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Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fire:
Life lessons from consulting to academia, and back again
By Jon Kolko


As I became a Professor, a number of things surprised me about the way academia works; now, as I have moved back to a fulltime consulting role, I am again constantly reflecting on the challenges and nuances of the job, and how my day to day roles and responsibilities have changed. I'm writing to share these observations with both academics and consultants alike, as I feel I've gained a huge amount of knowledge not from one or the other role but from the transition back and forth between the two.

A popular model for articles like this seems to be in the form of "the eleven myths of consulting" or "forty-seven things I learned in college," and I always assumed the rationale was to cater to people who were so busy they couldn't possibly be bothered to read a more rigidly structured document. However, my return to consulting has led me to debunk this as myth number one:


Myth #1: Academics don't work very hard, and Consultants never sleep
As a Professor, I was contractually obligated to five hours of face time with students per week per class, with an extra bit of office hours. This comes to a twenty-five hour workweek, for about thirty weeks out of the year. On paper, two thirds of the year as vacation seems like a dream come true, and I suppose it actually is for a number of people. But upon reflecting on my five years of teaching, I realized that I was working harder, longer, and on more things than ever before. Between mentoring students, writing papers, grading papers, structuring classes, attending presentations and lectures, traveling for conferences, sitting on committees, and—oh, right, teaching classes—I was approaching the seventy or eighty hour work weeks that I was used to from my previous life as a software designer. But again, upon reflection, I realized that I was working longer, and harder, and on more things at once because I loved every minute of it. The passion and energy I found in eighteen-year-old aspiring design students was contagious; they hadn't yet realized that design was actually work, and so when they stayed up until three in the morning, they did it because they wanted to.

I'm writing to share these observations with both academics and consultants alike, as I feel I've gained a huge amount of knowledge not from one or the other role but from the transition back and forth between the two.

I can distantly remember my own undergraduate studio experience; I was so self-conscious during my freshman and sophomore years, and so tainted by my junior and senior years, that I barely remember enjoying what I was doing. But teaching studio classes was like a second chance at an undergraduate education; during these classes, I fed off the energy and enthusiasm from the students, who in turn responded to my interest and passion. I worked hard as a Professor, and yet I barely even knew it. Don't get me wrong: every school has a professor who never learns the names of the students because he's secretly dead inside. But these people seem to be the anomaly, and even the most obtuse professor can light onto a glimpse of passion in a student on the rare occasion.

Now, with about four months back in the world of consulting, I'm experiencing life in relative slow motion. The high-pressure consultancy life I had experienced in the days of the dot com boom seem to have been replaced by a more casual, laid-back atmosphere; my employer says "work-life balance," and seems to even mean it! My day has shifted from two-hour lectures to two-hour conference calls, and the obvious parallels between students and clients aside, my day-to-day tasks have "zoomed way in." I now work primarily on the details—the pixels, the flows, the extremities of the idea—and the time for rumination is minimized, but not obscured. I've found that I'm able to leave the client work at work, and bring home only the "afterglow" of having spent nine or ten hours solving problems.


Myth #2: Teaching is a mechanism for disseminating knowledge
There are some disciplines where an educator has a great deal of content stored up, and they need to distribute that content to the students. That sounds dreadfully boring, and so I'm glad that Design education is nothing like that. One of my friends and colleagues, Professor Bob Fee, used to say, "I like teaching Manufacturing Technology, because it's the only class where I can stand at the front of the room and actually know something." He wasn't being overly humble; at the end of his forty-year career, he still feels a sense of awe and newness in the unique, contextually-sensitive learning that goes on in Design. As an educator, I learned more about Design—and about myself—than I can claim from all of my previous professional and educational experiences combined.

Undergraduate students of Design don't know much about Design. (As an interesting aside, they don't know much about anything at all, and the ones that think they know the most frequently know the least. If I recollect on the scale of my own arrogance during my undergraduate education, I can only imagine how dumb my teachers must have thought I was.) This ignorance is, of course, the whole point, and may even justify the $130,000 tuition. This ignorance is also fairly intimidating for a professor; once you've built a sense of trust with students, you can quite literally tell them anything and they'll believe you.

When I started teaching, I had little over three years of professional design experience under my belt. My lack of experience hardly justified "knowing the answers," and so I approached Design education as a collaborative learning process. I treated the creation of the courses and the assignments as interaction design problems, and I solved them by using the design process—iterative, user-centered, and collaborative, evolving over time. I failed a great deal in the early stages of teaching, but I failed publicly and collaboratively: my early classes were simply prototypes, and I gathered as much qualitative and quantitative feedback on these prototypes as I could in order to refine the course material over four or five years. The biggest failure was particularly unfortunate for the students: I greatly over-estimated how much work could be accomplished in a ten week quarter, and I suppose my classes gained a reputation for being a bit overzealous and akin to boot camp.

Teaching, then, wasn't a method of telling students all about what I knew, because the only thing I knew about was Design process. Instead, teaching became a way for me to learn, and to structure theories, processes, methods and opinions about Design void of the "business" context. Teaching is a way to explore.


