Three Things I Learned in Design School Applicable to the Business World

I haven’t been active here because I’m working on my MBA. After a year in school and an internship in management consulting, I realize I have a lot to be thankful for from my design education. Besides teaching me some very important lessons in several pockets of marketing and product development, I picked up some useful habits. While the business world isn’t ready for many of the working methods that designers use, here are a few lessons that I’ve found immediately applicable.

1. Being first helps set the stage and control dialogue… as long as you maintain credibility. In design school, I tried to lead in my use of materials. When others saw and started getting interested in those materials, they evolved my understanding of what could be done, which in turn, led to greater learning in less time. In business school, if you are first in structuring a problem approach or communication method (and if it’s thoughtful enough and/or you’re credible enough to get buy in), you control the output and rally people around a common goal. I’ve seen this work in team homework, case competitions, group projects/presentations, and managing upward during my summer internship.

2. Be proactive in improving a situation. When I started design school, I had no real fundamentals. I had to learn things that were second nature to others very quickly. So whenever I got an assignment, I doubled it. If I had to design a lamp, I created a series of lamp explorations. I made a lot of mistakes in a short amount of time and learned the importance of tolerances, jigs, and fitting tool to task. In the business world, everyone has problems. You get close to people by removing barriers to their success. The people who have helped me grow the most in business school are the same people I’ve spent the most time helping upgrade their skills. And during my internship, helping a senior manager get a seat at the partner table by developing white papers on a subject he was interested in starting a practice in resulted in a full-time offer.

3. Contribute to the conversation or get out of the way. Design school critiques can be brutal. You’ve invested a lot of imagination, time, and effort into making something that’s at best meant to communicate what you’ve got going on in your head. You develop a thick skin quickly, but you also learn who is giving you actionable advice and who’s asking questions without furthering the conversation. In business school, I’ve worked with a lot of people. Some will ask a lot of questions that slow down a conversation without ever contributing to forward progress. They often make excuses for having no deliverables because they, “didn’t understand the objectives.” In a design brainstorm session, these people are quickly outed or ignored. In business, if you’re going to ask a question, be prepared to do something with the answer or you’ll be labeled as one of the ineffectives that none of the competents want to work with. It’s okay to disagree, but stick to the topic at hand. Deflect a conversation forward.

Lessons Learned in the Challenges of a Collaborative Studio

In just under three weeks, the GFRY studio made some major improvements to the Paso Moya Sede Social (Community Center). Located in one of the most severely affected regions (Maule) of the 2010 Chilean earthquake, the sede is home to several community groups. We sought to expand the utility of the sede and in the process, revitalize civic interest. Our plan included a series of architectural upgrades: a playground, signage, pavers and custom furniture in the front, a quincho and barbeque / fire pit in the back, and tool storage / checkout system inside.

Background

The two-semester studio took more twists and turns than a great roller coaster ride; each turn offered a new lesson, most of which could not be fully appreciated until the ride came to a complete and sudden stop. We began by researching the disaster context. As I’ve learned from thesis, it’s easy to get overly enamored by research. Instead of strengthening our overseas partnerships and developing a shared vision, we developed projects based on our personal interests. I partnered with two others from the start in the hopes that an early collective vision might make it to implementation. While this proved true, we created a solution looking for a user.

After a natural disaster, most governments (with the help of NGOs) manage to stabilize the food/shelter needs of its constituents. Most fail in the medium term (6 months to 3 years) recovery: restoring/improving esteem and social structure. My team saw that children were severely affected in this earthquake and sought to improve their post-disaster situation by building a play area (which psychologists widely consider important in recovery). By the time we solidified our partnerships, the community we were designing for turned out to be predominately elderly. Because of this, some community members pushed back at our use of space for a playground. This taught me the importance of understanding client needs early and affirming that understanding through feedback before the research phase.

In our first face-to-face meeting, our partners questioned our intentions and seemed to shoot down all of our project proposals. Other universities had come and promised much and delivered little. These were academic exercises. While faculty had every intention to deliver, that objective wasn’t even clear to students, as we received significant push back on every proposed expenditure. As a result, many developed very low budget proposals that related more to art than design. This taught me the importance of open communication with the broader team.

Implementation

Feelings were mixed going into the implementation phase. Without a confirmation of budget (to the students) and seemingly reserved support from our overseas partners, we weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into. We had a game plan, but most projects take longer than anticipated. The bottom line: We had 12 work days to make everything happen.

