A West Oakland story

Research-Primary and Secondary, Wireframing and Prototyping, Visual Design, Presentation, Storytelling

Wilson Wu
Mahesh Kantheti
GinGin Xie

10 weeks

The Crucible


Oakland is going through gentrification, causing a significant impact to the existing population. An Industrial Art school at the heart of West Oakland is trying to make sense of what this means for who they will be in the the next five years.

The Crucible is a nonprofit organization and art school dedicated to making the fine and industrial arts accessible for all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. Their work is centered in Oakland and the East Bay, where we provide high-quality, fun classes and workshops to over 8,000 people each year. They collaborated with us to help them visualize the impact and nature of this change, estimating demographic changes based on real estate data, and creating a story out of the numbers.

The Process Map – To tackle our challenge, we decided to follow a double diamond process.
Although in some ways it looked more like this.

1. Discovery

We were new to the city and started off by diving into secondary research–looking for a wide scope of information about West Oakland. From our findings, we learnt that the coming years will bring an array new developments which can be expected to bring new opportunities in terms of employment, luxury housing and better facilities for BART.  

On the flip-side, the fabric of West Oakland as a Center for the Arts,  notably Jazz music is threatened.  With the proposed developments underway, there are fewer spots for affordable housing and increased  possibilities of clashes between the haves and have nots. One out of many such developments is the Panoramic. There are a total of 3 buildings with over 900 units. This project alone can expect at least 2000 new residents. 

For The Crucible, this meant a potential increase in their members, but at the cost of the fundamental values they stand for – which is to enable and empower an underserved community, which will now be at the verge of displacement.

 How might we create a data-informed narrative about the changing face of West Oakland, in a way that could help The Crucible make strategic business decisions?

We studied the details of around 10 upcoming real estate projects, and speculated demographic estimates, footfalls, mobility and other relevant data points that would affect The Crucible.

2. Definition

We then began to define our key stakeholders. At the center of our focus was the crew of The Crucible-the faculty and students of the school. Further out we have the Future Committee -a group of individuals responsible for their strategic business decisions; And in the outermost, and arguably most important circle, we included the wider community of West Oakland.

We then dived into the second diamond of our process and brainstormed ideas for the execution and discussed the possibilities of various mediums. We discussed Legos and drones, neon tubes and podcasts. At one point we even pondered how the smells of the neighborhood might change in 5 years, and if an interaction around that would be viable.

3. Development

After much discussion and deliberation, we collectively agreed upon four actionable principles that we would keep in mind for the design —a backbone for the execution phase of our project.

We narrowed the story down to the following broad shapes that the data could take:

1. Slicing a map of West Oakland into layers
To illustrate the range of variables, in a visual style befitting for each.
2. Creating a game and leveraging the benefits of ‘play’
To make difficult information more easy to engage with.
3. Drawing a storyboard
Which takes an emotional journey of what living in Oakland 2025 might look like.

We then went back to the crucible and presented our ideas.

Fortunately for us, the ideas were well received–each route appreciated for what it had to offer, although we did gather that there was an inclination towards the more playful side of our Game idea.

4. Delivery

Using simple variations of a map helped  us ground the data in a rational way since the information was primarily centric to a region. The story gave an emotional route to access the information. Finally, the game allowed us to address a high stake question like business strategy, in a low stakes and friendly manner. It made the information approachable and less intimidating. Thus we began to put together our first prototype, as an adapted game of Monopoly- which we found to be a fitting metaphor to the real estate gentrification that West Oakland was going through. 

The feedback from our first prototype proved invaluable and our meain learning was that much of the gravity of the impact of the changes was lost on our audience. So we went back to meet with a data expert, who also happened to be a part of Crucible’s Future Committee. Her point of view and thorough understanding of the subject gave us the confidence to elevate the data. We made the bold move of placing the speculated 7th street onto the center of the Monopoly board, in an aesthetic that matched the game, and modified our impact cards to visually emphasize the hard hitting consequences of gentrification of West Oakland.

The need for a supporting Guidebook also became apparent, as we collated feedback from many of our stakeholders. And thus was born, the first version of West Oakland Monopoly.

The Digital Extension

To expand the reach of our prototype, we designed an additional digital face of the game that one can play. Here is a video of the interaction with the digital invision prototype.

A screenshot from the digital version of West Oakland Monopoly.


Consider sustainability and the larger system: If we were to iterate a version of this game, we would test it out with the local community and perhaps incorporate ways of being more deliberate in the point of view intended by The Crucible. In that way, it could potentially be used by the community to communicate with real estate stakeholders.

The balance between being true to the data, and having fun with it: I think this was the most challenging part of the project for us. As outsiders, we weren’t too attached to the impact of the change that was foreseen, but in order to be able to speak to both, the data crunchers and the community at large, we were often torn between tuning down the playfulness and amping up the hard hitting statistics.

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