How Education Shapes Tomorrow's Designers
Posted by: Fjord
Date added: Mon 25 Jun 2012
Helen Le Voi is a Service Design Lead at Fjord. She has been exploring the boundaries of technology and the possibilities it can offer for over 15 years. In addition to her role at Fjord, Helen has also lectured at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication in Interaction Design and on the HCI course at UCL.
Helen is one of Fjord London’s visionary thinkers. Constantly challenging the status quo, her interests focus on how human interactions influence design for technology. Here Helen and Abbie talk about the crossroads of education and Service Design and discuss what rising stars need to understand to kick-start a prosperous career.
Firstly Helen, how did you get into design?
It began with my undergraduate degree in Graphic Information Design at the University of Westminster, where I was fortunate to have an incredibly inspiring lecturer. During this period I began to explore how communication would evolve as the role of technology became more important. This inspired my final project on ubiquitous computing where I created visualisations of future interfaces and wearables.
I graduated with a place at the Royal College of Art where I studied for a Masters in Computer Related Design. This was a real turning point for me. I attended lectures by Bill Moggridge and John Thakara, went to MIT and presented my work at human interaction conferences. It was an incredible time for design – and as a student I felt excited about the world I was about to embrace. It was an incredibly inspiring experience.
So what did you do after graduating?
I went to work at Philips Design where I worked on new products, trends, vision projects and with the research labs. As the company responsible for many successful inventions such as the laser and the CD, it was an amazing place to be. I got to work across many departments with different designers from all over the world.
The knowledge that I was designing something that would eventually be made was incredibly motivating.
What did you learn from your time at Philips?
I learnt about the breadth of design; from strategic projects to mass production. I also started to experience some of the common challenges designers often face, particularly when speaking to audiences who don’t understand the potential a design approach can have on influencing business strategy. This isn’t so much the case now but at that time, design was often cast as peripheral to overall strategy, fighting for the user experience was a challenge.
How did you move into lecturing?
Knowing firsthand how influential a lecturer can be on a students’ career, I was keen to help the next generation of designers push the boundaries of their own work like my first lecturer did. I knew Robin Baker who was the Dean at Ravensbourne, where the Interaction Design BA was producing great students. So after 8 years of industry experience for different companies, I stepped into the world of education.
What was lecturing like?
I began lecturing as the dot com bubble began to burst and the first thing that struck me was that in spite of the turbulent time, students remained positive about their prospects. I loved the coaching element of the role, helping students to problem solve and push the boundaries of their designs. I’m proud to say that one of my ex-students now works at Apple in the US!
You also did some work for the Design Council, so how has that shaped where you are today professionally?
Alongside teaching, I was part of a project that looked at Humanising Technology. At the time, emerging technology start-ups were failing, despite making such promising starts. Our role was to investigate the impact design could have in the development of technologies by mentoring and supporting the founders. The project's focus was on design as an enabler, linking technology to the latent needs of users.
So having been on both sides – working in industry and in education – what are some of the main take-outs and what skills do tomorrow’s rising stars need to demonstrate to succeed?
Education is changing and having a degree doesn’t automatically guarantee you a job. Today, universities operate much more like a business with a strong emphasis on learning objectives, focused around instilling an understanding of how what is taught relates to the ‘real-world’.
Designers develop their skills by practicing what they have learnt, honing those skills over time through critique and discussion. I think it’s important to involve industry in the educational experience, sharing learning along the way so students get rigorous feedback and continue to develop skills that are relevant.
To work as a Service Designer, students need strong design skills, but also need a rounded understanding of business and technology, understanding how to explain the importance of design in a business context is crucial.
How does this change impact graduates? Does it matter if you come from pure design background and then learn about the business side on the job?
Design is rising through the ranks of business, and it’s growing in importance. Companies like Apple, Pepsi and Kia have all promoted designers to the C-level team. This means there’s a real need for a hybrid candidate that understands what makes the business tick and can articulate the value of design and a user centered approach. Education is already catering for this –MBAs are embracing design thinking and Stanford University has a Design Institute.
Designers also need to be able to show they can work well as part of a multi-disciplinary team. This is vital.
Of course, much of this can be learnt on the job. Education is about honing skills and then once students graduate it’s really a task of getting up to speed as quickly as possible.
What courses does Fjord hire people from?
We are open to meeting anyone who can demonstrate strong design skills and creative ability. Currently, we see a lot of intake from the design courses at Ravensbourne, Glasgow and Sheffield as well as the UCL, HCI course.
What does it take to join the ranks at Fjord?
Strong design skills are a must but beyond that, candidates must have outstanding interpersonal skills. Be able to communicate with others, get on with the team around you and appreciate how we do business. We like people who question things, learn fast, innovate and have an opinion. Designers don’t operate in a bubble and passion is what sets people apart.
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