Product Tribes AMA #3 — Lee Sean Huang

AMA session on Product Tribes with Lee Sean Huang
AMA session on Product Tribes with Lee Sean Huang

This is the transcript of Ask Me Anything Session with Lee Sean Huang on Product Tribes community, July 11, 2019

Lee Sean Huang is Creative Director at Foossa and Design Education Manager at AIGA

Intro

Lee Sean Huang is a Taiwanese American design practitioner, educator, and community builder based in New York City. He splits his time between running Foossa, the service design and strategy consultancy that he co-founded, teaching design, storytelling, and innovation at New York University, the Parsons School of Design, and the School of Visual Arts, and serving as the design education manager at AIGA, the largest professional association for design in the United States.

Lee-Sean’s work often explores the intersection between design and democracy. He is interested in the role of participation and play in the future of education, work, health, and civic engagement. He is interested in the role of participation and play in designing the future of education, work, health, and civic engagement.

In addition to a bachelor’s degree in Government from Harvard, Lee-Sean holds a master’s degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA) and a member of the NationSwell Council. He serves as a board member of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Alumni Association of New York and the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation. He previously served as a founding trustee of the Awesome Foundation New York.

He also plays piano and ukulele and practices capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art disguised as a dance, at the New York Capoeira Center.

  1. I am very happy to have you here at Product Tribes AMA!

Thanks for having me!

2. What exactly does a “design education manager” do? And, more importantly: what types of things do you see students struggle the most with when it comes to learning to design well?

Design education manager is a new role at AIGA. I joined relatively recently, in late December 2018. My role is split between “community” and “content.” On the community side, I support AIGA’s design educators community with their conferences, publications, etc. And I also engage the design practitioner community on AIGA’s research and content. So doing stuff like this AMA. On the content side, I am working with design educators and practitioners to expand our Design Futures research and turn it into concrete online learning opportunities (coming soon). And a podcast is in the works too.

Here’s a link to the Design Futures research so far.

In terms of Design Futures, we see it as an initiative to help practitioners understand and prepare for the changing context of the profession.

3. What is AIGA and what is its role in design community? And who can join AIGA?

AIGA stands for “American Institute for Graphic Arts”. We were founded all the way back in 1914 as a professional association for then “graphic artists” in New York City. We are now a national, US organization with members representing a variety of design disciplines. Graphic design is certainly our heritage, but we have UX, UI, service designers involved as well. AIGA’s mission is to advocate for design and designers in business, government and the wider culture.

Membership is based on an annual fee, which gets you discounts to our local events at 70+ chapters around the US and to our annual conferences. The last one was in Pasadena. The next one is in Pittsburgh in March 2020. Membership also unlocks opportunities for designers to network, give and get mentorship, and participate more actively in the community.

4. You mentioned that the role of designer is changing. What does it mean? And how should we prepare for this change?

Allow me to share a couple of screenshots from the Design Futures reports, which I think give us an interesting view of how the profession is changing. On one hand, traditional graphic design is stagnating in terms of job growth, while design related to software and the web is booming. We also see more and more designers coming into the profession through different pathways, as opposed to the old model of apprenticeships and traditional design programs.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics Projections for Employment
US Bureau of Labor Statistics Projections for Employment
Entry to the field under an industrial model of practice vs through focused practice
Entry to the field under an industrial model of practice vs through focused practice

In terms of how to prepare, this means that many graphic designers will need to become more tech-savvy if they want to stay in the profession. And for folks who are already designing in tech, the reports talk about a variety of trends and required competencies to respond to those trends, such as designing with data, understanding complex systems, addressing sustainable business models, and ethics, etc.

5. Correct me if I’m wrong, but working with the community and with educational content, your tasks include a bit of PR, don’t they? Which designer skills and experiences help you the most with this new path?

