Why designership?


Ok, designerships are not that common. You have probably heard of internships and fellowships. So why designership?

A designership is about taking action, using human-centred tools to do problem framing, understand users, ideate new solutions and ultimately to create new thinking in the education sector.

On the one hand, this designership will be open, flexible and co-created by the participants and on the other hand there will be formal pieces in place to make sure we get a final report. What happens in between is up to the participants, how hard they want to work and our collective goals.

Creating a new kind of education problem solver: A designer and strategist that integrates empathy, collaboration, critical thinking and re-thinks existing systems; An innovator who learns with questions. 

To read more about the program outline of the designership – go here. 

Designership Birth Story

10554511256_99842b55dd_zA journey has to start somewhere.

Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint the exact moment in time when an idea started to gain its legs. And more often than not, it is not really the moment that you remember but a combination of moments before it. This is what is tricky about asking someone to start from the beginning of the story. But if I were to try to, I think it has to do with a series of stand-out moments that fit together like a puzzle that caused me to get to where I am now and spark this designership into action.

For me, it all began back in 2011 when I first started joining in on education conversations. I approached these conversations as I had approached community development before that, exhibit design before that and architecture before that. I wanted to contribute, I wanted to be a part of changing lives, I wanted to make a difference.

And for each one of these conversations there was something that gnawed at me, something that didn’t feel quite right and kept me looking for more. And finally I realized what I needed was to weave these conversations together rather than try and fit myself into each conversation separately. It is this systemic approach that I have that makes things complicated and clearer all at the same time.

One conversation in particular always sticks out for me as a moment I look back on as fuel to my flame. During a set of introductions, someone looked at me puzzled and said,

“Wait, you’re not a teacher or parent…why do you care about education?”

This has always been a catalyst for why I am a part of education conversations. I think everyone should included, heard and want to be a part of shaping the future of education.

This moment and many more like it define my position and place within this work. I believe that the designership is the place where all kinds of minds, perspectives and ideas can convene around the future of education.

I am proud to be known as an “outsider” to education and yet still push people’s thinking and perspectives. I find myself lucky to be able to do that. To have the confidence to say, I am not like you but my voice still belongs here. It took me time to own this position and to take it on as my brand.

And then there are the multiple times I have had the same conversation over and over again with people who want more; more tools to come up with solutions, more than just one day to connect with other thinkers, more commitment from others to do more and more from themselves. I want that for myself too.

Let’s take all the moments that have led to this moment and start something new. 

So the designership was born to start a network of thinking partners to create time, space and resources to take action, provide resources to activate systems change and hone in on the gap between community and education. We cannot do this work alone and the designership relies on problem solvers coming together in new ways to test out the theory that different minds, design tools and forward-thinking can ignite new solutions. This inaugural year of the designership is just another part of the journey and the first cohort will be pivotal in shaping the future of education, both inside and outside the designership. If you feel like I do, that you have more to give and you want more then apply for the designership today. It is your time. #learnwithquestions


This is how we will work


Last week was the official launch of the inaugural Exhibit Change Designership . It is undoubtedly exciting to announce the project and to see interest brewing and spreading already.

Applications are open NOW until August 15th. Spots will be filled on a rolling basis, so there is no reason to wait to apply. 

This designership will be about work, hard work. There is no coming here and coasting through, the cohort won’t stand for it.

Working hard for something you don’t care about is called stress, working hard for something you care about is called passion. 

This work is driven by passion. The passion burns inside you like a fire just yearning to be stoked.

When the passion is high, so are your emotions. It is expected that this cohort will get into debates, good healthy (sometimes loud) debates that are fuelled by our inner values and desire to be heard. We are not always going to agree, we may not even like each other sometimes; but we will respect each other. We will discover shared goals. We will come up with better solutions because we will listen to perspectives that are not necessary the same as ours.

Having conversations, passionate and critical, will be one aspect of this designership that will be crucial to getting deeper into some icky territory. Yes, icky being the technical term. It is only in the icky space when you can draw on your empathy to understand that your way is not the only way. You might get some bumps and bruises along the way, but it is worth take a trip there.

Conversations are not enough. They are the start to something more. We will capture conversations and look for insights. This is the hard work. It is easy to capture what was said and maybe even what is under the surface, but it is making the connections between what was said and looking for the opportunities to offer a solution that is challenging.

We will show our work. We want to combat the trend of only displaying final products and instead we will invite others to give us feedback often and early. We will iterate and reflect. We will work together in small groups and on our own to stretch our thinking. We will produce and prototype as a way to test our assumptions. We will put our heart and soul into our work but not be so in love with our ideas that we can’t let go.

We will be working with “wicked problems”, by definition these are problems that don’t stop changing and evolving just so you can work on them. They keep moving, so it is like hitting a moving target. So we have to be patient and understand that we cannot solve the whole problem at the same time. That would be taking on too much at once. This work is hard. Especially when it feels like change is slow moving and all you want to do is bang your head against the wall.

Luckily we will have each other.

Learn With Questions

So excited to be announcing this new program – The Exhibit Change Designership is here!!!!

