Should you switch career to Design (/Design Thinking)?

After I recently wrote on some insights and sort of FAQ for aspiring undergrad students into Design (and their parents, as for the Indian context), there were a lot of queries by people are at cross-roads in their career. Infact these queries have been trickling steadily for some time, from the people two years in job to those who spent a decade or more in ‘other’ professions. They have heard of ‘design’ or ‘design thinking’ and are clearly attracted by the ‘creativity quotient’ attached to it, compared to the ‘drab routine’(I have a different POV here) they might be stuck to. What is it like, to shift your career to Design one day? What does it take? What is the ROI? He is my take below, though it focuses more on a) people in their early part of the career b) Indian context.
I did it, many years ago, when it wasn’t cool to shift over at all, let alone shifting to an unheard-of profession. I shifted from engineering to design. I shifted from a well-paying corporate job in an automobile company to entrepreneurship. Even within design stream, I shifted from Product Design to Visual Design and later to Design research and Strategy. And currently drifting towards Business Design and Futurology. Shifting, now looks pretty natural to me. And there is a philosophical angle to it, but I would stick to hard-facts for now.
Modern design education and profession, is nearly a century old story in the world. For India also it is around for more than half a century but it is only now, there is a mass curiosity around this. Design schools are springing up everywhere; Design Thinking is becoming a must-do course on Coursera; literally every soft-skill trainer of yester years is now claims to be Design Thinking trainer; new memes are doing rounds in the corporate circle saying ‘empathy is the new strategy’; Indian organizations, especially IT companies are training their work force en-masse into this new found skill ever since Vishal Sikka, the CEO of Infosys made a loud noise around this exciting concept. And yes, I could muster a courage to create a brand new company dedicated to Design Thinking & Business Innovation (Turian Labs) in 2015, after a roller-coaster ride as an entrepreneur at a full-service design company I cofounded earlier (Onio). Turian Labs is doing well and I do look forward to every Monday :).
Here are a few questions that I encounter from working professionals:
1. Which stream? Product Design (or several others like this), Interaction Design or Strategic Design Management?
Some institutes (my context for this article is ‘India’) offer post-graduate degree in design to students coming from non-design fields like engineering and architecture. Switch is easier if you have any of these two undergraduate degrees. Strategic Design Management (NID offers this) or Design Studies (as NIFT calls this course) or Business Design (as WeSchool in Mumbai calls this) are some courses that bridge the gap between designers and management. A degree in Product Design will get you a job into the core-design team of a company, where you understand business needs, draw, visualise and prototype products. Compared to that a degree in SDM, Design Studies or Business Design will get you a job as a Product Manager, Innovation Manager, Brand Manager or a Design Research Manager in a company. So essentially one needs to decide whether ‘skill of doing’ or skill of ‘thinking and managing the process’ is closer to him/her. Interaction Design or UX Design is a futuristic but currently hyped and bastardised field. It is futuristic because with the onset of IoT and automation era, a lot of sense making would need to be done in making the human interaction with these devises. Currently, largely the work available (that I know of) is limited to making UI for apps barring a few exceptions. Industry has so much of dearth of this skill that anyone with a title ‘designer’ is being hired for the job — a computer engineer from an unknown engineering-college working on front-end-coding for an app to a trained Graphic Designer working on User Research for a complex B2C application. Everyone is being paid well (so far, till the cookie crumbles). But to assess the ground situation, I heard this from a business owner in a conference I was addressing, “So many designers swear by Apple’s UX and UI, all of them have great stories to quote and tell from TED videos, they all have good degrees with them, then why can’t I get a decent product UI done here?”.
2. Should I get some experience working as an intern or something, in a company like yours, before taking up a formal design education?
Or similar
Can I get switch to this domain without studying these 2 year-long courses? Is there a way?
Apprenticeship is an eternally valid concept. It gives you a quick hang of the place and field. I have been accepting such interns for quite a while now. Design companies around the world are quite friendly places compared to most other corporate clubs. My company employs people across domains- from ethnographers, MBAs to designers and engineers. People have interned with us, shaped up their experience and most importantly enriched their ‘vocabulary’ to enter this field formally. While such internship does NOT guarantee an admission to a design institute but it does provide the lay or the land as a profession. Many people directly apply to American universities for post-graduation in Innovation Management, Strategic Design Management or similar courses where I end up providing recommendations (and mostly it works!). So, while it is NOT mandatory to have a practical experience in the field to switch-over, it does give you a break from current routine, help you synthesize thoughts better and make you’re ‘learning ready’ for design.
Answer to the connected question is YES, one can get into the domain of innovation consulting and innovation management through self-study, a bit of practical exposure as mentioned above. Design Thinking has opened the doors wide-open to broader professions and professionals to come and join the party.
3. Will I be able to pay back my student loan easily if I take a costly course in Design abroad?
Post-grad courses are of 1 year duration (like several courses in Domus Academy) and regular 2 year duration (like most American universities). Recently, one such candidate told me that she will be spending nearly USD 48,000 per year (AFTER she has been awarded 50% tuition fee waiver) at IIT Chicago. This amounts to a whopping Rs. 60 lakhs in two years. A loan of even 40–50 lakhs for 10 years payment period will generate a minimum EMI (repayment instalment) of Rs. 70–80,000 a month (as an average, though several factors decide this EMI). This means that a minimum salary expected after this education would be a package of Rs. 15 lakhs upwards. Now, this is a salary that an IT professional tends to gets in India after 7–10 years in the field. Lately, UX design jobs have been offering such entry level salaries. Even some no IT companies are offering such salaries to fresh graduates (in design profession, usually ‘graduates’ and ‘post-graduates’ are not treat differently. Be ready for a shock where both have the same salary). So overall calculation seems a financially a bit awry to me unless one can get a better deal on fee from these colleges abroad. Aalto University in Finland, I am told is much lighter on pocket compared to American and other European Universities. Going abroad, surely provides a different perspective of things and generates a life-long network, but then it is not a blank-cheque situation while seeking a job.
4. Is it worth it?
Great news is that get into any stream you can, Design is a great ecosystem to be in anyways. For me, Design education offered a completely different perspective to looking at things after my first degree in engineering at one of the IITs. All I can say is that no moment is ‘boring’ moment once you are coloured by the power of Design way of thinking. To exemplify, just waiting for a bus can be an engaging moment — experiencing peoples’ activities, stereotypes and analysing personae; looking at material of construction for the bus stop, studying design language and semiotics; analysing the advertisements around through sharpness of messaging, puns used, fonts and apt typography, treatment of the photographs; reading the pattern how buses arrive (they always seem to arrive in multiples, after a long gap, why?) and correlating this to nuclear or astrophysics phenomena in nature …the list is endless. This is quite an information overload that can frustrate some people and make other shiver in ecstasy with the priceless knowledge thrown around. Overall profession thrives on one lifelong skill and virtue — a sense of childlike inquiry, ability to question, read patterns in things and find newer, better meanings. If not anything, join this profession for this.
Graphic used above-representational image/ copyrights with the owner

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