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- Immersion in the Workplace:
A Unique Model for Students
to Engage in Real-World
Immersion in the Workplace:
A Unique Model for Students
to Engage in Real-World
Sebek, Anezka; Jones, John
Since 2015, Fjord and Parsons School of Design have been collaborating to create
a mutually beneficial alternative to internships by immersing Design and Technology
graduate students in the one-week Fjord Immersive Design Studies. The Design Studies at
Fjord operate outside of direct client work and are a perfect vehicle to engage students in
structured human-centered design research.
The mission of the Fjord/Parsons Immersion Program is to influence the future of design,
to shape future designers, and to propel Fjord’s service design innovation. For the Parsons
students, the experience as contributing members of a service design team is an unusual
benefit. While traditional months-long internship programs can sometimes be a strain
on company resources or an unproductive learning experience for students, the Fjord/
Parsons Immersion Program is an excellent alternative training opportunity to engage
students in meaningful work to achieve valuable research in human-centered service design
for Fjord. This paper discusses six cases of Parsons graduate students who benefitted
from the program.
Keywords: rethinking internships - design practice - design research - design thinking -
design study - service design.
(*) Anezka Sebek, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Media Design Parsons School of Design.
Anezka Sebek designs curricula in the BFA/MFA Design and Technology Programs and
teaches in studio and thesis courses. Her current research includes the pedagogical implications
of emerging immersive media such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality.
Before teaching full-time, her extensive career in the film industry included projects for
television, advertising, documentaries, and feature films. She was a visual effects and computer
animation producer for technologically complex projects that combined live-action
with digital effects. She has written, produced, and directed music videos, narrative shorts,
and documentaries. Ms. Sebek served on juries for Association for Computing Machinery
Siggraph Electronic and Animation Theater and Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria). The PostCity
Ars Electronica Festival Expanded Animation Panel (2015) invited her to speak about
education and the changing fields of new media and animation. In February of 2017, she
curated the New School Nth Degree Series Immersive Storytelling Symposium. In January
of 2018, she traveled with Sven Travis, Director of the MFA DT Program and 28 students, to The India Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar, India to participate in Design for a
Billion, a two-week study that explored complex design problems and their possible solutions
in a rapidly developing nation. Her Ph.D. in Sociology (2016) dissertation, Family
Homelessness in the Small City is an ethnographic qualitative methods study of the social
strata and bureaucracies that control the lack of affordable housing and living-wage jobs
in post-industrial Northeast American cities.
(**) John Jones, Senior Vice President and Design Strategy Lead at Fjord, New York. John
Jones is SVP Design Strategy at Fjord, collaborating with global Fjord studios on futurefocused
methods and services, executive-level creative and strategic leadership, designing
new processes and products that span mobile, web, social and physical spaces. He and Roman
Kalantari founded the Fjord Makeshop, and the Design Studies Process. The Makeshop
is a focused, tactile process, co-creating with clients to physically build services and
quickly learn from experimentation to help the service evolve with deeper understanding.
Fjord Design Studies is a continuous Design Exploration process. In an effort to sustain
innovation, this process identifies human-centered Design Study themes to explore. By
focusing on behavior, interaction with devices, environments and human needs we are able
to uncover unexpected new service models. The Makeshop “build to think” iterative design
process has resulted in hundreds of innovations for clients and many ‘firsts’ in Times
Square, retail spaces, and mobile platforms. Previously, John was SVP, Executive Creative
Director at R/GA where he founded R/GA’s Global Retail and Digital Environments practice
and the R/GA LAB, an exploration and workshop space dedicated to consumer insights
and new methods of interaction for in-store, mobile, online and branded environments.