The first few days were a scramble: get materials and equipment from Easy, clean the work site, lunch at Arturo’s, prepare for the town hall presentation of our plans and get feedback from the community less than 24 hours after arrival. It was too late to change large jobs. We trusted that our partners in the community had accurately gauged and communicated community needs. Fortunately, this proved to be mostly true.

I mainly worked on the playground and barbeque pit. In practical terms, everybody helped with everything: the quincho, the fence chalkboard, paving, foundation work, and documentation. We involved the community in volunteer shifts. Neighborhood kids helped paint. Locals pulled up on horse-drawn carts to drop off used tires. A passerby helped us break up and bury a giant cement block that we couldn’t remove.

Lessons

1. Leadership requires buy in. To convince people to follow your vision, you need to understand your constituency’s vision. Paul (faculty) involved us throughout the planning process and helped us combine diverse project interests under one community center renovation umbrella.

2. Activities that contribute little to tangible outcomes can still have significant intangible value. We took turns sledgehammering a giant cement block on a few afternoons. The progress was minimal; we could have rented a jackhammer for very little compared to the time investment. However, hammering proved incredibly therapeutic for the class. It contributed to harmony and group dynamics.

3. Failures are opportunities. We missed the bus to go horseback riding in the mountains, but took a trip to Conception instead. The visit opened our eyes to how another region reacted to the 2010 earthquake. We walked along a beautiful black sand beach and experienced another aspect of Chilean culture.

4. You have to trust your teammates to pull through for you. When you don’t have the time to accomplish everything by yourself, those good working relationships with your teammates really pay off. My hands weren’t agile enough to fasten interior bolts, but Cleo’s were. No one else could drill 3/4″ holes through tires, so I had to, in spite of the carpal tunnel.

5. Mortar is not glue. My barbecue stand fell apart when the form work was removed because cement has very little lateral strength. (Mig fixed it the next day.) Similarly, inflexibility as a team member creates an all-or-nothing dynamic that can damage morale and results.

Thesis Show Setup

It takes a lot more work to set up a room for exhibition than I expected. Decide where all of the mounting cleats go on your boards and the walls. Do all the math and tape off the level so the centers align at 60″ off of the ground and find that the ground has a tiny but annoying incline. Level each cleat, then each span from cleat to cleat. Even the distance between boards. Then fuss with the things you actually made and hope nothing gets messed up when the gallery staff comes to position the lights. My expectations of 4 hours of work easily turned into 2 days. Final images, storyboards, and critique panel feedback to follow…

Thesis Show: Proposed Room Layout

Problem:

1. Natural disasters destroy buildings, infrastructure and networks,
2. leaving children with limited entertainment,
3. and anxiety that makes it harder to sleep and socialize.

Solution:

1. Distressed children seek comfort objects.
2. Repetitive exposure to textural stimulation comforts and promotes healthy cognitive development.
3. The Pillow Foundation’s body pillow has textural variety to stimulate the senses, an internal pouch for calming scents, and fabric rocks for play.

Manufacturing/Delivery:

1. We provide the patterns. Volunteers donate the fabrics and sew the pillows. We stuff them and provide quality control.
2. The Red Cross distributes them with other relief supplies.

Thesis Elevator Speech

After a disaster, children experience anxiety and stress making it harder to sleep and socialize. To move out of this state, children need the same thing babies need to survive: tangible stimulation. I’ve been working with psychologists to design a body pillow (that uses pattern sensory repetition) to help children return to healthy development. I’d like to set up a foundation to provide volunteers with sewing patterns and instructions to make the pillows and establish partnerships with NGOs such as the Red Cross and UNICEF to distribute the pillows. I know you care as much about children as I do. Do you think you could help me find the right contacts?

Design Brief: Body Pillows for Disaster-Affected Children

After a disaster, children often experience anxiety and stress that interfere with everyday activities from sleeping to socialization. Once a child has fallen off his developmental path, it is difficult to get back, even after symptoms of emotional trauma have been resolved. Adults that children rely on are often too stressed to provide effective emotional support. Professional therapy is often cost-prohibitive.

There are two major steps in trauma recovery: 1. establish a sense of safety and 2. make positive meaning. I developed this child’s body pillow as a comfort object to address the first step. The quilted textures and pocket for familiar smells help curtail hyper-vigilance through pattern sensory repetition. Post-disaster, these pillows could be distributed to help children move from a primal fight/flight response towards cognitive processing.

