Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights

Editor’s Note: This post for the February ‘Openness Edition‘ comes from Jeff Hall, Elizabeth Gin and An Xiao Mina who discuss their project to facilitate personal storytelling by homeless youth from Jovenes, Inc. in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles. The team from the Media Design Practices/ Field Track program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California had so much success with the timeline structure that they’re packaging it for future use at Jovenes, Inc. and releasing it under a Creative Commons license so others can try it out in the field. This kind of repurposing of ethnographic tools is exactly the kind of sharing that we get excited about at EM and we encourage others to share their own tools and work processes in similar ways.



Photo by the authors. All rights reserved.

Ethnography has a lot to offer design, as evidenced by the growing field of design and design-related research informed by the methods and practices of anthropology.  Within this emerging interdisciplinary space, the design community and the anthropological community now have an opportunity to ask the question – “If anthropology has offered so much for design – what can design offer anthropology?”

We explored this question as part of our work with Jovenes, Inc., a center for homeless youth in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles.  Our goal was to provide an opportunity for youth to tell their personal stories and experiences. These stories would assist the organization in learning more about its constituency and support applications for additional funding to improve its programming and services. We worked in the vein of Participatory Action Research, by Alice McIntyre, taking a collaborative approach to the design and storytelling process, ensuring that both the youths’ untapped creative abilities and our expertise and research were consistently utilized throughout the experience.


Photo by the authors. All rights reserved.

The partnership began with a focus on building relationships with the youth and exploring, in McIntyre’s words, “non-traditional strategies to tap into the youths’ experiences, thoughts, ideas, and emotions” (21). Initial activities included ice breakers with Post-It notes, collage-making, taking photos with disposable cameras, painting to music, creating kinship maps, and writing self-created lyrics to instrumentals of mainstream songs.

Realizing that our experience in the writing process could be pushed further, we a developed a simple modular timeline format that would facilitate storytelling. The timeline was printed on a 36″ x 15″ strip of paper. Each individual was provided with three types of cards:

  • Milestone – a milestone is a major event. These are the big ones. Think of them as the beginning of a chapter or the start of a new TV season.
  • Memento – a memento is a great event, not as big as a milestone, but still important in the life of the youth.
  • Memory – a memory is a moment you think about from time to time

These cards visualized the story structure in a commonly used outline format used by writers when composing an essay or story. The varying formats and sizes of the cards helped visually communicate relative importance.  They also allowed for a flexible structure that encouraged experimentation with story order and provoked additional memories and thoughts about how to express the story. We found that youth were closely engaged in the process, frequently shifting around the cards, adding details and working with us to flesh out their stories through conversations and questions prompted by the design of the activity.

During our time developing the youths’ stories, we discovered a desire for an aspirational and forward- looking component. They didn’t see their lives as complete but in process, and wanted to modify the initial three part story structure to reflect this desire. This led us to create a fourth future-looking milestone based on their feedback that they didn’t want their story to end in the present, thus allowing them to project their life goals and trajectories.


Photo by the authors. All rights reserved.

Another challenge that emerged for us as designers was how could keep encouraging the youth to develop their stories past the point where the felt “done”. This led to us building a comment structure that allowed both youth and viewers to add critical feedback in an emotionally safe context on the different stories. These comments covered potential media strategies alongside opportunities for story development, especially as we started to investigate how to represent the stories to an outside audience.

The format addressed the usual problem of a blank piece of paper and opened the door for collaboration. We found that as they composed their story in different pieces, they’d be engaged in deep thought while also open to working with us as we helped them develop details and think about media strategies. The unfamiliar design also helped break the mold of the relationship many youth have with outsiders, which can often take the form of telling a story they’ve had to tell multiple times.

From here, the visual format then served as a springboard for co-designing a presentation format. Our team worked one-on-one with each individual to fully write content and choose photographs for each of their four milestones. We then created the design for each individual’s story, working with them to choose fonts and make edits.


Photo by the authors. All rights reserved.

Together as a team, we constructed the four wooden milestone structures and planned the choreography of the final display. Built on wheels and covered with large-format and portioned photographs of each individual’s face, the unique mobility of the wooden milestone structures allowed the youth to reposition the sections of their face, shift angles, and form new visual combinations. Sandwiched between acrylic, each textual and visual description of the youths’ stories were also movable, modeling the original flexible format of the timeline and cards, as well as conveying the ever-shifting nature of these youths’ existence.