The authors of this article knew each other as faculty in the Master of Fine Arts [MFA] in
Design and Technology Program at Parsons School of Design, a college within The New
School University. A few years ago, John Jones, Senior Vice President of Design Strategy
at Fjord, attended one of Anezka Sebek’s studio critiques at Parsons. One student was a
very capable thinker and creator; his rough prototypes were imaginative, yet he never fully
realized his projects and often abandoned his ideas. Anezka had noticed a similar lack of
students’ self-confidence in their creative process and their lack of understanding of the
progression from ideation and prototyping to fully realized work. At their monthly breakfast,
Anezka asked John about internship opportunities at Fjord so that the students in
the MFA program could be exposed to a professional studio where ideation, prototyping,
and implementation were a daily routine. However, John expressed his frustrations with
interns who need too much nurturing for the short time, and the limited attention they
have away from school, thus hampering the effective use of their talents. At the same time,
he saw an opportunity to include students in Fjord’s week-long Design Studies. Instead of
a long-term internship, the Fjord/Parsons Immersion Week gives a Parsons student the opportunity
to participate in the Design Study as a full-time member of a Fjord creative team.
Most internships are exploitative or, at best, give students only a tiny glimpse into the
world of work that is awaiting them. During the last economic recession in the U.S., internships
exploited students more and more, and this added to the lack of integration of
new talent in the workplace (Perlin, 2012). The economic crisis and attendant employment
downturn are over, yet even in this historical moment of nearly full employment in
the U.S., professional studios continue to acquire unpaid interns so the company can gain
research and exploration at little to no cost. This use of unpaid interns for the studios’
creative teams creates tension and contradiction. The student-interns offer their free time
and creativity (receiving minimal personal benefit) while the studio exploits the relationship
by using interns’ work in the research and exploration for new ideas –and fiscal gain.
This contradiction is called “organizational ambidexterity” in the management literature.
As Andriopolous and Lewis (2010) note:
Companies frequently attempt to gain a competitive advantage in their market
through innovation, yet this critical factor is often elusive. Obtaining innovation
requires both exploration to tap new opportunities and exploitation to
enhance existing capabilities (p. 104).
John Jones, as Design Strategy Lead, and Roman Kalantari, as Senior Design Director at
Fjord, created an opportunity for employees to explore by performing ongoing research
and experimentation in a process they call Design Studies. At the end of every week,
Fjord runs a Design Clinic where designers come together to present and learn from each
other and industry thought-leaders. At the Design Clinic, creatives also present findings
from that particular week’s Design Studies. Fjord’s homegrown design research time thus
seemed like a natural opportunity for “exploiting” Parsons’ graduate students who could
add to Fjord’s exploration aims. The students benefit by participating as fully recognized
contributors to the creative team while providing their services at no cost. According to
Roman, “This has become a way to tap into the skills and enthusiasm of design students
to focus on unsolved problems in [service] design. Fjord [in turn] gets quite a bit of value
out of this great program.” To be clear, the student’s time is transformed into a learning
opportunity rather than an exploitation of his or her eagerness to enter the industry.
Parsons and Fjord began the pilot study program with the student John and Anezka identified
during Anezka’s studio critique. The experiment was productive for Fjord as well as
for the student (see Student A’s Case); The Immersion Program has continued ever since.
For each program, Anezka selects students well in advance of the week’s start date. In
Anezka’s role as an Associate Professor of Media Design in the MFA Design and Technology
Program at Parsons, she has contact with a community of over 160 graduate students
from which she can draw candidates. Always on the lookout for the next Immersion Week
candidate, she might see a student’s work in a critique, or the student will come to her for
career or study advice. She bases her selection of the student on a wide and intuitive set
of criteria of need, demonstrated talent, imagination, high degree of persistence, and collaborative
spirit. The winter, spring, and summer breaks in the graduate school calendar
are the perfect timeframe for giving one student, one week at a time, the opportunity to
participate in the Fjord studio’s mutual exchange of teaching and learning.
The six case studies presented here are the first candidates in the Parsons/Fjord program
since its inception in 2015. We anonymized students’ identities at their request. Parsons
and Fjord signed mutual non-disclosure agreements. The chosen Fjord Design Study
theme is outside of paid client work, so it does not mandate a tangible product or outcome.
Fjord and Parsons can share the resulting work and insights, thus exercising the
paradoxical and “ambidextrous exploitation and exploration” model for the benefit of the
company as well as for the student.