Myth #3: Rock Star design consultancies are full of Rock Stars
I've always viewed my present employer, frog design, as one of the top design consultancies in the world; since I flipped through Form Follows Emotion in 1999, I've imagined a class distinction between the "top tier" firms and the rest of the chaff. Somehow, this assumption had led me to picture a firm full of "designers"—Barcelona chairs, horn rim glasses, and the high maintenance of a Rock and Roll personality. In fact, the reality of working at a world-class consultancy is that the business is a business, the people are generally good at what they do, and the designer-as-brand-personality is humbly missing. Creative problem solving requires a strange dichotomy of ego and humility, and an equally strange gauge of appropriateness. Our studio is full of people who are generally happy, slightly sarcastic, and vividly aware of the role Design plays in life; rather than hiding behind white leather suits and trumpeting slogans to change the world, it appears that design consultants actually do design work.

The more I read interviews with these rock star designers, the more I realize how out of touch with real design problems these people are. Approaching design solely as style and brand simply perpetuates the notion of Design as transparent and shallow, and if these people continue to serve as the mouthpieces for our industry, our industry will continue to simultaneously lose the business-centered respect and credibility it so urgently needs, and to ignore the social and cultural problems it so direly needs to solve.

Designers today spend a great deal more time defining, illustrating, and selling their design solutions than actually designing. Our educational system needs to adapt, and realize that, in business, a slick Powerpoint deck is just as important as a slick Alias rendering.

Myth #4: Design decisions at consultancies occur based on sound design process
While teaching, I emphasized cohesive process and strong documentation because I saw the value of instilling a repeatable and user-centered design methodology as a base upon which individual design skills could then be built. Yet, this type of education occurs in an envirnoment that is sheltered and artificial—by definition. Even the most industry-focused academic programs emphasize and teach a "clean" process, with deliverables that are defined in advance, requirements that generally don't change, and participants who are competent, articulate and well-mannered. Students make "good" design decisions because they have a rigid and confined set of constraints in which to work, and as it should, the safety net of academia provides a positive environment in which to fail.

Design consulting operates in a dramatically different world. While a statement of work may attempt to define concrete deliverables, even the most well-intentioned presales and planning effort can't cohesively estimate the proper amount of sketches, wireframes, documents, or deliverables that will "solve" a given design problem and communicate the solution. Changing requirements lead to slipped deadlines; changing budgets alter design scope in mid-step; even changing attitudes and the constant banging of the burn-rate drum begin to introduce arbitrary design constraints (such as emotions) into an already messy process.

This world of design-in-business isn't "bad;" it's just fundamentally different than the thing called Design that is taught in academia. Design decisions by their very definition aren't logical—they are imbued with preference—and if we are to prepare students for the realities of the business of design, the methods we teach in school should be broadened to include the facilitation and communication skills necessary to substantiate, persuade and illustrate the contextual relevance of a particular solution to a particular problem. Put a different way, designers today spend a great deal more time defining, illustrating, and selling their design solutions than actually designing. Our educational system needs to adapt, and realize that, in business, a slick Powerpoint deck is just as important as a slick Alias rendering.


Myth #5: Design is not a toy
Design is filled with humor. Although design is often found embedded in the seriousness of multi-million-dollar financial decisions, one can't help but laugh at how comical some of the antics of business and university actually are. During conference calls where clients literally vote on feature sets, or during design critiques with sleeping students, design consultants and design students share one basic, solid connection: humor. Perhaps the most important thing I've learned from my position as an educator, as I watched students learn to draw and to think and to care, is the value—and inherent joy—of the human as compared to the fleeting essence of the technological.

As a consultant, I've been able to apply this valuation through a lens of humor: to embrace the absurdity of a technology-centered business, and to question outright the world we have designed for ourselves. We take our work so seriously, claiming that our designs are "game changing," but these designs are so often based on arbitrary requirements, and so frequently resulting in unintended complexity, that our seriousness resonates only as tongue-in-cheek. The sarcasm and laughter that surrounds the talk of corporate innovation begins to indicate just how much of a "toy" design in business actually is: a cell phone with multi-touch, or a banking program that rounds up before giving you your change, can hardly be construed as advances that shake the foundation of our culture.

The sarcasm and laughter that surrounds the talk of corporate innovation begins to indicate just how much of a "toy" design in business actually is: a cell phone with multi-touch, or a banking program that rounds up before giving you your change, can hardly be construed as advances that shake the foundation of our culture.

In Summary
I've left academia in my day-to-day, but like many designers, I still have a strong connection to design education. I think we all remember a sense of amazement, and a feeling of potential, as we left the world of higher education for "real life." I was able to regain a great deal of this emotional empowerment by teaching for half a decade. The transition back to consulting, from teaching, was easy primarily because of how fulfilling teaching actually was. I was able to re-light a fire inside myself that had literally burned out during ninety-hour work weeks.

I laugh at work, and my colleagues laugh with me, because we are building a world that is emotional first and pragmatic only eventually. We do take our work seriously, and yet we still understand the importance of feeling, and questioning, and—yes—mocking. And I suppose that, at the heart of it, there's just not that much difference between the sarcastic banter of a consultant and the innocent questioning of an eighteen-year-old student: both want desperately to understand why things are they way they are, and both realize that, underlying the human-built world, is a potential for us to make life consequentially better.

Jon Kolko is a Senior Design Analyst at frog design in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Thoughts on Interaction Design and the editor of Interactions Magazine.