Design: The Human Profession?

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Sticky notes

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.

Jeanette Leagh

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.

Jeanette Leagh

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.