Fjord and Parsons Background
Fjord, founded in 2001 by Olof Schybergson, Mark Curtis, and Mike Beeston, aims to be
a global leader in service design innovation. In 2013, Accenture PLC acquired Fjord and
its design services in strategy, consulting, digital, technology, and operations of approximately
435,000 employees worldwide and $34.9 billion USD in revenue. Service design
evaluates the entire consumer experience and looks to improve the quality of that experience,
or to create a new service. Service design uses methods and tools derived from different
disciplines, ranging from ethnography to information, and management science to
interaction design. The company often addresses design problems categorized as “wicked”
by Rittel and Webber (1973) because they are grounded in cultural and social human
conditions. To report on these difficult to solve business problems that seek a wide range
of solutions, Fjord maintains a constant online blog presence, as well as a Twitter account
and additional forms of social media.
The Fjord/Parsons collaboration is ideal. Parsons School of Design, established over one
hundred years ago, is one of the colleges within The New School University. The School
maintains a Paris campus, partners with several academic institutions around the world,
and offers curricula that prioritizes global thinking, research, and experimentation. This
academic approach meshes well with Fjord’s global expanse and ongoing research and
quest for innovation. The opportunity for Parsons students to engage as professional studio
creatives, even for one week, also adheres to the School’s goal of producing highly
prepared graduates. The pursuit of design process innovation is also part of the college’s
curriculum. Within Parsons’ Design and Technology MFA Program, established in 1997,
the curricula address the challenges of designing for new tools in the context of rapidly
emerging electronically networked technologies, and their effects on life on the planet.
The cases presented here focus on process and findings for both Fjord and Parsons, thereby
showcasing the nature of the Fjord/Parsons collaboration.
The Fjord Design Studies Process and Methods
Similar to the design thinking process codified by Tom and David Kelley at Stanford University’s
Design School in the early 1990s, a design study at the Fjord office begins by exploring
a specific human-centered theme. For the Fjord team, the reason for the term “study”
is to avoid the common industry discussions of “failing fast.” If explorations are viewed as a “study” there is no need to fail at all. Examples of Fjord Design Studies include zero
user interface (designing user interactions without screens), designing for relationships, extending
community interactions, and data privacy. The week-long exploration focuses on
defining hypotheses and experiments. It includes field interviews and observations in the
target community, as well as the hands-on prototyping of ideas in the Fjord Makeshop. The
week culminates in a presentation of these findings at the Fjord Design Clinic on Fridays.
Fjord identifies the human-centered themes for the creative team and the student to explore.
In Design Studies, the research is about human behavior as it applies to interaction
with devices, environments, and human needs. The company looks to uncover new interactions
and expectations for what it calls “Living Services,” or “next wave design where experiences
evolve and sculpt around unique human needs.” The hands-on Design Studies
processes create what Fjord aims to be a “habit of invention.” The aim is to identify areas of
interest, conduct research, prototype, observe, field test, and document the entire process
which then becomes the raw materials for designing new “Living Services.”
Fjord Design Studies have resulted in compelling points of view such as extending communities,
guidelines for wearables, gesture interactions, invisible user interface, voice
control, data visualization, and a collection of patent pending innovations. The Design
Clinic is the Friday forum for continuous work, where the studio’s designers share new
techniques. Fjord also invites guest speakers so they, too, may share new techniques and
insights with the Fjord staff. Because the company is always evolving, its Design Studies
continue as new needs and technologies emerge. Active documentation of the process in
the form of a short description of findings lays the groundwork for new services. Not all
of the work performed is purely speculative however; Fjord Design Studies, with Parsons
students, have advanced to patents and final product prototypes.
The unique studio environment at Fjord includes a dedicated workshop space that facilitates
co-creation with clients to develop innovative products and services. The proprietary
Makeshop “build to think” process encourages a hands-on creative process, research, and
field-testing to deepen the exploration of new ideas and services. Engaging in physical
exploration is critical to the design process. The Makeshop allows creatives from all disciplines
to collaborate in an open-ended physical exploration that leads to key insights
about behavior and services.
Following the Immersion Week research and observation in the field, all of the Parsons
students cited the Makeshop as a place that is essential to fully experimenting with making
their ideas into rough three-dimensional prototypes. The Makeshop process is critical
for exploration and process since Fjord has found most people associate sketching
with finished, beautiful art. The Makeshop introduces easily malleable materials of foam,
cardboard, and tape, and this severs the notion of creating something fully finished. The
materials alone prevent the prototype from becoming overly “precious” and completed.
