Growing Pains

Last May, a good friend introduced me to local designers Joyce and Meaghan at a regional design conference. For the next 2 hours we talked about our love of cats, our favorite places to eat in Atlanta, and this little side project they had started together.

What this project ended up being was Spark Corps. Its mission was simple, but lofty: help designers help the world. This little idea that was sparked how many ever years ago is now an exciting and green, little design studio in the heart of Atlanta. Spark Corps isn’t even a year old (and my time there even shorter!) but it is already full of potential. These past few months have been fraught with growing pains, missed steps, and the challenges that come with starting any new venture. But each of these has also been accompanied with little victories and marks of progress.

I think that when I started, I thought I would spend my days developing stunning visuals and falling in love with the design process all over again. Instead, I spend my days cold-calling potential clients, devising project budgets, and providing a space for Spark Corps’ organizational philosophy to grow and flourish. I spend my days as a businesswoman just as much as I do as a designer. The real crazy thing is that I sort of love it.

Ironically, for years I fled from the world of business. I grew up wanting to be an artist, or teacher, or maybe I would just travel the globe leaving all worldly possessions behind. But this desire to flee was forcing me to deny part of who I was. It was forcing me to deny my history and my heritage. My ancestors range from leading architects to pioneering pharmacists, from brew master to politician.

Big or small, my blood pulses an entrepreneurial spirit, and those who had the desire to use their minds and passions to create something. In their own way, they were designers.

So, while deliberating over emails, writing proposals, and pitching new work might not be as sexy as designing beautiful visuals, I feel like I am paying tribute to my own heritage. I’m helping build something.

They don’t look that fierce, but they’re pretty shrewd business leaders!

Design Ethics and Global Waste

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In one my my courses, we recently had a lecture on design ethics. We looked at a range of design organizations including IDSA and ICSID, looking at their articles as well as looking for gaps. We were then instructed to create our own code of ethics as designers.

Not too shortly after this lecture, I came across the article Inside the Hellscape Where Our Computers Go to Die  written by in WIRED. In this article, he describes Agbogbloshie, Ghana, a dump for electronics that are burned and set to waste away. It’s a chilling and humanizing view on the impact our consumption is contributing to the global waste stream.

These are our computers, our iPhones, our tablets and our smart devices. Not only as consumers, but as designers, I strongly believe that it should be within the ethics of our conscious to consider topics such as this. How do we, as designers, better design for disassembly? How do we create humane working conditions for the workers mining and dissembling these minerals? And how could we, rather than ignore our contribution to cycles of poverty, empower these communities?

This is a big issue, and I know that there are countless amazing people working around the globe to answer these questions. But its time that designers come to the table and not only acknowledge our part in the process, but use design thinking to solve these issues.

Less Talking. More Doing.

I’ve spent the last week talking–talking about design, talking about manufacturing, and talking about my goals as a designer. I’ve talked with the president of IDSA, freshman design students from burgeoning design programs, and I’ve talked about my fictitious design firm to my fictitious clients/real life professors. Yet despite my love of improvisational small talk and my natural inclination towards public speaking, I am spent. I’m done talking. I want to start doing.

This past week, I ventured down to Florida for the 2015 IDSA Southern Conference. It was my first professional conference with IDSA and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I had been to plenty of conferences and networking events before, but never for design. These were my people, and I wanted to make a good impression.

For the past 9 months, my view of ID has been fairly limited to what my university has provided for me. And while I’ve ventured out on my own to the best of my abilities, I still have a very narrow view of the field. It was like I had spend the past 9 months in elementary school, and this was my first day of junior high. What if I didn’t fit in? What if the big kids stole my lunch money or stuffed me in a locker? But as I settled into the conference’s first lecture regarding the sustainability of design and the use of innovative materials, I knew instantly I was where I needed to be.

The next few days were a blur filled with insightful presentations, plenty of small talk, the exchange of business cards, and happy hours that lasted well into the evening. During this time, one consistent theme kept coming up: making. Every speaker, engaging in their own way, spoke on the importance of getting your hands dirty–of investing in local manufacturers, artisans, and resources. The talked about becoming more invested in the process after our designs left the studio, and thinking critically about our influence as designers during a product’s life cycle.

As I made the drive back to Atlanta on Saturday afternoon, I was slap happy, sleep deprived, and in dire need of my own bed. During the ride, I began really thinking about that message of making. Here I had been sitting in a beautiful conference center listening to professionals out in the field about making. I had watched undergrads present their merit work, rendering me speechless. Here I was, surrounded by makers, feeling inspired, overwhelmed, inadequate and empowered all at the same time. But here’s the thing–I wasn’t making!