In many ways, The Exhibit Change Designership has already been happening in bits and pieces. From convening people into thought-provoking conversations like EdCamp Toronto, Hong Kong or Design Thinking; to pushing the envelope at the Bad Kids Collective first unconference of Everybody’s a Teacher; to collaborating on different kinds of learning opportunities like UExperience and The Department of Imaginary Affairs. Ultimately, all of these projects were instigators for this designership.

Basically, the designership is one-year version of these events that have come before it. The designership is for a cohort of shift disturbers to come together and learn, design, do, push, and experiment. This is not going to be for the those shy of hard work.

The designership all comes down to one fundamental rule: Learn With Questions. This will be our mantra. We learn more by leading with curiosity, open-minds and the ability to dive deeper.

Applications are open until August 15th.

For more information go here.

Share with #LearnWithQuestions


How to be a Shift Disturber?

Part innovator. Part entrepreneur. Part rebel. Partly undefined. A shift disturber is really about making changes, shaking things up, provoking a reaction, creating a dialogue, venturing out to the fringes and doing a lonely little dance.

Since the term was first coined, there are a few of us who have been tossing the term around and testing out the shift disturbing spectrum. I personally, have adopted the term as a nearly perfect fit to how I feel about my work and my purpose. As someone that has often felt like an outsider and observer, I feel like being a shift disturber is my active role to say “Hey! my points of view are valid too and I am just looking for a little respect.”

While I think that being a shift disturber takes on many iterations and reflect where a person is at in their journey, I do think there are some core values to being a shift disturber.

Together, with a few of my fellow shift disturbers we are going to build a living manifesto to share. Feel free to comment or tweet me @jennzia with #shiftdisturber to join the process.

Reposted from my personal blog May 16, 2013

A Year in Review

2015 has been a year like no other. That is nearly an understatement. Exhibit Change has continued to grow and morph and there is a lot of exciting changes coming in 2016.

While there haven’t been nearly enough updates as to what is going on, that doesn’t mean nothing has been going on. In fact there has been a ton.

This year, I partnered with Blair Francey of BF Design to start the Department of Imaginary Affairs. The DIA is all about bringing forward ways to foster imagination about city building and urban planning. Our main focus has been on getting our youngest citizens involved. We started with a Scotiabank Nuit Blanche Installation called The East Side Story.

In another collaboration, I along with Trey Boden have been doing a podcast called This Is Iterative. The podcast is all about design and education. Season 1 aired earlier this year and we are in the process of taping Season 2. 

I also spent the year working with organizations such as Success Beyond Limits, Green Change and YouthREX to do design thinking workshops and projects.

And last but not least, I am starting my greatest new adventure. I had a baby!!! Baby Jackson was born on August 20th. He is the most unbelievable learning I have ever had.

I hope 2015 has been exciting, fulfilling and a rollercoaster of learning like mine.


ps. Very excited to announce a new workshop called Design Thinking For Educators. Join me and Heidi Siwak on February 20th for this extremely unique workshop specifically designed for teachers. Registration is open now. Early Bird is on until January 1. Register here. 

From Season 1 to 2

ThisIsIterative3 (1)

Earlier this year, This is Iterative aired Season 1 all about the process of design thinking and our work as educators understanding our own vulnerabilities and struggles.

In total Season 1 is 9 episodes. We worked really hard to follow the design thinking process as a way of laying out the flow of each week, we also did two interviews and finally shared our learning about starting this podcast on the last episode.

I am particularly proud of the fact that we got this out and we are learning from the process each and every time we re-connect. I think we were able to cover a wide breadth of topics while getting our podcast legs. I love the fact that Trey and I are able to simply share our experiences and that in turn can help others.

Check out Season 1 and let us know what you think.

We are in the process of taping Season 2 to be released in the new year. Already we have done a great episode on giving and getting feedback and another episode on learning from others.

I think for Season 2 you can expect more about getting in touch with design thinking in practice and find out about where Trey and I are constantly looking for inspiration.

The East Side Story

DIA NBYet another Scotiabank Nuit Blanche has come and gone. And we weren’t about to miss out on the fun. This year as a part of the Department of Imaginary Affairs we had another successful installation in St. James Park. It brings us great pride to be able to be one of very few installations on the east side of Toronto. The vibrance here is unparalleled and the warmth of the community can be felt even in the coldest hours of the night.

Before Scotiabank Nuit Blanche night arrived, we could already feel the anticipation building. We were surprisingly delighted to find The East Side story had made it to the City News “Top 5 Installations to check out” – noting that,

“The Department of Imaginary Affairs spent the past few months going to local festivals, gathering stories that will make up the content of giant books displayed outdoors at St. James Park.”

It was nice to see all our hard work was being noticed.

Don’t worry if you missed out on seeing our larger than life storybooks for yourself, we got some great coverage and pictures to capture it all. We had worked tirelessly to collect stories and it all culminated in a 144 stories on pages 6 feet by 10 feet. We wanted the experience of sharing stories to be spread into every aspect of the installation including turning the pages.