Rather, the process opens up the playful exploration of ideas in prototypical form. The
Makeshop materials are unthreatening but allow for rapid development. The progression
from what can be considered “low fidelity” to more evolved materials offers ideators a lowstakes
opportunity at exploration.
In the Fjord Makeshop, one of the goals is the rapid progress of service concepts: building
things to think through problems with a focus on designing for human needs and behavior.
The team attempts to remove blockages for advancement in the project. Fjord Design
Studies consider “technology last.” Thus, the team makes software or hardware platform
suggestions only when there is full, initial understanding of human behaviors and needs.
The Use of “Bench Time” for Innovation
Fjord uses Design Studies to perform further service design research of problems that
clients may not ask to be solved, and for which there would otherwise be no resources or
designers assigned. To explore new ideas, John and Roman request the participation of
Fjord designers who are between projects (or, waiting “on the bench” for assignment to
their next job). Design Studies are a great way for a creative team to learn new problemsolving
processes. The result of leveraging this “bench” or “idle” time is that many creatives
feel like they do more service design in a week of Design Studies; the Design Study experience
challenges them to look at human behavior in ways that may be unexpected, and
at a much faster pace than typical client-based work. This time-pressured process helps
designers become more effective idea generators and problem solvers.
At the beginning of the Fjord/Parsons Immersion Week Program, it was a challenge to get
a Fjord creative team assigned. However, in the second year of the program, the company
created a training accounting code for the Design Study. Operationally, this allowed creatives
to bill their study as training, thus leveraging their time “on the bench.” When the
opportunity to use a Parsons student arises, the appropriate Fjord creatives are booked in
advance. This ensures there is a complete creative team well suited for the Parsons Study
Every quarter, the Design Study outcomes, surprises, and human behavioral insights are
collected in one-page Design Study summaries. Creative teams use these findings and
outcomes in the problems they encounter in paid work, thus channeling idle, or “bench
time,” into exploration and future client-based work. Conversations with clients facilitate
the use of Design Study insights to create further research problems to explore. John also
distributes outcomes to the Fjord and Accenture teams outside of the New York Studio so
they can put the team members to work on paying projects.
The Parsons/Fjord Immersion Week
The First Friday
The student participates in a Fjord Design Clinic. Fjord is a learning organization, and the
Design Clinic every Friday is an opportunity to teach/learn a skill, or to host guest speakers
who engage the studio in workshop activities. The student meets the two- or threeperson
team they will be working with during the Immersion Week.
Monday - Tuesday
Research on the theme begins with desk (online, library) research that then extends outside
of the studio to research in the field amongst a target population. Often, the team will
create questionnaires or other activities for the larger studio or target audience to explore.
Wednesday - Thursday
Makeshop: The team develops several iterations of physical prototypes to explore ideas
revealed in the research activities and discussions.
At the Friday Design Clinic, the Parsons student discusses his/her background and graduate
research, and what he/she learned during the Immersion Week at Fjord. Fjord uses
these findings for the advancement of the creative process at the studio as it participates
in teaching design and finding new talent. Several of the students ended their work in the
Design Study with a Friday Design Clinic workshop in order to further explore the results
of the week’s Design Study Theme.
Student Meeting and Selecting the Theme
After a meeting with the new student candidate, Fjord selects a theme they are interested
in exploring. Often, the student’s background (or skillset) guides or inspires the selection
of the theme. The Design Study themes are often, but not always, a reflection of what the
student might be researching in their graduate school projects. These range from how
people feel about the use of drones in public space, to fundamental studies of communication
without screens, to designing for empathy, or generalized client challenges Fjordians
may encounter from previous projects or studies. What Fjord needs from the week is new
insights into human behavior that can then drive service design for a variety of applications
with diverse clients.
At the first Friday Clinic, the student expects a design brief. Roman believes that people
become stuck in research, and this may inhibit the use of their intuition and the imagination
that is necessary for innovation. The student does not receive the theme assignment
until Monday, so he/she goes home “empty-handed,” a bit confused, but excited after the
The Friday Design Clinic is often unrelated to the theme the student will be working on,
but it serves as the beginning of a dialogue about the week’s theme. The student is asked,
“What did you take away from that Design Clinic?” The answer provides some insight for
a theme selection. It is important to find out what the student thinks the week is going to
be about. The Fjord team then likes to be sure it is not quite what the student expected.
