A life-defining moment

2020 IIT Institute of Design Student Commencement Address

By Prachi Saxena (MDes 2020)

One of my most defining memories was in my second week at ID. During a routine foam core cutting task, I sliced my finger with an X-acto knife. As shock of the injury set in, and Marty, our beloved professor, desperately tried to stop the bleeding for over two hours, I remember thinking: WHAT. AM. I. DOING.  HERE? Why did I leave my safe world of writing papers no one will read to do this? Whatever THIS even is?!

Except, now with the wisdom of three years and nine whole fingers, I realize that it was not just MY defining moment. Almost every student at ID has faced moments of crippling doubt—questioned their ability, waded through ambiguity, and felt euphoric triumph. We have all come out the other side fundamentally changed as professionals, citizens, and humans.

A class that survives together, thrives together

We are graduating in a time that has been characterized as era-defining and historic. In managing the daily trials of living in this new world order of screens and lockdowns, it can get hard to reflect on our journey and accomplishments.  The truth is, in the three, two-and-a-half, two, and even one year that you have been at ID, you have already touched countless lives and transformed many more, whether through a project you conducted, workshops you ran, or the community you have built here.

As a class, we can also lay claim to being part of some of the most pivotal moments at ID. We moved from the Downtown Campus to Kaplan, and helped put down roots that will grow for years to come. We also were some of the last students to be guided by the mentorship of some of the most decorated faculty at ID—Anijo, Vijay, Patrick Whitney! As ID has undergone its own transformation, we have lived right along with it and thrived. Staying persistent and resilient, I know we have left our imprint on ID’s DNA—whether it is by calling for classes in civic/social design, or putting up a bright red tent in a stark white building. 

So set forth, and design your journey! 

As we all get ready to set off on our individual paths, I want to remind us all that the ID community will always be right beside you. While our paths may diverge now, I know that they shall cross with each other, alumni, and professors throughout our careers and life stories. However, we wouldn’t be ID grads if we didn’t try to create some structure to help us navigate the uncertainty of life outside ID. 

Therefore, as any good newly minted designer, I want to propose some design principles: 

1. Focus on function over form

Unless you squint your eyes and Tomoko’s voice in your head tells you it’s ugly. Then scrap it and start over.

2. Choose clothing wisely

At some point you will be wearing the same look every day. Marty, I am looking at you...you are an inspiration to us all. 

 

Ok, more seriously:

1. Challenge the status quo

Put in the simplest terms, my greatest learning at ID is not grandiose concepts such as systems thinking, or open innovation. It is instead the conviction that things do not have to be the way they are. We must bring that conviction to our work, whether it is challenging oppressive systems or wondering why the CTA machines are the way they are. Underlying it all is the assumption that we always have orthodoxies to flip, change to make.

2. Consider unintended consequences and take accountability

Bruno Latour’s provocative “Love Your Monsters” piece implores us to take accountability and ownership of our creations, especially when confronted with consequences we never intended. As intangible as this advice sounds in this moment, it is my hope that we always strive towards it.

3. Champion others and acknowledge our privilege

As designers there is an inherent tension in our role as we constantly have to grapple with our position as creators—solution architects and critical thinkers, and the community we hope to serve. And honestly, we are still creating the blueprint for what balancing this looks like from an ethical and just perspective. However, it is an exercise we must never take for granted. At the same time, let's not take ourselves too seriously.

4. Embrace the whimsical

Thanks to you all, the stoic social scientist in me has discovered whimsy. It is creativity with a twist. Silliness combined with a vision. It lives in the International Food Fest, spirit weeks, and the ideas we have already put out into the world. It is the characteristic of my work that I never want to lose.

Here's to us and our families

I see these as principles to gut check myself. I am sure they will evolve and grow with me. However, I like to remind myself that as buzzwords come and go, our skills, thoughtfulness, and action will live on. As we work with non-designers or even try to include our family in our lives, the challenge to explain what we do is a continued exercise. Paring down the essence of what we do to why we do it has helped me immensely in defining my own purpose. It’s a purpose that I am eternally grateful to have honed at ID, even though I know that it is carried in equal part by the sacrifices of my family.

So let us all take a moment to thank all those that have lifted us up, cheered us on, and believed in us when we didn’t believe in ourselves. Here’s to us all! We made it!

Related:

How Prachi Saxena turned talk into action at the Institute of Design
ID Commencement 2020
REFLECTIONS: Our first online student show