Design Observer, November 2018

Last year I attended The Design of Business and The Business of Design conference at Yale School of Management. It was two days of mingling with high energy creative thinkers and strategists.

The design industry has evolved so much. When I went into ‘applied arts’ some decades ago, spending money to go to art school was looked upon with a different lens. Especially in India where I grew up you either became a Doctor, Engineer, Lawyer, or CPA. But if you decided to go in the arts or design… you were an odd ball, maybe considered a loser too because you would not be able to support yourself.

Over the years my basic design background evolved and expanded to encompass book design, fashion design, textile design, painting, and all of these skills evolved with digital tools. As I went through grad school at Pratt Institute in New York and later moved to the Bay Area, the world wide web was just taking off. I vividly remember sitting in meetings and arguing with engineers who would not think twice when using multiple fonts on a web page and unintuitive colors for links and visited links. I lived and survived through the era of web pages that had black backgrounds and yellow and lime green type. And let’s not forget those blinking buttons for call to action.

When designers started designing for the web there was a clear divide between the print and the web world. There was this unspoken superiority and the east coast — west coast divide was evident. I myself remember the snobbery behind working on online projects. The Google search page always came into every conversation. Craigslist was another. How not to be like them, all text, and all links.

When it became cool and acceptable, suddenly a surge in job titles came about, User interface designer, Information architect, multi-media designer… Trained designers were able to expand their design prowess, their grids, gutters, typographical expertise, and nit picky leading and kerning and created a new language with the new found tools for onscreen needs. Print and Multi media design became two parallels that learnt to coexist. Over time, they also learnt to collaborate, and then came a time when it wasn’t a choice anymore, they had to blend and work well together, or else…

Then came the boom before the bust.

To add fuel to fire, everyone you interacted with, your nanny, the mailman, the taxi driver, everyone had a startup idea.

They all needed a website designed, they all needed a product prototype and presentations. I was teaching at the Academy of Art around this time and we had to incorporate app design in our new media class. The world wide web was getting smaller, it could fit in your pocket and we had to train designers to think outside the box one more time but this time the box was becoming much smaller, beyond the 1042 pixels.

When the dotcom bust came about and the economy slowed down, the in-house creative departments started shrinking rapidly. The love for design started to fade. You had to work so hard to convince a client to go through a redesign or think about their branding and engagement.

But problem solving was still required.

With lessons learnt from too many startups and not much thought into why they were there in the first place, a new breed of design thinking came into play. Consequently, media consumption and well designed consumer eye candy was subtly educating lay people on the benefits of a well designed product and interface. A creative problem solver became part of every team. It became fashionable and vey forward thinking to visually verbalize your problem statement. Design thinking became a snob norm. Thinking outside the box was your edge in the noisy overcrowded valley and elsewhere. What did that mean? What did that look like? If you have seen pictures of meeting rooms with white boards and colorful post it’s you know what I‘m talking about. Big word clouds and minimal viable questions preceded big spending.

But according to me, a lot of this design thinking became more thinking and less doing. There was a lot of noise. We suddenly saw design thinking houses opening up at every corner along with a Starbucks and a Philz. Everyone went through Design Thinking sessions and came out with lots of takeaways but there were fewer next steps. Where do we go from here? I don’t know, we never talked about that. We only talked about the problem, and figured out where it came from and how many ways we can dissect it to see if we really have a problem but we never talked about forming a committee or assigning a team to follow through on the takeaways. Of course, this is not the case with everyone, but it was largely the issue people started facing.

What are we doing as designers? Why are we saying what we are saying? How are we envisioning the message?

I couldn’t help but draw parallels to my life as a designer, and my normal human life. My role as a designer started off as a creator, someone who spent a lot of time to hone her craft. However, life had other plans and I had to quit my job as a creative director and become a full time cancer caregiver but, my design background and my need to find meaning in the mundane led me to question the cards that were dealt to my family. My son who was fighting cancer was three and his sibling was six when we started his treatment and we ended up spending so much time in the mindless activity of going in and out of the hospital to cure him that no thought was given to his our our emotional and psycho-social needs. None. My training in the discipline of design made me question that. My craft became the vehicle in creating a non profit that focused on bringing art as healing to the patient, siblings, and the care circle.

My 2018 Vision Board had a prominent spot for professional growth. The Design Observer Conference seemed like just the right fit. I was really hoping that this conference would do none of that preaching, if I may use that term. I wasn’t looking for a hands on training workshop on design, neither was I looking to be told how to do something. What I was looking for was to have a conversation, hear creative minds talk, share, question, and be humble.

