Phase 1: Entrepreneurial Design, 2012-2018

What enables artists, entrepreneurs, and activists to be successful in today’s networked world?

Students from School of Visual Arts MFA in Interaction Design go through an ideation exercise at the beginning of the semester.

From 2012 - 2018, we (Christina Xu and Gary Chou) have explored this question primarily through our work co-teaching "Entrepreneurial Design", a semester-long compulsory course for first-year students at School of Visual Arts MFA in Interaction Design program.

The course challenges students to:

  1. get comfortable with sharing their in-progress work online,
  2. observe and learn to give back to communities they’re interested in, and
  3. design an original crowdfunding project that can generate $1,000 by the end of the semester.

All of their work takes place in the real world, which provides students with the opportunity to learn a number of challenging lessons:

  • how to negotiate and embrace real constraints
  • how to design, not just for, but with communities in their work
  • that they—as designers—can’t control outcomes

Along the way, they also develop their own practices and rituals around peer critique, asking for and processing feedback, lightweight prototyping, and writing as a form of reflection. The instructors serve a coaching role—we cheer the students on, guide them around or through obstacles, and synthesize lessons along the way.

After taking over a hundred students through our courses, we have determined that there are two absolutely critical abilities for independent creators today. These are:

  1. The ability to confront and navigate uncertainty - The journey of creation requires sailing off into uncharted territory, with no preset right or wrong answers. Creators must develop practices for making decisions with incomplete data, recognizing the difference between an obstacle and a dead end, and reflecting on their progress honestly.

  2. The ability to sustain and grow relevant networks - Networks of people who can provide a creator with advice, support, information, connections, or capital are critical infrastructure. Creators need to be just as intentional about developing this infrastructure as they are about the work itself.

Below is a repository of course materials, reflections from the instructors, student testimonials, and lessons on teaching from our courses, as well as from related iterations run at Orbital.

From the Students

If there’s any secret sauce to entrepreneurship, if there’s any “it” factor, it’s this: start before you feel ready.

—Melody Quintana, Embrace the Awkward

Doing a Kickstarter turns out to be a great way to reach out to other people with your ideas.

—Guri Venstad, Connecting the Cheese

One of the key things I learned is the huge gulf between theory and practise.

—Tony Chu, Fail in Public

Ask for feedback, but most importantly know when [it] is time to use the feedback and when [it] is time to trash it.

—Paula Daneze, This is just the beginning…

Don’t let details get in the way of launching.

—Pam Jue, What I learned from earning $1k in a semester

The most beautiful thing I’ve learned is that most of us love to help others.

—Song Lee, Don’t be scared to ask for help

Tell as many people as you can about what you’re working on.

—Kohzy Koh, A Few Scattered Pieces of Advice for Future Entrepreneurial Design Classes

...the most powerful thing about sharing the unfinished, about being open and raw with the world, is that others can recognize themselves in you.

—Rachel Balma, Breaking the Golden Record

Small audiences will actually TALK to you. Embrace that. Engage with people.

—Christine Lawton, What Happens When You Have a Small Audience

That’s the beauty of the prototype. It’s a way of testing decisions.

—Nour Malaeb, On Being Stuck

Stay within your target audience (somewhat) to get the appropriate feedback. You don’t need to please everyone.

—Andrea Kang, What I learned from launching Reflect, a guided journaling club

It’s about being genuine. It’s about there being no right answers. About fighting the tendency to ask for approval or permission. About getting out of your head and engaging with the world.

—Nikki Sylianteng, A class on life

If Christina and Gary had simply told us these things I don’t think I would have believed it. The way in which we had to apply and learn as we built real projects really drove these lessons home.

—Tyler Gumb, Process over Product

There’s something exciting about taking risks, and not knowing what the outcome will be.

—Leroy Tellez, It’s OK to fail

...friends, families, and people have truly surprised me.

