Hackathon in 3 Acts


We arrive at Big Radical, start introductions, and receive a summary of the brief we’d been emailed in advance.

My teammates and I had a quick icebreaker to get to know one another. Then, we decided we’d generate the most agile ideas most quickly if we spent about 20 minutes broken apart to come up with a pitch independently—before deciding on a strong direction as a group. That we chose to do this step was important to design, in my opinion. Just like it’s quicker and easier to sketch something out on paper than mock it up on a computer, we leveraged one another’s’ creativity and different approaches to come up with a wide range of ideas. Most of us had initial concepts completely unrelated to our final pitch, too, meaning that we could return to develop them further one day down the line. It was super cool to hear how everyone at the table had a different take on what solving our problem might look like. 

After choosing a topic, we realized we’d fallen behind time. The race was on. 


Various timed goals and modules kept us on track throughout the course of the jam, and we bounced back quickly from our initial setback. The only thing standing in our way after that was one another.

I love working on a team. Working alone, or without access to feedback, you can’t possibly accomplish what you could with a partner or small group. A team is most effective when its members are united by mutual respect and dedication to the work, but a diversity of opinions and ideas. We certainly had a range of personalities and communication styles at our table, and I think we  ultimately negotiated the challenges of suddenly teaming up with a group of strangers well. We all got to know each other a bit better, respect one another’s input, and focus on a common goal. We had some fights and some sticking points where we didn’t see eye-to-eye, but everyone was able to communicate the reasoning behind their choices, and we became better for it. 

Getting to know my tablemates reminded me a lot of my team at my job. We’re 7 of the most different people you’d ever meet—if they built a sitcom around us, no two stereotypes would overlap—but we’ve become so close over the years that we’d just about do anything for one another. We’ve also gone through the ringer on feedback. I know I can trust my team to have my back or to offer constructive criticism or advice, and hear the same from me. I’ve grown a lot as a team player since joining them a couple of years ago. We share a genuine love of what we do, and a desire to contribute to the larger team, and that translates in our work and our friendships together. I could feel the same drive at my table at Big Radical, and it energized me at times both to speak up and to listen.

But—oh! I’m still on a time limit here!


Presentation time finally arrives. This was another time I was reminded of my job back home. I started working as a public speaker over 7 years ago, and my day job right now is delivering workshop presentations and internal trainings. I have to get up in front of people a lot. Sometimes I’m talking to a group of 5 in a noisy store, sometimes I’m on a panel discussion at a conference, and sometimes it’s 3,000 pairs of eyes staring back in a school assembly, but every scenario has its challenges. I’ve not yet found the secret to conquering nerves. (I’m starting to suspect, and this might blow your mind, that maybe there isn’t one.) My teammates and I squeezed in just enough drills of our presentation that we had our timing down pat, with 15 seconds to spare for all the unexpecteds that come with nerves, technical difficulties, and human nature. 

Yet another thing that reminded me of my team at work, as well as other people I’ve presented with over the years. Cultivating the focus needed for a short presentation, learning to craft a compelling narrative, and rehearsing its delivery are all skills that must be pursued and practiced in order to improve. It was clear that my co-pitchers were as excited to deliver as I was, and we amped one another up. I think I learned a lot from working with the team and delivering that pitch, and I’m super grateful for the incredible opportunity given to us by Big Radical and our professors.  I feel like I got to learn new ways to communicate every day on this trip.

Speaking of narrative, I know this hasn’t strictly followed the three-act structure, but we’ve now got just two steps to go.

Climax: The judges’ deliberation. People were buzzing with energy talking about things they loved in other groups’ work and discussing which would win the jam. Our concept wasn’t going to win, but I don’t really care that much about that kind of stuff. It does help the process and motivation for a lot of people, so I do appreciate competition as an element. I loved how passionate people were about the chance to impact depression in young people, which is a serious issue back home as well as in the UK. 

Denouement: We waited for the results, and then it was award time! Some of my team mates and UML classmates were called out by name. Some of the recognition was named after Kung Fu Panda characters, and I ended up receiving the “Po” award. I love Po dearly (I think everyone knows about my love for animation of every sort) and I was pleased to share a stage with him. We’re both a little goofy, have a belly, and get caught up in whatever we’re trying to do. My cool classmate got Tigress, too, which suited her personality and was also kinda fitting for the two of us—we did not know each other at all before this trip but it threw us together, and I would say we’re friends now. That’s true of everyone on the trip. None of us expected to love one another the way we did by the end of it. The design jam, for sure, contributed to that,


For Good

Initially, the prospect of designing a project in under 48 hours, especially alongside working professionals, slammed every single WARNING!!! button on my internal anxiety keyboard. Ironically, the fact that the topic we were addressing was so near and dear to my heart made the task of participating in the Hackathon even more daunting – I wasn’t sure what sort of social landscape I was stepping in to, and even though our intention was to help to alleviate the problem, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

This past semester my depression and anxiety got bad enough that I needed to go on medication.