So did that happen? Did Design Observer’s first conference deliver?

Zita Cobb, Founder and CEO of Shorefast and Innkeeper of the Fogo Island Inn.

Zita Cobb, Founder and CEO of Shorefast and Innkeeper of the Fogo Island Inn.

Keynote speaker Zita Cobb, a social entrepreneur, started the conference off by talking about ‘belonging’ in our societies. With everything going on in the world, especially here in the US with immigration, women's movement, diversity at stake, a conversation on ‘belonging’ in a design conference was refreshing and made me hopeful on the prospects of the conferences tone. The role of a designer most of the time becomes a work for hire. You are solving someones problems for a specific reason. As a creative thinker, owning the problem and looking at it inside out is what inspires me.

I had never heard of Fogo Island and I’m sure 95% of the attendees hadn’t either. It was fascinating to hear the social and cultural entrepreneur talk about returning to the island she grew up in and lay out the perils of growth, greed, and climate change on a small island in Newfoundland.


So what is design?

As I’m writing about the conference I can’t help but add my experience to the conversation. Something that resonated with me was this underlying theme- Design is Good. Design for Good.


Whether it was Pepsico’s outgoing CEO Indra Nooyi and Mauro Porcini, SVP & Chief Design Officer, or Richard Ting, R/GA’s Global Chief Design Officer, or Valla Vakili, Head of Citi Ventures Studio, their message seemed to outline a utopia where people who have the ability to think creatively should be sought out for higher office. Does not matter what sector, does not matter what segment. There seemed to be an untold urgency in everyone’s presentations for creative people to rise from their design departments and take on leadership.

Richard Ting, R/GA’s Global Chief Design Officer

Target’s Chief Creative officer, Todd Waterbury said, as a leader you have to balance the soul but also represent scale to be accountable. If managed appropriately what emerges is a Brand. But the larger question was, how do you find the brand in culture and the culture in brand?

What is the gaping hole you will leave when your company is gone?

Todd Waterbury, Chief Creative Officer of Target

Inviting people to a party is diversity, asking them to dance is inclusivity

Caroline Baumann, Director, @CooperHewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and Caroline Wanga, Target’s Chief Diversity Officer talked about leadership, diversity, inclusion, and creating a space that create an unintended consequence for doing good. I liked what Caroline Wanga said, Equality is giving everyone a shoe, inclusion is giving the shoe that fits. Conversations about inclusivity and equality in diversity are on everyone’s mind right now with the #metoo movement, #racialprofiling, #immigration, #equalpay and many similar conversations in our life right now. It was refreshing to hear different voices on these topics. Creative people are passionate and they are natural changemakers.

Valla Vakili, Managing Director & Head of Citi Ventures Studio

Leaders need to have experience making things.

Mark Thompson, CEO of New York Times and Tom Bodkin, Design Director of NYT were in conversation with Ellen McGirt, senior editor at Fortune. NYT pushed for questions and got pushed out by the current democratic regime. The conversation of news and packaging news is fascinating to me as a designer. We have the ability to create images that several million people will see and react to. We have the power to package and incite anger, compassion, or movement. Copy + Visuals have the ability to change minds and directions. This is a complicated, scary, intriguing world and as creative people we have an added responsibility to bring the real truth to the forefront.

Most of the time we work on projects where we are paid to promote a brand and shape a story, yes that is to pay bills, but the real job we all have as creative people is to help lead the change, use our power of one and add it to the collective power of ten. We do not have to become activists or renegades, no that is not what I’m prescribing here, but in our own way we can use our creative thinking to look at our surroundings and question, emphasize, expand, embolden. We can help repaint an old picture. We can help add voice to a cause. We can align our creative voice to shape truth.

David Rose, VP Vision Technology at Warby Parker, said something that I would like to close with, Of course he was talking about this in context of eye wear and the future of wearables. For me this statement opens up a whole new dimensional thinking for creative people.

David Rose, VP of Vision Technology, Warby Parker

David Rose, VP of Vision Technology, Warby Parker

When photography moves from intentional to incidental, we as witnesses or as mere spectators, and as creative individuals are going to be charged with more layers and levels of storytelling. We as Design Observers will have to play an active role because we will have to make sure that there is an intention behind every message that is incidental.

I will leave you with Jessica Helfland and Michael Bierut’s closing remarks…

Designers are optimists

We must be futurists

Deeply committed humanists

Think for yourself and do it loud!