fear wasn’t in their vocabulary. Instead I found a boundless sense of intellectual curiosity, of "what if," of "how might we." One day, during the frenzy of a group activity, I looked up and saw these words hanging from the ceiling in the d. school lobby:
"There are no mistakes. There is no win and there is no fail. There is only make."
Then it all clicked: No fear.
On day 11 of orientation, I met an incoming freshman -- or “frosh,” as they’re known here. It was his first day at Stanford. I started asking him questions as part of a day-long d.bootcamp assignment, which was to develop a social strategy for students who are new to campus. What was the experience like for him? What was his favorite part of the day so far? What was easiest for him about the day? What was most difficult? In the process of asking these questions, I experienced the first aspect of the design cycle: empathy. I also discovered that what this frosh needed, above all else, was a friend.
Eventually I realized there was little separating me -- a social worker and government employee -- from this teenage freshman. We came from different worlds, but we shared the same basic reaction on our first day at Stanford. I also recognized that it’s practically impossible to hold open the space for empathy with another person while full of fear myself.
The interaction taught me that I needed to make sure the design cycle wasn't about my "stuff" -- my sweaty palms, my anxiety over the concern, shock and confusion of friends and family, my desire for approval or my fear of failure. It would have to be driven by an authentic and unyielding focus on the user and their needs -- in this case, the incoming freshman I was interviewing.
My team, at the end of the day-long bootcamp, prototyped a social app that would help incoming freshmen identify at least five people they would likely have a connection with. The app would also provide opportunities to meet those five people virtually before their first day and suggest a group activity based on an interest they shared. We designed a prototype that would hopefully ease some of the nervousness and reduce the number of sweaty palms.
So, what is the d.school?
It's a place where people come to redesign themselves and their approach to problem-solving.
It's a place that believes there are no mistakes.
It has a "no fail" attitude that allows people, like me, to let go of whatever is holding them back from being fully in their creativity (and yes, we are all creative!).
I am here to learn to let go of my own fears.
To push on the edges of myself and my project.
To unleash my human creative potential.
To make friends, be a friend, and empower others.
I am here to make something awesome, with a diverse team inside and outside of government, that is useful and gets used by federal employees and managers, to better serve the public.
I am here, and I belong.
“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.
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.
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.
No one told the fellows they should wear shorts. It was toward the end of the day on Sept. 3 -- the first day of orientation for the d.school project fellows, a cohort of mid-career professionals in search of new approaches to particularly difficult problems. The cohort was divided into teams and, in the grand tradition of Stanford orientations, sent on a scavenger hunt. This one, called the "d.hunt", was customized for the fellows. The list of tasks included taking a picture from atop Hoover Tower, finding the original Google server and locating former first daughter and Stanford alumna Chelsea Clinton (an illustration at the Stanford Coffee House). They were also charged with convincing as many people as possible to join them in as many campus fountains as they could find -- so, so much for their nice first-day outfits.
The project fellows spent their first three weeks on campus in orientation, including workshops with master teachers in the d.school community, a day-long design thinking bootcamp with other professional fellows at Stanford, and on field trips to Google, Facebook, Matter and the Exploratorium.
But I'll let them tell you more about that later. Let's get back to the beginning of Day One.
The deep-dive on design thinking was put on hold. Instead, the getting-to-know-you exercises in the first few hours of the first day called on the fellows to convene in one of the larger prototyping rooms at "the d." The fellows were asked to walk around the room and form equilateral triangles, then to protect each other from "enemies" they self-identified. The curve ball: no one was allowed to speak.
Adults who would probably go no further than shaking hands in a board room, crowded in on one another invading their fellow fellows' personal space. They laughed like children during the first recess call on the first day of school. Shortly thereafter they were off in teams of three and four to romp through fountains and find The Gates of Hell.
The d.fellows go on a scavenger hunt on their first day during orientation at the d.school. The fellows class consists of nine mid-career individuals who will learn and apply design thinking over the course of the year towards their individual projects. (Emi Kolawole)
And that's merely a sliver of what the first three weeks have held for the fellows. Here on the whiteboard, you get to follow along with the fellows, the people they meet and the experiences they have.
This is not, however, a traditional blog. Instead, think of it as their digital whiteboard and sticky notes. They will share their thoughts in short, medium and long form. They will share their process via video, audio, photo, illustration and text. There will be more lengthy progress reports from the leadership staff. We will also feature guest pieces from those outside of the d.school and the fellows program. This will be an opportunity for them, for you -- for us -- to capture what happens when restless experts apply design thinking to transform their professions.