Jon Kolko on What Makes Design Work Meaningful

In Chapter 2 of 21 in his 2012 Capture Your Flag interview, design educator Jon Kolko answers "What Makes Your Work Meaningful?"  Kolko finds meaningful work in design work that is done well.  He understands all projects may not be meaningful to him but still finds meaning in the process of design and problem.  In his initiative starting a design school, Kolko pushes the conversation to understand how to encapsulate meaning in a way that makes sense for all people in a group and the social entrepreneurship methodology helping to enable it. 

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 makes your work meaningful?

Jon Kolko: For me, meaningful work is extremely simple. It’s design work that’s done well and in a weird sort of way, I can feel that way about work that is meaningless and I feel bad about it. 

And so as an example, I can pick up contract work, and I have over the last three or four years – for let's call it like giant conglomerate company that sells ringtones or big, fat, company that sells computer parts, and screens, and LCDs and stuff. And that’s meaningless work. But I can lose myself in it as in any other design or creative sense and it will be meaningful to me. I will feel great as a result of doing it. It's only when you take that sort of step back and go, “What am I'm doing? Why is this worth it? Why is this worth my time?” 

So the larger conversation that we have at AC4D a lot is around how do you encapsulate meaning in a way that makes sense for all of the people that are part of that group? And we've come to this very simple tool that we stole from policy and fields of social entrepreneurship called “Theory of Change” and a theory of change is a logic model. It's a way of saying that the world will be better if. It's a hypothesis. The world will be better if there were no homeless people. Ok, that’s a statement. It's probably impossible for me to ever achieve that goal in my life and I don’t even try. But if we back off of that, you can say, well, in order to get to a point where that is true, homeless people need to have houses and feel empowered to get jobs and stop doing self-destructive behavior. Ok, well either -- any of those three are too big to think so let's back off of that. Alright, self-empower, how do we get there? Well, I can start to think about how design can drive something to help somebody be self-empowered. So that’s a theory of change. 

And so, I can start to vet projects within that theory of change and say do they support that logic model or not? And if they do, then that’s work worth doing and that’s meaningful. And if they don’t, then it's not.