What you didn't learn in design school

How to succeed as a designer in a big company

My entrepreneurial friend told me that normal jobs are easy because you only have to make your boss happy. But when you are an entrepreneur, you have to make a lot of people happy: customers, employees, suppliers, lenders, investors, partners, and more.

I thought about this and realized that the more successful I become as an in-house designer, the more people I have to make happy. This is something I did not learn in design school.

Which got me thinking even further: what else do I wish I had learned coming out of school? I listed out the non-design things that I do to keep my team successful. That list became this article.

What you didn’t learn in design school | by Erik Van Crimmin | Medium.

The old “first post on core77 but here is a link to something else” faux pas. It is a good topic, but we prefer to keep the discussion here and not try to snag people off the forums.

The pop-biz term for this is intra-preneurship… I think an interesting question I have on this is can it be taught? After 20 years in and out and back into the corporate world it seems that some people have an aptitude for it while others are more attached to their given scope. Some people desire clarity and others seek ambiguity as a means to create opportunity.

This is a question that has been kicking around the design community for some time. Another way to think about it is where does a designer’s job begin and where does it end?

If designers want to have the biggest impact they can, if they want to work on the most important problems, they will at some point have to create the briefs and scope that define their work. If they want to do that, they will need to convince people who control resources to trust them.

Designers have superpowers that will transform entire industries. Being able to make new things that people want is a rare skill that will only be more important from now on. To accelerate into this future, designers will continue to develop ancillary, stabilizing muscles to complement their core competencies. As the articles states, these include:

“…pick the right projects, help important people solve important problems, create bold goals, incessantly and fearlessly build things, and celebrate your successes. Along the way you will need to make strong allies with good workers who have skills complementary to design, and find ways to help these allies win alongside you.”

I am still learning how to do these things. I am confident the next generation of designers will be proficient in these skills, and many others, that will put them in a position to change the world.

While I am a proponent of university teaching real life stuff I think in the end what you are mentioning ARE covered by any good university. But not by a course or class you have to take but by something called “internship”. Probably the only way to get a glimpse into this kinda stuff that really works. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to sit in university and listen to some lecture of some self important old dude who is telling me “how the business really works”. Especially because design related industries can be vastly different once you shift the field only a little bit.

Designers have superpowers that will transform entire industries.

And this is a narrative I really HATE because it creates a bunch of arrogant pricks who think they are more valuable than others for some weird “designer super power”, whatever that even means :unamused:
Not “designers” can transform entire industries. Smart people can transform industries. There are plenty of smart designers. There are also a lot of dumb designers. There are also smart engineers, or business people, or you name it… and they all can potentially transform industries.

I learned to be a designer in design school and during my master’s I learned to also be a design researcher. But I never learned to be an entrepreneur from anyone else but myself.

Much of design school is like a playground and discussions are design- and process-related. At best you will talk about how your design work relates to yourself and the future, but not to your entrepreneurial plans as that is seen as something not belonging to school. I think there needs to be a redressing of the balance where the ‘hard world’ of design as embedded in a larger world driven by economic and social capital, as opposed to the design that looks and functions best, and gets best results from user research.

There is a big difference between a potential target group corresponding well and them actually becoming part of the new market you envisioned in the economy. Having key business executives and investors coming into design schools is crucial to expand students’ design projects and will make them more enthusiastic to present their designs not just as good designs (it is underestimated how good people not trained at design are becoming at design) to a design jury but also pitching them as value propositions to a jury of investors. One of the greatest opportunities for designers is to learn to see and pitch design as value for business strategies.

I read your blog.

You have described nothing new to any successful design methodology. Except that bit about the world revolves around designers. That will make you a flash in the pan.

Sorry to hear you didn’t learn this in school. May I ask, what school did you attend?

Those normal jobs you mention are being replaced by automation and robots, in many cases by designers who refuse to set the bar at making the boss happy. I’ve lead and managed such initiatives through no direction from my boss whatsoever, though they were happy with the results of my efforts.