—Jennifer Wei, Asking for help empowers you

Sharing your work in public is scary, but it is an essential step to build trust and credibility within your own network.

—Margarita Yong, Lessons Learned From Successfully Running a Kickstarter Campaign

Even if you’re the one with the idea, find a few people to take the journey with you, because you’ll go further, together!

—Datrianna Meeks, With my last entrepreneurial design course...

It helped me [...] realize that our networks and our fellow designers — the company we keep — shapes who we are and helps us to grow.

—Crystal Wang, The Company We Keep: A Kickstarter Journey

The biggest lesson I have learned is that good design isn’t just for people - it is with people.

—Amy Ashida, What the $1,000 Project Taught Me

When you send something good to the world, it will come back in the most lovely form of surprise.

—Angie Ngoc Tran, I got kickstarted and here’s what I learned

I don’t know if you can teach someone to be an entrepreneur any more than you can teach someone to have good taste, but you can teach about the power of the Internet.

—Barbara de Wilde, Can you teach someone to be an entrepreneur

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a solid network together, a network you trust, before embarking on the journey of getting out there [...] and putting yourself in public.

—Anupma Rajani, Surround yourself with the right people

This class has taught me to have confidence in my opinion, curiosity, and (burgeoning) expertise on design.

—Sarah Henry, Entrepreneurial Design: What I’ve Learned

The paradox of uncertainty is that while we avoid it, it is actually the very thing we need.

—Ruth Tupe, The Paradox of Uncertainty

On Teaching

Teaching Entrepreneurial Design has taught us a lot about the benefits and challenges of experiential instruction. Experiential learning is an unparalleled way to get students to deal with real complexity in their process, and it is an especially useful tool for teaching about the abstract concept of “networks.” However, experiential instruction is also energy-intensive and risky for both instructors and students.

Here’s an overview of some of the major instructional challenges we have encountered:

  1. Networks are an abstract concept, and hard to teach instructionally. It has taken us years of experimentation to come up with effective mental models, vocabulary, and exercises to help students effectively connect theory to practice.

  2. Networked fluency is something that needs to be deliberately and actively taught. We thought that knowing how to parse, access, and leverage networks would have become more intrinsic and obvious with the rise of social networks, but our experience so far has proven otherwise.

  3. Online infrastructure is volatile. In the last 7 years, many of the platforms we rely on for our courses have fallen into disrepair or disfavor, or are now unrecognizable after their respective pivots. Online platforms are both the tools we teach and the spaces we teach within, so we have to constantly re-evaluate.

  4. Engaging in public requires students to be courageous. Working in public requires being open to judgment at scale, and missteps can lead to real and lasting consequences.

  5. Students are systemically unprepared to deal with ambiguity. In our class, there is often no “right answer,” which can be incredibly unnerving for students trained in an achievement-oriented mindset.

  6. Personalized transformative experiences don’t scale. In our model, students show up with different aspirations and skill-sets, then go on very individualized journeys. This means that what they need from us as instructors is eclectic and unpredictable, which requires a lot of emotional energy to manage.

Instructor Reflections

Year 5Christina Xu and Gary Chou; Edited by Liz Danzico, Introduction by Paul Ford

Course Materials


The course we have today is informed by the contributions and insights of our previous co-instructors, Christina Cacioppo (co-creator, 2012) and Leland Rechis (2014, 2015), and the guidance of our department chair Liz Danzico.

Each run of the course is a set of sprawling explorations into many unfamiliar areas. To manage the unexpected obstacles and opportunities along the way, we've relied heavily on the friends and colleagues in our collective network for guidance and advice.

Over the years, we've experimented with different ways to utilize our network: as advisors, teaching assistants, guest commenters and speakers.

Special thanks to our School of Visual Arts MFA in Interaction Design Faculty and Staff colleagues. We benefit from the fact that the students bring with them the skills and insights developed in their other courses as well as within the experience of working together in the studio.