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How to Become an IDEO CoLab Fellow

A guide to acing the online application

Applications for the 2020 CoLab fellowship are ! Since we often get a lot of questions about what we’re looking for in a CoLab fellow, we’ve put together a short guide to help you submit your best application possible.

To start, what makes our process unique is that it’s a two-parter, with an initial online application and then an in-person makeathon. The online application works as a sort of screener, and the makeathon is a chance to get to know each other face-to-face and do a test run of co-creating together. You can think of it as first round and second round interviews, but also some of the most fun you’ll ever have. People often tell us that the makeathon was super exciting and rewarding, and they enjoyed it even if they didn’t end up getting accepted to that season’s fellowship.

The Online Application in Three Parts

There are three major parts to the online application — the basic info, the free form questions, and the pseudo-portfolio. Let’s take a walk through.

1. The Basic Info

Here’s the boring, standard, but necessary stuff that some of us have got on autofill by now — your name, address, and contact info. (Yes, it does happen. Sometimes we get amazing applications with no way to get in contact.) Fun fact — we actually don’t look at this stuff until after we’ve reviewed the rest of your application! We do this to so we can eliminate any of our potential internalized biases (based on education, race, gender, class, what have you) as much as possible. We’re committed to building a diverse fellowship class because we believe that innovative minds come from all walks of life.

2. The (Optional) Free Form Question

Here at IDEO, we really believe in the idea of “” over “culture fit,” and this is where you get to show us what you bring to the group! This year, we’re asking you to create some . What is design fiction? A thoughtful manifestation of what the future might look like. It can take on the format of a short story (sci-fi/fantasy strikes a chord here), or a small video (à la Black Mirror), a physical artifact (check out for some inspiration) or whatever you’d like it to be. You might notice some of the strange constraints applied to this prompt — the most notable one being that it should take less than 30 minutes to create (although it might take more time for you to come up with the idea). There are some good reasons for that constraint — it’ll help you wow us with the content at the core, not the production value or time put into execution. Think , not a novel. Think Pixar shorts (it still will make you cry), not the feature length film. Think about this as the teaser for the fellowship and show us what are you passionate about. Why do you want to build with us? Why do you care? We’re looking for people who have amazing, and also who will be really fun and interesting to design the future with.

Here’s the high level prompt: “Imagine it is already 2050 — what are society’s problems? How did we get here? What new ideas or solutions might will need to exist in this world?” Truly basic and free form! So free form that it’s optional, and not necessarily text-based. We’re doing it that way because over the course of the fellowship, you’ll be making in mediums that aren’t necessarily words. We also don’t know what the preferred medium of 2050 is going to look like so, feel free to send us a meme you make, or a you’ve coded. Anything goes. Looking for more inspiration? *Scroll all the way down!

Lastly, don’t feel as though you need to use alllllllll the buzzwords to come across as an expert. In fact, it’s okay to not be an expert — we’re looking to bring together all sorts of viewpoints.

3. The Pseudo-Portfolio

This is where we’re specifically taking a look at your craft! It also tends to be the most daunting and confusing piece for most people. The reason why we call it a pseudo-portfolio is because we’re not looking for a formal portfolio — we’re just trying to get a sense of what skills you have and how you can apply them. People have sent us the most interesting smorgasbord of things, including handwritten cards with cryptic ciphers, a project video featuring a (it’s exactly what you think it is — a terrarium watered with your tears collected through special glasses) shot in the style of a retro infomercial. Get creative, sky’s the limit! Just make sure it first and foremost shows off what skills you really have, bonus points for a unique format. (But don’t go overboard, like sending us a cake. Okay, maybe a cake. We like cakes.) (Editor’s note: Just kidding, please don’t send us a cake.)

Tearrarium, a concept designed in part by 2018 fellow .

Deconstructing the Portfolio

The portfolio tends to be the biggest wildcard in the online application process, and one for which we see a wide range of submissions. Here are a few pro tips to keep in mind, broken down by discipline.

