Four pieces of advice for new strategic designers

As Program Leader of IED’s Master in Design and Innovation (Strategic Design Labs), I was asked to address the class of 2019 in the graduation ceremony. I find almost all of it applicable to any people who are starting their careers in Strategic Design. Hope you’ll find it useful.

Dear class,

Of all the things we’ve lived in this master, the one that made me the happiest is seeing how much you’ve accomplished in so little time. A close second is Maddie making a semi-involuntary impression of Elizabeth Holmes. (Seriously, if you haven’t watched her, it’s something to behold).

I guess many of the concepts you’ve learned in this master are still… floating around in the space of your head, kind of looking for a stable place to lodge themselves. It’s a very common feeling. It can take as much as two or three years for what you’ve learned here to completely kick in…

Some months from now, hopefully you’ll be working on… something related to Strategic Design. You might get a job in corporate innovation, in a startup, in a strategic design studio, or maybe even starting your own business. It will be the beginning of a journey of many years of developing your careers, of discovering yourselves and building your unique personal relationship with Strategic Design.

And I would like to give you four pieces of advice for these coming years:

  • The first one: Stay comfortable in uncertainty. You know, the kind of tingly uneasy feeling that you’ve felt in your projects, when the deadline looms nearer and nearer and you don’t quite have all the information you need to make a decision…
    I’d tell you it gets better.
    But I don’t want to lie to you today.
    Get used to it, and learn to love it. Because if you find yourselves working in the zone where everything is clear and unambiguous, and you’ve got all the information… you might be out of the zone where you can do something great.
  • The second one: Be insatiably curious. Creativity does not work in a vacuum. Any solutions you can think of will come from the set of frameworks you’ve got in your head to understand situations and problems. So, make a point of having as many frameworks as possible. Learn about not only digital technologies, but biotech, neuroscience, humanities, media, politics… the more the merrier. Let me read this text from Robert Heinlein on the subject: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a pig, govern a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects”.
  • The third one: Be persuasive leaders. Develop a sixth sense to detect the interests and incentives of people around you, and work with them. Build relationships, recruit allies, and have friends in hell. Do you know what impostor syndrome is? Do you feel it? Well, flash news: you don’t have real impostor syndrome. You are impostors. Embrace it. Dress yourselves as power so power opens you their doors, and then make them listen to the inconvenient truth. And dress yourselves as counterpower when the time comes to do the same with them. You are not queens and kings; you are not servants; you are agitators and ambassadors.
  • And the fourth one: Be ethically concerned. I could tell you to “be ethical”, but I’m saying “be ethically concerned”. At all times. Be ethically concerned about the first-order and second-order and third-order consequences of the products and services you will put in the world. As Mike Monteiro says, constantly practice two skills: asking “why”, and saying “no”. And be ethically concerned about where you get hired. Because once you are inserted in a given system of incentives, you will subconsciuosly rationalize that what you’re doing there is perfectly OK. Don’t do that. Question yourselves. And when you look around and you see nobody else does, think that’s because you are the ones which are supposed to start the questioning. Because you’re designers. And designers care for people even when nobody else will. Especially when nobody else will.

When I was your age, nobody gave me this advice, and I had to learn this stuff alone. This is my modest gift to you.

Thank you.



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