Why this Austin design firm sets aside time so its team can take on community projects

Kelly O'Halloran
May 10, 2017

argo design Collage.jpg

Argodesign operates under a key founding philosophy: think by making.

This mindset — according to Mark Rolston, argodesign’s founder and chief creative officer —  is there to remind designers how easy it is to get lost in their own ideas and instead shift their focus to the literal act of building something tangible.

“The more you can do to shut up and build something, the more you can get to the source of a problem and get to better solutions,” Rolston said.

The Austin design firm, which specializes in the delivery of simple, elegant mobile experiences, launched in 2014 and already partners with a catalog of recognizable names, including Intel, WestRock, United Rentals, McAfee, and CognitiveScale.

And while driving partnerships like those are imperative to profit margins at argodesign, Rolston said a key element to the firm’s culture is community engagement.

"It’s an idea that we think is good for people, and it’s an outlet for us outside of our normal professional engagements,” said Rolston. “Any particular designer can demonstrate a passion for a topic, an outside subject, and if enough other people want to rally around that then we essentially put that in the queue. We’ve got availability in our overall business framework for a handful of those, typically two to three at one time.”

Most recently, argo designer Lisa Woods led an eight-hour workshop in partnership with Girls Who Code to promote and support nine girls pursuing their interests in coding and physical computing.

Holding true to argodesign’s mantra — think by making — the girls, grouped in teams of three, used multi-touch, voice and Arduino-based interactive coding to develop a robot that responds audibly to a touch-conductive board. All three interactive installations will be on display at Austin’s annual Maker Faire, where argodesign is also hosting a Think By Making Party benefiting Girls Who Code.

“None of the girls knew each other beforehand, so they really had to come together, collaborate and understand the ask, ideate together and use our whiteboards,” said Woods. “It felt very much like a day at argo, just with 14- to 17-year-olds. They were really clever, and they blew me away with their ability. They took the limits and with some clever thinking were able to expand their palate with the various touch points.”

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to building community-centered design projects, the team has tackled everything from drone ambulances to a design for Elon Musk's Hyperloop proposal.

Some have seen nice traction. For instance, argodesign’s partner and creative technologist Jared Ficklin spearheaded research and renderings for Wire One, a local proposal for an eight-mile commuter gondola system to help address Austin’s traffic woes. While the cost to build such a modern transport service is estimated to be between $290 million and $550 million, the city didn’t totally shut it down — and a few feasibility studies may even be in the works.  

“Everything we do here should have a sense of we are advancing some cause in the world, and sometimes that cause can be pretty specific like helping someone design a new product,” said Rolston. “I think it helps reinforce with the team that our mission is not clients and projects and revenue, but some idea of designers doing work for the world. Here, we want to remind ourselves and the team on an ongoing basis that the work we do should be personally meaningful.”


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