Even with the augmented treatment, not a week went by that I wasn’t sitting alone in my bathroom, contemplating ending my life. The triggers for those foul moments were wildly varied – sometimes it was just that I fumbled a cup and almost broke it, sometimes it was the overwhelming feeling of helplessness and paralyzing fear of failure, or the very poignant, pressing realization that the less and less I did my schoolwork, the more and more I fell behind, and the more and more buried beneath the overdue assignment I became. Vicious isn’t even a strong enough word to describe the volatile cycle that I fell in to.

Depression is a cyclical illness, especially when it’s clinical – it is a constant battle to remain above the water, not just for me, but for many, many other people. Though at this moment, in London, immersed in culture and surrounded by peers who are caring, considerate, curious and engaged, my symptoms have been subdued, the topic of depression is still one that pings the fragile parts of me and puts me on edge. From the first moment of seeing the timeline laid out along the walls of Big Radical’s office, the noted moments and symptoms were an unwelcome reminder of the affliction that hounds my every step, and I was fearful I would be grouped with people who would understand the topic or approach it in the way I felt it needed to be approached.

Though the product in question wasn’t being designed for me – the ‘Rob’ of the Personas, the Depressed Friend – I knew that as a sufferer (an inflicted person? To this day, admitting that I am perpetually ill still feels bizarre, and for all my learning on the topic I don’t feel fully confident I handle it with the most delicacy) I had insight into what actions might be overbearing or upsetting when used as ‘treatment’ or ‘help’ from someone who failed to understand the state of mind someone who suffers from depression often falls in to.

I am elated to report that was not at all the case. My group understood the issues at hand, an were united in our feelings of how a product designed to target mental health should function. Especially in the regard of ‘gameification’, we were unified in our belief that ‘gamifying’ an app that was meant to appeal to, or be a tool for, a neurotypical friend felt exploitative and cruel, and overall just sort of… uncomfortable.

Given how important cognitive behavioral training is in treating those who suffer from mental health issues, it seemed reasonable, and simple, frankly, that applying the same sort of treatment to those around a mentally ill individual would net positive results. By empowering a friend who has the desire to help with tangible methods and tools, it would bridge the current knowledge gap and hesitation that halts many people from assisting those they know are suffering.

With that in mind, we developed LittleThings, named for the idea that all it takes is a small action to make a mighty impact on those who suffer from mental health issues. Much like anyone can apply first aid before having to call in the professionals, LittleThings functions as a sort of social first aid that seeks to enable the user to engage with and aid their depressed friend by suggesting safe, accessible activities for them to share in.

Activities range from benign and almost effortless – such as watching a movie together at home – to tangibly useful – such as doing a load of laundry, or washing the dishes. The key idea behind the activities – or ‘challenges’, as they’re referred to in theory – is that they are manageable, specific, action-orientated, and time-limited.

While our presentation to the group suffered from minor snafu’s, in the end, we were all exceedingly proud of the work that we did!

Too Good to be (Al)tru

Today was the last day of Design Jam Depression Hackathon. My team (Love Submarine) rushed to finalize our product, Altrü, in the 8 hours that we had, and developed a presentation explaining our ideology and the benefits of the product.

Five other groups presented, and we were almost certain that one of them won. Our concept was most detailed but others’ product presentations were more complete.

So imagine our surprise when the judges said that Altrü was the winner of this year’s Design Jam.

Hint: we were pretty surprised and also super proud of ourselves.

I am so grateful for this experience. I have made friends with so many people and learned so much about designing a tangible, useful product formulated for user experience. I would love to take this project further and develop the app to help better the community and increase public knowledge on mental health.


Hackaton 6/10-6/11

This weekend we were apart of a hackaton/ design-jam for a “design for good” project. The goal of the project was to tackle the problem of how technology can help young people with depression. This project was sponsored by Big Radical Design Group, the Nation Centre For Universities and Business and The XD’s (The Experience Design Group).  People from all different fields were apart of it from medical, business and design.  They all came together and worked in 5 different groups to collaborate on a solution for this problem.  Being able to work in a creative setting and collaborating with others to come up with and design solution for a real problem in the world was amazing.  By being apart of this design jam it not only gave real professional experience but also re-solidified my passion for graphic design and my reasons for going into this field.  Honestly words can’t begin to describe how amazing of an opportunity it was to be apart of this.  This is, by far, the highlight of my trip.  I can’t thank Regina enough for setting this up for us.

