One last framework for your future as a design leader

2019 IIT Institute of Design Commencement Address

By Brandon Schauer (MDes + MBA 2005)

Graduating students, faculty, staff, friends and families, it’s an honor to speak to you today.

I can’t help today but reflect back. Because 14 years ago I was in your shoes, students. And I was doing a crossword puzzle I had pulled from the Chicago Tribune. I have no who gave the talk that day, or what it was about.

But here’s what I’m pretty sure I was feeling that day:

  1. Confident about what my career would be—among the small and elite innovation teams that were so hot then. (Reminder: I work for a big bank now!)
  2. That I was hot stuff.

But in fact, these feelings were well off the mark. So hopefully you’ll put down your crossword for a moment.

Because what I want to offer up is where I was wrong—that your career shall not be what you think, because design and the opportunities and challenges for design are evolving way too quickly right now. And that your career, your success, and your happiness are about much more than what you yourself can do alone.

So let me take these notions on in two bites.

1. Your career will not be what you think

The first bite is that your career is not going to be a straight and simple ladder of advancement.

Design is evolving more quickly. Because the challenges facing this work, and facing you as a designer, are demanding more than ever.

That’s why I recently sparked a research effort—alongside Stephanie Smith, ID’s head of partner engagement and Kristin Gecan, who spearheads ID’s thought leadership—to study the future of design. And it’s why we had eager partners from across today’s largest design employers. They have to know what future they’re leading their big design workforces towards.

And while I think some of you here are better positions to share what we’ve discovered—because you yourselves did the research!—I want to share some of my perceptions on the big changes ahead that will change and affect your career and mine:

Design must be a force of advocacy.

Design has always had a role as the wider lens for organizations. Design championed the crazy ideas that the things organizations create should be designed to be safe. To be usable. But that is no longer sufficient. The world and organizations need our help again to take the longer and broader view, so that the solutions we co-create are not just desirable, viable, and feasible—the once- thought holy trinity of innovation—but also inclusive, sustainable, and just. These are no longer optional concepts.

You know as well as I that we’ve got plenty or crises to work on. Crises of climate, data privacy, truth, faith in institutions, healthcare, corporate responsibility, economic disparity. You may not think you’re working on these in your first job, but if you look at the larger context you probably are. I work in banking and in fact work on more than one of these fronts when I elect to define my job that way. These seem insurmountable to me until I frame it as a design challenge, ask “how might we…?” and think of designers like you in the room working on it.

Design will bridge the connection between intent and effect for organizations.

Design, and particularly the kinds of design leaders grown here at ID, have the ability to ask the right questions of organizations, envision answers, and work across the organization boundaries to be bridges to the future. Design is how we close the gap between good intent and good effect, without marginalizing or disenfranchising those who are part of the effect.

Design will spread inside the organization.

Design will be applied and coupled in previously unimaginable ways. You see, design’s focal point has historically been placed at customer-facing touchpoints: product design, screen design, communication design. And that’s still critically important, but how the company makes these products, how the company works to do it is just as important as how the organization’s products are experienced. How might we design platforms and processes for everyone to deliver solutions together?  How might we design relationships and org structures and cultures?

The cool thing that an ID graduate has and will continue to learn is that anything, anything can be designed with the skills they have. In fact, their biggest impact work will be when they design not products or services, but design teams, design goals, design policy.

The research is turning up much more about how to go about design, and we intend to release a report over the summer to help employers and peers think about just what to do to unleash the talent available in design.

So dear parents, I want to make sure you appreciate that your student has invested in developing a rare and important set of skills in design, an ability that will be of increasing criticality as the world advances. Each time the problems get hairier, when you need the bigger picture to solve the problem, it will become clear they know how to step up and design the way forward, to solve more valuable and important problems at each stage of their careers.

Delivering on such grandiose challenges is a tall order. Something hard to live up to. And when you really feel you’re in that space, in that role, and seemingly making progress, you can feel pretty good about your work.

And that takes me to the second and last bite. And lucky for you, perhaps a shorter bite.

2. Your pendulum will swing both high and low

As you might remember, I said when I was sitting in your shoes I thought I was hot stuff. And I continued to think that for a few hot minutes.

I moved to San Francisco, joined a hot design firm known as the darlings of what was then called Web 2.0. Out of the gate my first assignment was to blog about Web 2.0, posting to the megaphone of their very prominent blog. And in about four hours after my killer post went live in prime time, I received a beating. I was heckled by prominent designers, and I thought I was the laughingstock of the web.

I felt small. I felt sad. I was the worst.

Our emotions are like a pendulum. They can quite easily shift from feeling like you are the very best, to feeling like you are the very worst.

The pendulum, I’m saying, is like a framework for the emotional experiences in design leadership. The pendulum is a framework you probably didn’t learn, but one I want to give you as you step into your career.

So after weeks of sweating this particular failure, of embarrassment and self-disgust, I eventually found an emotion just a few degrees closer to center on the pendulum. I felt sadness, which is a useful emotion as it’s about knowing what you missed. I had missed adding some important components of experience and humanity to the Web 2.0 conversation because I had dressed it all up in fancy pants language that made me feel smart and important. And that was my miss. My sense of self-importance got in the way. And so I lost the opportunity. And my confidence. For some time, until the pendulum swung the other way.

The point is that in a career connected to your passion, big challenges will no doubt be full of emotional ups and downs, failures and triumphs.

The challenge, talented designers, is to remember what your true purpose is along the way. And to try to surround yourself with people who will keep you mindful of that and humbled in your shared pursuits.

As you grow to design teams and lead organizations, you’ll come to see just how much the people around you matter. That culture is a design of who you choose to work with, who you hire, and who you fire. That culture is the respect you have for the people you serve, and the vision you have created with them and for them. Instead of pride in yourself, it’s pride in what you are doing together.

Because, yes, there are days like today. Milestone days on your journey as a designer from the Institute of Design. You should feel great pride in that. And I commend you on it.

But I also want to focus on this if you will indulge me these last few moments with some of what I’ll call “California woo-woo.”

Just for a moment, resettle your body, pause and be calm, settle your eyes on something in front of you or maybe even close your eyes.

I want you to reflect on today. And feel that warmth inside. That pride for yourself, or for a loved one. Feel that glow when the pendulum swings up way high.

But also recognize that just inside of that great pride, just a little lower in the pendulum swing, is a feeling of gratitude for the people around you who created and supported this situation for such growth, learning, new potential, and community. To those people, I hope you are also able to say a word of thanks today—directly or indirectly.

So open those eyes if you need to. For around you is a very valuable community. A community of design. And our alumni network is vast and talented when you dig it up and stay connected to it, which I encourage you to do.

Dr. Brene Brown, the noteworthy research professor who has studied courage and vulnerability, compels us each to, “step into our story.” She says, “You either walk inside your story and own your truth, or you live outside of your story, hustling for your worthiness.”

I invite you to step into the next step of your story, as an ID grad, as a champion for solutions to the important problems, as a wrangler of the challenges of this world. Because you’re ready. And because we need you.

Congratulations for being among such a talented and passionate community of design. Congratulations.