As John states, “Whatever they thought it was on day one, over the course of the week, it’s
not what they thought.
Redirection and “Storming”
The Immersion Program’s teaching style simulates real-world production where the needs
and wants of a client may constantly shift. Part of the Design Study process is to disrupt
expectations purposefully and to continuously stimulate the creative process. Thus, the
aim is for participants to generate as many alternatives, combinations, and new questions
as possible, just as designers are encouraged to do during classic brainstorming sessions
(Osborne, 1963). John and Roman agree that the final goal of the Design Study is to produce
new and surprising insights about human behavior.
To meet these goals, and thereby please the people at Fjord, the students often assume they
need to invent something brilliant and new. However, although sometimes the finding(s)
may seem trivial and small to the student, it is the insight surprise that John and Roman
are actually seeking. Students need to be able to hypothesize, reflect, make, notice, and
report the findings from the study, as Donald Schön teaches us. The practice of experimentation
is one of constant recursion and iteration. Schön (1983) notes:
The situation talks back, the practitioner listens; and as [s/he] appreciates
what [s/he] hears, [s/he] reframes the situation once again. [S/he] describes as
“continual self-frustration,” [s/he] sets a restructured problem of interpretation
which guides his [or her] further inquiry. In this reflective conversation,
the practitioner’s effort to solve the reframed problem yields new discoveries,
which call for new reflection-in-action. The process spirals through stages of
appreciation, action, and re-appreciation (p. 132).
To facilitate this process of staying loose and messy –yet reflective in the process– “freak
out,” or panic moments about the object of the design study are created. As soon as the
student and the creative team gets comfortable, the team is re-directed. John and Roman
have found that the process of constant redirection to encourage new ways of looking at
a problem stimulates imaginative and creative thinking. It prevents the team from getting
“precious” about the solution they have created, and this allows for the continuous
evolution of the processes and ideas. A successful Design Study week produces behavioral
findings that further the Fjord company aims of service design innovation.
Six Immersion Candidates and their Projects:
A. Graphic designer, but someone who is interested in pushing drone technology and
a variety of concept and research methods. Project: Human interaction with drones:
identifying specific behaviors, concerns and human reactions to awareness of drones
and design of drone devices
B. An experienced international commercial director who embarked upon an MFA
in DT to understand the U.S. market and also hone his skills as a creative in the four
semesters. Project: Designing for Empathy: Focus on understanding and communicating
wheelchair user experience to non-wheelchair users
C. Our youngest immersion candidate, yet someone who is a thinker and creator
in a varied set of directions from narrative, design process, education, and industry.
Project: Personal Privacy: defining our relationship with privacy and identifying ways
people might be more likely to give up private information
D. A mature industry systems analyst and experienced manager of software and data
projects in collaborative settings. Project: Communicating Personality: finding simple
combinations of words and pictures, which can be absorbed in a glance and help us
communicate personality - going beyond the bio description and photo
E. Branding professional with little experience in a formal design process. Leadership
qualities and the ability to present complex research and prototype ideas. Candidate
E was the first, second year student we selected for the program. We originally decided
that first year students would be ideal because we expected that the Fjord Immersion
Program would prepare them for the design and creative processes during their thesis
development. This candidate did not come to Anezka’s attention until the second year
of their graduate studies. Fjord ultimately hired this candidate as a full-time employee.
Project: Identifying behavior in physical spaces: logging behavior of people in specific
spaces and identifying the right types of concepts to guide them to experiences
F. An experienced graphic and web designer. Project: How can we create a visual experience
that tells this story in a three-panel system and allows the user to engage with
Outcomes of Parsons/Fjord Design Studies
Being the first student in the Immersion Program was a challenge for Student A. Student
A had a background in graphic design and undertook graduate studies in the Design
and Technology Program to increase his skills in programming and overall knowledge of
emerging media. His interest in experimenting with people’s attitudes toward drone technologies
became the theme of his week at Fjord. In the service design industry, it is more
important to focus on behavior and attitudes than the technological invention itself. For
Student A, The Immersion Program was an opportunity to provide himself with “a greater
understanding of interaction design and the drone industry, but also an understanding of
the ability to answer critical questions through an accelerated and collaborative process.”