Yes, I guess my job does include a bit of PR. My first job out of college was working for the Japanese government in a language teaching and cultural exchange program called JET. I travelled around my region teaching English language classes and talking about the US to Japanese students and adults. So I guess I was already used to this unofficial grassroots ambassador role and giving talks. When I moved back to the US, I got into design doing communications (web, email marketing, live events) for the non-profit sector, so this PR kind of thing has always been part of my journey.

I should also mention that I have been teaching for awhile too. Besides the teaching job in Japan, I’ve been teaching part time in design programs in New York Cityfor the last 6–7 years. More and more of this is moving online or into hybrid online-in-person experiences, so I look forward to experimenting there with AIGA’s upcoming learning platform as well.

6. How long do you expect to have this boom for software designers? Are we “safe” in terms of being replaced by AI?

I’m not in the business of forecasting labor trends, so I don’t know if I can comfortably predict. I will say that we see more and more design work being about “meta-design.” Setting parameters for automated systems, creating design systems for organizations and interdisciplinary teams. So I think the bottom end of “production design” drudgery is probably the easiest to automate and/or outsource. While design strategy and design systems / systems design will still require human designers to collaborate with AI.

As a reference, Stephen P. Anderson’s SXSW talk is a good place to go to learn more about these shifts in the profession.

7. What according to you is the role of participation and play in the future of education, work, health, and civic engagement? How can designers contribute to it?

The idea behind this has a long legacy that traces back to the participatory design movements in Scandinavia starting in the 1970s. These movements were highly tied to collaborations between the labor movements, academia and designers. The idea was that design could be (and should be) an extension of democracy. Workers (and other stakeholders) should have a say in shaping the tools and technologies that will affect their lives and livelihoods. Now this utopian vision has declined even in Scandinavia due to the decline of unions and globalization. But I think it is worth revisiting.

In terms of how designers can get involved, my challenge to other practitioners is to think about what are additional ways to involve and co-design with users? How can we innovate in our methods beyond the usual baseline of interviews, observation, A/B testing? Beyond listening to and responding to the needs of users, how do we give them power to shape products and services. And maybe we need to move beyond “users” as a term and think of people as stakeholders and fellow citizens or community members. Framing matters.

8. How do designers from other fields contribute to the fields of education, work, health and civic engagement?

I would certainly encourage designers to look for pro bono or freelance opportunities in these fields that interest them. Or if you work in an agency context, see if you can stretch out of your usual industry expertise and comfort zone. Or if you are in the market for a career shift, could you go in-house somewhere that focuses on design for education, health, etc?

9. With your strong background in two different cultures, would you say there are some design/UX traits specific to a country or culture or is design universal in your opinion?

Certainly, there are cultural differences in what is “good taste” or proper design heuristics across cultures. Even within one country. For example, my business partner, who comes from an African American background, finds the whole Eurocentric modernist/minimalism stuff too austere and not “human enough.” There are also linguistic considerations. East Asian languages like Chinese and Japanese are “denser” than most Roman alphabet-based languages. That means 140 characters (or now double that) on Twitter in Japanese or Chinese go a lot further than in English.

There are some universals though. For example, users need wayfinding and orientation in a system or platform. How do you welcome them and onboard them? Everyone needs that, even if the tactics are different.

10. As a linguist myself, I find it very curious that the language can define the way people see colours. Like in some languages there’s just one word for all shades of green and blue, for others there are many names for white, etc. It must be fascinating to observe these differences in the field of what you called “good taste” and how it is somehow incorporated in people’s identity.

Another example is from Rwanda, where I did a little bit of design work with the genocide memorial. There are definitely a lot of cultural differences and sensitivities to learn there about how to present information and help people process pain and trauma. This story about how Rwandan genocide survivors coped with depression really stuck out to me in the way that different cultures deal with mental health.

And here’s a video where I go through our genocide memorial work case study.

11. I watched your video about trends in design (really great!) and you mentioned that designers need to design “with people” instead “for people”. So what we need to do, as designers, to work that way?

