Jon Kolko: An interview by Bob Morris


KolkoJon Kolko is Vice President of Consumer Design at Blackboard; he joined Blackboard with the acquisition of MyEdu, a startup focused on helping students succeed in college and get jobs. Jon is also the Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design. His work focuses on bringing the power of design to social enterprises, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. He has worked extensively with both startups and Fortune 500 companies, and he’s most interested in humanizing educational technology.

Jon has previously held positions of Executive Director of Design Strategy at Thinktiv, a venture accelerator in Austin, Texas, and both Principal Designer and Associate Creative Director at frog design, a global innovation firm. He has been a Professor of Interaction and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he was instrumental in building both the Interaction and Industrial Design undergraduate and graduate programs. Jon has also held the role of Director for the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), and Editor-in-Chief of interactions magazine, published by the ACM. He is regularly asked to participate in high-profile conferences and judged design events, including the 2013 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards. He has taught at the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for Design Studies of Monterrey, in Mexico, and Malmö University, in Sweden.

Jon is the author of four books. Thoughts on Interaction Design was published by Morgan Kaufmann; Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis, published by Oxford University Press; and Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, published by Austin Center for Design. His latest, Well-Designed: How to use Empathy to Create Products People Love, was published by Harvard Business Review Press in November, 2014.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Jon.

* * *

Morris: Before discussing Well-Designed, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal and professional growth? How so?

Kolko: Four people. First, I had a ceramics mentor growing up, a fellow named Alec Hazlett. He’s one of the eminent potters in upstate New York. I studied with him for close to twenty years, and he had a profound influence on the way I think about work, craft, art, design, and humanism. next, I studied under Richard Buchanan at Carnegie Mellon University, and his perspective on the power of design to shape strategy, corporate culture, and society greatly influenced the way I think about design.

When I first taught at Savannah College of Art and Design, Robert Fee was one of my first guides. He helped me become a better educator, and while I may have helped teach him tenacity, he taught me patience. Finally, my wife of fourteen years has been instrumental in shaping my views of personal relationships, and the role of empathy in these relationships.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Kolko: In retrospect, my career path looks planned and well formed. Actually – like everyone else – it was circuitous. I bounced back and forth between start ups, consulting and education, and for a long time, I was chasing something ambiguous professionally. I found it with a crew of designers that I first worked with at frog. We’ve moved together to a startup MyEdu, to a consultancy called Plain Penguin, and now to Blackboard. I think the turning point for me was less role-based, and more experiential: I found a group of people that I completely trust, and that are extraordinarily fun to work with.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Kolko: I credit Carnegie Mellon with pushing me in a humanist trajectory towards problem solving. It’s a combination of Herb Simon and Dick Buchanan, and I was lucky enough to be at CMU when both were teaching. I also credit Carnegie Mellon with giving me a pretty amazing transdisciplinary experience; I studied design, psychology, statistics, computer science, and anthropology.

But I think the majority of who I am today has been shaped by my interactions with my ceramics mentor. This one on one mentorship isn’t something I picked; I fell into it when I was six and my mom was trying to find activities like sports or music that I found appealing. In retrospect, this informal mentorship – friendship – was much more important to me than my formal academic experiences.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Kolko: It’s all made up. All of it. When you pop out of undergraduate education, there are words, and organizational structures, and processes, and it feels very Figured Out. It’s not. Once I came to terms with this, I realized I could quite literally do anything I wanted. Some things are harder than others, and some are more fun than others, but in a business context, the whole thing is a game. I don’t take much seriously – I’m pretty much only buttoned up about design and education – and when you realize that the context of business is so malleable, it becomes a lot more fun, an environment that invites play.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

Jon cordially invites you to check out these resources:

His website link

His Amazon page link

The Well-Designed/HBR link

Blackboard link

VIMEO video link

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