Student A used universal research methods and the Fjord creative team’s content mapping
process. He first created and tested a survey with a wide range of people to understand
views on the military, commercial, and personal drones along with predictions of drone
use in the future. However, the constant redirection for Student A was to keep people’s
attitudes in the center of his study, rather than his fascination and love of the drone technology.
Here, he reports on his findings:
First, with the excessive use of drones during wartime efforts, people associate
these machines/vehicles with killing. Second, even with drones becoming
more popular in the public’s eye, there is a still a level of being uncomfortable
and annoyed by a drone’s presence. This level of annoyance could be caused
by noise, privacy or even physical damage. Lastly, 47% of people still believe
drones are negative and predict a higher usage in public spaces in the near
future. These results and patterns were used to create actionable insights that
validated assumptions and questions. I began questioning what the projected
trends of drones would become, and how people could begin to interact with
them in a more civilized and positive way. I wanted to engage people in the
conversation. I wanted people to walk away with a basic understanding of
drones and how they can and will affect our lives in the future. The immersion
and final findings presentation was the perfect platform to develop and begin
The success of Student A opened the door for more students to participate in the Program.
The range of graduate students in the Immersion Program has offered different levels of
Student B was an industry professional who had embarked on a graduate degree in the
Design and Technology Program to broaden his understanding of the global industry,
and to experience production and education in the U.S. The assignment for Student B
arose out of a project Fjord had already assigned as a Design Study topic. He describes his
When I started, the wheelchair project was a simple [virtual reality] exercise
[for the Design Study] but I thought it was very promising. I used my one
week to help the project reach its potential. Above all, it required an insight to
go beyond a trivial experience and become a service idea and experience with
human impact. Our research showed that unpleasant first day challenges in
wheelchairs would be a good problem to tackle with the tools at hand. This
quickly led us to the idea of a Wheelchair Training Program – a simulator offering
a safe way to engage with a complex new environment and serving as
a way to understand the new obstacles and issues. Along with the concept, I
proposed some prototypes for the [user interface] and the simulation. We tried
to make sure it didn’t feel like a game; we did not want to create a superficial
or insensitive experience.
For Fjord, Student B was (thus far) the most fully formed as a collaborator in the Design
Study week. Student B immediately started to develop more detailed explorations.
Fjord’s teaching process was less about fundamental design thinking exercises and more
about pushing Student B to gain insights more quickly. Student B may have gotten less
out of the immersion process, but the study had great success and subsequent traction.
Although Fjord was already looking at a virtual reality experience of the use of wheelchairs
in urban space, Student B brought his own, unique approach to it and pushed the project
further. Following this Design Study, many Fjord design teams worked on the virtual
reality wheelchair project, partly because there was a lot of interest in the virtual reality
wheelchair study already. As a result, the studio team produced a full-fledged prototype.
Student C was one of the youngest, but nevertheless an ambitious Design and Technology
graduate student; she had received a full scholarship and ultimately became the valedictorian
of the MFA in Design and Technology Program’s graduating class. She tells the story
of her experience in the Fjord/Parsons Immersion Program:
The first couple of days, I spent my time ideating with Roman and John thinking
about different ways to explore consumer notions of privacy and security.
We were trying to understand the nuances about how consumers felt when
sharing their sensitive information. In the first two days, we created a hierarchy
of sensitive information. The test was simple: in exchange for varying levels of
information, we’d give users a nice glass of lemonade; a larger size for more
information. If consumers were willing to share extra-sensitive information,
like a thumbprint, we’d give them a cookie. We designed the test on Wednesday,
conducted the test on a busy street corner on Thursday, and analyzed the
results of the test in a Friday workshop.
Student C had many ideas from the start, and even had a structure for how she wanted to
put it together. John challenged her initial ideas and framework by providing the Design
Study questions, “How do people value their privacy?” and “How would you explore it?”
This study raised compelling insights and questions. For example, once the value of our
personal/private data is established, should there be an opportunity to create a personal
economy out of the data? John postulates that people should sell their own data, rather
than allow Facebook to have it and sell it, without any form of return to the creator(s).
