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Becoming a Girl Scout

design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine. This is the fifth installment in a...

design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine. This is the fifth installment in a miniseries within that blog, and it will run every Thursday for six weeks.

In 2003, I was researching girls aged 13 through 15 in order to design products to meet their emotional, social, and economic needs. At one point during the project, I realized that even with all of the work I’d already done—conducting retail studies; reading articles, marketing reports, and teen magazines; and listening to their music—I hadn’t yet spoken directly with a teen girl. To fix this, I contacted a local Girl Scout troop leader, who agreed to take me on as a co–troop leader. I had little responsibility within the troop other than to hang out, but by immersing myself in the language and everyday life of a teenager, I began to understand their dreams and needs. I began to feel like a teenage girl all over again.

The girls in the troop looked and acted nothing like the ones I'd gone to high-school with, all of whom were wealthy and over-educated—fashionistas from the 5th grade on. These girls were lower-middle-class, all dressed alike, were perpetually bored, and all but one exhibited an alarming weight problem.

On one troop outing, the girls and I were waiting for a river-front dinner boat to arrive, when two of them ran up to me, one trailing a bit behind the other. “OK,” the first one, Krystin, said, a little out of breath. “Who’s fatter, Whitley or me?”

For a moment I panicked as I tried to think of something to say. But as Whitley ran up, everyone laughed. We all knew they were the heaviest girls in the troop. “I am. I’m the fattest!” Whitley bellowed. “You can’t take that away from me; it’s all I got,” she said as she did a little dance to show off her figure. It made me smile to see them laughing so hard together. They had formed their own club, in which they were the de facto presidents. I felt weird for being thin.

As Rick Robinson wrote in The Origin of Cool Things, to understand someone, you have to immerse yourself in the particulars of their culture. Joining the troop put me on common ground with the kids I was studying, which is key to the research process. For me, working this way allows me to design for a group’s universal significance.

Ashley Menger is a senior interaction designer in frog’s Austin studio.

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