The Value of Design (as told to middle schoolers)
On Friday, January 17 — the Friday before the long MLK weekend — I spoke to 8th grade students for Career Day at Traverse City West Middle School, introducing them to design as a profession. The first class started at 7:40am, and at 25-minute intervals I presented to a total of 5 groups of kids until the half day assignment ended.
How do I size up the value of the work I’ve done, to expose half-asleep students to design? First, to simply describe what it is and second, how to see it as a viable profession? Talk about a design challenge …
I chose to describe my pathway from kindergarten through college by way of self-portraits at every stage (if you’re curious, feel free to check out the presentation here). I then showed them examples of my early work in design, from product brochures for companies such as Steelcase through a complete body of work in wayfinding for complex environments, and on to the design of experiences in many of those same environments: healthcare, universities, corporate campuses and cities. I told them that my current and future focus is not on the artifacts my partners and I design, but the experiences we enable.
Yep — yawn. Here’s how I built the story:
Design is everywhere, and in everything. I pointed out the plethora of materials in the classroom: books, posters, faucets, furniture, software, curriculum: all of these are designed by someone responsible for the concept, design and, in most cases, implementation as well.
Everyone is a designer (even if they don’t think they are). I pointed out that their clothes, their hair, their lockers, their handwriting, their way of speaking, even their social networks: all of these are things that they design to work for them. Intentionally, and every day.
Design is a team sport. You might think of designers as maverick loners that sprinkle fairy dust on pieces of paper and come up with great solutions. Those do exist, sure — but far more of us team up with researchers, developers, video producers, regulatory agencies, etc. as well as our client leadership to do our work well.
Designers are, by their nature, interpreters of experiences. By taking the kids through my earlier work, I was able to show them how I’d interpreted my growth through self-portraiture: and how those were, to varying degrees, blatantly honest or embarrassingly stylized. But my entire body of work demonstrates an ability to frame, interpret, simplify and create.
And finally, when we grow in our careers, we get to help figure out really complicated problems. I took them through some of the challenges we’re currently engaged in with our clients:
- What societal factors contribute to the existence of child sexual abuse, and how to we move the levers (individual, societal and structural) to eliminate it?
- How are patients and families getting lost in a complicated healthcare environment, and what are the best ways to anticipate and reduce their stress through staff education?
- How does the infrastructure along the North Shore of Lake Superior support international tourist experiences?
- How might we design a map of behavioral health providers that serves both as a reference tool and a way to highlight gaps in rural service areas?
- How do we better connect providers to close gaps in the healthcare and homelessness prevention systems?
Spotlight vs. Lantern Consciousness
The latest book I’m listening to is called “Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World” by Michael Pollan. In it, he describes the relative benefits of this pervasive drug in terms of enhancing an ability for focused, linear thinking. And while we will happily vouch for the benefits of caffeine, we know that design and creative thinking requires the loss of a certain type of focus and the freedom to let the mind off the leash of linear thought. Pollan says:
“Cognitive psychologists talk in terms of two distinct types of consciousness:
- Spotlight consciousness, which illuminates a single focal point of attention, making it very good for reasoning; and
- Lantern consciousness, in which attention is less focused yet illuminates a broader field of attention. This more diffuse form of attention lends itself to mind wandering, free associations and the making of novel connections.”
All of which nourish creativity, to the benefit of clients whose main responsibilities (by which they’re evaluated and compensated) require spotlight thinking. This is why so many of our colleagues in patient experience roles are frustrated by the CMS-mandated metrics they’re meant to impact, while at the same time seeing the need for more enlightened (pun intended), systemic and emotionally-based thinking from their peers and superiors.
This is what differentiates design from other professional pursuits, and is the primary value it provides.
So you want to become a designer?
When I started my design studies at the University of Michigan, I noticed a much higher percentage of my peers were left handed, as I am. At Career Day, I asked each class how many of the students were left handed, and observed that there may be both physical and cognitive predispositions to being a designer.
So what if you or someone you know wants to be a designer? This is what I told the 8th graders:
- You must know how to write, and be able to speak to others. An idea is only as good as your ability to communicate its benefit back to an educator, a boss, a client.
- You must be curious. In order to frame, interpret and meet a client need, you must be predisposed to asking questions about their business and their barriers. Great design happens within constraints; the only way to understand those constraints is to read, research and ask questions.
- You must be resourceful. When we hire a designer, it’s not about how much they know but how they think and to whom they’re connected that’s important.
- You don’t need to be an “artist,” but it helps. Conceptual thinking happens whenever, wherever it happens. In school, habitual doodlers are actually thinking productively and translating what they’re hearing to the written page in the form they best understand. Highly encouraged.
- You must demonstrate a desire to think “around” a problem. Designers, in their questioning and conceptual work, create visual concepts that help to frame the assignment in a different way, which often leads to unexpected outcomes. This is our superpower.
How did it turn out?
To my amazement, I was able to capture attention and field some great questions from kids that showed an interest in design. Once, when I asked who might want to be a designer, several kids pointed to one young man at the back of the class. He perked up and said “yeah, before your presentation I never knew what a designer was. Now I think I might look into it.” One young woman, having seen my presentation, blurted out “so you’re, like, a GENIUS.”
Not bad for an early Friday morning.
Originally posted February 6, 2020 on connect-cx.com