Weekend Festivities

The last two days have been the craziest most rewarding whirlwind experience. Our study abroad group participated in a Depression Design Jam, or hackathon as it is sometimes better known. Going into the hackathon I was eager to tackle the problem at hand, helping to create a tool that allows people around my age in the UK to identify and  support friends who may be struggling with depression. For me this was a topic that hits close to home. My Dad has struggled with depression for my entire life, and when I was younger he attempted to take his life twice. It’s not always easy to identify the signs of depression, and even if you do identify it trying to open up communication to talk about depression is an entirely new battle.

On the first day of the Design Jam we were split into groups. Of our study abroad group I was working with Sheila and Regina. Additionally we were working with four or five other people. Following this we split up to research specific areas, similar to what happens day to day in a creative environment. I was sent off to gain knowledge on depression. Though most of the information discussed were things I was already aware of regarding depression I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the stigma surrounding depression in the UK. In the US we’re more open about our feelings and depression is something we’re educated about (at least I was from middle school through college).

Once we had gone and collected our data we returned to our groups to start brainstorming to solve the issue at hand. This was when things got tricky. Although there were an abundance of good ideas within my group several of my teammates did not present their thoughts and ideas in a respectful way. Several of them came off as condescending and misogynistic. They would dismiss the ideas that myself and several others brought to the table. They would talk over us, talk down to us, and tried to control the direction conversation when we were supposed to be in a place of open brainstorming and communication. Experiencing this left me feeling defeated and extremely discouraged about returning for day two. By the end of day one after a lot of arguing we came to a conclusion on our hypothesis. After much mental exhaustion it was time to call it a day.

After day one I needed to return to the hotel and recharge, this day had been filled with a lot of uncomfortable feelings and I had an overload of human interactions and just needed a break. Following a little relaxation I talked with both Regina and Ingrid to try to figure out the best solution for what to do on day two. I was honest and open with them, I said that I felt this experience was not valuable to my education and that with the limited time we have in London that I’d rather spend it doing something more interesting and beneficial. We talked back and fourth for a while and both Regina and Ingrid gave me some helpful life advice in regards to situations such as these. By the end of our conversation I decided to return for day two, and if it was unbearable I would leave when I felt it was necessary.

Upon arriving to day two, everyone was refreshed and ready to go. Though I was extremely skeptical I did my best to be positive and contribute to conversation with our group. Our day started off smoothly and things seemed to be going in a productive manner for once. I was finally starting to feel good about this experience. And then things took a turn of the worst once again. It seemed as if the things that had been agreed upon by the group had now started to be altered by one half of the group and this created tension and disagreement. The day prior I had kept silent to keep the peace. But today I didn’t have it in me to let my thoughts be brushed aside, it was time to stand up for my opinion against those who were dismissive of my ideas. Although it was still a battle I felt somewhat better from no longer staying quiet for the sake of keeping the peace. And though we still were not all on the same page by the end of the day, we were able to solidify an idea and present it to big radical and the other teams.

It was amazing to see all of the ideas and products and services that each group developed. All of them would be useful tools in the fight to aid those with depression. We finished off the day with awards and drinks. Although our group was not the winning idea there were still awards to give out. Surprisingly I won two awards, one for being our groups “Superstar” and the second award was the “Tigress” award for “extreme boldness”. In all honesty I didn’t expect to receive awards, however it was rewarding because they severed as an affirmation that I did the right thing by defending my ideas and standing up for what I believe in.

Over all at the end of the day, I am extremely thankful and happy for the experience I gained at the Depression Design Jam. The reality is that once I graduate from college this is the type of environment I’m going to be immersed in. It’s going to be collaborative, fast paced, and challenging. More likely than not there will be times when I’m require to work with people I disagree with or may not get along with, but that’s just part of life in general. The best thing I can do to combat difficult situations is to be vocal and stand strong on my opinions and beliefs. This hackathon allowed me to put real world skills to use and for that I am extremely thankful (as well for my mentors who encouraged me to be the best version of myself during this experience).

Clicking My Heels But Nothing’s Happening

On 10 June, we were able to participate in Design Jam, hosted by a London-based design firm. The whole experience was amazing and I can’t wait to go back for day 2.

Team “Yellow Submarine” finalizing our hypothesis and product idea.

But lately, I’ve been really homesick. Not homesick for America (if I could live here I would), but homesick for my family. For some reason, I’ve been feeling isolated from everyone else. I don’t know if it’s because of my personal problems or if I’m just overreacting, but I miss my family and friends back home. If I could fly them all over here, I would be content.

Travelling is such an amazing experience and it can be even more amazing if you do it with the right people. This group of students is amazing and I am so glad to be experiencing this other world with them.

But as with all travel, one starts to feel a bit cut off. I feel most comfortable when I explore places independently; this way, I can keep my own speed without worrying about falling behind. Unfortunately, in the current climate, we are (understandably) required to be with at least 2 other people when we want to go somewhere.

