How Childhood Passions Lead to Design and Technology Career - Jon Kolko

In Chapter 3 of 17 in his 2011 Capture Your Flag interview with host Erik Michielsen, designer and educator Jon Kolko shares the stories behind his childhood interests in art and technology. Early studio art ceramics work pushes Kolko to be creative. As a child, Kolko plays with early Internet computers to call pirate bulletin boards and hack RIT password files. Collectively, these shape Kolko's education, leading him to Carnegie Mellon University and catapulting him into his career. Kolko is the executive director of design strategy at venture accelerator, Thinktiv ( He is the founder and director of the Austin School for Design ( Previously, he worked at frog design and was a professor of Interactive and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). He has authored multiple books on design. Kolko earned his Masters in Human Computer Interaction (MHI) and BFA in Design from Carnegie Mellon University.


Erik Michielsen:  Where did your passions for technology and art originate?

Jon Kolko:  My passion for art originated through a ceramics – ceramics mentor of mine named Alec Haislip.  He’s one of the premier potters in Upstate New York. He studied with a number of the folks that were responsible for Bauhaus and things like that and – so I studied wheel thrown ceramics for as long as I can remember. 

I think I started when I was 5 or 6 and that was like a thing to do and then it became a release and then it became – now, it is a, ‘Wow!  I wish I had more time on Saturdays to spend in my studio.’  Very much art driven.  It’s functional ceramics but it’s also, let’s make it the way I want to make it.  There’s no constraints.  There’s no clients.  There’s no deadlines. 

On the technology side I’ve spent a great deal of time playing with the early foundations of the internet and I was using dial out remote BBSes on remote voxes at RIT when I was 7 or 8 years old to call you know pirate bulletin boards and stuff like that.  Like, we got a cease and desist, my dad actually still has this letter, we have cease and desist from one of RIT’s heads of technology ‘cause we’ve – we’ve hacked their password file back then.  It was like you run crackerjack overnight and it brute force hits it with anything, what I am gonna do with a bunch of accounts to RIT’s vox but I do remember you know getting my first Magnavox 28612 and going to town on it, also the Apple 2c and all that good stuff so I know both of those – were – were pretty prevalent in my life growing up and then it sounds like it was well designed but it was in fact very arbitrary that I ended up going to Carnegie Mellon. 

I remember I got a brochure to attend pre-college there for design, I thought it was cool.  I went - I went to undergrad there, I continued to do my Masters there and years later, you do some research and you’re like, ‘Wow!  That’s like the epicenter of everything technology leading up into what is now normal culture.’  So, you know I think I got super lucky with all of those things, sort of leading to what is now my – my job, my career, and my passions.