skip to Main Content
uc san diego design lab

Design Lab and MIT Media Lab Join Forces to Organize a Design·a·Hack·a·thon

Design Lab and MIT Media Lab Join Forces to Organize a Design·a·Hack·a·thon

Design Lab and MIT Media Lab Join Forces to Organize a Design·a·Hack·a·thon

No hackathon would be complete without cardboard prototypes strewn about the room, laptop screens glowing with code, and the edgy excitement of teams working against the clock. Hackathons concentrate the efforts of talented, highly motivated participants eager to develop new technologies. There is, however, often one key element missing from this picture: the people for whom these technologies might serve. This inspired The Design Lab to ask, “How might we make designing for people the central element of a hackathon?” Answer: we needed to make “design” a central component. Designathons and Design Swarms exist, but they didn’t quite fit our need to combine both designing and doing (hacking) in a very short, highly condensed manner. Eventually we ended up with Design·a·Hack·a·thon.

On September 15-17, The Design Lab joined forces with MIT’s Media Lab to organize a Design·a·Hack·a·thon at MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Centered on the theme of the future of mobility in a city, the event was led by Colleen Emmenegger and Don Norman from The Design Lab and Kent Larson from the MIT Media Lab’s City Science group. Designers, engineers, urban planners, and others formed over 20 teams to address urban mobility challenges targeting three people-centric themes: Life Mobility, Socially Intelligent Robots, and The New Street. Mentors and judges from the public and private sectors, including the Department of Transportation, Ford, and Steelcase, shared interim feedback and selected top teams.

With the Design Lab’s leadership in people-centered mobility and MIT’s position on the cutting edge of technology, organizers and participants alike agreed that this is a powerful and promising partnership.

– Michèle Morris, Associate Director, UC San Diego Design Lab

While teams at a typical hackathon may immediately begin crafting prototypes, this Design·a·Hack·a·thon emphasized the central role of the people to be served. The first day focused on understanding mobility challenges by walking around the streets of Cambridge to observe people. By lunchtime of Day 1, teams began venturing into the neighborhoods of Boston. For example, some observed how auto drivers interact with pedestrians, while others interviewed bike commuters about safety concerns. On Day 2, teams leveraged this sharpened understanding of people’s needs to begin developing prototypes. Many iteratively gathered feedback over the course of the day (and night) by testing solutions with their intended audiences. Finally, on Day 3, teams delivered pitches, bringing their ideas to life through storytelling and prototypes.

Applying human-centered design to the hackathon was not always easy. When asked to share progress with judges and mentors at the end of Day 1, some teams had clearly rushed to solutions with no evidence that they were solving a useful problem: they had not gathered insights about the people they intended to support. Providing feedback to teams early and often—and encouraging teams to seek this input early and often—contributed to the quality of final projects by consistently grounding projects in the needs of real people.

In the end, all the judges were impressed with the quality and creativity of the teams. The experiment of merging Design and Hacking was a success.

We were delighted with the quality of the work and with the contestants’ rapid grasp of the need to design for people by actually interacting with the people for whom the project was intended. This was a great learning experience for everyone.  We now intend to refine the process even more and to make it a core part of the Design Lab’s offerings to the community.

– Don Norman, Director, UC San Diego Design Lab

The Design·a·Hack·a·thon concept is the result of the work of many people. First, the Design Lab has been experimenting with similar concepts, especially in the “Design for San Diego” contests (D4SD). Second, Surya Vanka from Authentic Design (Seattle), inventor of the “Design Swarm,” provided considerable advice. And finally, the MIT and UC San Diego participants, the mentors, and the judges all spent long hours advising and coaching the contestants, and the contestants themselves worked hard to learn new methods, to test their ideas, and endured several long days of work with little sleep. This was truly a joint effort.


View the video that kicked off theDesign·a·Hack·a·thon.

No hackathon would be complete without cardboard prototypes strewn about the room, laptop screens glowing with code, and the edgy excitement of teams working against the clock. Hackathons concentrate the efforts of talented, highly motivated participants eager to develop new technologies. There is, however, often one key element missing from this picture: the people for whom these technologies might serve. This inspired The Design Lab to ask, “How might we make designing for people the central element of a hackathon?” Answer: we needed to make “design” a central component. Designathons and Design Swarms exist, but they didn’t quite fit our need to combine both designing and doing (hacking) in a very short, highly condensed manner. Eventually we ended up with Design·a·Hack·a·thon.

