Design leaders need to be teachers

Last year, I published thoughts on the future of design education and the need for a change in pedagogy if we’re going to make a lasting impact as digital designers. This was in the optimistic “before times,” and my challenge to the industry to redesign itself hinged on a classical understanding of teaching and learning. The pandemic has further exposed the limitations to tried-and-true design thinking: It is insufficient against systemic issues of disinformation, polarization, and isolation exacerbated by technology. And while many are leading in the space to design responsibly, few are teaching, and this is concerning for the future of experience design. The conversation is more meta than ever: If teaching is leading, how do we empower leaders to teach?

I got a crash course in the realities of design pedagogy this past year as part of the faculty of the School of Visual Arts (SVA) MFA IxD program, chaired by Liz Danzico, who also leads design at NPR (no small feat to transform the NPR experience through design while leading the next generation). The motivation for teaching was a personal challenge to stay creative by seeking inspiration and making new connections; it was a privilege to be able to do so with a talented group of students.

The goal of the course, Foundations of Responsible Design, is based on the need to bring responsibility into design education and to provide a foundation of understanding on the potential harm digital experiences can create, both intended and unintended. There is a crucial need to share practices to assess harm and find ways to mitigate that harm, and to shift from designing the product to designing the system and understanding how the system interacts with various stakeholders. This requires a pluriverse-like approach to design based on the past, present, and future all at once.

The first thing I learned is that leaders are not teachers. Design-in-tech leaders are great at sharing a vision and bringing a team together to deliver success, but we are not trained or expected to teach. Teaching is about providing a foundation and a theory to let students learn by applying theory to practice. This is difficult to do in the workplace. When your projects have a real, immediate impact on the customer and the business, you don’t necessarily want to “practice” and have things go wrong—we like to get it right the first time. But this is limited and assumes that employees are approaching problems with all the knowledge they need to be successful. This is almost never the case. For myself, working over 20 years in the industry, leading many different teams, and launching products from v1 to v1 billion, I had assumed teaching is like managing a team.

Instead, I became a student all over again, learning from this MFA cohort as we navigated the structure of virtual, asynchronous classes and group work that cannot happen in a room. I felt the limits of my own design education and the inadequacy of the human-centered design process to evoke critical conversations.

The fundamental difference in bringing these ideas to bear as a leader in tech versus as a teacher in the classroom is all in the approach. Students, obviously, are not employees. Employees align to a shared mission, whereas students each have a personal mission that comes together in the classroom through discourse (this is especially true at the graduate level). I had to adjust my approach, shifting from planning a design program to creating a curriculum and in-class learning moments, and to frame the discourse by encouraging tensions. This led to rich discussions and bold work.

We like to think that we are free to experiment, fail, and learn as designers in tech, but advancing knowledge is not usually the job of a product design team. What if it were? Would that fundamentally change the way we create products? We discuss a lot about how companies need to be learning organizations, but who are the teachers?

Too often we learn from failures that impact our real-world customers. Without the safe space to test unintended consequences before they occur, designers are left to design solutions in a reactive environment. Some of the topics we covered in Foundations of Responsible Design included addiction and behavioral impacts, exclusion, disinformation and bad actors, and mistrust and surveillance. These topics were “ripped from the headlines,” which is unfortunate in terms of the negative impact that technology can have on people’s lives as it proliferates. Students’ assignments centered around first understanding their personal experience within the system, then using that empathy to reimagine the outcome as a proverbial do-over.

This was an act of cocreation with myself and the students, shaping the curriculum as our perspectives widened and changed. Creating a safe space for everyone to question assumptions was in itself the practice of responsible design. Building this muscle takes hard work, and the students adapted gracefully to bringing a higher awareness to every aspect of digital design, from pixels to policy. They also committed to the teamwork required to solve systematic problems. The importance of building on others’ work as part of the design process cannot be overstated in terms of responsible design. Hopefully the impact of this course is something that brings more inclusion to the industry, which is the power of learning.

Heading into the future, I believe in the optimistic spirit of the Foundations of Responsible Design as a model for the industry to redesign itself. My leadership has been tested, and I recognize that teaching is the greatest challenge to being a leader: equipping future design leaders to address systemic issues, to bring beauty to the pain, and to dismantle the system from within by creating new possibilities and bringing light to the work.

I will be sharing more from the class, as we are designing in the open to make all the project work available to the community. Please reach out if you are interested in collaborating or learning more.

Albert Shum is corporate vice president of design at Microsoft. His team currently drives incubation for Microsoft’s web ecosystem, focused on the responsibility of design to create intelligent and inclusive experiences in search and discovery. Read his previous essay on design education here

Fast Company – co-design

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