What does this all mean, then? Well, I need to start doing more. Talk is cheap. I will never reach the level of those individuals I had admired so much over the past 3 days without working just as hard, if not harder, than they had. I started small, writing down excerpts and snippets overheard during the conference. It was small, but it was putting pen to paper which was a step in some direction.

In building my online portfolio, I stumbled upon my senior thesis from undergrad. In it, I put a quote from Mark Rothko stating, “if a thing’s worth doing once, it is worth doing over and over again–exploring it, probing it, demanding by this repetition that the public look at it.” As an developing designer, I couldn’t think of a better way to express my views on design at this very moment. Designers are makers, thinkers, and doers. And only from repetition and continuous self examination will we progress.

So, lets get to work.

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If One More Person Tells Me, “Just Make a Grid…”

It’s crunch time. As the threat of summer approaches, all efforts are being channeled towards getting the elusive summer internship. It’s one of the few ways we can gain real world experience before graduation, and critical in order to secure a permanent job after we leave the gates of Tech. The portfolio is an essential part of this process, which makes sense. How else do we show prospective employers our work? But there is just one tiny issue with this. I have no idea how to actually make a portfolio!

My creative endeavors up until this point have been in the fine arts. In fine arts, the portfolio is pretty straight forward. You write a 1 page artists statement, you write a slide page, and you put your art into portfolio sleeves. If you have sculpture, you take high quality photos of the work from multiple angles.

That’s about it.

But design? Oh no, brother. It’s not nearly this simple. There are layouts, and grids, and color schemes, and visual hierarchy, and photos, and sketches, and grids, and icons, and did I mention girds?

I began asking my peers how to make a portfolio and kept getting the same response. “Just make a grid,” they all said. Just make a grid? Ok, what does that mean? How do I make a grid? What size should it be? What are the proportions? What is a good grid? What is a bad grid? All these questions would fly through my mind, and clarification beyond, “just make a grid” was rarely provided.

So, I took matters into my own hands. This past week, I attended a portfolio review through our local IDSA chapter. I put my work into what I knew at the time, bound it, and went to the event.

Probably one of the first legitimate networking events I had been too since starting my program, I was in my element. The small talk, the exchange of business cards, the industry specific jargon, the anecdotes and lame jokes. It was networking at its finest. And although I was a little rusty, I was like a tiger who had been locked in a cocktail party-less cage for 7 months and finally released back into the wild.

As the mingling subsided, I suddenly became nervous. We had reached the part of the night where the actual reviews began. I expected the reviewers to tear my poor portfolio to shreds—to say the work was hideous, the layout belonged in the trash, and that the gird was just the most abominable thing they had ever seen in their entire lives.

To my complete and utter delight, they said no such things. They gave me critical and objective feedback. The pointed out my strengths and weaknesses and told me directions to take the work in. It was great and informative at the same time. Here are some of the main takeaways I learned:

  1. Put your work in context. This I kept hearing over and over again. CAD a hand holding your rendering. Put it in a bedroom if that’s where it belongs. Make a persona to describe who will use your object. Put logos on pretend business cards. Always give context for your designs
  2. Put in outside work. As one speaker said, “I will fight anyone to the death who says that extracurricular work will not benefit your portfolio.” Employers don’t want to see just class assignments
  3. Just because an assignment ended, doesn’t mean the design has to. This ties into the previous point. If you like a design, push it further. It shows initiative
  4. It is better to have 3-4 highly detailed projects in your portfolio than 20 overviews. Employer’s want to see how you think. They don’t want to see just the end product. Put in sketches, models, prototypes, and the final product. Also, they want to see the research behind the project, so putting a page on the backstory and research involved in the design is a good thing.
  5. Have both a print and digital portfolio. Maybe this seems obvious, but out of the 20 or so students at the event, I was one of the only students with a print portfolio. As I got to the last reviewer, he thanked me, stating that all night he had been hunched over computer screens looking at tiny images. Designers like using their hands, and that goes for touching portfolios too.
  6. Show what makes you you! My portfolio was about half design, and half fine art. I was nervous that I would get critiqued for that, but instead found the opposite. Everyone loved that fact that I had fine art work and even told me to elaborate. Many designers are not fine artists, so this is a skill that I need to accentuate. They told me elaborate on my work, include studies, and delve deeper into the research that informed my art.

