Reflections on my Studies at Products of Design

Completing my master’s at Products of Design (PoD) is one of the better decisions I’ve made. Every day, I’m thoroughly impressed by how well PoD prepared me for the work I do now. I’m confident as a designer and each day is an affirmation that I made the right decision.

Simultaneously, though my technical skills are vastly more developed than before my graduate studies, my greatest challenge is my lack of specialization. I am a jack of all trades designer. I feel like I have the systems thinking skills that I’ll need for the job 10 years from now and finding the job that will celebrate all these skills now is challenging.

Now that I’m done school, here is an extensive list of thoughts on PoD and lessons learned (the shortlist is the top 5).

  1. Grades suck. One of the greatest motivations for me to attend school at PoD was the fact that there are no grades. Speaking as someone who has always sat at the front of the class, this scared the shit out of me and also freed me. It scared me because it made me wonder how I would be graded and it freed me to explore what my particular point of view, what my voice was. I encourage students in the program to be risky with their work, explore ways of making that might not feel like “you” and use this exploration to eventually find where you sit on the spectrum. While I was there, I could go from one extreme to the next, fail in one way and another and still know that I would pass because…
  2. Documentation is #1.The question of how I would be graded was quickly answered by the requirement to document everything. This requirement has now turned into a compulsive habit which I’m grateful for. The rewards for being transparent with my thinking and process have been huge. Being able to show the work behind the work and showing how decisions were made has been integral to how I speak with others about my projects.
  3. Conditioning! PoD is no joke. The work is hard with good reason. You will likely never work as hard as you do at the program. Nothing pushed me more than the work I did in graduate school. And because of my conditioning, what would be my 75% effort in graduate school now looks like my 110% effort to everyone else. Things become a lot easier and you can whip things up a lot faster than most people think.
  4. I have been informed by many points of view and now I need time away from school to understand what mine is. One of my favorite classes was the Point of View class taught by Rob Walker. It was the one class where I created a piece that truly reflected my way of thinking and the type of work I wanted to be creating. But during thesis year, this was lost at certain moments because I grew tired of having to defend my work and knew that by conforming to the point of view of my critics, I wouldn’t be so tired. Pick your battles. Some are worth fighting more than others. I’m looking forward to the next few months because the time away from school will allow those different points of view to ruminate and will give me the space to re-establish my point of view and the work I want to be creating.
  5. For a while, people will have a hard time defining what kind of designer you are. You will have a hard time defining what kind of designer you are. This is fine. They will not know what to come to you for. Which means they won’t know why the will need you. You won’t know what to offer. At some point, you will have to choose. And it will actually not matter what you choose. Because it will be the starting point. At PoD we were taught to be a nimble designer. We were required to do it all. We were each our own creative houses doing graphics, product, industrial, business and service design all at once (read: thesis year).
  6. Self-care is a myth. I tried. I really did. But it’s challenging and also important. I fit in a yoga class every couple of weeks. I’d try to make my own meals. Five minute meditation sessions were had in the soundproof room. But real self-care is very challenging in this program.
  7. Meetings. Meetings. Meetings. You will have them all the time. When you first start a group project, be diligent about defining what a meeting is, what a brainstorm is, what a working session is, and how you will make decisions. Meetings more than 30 minutes, even an hour, are pointless. Keep them short and spend more time working together. And most of all…
  8. No protoytpe no meeting. Come to the meeting prepared with something. A Pinterest board, an article you read that is really important to you, a sketch, storyboard, or even a paper prototypes. Bring something so that your conversation has something to push against in order to generate more.
  9. How you conduct yourself in school is training for how you conduct yourself outside of school e.g. how you send emails, how you prep for meetings, how much sleep you get, how much you put into for a project. Note this. And train yourself.
  10. Sometimes you teach the teachers. This is something that became much more evident during my thesis year. I pushed back on a lot of the criticisms I received while completing my thesis and along the way I was actually able to teach a few of the teachers. I’m grateful to the teachers who were willing to listen and learn.
  11. Keep the momentum going. Once you graduate, keep making, keep pursuing, even at 75% because trying to get that momentum going a year from now will be hard.
  12. What you make in school bears little to no weight in front of potential employers/clients. People who hire you are interested not only in the quality of your work but also the decisions you made to navigate the constraints placed by different stakeholders invested in the success of your work. At the same time…
  13. The work you make in school matters because it’s forming the foundation of who you are as a designer post-PoD. So maybe people aren’t interested in the work you do on the topic of x or you aren’t able to fully justify the decisions you made on project y or project z was awful and you hate the end result. That’s all okay, because you made the work and that is what matters. You showed up and that makes all the difference.
  14. Take comfort in knowing that the nimble, able-to-do-it-all designer/think-through-multiple-types-of-design-lenses designer is the type of designer that businesses now desire. It’s not enough to be an interaction designer, graphic designer or architect. You need to be able to speak the language of multiple lenses and this is a good thing. (read: John Maeda’s Design in Tech Report 2016)
  15. I am now able to design with the system in mind. PoD trains designers to take into consideration the multiple layers in which an artifact exists. We think through everything from the form, function, business model, campaign, lifecycle etc.
  16. Write your future New York Times article. We did a lot of exercises where we wrote our aspirational press releases, headlines etc. These were excellent tools for understanding what kind of outcome we wanted for ourselves and for our work. Also great for understanding what each team member wanted to get out of the projects.
  17. Designers have an incredible superpower: making things real. This is our most effective communication tool and we should use this to our advantage. We can’t all be writers or speakers. But we can show sketches, prototypes, storyboards, and mockups.
  18. “There’s a gap between what tech needs and what the [design] programs are creating,” John Maeda says in his Design in Tech Report 2016. PoD is one of the solutions to this widening gap. Consistently, designs are reflective of the successful tension between technical design skills and business thinking. This tension is a good thing because it requires a layer of rigor that other design schools do not give their students. PoD graduates leave with a better sense of business acumen.
  19. “Becoming a skilled self learner is a critical skill for the new designer.” Again another nugget from Maeda’s Design in Tech Report 2016 (I can’t help myself, it’s too good). One week I was learning Arduino, the next week I was learning the fundamentals of massage therapy. PoD exemplifies this self learning culture through the cross sharing environment of the Visible Futures Lab as well as through the initiative of the students to skill share with their classmates.
  20. PoD is a nimble program. Students have the ability to make significant changes to the program within a short period of time. Feedback received in one year will very likely influence the structure of the following year.
  21. Business classes in design school were fundamental to my understanding of business design. When I talk to people about business design today, I’m able to look at businesses and models in a tangible way, in the same way a designer might look at a product or a material. Businesses and business models can be stretched, cut, and manipulated and people get excited when I talk about business in this way.
  22. I’m prepared for presentations. We spend a lot of time on it at PoD and with good reason. With the smallest touch of graphic design and a little bit of preparation, it’s easy to stand out. I’m happy that I learned early on the importance of not burying the lead, walking your audience through your rationale, and the building blocks of how to drive a compelling argument.

