Adobe + Inneract Project: Empowering underrepresented youth to explore design

Founder Maurice Woods tutoring a student.

Founder Maurice Woods tutoring a student.

Adobe believes in empowering people of all ages and backgrounds to tell their stories, express themselves, and build great careers — so working with Inneract Project (IP) has been a natural partnership. Together, through annual “Design-a-Thons,” they’re helping make a difference in the lives of underrepresented Bay Area youth.

Design-a-Thons are four-day sprints in which young designers work intimately with professionals and then present their work to an audience.

A learning pathway

IP has been part of the Bay Area community for more than 15 years. Founder Maurice Woods created the organization to bring together design and youth from underserved communities.

A professionally supported organization, IP offers a range of free design classes and initiatives for Black, Latinx, and underrepresented youth of color, in order to introduce them to the field of design and help channel their creativity into viable career paths.

Two students typing on keyboards in front of computer screens.

Two students typing on keyboards in front of computer screens.

“Rather than one-day workshops or events, we create a continuous learning pathway for our students,” says Josephine Lee, IP’s director of operations. “We’re focused on retention — on deep, high-quality engagement. That’s reflected in our people, partners, and students.”

Professional mentorship via Design-a-Thons

Design-a-Thons are part of that pathway. They engage practicing designers and other professionals to teach students about their respective disciplines. By providing professional mentorship, IP can boost student success, ultimately leading to an increase in diversity in design and technology.

Student participants are in grades 8, 9, and 10 — from across the Bay Area. They’ve already taken introductory classes and have shown a commitment to design and an interest in learning more. Their previous work has prepared them to come into a professional design environment — typically on-site at Adobe and other partners. Reflecting the level of professionalism required, they earn a stipend for their participation.

IP students at Adobe during the 2019 Design-a-Thon.

IP students at Adobe during the 2019 Design-a-Thon.

“Such an intimate, tailored engagement makes it really special — for the employees as well as the students,” explains Barbie Penn, program manager at IP. “It’s very immersive. The students work closely with their professional counterparts on a portfolio piece. It really builds a bond.”

In the past years, three to five students came to work in the Adobe San Francisco office during a Design-a-Thon.

“It’s exciting for them to see a professional design space — everything from the work setup to the cafeteria,” Lee says.

The teams work together to use design to address a chosen community challenge. During the day, the students work on the challenge and shadow how the employees approach it. They also attend an engagement event — maybe a guest speaker or a studio tour (pre-COVID).

After four days, they make a formal presentation of their solution. Concurrently, during the week, student teams have worked with different Bay Area companies, and then all participants come together at a reception with family, representatives from the participating companies, and others.

“We try to incorporate some form of presentation into our programs,” Penn explains. “It’s a critical skill that will benefit them throughout their lives, and it’s wonderful to see how their confidence grows after having the opportunity to present their ideas.”

Over the years, projects have touched on different aspects of design — for example, a product (like a mobile app), or something more experiential (like a communications campaign). This year, the Adobe team (called “activability”) tackled the challenge statement: “How might we improve our community and/or our lives during this time of reflection?” Their response: an app that connects friends virtually for chats, games, movies, and videos — something to help everyone feel less isolated.

Part of an Adobe-led icebreaker.

Part of an Adobe-led icebreaker.

Design skills open doors

The students who participate experience a full range of benefits. For example, they receive one-on-one mentoring, they get a first-hand view into a design career, and they learn critical skills.

For many participants, this is their first job-shadowing experience and their first employment opportunity. It’s a great way to start building their resume.

“What I love about design is the diversity of career opportunities; it has the possibility to open doors for these students,” Lee says.

“I see design as a tool to solve the world’s problems,” Penn adds. “It’s important that these students’ voices are heard — and that they’re included in the design process, that they’re working on things to make their communities better.”

Whiteboard from the team’s app.

Whiteboard from the team’s app.

Reworking the program in times of COVID

This year, of course, IP had to revamp the Design-a-Thon to address the coronavirus pandemic. This brought challenges — but also some unexpected opportunities.

Arranging for the students to participate from home involved ensuring that they had the necessary setup — including technology (laptops, Wi-Fi, email), supplies (post-its, headphones), and food (snack boxes!) Annie Li and Marcela Carrillo of the IP Education Committee offered hands-on virtual sessions for students to prepare. Adobe donated 20 laptops to help out.

To avoid Zoom fatigue and help keep the students engaged, IP and Adobe broke up work sessions into shorter chunks and added extras like virtual home tours to show how designers live. One-on-one mentoring took place in breakout rooms rather than in person.

The virtual format brought unexpected benefits, too. For example, in the past, the individual teams spent the four on-site days focused solely on the company where they were working (Adobe, others). But this year, IP took advantage of videoconferencing to bring the separate teams together more often — such as for combined teaching sessions. The students appreciated having more time to spend with each other and with mentors from the other companies.

Zoom screen shot from a team meeting.

Zoom screen shot from a team meeting.

The Adobe partnership

Adobe has been a flagship partner in IP’s Design-a-Thons for three years.

“These students are our future designers, and we love working with them,” says Lisa Pedee, who coordinates the program for Adobe. “Building a more diverse workforce is important to Adobe — and programs like this are critical to achieve that. How can these students enjoy creative careers if they don’t know they exist?”

Adobe employees play different roles in the Design-a-Thons. Some serve as the main instructors; they create lesson plans and work directly with the students as teachers and mentors — showing them how to brainstorm, conduct research and analysis, and more. Others may have a one-time engagement — as a guest speaker or part of a panel, for example.

Other IP programs

Design-a-Thons are just one part of the learning pathway IP has created. Other programs include the following: