Ideating with Stanford at CODEX Hackathon

So we had all these amazing people coming to CODEX — passionate people from around the country with a great mix of backgrounds: engineers, designers, literary journal editors and librarians. But how exactly do you get them working together to tackle the challenges of reading, publishing, libraries?

Some people came in with a team, or a project already in mind. But what about all the others?

We were superlucky to connect with Erik Olesund, who teaches at the Institute of Design at Stanford (also known as the Stanford He volunteered to start our hackathon by holding a design thinking and innovation workshop. Whew.

First, he gave us a very specific shopping list:

  • 25 packs of 3×3 inches Post-It notes
  • 50 black Sharpies
  • 5 packs of large 8×6 Post-It notes.

Total bill: $77.45

Erik Olesund from Institute of Design at Stanford | Photo by Michael Bucuzzo.

Erik Olesund from Institute of Design at Stanford | Photo by Michael Bucuzzo.

Some of our folks from the literary world were a bit nervous about coming to a hackathon, since they weren’t programmers and had never “hacked” before. Did they have to prepare? We assured them that their perspectives were actually critical to making great projects.

A successful hackathon is often less about the technical expertise coming in, and more the ideation and collaboration, Olesund had explained to us. In the design process, Olesund said there are two main components in helping great ideas flourish.

A diverse set of expertise is actually a group’s advantage, said Olesund, as people specialized in different skillsets are working together to come up with the best solution (check! CODEX had that, by using travel stipends to curate the crowd).

“A developer and a publisher see the world through very different lenses,” he said. “So having someone who is very different from you look at a problem that you care about is something extremely helpful.” Another component is to have a very open mind to ideas. “So even though you might have like 50 years of experience…right now you’re going to say yes to let all the ideas to allow people to be really creative and generative,” Olesund said.

During the 45-minute session, any awkward getting-to-know-one-another feeling quickly dissipated as the room began bustling with people actively engaging with one another. One of the key exercises Olesund did was pairing people off, and then having them shoot down each other’s ideas, followed by a session where they built off their ideas, no matter how crazy. The results — and energy levels — were incredibly different. It was a subtle lesson that helped set the tone for the weekend.As a result, the brainstorming session helped folks generate hundreds of ideas.

Adina Talve-Goodman, the managing editor at One Story, found the entire design workshop inspiring, and familiar. “I recognized a lot of the techniques and exercises used during the Stanford design process from when I used to do improv and theater,” said Talve-Goodman. Her group, which included a systems designer from IDEO, ended up creating Close Reader, a platform that allows writers to workshop remotely with each other.

Colorful Post-it notes containing ideas of all capacities quickly found its way up on the walls. From there, hackers with similar ideas congregated together. These new-formed groups then had the opportunity to select the best ideas, refine them and move forward with them.


Group brainstorming ideas | photo by Michael Bucuzzo.

Group brainstorming ideas | photo by Michael Bucuzzo.

“The Stanford design process really helped bring together a lot of interesting ideas and teams,” said Ted Benson, a MIT PhD who is founder at Cloudstitch, who participated in the session. “It was also nice to have that process kick off the hackathon, because when we all demoed our projects the following afternoon, everyone was already familiar with the people and ideas for each team.”

While hacking includes sketching out concepts and creating experiences to test initial assumptions, “hacking is a broadly defined term,” he said.

Here is a list of the projects that came from the hackathon.

For anyone who is curious, the Stanford workshops also come in many versions, including day-long, two-day long and week-long versions for all sorts of organizations and companies.