As with all things, there are things to improve. Here are just some of them:

  1. There isn’t an emphasis on quantitative research and analysis. Work at PoD is heavily driven by 2 things: 1) qualitative research and 2) the designer’s point of view. Designs are created and presented in beautiful presentations, however, when placed in a real world context, they fail because they lack the rigor of quantitative analysis. Emphasizing the importance of hard data would help to make the work coming out of PoD stronger.
  2. The faculty and student makeup of PoD are for the most part homogenous. This is reflective of the design industry at large. Often times, people will cite this as a pipeline issue. With PoD and other design schools as critical parts of this pipeline, I’d encourage PoD to find ways to improve the diversity of the faculty and students. There could be a whole class devoted just to this project (stay tuned!), but in short, one suggestion I have would be to engage potential students in locations other than where students are coming from currently. And engagement could look like a guest blog post for a popular blog, attending a conference, or giving a talk at a local university.
  3. There are gaps in the curriculum that don’t include classical design training. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and many students don’t have a technical background in design. Regardless, there has been a desire amongst the students to make with their hands more. The curriculum has a hefty number of systems related classes, and a studio or two for classical design training. Including more classes or finding a way to weave classical design training into the other classes would help to fill this gap.
  4. PoD caters to one working style: open collaboration. Which is great, except if you’re someone who needs to be alone to recharge. When you walk into PoD’s studios, you feel like you’re walking into an actual design studio. Big windows, open floors, and a kitchen (which has been a lifesaver for the students). The challenge is that design studios are changing the way they function. There is more conversation around the difference in working styles and right now, PoD is great for extroverts, not so great for introverts. Workshops on how to work effectively with different working styles and more nooks and crannies around the studio would help this.
  5. PoD is getting better at this but I still think that there need to be more opportunities for self-care. I suspect that a lot of this will have to be driven by current students. A few students organized a weekly yoga class that took place in one of the studios but attendance was spotty. A few ideas: organizing running clubs, weekly group suppers, or meal shares.
  6. Thesis year lacks encouragement to continue on the path of inquiry. There are healthy critiques during thesis and the faculty expects a lot from students. This is appreciated. This often leads us to rise to the occasion and stretch our limits (how many times did I say to myself, “I didn’t know I could do that,” after completing what looked like was an impossible task). However, my personal experience of thesis year often included moments of push back and second guessing from teachers. At some point, this became too exhausting and I bent to the will of the faculty. What I needed was encouragement and support, despite the doubts faculty might have had, to continue making and researching and I didn’t get that.

If you’ve made it all the way down here, congratulations! I hope you’ve been able to learn a little bit from my experience. To the class of 2017, I hope you’ll find something useful from this post (“may the odds be ever in your favor”) and to the class of 2018, welcome to the family.