So, what then, can we learn from portfolios. Well, at the end of the day, I learned that quality always out shines quantity. I learned that every portfolio will be different and that there is a no one-size-fits-all style. Do your hard work justice, and let it shine. And lastly, I learned that when the work is good, no one is going to say jack squat about your grid.

What’s in a Name? That Which We Call and ENTJ

There seems to be an innately human fascination with the idea of putting ourselves into categories. From the time we are little, we take quizzes and assessment to justify our behaviors or bring clarity to problems. When we are in high school, we take career aptitude tests that are supposed to map out the rest of our professional lives. Buzzfeed is always there to tell you “What Famous Ginger is Your Secret Best Friend” or “What Beyonce Song are You?” Identity is so much of who we are, so taking 5 minutes to fill out a questionnaire that will put into words the traits we know we possess but are unable to articulate seems like a small price to pay for clarity and self actualization.

It comes as no surprise, then, that on the first day of my Professional Practice course, we were told to take personality assessments. The first was a Meyers Briggs personality assessment, and the second was a design skills assessment.

I had taken Meyers Briggs tests many times before and had always been told I was an ENTJ. I was proud of this. ENTJs were no nonsense, executive leaders. We were the bosses and the visionaries, and I enjoyed being held in the same esteem as Madeleine Albright, Bill Gates and Katherine Hepburn. But to my surprise, this quiz told me I was an ENTP. Talk about an identity crisis!

As I began to research the traits of an ENTP, however, I came to find an alarming amount of attributes which I had known to be true about myself prior to this test. For example, a common theme is the love of verbal sparring. We could debate about anything, and love to debate simply for the sake of debating. Words are our weapons, and we are constantly looking for ways to gain information in an attempts to better equip ourselves. ENTPs are also quick decision makers, processing a large amount of information in a short amount of time to make decisions based on logic and gut intuition. Because of this, many ENTPs are often politicians, comedians, and the hybrid political satirists such as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Knowing that I could now cozy up to Stephen Colbert made me rest a little easier.

What, then, does this knowledge have to do with my course work? The course is focused on contextualizing ourselves as designers in the current work force. What about our personality will be advantageous, and what will be detrimental. As positives, I was happy to know that the ENTP type validated my quick thinking, knowledge driven, and innovative approach to problem solving. All of these, as I have come to learn, will be hugely advantageous in a design setting. These same traits, however, can all contribute to the ENTPs downfall if left unchecked. Our overactive minds can be interpreted as scatter brained, our propensity to debate comes across as argumentative, and our passion for our ideas can come off as an inability to compromise or insensitivity. Just as with the positives, the negatives traits have also been common occurrences in my personal and professional life. To mitigate this, I have found it most affective to be (1) conscious of their existence and (2) constantly working to redirect these tendencies in a positive direction.

The second assessment was a self evaluation of our skills based on a list of core competencies outlined by IDSA. For each competency, we had to check if this was a strength or area for improvement. The items ranged from traditional design roles, such as “Physical model making” and “3D rendering,” to managerial roles, like “Is able to leverage networks” and “Advocates for teams’ recommendations.” With a few years of post college experience under my belt and a slew of part time jobs throughout my life, I was please with my assessment. I felt as though I possessed a large portion of the cognitive, communication, management and leadership skills. Those I selected as needing improvement I had either had a little exposure to or were familiar with the concept. Ironically, I found the highest percentage of my weaknesses lied in the creative boxes.

While I have a background in fine arts, I am quickly learning that an aptitude for oil paints is very different than being able to design a widget from start to finish. This assessment made me painfully aware of my novice level, and the skills that I still need to learn that will make me a marketable designer. Despite this, the assessment also served as a tool to push me to better these skills, and was motivating in a nagging mother sort of way.

So, what is in a name? How much weight should we give to assessments such as the above. We cannot view these results as absolute dogma and let them stifle our process, or give us license to rationalize poor decisions and continuous weakness. Yet, we also should not write them off completely, and rather respect their validity and use as a tool. So, like many things in life, we have to find the happy medium. We have to use these tools as guidelines, allowing them to add clarity to our decisions, but not let them dictate every choice we make. Because, people are not static, and we can always take actions to lessen our weaknesses and accentuate our strengths.

For a good resource on deciphering Meyers Briggs types, might I suggest 16Personalities.