Thankfully this did not go unnoticed, as documented here,

“Finally, a reader turns the page, needing her friend to help her carry the vinyl sheet over to the other side. East Side Story is meant to be interactive; the reading is supposed to be a communal act.”  (Nuit Blanche 2015: The East Side Story, CanCulture)

And last but not least, this lovely anecdote from a visitor on the night of Scotiabank Nuit Blanche really encapsulates why we do this.

“My favourite display was an installation, developed over many months and presented as a “storybook” of the thoughts and ideas of residents of Toronto’s East side. Produced by the “Department of Imaginary Affairs” (love the name), this was a unique project about and by Torontonians…It was a real treat and I can only hope that the creators of this installation, Blair Francey and Jennifer Chan, are able to capture the content from the “Storybook” and translate it into a format that can be shared far and wide for more people to enjoy.” (The Magic of Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, City Living Guide)

Check out the great video and pictures from the night. And don’t worry if you missed out on this adventure, there is more to come in 2016!!!!



Introducing the Department of Imaginary Affairs

DIA_logo_2Earlier this month, I finally announced a project that has been incubating since the beginning of the year. It is called the Department of Imaginary Affairs!!!

I know, awesome name right? 🙂

I wanted to take a moment to catch you up on where this all started and where it is headed.

In December 2014, I met up with Blair Francey. Blair and I have known each other off and on since about 2010 but have never had a chance to really work together. Over coffee, we were talking about different things, projects we were working on and projects we wanted to get off the ground.

Blair told me about one project that he had always wanted to start here in Toronto. Inspired by the Ministry of Stories from London, England and 826 Valencia in San Francisco, Blair wanted to start a project here called the Department of Imagination.

Both the Ministry of Stories and 826 Valencia share something in common, they are both youth literary organizations that live in a retail storefront space. The retail spaces are run as their own businesses and support the work of the youth literacy programs that share the space. For the Ministry of Stories is supported by Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, selling everything from cubed ear wax to zombie fresh mints. And at 826 Valencia, they are supported by San Francisco’s Only Independent Pirate Supply Store, where you can get your beard extensions and cures for scurvy.

It is our 3-5 year goal to get a storefront in the East side of Toronto to run and operate something in a similar model. We don’t know what we will be selling yet, we are open to suggestions.

This conversation sparked a series of other conversations and before long, the vision for the Department of Imaginary Affairs (new name too) was formed.

The Department of Imaginary Affairs is a collaborative organization fuelled by the power of imagination and a toolbox of design thinking, as we aim to engage and inspire young people across the East side of Toronto to get involved in create solutions for city-based issues. The DIA is an ever evolving organization, never static, always changing.

For our first experiment, we are doing a Scotiabank Nuit Blanche installation called “The East Side Story”. We will be building 4 giant story books in St. James Park filled with stories collected from people who live, work and play on the East side of Toronto.


So far, we have partnered with 4 schools from the Toronto Catholic School Board, the Toronto Public Library, East End Arts, Young People’s Theatre, Ryerson University Tri-Mentoring, Kettle of Fish at St. John’s Mission and the St. Lawrence Market Neighbourhood BIA to collect stories from now until the end of July to build the content for storybooks.

We have two grand plans for the stories we collect. The first plan is to include them in our Scotiabank Nuit Blanche installation. We know the stories we collect will demonstrate how vibrant and diverse the East side of Toronto is. The second plan is to use these stories to decide what the DIA’s first set of projects will be. We are looking to these stories to tell us what is important to the East side and where we need to take action.

Want to get involved with this super cool project?

Here are a bunch of ways: 

Tell us your story 

Become an Ambassador

Share the love on social media @dia_space #imaginaryTO





This is Iterative

ThisIsIterative3 (1)

Starting in January of this year, Trey Boden and I have been recording ourselves every two weeks (just about) and posting podcasts every 2 weeks (for the most part) about design and education. The podcast is called This is Iterative. We have done 5 episodes so far!

This all started last year when I was in Austin with Trey to speak on “In the Trenches with K12 Design Thinking” at SXSWedu. This really got us talking about the vulnerability of what happens when we teach design thinking and when we do design thinking in schools.

These podcasts were partially a way for Trey and I to try our hand at podcasting and see what we would learn along the process and then also to share whatever wisdom we have in hopes of engaging people in a larger conversation about how we teach and do design thinking in education.

So far we have 5 episodes – you can listen to them here – we decided we would follow the model and give our episodes a theme based on the design thinking model that comes from Stanford.

In Episode 1, we talk about what we are thinking and why we are doing this. In Episode 2, we get into the different models of design thinking. In Episode 3, we take stab at defining what we think Empathy is. In Episode 4, Trey interviews student Anya from his school on her journey through Empathy. In Episode 5, we talk about Defining.

I am so proud of what we have accomplished this far. We definitely have had some bumps in the road. We went off schedule for a bit and had to really talk about if we could stay committed in light of our busy lives. We are dedicated to getting through this season.

In our upcoming episodes we will continue down the design thinking model into ideation, prototype and evaluation.

I am particularly excited cause I will be interviewing Heidi Siwak soon to get her thoughts on design thinking, integrative thinking and the applications in her classroom.

Stay tuned!