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Yes, we can design it! But should we?

Reflecting on my two years at ID and the most important thing I learned

By Monica Villazon San Martin (MDes 2022)

Monica Villazon San Martin (MDes 2022) spoke at May 14, 2022 Institute of Design (ID) Commencement Ceremony. Following is the transcript and video of her speech.

Three weeks ago, during a job interview — one of those we all have had a lot of lately — the interviewer asked me a question that I am still thinking about:

What is your biggest learning, not only from school but from your whole experience as a graduate student?

It was a hard question to answer in that moment. We’ve been flying through projects, assignments, prototypes, readings, and well, interviews. I hadn’t really had a lot of time to take everything in and reflect on what we are accomplishing. And maybe you haven’t either.

So, I took thirty seconds to “reflect” on this question, and, nervously, I gave the best answer I could. But that question has really got my brain going. It’s been coming to my mind every day since that interview. And that’s what I want to share with all of you today, my biggest learning, not only from my time in classes but from my whole experience during my time at graduate school.

When I reflect on my experience at ID, I find it reassuring to remember what we’ve learned together:

  • We’ve learned methods to understanding the world as it is
  • We’ve learned tools to envision the future, and
  • We’ve learned processes to design that future

I leave my Master of Design program at ID feeling confident that, as I grow in my career, I am equipped to envision futures for almost any problem. And while it’s exciting to know that I leave ID a better designer than I came, for me, it’s the learning that made me grow as a person that has made the biggest impact on me.

Before ID, sometimes I felt like two different people.

First, I was Monica, an idealist who believes in sustainability and equity and wants to make change for the better. But I only knew how to do this through volunteering and giving my hands and time, not through design.

On a different level, there was Monica, the designer. A professional with great skills, working on big ventures: designing for profit, and designing to make processes more efficient. Naturally, this is the Monica who decided to come to ID, looking to get a better professional future.

But I didn’t want to sacrifice my first Monica. It’s an important part of who I am, and while I wanted to combine them, I couldn’t envision how. I’d never imagined a way to make them become the same person, a way that, through my career and my professional life, I could demonstrate and activate my personal values and really contribute to our society.

But that’s just what happened over my two years here! The two Monicas I just described became one, seamless Monica through her time at ID.

One of my favorite projects at ID was the Anti-Racist Pop-Ups with Chris Rudd. In this project, we used our design skills to help people design a better future, an anti-racist future, and through it, we opened conversations. Hard conversations.

Anti-Racist Pop-Up at Friistyle Chicago

Planning the workshops, setting up the logistics, getting the right words on the worksheets, partnering with the restaurants, and finding the right wood structure to bring everything to life. Everything was worth it when I saw the first couple of girls leaving together, still talking about racism after our five-minute activity.

I felt proud and I felt happy.

I felt, for the first time in real life, that I could change the world through what I like the most doing.

Now, I know not just that I can do it, but I know how to design the better world I believe in. Through my experiences at ID, I learned how to merge these two Monicas. For me, this is the most significant learning experience during these two years. I leave ID thinking like a designer: Yes, I can do it! and also always questioning myself: But should I? Is this the right project? The right approach? Does it deserve my time and attention? How will it contribute to our world?

Through all of my systems classes, I learned to map out the unintended consequences and potential outcomes of the future we are designing, and ask: Do we mind provoking these consequences? What can we do to avoid them? How can we come up with a better answer that considers all these elements?

So, as we all go on today, and leave the world to design great new things, I want to invite you to think about what is right: which problems should we solve, and for whom? Which world do we really want to create? What does the world need?

Here are some things that come to my mind when I think of the world I want to create:

  • We need a world where equity is a reality, and where people have access to opportunities.
  • We need a world that is inclusive.
  • We need a world where people care for the environment.

I want to design products, services, policies, and systems that not only create financial benefit for my employer, but really create value in a larger way, and do something to enhance people’s lives.

So I want to encourage you, fellow graduates: consider your values and worldview. Take more than thirty seconds to reflect on what you’ve learned at ID, and then see how it affects the designer you are. Try to marry your personal values with your professional ambitions.

We are a mix of the chances we get and the choices we make. The choices we all make, these value-laden choices, will shape the world that all of us live in. Ask the hard questions, the ones that you know should be on the table but nobody is asking. But more importantly, keep asking yourself: “Should I design it?” As designers, we are taking on the responsibility of making these choices.

It is our responsibility to choose:

  • Which problems to solve,
  • Whose problems to solve, and
  • The kind of world we are creating

We’ve come a long way to be graduating today. Long days at Kaplan, long nights on Zoom. Finding a time to meet with your team, which was especially hard when one of your teammates was on the other side of the world. Dealing with the plotter when you have Tomoko’s assignment due in the next hour. Or learning the level of fidelity for Carlos’s prototype.

I want to thank our professors and staff, our families, partners and parents, our friends, and our great community. We wouldn’t be here without all of you, so we owe it to you; we have a responsibility: to you, to ourselves, and to our planet.

I want to end with an encouragement to all my fellow ID graduates: wherever you go after today, remember: design is your superpower and how you can change the world. Be that person who cares about more than what someone is telling you to do. Be that designer who says:

Yes, we can do it!

But should we?

Related:

The next generation of designers
Adeptation: ID's End of Year Show
ID Commencement 2021