Co-founder of prototype-focused hackathon, Protothon. 2017.
Protothon builds and facilitates design thinking programs and events for students, businesses, and design professionals. As one of the co-founders, I acted as a researcher, designer, organizer, and mentor for our program of codeless hackathons. As a team, we set a goal to bring together creatives, product people, entrepreneurs, and more to participate in competitive events intended to solve real world problems through rapid prototyping and design thinking.
Our first event took place in October of 2017, on the campus of New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. This case study elaborates on the steps taken to bring our idea to fruition, and the results of our work.
The desire to bring together a community of creatives had deeper roots in our past. Dom Propati, Venky Hariharan, Heather Dega, and I had tried our hand at this pursuit before, but had yet to define a brand and mission statement that best exemplified our intentions. We had seen the outcomes of similar programs, and feared the corporate dominance that tends to creep through, including the thinly-veiled image of a community that is more often built for financial gains than for philanthropic impact.
In our earlier endeavors, we were hoping to create a community with benefits, focusing heavily on a series of events with educational elements. However, the structure for those events was not becoming clear, and we needed to determine what actual benefits we would bring to the design community. Our vision was clearly muddied, and we took a step back to reevaluate. Dom, Venky, and I went out and sat down with some fellow professionals, of higher and lower seniorities, and gathered their input. We inquired about their experiences in the past with communities, educational events, hackathons, and more.
The answers to some questions were more or less expected, but others proved revelatory. Much of what we had accomplished up to that point had been so focused on building a structured service for a community, that it turned out to be more alienating than inclusive. We reevaluated our mission, and tore down the structures of our previous projects to focus on what we defined as most important: bringing people together to learn and grow alongside one another.
Events still felt right. After all, what better way to ensure that people would come together at a particular point in time to work alongside one another than through events. Participants are drawn to preexisting meetups for a reason, and instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we focused on drawing out the elements that we believed to be most effective, utilizing feedback from our potential participants along the way.
Hackathons became our obvious starting point. We began our contextual analyses by attending local hackathons and similar-styled meetups, talking with the organizers and attendees to better grasp what kept them returning. One key point we learned early on is that, despite our intentions to utilize our platform for philanthropic efforts, the element of competition had to remain, as competition breeds innovation. Our new task, then, was to create an event with a competitive structure that maintained communal inclusivity. So, with a stronger sense of our purpose and mission, we set a timeline of 4 months to accomplish our goal and host our first event.
Many late nights after work and weekends at coffee shops passed. The team grew to include more designers and mentors with an eagerness to build the event they have always wanted, but not yet experienced. We booked a time with New York University for the second weekend of October to host our two-day event, and we were plugging away at designing every detail.
I was heavily involved in the messaging, overseeing and developing all copywriting for our materials, crafting pitch decks for potential sponsors, and overseeing our community outreach through platforms like Meetup. It was during this time that the mission statement and the four main components of our process were put into writing.
Drawing upon existing design frameworks, we scoped Protothon’s four main components to emulate the processes of the real world, acting as both educational and reinforcing elements of our events. Our mission statement, in turn, expressed those core components as guiding us along our path towards the ultimate goal: providing real-world solutions to real-world problems.
Designing a real-world solution requires a real-world problem. There were endless issues to choose from, but with the current tragedies at that time, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the 2017 Puebla Earthquake, and the 2017 South Asian Floods, we felt compelled to place our focus on designing solutions to repair damages and prevent further catastrophes. And so, our topic of Disaster Relief was chosen. We spoke with two specialists in the field, Eileen Lofrese of the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund and Reese May of the St. Bernard Project, and they agreed to act as speakers at Protothon, educating our participants about the lasting effects of these disasters, and current processes to assist those in need.
The event itself took place over two days, with a total of 15 hours spent listening to speakers, working on group projects, and final presentations. With over 80 participants generally split into groups of 4, we had over 20 groups working to solve self-chosen aspects of disaster relief. Their time was self-managed, but generally encouraged to be utilized for iterative processes by ideating, prototyping, testing, and evaluating, and then doing it all over again.
As an additional element of my role, I acted as a Design Mentor, one of a number on our team who would wander and sit down with teams to assist them through any challenges they ran into, or even just act as a test subject. Our main goal at this time was not to provide answers, but to help coax teams towards realizing their own ideas.
At the end of the event, teams presented their work to our event’s judges. I acted as one, alongside other design professionals and educators, and we went from team to team, hearing their pitch and asking further questions to drill down as deeply into their thought process as possible. Awards were given out to teams that excelled inures such as conceptual thinking, prototyping, and presentation, we took our final group photo to commemorate the event, and we turned our eyes ahead towards gathering feedback and planning our next event.
In most ways, I can say that the goals set forth for Protothon were actualized. Bringing together bright minds and talented designers resulted in fascinating projects, but more importantly resulted in creatives practicing the methods of design thinking and growing their craft. In terms of putting together an enjoyable and educational event, we succeeded wholeheartedly. The aspect I would like to work on mores in the future is translating that into future work, be that through assisting participants in career growth by pairing them with potential employers, or by assisting them to continue growing out the projects from Protothon. One of our goals in future events is to specifically focus on the latter, offering incentives to winning teams to continue working on their ideas, so that we can bring these changes to life, and truly accomplish our goal to provide real-world solutions to real-world problems.
Co-Founder, Managing Partner — Dom Propati
Co-Founder — Zach Dorsett
Co-Founder — Heather Dega
Lead Sponsor — Ernst & Young
Sponsor — New York University
More information available on our Meetup page www.meetup.com/Protothon/
Copyright © 2021 Zach Dorsett