The Industrial/Interaction/UI/UX Designer, Mechanical/Electrical/Civil Engineer, Architect, Artist, Photographer, Freelancer, etc.

You’re likely familiar with what a portfolio is already. Maybe you had to put one together for school, for other jobs, maybe you’ve even put together portfolios for other people. That’s awesome! Send us that! Through this lens, we’re trying to figure out what will happen if we turn you loose in a shop, task you with interface design, or throw some Arduinos and sensors at you. We want to know what you can make, tangibly! Lots of pictures and videos are going to be helpful here. We also want to know your process and how you’re thinking through some of the design decisions you’re making. A healthy dose of narration will be paramount to us understanding your skills.

Protip 1: If it was a team effort, let us know which part of the project you worked on. We like to see examples of collaboration and would also like to know what you’re responsible for!

Protip 2: We’re super impressed by rocket scientists, but we’re not rocket scientists ourselves (for the most part). Add some narration and translation to make your portfolio accessible to those that don’t necessarily have a deep background in your craft — help us understand the significance and complexity of what you’ve done.

Protip 3: Don’t be afraid to put some random, fun things in there. Modded a griddle to respond to Alexa and print custom pancakes in the morning? Love it. Show it off to us!

The Developer/Creative Coder/Github Committer

We appreciate you sending us your github, we really do! BUT if alls you send is going to be a link to your github, we really hope that you have 1) really well documented code and 2) a fantastic README file. Videos of demos or screenshots of what your code does are super important in case your code is not easy to deploy. Deployment to a web address is even more appreciated because then we can see the end result super clearly. We also love seeing some context for what you built. While CoLab is focused on technology-led design, we don’t just use technology for technology’s sake — we’ve got some deep roots in human centered design and look for that thinking and process as well.

Protip 1: Deploy your code! Demos and screenshots are more helpful in showing what your code does than reading through the code itself.

Protip 2: If we’re going to need to deploy the code to try it out, please package all the dependencies. It would be tragic to not be able to see the cool thing you made just because our machines weren’t exactly set up to be compatible.

The Business Designer/Entrepreneur/Strategist/Design Researcher

Don’t panic. We know portfolios aren’t normal in your line of work. We just want to see what you’re capable of, how you handle a business model, and how well you think through the viability of a venture. Send us a collection of pitch decks that you’ve made, any links to businesses you’ve helped nurture and grow, and the like. This could be as simple as a blog, a landing page, or even sharing a folder on Dropbox or Google Drive with us.

Protip: Process is everything here. Really take the time to explain the process and explain how and why you created what you did. Giving something context allows us to know how you do in a collaborative environment, but also how you work inside of a project scope.

The Wildcard

honestly, we have no idea what you might send us, so the sky’s your oyster. Just make sure we have access to it, some context for what you’re sending us, and that it shows off the superpowers you want us to know you have. We’ve gotten performance art videos, soundtracks, and more! A (loose) guideline here is that what you’re sharing should be a skill you can see using and benefitting the team you’re working with to collaboratively design something. Don’t worry too much about the format or medium of your portfolio, we’re more into the content and less into the context in which your skills are displayed. A Tumblr (microblogging platform) or Squarespace/Wix/WYSIWYG website is great!

Next Steps

We hope all of this helps you focus so you can . Don’t forget, you can always reach out to us on if you have any specific questions we haven’t answered here, or on to see what the day-to-day is like. Best of luck! We can’t wait to read through what you send us, and will get back to you in about a week following the application close to let you know if you’re invited to the makeathon.

After that, we’re excited to turn a few of you loose at the makeathon (which is a whole other level of fun and chaos, and you can read more about that )!

A typical middle of a makeathon. Lots of action, lots of fun, and a healthy dose of post-its.

Curious how you can get involved with CoLab in other ways, or what our day to day is like? Follow us on or for the latest updates, or check out our to learn more.

*More design fiction inspiration:



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Shuya Gong

Designer @ IDEO CoLab. Harvard 2017. Percussionist, mechanical engineering, design. @ohmygong