Designation — On a Mission to Empower the Next Generation of Creative Talent and Create a Design Nation

In 2017 I founded a design conference in NYC to bridge the gap between college designers & top industry design leaders from Adobe, Google, Airbnb, IBM and more. Read on for more!

A look back at the Inaugural 2017 Designation Conference

What is Designation?

Designation is a student-run national design conference that aims to empower the next generation of product designers, brand creators and entrepreneurial leaders to change their careers — and the world — with design.

Designation aims to democratize student access to the role design plays in shaping industries around the world. Each year, the conference connects 99 undergraduate students (selected from 1000+ applicants) for a series of hands-on workshops, intimate executive seminars, panels and keynotes.

Students have an invaluable opportunity to interface with and learn from top design leaders such as: Daniel Burka (Former Design Partner @ Google Ventures), Jamie Myrold (VP of Design @ Adobe), Albert Lee (Design Partner @ NEA and Former Managing Director @ IDEO).

The conference provides equal opportunity and access for all students by covering all travel/hotel/food costs.

The first ever Designation Conference took place on April 9th, 2017, and the 2nd Annual Designation Conference will take place next weekend! (April 7–8th, 2018). Stay tuned for the live streams @ designationconference.org.

Moderating a Google x GV Fireside Chat with Daniel Burka (Former Design Partner @ GV) and Ratna Desai (UX Lead @ Google)

Background

I’m a Computer Science major who identifies as a designer. But for the longest time, I had absolutely no idea that design was a profession within the tech industry.

My journey into design was fairly roundabout. Growing up, I loved art. In high school, I took art classes, worked with live models, and made a logo for my AP Physics class using math software. At the age of 16, I collided with the Adobe Suite via InDesign as an editor for my school business magazine. This is when I first tasted the magic of design.

But the first time I learned about the existence of product design was the summer after my freshman year at Princeton, when I was working at a startup as a software engineer.

Needless to say, I cheated on InDesign with Sketch and exited the summer as a Product Design Intern.

Why I Decided to Create a Conference

I sometime joke that I discovered the prevalence of design at the same time as mainstream media.

A few months after my internship, design guru John Maeda published the first ever Design in Tech Report, highlighting the role of design in the startup ecosystem. The Wall Street Journal simultaneously touted the benefits of design thinking in business, writing:

“Design has long played a major role in product innovation. But in the last few years, a shift has been underway, with design-thinking infiltrating the very core of the business.”

Me with other Facebook Design Interns @ Design Disruptors Premiere

Large and small companies alike were clamoring for designers, but I felt a remarkable disconnect between design in industry, and design as it was taught in school.

In 2016 I interned as a Product Designer at Facebook, and midway through the summer attended Design Disruptors, a very awesome documentary about the prevalence of design in our lives. I had a very surreal moment seeing FB VP of Design Julie Zhuo on the screen, as I had just met her an hour ago an an intern Q&A.

Inspired by this, I thought that the best way to facilitate a dialogue between student designers and designers in industry was to connect them with design leaders who had once been in their shoes — who could tell personal stories and relate back their successes, hardships, and impact as designers.

Cue Designation.

The Planning

The most rewarding part of Designation, apart from the day of, was getting on the phone with a skeptical executive, explaining the design gap between industry and academia, and their going through a 180 degree personality flip exclaiming something along the lines of:

“Oh my god! That was such a problem when I was in school — I can’t believe no one has done anything about it yet. Of course I want to be involved!”

There was such overwhelming support from both executives and students who insisted that there was such a need for this forum. Between the funding, executive outreach, logistics and more, I lost a lot of sleep last year, and it was all worth it.


One of the most useful things I did when I begun planning for Designation was make a 30 page proposal detailing everything from incentive to mission to speakers to funding to marketing to students to food to legacy. I had backup plans and backup plans for my backup plans. It was what I used to convince students at Princeton to join me on this endeavor, but it also ended up being an invaluable resource during the planning. Not gonna lie, it’s very eery to look back on now.

