7 pieces of advice to my grad students

map of canada

In 2001, I quit my 50k job* working as an interface designer for Canada’s 1st interactive tv provider — iMagic TV in Saint John, New Brunswick — to start a grad degree at the University of Alberta. My boyfriend and I drove our trailor-pulling, AC-less Toyota Echo across the country, stopping only in Montreal, Thunder Bay, and Winnipeg.

I hated Edmonton on sight.

I started my first day of grad school by meeting the supervising design professor at his downtown condo — an Argentinian of some world renown. After making tea and pouring the wine, he pulled out a piece of notepad: “I have some advice for your life”, he said.

That scrap of paper hung above my desk as I worked on my master’s thesis. It moved with me when I took a job teaching design in Calgary. I searched it out again when, a year after tenure, I started working on my PhD.

It’s now been 2 years since I got my parchment, 14 since I started that first teaching appointment, and almost 17 since the wine.

Last week I was asked to give a lecture to our graduating info design class. “I have some advice for your life”, I’ll say, and hope that it sticks…

1. Surround yourself with people who are smarter / better than you

I am not a people collector, but I love smart, competent, driven, interesting people. It’s taken many years, but I can now say with some confidence that those who are dear to me have at least one quality or piece of expertise (usually more than one) that I don’t have. My dear friends Stan and Susan, for example. Susan is the ultimate Renaissance woman. I have yet to be part of a conversation where she doesn’t hold some impressive depth of knowledge on the topic. And not in an obnoxious way. Stan grew up in Balgonie, Saskatchewan, and has 7 degrees. He can fly a plane, shoot a gun, and sew clothes. They would both take a bullet for me.

I know sex educators, novel writers, and politicians. One of my best friends (Scharie) would genuinely know how to hide a body; while another (Michelle) has managed me out of more messes than I can count.

These people inspire and push me to do better.

2. Become interesting / believe in something

In my 20s and 30s all I did was work. I was incapable of having a conversation about anything other than design and my depressing childhood. Not surprisingly, few people cared about either one. Slowly, and with some determination, I found other things to love: first it was embroidery, then feminism, politics, and tech. As I gained some experience, I gained confidence. More importantly, I began caring about things other than work and, more than just about anything else, the things I cared about have defined my design practice.

3. Write resignation letters

On your 1st day of that design job, sit in your cubicle / office and, even before you unpack the framed picture of your cat, type out a resignation letter. Then file it. The mere knowledge of its existence will, in particularly challenging times, remind you that you’re not stuck where you are — you are in control by choosing to stay.**

Bonus: Do the same for your relationship. It might save you from a costly divorce.

4. Find someone who believes in you / ask for help

Last week I called my boss after a particularly trying student email. I trust him. So much, in fact, that I would be willing to engage in this supreme act of vulnerability by asking him if I was overreacting. We all need those people in our lives — both personally and professionally — who believe in our worth, and can remind us of it when we can’t remember.

5. Move

Apply for a job in a different city, province, or country. Or try gradschool. Just go. Even if it doesn’t work out (hello, Nebraska!), you won’t be left wondering “what if”. Plus, you’ll become a much more interesting person through the effort.

6. If you’re afraid of it, do it anyway

Naked reading, for example.

7. Recognize your privilege

This is not about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Because you can’t. It’s about recognizing that other people are not you, that their realities are different than yours and that they matter.

To the designer you: Don’t buy into the myth of the universal user. Instead, please read Woodrow W. Winchester III’s paper on culturally responsive design tools, where he reflects on Elizabeth Churchill’s exploration of gender in design.*** Churchill asserts that designers “are not passive bystanders (of the process) . . . we design products with implicit or explicit assumptions about how products will be used and by whom” (n.pag.). Both Churchill and Winchester challenge the notion of the universal user as, somehow, representative of the diverse populations that typically engage with technology. Most product and technology designers are male, white, and most likely of a higher socioeconomic status (plus, further provoked by Winchester, tend to identify as heterosexual) (Winchester, 15). As a result, that “universal user” becomes an unexamined and unquestioned self reflection of the dominant group.

*In 2001 Saint John, NB, that was an impressive salary to a 24-year-old designer, one year after graduation.

**This piece of advice comes from my dear friend, Stan, mentioned above.

*** Winchester III, Woodrow. “REALizing Our Messy Futures: Toward Culturally Responsive Design Tools in Engaging Our Deeper Dives.” Interactions 17.6 (Nov./Dec. 2010): 14–19. Print.