A letter to graduating students

Hello everyone! 

A huge congratulations to all of you – the Management team, Educators and especially all our graduating students who spent countless nights working on assignments, final year projects, preparing for presentations and so on.

All of you have come a long way and deserve every minute of this standing ovation. [standing ovation claps sound]

Come to think of it, it has been almost 20 years since I graduated and I can still vividly recall how excited I was to finally step out of school and enter the design industry (for real). It felt like I had a new superpower and couldn’t wait to test it out.

However, many of my fellow junior designers and I faced a common challenge when we first stepped out: We thought we were ready to do great work with awesome clients but we found ourselves struggling to navigate the design industry. The truth is – school could teach us only this much and a lot of the learning takes place in a protected environment. 

I’ll take this opportunity to share some lessons and ways you can use your new design superpower out there.

Firstly, design is a team sport. Strong craft skills are definitely needed but it only takes us that far. To go further, we have to work collaboratively with others on the team – developers, startup founders, marketing people and even other junior or senior designers. 

One of the biggest complaints we get from non-design people is that we (designers) don’t collaborate enough. Often we take a brief, put on our headsets and go behind the screen designing away. 

To do good work in this century, especially when everyone is working asynchronously and remotely on projects, we can’t afford to be working in silos. The moment we do, projects cannot move and we lose our value as designers. 

We have to combine our Craft skills with Collaboration skills to progress our design careers.

As if collaborating with others wasn’t difficult enough, we also have to level-up to Facilitate conversations. Often as we work with a multidisciplinary team, we fall into the role of connecting the dots and helping others to connect the dots. Our role as a designer shifts from an individual sitting behind the screen to a facilitator influencing change on a greater level. 

Another tough lesson we learned is that we need to be able to tell good stories – stories that persuade, convince, sell, convert and bring our designs to life. So many times we expected people to look at our designs and see what we see, or appreciate the thoughts and considerations behind our designs without telling them anything. This has cost us our credibility as valuable designers.

Stories and words are powerful ways to bring people together, shift mindsets, and influence change. When the time calls for it, you need to tell a good story to do justice to your designs. 

The industry back then is very different from what it is now. Softwares have changed, methods have changed, even the people and environment we design for have changed. We live in a much more complicated world today. There’s this term VUCA that’s used to describe it. VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, and you can definitely see it from the various issues going on around the world, not just the pandemic. 

To survive and be good designers in this VUCA world, we have to see things from a broader, systemic perspective. Simply designing solutions for the immediate future without taking into account other interconnected aspects of the problem doesn’t cut it anymore. Not being able to see beyond the immediate design need risks rendering our design solutions outdated even before we present it.  

As designers, we are in a unique position because our design superpower is one that can be used to benefit the financial position of an organisation while at the same time, bring harm to someone else. We may not have noticed it or we may not be willing to recognise it. 

I would like to urge you to take some time to understand what your personal values are as a designer so that you do not end up using your design skills in ways that are against your personal values. 

Lastly, I’d like to leave you with a quote by British Advertising legend, Paul Arden, that I live by – “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.”

Summing up, if you want to be a great designer, you need to adopt a continuous learning attitude and treat every opportunity as a learning opportunity – to improve your design, collaboration, facilitation and storytelling skills. It is only then that you wield your design superpower in the right direction and remain true to your beliefs.

I wish you all the best as you enter the industry, now go kick some [beep]. 

Thank you.

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Design coach, Lift buttons enthusiast, Creator of bad puns. @IxDA Regional coordinator for Asia. Let’s make things better!