2010 College of Design Commencement Address at North Carolina State University

Last spring, I had the honor of giving the commencement address at the 2010 College of Design at North Carolina State University. Recently I visited the College of Design again, now as a member of the College of Design's Leader Council. It was a real pleasure to be back walking the halls, meeting with Dean Malecha and other council members and most importantly, having an opportunity to view student work.

Notable digital animations, examples of graphic design and textiles design, compelling architectural work and stories of students making a difference in rural settings through real-world projects that are improving the landscapes in which children learn and grow were all shared. All of this served yet again as a strong reminder that design thinking is truely alive and well at the College of Design. 

The commencement address I gave last can be viewed in the context of the College of Design's Design Influence publication or here after the break.

2010 College of Design Commencement Address

Danny Stillion, Master of Product Design with a concentration in Visual Design

Class of 1992

“Never waste a crisis.” You may well have heard leaders recently citing this phrase. It is my belief that this group, perhaps more than many others celebrating across campus today, has the power to lead the way through this time of crisis and to better days ahead. Since leaving this special place, I have had the privilege in my professional life of engaging in design thinking with a rich range of clients and colleagues. We have empowered others through collaborating across disciplines and have met some tough challenges together. I believe that by practicing design thinking and by empowering others to do so, that we can overcome the pervasive cynicism and obstructionist tendencies we deal with all to often in today’s society. More importantly, we can learn lessons from how we got here and apply them to reach meaningful solutions and move forward.

The College of Design prepared me well for carrying out design thinking long before the term was coined. And, as is indicated in the work of many of you, it is clear that design thinking continues to be actively explored at the College of Design today. Valuing open collaboration, interdisciplinary points of view and a deep sense of empathy are powerful things I gained from my time here. Each continues to bolster my work on a daily basis and undoubtedly will also serve you well as you move forward from this place.

Your accomplishments clearly indicate that you have the skills and passion to create. But it is my sincere hope that the path you shape for yourselves moving forward leads you to fertile places where creation is celebrated. I also hope that design thinking will help ensure that you are creating the kinds of meaningful systems, creative expressions, objects, experiences, and spaces that the world truly needs. To that end, I invite you to couple your creative energy with the spirit and approach of design thinking, so that you continually find yourselves in those fertile and meaningful places of creation.

Creations of Meaning

You may have noticed that I referred to you as “creators” rather than “creatives,” as is often the term used in fields such as advertising. For creativity exists in many domains…ranging from astronomy to zoology. Indeed, as we now perhaps are all too aware, within the fields of finance and politics, creativity also is alive and well. But as we have seen in recent times with things like mortgage-backed derivatives and divisive political strategies, being creative does not necessarily ensure that you will be creating something positive or meaningful. In order to bring more meaningful creations into the world, I encourage you to think about the opportunities before you through the powerful lens of design thinking. Design thinking encourages us to take a balanced view on problems and opportunity spaces by considering business viability, technical feasibility as well as human desirability.

The scope and scale of today’s challenges are such that channeling your creative endeavors through active design thinking may well be the best way to help shape our politics, our environment and the ways in which we live, stay connected, and inspire one another.Never before has the need for those who actually create positive things and systems been so great. In today’s world where the gulf between those who have unprecedented wealth and those who have nothing is ever widening, and the politics of fear make almost everything seem impossible in the eyes of the powerful, poor and pundits alike. You represent as a collection of designers and artists something the world sorely needs. You, in short, are creators.

You inspire others with your imagination and vision. And through practicing design thinking, you can help others with your creations. With the skills, perspectives and experiences gained here at the College of Design, you now have a valuable offering with which to go out into the world. It is one that couples both thinking and doing, allowing you to transform concepts into powerful, tangible creations.

The principles of design thinking are perhaps more clearly articulated today than they have even been. Many may be familiar to you. But I urge you to take them forward with you. I know I have benefitted from a wealth of connections, insights and experiences that have resulted from keeping the following five points in mind when I create with others.

1. Discover by listening

A colleague of mine, Diego Rodriguez, is keeping a list of innovation principles handy. The first of these is: “Experience the world instead of talking about experiencing the world.” In order to stay human-centered in our creative endeavors, we must spend time with those we are creating with and really hear their voices and needs. Notice I said with—not creating for—as it is often through true collaboration that the most appropriate and compelling innovations come to life.

2. Prototype and quickly make things

This is a powerfully liberating notion and one that may come easy to many in an academic context, but I urge you to hold on to this spirit of prototyping as you move onward in your creative endeavors. David Kelley, one of IDEO’s founders, speaks about the power of failing early to succeed sooner. If you keep this in mind, it will free you to try new things, to reinvent and liberate you from what Steve Jobs refers to as “the dogma of the past.” Seek to love what you do but embrace the value of prototyping and guard against things becoming too precious…especially early in the creative process. Embrace feedback and the ideas of others and your work will move to a new level of meaning. You will undoubtedly have setbacks in your projects and perhaps even in your careers, but my hope is that keeping this notion of prototyping with a purpose in mind will help guide you to the next level in your creative process. Regardless of what challenges arise, having a deep value for prototyping will ensure that you always maintain an attitude that allows you to learn from failure. This will serve you well throughout your careers.

David Kelley, one of IDEO’s founders, speaks about the power of failing early to succeed sooner. If you keep this in mind, it will free you to try new things, to reinvent and liberate you from what Steve Jobs refers to as “the dogma of the past.” Seek to love what you do but embrace the value of prototyping and guard against things becoming too precious…

3. Building in addition to ideation

Design thinking at IDEO certainly involves building in addition to ideation. You are now in a great position to leverage your technical skills to bring your ideas to fruition. Such a balanced approach of thinking and doing insures that the right things are built in the right way. As a complement to the value of early prototyping, we must also find the commitment as creators to see things through, thus bringing meaningful products, services or experiences into the world.

4. Craft stories, not just concepts

Storytelling is one of the most important tools we have to invite others to take part in the power of design thinking. Take time to tell stories. I used to value the notion that creative work could stand on its own. But to be inclusive and allow others to experience powerful creative journeys, it is often important to tell the stories that inspire your creative endeavors. By doing so, it may well help others grasp the power of empathy or the beauty of aesthetics in ways they never thought possible. If nothing else, it can help demystify the creative process for colleagues from other disciplines. The more we share our stories of creativity—what inspires us and how we maintain a human-centered design approach—the more our colleagues will come to respect what we do. And rather than working your way out of a job by empowering others to learn a bit more about how you do what you do, I think you will find more often than not, that they become better collaborators, bringing higher level challenges to you.

5. Nurturing a culture that is both inspired and inspirational

Somewhat tied to the first principle of discover by listening, this final point emphasizes the need to always be looking at the world around you for inspiration, and, when occasions present themselves, giving back by inspiring others. This means inspiring creators and non-creators alike. For in the world today, we cannot do all that is needed alone. We must inspire creating within others so that we can, through collaboration, reach higher goals together.

So, in closing, in addition to these thoughts regarding the value that design thinking might serve in your lives moving forward, I would like to just share a few additional thoughts. Find what you love to do. I am sure that your time here at the College of Design has served many of you well in that regard. Yet with many fields of creation being so diverse, embrace that spirit of prototyping to find your path. And stick to things long enough to bring meaningful things into the world along the way. Work hard at what you love. Seek out and surround yourself with good people—people open to collaboration and to the power of design thinking and doing.

Thank you, and best wishes.