Design for Social and Civic Engagement

How can a small college town bridge the gap between “town” and “gown” to retain young, creative professionals post-graduation?

Tara Parker-Essig
9 min readMar 30, 2017


Project Overview

Goal: To retain young creative professionals within the city of Davis, CA.

Background: While the City of Davis knows it has an untapped resource in the students of UC Davis, most of them immediately move away from the city upon graduation. Therefore, our task from the city was to develop and test a way to retain and attract a group they called “young creative professionals”.

Team: Four UC Davis seniors (Adam Rosado, Sandra Bae, Kaly Stormer, and myself) nicknamed “Team TASK Force,” guided by instructor Tom Maiorana in his Human Centered Design course during the Fall of 2016.

Challenges: The open-ended definition of “young, creative professional” and the short timeline of 5 weeks.

Methods: Our team was first assisted by a Design Ethnographer. Together we developed the research objective “to discover and understand why people under 30 choose to leave or remain in Davis when not attending college.”

Next, our team interviewed a multitude of individuals under 30 and not currently enrolled in a school. While we originally pursued the goal of increasing the diversity of subcultures in Davis, testing our prototype, a hypothetical music venue represented by a Facebook page, we realized Davis already had numerous subcultures and venues to host them. What were we doing adding another? We pivoted and studied why young people were not connecting to these cultural hubs.

Through further interviews, we realized current students perceive not only the university, but also the city Davis as a place for study- not fun or community connections. Students feel they lack the time to explore the city they live in for four plus years. To solve this issue, we then prototyped a class aimed at introducing students to local venues, artists, cooperatives, and businesses while providing them with the crucial ingredient: course credit.

It was enormously successful- our call for interest in the course returned numerous emails from graduate and undergraduate students. This confirmed our hunch that students were seeking a chance to explore their local community, but would not unless they could simultaneously fulfill their educational goals.

Results: The project and our critical realizations were presented to the City and received great positive reception, feedback, and requests to further prototype the curriculum of the course. I hope a version of our course will soon be building new connections in the Davis community.

Project Story

After spending 5 weeks absorbing and practicing Tom’s human-centered research method for individual projects, it was time to put our skills to work as a team. Rachel Hartsough, Arts & Culture Manager for the City of Davis, came to our class to present us with a problem: “How can the city of Davis retain and attract young, creative professionals?”

As students ourselves we were already familiar with the graduate-and-move-away trend that UC Davis students follow. While it is not true that graduates never remain in Davis, it is true that the majority of artist and entrepreneurs in town have lived here for decades. On the other hand, Rachel informed us, alumni who have spent their early careers in San Francisco, Sacramento, LA, and other large cities often move back to Davis to raise their children. Can we influence them to return sooner, or recent grads to stay longer? It was up to us to figure out if and how that might be possible.

Our design objective

After further conversation we determined what Rachel envisioned as a successful result — a small increase in city population, consisting of an age group we were to determine, to build upon Davis’ cultural capital. With clarity from our client, we then developed our foundational research objective.

The team would work “to discover and understand why people under 30 choose to leave or remain in Davis when not attending college.” This research objective was chosen after producing mind maps to imagine potential stakeholders, end users, and the context in which we would be designing.

Our research objective

Next, we began to define topic areas, guided by Vida Mia Garcia, Design Ethnographer at Red Cover Studios. What areas of interest would be relevant to explore in order to discover and understand why people under 30 leave or remain in Davis when not enrolled in higher education? Our team discussion chose the topics of routine, career, relationships, leisure time, aspirations, and personal values as most likely to be relevant to our investigation.

The six areas around which we developed our interview questions

From our six topic areas, we then developed an extensive discussion guide containing questions we would ask during each interview we conducted. The guide would serve as a roadmap for our investigation, keep all team members on the same page and accountable to each other, and give us a consistent framework from which we would draw observations to analyse. We wrote questions that were short but open-ended, and used language like “What makes you say that?” instead of the overly-blunt “Why?”

If you’d like, you can read our entire discussion guide.

Discussion guide introduction, full guide is available here.

Next it was time to seek out people for interviews. Given our short timeline, we pulled mainly from our own social circles, seeking out friends of friends, or people we already knew were living in or visiting Davis but not attending school there. We interviewed six young adults in pairs of two, with one team member to take notes while the other spoke with the interviewee. Our discussion guide acted as a framework and blueprint, but the conversations were allowed to flow naturally.

The range of thoughts and feelings about Davis varied greatly. Some described the city simply as “Home,” while another said “I would not move to Davis until a meteor hit every major city and there was nowhere else to live.”