I do agree that this is not necessarily something that is taught in school, but I agree with Yo, the buzz term is intra-preneur. As a designer I tend to have some business savvy, I attribute that to getting my degree from a University where business courses were part of the curriculum, but more importantly I had some good mentors with a deeper business understanding. We didn’t have any specific courses such as a “Design & Business” course, but one of my mentors/professors put it very simply one day hanging out with us in the studio; Consider every aspect of what you’re designing as it regards to the user experience. Expanding on this, what he meant was to invest in understanding and influencing not just the “thing”, but the whole ecosystem of “the thing”, think holistically.

In my experience, if you approach design projects in this way you eventually expand your knowledge and experience, and build better relationships with other stakeholders, which tends to elevate a designer’s standing within a process or organization. This is tough to replicate in a scholastic setting. Also in my experience, taking this approach oftentimes creates conflict between you and your boss, other employees, the leadership, etc. To that point, the enemy of a holistic design perspective is typically siloed departments focused on making their bosses happy, but you do suggest to find key players in other departments and ally with them. I assess cross-functional employees by one of two terms, “They get it.”, “They don’t get it.”, rather than who should I be making happy. The reason being is that while I might be doing something to make another stakeholder happy, it might result in a sub-optimal solution, and so this introduces the challenge of influencing stakeholders to buy in to your (or your team’s) solutions and methods. As the saying goes, if your ideas are any good, you’ll have to fight for them. If you encounter roadblocks, negotiate or take time to understand them in case you need to change course, but if that fails go around them. Identifying the right resources and people up front helps to streamline a project.

These methods can get you labeled as a trouble maker because you don’t stop at being a yes-person to appease your boss, but at the end of the day if they are successful then it’s hard to argue with. Unfortunately for me, I’ve taken this approach at one employer where the leadership was disinterested with details or taking the time to understand how I was able to consistently produce successful solutions and process, they wanted yes-people and not passionate employees who deployed critical thinking in order to solve cross-function problems in new and profitable ways, and if that is what they wanted then they obviously wanted to be taking all of the credit. So that said, I recommend you make sure the right people are paying attention to your efforts and that you do some self-promotion to gain higher level visibility, especially in a corporate setting.

I would think most of the professionals on here would read this and say, “duh?”, but in many conversations that I’ve had with younger designers these were things that they felt did not get enough air time in school. They may have learned to think and design holistically, but it’s the navigation of the people, politics, and processes required to realize the broader vision that they were not necessarily prepared for.

I think simply put there was a lot I did not learn. In school you learn tradecraft. This is critical because without it you can’t be a designer. But what they don’t teach is the actual art of making a product. The tradecraft you learned makes up about 10-15% of the process. The rest of making a product is created in tandem with many other departments all working to gather on a timeline that will delivery the product on time to the customer. So what you need to learn are all the particular issues that might a rise.

Making a product to me feels like your a mountain climber. Coming out of school you had done some bouldering and some outdoor lead rope climbs but then you graduated. Now your first project will most likely be with an experience climber and you are going to do a know peak such as Mount Hood. As you gain experience you start to climb and lead your own climbs still on know peaks but harder and longer such as Denali. Then you reach a point were you start leading first accents. Now the pitfalls are less obvious so knowing the correct way to proceed to the top starts becoming more complicated. While doing first ascents there is no guide to reference all you can reference is the past climbs and what worked and did not work. This is the part that really applies to product creation for me. With years of experience you attain a good understand of the risk you are actually taking while designing a product. This allows you to design products that are innovative but also are manufacturable. Also you can smooth out a lot of the confusion and road blocks by understanding your impact on them and solving them before they become a problem.

The reason I like thinking about it this way is because like climbing a mountain there is a timeline that you have to adhere to. There is a start point and a end point which is how a product development calendar works. As you go through the process there are times were things start to go offer course how you adjust to this will determine the out come in both climbing and product creation. It is also and endurance sport which feels like the product process. The process is not immediate it takes a year or longer to create a product so you have to remain focused over a long period of time to get to the end of the process. How you did on all points will determine how the product is received or even if it is made.