Akshay Verma Shares His Insights on Product Design & Leading Design at Prophecy

QnA session where Akshay discusses the various growth paths for designers and whether a master's degree is right for you.

Akshay Verma Shares His Insights on Product Design & Leading Design at Prophecy
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Expert Interviews

Akshay is the Lead Designer at Prophecy and a mentor for the ownpath Product Design Fellowship. He is also an alumnus of the National Institute of Design (2014) and Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (2015).

Q. What are some things, from your experience at CIID (Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design) that stayed with you over the years?

The program at CIID is only a year long and very intense. But I think one thing that made quite a bit of difference was being taught by expert practitioners. These were people who were pioneers in the field. For example, one of the people who taught us interaction design was Bill Verplank who along with Bill Moggridge coined, the term “Interaction Design”. Another similar person was Chris Downs started who started the world’s first service design company and pioneered that field.

To really understand what were the triggers that led these people to create some of the processes, frameworks, ways of doing and thinking that we follow these days; that was really really insightful. Otherwise, you’ve got a bunch of methods and you don’t really know why you are practising those methods. For me, connecting that loop and really understanding things was very significant.

Design is very much about understanding how people live, what their values are, how those values translate into behaviour and finally how those behaviours translate into needs. Really looking at their stories, their lives and then turning insights from that into a design solution rather than having an approach where you identify a problem and create an interface for it. In fact, I went through half the course without having created a single interface because a lot of it was just so fundamental and so much about the user’s experience that the medium didn’t matter.

Another point to note is about “facilitation”. So CIID was never about finding a problem and just working on it heads down, where you solve for it, by yourself and then go out and deliver it. They’re very big on collaborating with colleagues, working with experts, working with users and very deeply embedding them into your design process while still maintaining control over the process. I think those were things that proved to be invaluable later on.

Q. How important is it to focus on learning the entire product design process during your education?

At NID, we had 4 months to work on one project, whereas at CIID it was all about being very quick and very iterative with things. So even if the project was eight weeks long, we would still create the first version on the first day itself. And that is a skill that I think is not only valuable it is something that is not very common either. Even though a lot of startups say that they’re fast-paced, they are rarely able to move at such a pace. So, having a process doesn’t mean that you are slowing yourself down.

Having a process (in design) doesn’t mean that you’re slowing yourself down, in fact it means that you’re being very intentional about the things that you are doing, and also being intentional about the things you are not doing.

Maybe you don’t have the time to do everything properly in one go, so you break things down and do things iteratively. And I think that can apply well to any kind of situation whether it’s a start-up or an NGO where you have a lot more time.

Q. What do we keep in mind (while applying to universities for master’s) to make sure we select courses that prepare us to be future-proof?

I think every institute has certain courses that are better than others. I would advise anybody to just talk to a lot of alumni before they apply to a design school and get a sense of what is being taught.

With respect to keeping on evolving, I think the answer is really simple - You’ve just got to keep learning. The thing to realise here is that when design schools teach something they’ve almost got this attitude that everything has been figured out already, presenting you with a “perfect” process, theory or mindset. Whatever discipline you are studying is constantly evolving and design schools are generally always playing catch-up.

In the industry, certain design practices are implemented, get established and become the norm, and then they get taught in design school.

Another way would be to follow people who have been pioneers in the past and also follow people who are doing really good work today. See what they have to say and absorb their thoughts because they very openly share stories, even of regret where they talk about frameworks they’ve created and the flaws in them which they could not rectify.

From there on, it’s a constant evolution. But, there are certain fundamentals that remain intact and once you have those fundamentals, it’s very easy to incrementally build on top of those fundamentals. In fact, once you have those fundamentals, you’re equipping yourself to also take a very critical look at your own design practice.

Q. How much does the “degree” matter in a person’s design career?

I feel that you have to do what you love doing and honestly, we’re fortunate that in design, degrees still don’t matter as much. I do know that with the pedigree comes a lot of privilege but the degree itself is not very meaningful.

There’s no harm in getting a degree. I’m not discouraging anybody by asking people to drop out of design programs and not get a degree. I think what is more important is to make sure that what you choose to do is what you love doing because that is absolutely essential to your success.

Design, at least traditionally, has been this field of rebels with people who are not really interested in following traditional paths, people who feel strongly about about creative problem solving.

