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Jorge Martínez Arana: A Taste for Problems

By Jorge Martínez Arana (MDes + MBA 2023)

May 14, 2024

2024 student speaker Jorge Martínez Arana (MDes + MBA 2023) addresses the audience from a podium.
How We've Transformed ID; How We'll Transform Design

Jorge Martínez Arana (MDes + MBA 2023) spoke at this year’s End of Year Celebration on May 10. Following is the transcript and video of his speech.

Before we start, some context, because context is everything around here.

As I was introduced, my name is Jorge, I graduated this past December from the Master of Design and Foundation program. For two and a half years I had the chance to be in this building for the better part of the day and interact with a lot of the wonderful people that are here today, so of course when the commencement committee asked me to speak before everyone here I hesitated. We are a big batch of graduating students, and to try to be faithful to everyone’s experience here is a daunting task.

However, the same reason that makes it daunting is the main cause of celebration: there are so many of us, with diverse backgrounds and aspirations! So going forward, please keep in mind that this is but one experience, and I urge you to go out afterwards to the rest of the people here to seek theirs.

And I also want us to keep in our minds our friends and families that for whatever reason are not able to be here. Here at the Institute of Design we are a globally diverse bunch, and with that comes complex logistics, oftentimes out of our control. To those friends that couldn’t make it, know that you are here with us, and those whose loved ones couldn’t make it, know that we are here to accompany you in these moments of celebration.

Now we can start.

We are a big batch of graduating students, and to try to be faithful to everyone's experience here is a daunting task.

Student Speaker Jorge Martínez Arana (MDes + MBA 2023)

Jorge Martínez Arana addresses fellow graduates at the Institute of Design’s End of Year Celebration.


Today marks the unofficial start of our professional lives as master designers—it’s our commencement, if you will. I say unofficial because here at the Institute of Design, which I’ll call ID for short, you pretty much start working at a master’s level professionally from a few weeks in—but we have to wait a few years for the paper that says so.

So, to start, congratulations! We’ve just been through a wonderful shared experience that I’m sure has shaped us in different ways, beyond the classrooms and our design capabilities. Something I often hear when talking about higher education is the fact that after you go through it, no one can take it away from you. Let’s not forget the same goes for the experiences we have while pursuing higher education. A lot of us came in as strangers to this strange land, be it Chicago or the United States, and are now changed. Some of us might even have slight Chicago accents. We can cherish those experiences together.

As we’ve heard and will continue hearing tonight about design, and its future, where design must go, I want to celebrate what we’ve built here through our years together, and offer a view of how that can help us get to those futures.

Here at the Institute of Design, you pretty much start working at a master's level professionally from a few weeks in.

Us, and Why ID

I’m sure if you ask 10 of us why we chose to come to ID, you will get 15 or more answers. Double that if you ask us all at the same time. We will build up with each other and before you know it a whiteboard will be brought in. I’ve seen it happen.

But when digging a little deeper into the question of when it “clicked” in our heads that we wanted to go into design, something I kept hearing were stories of working on a particular problem, having some success or failure, deciding to look into it differently, and landing on design—starting to develop a personal taste for the problems we chose to work on, and how to go about them.

Let me give an example:

In the same way we gather in our bright green kitchen to share food and coffee, tea, or hot chocolate in those cold Chicago days, and we have conversations about flavors, what we like or dislike about them, we have conversations around our preferences in design: methods, tools, industries and topics to work on.

But more importantly, we share our personal stories that connect us to them.

Back to food and drinks: I’ve had the pleasure of tasting coffee that came from a friend’s family backyard in India along with homemade candies, sweets brought from Japan while friends visited their family, I’ve had rose syrup directly from Indonesia to celebrate work ending, and shared different teas from China, and as some here know, from time to time I’ve contributed with chocolate from my native Mexico.

The same goes for our conversations around us and how we got here: special connections to problems that made us go through the process of getting here to learn another way to work on them.

That diversity in taste has made ID, for me, the place and community that I now cherish.

Where else are you going to find a place that has people from all walks of life working on these kinds of problems?

Some of them sound like the set-up for a bad joke. Some examples of what I’ve seen in my time here:

—and you can flip that one, I’ve seen—

Bad jokes aside, why am I so fixated on talking about backgrounds, problems and taste?

Because those are our tools to shape how design will look like in the future.

At this moment in time, when we’re facing doubts about what value design brings to organizations, it’s on everyone that practices design in some form, and that includes us, to shape it to continue to be a method of action to help solve some of the biggest problems.

Let me be clear, I’m not against a healthy dose of questioning—we thrive from that—but, at least for me, some of these questions have made me doubt and forget parts of why I decided to come here, why I decided on design as a way of thinking and working, and prompted some of this introspection.

And in that introspection I found what we’ve built here as proof of our capabilities: our community with wildly varying interests, but some crucial common points: curiosity in others, the humility to admit we know very little and need others to have a greater impact, and some personal connection to the problems we’ve chosen to work on.

Where else are you going to find a place that has people from all walks of life working on these kinds of problems?

Transforming ID

I hope you realize that in coming to ID, and bringing your particular taste for problems, we now leave having shaped how design is understood and used here, and expanded its reach a little.

Part of my proof for that is in this same building. Three years ago when we first came here it was a completely blank slate. It was like walking into a refrigerator with white walls and white lights. We had to keep desk tags to avoid people thinking the desks were empty.

Now, I can walk around and see how we’ve formed and used that white space. Ornaments hang from high places, plants flank desks, colorful mugs let you know who is in the building, and work displayed all around points to shared learnings that will endure here after our time here ends.

For being part of that, and allowing me to be part of that, I’m proud of and thankful for everyone here.

We now leave having shaped how design is understood and used here.

Transforming Design

So now in that sea of doubts and new tools, we must continue to shape our practice to keep it a force for good, be it in the form of human- or planet-centered design, systems thinking, futuring, co-design, or something entirely new.

For this, I can offer a reminder of design as a way of thinking, but also as a verb.

In 1969, American designer Charles Eames was asked the definition of design for an exhibition in Paris, to which his answer was: “One could describe design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.” Later on, when asked if design is a method of general expression, his answer is “No. It is a method of action.”

That still rings true today, and I urge everyone to have a call to action in their work. A way of talking to, recruiting, and collaborating with others to, again, solve the complex problems in our world.

Being able to bend where needed, but not breaking where it matters, is an imperative—and a signature of the people at and from ID.

And last, when dealing with doubt and change we must explicitly give ourselves the permission to do so, but not too much. As we deal with the uncertainties of new technologies and our rapidly changing environments, being able to bend where needed, but not breaking where it matters, is an imperative, and, from my experience, a signature of the people at and from ID.

With that said, there is nothing left but to be thankful and celebrate.

Thank you teachers, mentors, and staff for making the space and filling it up with your offerings. And quite honestly, thanks for putting up with us sometimes. A taste for problems tends to attract problems as well—I’m well aware of it.

Thank you friends and families for making up the support that made this experience possible.

There are a lot of compromises and quiet sacrifices that go into pausing your life for two or more years to be here.

Fellow grads, again, bravo! I’m eager to see where you all go, and what changes you bring with you, and don’t be a stranger, now and in the future, for we are all in this together, in our own, different ways.

So thank you all, gracias.