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The Value of Real-World Projects

Kelly Babcock, a second year student in the MiD program, writes on the importance and value of real-world projects in her graduate education experience. This post was originally posted on Kelly’s blog on October 27, 2012.

It just recently occurred to me that the majority of my higher educational training in the MiD program has involved a real-world project curriculum — and how beneficial this has been to my “employability.”

My undergraduate graphic design coursework involved an interdisciplinary studio class where we formed student teams and worked with real clients on branding-focused projects. The students were from marketing, mass communication, and graphic design, and the course lasted for one semester. We learned project management skills, had regular client meetings and presentations, and had to provide professional design deliverables by strict deadlines.

My MiD graduate coursework at the University of the Arts has a strong focus on collaborating with real clients. We take on the responsibility of identifying client partners, building the relationship, and fostering it throughout all aspects of the project — schedules, meetings, presentations, deliverables, and of course the design work involved.

This curriculum has been invaluable to me, and I can’t imagine school any other way. The thought of a “made up” client or project just seems meaningless, and I feel that higher education (and even earlier) will need to adjust to this type of real-world project curriculum if they want to best prepare their graduates for employment. There are key skills that you acquire by working in this professional manner, and the more comfortable you are with them prior to entering the workforce, the more you will stand out above others.

I have been researching this further and I am interested in understanding the ways in which others describe the outcomes and effectiveness of engaging students with real clients. One study I came across was: “Future Fit: Preparing Graduates for the World of Work,” published by the Confederation of British Industry. The study nicely outlines what employability means, and the skills that can be acquired while still in school to better prepare you for the work world.

First, they define “employability skills”:

A set of attributes, skills and knowledge that all labour market participants should possess to ensure they have the capability of being effective in the workplace — to the benefit of themselves, their employer and the wider economy.

Then, they outline what the skills include:

  • Self-management: readiness to accept responsibility, flexibility, resilience, self-starting, appropriate assertiveness, time management, readiness to improve own performance based on feedback/reflective learning.
  • Teamworking: respecting others, co-operating, negotiating/persuading, contributing to discussions, and awareness of interdependence with others.
  • Business and customer awareness: basic understanding of the key drivers for business success – including the importance of innovation and taking calculated risks – and the need to provide customer satisfaction and build customer loyalty.
  • Problem solving: analysing facts and situations and applying creative thinking to develop appropriate solutions.
  • Communication and literacy: application of literacy, ability to produce clear, structured written work and oral literacy – including listening and questioning.
  • Application of numeracy: manipulation of numbers, general mathematical awareness and its application in practical contexts (e.g. measuring, weighing, estimating and applying formulae).
  • Application of information technology: basic IT skills, including familiarity with word processing, spreadsheets, file management and use of internet search engines.
  • Underpinning all these attributes, the key foundation, must be a positive attitude: a ‘can-do’ approach, a readiness to take part and contribute, openness to new ideas and a drive to make these happen.
  • Frequently mentioned by both employers and universities is entrepreneurship/enterprise: broadly, an ability to demonstrate an innovative approach, creativity, collaboration and risk-taking. An individual with these attributes can make a huge difference to any business.

I can relate to these skills, and can attest to the benefits of learning these through the real-world project curriculum I have experienced through the MiD program.

As I continue to look into university-based venture incubators and innovation centers for an independent study project this semester, I hope to incorporate these ideas about engaging students with real clients. There is just such great satisfaction when you know that the project has a greater purpose and value beyond just merely a learning exercise.

The Value of Real-World Projects
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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 6th, 2012 at 7:55 pm by azahn123.
MiD Students Attend the 2012 Food and Entrepreneurship Conference in San Francisco

Kelly Babcock and Alex Visconti, 2nd year MiD graduate students, report on a recent research trip in support of their thesis work.

Can design create impact within the spaces of food, entrepreneurship, and vulnerable populations? We traveled to the opposite coast to get a better idea.

Over the summer we began preliminary research for a possible thesis direction, and continued to come across a few key organizations leading in the food space that interact with entrepreneurship and vulnerable populations — all of which were going to be present at The Food and Entrepreneurship Conference in San Francisco, CA.

With some last minute travel arrangements, we were able to attend the conference and engage directly with the forerunners in our area of interest. The conference was organized by La Cocina, an incubator kitchen, whose mission is “to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance and access to market and capital opportunities.” We enjoyed two informative and delicious days of panel discussions, presentations, and small Q&A sessions — all featuring La Cocina’s entrepreneurs, mostly women from immigrant communities.

The experience at the conference expanded our work and learning as designers because we were able to see and hear firsthand how the human-centered design theories we learn in the MiD program can be applied to create positive social, cultural, and economic impact.

