Finding Design Agency — An interview with AC4D’s Chap Ambrose

Chap at work.

Chap Ambrose is one of those famed unicorns that you only ever so often hear about and find even less — fluent in code, physical product design, and design methodology. He appears to make ideas happen effortlessly. Regardless of talent, it’s his thoughtfulness and determination that ensures the projects he starts will be completed. Read on to learn how you, too, can find and execute on projects that matter to you. And if a project’s completion still seems elusive, Chap’s made a product for that, too.

How did you find out about Austin Center for Design (AC4D)?

Jon Kolko taught some of my undergrad program. We stayed in touch after I graduated, and I’d hear from him every few months. He told me — ‘Hey, I’m starting a school’. It kind of related to some of the work I was doing in undergrad, in terms of using design for social good. As soon as I heard I had to go. I told Maura, my wife, I want to go to this, and I want to go the first year, because I don’t know if it’s going to last more than a year. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ivrea Institute — it was a really cool interaction design program in Italy, but it was only around for a couple of years. There were so many cool programs and people that came out of that really short span — and I wasn’t missing this one. So we moved from Philadelphia to Austin. That was in 2009; school started in Fall of 2010.

Chap and his wife, Maura.

Was there a gap in your design experience from SCAD that additionally drove you to attend?

Even though I graduated and had had some jobs already, I was still figuring out what I wanted to do. I came out of design school with the knowledge to conduct research and build cool products and the drive to change the world. And I quickly found that my vision was way bigger than any job. For example, my first job was working at a non-profit addressing homelessness in the employment center. I built a web database for jobs started to rethink the whole program. And they were like, “This isn’t your job. You’re supposed to sit and help people make resumes. That’s why we hired you.”

So I had this big drive that wasn’t being satisfied. When I heard about AC4D, I thought it would be a good time to reset; to take a step back from my day-to-day work, to be more thoughtful in how I approach design, work, and my life more broadly. And, I wanted to get connected to a group of people doing the same. So for me, it was less about picking up new skills and more about setting aside intentional time to think about what I really value and how I’m going to make my mark in the world.

Tell me about your actual experience at Austin Center for Design.

It was great. I think we had an amazing first class. We had some quality people — it takes a unique type of character to come to a school in its first year. The energy was electric. The program was new for everyone, and we bonded over the struggle of having big ideas and trying to put them out into the world. Some of those people are still my best friends.

Tell me more about your main project for the year.

That first year, we picked homelessness as a topic. For half of a year, we were focused on the homeless shelter in downtown Austin, Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, or ARCH. They were sort of a client, and teams of students took on different design challenges that ARCH’s operation presented.

I partnered with Scott Magee, and we came up with an idea focused on the phone system. If you walk in there today, the phone is ringing off the hook, and only occasionally does it get answered. If no one is bugging the front desk person, then that front desk person will answer the phone. But 90% of the time, someone is at the front desk who needs assistance. They are prioritized.

And we also realized that there are people who want to help. That insight came out of our research — people want to volunteer at ARCH but didn’t know how. If you haven’t seen ARCH, it’s intimidating to walk up to it — everyone is kind of hanging out outside. So that was the lightbulb idea. People would be happy to answer phones, specifically if they didn’t have to be there. Out came Pocket Hotline, a distributed, toll free number that reaches volunteers on their cell phones.

Chap Ambrose (left) and Scott Magee work on Pocket Hotline.

What’s it like to be an alumnus in Austin?

Maura and I moved here not knowing if we would stay. But we really fell in love with Austin, and decided to make the move permanent and bought a house and the whole thing. That’s been the best, just getting to know Austin and discovering what’s here.

I really like being a part of the alumni community. For me, it’s an extension of a lot of that camaraderie we had in the first year, and having people continue to move here and join. It’s helpful when you’re starting something new, just to have another ear and another perspective, and encouragement from someone who knows how hard it can be to start something. So I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s one of the benefits of sticking around and staying in touch with old classmates and getting to know the current students.

Since graduating, what have you been working on?

During the time between undergrad and AC4D, I taught myself how to program, mostly web development. That’s been a really fantastic, bread and butter job to work from home and be able to support my family. My wife launched a quilting company after moving to Austin, and I was able to help support her and be a part of that.