On September 15-17, The Design Lab joined forces with MIT’s Media Lab to organize a Design·a·Hack·a·thon at MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Centered on the theme of the future of mobility in a city, the event was led by Colleen Emmenegger and Don Norman from The Design Lab and Kent Larson from the MIT Media Lab’s City Science group. Designers, engineers, urban planners, and others formed over 20 teams to address urban mobility challenges targeting three people-centric themes: Life Mobility, Socially Intelligent Robots, and The New Street. Mentors and judges from the public and private sectors, including the Department of Transportation, Ford, and Steelcase, shared interim feedback and selected top teams.

With the Design Lab’s leadership in people-centered mobility and MIT’s position on the cutting edge of technology, organizers and participants alike agreed that this is a powerful and promising partnership.

– Michèle Morris, Associate Director, UC San Diego Design Lab

While teams at a typical hackathon may immediately begin crafting prototypes, this Design·a·Hack·a·thon emphasized the central role of the people to be served. The first day focused on understanding mobility challenges by walking around the streets of Cambridge to observe people. By lunchtime of Day 1, teams began venturing into the neighborhoods of Boston. For example, some observed how auto drivers interact with pedestrians, while others interviewed bike commuters about safety concerns. On Day 2, teams leveraged this sharpened understanding of people’s needs to begin developing prototypes. Many iteratively gathered feedback over the course of the day (and night) by testing solutions with their intended audiences. Finally, on Day 3, teams delivered pitches, bringing their ideas to life through storytelling and prototypes.

Applying human-centered design to the hackathon was not always easy. When asked to share progress with judges and mentors at the end of Day 1, some teams had clearly rushed to solutions with no evidence that they were solving a useful problem: they had not gathered insights about the people they intended to support. Providing feedback to teams early and often—and encouraging teams to seek this input early and often—contributed to the quality of final projects by consistently grounding projects in the needs of real people.

In the end, all the judges were impressed with the quality and creativity of the teams. The experiment of merging Design and Hacking was a success.

We were delighted with the quality of the work and with the contestants’ rapid grasp of the need to design for people by actually interacting with the people for whom the project was intended. This was a great learning experience for everyone.  We now intend to refine the process even more and to make it a core part of the Design Lab’s offerings to the community.

– Don Norman, Director, UC San Diego Design Lab

The Design·a·Hack·a·thon concept is the result of the work of many people. First, the Design Lab has been experimenting with similar concepts, especially in the “Design for San Diego” contests (D4SD). Second, Surya Vanka from Authentic Design (Seattle), inventor of the “Design Swarm,” provided considerable advice. And finally, the MIT and UC San Diego participants, the mentors, and the judges all spent long hours advising and coaching the contestants, and the contestants themselves worked hard to learn new methods, to test their ideas, and endured several long days of work with little sleep. This was truly a joint effort.


View the video that kicked off theDesign·a·Hack·a·thon.

No hackathon would be complete without cardboard prototypes strewn about the room, laptop screens glowing with code, and the edgy excitement of teams working against the clock. Hackathons concentrate the efforts of talented, highly motivated participants eager to develop new technologies. There is, however, often one key element missing from this picture: the people for whom these technologies might serve. This inspired The Design Lab to ask, “How might we make designing for people the central element of a hackathon?” Answer: we needed to make “design” a central component. Designathons and Design Swarms exist, but they didn’t quite fit our need to combine both designing and doing (hacking) in a very short, highly condensed manner. Eventually we ended up with Design·a·Hack·a·thon.

On September 15-17, The Design Lab joined forces with MIT’s Media Lab to organize a Design·a·Hack·a·thon at MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Centered on the theme of the future of mobility in a city, the event was led by Colleen Emmenegger and Don Norman from The Design Lab and Kent Larson from the MIT Media Lab’s City Science group. Designers, engineers, urban planners, and others formed over 20 teams to address urban mobility challenges targeting three people-centric themes: Life Mobility, Socially Intelligent Robots, and The New Street. Mentors and judges from the public and private sectors, including the Department of Transportation, Ford, and Steelcase, shared interim feedback and selected top teams.

With the Design Lab’s leadership in people-centered mobility and MIT’s position on the cutting edge of technology, organizers and participants alike agreed that this is a powerful and promising partnership.