In fact, one of the most fulfilling aspects of the project was seeing the youth take full ownership over the work as they altered the display and explained the project, collaboration, and their story to visitors during the final exhibition. Although initially hesitant, they would pick up acrylic sandwiches and show their friends, and they rotated the columns to reveal the different faces and configurations.  The design wasn’t perfect – it was a little too “precious” for what was supposed to be a hands-on piece – but it contained enough interactivity to foster conversations.

In future iterations, we would like the youth to bring home the timelines so they can work on it during the week as new memories come to mind. However, many were hesitant to bring them to their shared rooms, afraid that the timelines would get lost or ruined.  Thus, we have started to think about possible digital formats that they could fill in with text messaging or on the web. Another possibility is a more portable format, such as cards, which don’t occupy as much space as the full timeline and could be carried around by a youth on the go; or a laminated version of the timeline, which increases durability, ease of editing, and reusability by the youth or an organization.


Photo by the authors. All rights reserved.

This timeline format proved to be quite successful in application, and we are packaging it for future use at Jovenes, Inc. We are also excited to release it under a Creative Commons license so others can try it out in the field, should the context allow, and iterate on it (see links below). If you do use it, be sure to let us know what you think!

Materials to Get Started

To get started with this project, you’ll just need the following:

  • A roll of printing paper 36″ wide and variable length (at least a few yards). You should also be able to print directly at Kinko’s if you don’t have a roll.
  • A stack of 8.5″ x 11″ paper
  • Scissors or X-acto knife
  • Painter’s tape, or any tape that doesn’t stick too strongly to paper
  • Pens and markers (multiple colors are nice)
  • A recorder for conversations
  • Our open source designs: A PDF version is available here, and for designers, here’s the Illustrator file.

The post was developed from a presentation at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting 2013 with Prof. Elizabeth Chin. 

Check out other posts from the Openness Edition: Jenna Burrel’s ‘#GoOpenAccess for the Ethnography Matters Community‘, Sarah Kendzior’s ‘On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet‘ and Juliano Spyer’s ‘YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool‘. 

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8 Responses to “Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights”

  1. March 3, 2013 at 6:40 am #

    On their timelines, you wrote”However, many were hesitant to bring them to their shared rooms, afraid that the timelines would get lost or ruined. ”

    did anyone not bring it back to their rooms because they were worried other people would see the highly personal and private info on their boards? Like what if someone came into their room and looked at their boards while they were gone?

    also curious – do you think any youth held back on fulling sharing info on their boards cuz of the publicness of the boards? Or perhaps that’s the point – the publicness among a safe group of people gave them an opportunity to share.
    And what was the group dynamic like before this project? did all the youth knew each other already? Was there a lot of trust between the members involved in this project?

    • An Xiao Mina
      March 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

      That’s a good question, and something I thought might be behind that. But I actually didn’t see any evidence of concern with privacy, per se. It was a self-selecting group, as the youth who participated wanted to share their stories. Some also speak publicly about their experiences, and so the designs helped them flesh out details etc. It’s definitely something worth considering, as they shared their living spaces.

      And yes, absolutely they held back on a few details, and certainly they had every right to. That said, since it was a self-selected group, the ones we worked with were happy to share their stories. Even if they held back on details, they held back on far fewer details after we started utilizing the designs; the designs helped us get to greater levels of detail and break past the stories they were accustomed to telling, while keeping control in their hands on what they did or did not disclose.

      The youth knew each other in the same way that members of a small grad program might know each other. Some were friends, some were not, some got along with each other, some didn’t. During the day they each had very different schedules, so they didn’t all know each other necessarily. There was cordiality during our meetings together but we certainly heard about disagreements outside that context.

  2. April 8, 2013 at 1:01 am #

    I’m curious about how long this project lasted… how many days do you think would be needed to complete something like this?

    • An Xiao Mina
      April 9, 2013 at 3:16 am #

      Great q. We did this over about four weeks, 1-2 days a week, each day about 1.5 hours with multiple youth. This felt about right. This assumes we used the story timelines as a baseline to a fuller, more written-out story. So the first two meetings were spent working on the timelines directly, giving them time to reflect and think through. Then the remaining meetings were using the timelines to start talking about how we wanted to present the stories, write them out, etc.


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