Through the physical and service support of La Cocina and other incubator organizations serving food entrepreneurs, the participants of the programs engage in a collaborative environment to design their business model. One of the most common discussions over the course of the conference was the tight constraint of low start-up capital. In design we see constraints as a productive force, and in the case of these entrepreneurs it also seemed to be beneficial to their growth. It requires that they start on a small-scale, rapidly prototyping and testing their products with customers to find the most successful iteration. It also created the opportunity for the business owners to work the front lines at the farmers markets, selling their product to their customers. We feel that this proved invaluable to the entrepreneurs, as they were able to interact and engage with their customers right when they delivered the product. This experience allowed them to keep the feedback loop short and quickly make refinements to the product according to the customers’ needs.

For us, one of the most interesting takeaways from the conference was the “female entrepreneurial persona” we were able to develop from all of our observations and interviews. We mapped the common attributes, some of which we mentioned previously, and captured them in terms of body features below:

Each attribute was informed from our time spent at The Food and Entrepreneurship Conference, observing, listening, and talking to the many women food entrepreneurs that were in attendance.

We see value in referring to this persona while developing our thesis direction and the communities we want to serve. In addition, we were able to witness a successful application of human-centered design theories in a way that has definite social, cultural, and economic impact for not only the entrepreneurs that participate in the incubators, but also for the greater community that is inspired to do their own work of this nature.

MiD Students Attend the 2012 Food and Entrepreneurship Conference in San Francisco
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This entry was posted on Thursday, October 4th, 2012 at 5:20 pm by azahn123.
Making Sense of Transformation Design

Vrouyr Joubanian, a first year MiD graduate student, summarizes the main principles of transformation design and reflects on his evolving understanding of the role of design and designer.

Two readings from our design seminar this past week, the UK Design Council’s RED Paper 02 and “Transformative Services and Transformation Design” by Daniela Sangiorgi, are a call to action for the creation of yet another new design discipline that applies design skills to social and economic issues through user-centered, interdisciplinary, collaborative and participatory processes. This new discipline, which starts from the perspective of the end user and creates changes and social transformations, is called transformation design.

The RED Paper discusses a shift from the ‘master designer’ to a state where the end user’s needs and experience are essential to the design process. So the user becomes an expert and participates in the design of services, experiences, products and interactions, rather than just being an object of the design process. Since we are in the middle of a user-revolution, where non-trained designers, considered ‘expert users’, are taking the design of products and services into their own hands, questions like ‘what we design’, ‘how we design’, and ‘who designs’ are raised.

The authors go on giving examples of how user-centered design (co-design) is applied to social issues, and provide three basic core skills to this approach:

1. Looking from the point of view of the user of the products and services, designers “immerse themselves in context,” which can help to gain empathy and generate insights on how things could change for the better;

2. Making things visible through the use of visual frameworks (sketches, diagrams, storyboards, etc.), which creates a common platform for discussion, avoids misinterpretation and helps build a shared vision

3. Prototyping by trying solutions and getting in-situ feedback from the users to test out possibilities before committing to building the real thing.

Furthermore, after presenting several case studies, the authors of the RED Paper introduce six characteristics of transformation design:

  • defining and redefining the brief
  • collaborating between disciplines
  • employing participatory design techniques
  • building capacity, not dependency
  • designing beyond traditional solutions
  • creating fundamental change

Daniela Sangiorgi’s article focuses on the application of transformation design to building services that trigger the establishment of collaborative, sustainable, and creative societies. She argues that services are no longer an end, but rather an “engine for wider societal transformations” and enablers of “society-driven innovation.”

She continues discussing the redesign of public services by building collaborative service models and models of co-creation and co-production, which mean “the use of distributed resources, collaborative modes of delivery, and the participation of users in ‘the design and delivery of services, working with professionals and frontline staff to devise effective solutions.’”

She then proposes that designers adopt principles from community action research and make use of them in service design, and follows with seven key principles “that seem to unify transformative practices in design, organizational development and community action research.” These principles are:

  • active citizens
  • intervention at community scale
  • building capacities and project partnerships
  • redistributing power
  • designing infrastructures and enabling platforms
  • enhancing imagination and hope
  • evaluating success and impact

As much as I agree with these general principles and characteristics presented by both RED and Sangiorgi, coming from a product design background, I can’t help but strongly relate to the philosophical and practical challenges that designers face when it comes to transformation design. I have come to a realization that my understanding of design — which I have built through my previous design studies in Lebanon and the Middle East (which is a whole other, juicy, topic of discussion) and work experience — is the traditional view/practice of design, and that makes me uncomfortable when trying to embrace this new discipline of transformation design. Today, we shape behaviors rather than forms.

We don’t focus on products or technology; we focus on society’s needs.
We are not the sole authors of ideas; we are facilitators of others’ ideas.
We don’t work alone and we are not ‘master designers.’
We collaborate with untrained designers; we co-design.
We don’t have finished results anymore, but are creating systems that will change and reconfigure after we have left the scene.
We don’t define good design; we work on developing what’s good enough.

Looks like I’m going through a paradigm shift.

Making Sense of Transformation Design
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This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 16th, 2012 at 2:02 pm by azahn123.