– Michèle Morris, Associate Director, UC San Diego Design Lab

While teams at a typical hackathon may immediately begin crafting prototypes, this Design·a·Hack·a·thon emphasized the central role of the people to be served. The first day focused on understanding mobility challenges by walking around the streets of Cambridge to observe people. By lunchtime of Day 1, teams began venturing into the neighborhoods of Boston. For example, some observed how auto drivers interact with pedestrians, while others interviewed bike commuters about safety concerns. On Day 2, teams leveraged this sharpened understanding of people’s needs to begin developing prototypes. Many iteratively gathered feedback over the course of the day (and night) by testing solutions with their intended audiences. Finally, on Day 3, teams delivered pitches, bringing their ideas to life through storytelling and prototypes.

Applying human-centered design to the hackathon was not always easy. When asked to share progress with judges and mentors at the end of Day 1, some teams had clearly rushed to solutions with no evidence that they were solving a useful problem: they had not gathered insights about the people they intended to support. Providing feedback to teams early and often—and encouraging teams to seek this input early and often—contributed to the quality of final projects by consistently grounding projects in the needs of real people.

In the end, all the judges were impressed with the quality and creativity of the teams. The experiment of merging Design and Hacking was a success.

We were delighted with the quality of the work and with the contestants’ rapid grasp of the need to design for people by actually interacting with the people for whom the project was intended. This was a great learning experience for everyone.  We now intend to refine the process even more and to make it a core part of the Design Lab’s offerings to the community.

– Don Norman, Director, UC San Diego Design Lab

The Design·a·Hack·a·thon concept is the result of the work of many people. First, the Design Lab has been experimenting with similar concepts, especially in the “Design for San Diego” contests (D4SD). Second, Surya Vanka from Authentic Design (Seattle), inventor of the “Design Swarm,” provided considerable advice. And finally, the MIT and UC San Diego participants, the mentors, and the judges all spent long hours advising and coaching the contestants, and the contestants themselves worked hard to learn new methods, to test their ideas, and endured several long days of work with little sleep. This was truly a joint effort.


View the video that kicked off theDesign·a·Hack·a·thon.

Read Next

Ucsd Designers In Residence Community Driven

Designers in Residence Support Community-Driven Design Initiatives

In 2019, Grace Reiger and Brian LeDuc uprooted from Washington, DC and set out across the country together for San Diego. They brought them with a wealth of knowledge in community building around design, education and career development. Driven with a mission to spearhead community design initiatives and active communities across San Diego they saw a huge opportunity in bridging their work in Washington, DC with the needs of the San Diego community around service and career design.

"Grace and Brian really exemplify what we strive for in the Design Lab. A community first approach to design - one built on identifying challenges and jointly coming up with tangible solutions with and for those in need of them. We are extremely lucky to have two Designers in Residence on board who embody those principles."

- Michele Morris, Associate Director, Design Lab
Design Lab Steven Dow

Steven Dow And His Team Tackle Innovation In Crowdsourcing

As part of the Design Lab's graduate course work on Crowdsourcing taught by Steven Dow, students…

Design Lab Don Norman Healthcare Designforward

San Diego is Getting Serious About Healthcare Design

In June 2017, San Diego hosted two of the largest annual healthcare conventions - the…

Ucsd Logo Design Lab

Message from Don Norman on Power and Prejudice

A message from Don Norman, Director of the Design Lab, regarding the protests, violence following George Floyd’s death
Cancer Care Kentucky Design Lab Ucsd

Experiencing Cancer in Appalachian Kentucky

A new paper from The Design Lab's Melanie McComsey and Eliah Aronoff-Spencer describes a new framework for improving #cancer care in Appalachian Kentucky. The project would leverage broadband connectivity and cancer communication research to make a difference in the lives of patients and their families.

Nothing tells the story of people working together better than a community quilt. A diversity of talents, colors, and materials brought together through skill and shared purpose. Perhaps never before have we as Americans needed a stronger reminder that many hands make short work of big problems. The work presented here by the L.A.U.N.C.H. Collaborative offers a new framework for health care that could be compared to a digital quilt, powered by community-based participatory design, with lived expertise and the newest advances in broadband-enabled connected health solutions. This work demonstrates the value and need to engage local communities and what can be learned when beneficiaries and traditional caregivers work together to develop healthcare solutions.
Design Lab Spaces Colleen Emmenegger Jim Hollan Education

Design Lab & UCSD Spaces strive for Educational Equity Through Design

Who better to learn about good design than the people who will most benefit from…

Back To Top