I miss the freedom of being able to go out alone and find inner peace with myself. I miss my mom, dad, bed, cat, and (as much as I don’t want to admit it) all 3 of my younger brothers. I miss that sense of wonder that I experience within myself when I happen upon a new place or thing. I miss being able to enjoy and photograph a walk in the country’s biggest garden without stressing out because half the group is half a kilometer ahead.

I love it here, I really do. I love these experiences and adventures. I really don’t want to leave them behind to go back to America, a place disdained by every bloke and bird we encounter here in the United Kingdom.

I just wish I could click my heels a few times to refresh for a day.

Bright ideas & bright lights

Today we had the surprise hackathon today. 

It went a lot better then I was expecting. I was not expecting to have a say in the groups idea or plan for the problem. But surprisingly I have had a say in most of the planning and decisions of the group. I don’t want to say just yet what our plan is, cause after all it’s partially a competition. 

But the time literally flew by. I can’t wait until tomorrow when we prototype our solution. 

FYI the photo above was a cool light fixture that we walked by that was made of light letters. 

Day 7 – Hackathon Day 1

Well, let me just say that today is something I can also check off my bucket list. Today was the first day of the Hackathon! I was concerned on how this day would turn out, but I can say it was better than I expected. I have never been or participated in a Hackathon before, even though UMass Lowell hosts one every year. When going into the Hackathon, they provided free breakfast and lunch. I thought this was very generous of them and made me able to get through the day knowing I would be getting free food. At the beginning, we were separated into groups where we would all have to come up with an idea that would help people understand and try to react faster to their friends if they are starting to show signs of having depression. I thought this was an interesting and complicated project, but I was up for the challenge. My group was group #2 (Team Blue) and we were a group of 8 who had to solve this problem and come up with a solution. After gathering into teams, each member of the team was set off to a room to learn a little bit about depression, things that could either better understand the symptoms of having depression, or things that could help create a device or application that could help the user understand potential symptoms. Once we finished, all of the teams came together again and started to share the information that they have learned. This was a great way to help better understand the goal that we needed to reach with the product we would be creating. After that, we all started to bring in ideas on a product that would work the best. Brainstorming started to occur and ideas were thrown out one by one.

By the end of the first day, we had a working idea and would be able to work on it at home. Overall, I believe that today was a very successful day and that my expectations for this event were exceeded. I’m excited for what tomorrow will bring us as we will be working more on our final product and presenting them to the rest of the groups. This whole event is a great learning experience and I’m really excited that I am able to be apart of it. After experiencing what a Hackathon is really about, it has made me consider wanting to participate in another Hackathon back in the states. I would say that today’s experience has allowed me to gain some insight on how to work with a large group and work together on a tight schedule to meet a critical deadline. I will be able to take all of the skills I have learned just on day one and be able to apply them to my future work and work environment. I would give today a 10/10 since I was able to gain important life and work skills. That would make the trip a total of 72/70 so far. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will hold! I’m excited to see what the other groups at the Hackathon will be presenting.

The table my group worked at today

The wall of post-it notes my group wrote out from the information we learned from our split lessons at the beginning of the Hackathon.

Kew-l Kids

Today’s visit to Kew Gardens couldn’t have come at a better time; this week, we’ve largely been in the heart of the city and major museums or tourist attractions, surrounded by people and noise. For most of the morning we just strolled and admired the plants. All of us had been eagerly anticipating Regina’s introduction to botanical illustration, because it’s a side of her career and her work that we don’t always get to see in-depth, since she’s teaching our design curriculum. (After today, I wish we had a botanical art elective by her at UML!) She treated us to an informal mini-lecture on the lawn after we all had the chance to look at work in the Shirley Sherwood gallery. Even though we had the option to not attend, we all had been talking eagerly about seeing our professor “in her element” for the days leading up to this visit, and we unanimously settled on the grass to listen in rapt attention. It was cool to learn about the process of creating accurate botanical art and see how both disciplines of design and botanical illustration inform one another. After that, we basically spent the whole day just wandering the gardens, soaking uo the sights.

Some of the best bits:

This restroom sign made me laugh because its limbs are so strangely proportioned and angled. We’ve examined many wayfinding systems on this trip. Many people who aren’t designers, or in a design program, hear our major and think “graphic design” is purely creating images. The reality is that the meaning behind something is the true root of design. For example, the most important part of a wayfinding system is that you can actually find your way. Everything else should be in service to that goal. Of course, that doesn’t mean the appearance isn’t important or part of what we do; it’s just that we start with the purpose before choosing trappings suited to it. Then, I see signs like these: a perfect example of an image that’s clear, functional, and simple, but just looks silly as an image. It was a good reminder to treat each stage of a design project with just as much care and significance.

This vain little peacock put on a show for us! We had started to walk away when he yelled, “come back!”, and started to lift his tail.

This package design was super neat and innovative. I love that it doesn’t just look like a matchbox, but functionally has the sharpener/striking strip.