The Weekend Workshop brings together creatives on a mission

On a sunny weekend in June, 20 brave creatives and 6 change organization representatives gathered at R/GA’s downtown office.

The Weekend Workshop, also known as the Iterate! phase, is part one of the three part Series and the foundation for the work the teams will do the rest of the summer. The objectives for the intense design-thinking workshop are clear: give our creative teams the tools they need to help our Change Organization partners advance their mission.

Where do you even start? For our program it starts with building strong teams.

Photo credit: Bri Penney

Team Members

We used an online application to select creatives with varied backgrounds, experience levels and skill sets. We also encouraged those who don’t consider themselves “creative” to apply. Diversity makes our teams stronger.

We ask a lot of our creative Team Members. They’re taking on a three month volunteer project with the ambiguous goal of “doing good”.

So what makes these creatives so eager to volunteer their professional skills in this way?

For some, it’s an extension of their careers.

“I’ve been looking for a program like this!” Kristian Manrique enthusiastically told me after the first day of our Weekend Workshop. “As a designer for social good, I am incredibly grateful for AIGA’s Changemaker series! I’ve been waiting for a program like this where I could get involved and contribute back to the community.”

For team members like Mary Pawlowski, it’s just part of who she is.

“Growing up, volunteering was something I did alongside my mother. When I moved away from home, it was something I did to meet new people, help and understand my community, and learn something new. Designing for good has been a thought in my mind and focus since beginning my career as a graphic designer so I’m very pleased I was accepted and get to share the experience with like-minded individuals.”

We first met Mary at our introductory happy hour in March, and knew right away that her enthusiasm would make her great team member.

“I went to the Changemaker [Series] Happy Hour knowing it was a “new to Austin” series looking for creative individuals to help a local non-profit for the summer. Regardless of the theme, I was going to apply even if I wasn’t chosen.”


Solid teams are the backbone of the whole series so putting together the right creative Team Members with the right Change Organization client is crucial. With a strong project manager at the helm, teams are usually made up of creatives with design, copywriting and research skills.

Both the creatives and Change Org participants are not told who their teams are until the day of the Workshop. They entered the Weekend Workshop as strangers, and any awkwardness or uncertainty they felt in the beginning almost immediately dissipated during the ice breaker activities. The loud, excited buzz filled the room and we couldn’t shut them up to start the workshop. It was a wonderful feeling.

Photo credit: Bri Penney

Fortunately, once team assignments were revealed, participants understood why we waited to tell them.

“It’s too easy to make assumptions, and since we all really got to know our [Change Org clients] and our team at the same time, it helped ensure that we started working through it together rather than coming in on Saturday morning thinking we already had the answers.”



To create the workshop curriculum, we worked closely with our facilitator John Murray to adapt his IBM design-thinking workshop for our program. You can read about John’s planning process for our workshop here.

“I didn’t expect to get to go through the design process in the way we did, and I was pleasantly surprised. I love working through things initially like that (post-its everywhere), and I think that for the people on my team who haven’t worked that way before, it was a positive experience for them as well.
“The way were guided by John to approach our “problem” was really effective. It helped us get to know our organization, their goals, and our team members. It was a great way for us to immediately figure out how we will all work together in the coming months.”

The Workshop also offered a safe space to confront our ignorance, ask “dumb” questions, and mindfully evaluate our biases and misconceptions. It’s something our teams will have to continually work on in their quest to empathize with their user.

In a highlight of the weekend, Ruby Ku, Director of the Austin Center For Design gave real-world lessons on how to conduct user research with sensitivity and relieved much of the anxiety our teams were feeling.

At the heart of her message, empathy: people are people. Stakeholders are people, your staff are people, people experiencing homelessness are people. In addition to helpful tips on interviewing those experiencing homelessness without making them feel like guinea pigs, Ruby had practical advice on making your donors your best advocates and empowering clients to help make change.


In addition to leading teams through the design process, and giving them the tools they need for their summer project, the Workshop also serves the function team-building. of bonding our teams.

The Change Organization Representatives go through the entire workshop with their creative team. They are more team member than client. It was so fun to watch them learn these new design-thinking tools.

At times I could barely see Gabriella McDonald, the New Projects Director for Texas Appleseed, through the forest of post-it notes. Executive director Deborah Fowler told me she was having a blast and couldn’t wait to teach these skills to her office.

The Lifeworks Austin team gets feedback from the room and facilitator John Murray during playback
“I didn’t realize that we would have representatives from the orgs working so closely with us. I just figured they’d come in the morning, pitch their problem, and leave us to it. I’m so glad that wasn’t the case and that they worked with us all weekend. Their insight is invaluable and having them so involved is going to make this design solution so much better.”

Kristian noted the value of collaborative relationship:

“…we get to work with our clients much more closely than I do in my full-time job. Jasmine and Julianne from LifeWorks are hands-on in the research, brainstorming and prototyping of our project. They are designers on my team. That is an invaluable asset to the work for the target audience of this non-profit organization. They are open-minded, and they’re braving the wilderness that is the creative process with us as we discover how this team might help Austin’s homeless youth.”
Photo credit: Bri Penney

Just as important as the collaboration between creative team and Change Org client is the relationships between the Creative Team Members. The diversity of skillsets is important to our teams. Kristian adds,

“I have never worked with some of the types of designers in my team before, and it’s really interesting to hear their approach and priorities in comparison to my UX and service design background.”

Nhu Nguyen has similar feelings about her team.

“I am so lucky to be paired with such motivated, intelligent and creative teammates. Complete strangers working together for the first time is intimidating and difficult but we all care and have so much to offer. I look forward to seeing what we can do and how we do it.”

What’s Next

Teams left the workshop inspired and energized. But then, the hard part, and it was time to get to work. They are now nearly half-way through their project. In case the very vague brief of “go out and do good” isn’t hard enough, a lot can go wrong with projects of this nature. Coordinating a team of volunteers, some remotely, is a massive challenge for each of our project managers.

At the end of the workshop, the team at R/GA gave our teams some practical tips on managing these kinds of project. Lean on your project manager, stay organized, have a plan, come prepared (especially to remote meetings), meet face to face whenever possible even if it’s via video chat, share your screen, and constantly test your “customer-centric” hypothesis

Gif credit: AC Cowart
“Usually you work on a project with a defined scope and hope that your work and efforts live longer to address a social issue. In this case, the LifeWorks Series team is aiming to build something that is sustainable and reusable. Our clients get to take what they learn from working with this team, the design thinking framework, and use it going forward to solve problems for their homeless youth. Our efforts here together outlast the project timeline, and that is truly is a wonderful thing.” — Kristian

Stay tuned as we announce the date of our Showcase in September and celebrate the end of AIGA Austin’s first Changemaker Series and our teams’ projects! Follow us on Instagram @aigaaustin and #changemakeratx and join our email list.

Thank You

Thank you to our creative Team Members and Change Organization Representatives for volunteering their time to these projects.

We couldn’t have pulled this off without amazing, passionate people like our facilitator John Murray and sponsors. The Changemaker Series would simply not be possible without the support of our generous partners who share our passion to promote design as a power for social change. Interested in sponsoring the Changemaker Series? Get in touch at

A HUGE thank you to R/GA for hosting us in their beautiful downtown office, feeding us, and lending their expertise!

Thank you USAA, Big Swig, and Austin East Ciders!!

AC Cowart is a freelance web designer by day, and a freelance web designer by night too

AIGA Changemaker Series vet from Seattle, now in Austin