What would the structure of a personal economy look like? Instead of presenting a formal
report of findings at the study’s conclusion on Friday, this Design Study team organized a
workshop with studio creatives to build on the idea further. This was a strong and difficult
brief, yet the Fjord creative team and Student C worked well together, and Fjordians are
still praising this Design Study today.
Because of the pre-interviews and multiple design studies in progress, some of the student
and team matches were particularly successful. For example, Student C had already done
quite a bit of research about the topic of data privacy before Anezka selected her for the
study. She had already been analyzing a range of privacy policies and this previous work
created an excellent fit with the Fjord team, thus deepening the student’s learning and
The next candidate, Student E, had experience in branding design. As opposed to the
students that preceded her, Anezka made the decision to expose her to the experience near
the end of her graduate studies. What set this student apart immediately was her ability to
prototype in the Makeshop –and that she was someone who is not afraid to experiment.
The Design Study question for Student E was to analyze traffic and people’s activities in a
specific space. What are people doing there? Without mounting cameras for tracking people in space, Student E came up with a method of mapping people in the space by hand: a
paper-based “heat-map” that showed where people were dwelling or standing. This technique
is what Student E learned from William Whyte’s Social Life of Small Urban Spaces
(1980). The Design and Technology graduate students often use this tool to analyze urban
(exterior) space. Student E spent a lot of time performing the analysis before developing
the concepts that she and the team thought would help activate the space in a different
way. The Design Study then asked, “What should the people do in the space?” For example,
if people walking by a coffee shop need to have awareness about something, should the
coffee shop employees wear a t-shirt with an imprinted message? What do people do while
sitting at the tables? What about the people who work in the space all day?
Student E began the challenge by talking to the people in the space. The whole team then
came up with base-level behavioral insights. The student then mocked up the concepts
such as the signage on the tables to show what was happening in the space and signage
in the window that created awareness; she designed the messaging that would go into the
space. The space owners (who were unaware of their customers’ behaviors) were presented
with the study’s findings and incorporated them into their business.
Student E’s unafraid and proactive spirit made a big difference in the work she performed.
This is a quality that we look for in all of our designers. At Fjord, every product
is different. Every business, every scenario, everything is different, and I think
there should be a fearlessness to jump right in there and get into it. I think people
who have that [quality] thrive particularly well in this Immersion Program.
It is not necessarily a requirement to do good work in the structure, but the people who really shine have that [drive]. There are other people who are a bit
slower to come to it, who are a little more nervous about it, or have discomfort
with it. Others ease into it and do some amazing work. Certainly, in the oneweek
format, the less time you spend easing in, the better.
Soon after Student E completed her graduate studies in the Design and Technology Program,
Fjord hired her. Speaking with Student E recently, she said that working at Fjord
for one week doesn’t “hold a candle” to what she currently experiences and knows about
service design as a full-time designer with Fjord. Student E did not know which aspect of
the industry she wanted to work in and it was fortunate that the Immersion Program at
Fjord coincided with the completion of her graduate studies at Parsons.
Design Studies as Learning/Teaching Environment
While these examples of participants’ work yielded results that were productive for the
Fjord creative team and for the students, Student D provided much more of an opportunity
for the Design Studies process to become a teaching experiment. Student D was an
experienced business consultant looking to expand her creative technology skills through
the MFA in Design and Technology Program. The chosen theme for the student’s Design
Study was “communicating personality.”
Student D initial assumptions about the topic were limiting, so Roman gently encouraged
Student D into exploring the ideas of personality more closely. The lesson she learned was
that design is about problem solving. The Design Study team experimented by enacting
a scenario as a study of personality, and by playing with improvisational interactions to
make people become more present to a situation. Through the experimentation, Student
D and her team discovered people can be slowed down to concentrate more in the moment
if they are presented with words and pictures that don’t match (rather than words
and pictures do match). The student’s own assessment of the process did not reflect that
she necessarily understood the value of the subtle outcomes of these experiments. John
believes that the best outcome of Student D’s Design Study is that it provided a good
foundation for future studies, thus providing Fjord with valuable research questions. As
Student D noted:
My project was a huge, huge topic, but the beauty of the way [John and Roman]
work is that we always regrouped multiple times to look at what I had
accomplished during the day and approach the question/topic/project with
curiosity and new eyes. We redefined the question constantly and we made the
material useful and the work meaningful. Nothing was discarded as a waste of
time. It was all usable.
