What we learned designing Leap Map, a visual blueprint for personal transformation

Completing a personal project is hard. You start off with an exciting idea, lots of motivation, and wonderful visions of success. But then you get stuck. Something doesn’t work out quite the way you planned, or the project starts to feel too complex and overwhelming.

Does that sound familiar? It sure does to me. While I love to build and create, I’ve often been guilty of overthinking a project before really getting started on it, and finding a lot of reasons why it’ll be too complicated or difficult to execute.

Planning a personal project with Leap Map. Photo by Kevin Von Qualen.

Experience Institute and Leap Kit

At Experience Institute (Ei) we’ve been helping our students design their education through 3-month apprenticeships with organizations they want to learn from around the world. From our student’s experiences and founder Victor Saad’s incredible Leap Year Project (12 apprenticeships in 12 months!) we’ve learned a thing or two about helping others execute meaningful projects in a short time frame.

We’ve seen that defining life moments happen when students willfully push themselves beyond their comfort zone to finish a project and learn something new. They form new relationships, write meaningful stories, and transform into the more capable, confident people they hoped to become.

We were curious if we could help a lot more people undergo this type of personal transformation through personal projects and experiences without needing to leave their jobs to join the Ei Fellowship Program for a whole year.

And so, we decided to build Leap Kit. Leap Kit is a set of tools designed to support taking risks as you move into new territory. Designed by Ei Studio — our design team at Experience Institute (Ei) — and partners at Grip Design, Strand Design, and gravitytank, the kit maps out a 90-day learning project based on your goals and passions. It consists of a Leap Map, Field Guide, Coaching Cards, sticky notes, and sharpie, all housed in a beautiful bonded leather folio.

Interestingly, during our user testing and since the Kit has been launched, we’ve seen that one tool — Leap Map — has been far and away the most useful. Understanding why it’s the most useful tool has shed even more light onto what helps someone plan and execute a meaningful project.

Leap Map and Field Guide. Photo by Kevin Von Qualen.

Leap Map

From working with our students we thought we knew all about executing personal projects. But we soon realized it is a whole different ball game to individually coach a cohort of 10 students through the ups and downs of apprenticeship hunting and execution than it is to mail folks a kit and ask them to send us their story when they’ve completed a project.

We worked hard to write up a series of activities we’ve used in the past along with example stories from previous “Leapers” we admire. This became the Field Guide. We also experimented with a large poster for visually organizing your project using guiding questions, inspired by business planning tools like Lean Canvas. This became Leap Map. While building these two tools we invited people to the studio to test them out.

Filling out Leap Map. Photo by Kevin Von Qualen.

Freedom beats instructions

“Sometimes I have trouble expressing how I actually feel. When I see someone else’s words I veer off in their direction… I wanted it to be exactly how I felt.”

[Testing participant when asked why she skipped reading the Field Guide and went right to her Leap Map]

“If it’s already thought out for me it doesn’t give me a lot of room to think it through on my own.”

[Another testing participant describing interacting with the Field Guide]

We found that Leap Map was much more approachable than the Field Guide. In fact, the Field Guide became most useful when it specifically helped to address the key prompts on the Map. Initially we had thought we just needed the right instructions, but it turned out that users wanted freedom first.

Users were drawn to Leap Map’s open-ended questions and big empty spaces to fill with their own ideas on sticky notes. Even with our rough early prototypes we could see that it provided a loose structure for users to formulate their own plans. We learned that users needed just enough structure to ask the right questions, but not so much that they felt they had to wade through lots of instructions to formulate their own answers.

Based on this feedback we redesigned the experience so that Leap Map became the central tool of the kit. We distilled the most crucial guiding questions from the Field Guide and put them on the Map so it could be used on its own. We reorganized the Field Guide so that if users needed more help with a certain section on the Map it would correspond to a specific activity.

“Leapers” from Leo Burnett interviewing each other about when they feel most in their element. Photo by Kevin Von Qualen.

Self reflection changes everything

When testing our prototypes we found that some people came in with a clear idea of a project to do, while others had no idea. To accommodate these two user groups, we split Leap Map into two sides — “Pre-Leap” and “Ready to Leap.” If you didn’t know what project to do you could start on the Pre-Leap side with self-reflective questions and a brainstorm session of project ideas, and then head over to the other side when ready. If you did have a clear project idea you could start directly on the Ready to Leap side.

What we’ve found using Leap Kit in many workshops is that everyone benefits from the self-reflective questions on the Pre-Leap side of Leap Map. People coming into it with a clear project idea often changed that idea or made it more nuanced after tackling prompts such as “Some of the times I’ve felt most in my element” and “Things I wish were different in the world.”

Digging more deeply into what inspires them and what they aspire to created a more rich set of ideas for a 3 month project that could push them out of their comfort zones. Now, when we send out Leap Kits or use them in a class or workshop we encourage everyone to start with these open-ended, soul searching questions. They feel difficult at first, but taking the time to answer them gives everyone a better idea of where they could go next.

What’s next?

Leap Map continues to be our go-to tool to use with Experience Institute students, Leap workshops (such as this 3 month project with Leo Burnett employees), and a Designing Your Future course I teach at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Yet we’ve found that folks using the kit on their own often have difficulty getting started without being part of a group or having fixed deadlines.

To address that issue, we’ve just launched an online course called Leap Course where students are sent a Leap Map and go through activities each week to plan and execute their own projects or apprenticeships. They regularly meet online with other students to give and receive feedback and generally hold each other accountable. We can’t wait to see what we learn from Leap Course and how it helps students grow and transform.

Until then, here are two of the most important things we’ve learned. If you or someone you know wants to launch a personal project…

  1. Break the project into a manageable size (roughly 3 months), and give yourself a structure that allows for open ended exploration but doesn’t bog you down.
  2. Before you start executing, think about what truly inspires you and where you hope the project will land. My own current leap is to run Art Nights with friends in Chicago, which I’ll share more about soon!

Happy leaping!