Last week I had the privilege of speaking at my alma mater before the graduating seniors at commencement and my mind has been filled for days with thoughts about the journey on which they now embark, full of both challenges and tremendous opportunity. News media report a modestly improved domestic environment for the 2011 crop amid headlines of Spain's 'Young & the Restless,' Les Miserables and GDP growth rather anemic here at home. While I'm not sure all grads are well-prepared for the market realities, I have tremendous excitement for today's young crop of designers. It seems to me that for young minds trained well in the design field, the prospects for meaningful contributions and careers could hardly be more promising.
A veteran of the industrial design profession, I've been witness to amazing changes over the past 30 years. The days of being brought in at the tail end of enterprise initiatives for aesthetic treatments have become the exception rather than the rule. There has been an increased desire for designers to collaborate earlier and at a more strategic level for development of products and services, in large part for purposes of risk mitigation, marketability and adoptability. This has also developed into a powerful integration of engineering and traditional design skills/professionals with the human insights and knowledge of social science (psychology, sociology, ethnography) and market knowledge from business professionals. This integration now has researchers and strategists working in tandem with product and service developers, and the relationship with clients is now being better managed and informed by MBAs. It is an exciting time where the skills of a designer, and more specifically the perspective they bring to the table, are more valued by everyone—business, non-profits and government agencies alike—especially for the ability to address many challenges proactively and strategically.
Design graduates have been taught for decades how to integrate beauty with functionality, complimenting the skills of today's product and brand managers. Increasingly graduates are better trained to integrate social sciences and bring wonderful consumer-centered and ethnographically-centered solutions to the table, while more fully understanding the realities of manufacturability, implementation and commercialization. This wonderful marriage of skill and perspective with experience tackling both global problems and commercial applications seems to me a foundation that destines most for tremendous success; provided they approach it like any other design project—with a little creativity and persistence.One important thing I'd remind graduates to remember is that commencement has always been another beginning—opening a sacred door to a corridor filled simply with countless other doors. It remains up to them to open these doors, cleverly pick the locks when closed or even to embrace walking new corridors altogether. Designers have all these skills and options at their disposal. Open doors may have very rusty hinges and entry difficult in traditional tracks, but doors to other industries, non-profits, governments are likely only closed until designers make the case why they deserve entry. It is an easy case to make and the benefits from a design perspective (risk mitigation, sustainability, marketability) rather easily understood these days.
By embracing other corridors, I mean seeking out opportunities other than employment. That was my path. For me embracing entrepreneurship in my early 20's was a straight-forward and simple calculation, as I found that risking failure is easiest when the downsides are minimized. I had no mortgage, spouse, dependants and little doubt in my design abilities. I therefore chose to follow my ambition, and as is common, my efforts had humble beginnings. However, I was fortunate to find partners possessing tremendous talent along the way. I've continued learning from them and from our client challenges and believe your experiences may be similar. If so, you'll be well served to embrace a love of lifelong learning, understanding your strengths and those of colleagues and focus on creating value as well as sharing beauty, harmony and utility with others. With patience, vision, luck and lots of hard work (teamwork), applying your design talents in an entrepreneurial or freelance basis may be your ticket to success.
A few years ago, roommate industrial designers Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky's entrepreneurial venture, Airbnb, was created when they needed cash and knew of a design convention in town with attendees needing rooms. They offered to rent airbeds in their apartment for people having difficulty finding accommodation and turned a small profit. Fast-forward to just a few years later and their idea has taken off around the world. They are currently doing great with over 60,000 active listings in over 12,000 cities in 181 countries and recently Ashton Kutcher is helping propel the company to new heights as an investor and advisor. Their ability to approach opportunities with solutions and create value came from seeing things differently—seeing things like designers.
A fellow speaker at the recent commencement advised graduates to embrace passionately every opportunity presented. I couldn't agree more with that advice. It is those with genuine passion, optimism and focus that have the best chance for not only being embraced for employment, but have the best chance of making a contribution once a team member. The passionate are also better prepared to achieve success on an entrepreneurial path. You need a real hunger and passion to sustain because success is generally a marathon not a sprint.
Another bit of advice I'd like to share with graduates is the value of persistence (impossible not to develop in design school) at a time when so many others lack the temperament. And it isn't new advice—consider the following statement on the topic offered nearly 100 years ago:
"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common that unsuccessful men [and women] with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'press on' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."
- President Calvin Coolidge
This is important advice, especially in times of trial and tribulation. Just keep going!
Finally, I'd like designers to remember that their training, especially the ability to think and approach challenges with creativity and through the eyes of people helps them bring an objective, pragmatic, sustainable, and diagnostic lens to incalculable initiatives. Designers are better prepared to see the world through a consumer/human perspective than most academic programs hope to achieve, and can tackle broad challenges of adoption and advocacy. You're also better instilled with a wiring to solve problems—whether mechanical or utilitarian—rather than seek passivity or complaint. Even designer's general bristle to following orders and preference to establish new marching cadences generally lends a proactive, futuristic, and objective orientation that helps cultures embrace change and opportunity. You possess tremendous value, so don't forget it.