Excerpt #1:

Currently hailed as one of the most integral components of any successful product, process and operation, design is disrupting nearly every industry today. Unfortunately, although design is a growing force in the professional world (within companies ranging from Nike to Apple to Uber to IDEO), its role and value-add continues to lack transparency to most college students.
By exposing attendees to the the pivotal role of design in advertising/media, tech & entrepreneurship, and to executives excelling in these spheres, we hope to inspire a class of undergraduates with interdisciplinary skills and the ability to pursue their dream careers:
Think coders who understand product design, makers who can advertise their success, young entrepreneurs who storyboard their dreams - the impact is nearly unquantifiable.

Excerpt #2:

Designation is a design conference for undergraduate students and executives that aims to connect, convey and change.
Connect — Designation aims to create a dialogue between bright undergraduate students and leading executives excelling in various areas of design. It hopes to give way to future collaboration and innovation, especially via interdisciplinary interactions between students pursuing media, tech and business.
Convey — With a strong network, designation aspires to explicate the practices, nuances, fields and myriad applications of design to attendees and to empower them with tools to excel in all fields.
Change — Finally, Designation strives to revolutionize the way students view design and innovation. It will demystify the intangible nature and illuminate its relevance and pertinence to all paths. Designation will ultimately pioneer and shape a new way for students to approach any undertaking.
My inbox during spring “break” last year

Designing Designation

There is no doubt in my mind that design itself helped make Designation such a successful event. As the conference came to life little by little, it was obvious that a strong brand image was majorly responsible for so much of it.

Executives would tell me that they normally ignore such emails, but they agreed to the call because of the website or because they just had to know how the name was really pronounced (hint: not “design nation”).

Meanwhile, the 1000+ student applications we received surpassed my wildest dreams. That so many people were willing to apply for an event that had no precedent was incredible and reinvigorated my belief that such a conference was necessary. (Side note — selecting 99 from the 1000+ was one of the hardest parts of planning the conference).

Here’s a look at the branding and marketing (and hiccups) behind the conference!

Logo I made!
Fancy image used to spam FB groups
Legit looking promo video made when I had secured around 5 speakers
The team spray painted the DN’s in Princeton stairwells
#swag (note how the notebooks printed upside down)

The Day Of

The day of was very surreal. Seeing students connect, learn, engage, bond and more was absolutely spectacular, as were the #views (the conference was on the 40th floor of 7 World Trade Center). The passion from the students’ applications was magical in real life and made for a very dynamic experience.

The day was a celebration of experience designers and industrial designers, fashion designers and architects, product managers and software engineers, you name it — all united by their motivation to further integrate strong design practices into their futures.

Overview of the day

The conference hosted an array of speakers (both keynotes and panels), workshops (on logo design, prototyping and design thinking) and executive seminars (where groups of 10 students would have off-the-record conversations with design leaders).

Drawing from the “rule of thirds,” Designation was split in 3 parts to address 3 forms of design: Graphic Design, Product Design and Design Thinking. This approach sought to give attendees invaluable insights into the interdisciplinary nature of design.

Excerpt #3 from the proposal:

i. Graphic Design in Advertising/Media
The first third of the conference will focus on visual design and how it shapes both print design and media advertising. It will deal with the strategies employed to capture key demographics as we continue to see a shift online by millenials.
ii. Product Design in Tech
The second third of the conference will explore the role of design in the tech industry. It will elucidate the relationship between designers and engineers and how to express content and capabilities visually within the constraints of the industry.
iii. Design Thinking in Business and Entrepreneurship
The last third of the conference will consider a designer’s role in understanding an audience. Via a Design Thinking lens, it will expand on the role of design in arousing certain sentiments, ideating, iterating and understanding an audience.

It was apparent that there was a desire from the students to engage with the design community in a way that was formerly impossible, and it was exciting to harness that energy into such an action-packed day. So here’s to many more.

What Next?

At the end of last year, I passed the conference on to an absolutely incredible team who will wow everyone next weekend at the 2nd annual conference ❤ See the speaker lineup!!

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on a few additional initiatives:

  • A Designation Fellowship which will pair talented designers with top venture-backed student startups to give them actionable industry experience via semester based work through the school year
  • Designation’s very own podcast with some of the conference speakers, which will focus on their forays into the design industry. The podcast will air in the few weeks following Designation so stay tuned!
  • Mentorship program to connect current and former conference attendees

I’m super excited to see Designation grow in the coming years and evolve into a true community. So if you are a ~student who designs~ looking to get involved with Designation and support other ~students who design~ hit me up! Here’s my LinkedIn and my email.