We then investigated our interviews using two techniques: Point-of-View exercises with accompanying How Might We statements and Empathy Mapping.

Point-of-View exercise (left) and Empathy Map (right) exercises.

We heard multiple comments suggesting that Davis had “just one culture” or “one niche, which you either vibe with or you don’t.” It seemed we’d found a pattern.

If Davis feels monocultural to its young residents, how do we cultivate new, diverse subcultures?

After individual and group brainstorming and discussion, we settled on the rapid prototype of a hypothetical venue, represented by a Facebook Business Page. This music venue would host a new genre every evening (thus our incredibly creative name.) Given that many of our interviewees valued music and dance, if greater variety was injected into the local scene living in Davis might prove more satisfying to them.

For five dollars we were able to promote the venue to hundreds of people, asking them what they thought of our plan. We also turned again to our own social circles, peppering conversations with the occasional “What do you think of this idea?” in an open-ended manner.

While people responded positively to our prototype, they also had many doubts about its feasibility, and so did we. What we took away from our prototype was that overall, users had a genuine interest in seeing an increase in the cultural diversity of Davis. Though we may not have found an immediate solution, we had proven our first hunch correct.

Team TASK Force was in low spirits. Given the feedback we had indicating people wanted more diversity we had developed a concept for a cooperative, coffee shop, art gallery, and show space but the results felt forced and ingenuine. We had learned from comparative research that Davis had many venues already, why were we adding another? Why did young people think there was a lack of culture in Davis?

Only a handful of the arts and music venues in Davis, CA.

At first we considered it might be a lack of events being hosted, despite the numerous venues, but a quick check online proved otherwise. The team realized we needed to go back and change, or pivot, our approach to the problem. So we looked back at our interviews, reflected on our own personal experiences and dove deeper!

In rereading out interview notes with fresh eyes, we noticed our interviewees said things like: “I associate Davis with school,” “I came to Davis to get a degree,” and “I don’t have time to go to a show, I need to go home [to my apartment] and study.”

It became clearer that perhaps, the issue is not with what young people do when they are not students as we first assumed. Perhaps the problem is with students themselves — with how they perceive the city of Davis and with what they can do in their limited free time.

When we discovered our key insight, it felt as though it had been staring us in the face, all along.

We realized that young people associate “Davis” with the University, not with the City. But the City of Davis is event-rich and culturally vibrant, exactly as our interviewees said they wanted.

Our mission became one of getting students to discover that Davis, the fun, vibrant, culturally diverse city that few realized was out there. How could we connect them with local culture when even the students with a genuine interest in it had little time to explore?

We continued to discuss, debate, and doodle until it hit us:
By creating a class that offers students a chance to explore but makes it an integral part of their school day!

Our second prototype- a spring quarter class introducing you to local hotspots.

Our second prototype was a hypothetical class we called “Design 199F: Revealing Places.” The goal of the class being to provide field trips and integration with the local creative community while students are still in school. They will get units for their time, which we know as current undergrads makes or breaks any efforts to get students involved. For this hypothetical class we created a flyer and syllabus with an email address for interested students to reach us. To make it seem the most authentic possible, we invented a course number and asked our professor, Tom Maiorana, if he would let us use his name- he agreed! We copied the layout and verbiage of genuine course announcements and posted flyers for our invented class around the Design and Art departments.

To our surprise and delight, responses poured in. People were genuinely interested in enrolling in our course. We even had a fellow professor directly message Tom and compliment him on the flyer and concept for the course!

Select quotations from interested students, both graduate and undergraduate.

While we unfortunately had to disappoint our classmates and reveal that Tom would not be teaching Revealing Places after all, we followed up with one of our respondents who said,

“I am looking to dive into the creative campus and Davis communities. . . and essentially continue my personal thesis research in the structure of the course.”

Her and others’ passionate explanations of their interest confirmed our hunch that young people will seek opportunities where they are able to attain their educational goal while simultaneously discovering, exploring, and enjoying local subcultures. We realized that despite their desire for cultural diversity, young people have little experience with the City of Davis because they’re so busy with school.

Successful prototype in hand, we prepared to present our findings to Rachel Hartsough and her fellow city of Davis officials.

Team TASK Force presents at City Hall

Our findings and recommended solution received great positive reception from city officials and employees, who offered us much feedback and requested we continue to further prototype the curriculum of the course. I hope a version of our course will soon be building new connections in the Davis community.

All six student teams pose with professor Tom Maiorana after presentations to the City.