The DZN Lab

The DZN Lab Background:

After spending two years facilitating design thinking workshops for business professionals I wanted to take design thinking back into the communities that would benefit the most. Through the business workshops I began to develop a relationship with a local non-profit dedicated to closing the education gap in South Memphis. I proposed the idea of teaching design thinking to high school students from the area and give them community based projects to work on. What followed was a year-and-a-half experiment in high school and design thinking education.


Pilot program:

Starting in January of 2015 I began working with two South Memphis based non-profits: Soulsville and Knowledge Quest. Soulsville, is dedicated to promoting the arts and creative education in South Memphis where the heritage of Stax Music Records still lives on. Knowledge Quest is a community based non-profit focusing on elementary and middle school education support.

The initial idea for the pilot program was, in retrospect, an overly zealous six week class teaching visual design, design thinking, and creative problem solving principles to students. The program launched in June with eight students with little to no experience in design. The first week of the course introduced creative problem solving through a series of workshops designed to get students to solve problems that didn’t have a single right answer. The next week focused on Gestalt psychology, color theory, and typography. The third week began introducing user research, prototyping, and testing. The remainder of the class was spent working on an applied project with our professional partner, Self+Tucker Architects.

Self+Tucker is a Memphis based architecture firm that works on a variety of projects from civic to corporate to private. For the sake of the pilot program Self+Tucker wanted to enlist the students to ideate ways to engage local youth in a civic development project for Downtown Memphis. Self+Tucker was working on a project called the Heritage trail which focused of Black American contributions to Memphis and American history.

The class slowly whittled down to three students from the original eight. The remaining students developed target personas, ideated a detailed plan for youth engagement on and off the trail, and finally put together an interactive prototype and presentation to present their ideas to stakeholders.


  • The students developed an extensive array of options to both engage youth and provide them with leadership opportunities. From a basketball hall of fame to a student leadership organization managed and operated by the students themselves.

  • The students brought their ideas to life in a 10 minute presentation that enacted what it would be like to walk through their ideas.

  • The students final presentation for the class was such a hit that the students were asked to present again to the board of the Heritage Trail development project.

  • Knowledge Quest asked me to adapt the summer pilot program into an after school program

After school program:

Starting in September 2015 I began working with the remaining students from the summer program and additional students from Hollis F. Price. The students and I met twice a week for two hours per class. The after school program started with five students and eventually doubled in size. Students began the class practicing creative problem solving, learning about design thinking and visual design.

During that time students learned how to sketch, prototype, build 3d models, and use Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects.

Over a one year course, students in the after school class designed their own workspace, painting the walls and reorganizing the desks to facilitate collaboration. They designed and built a sixteen foot work table as well as a hexagonal cubby for students to put their bags in.

The class was sometimes approached by community partners to help with other programs. One of the programs we were asked to help out on was an after school math program that used music to teach math to middle schoolers. Much of the students’ work on that project made it into the final proposal for the program.

Towards the end of the summer program the students also created their own clothing line. They designed their own logo and started the process of screen printing shirts. Unfortunately the students were unable to continue working on the clothing before the start of the summer program.


  • Students learned visual design principles and software

  • Students learned and applied design thinking

  • Students designed and built physical products

  • Students worked with other community programs to provide user based insights and ideas

Summer Program

The following summer, I began work on the most ambitious undertaking of The DZN Lab, a six-week, 5 day, 6 hours a day, summer program with 30 students from South Memphis. Fortunately, for this program, we were able to secure a $50,000 grant from the Memphis office of Urban Strategies.

As part of that grant at least half of the students had to come from nearby public housing, Foote Homes. What would make this summer experience so powerful for me, was that while teaching the class, all of the Foote Homes students were being relocated. Their housing development was being torn down for a new city initiative to introduce mixed income housing. So, in addition to this six-week summer intensive, half of the students were in the process of being forced out of their homes.

One of the things that I’m most proud of for this project was the fact that I was able to secure stipends of $100/week as part of the grant. For many of the students this money would go to pay bills and help the family out. Through this money we were also able to set up savings accounts in the children’s name, that they would have access to when they turned 18. In retrospect, I wish I was able to incorporate more monetary education into the class, but we simply didn’t have the time or resources to do so.

Having never worked with a class the size I knew I was going to need some help. Along with the funding came the opportunity to hire two additional facilitators— Matteo Servante and Rachel M. Taylor and three apprentice facilitators. Along with hiring additional help, one of my main stipulations was that the students all get paid for the work in the program. It was important to me that students were able to make the connection between design and getting paid. I wanted to open up to these children that a creative career was open to them. Given the environment that most of these students were raised in, most of them considered a creative career out of their reach.

What ensued was a whirlwind six week adventure that would take me too long to go into full detail. But suffice to say that if my students learned half as much from me as I learned from them I consider that a great success. The class was structured around the design thinking framework: Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. Each week of the class was designated to teaching and practicing a given phase in the process. The focus for the class was around designing solutions for people experiencing homelessness.


The program was designed to be iterative for the students as well as in the process itself. The first week of class was designed to introduce students certain creative problem solving techniques and methods. The second week of class was designed to allow students to apply all of their lessons in the first to a trial project. The rest of the class was dedicated to a final project were students would dive deep into a particular area, identify a need, prototype a solution, and finally present their work to community members and stakeholders.

For the first week of class we dove straight in. After a brief introduction to the class, students were broken up into pairs and were taken through the Stanford d.School’s DP0 Backpack project. Students interviewed each other a designed the backpacks that people needed. It took a fun twist as not all of the solutions ended up being backpacks. Some were complex and intricate wallets with expanding and folding pockets, others simply better grocery bags, and one was a jet pack.


For week two students broke off into small groups to spend the week working on an applied project. The project was an exercise in Empathy, where students were given a brief user story and photos of examples around a woman having to carry her groceries from the store and up to her apartment. They then spent time defining their problem, ideating solutions, testing and prototyping. For the testing stage, students had to present their projects in a groups, helping them to develop their presenting skills, but also to get feedback from the group. Students had time to refine their prototypes before finally presenting them to the entire class.

The rest of the class was spent working on creating solutions to help people experiencing homelessness. Students began the week by listing out their assumptions that they had about why people were homeless. Through that we then developed our interview guides to speak with homeless and transient people. Students had an opportunity to visit two homeless shelters and a soup kitchen to speak to the people who work there and those experience homelessness. They also spent time at the local library looking at the challenge from a larger perspective.

After that they spent a day capturing their interviews and research on Post It notes and analyzing their research, looking for patterns and insights to help them define their working challenge. Over the next few days they moved on to ideation, sketching, and rapid prototyping.

Finally, students built out the hi-fidelity prototypes. We had about $1000 for supplies so we headed off to home depot. Students were encouraged to go big with their prototypes so they could experienced as close to real life as possible. And in the final week students worked on their final presentations.

The final presentations were a huge part of the success of the class. It was one thing to go through the class and through various stages, but it was just as important for the students to celebrate their ideas in from of community members and stakeholders.


  • Each group developed unique and exciting solutions that showed a deep understanding and empathy of the problem space.

  • Students developed a fundamental understanding of creative problem solving and design thinking.user interview strategies, research strategies, and information synthesis techniques.

  • They were also taught how to brainstorm, sketch, and rapid prototype using basic materials

  • Students were taught, and practiced, public presentation skills

  • Students were paid a collective $18,000 over 6 weeks, each making $600 total.

  • Each student had a savings account started for them that they could access when they turned 18