Roman kept asking me the hard questions and pushing me further. I trusted
him and appreciated him absolutely. The principles I learned from Roman and
John were the positive outcomes more so than any answers I got from the project. The time I spent talking to Roman and John about their work, their
approach, the way they think, what they do, how they handle “failure,” what
they are looking for, how to stay open, how to stay curious, how not to be too
precious about your ideas. Their wisdom and experience were very inspiring.
All of that was more valuable to me than the actual results of my project.
Student F, a graphic designer, was placed in a study that was already in progress. The
study’s aim was to work on a methodology of a three-frame storyboard structure and to
extend the work that Student E and the creative team had begun. It is apparent from Student
F’s comments that she was more in a position of observing a process that was already
in place, rather than being a fully contributing member of the team. However, she felt the
observation process was a beneficial and positive outcome. Although Fjord gave her less
agency to control the process than other Immersion Week students, the company’s team
felt she still learned a lot from what may have seemed to be a chaotic process. Student F
felt the same and stated:
The goal for the week was to tell the story of one of the designer’s products –a
scarf– and how it would be distributed to benefit an organization. For our first
prototype, we worked on how we would tell the story through text and images
that were displayed vertically or horizontally. We user-tested to see which
images and what amount of text told the story, and to which layout people
gravitated. For our second prototype, we set up a display with a body form
wearing the scarf and images and set we selected. For our third prototype, we
created a display at the entrance of the firm and asked individuals to test out
the display with three design options with different interactions. We followed
up with questions to find out which design was the simplest and told our story.
On my last day, we did user tests on a different floor [of the building under
study] with people who were unfamiliar with the project, and we received additional
feedback. We were successful in user testing the display, communicating
the story behind the scarf and the level of engagement.
The positive outcome was working with a collaborative team. There was a level
of freedom to user test to make sure we were on the right track. There was no
one saying, “We do it this way” or “We don’t do that.” The feedback we received
from the user testers provided us with interesting and unexpected information.
I was able to see user testing implemented and its benefits.
The Design Study Immersion Week projects are primarily centered on the opportunities
created for Fjord as a learning company and for Parsons students in the Design and
Technology MFA Program to gain professional service design experience. The contradiction
and paradox that comes with the need for ambidexterity in Fjord’s exploitative and
exploration endeavors that propel the company further revealed itself as a great opportunity
for Parsons students as they learn about the research and prototyping processes in
a service design company. The short timeline and use of behavioral exploration research
areas outside of client work simplify the engagement for the company as it removes potential
confidentiality issues. These weekly design project challenges also encourage teams
to think outside the day-to-day studio interactions and find new ways to explore. Placing
Parsons students into this open exploration brings fresh thinking to the Fjord team members
and allows the student to see more established service design methods. It also grants
the student an opportunity to quickly connect with a working design team, which is often
difficult to do in longer internship programs.
For Fjord, the benefits of Design Studies are clear. There are new insights attached to existing
and emerging human behaviors that promote positive change. These insights become
rationale for the ways Fjord designs new products and services for clients, thereby creating
an opportunity for Fjord to turn employee’s “bench” or idle time into paid services.
Engaging students in the process ensures Fjord applies fresh methods and thinking. Reciprocally,
the students benefit from immersion in a professional setting where they can
experience the full spectrum of service design and human-centered research processes;
these range from asking provocative questions, to developing prototypes and experiments, to performing user-tests, to gaining insights that generate new knowledge about human
At Parsons, the future “dream” for this immersion process would be for the Design and
Technology graduate students to have four or five of these experiences with different companies
in a variety of industries. The Immersion Program experiences are valuable as a
way to learn and teach from research studies that then can become the currency of an
Andriopoulos, C., & Lewis, M. W. (2010). Managing innovation paradoxes: Ambidexterity
lessons from leading product design companies. Long Range Planning, 43, 104-122.
Atlanta, GA: Elsevier Publishing.