A lot of the “designing with” work requires designers to be skilled facilitators and community managers/organizers. Even if you think about a fairly “traditional” product development process in a company, many of the decisions get made in meetings, in conversations, in correspondence. Sometimes there is a clear decision-maker, other times there is discussion, debate, and consensus-building. I often challenge my design students to hone their facilitation skills, so they can lead and guide a product meeting, and not just “monologue” when pitching their ideas to their boss or clients.

12. So is designing for you a discussion between different participants, with different goals and someone needs to guide them to the consensus?

That is certainly a big part of it. Design is dialogue. Even if you are working in a team or organization with an explicitly defined process, how that process actually gets applied in practice will depend a lot on the individuals in a given team and meeting. So I encourage designers to think about (re)designing the process along with their explicit job of designing the product.

13. While designing “with people”, how do you come to decisions in case of conflicts/varied opinions?

My view is that conflict should be embraced. That often means that people care about the issue, or it is worth A/B testing externally to decide. In situations where a group needs to reach a decision, we have found that giving time for people to debate and deliberate BEFORE going to a vote, or having the boss/client decide can really help boost morale and motivation.

14. Recently we had a few discussions here about ethics in design, and overall in new technologies. What can we do, as a design community, to guarantee that our skills and knowledge will be used to serve the right purpose?

There is a lot of discussion about that in the AIGA community and the wider design community. There are folks like Mike Monteiro who are pushing for (or at least predicting) that designers will/should be licensed and certified. AIGA has published ethical guidelines for the profession, and we are currently doing an audit and update of those guidelines. These guidelines are meant to protect designers as professionals, with for example, our stance against spec work, but more and more, we need to host conversations about how to protect society from potential harms of new technologies.

A real problem is that technological development often outpaces policymaking and ethical guidelines. I’m not an ethicist, but I do see that checklists and other guidelines are a start. But ultimately, it will come down to accountability. If designers and technologists mess up, and the stuff they created causes problems, how will they respond to research and public pressure? And how will designers organize collectively against unethical behavior? We have seen some interesting things with the recent Google walkouts for example. And I know some folks I follow on Twitter want to push for unionization. It is ultimately about rules, but also about organizing countervailing power to check potential abuses.

15. In one of your answers, you mentioned that you encourage your designer students to hone their facilitation skills. Do you have any resources for it?

I’m currently working on a design facilitation curriculum that I am scheduled to teach at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York later this fall. The syllabus isn’t ready yet. In the meantime, my colleague and friend Hannah Dubin has a blog post at the Design Gym that is a good place to start.

I learned facilitation on the job, so I am trying to take what I learned experientially into something more systematic and scalable. So, I’m working on it.

16. We asked Tanner Christensen this question before, but you too seem to be able to manipulate time somehow to manage all your activities. How do you do it? How do you manage your time?

A lot of my work is seasonal and comes in waves. For example, I just finished teaching online summer school at Parsons, so I don’t have teaching again until late August. Even with many things to juggle, I have to be fairly disciplined about managing energy levels and concentration. So even if I am working on something late into the night (my preferred time slot anyway), I might go to the gym for a workout in the middle of the afternoon during an off-peak time. Or go on a leisurely lunch with a professional contact.

I also use one of those AI scheduling services to help manage my external meetings. That has been game-changing. It’s called ClaraLabs, and it integrates into your Google or Outlook calendar.

17. And time for the last question: What would be the one thing you would like to share with fellow designers on Product Tribes?

One of the cliché misconceptions that I am trying to address is the whole “design is problem solving” trope. I agree that we solve problems, but plenty of non-designers solve problems too, so that isn’t enough to advocate for design as a discipline or designers as professionals. I encourage folks to also think about design as “possibility seeking” and “power shifting” as well. How do we look for problems, frame them in different ways? Find divergent interventions (versus solutions)? And how do design interventions (rather than “solutions”) redistribute or shift the balance of power? Those are my final thoughts, although I could go on and on.

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