I think those are the kind of people who have traditionally gotten into design. Though, some people also take another route, where they just try it out and eventually fall in love with it.

Q. What would you say to a self-taught designer who has been working for 5-6 years and wants to pursue a Master’s with the intention to unlearn and then re-learn?

That’s a big ask! The unlearning process takes a lot of time and the master’s program will perhaps be over by the time you “unlearn”. There’s a chance that can happen. I would actually look at what are the things that you need to learn and what are the things that you need to unlearn. Maybe make a list and then look at what a design program is going to teach you and then see whether it’s going to be worth it or not.

Because for somebody who has that many years of experience, they will see a lot of redundancy. They’ll find that there will be a lot of things that they already know, it is true that there are some learnings and it does serve as an opportunity to pick up on some of the fundamentals that they might have missed, but the returns are going to be diminishing.

So, what might make a lot of sense instead is to find a company or a design team that has a very good design practice and just go work with them. They will fill whatever the gaps are, much more easily, by spending less money and also in lesser time.

Q. What should I focus on during my master’s program? (Aishwarya Naik, Product Design Fellow, Cohort 1, incoming MHCDE student at the University of Washington)

I was recently interviewing somebody and before this person did their master’s, they were in a certain domain and then during their master’s, all of the projects were in the same domain and after their master’s, they were still looking to be in that domain. More recently though, this person has been wanting to switch to a different domain which at this point is rather hard.

I think there is a real danger in finding your niche too soon. You can be a generalist for a little longer than it serves you, but specialising too quickly is a slippery slope because then it’s very hard to get yourself out of that specialisation. I would recommend widening your horizons quite a bit, and dabble in lots of different domains because that’s one big opportunity that a master’s program affords you, which is — you can fail freely, you can experiment freely.

You don’t have to worry about being successful in every project that you do, you should have a few things that you can be proud of, which you can put into your portfolio, but you don’t need to aim to get all of them right.

Q. According to you, what kind of people should NOT do a Master’s in Design?

I would look at what are the things that you learn and gain from the Masters.

You certainly pick up some fundamentals. You also understand a little bit about how to apply those fundamentals to real-world projects. I think, you also get a taste of a lot of different disciplines and get to explore a lot of different domains. It is an accelerated way of testing them and figuring out what is it that you really like! There is also networking which is usually one of the primary reasons for most people to consider doing a Masters program.

As for those who shouldn’t do a master’s, I’d say make a list similar to this one and take a look at it. Ask yourself what are the things that you already have and figure out whether the effort is going to be worth the return. People who have a lot of years of experience, even though they might feel that a master’s program will help them, struggle to unlearn and extract value from the program.

Q. What could we do better at ownpath, to make the product design fellowship a more compelling alternative to the traditional higher education model?

I think you’re doing quite a lot of things right, considering that this was only the first cohort. It is pretty well structured in terms of the courses and the curriculum.

When you condense a program, invariably there will be some tradeoffs. It is kind of a double-edged sword, where you could have a longer program that works even better, but finding people for whom it will be the right fit and also who would be willing to commit that kind of time would be more challenging. Perhaps you could split this into levels, where the level 1 program could be similar to what just happened (Fellowship cohort 1) and this is a very good primer.

I don’t think it’s just a factor of the program, but it is going to take every individual student a certain amount of time to fail for themselves and learn. This room for failure is very important. There are some things at which you have to fail in order to learn.

The fellowship had many masterclasses with some of them having overlaps as well. This helps people get different perspectives on the same set of topics and that always helps a lot. Even in your master’s program, sometimes what happens is you’re being taught something, by a certain somebody and that’s just one way of looking at that particular topic. Sometimes it doesn’t click for every individual, but just getting these multiple perspectives, helps a lot!

Also, where most of the learning gets triggered is there’s a certain level of sensitization that happens in these 4 months and I’m pretty sure that this learning is going to continue in the future because now every student has a benchmark. They know what good looks like! They know, if they were to practise what they were taught in an ideal manner, what that ideal would look like and then they are constantly able to measure themselves against that ideal and improve themselves.

Maybe a follow-up, level 2 program that goes a little deeper would help. Also perhaps trimming the program down a little, focusing a lot more on a few things and doing them even better, would help.

If you’re a designer, you can join our Product Design Fellowship. The next cohort begins soon!

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