Over the past five years I’ve worked both on an IDEO team, and independently, thinking about the future of public libraries. With an IDEO team, we worked with libraries in Chicago and Aarhus, Denmark to connect more deeply to the needs of the public (read about it here). During this project we were in conversation with librarians about making meaningful changes in their libraries and creating new practices such as asking patrons about their needs, experimenting without the fear of failure, and live prototyping new ideas. This work culminated in a co-authored Design Thinking for Libraries Toolkit. It is available to download free, here. The IDEO toolkit writing team included Michelle Ha Tucker, Jessica Herman, and me. It was designed by Elaine Fong.
Independently, I have continued to work with libraries and librarians around the world to build research and design skills, and to find way to build meaningful services for the public.
I am deeply inspired by Maria Montessori and the approach she took designing a new form of education. By observing children, she created a durable education model, including the design of elements like values, spaces, and tools (the math beads and case she designed are pictured here). Learning about her work led me to seek out opportunities for human-centered education design and to an exciting long-term collaboration with Transcend Education and New Schools Venture Fund Collaborative.
The collaborative is “a cohort designed to accelerate the exploration, learning, and transition of strong school districts and charter networks towards new school models. The Collaborative is designed as an opportunity to explore the frontiers of learning science, provocative new models of education, and the demands of the 21st century. Participating design teams will emerge having fortified their conviction, stoked their clarity, strengthened their capacity to innovate, and built a coalition readied to pursue true breakthroughs in schooling.” (quoted from the Transcend website).
My role has been as a collaborator to build capacity around creativity and curiosity. We focus on the human-centered design process, creating tools and activities to enhance the adult learning process, and I help build and guide inspiration tours as innovative multi-sensory educational experiences. We aim to make learning meaningful and joyful for adults and to model a culture of innovation for those who are transforming their schools.
I have co-created several tools for the teams including Learning Science Cards, Culture of Innovation Cards, and Future Trend Cards, (pictured). All three are tools offer an analytical lens during the school design process. I have also co-designed inspiration visits in San Francisco, Austin, and New York with special inspiration kits to enhance and extend the experiences.
One of the most exciting parts of my work is taking people on inspiration tours. I started doing them when I worked at IDEO as part of the inspiration phase of design projects. I found it was often the most important part of the design experience.
Inspiration tours allow people to have fresh eyes and to see the world in new ways. It also provides a pathway to think and feel more expansively and conceptually, creating new pathways to find inspiration in unexpected places and to make new powerful connections.
I am constantly seeking inspiration and trying to understand how the world is changing, and I’ve realized not everyone does this. For some, it helps to have a guide to take you out into the world and to provide a lens to see the world in new ways.
My tours are guided by four fundamental values :
1. Finding new ways to know the world can expand our possibilities for changing the world. These experiences are embodied and often encourage people to use their senses and to feel things as much as they think about them.
2. Conceptual thinking is central to creativity. I generally never take people to places that are familiar, I take them to entirely new places in order to break their frames of reference. Instead of one to one application of ideas, they are encouraged to seek concepts that will inspire new ways of thinking in their context.
3. There is inspiration everywhere - once you have experience of finding inspiration in unexpected ways, you can begin to explore the world with a curious lens and find inspiration in everyday life.
4. Great ideas come from a place of joy and wonder. Being on an inspiration tour is meant to break your routine, to open you up to new possibilities, and hopefully allow you to tap into joyful and wondrous feeling. Being in this state opens you up to the possibilities of making unexpected connections and having new ideas.
Pictured here is an itinerary of a recent inspiration tour I did in Chicago with the Chicago Public Library and the Aarhus Public Library. These were the first two days of a four-day tour.
A major part of my design and research practice involves ethnographic trend explorations around the world to identify critical and enduring signals of change. I conduct interviews and observations in order to understand what is shifting and emerging in the world. I document these trips and from them create insights to inspire design ideas, and craft multi-sensory experiences and inspiration tours. You can find a few examples from my 2014 trend exploration in Paris here.
The fieldwork images on this page are as follows: an observation and cooking class with Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan at Baekyangsa Temple in South Korea, assisting a sensory meditation at Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin, a tour of Noma in Copenhagen, a fashion show during Paris fashion week, a visit to a revolutionary chocolate factory in Mexico City, and lunch in the home of a Japanese food activist.
I have done field work in Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Chicago, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul, San Francisco, Warsaw, and Mexico City.
From 2009-2011, I conducted an ethnography of the Orange County Great Park (OCGP) in Irvine, California. The OCGP is one of the United States’ largest, long-term urban planning and design projects, and one that is faced with major problems of contestation and uncertainty. The OCGP planners and designers are faced with extreme challenges: it is an expensive ongoing production for which they must keep resources coming in, while simultaneously maintaining and building public engagement, and keeping hope and belief in the project alive.
My multi-method ethnographic approach included: participant observation, interviews, archival research of public records, popular media material, and designs. I found three important elements in the approach to the planning and designing of an extremely long-term project. First, future-oriented, coherent narratives stabilize the project. The extensive and prolific storytelling by the designers and planners creates narrative coherence, holding the stories of the park together to counteract the threats, fluctuations, and uncertainty of the park project. Second, a new concept of design models emerged: living design models. These are active models, open to the public, that through ongoing use, create a recursive relationship between the community and the project. Third, I developed a new concept of myth: living myth. Myth diverts attention away from conflict and encourages people to believe in the project. Living myth emerges through lived experiences, and it grows and changes as a project develops over time.
Through these elements, the planners and designers do more than build a park—they also construct publics, build community, and offer value-based visions of the future. Coherent narratives, living models, and living myth engage the public in the future and in an idealized version of the present through a more imaginative design and planning process. This imaginative process helps people connect to the OCGP project through values, emotions, and experiences, rather than rational means.
In 2008-2009, I conducted an ethnography of the Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles, California. I began the project with Silvia Lindtner, exploring the production and consumption in public spaces. We were especially focused on the role of vendors. I carried the project forward receiving a grant to focus my full attention on it.
In order to get closer to the vendors, I became one in 2009. I set up shop on the beach and spent a summer selling handmade rings on the boardwalk. One of the most important ideas that emerged from this work was understanding the daily routines of the vendors to produce and reproduce the place and culture. The Venice Boardwalk embodies the tension between ephemerality and stability, as it is produced and reproduced each day, remains stable over time.