Investing in Mentorship: Crafting a Story with University of Oregon Design Students

Sharing skills and knowledge across disciplines is part of our collaborative culture at Second Story, and my generous colleagues lend themselves without pause. This summer, I had the opportunity to extend the studio’s spirit of mentorship by working with a team of product design students from the University of Oregon.

Me (left) with the Melo team

Me (left) with the Melo team

I came to know this team via an article written about Design For America (DFA), a national organization that supports groups of interdisciplinary students as they dedicate a project—without class credit—to a local challenge. I was connected with the DFA team at the University of Oregon. The core team, comprised of designers Mica Russo, Andre Brown, and Madeleine Belval, have spent the last three years researching, testing, designing, and developing an environmental interactive installation catered to non-verbal autistic classrooms. Their project, titled Melo, uses light, sound, and tactility to engage students with their environment and with each other.

At the point where this mentorship began, the team was nearing the final stretch of their project. Their concept for Melo was well defined and in the process of being developed. They had one unanimous goal—to donate and install Melo into four classrooms around Oregon—yet they were still seeking a sense of closure around their project before graduating.

After a few discussions, it was clear that the team had trouble describing this project and their process without extensive depth—so it goes when you have your head down in a project for many years. We decided that our time together would be best served by my helping the team define themselves and tell their story. Using the 2014 IxDA Awards application deadline as a milestone, the Melo team, with participation from fellow UO student Sean Danaher, created a video and written pieces that summarize the project and their last three years of dedication into a concise and thoughtful narrative. Of course, this was no small task, and this effort was running concurrently with the final stretch of development. With a summer full of hard work, and some additional guidance from senior experience designer Norman Lau, senior interactive developer Matt Fargo and interactive developer Chris Carlson, they met their award deadline and are on track to deliver Melo to local classrooms before the end of the year.

Looking back on this experience, I am reminded of the larger benefits of mentorship, both inside and outside of working environments. While designers can be particularly cautious about where they invest their time, mentorship is the most generous way to engage the creative community. If you find you are interested in delving into a mentorship of your own, I have found these practices to be very successful:

Mutual excitement: It was insightful to see the team’s tactics as they charted the foreign waters of programmatic language, visual and written storytelling, and even operating camera equipment. Their confidence, passion, and experimental energy made it exciting to play an active part in their process.

Developing trust: The trust we built together reinforced that neither of us was wasting our time. The team’s expectation for me was to be invested and to care enough to challenge their work to be the best it could be. Similarly, I trusted in the team that they would be motivated enough to reach their goal and have our collaborative efforts realized.

Becoming friends: I believe that friendship is what distinguishes a mentor from an instructor. While an instructor feels a sense of obligation, a mentor has an authentic emotional investment in their mentee’s success—making the end goal of the relationship more than just a grade or pat on the back.

To learn more about Design For America and to sign up to mentor student teams in your community, visit

— Kirsten Southwell, Experience Designer


Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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