Jon Kolko on How to Make Social Impact Jobs a Design Career Choice

In Chapter 10 of 21 in his 2012 Capture Your Flag interview, design educator Jon Kolko answers "What Made You Decide to Write a Book on Wicked Problems?"  Kolko writes the book as a call to action for practicing designers and the educators who teach them.  The book, available for free at, offers innovative approaches to the evolving design career options. 

Jon Kolko the founder and director of the Austin Center for Design.  He has authored multiple books on design, including "Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving."  Previously he has held senior roles at venture accelerator Thinktiv and frog design and was a professor of Interactive and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).  Kolko earned his Masters in Human Computer Interaction (MHI) and BFA in Design from Carnegie Mellon University.


Erik Michielsen: What made you decide to write a book on Wicked Problems?

Jon Kolko: Wicked Problems, the book, is a call to action for practicing designers. I would like to see all designers start to question not just the quality of the work they're doing, but what problems they're actually working on. And so, the initial thought was what kind of project can we do at Austin Center for Design to get the word out about the curriculum we're teaching, the types of projects we're launching, and companies we're starting. And so, it was like alright, we’ll do a book, maybe some videos and then the thought was like why not just give it away for free? And so, the whole project is available at and my hope is that there's a couple different tiers of designers, like sort of segments of designers that will find it interesting. 

The most immediate is design educators. There's a tiny, tiny number of design educators in the world. And so, if five of them changed their curriculum, suddenly we've affected a lot of practicing designers to be in 10 years. And so, like, here's a curriculum for you, it's cut and dry, it's already done, now you just have the easy task of pushing it through a curriculum council which is another 10 years at some places. But it's to set a precedent for them. 

Another audience is for practicing designers and for practicing designers that are five and six years out, they really start to hit a wall with a huge degree of regularity and they're looking for both examples of what other things they could be doing and also permission to do it. And I found it really effective to just say that to younger junior designers like it's okay to exit the corporate consultancy game. It's okay. There are other things you can do. You can take design and take it policy. You can take it to finance. You can take it to film. You can take it to art. You can take it to Wicked Problems. You can do a lot of things with design. It doesn’t have to be jammed into business. And that’s really, really refreshing, I think for them to hear or so it has been in my experience. 

The last audience is for designers who are right now like seniors in college who are about to graduate and they're scratching their head going, “You know what? I don’t want to work at --“name your Fortune 20 company, “and these flashy consultancies. I don’t want to work there either.” Those used to be rogue designers and design programs. They're the norm now and they have grown up with a set of ideals that it's part of them to work on things that matter. Well, like, Okay, cool. Here's your handbook. Go work on things that matter and make the world a better place.