Inspiration

For most of my life, sleep has been the best part of the day because it was the only place I felt free. Losing even that is a terrifying thing. I want to provide children a source of comfort after a natural disaster in a way that helps them reclaim sleep.

Materiality

By marrying quilted textures from recycled fabric with new solid elements, I reference how successful post-disaster reconstruction memorializes the past while embracing the future.

Consequence

The body pillow will help children affected by disasters find comfort and could extend to non-disaster situations as a therapeutic accessory.

Manufacturing

I considered two forms of manufacturing: 1. pre-make and stockpiled by an NGO for disaster response and 2. provide the affected community with sewing machines, patterns and templates to make their own. Realistically, people affected by a disaster are too preoccupied to learn to manufacture a body pillow for children, who end up being a low-priority until they are developmentally derailed. By manufacturing the pillows in anticipation of a disaster, children can be helped in a way that leaves adults free to pursue other activities related to food, shelter and rebuilding.

Working Method

I worked with therapists to define design objectives and get feedback on prototypes. I worked with a third grade class to consider ergonomic factors.

GFRY Chile Trip

We returned today from a long, politically- and emotionally-charged week in Chile. The result appears to be a significantly reduced role for our initial partner and sponsor in Chile (Reconstruye) and an introduction to another group (Surmaule) for what has been reframed as an academic exercise. This is disappointing because there is so much we could do for them as designers.

Walk through almost any neighborhood in Talca and you see completely leveled buildings next to standing ones. Shacks called mediaguas spring up in patches like mushrooms after a storm. A year later, people are still living in these shacks that take up very little of their actual land. Walls of roofing steel, aluminum siding and any wood scraps cordon off sidewalks from property lines. Chains and double locks maintain the illusion of security. Visit a small collective. The pool overflows with muddy rain water. An inflated shark pool toy leans against the wall as a reminder of things before the earthquake. A toilet seat balanced on a bucket becomes an outhouse. Each day the someone steals water from a fire hydrant to sanitize the family. A little girl looks fragile and frightened. She pokes at the pile of dirt and rubble with a stick.

Some of us cried at the neighborhood meeting in Seminario before taking the tour. What we saw was a shocking reality. How could the Chilean government leave its people in these conditions? A major part of the problem are the laws which allow only one home per family and landowner. Those that had multiple homes or condo units were entitled to only one mediagua and one reconstructed home on the city outskirts in exchange for their more valuable centrally-located land. This left several classes homeless: renters who faced rising rent in the face of diminished supply, those who lived on land inherited but did not have the paperwork to prove it, and those who through other legal reasons such as separation without divorce were unable to file a “legitimate” claim. As a result, large buildings that once housed several families are reduced to two room shacks. For many, “cramped” is an understatement.

Reconstruye’s approach for integrated social housing seems humane albeit difficult to execute. They find landowners that give up the vertical space on their land in exchange for construction that other tenants finance. By building higher, a finite amount of land can accommodate more families within their respective neighborhoods.

Beyond the architectural concerns are the psychosocial concerns. The people of Talca feel betrayed by the federal government and its local appointees. Many voiced identical sentiments to what one woman in Paso Mayo said, “I’m never going to forget it (the earthquake). It’s a psychological trauma that will remain for many years. The only thing keeping me going is my brother and his business.” Children have been similarly affected. Some remain in a fight-or-flight state. “My 12 year old girl used to get good grades but now she’s fallen from a 6.1 to 4.5 in school. Each aftershock causes her to lose control. My other child, a toddler, everything scares her now.”

There is a playground in the city center, but outside of that area, there is little for children to do in their free time. Older children sit around talking in the green areas, but younger ones kick rocks and visitor guides for entertainment. After school, they are shipped home in yellow minivans (which are privately contracted by parents). Once home, there is little to do. Community centers are bare and provide only a roof and wobbly chairs for adults to talk about reconstruction efforts. The central park area is too far away for a child aged 5-8 to wander towards alone. In addition to the stresses of changing schools and making new friends, children retire to crowded realities in undivided rooms they must share with their parents and other siblings.

While I remain interested in the idea of a mobile playground, it seems that a lack of funding and the relabeling of our work as an academic exercise may change priorities. The need is there. We received positive feedback from almost everyone we spoke to about it. But Surmaule doesn’t want to raise the hopes of the people as other universities have without delivering tangible results. Bottom line: we need to regroup.