I also launched a physical product, Make Time Clock, in the last year. That was in partnership with my last programming job, but it brought in a lot more principles around product design and industrial design — just taking something to manufacturing was a pretty incredible experience. And it’s actually closely related to working with my wife, who’s an artist, trying to balance her time between motherhood and art. The concept is, set aside a specific time to be creative, and use the physical manifestation of the clock to remind you and encourage you.

Recently I’ve also been helping a friend start a new nonprofit, We Are Healers, whose goal is to get more native students into healthcare careers. I’m on the board, helping a lot with tech stuff, but also shaping the programs. It’s really satisfying to be on the ground floor and brings things full circle with my earlier experiences at organizations.

Chap’s first run of the Make Time Clock.

Are there ways that the AC4D education empowered you to pursue things like Make Time Clock and other ventures? I can imagine that some of the projects you’ve embarked upon would sound daunting in terms of their difficulty and time required to create.

I remember a conversation with a friend during college. He was working on his car. I said, “You know how to work on cars?!” He said, “No. But I have this book that tells me exactly what to do, and I have youtube.” I realized from that point on, you can really learn whatever you want. It will take longer the first time than the second time. But I just had that mindset about picking up new things and sticking through the challenges.

Similarly, at AC4D we would be presented with new topics that I knew nothing about, but I would read, and learn by watching other people. In six weeks I was able to have a pretty in depth conversation. The research methods taught at AC4D, such as contextual inquiry and usability testing, are really their own entire fields. But with a little bit of time, study, and perseverance, you can know more than 99% of people. So I’ve really enjoyed collecting those different techniques and methodologies and putting them to use.

Now I have a kid, I’ve also been considering how I value my time. And also realizing the more you know yourself, you can really start to be effective. Thinking through,”What issues am I personally interested in? What do I really care about?” It sounds really simple, but now I try to tie all of my projects back to myself, because I have to work on these projects for years in order to see results. So it’s important for me that I’m personally invested. Like the Make Time Clock, this is something my wife and friends from art school are struggling with. I firmly believe people should be spending more time creatively. That helps push through some of the frustrations and roadblocks.

So before taking on a new project, I ask, “Is the core of this something I could take on for the rest of my life?” That was one of the reasons that we stopped working on Pocket Hotline. I think it could be an interesting, disruptive opportunity if we stuck with it. But ultimately, Scott and I decided it wasn’t fundamental to our lives.

If you were to give advice on how to get more involved in social impact and design for good projects, what advice would you give?

If you could show up someplace regularly and volunteer, whether that’s a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or whatever cause you’re interested in. After a few weeks, the people who work there will open up. You’ll start to see patterns in how they get work done. You’ll gain the respect of those people, and you can actually start to contribute more than just raw labor.

So often we can get lofty with our ideals and how we’re going to solve big wicked problems, and I think first you just need to show up consistently before you can make any change.

Anything else you’d like to share about AC4D?

Can I ask a question? (Yes!) What do you think the objections people have when they consider applying?

Honestly, I don’t know. I haven’t yet met someone who saw the program and said “oh, that’s too expensive” or “that’s too long.” Because it’s not those things. I think our bigger concern is that people don’t know that it exists. What we’re trying to do is tell the story of what people are doing with their education, because alumni are going down all sorts of interesting design paths. It’s really fascinating, because not only are people doing very intriguing things, but there’s a lot of self-reflection that goes on through the program that you see when you interview people. Our alumni have a more solidified perspective on who they are and how design fits into their lives.

What do you see?

As a programmer, I can see that there’s a new trend in boot camps. Whether it’s 8 weeks or three months or whatever — you can “become a developer.” I think those are good for lots of reasons. But I’m starting to see similar things for design — for UX design and interface design. I don’t feel quite as good about those.

I think having a program that’s longer, more rigorous, like AC4D allows you to get more into the “why” and not just the “how.” That’s my fear with some of those shorter programs. They may show you specific techniques to follow trends or make things look hot, but you may not understand why something is more usable or methods to discover customer needs. Those are the things that are evergreen and don’t go out of style.

For all of the jobs and roles I’ve had, that’s often the question I ask — what do our customers really want? I’m always struggling with that. So if you can learn techniques to uncovering that, it’s invaluable. The other things you can always pick up — to see what’s the new trend, what’s the font this year. You can always incorporate those things. But I think there’s a huge benefit to taking a more academic approach to understanding the field of design rather than just a boot camp on Photoshop or Sketch or whatever.

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.

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