Design: The Human Profession?

by Jeanette Leagh

Last night, I went to the symphony in downtown Pittsburgh. I’m not a classical music buff, but an evening away from the studio is a welcomed escape. It was Rachmaninoff night, and the soloist was Russian pianist, Olga Kern. In the dimmed opulence of Heinz Hall, I momentarily drowned my thesis concerns and project frustrations in the music flooding my ears. My eyes drank in the sight of Ms. Kern’s sweeping blue gown, her toned arm and nimble fingers as she played.

I began to wonder what her childhood might have been like. How young was she when she first touched a piano? Did she feel destined to be a classical musician? Did she ever waver?

As my mind wandered, I thought about people in my life. Joyce never questioned finance as her career path. Aaron always wanted to be a teacher. Meanwhile, I’d never expected to be a designer with my art history and philosophy background. A hobo, maybe.

Luckily, for me, CMU’s graduate program draws individuals from a variety of fields. Engineering, literature, politics, film. Yes, some have traditional design training, but we’re really a mixed bunch. Is this unique to CMU’s program, or does it perhaps reveal something about design as a whole?

It’s curious that design seems to be a profession people often pursue after working in other industries. For many of us, spending time in a different field invariably uncovered a lasting interest in design.

My colleagues and I came to CMU for different reasons. But we now see the world through “designer glasses.” We see everyday interactions as design opportunities, rhetoric as design strategy, social problems as design challenges.

Last night, as the music in Heinz Hall swelled during Ms. Kern’s dramatic encore, I realized something: Perhaps we all became designers, despite our varied backgrounds, because of how deeply human design is. Designers tackle pressing global issues using empathy and creativity as strategic tools. We listen to understand who we design for and with. We start by asking why and how, not what. As designers—as people—we vigilantly question the findings of today to surface new meaning for tomorrow.

Amid thunderous applause, it became clear: design, as a profession, is an especially human one.

7 thoughts on “Design: The Human Profession?

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  2. Marilyn

    At age 4 I wanted to be an artist. My parents discouraged me saying, “You can never make a living at it.” I started selling my oil paintings at age 13 to schoolmates and their parents. In my “real life” I became a bookeeper, accountant, then an assistant controller so I could afford to live, never stopping the creative work on the side. My sister once watched me at work and said (pre-computer days), “Is that all you do? Put numbers into little boxes all day long?”
    Once I taught myself computers for accounting…the natural progression was to teach myself computers for graphic art. A lucky break and my new career was born…first as a Marketing Director, then officially a Graphic Designer.
    I thought back to my sister’s comment one day and realized the PROCESS for my two careers is the same. Learn everything you can about what results people want to see from you. Research, analyze, and produce those results. But doing it with art is so much more satisfying and so is the connection with your clients.

  3. Tammy Dekel

    Very thoughtful. I can see that you are really thinking about how and why one becomes a designer. However, I think that the misleading, yet luring, apect of design is when a designer thinks to put the how instead of the what. The what is the essence. Without it – there is no how.

  4. Bonnie Wo

    A very impressive and informative piece describing the profession of designers. The essence of design is revealed through such simple story telling and explained in layman terms. Love it.

  5. Christine Donnelly

    What a wonderful post. I started out in design, then I left for a different industry only to realize that a designer’s ability to make “unique and thoughtful connections” and to think laterally are really a design professional’s most important asset. It’s one that can be utilized in a variety of positions in any given industry. The skill of being able to see any business problem as a design challenge – and then to attack it creatively – is one that sets design thinkers apart. 
    Thanks for bringing humanity into conversation- it’s a wonderful angle that I have not thought much about in the past. And it’s perhaps the most important part of the puzzle. Great post!

  6. Jenny

    Even coming from a more traditional graphic design background, this program has really broadened my view of what I consider “design.” Now if only I had a good, short answer to the question, “So, what do you do?”