Uncovering design

I started my career with what I feel is a reasonable level of direction for the 17 year old I was at the time — I’d like to be an archaeologist, but that’s not practical, so I’ll do a business degree. I coupled this degree with a history degree, just to make sure I could do something interesting at university. However, it was a only a few units into my degree that I discovered: I actually enjoyed accounting.

Ok, #nerdalert

So a few of you have probably stopped reading; that statement was far too nerdy. But for those of you that are still here, I’ll explain: I enjoyed the analytical side of accounting, how you could rationalise down your business to a set of figures, classify and analyse these figures, and then build it back up to actionable insights (although to be honest, this last step is something I only really learnt once I started working). To me, this was somewhere I could actually apply my creativity to problem-solve and see patterns that could drive better outcomes.

The next step was to find a job. This happened almost by accident and I find it hard to believe my steps weren’t being ordered for me by some greater force. My brother recommended I apply for a vacation position at a “Big 4” accounting firm. I’d never heard of such places, but nevertheless, I applied to a few places, got vacation roles at two companies, and had my university discovery confirmed: I liked it.

It wasn’t just my accounting nerd that was happy in that environment, though. I also loved the feeling of working in a team, collaborating across different levels of seniority and solving problems together.

A favourite show of mine has long been NCIS, and I loved the closeness of the team, the excitement of solving big cases, and the tension of operating in an environment where both due process and re-activeness were valued. I imaged enjoying a work day a bit like theirs: DiNozzo would be cracking a joke at McGee’s expense, only to discover Gibbs standing right behind him ready to call them out to the next crime scene. Somehow, the audit room felt like this to me and so, after university, I started work as an external auditor.

The first clue

Perhaps continuing on my subconscious quest to make my work life as much like NCIS as possible, while avoiding the bloodied crime scenes, two years into my career, I moved into the forensic accounting team at my organisation.

Not only did this bring me closer to solving problems that resonated with my values, but it also brought me into the world of business consulting. As part of a pool of consultants assigned, but not constrained, to a particular competency, I was pulled onto an array of projects outside of forensic accounting: from process design to assessments of social impact action plans. And it was on this social impact job that I first encountered design thinking and co-design.

My firm had been engaged by another business to have their social impact plan assessed. We flew in an expert in social impact assessment who had pioneered the use of environmental impact assessment methodologies. As soon as I met her I knew this was someone with powerful ability to synthesise often abstract information and make it actionable, and a woman who was forging a successful career living out her values. I knew I wanted to learn how she did it!

We worked together closely on developing the tailored social impact assessment framework for our client. And sitting around the table one day, quickly iterating and reiterating tables in PowerPoint to get it ready to present to the client, she asked, “Have you ever heard of design thinking? I think you’d be great at co-design.”

Now, I’m a sucker for compliments and so later that evening I was googling design thinking and co-design to figure out if there was a magical career path out there where I could spend all day doing the information synthesis, problem-solving and iterative working that really energised me.

But I talked myself down: it was too soon to change careers. And before long, the drive to climb the ladder at work took over my focus, and design was just something I googled occasionally for fun.

(Photo by picjumbo.com from Pexels)

A push out the nest

Fast forward to February 2017. I was at a Valentine’s Day Ball with my sister and a few friends. I was standing out on the balcony overlooking the Swan River chatting to my sister, when our mate turned around and introduced us to his friend. The conversation started awkwardly but soon he and I hit it off — not romantically, but with a different kind of passion.

This guy — I’ll call him Neil for anonymity — had found a business that he was passionate about that had driven him to start seeking out mentoring, and other inspiring content from podcasts and books. We spent many an afternoon over coffee by the beach debating the pros and cons of his particular business model. I didn’t launch into business partnership with Neil but still found something valuable in the conversation: a re-ignition of my love of learning and self-improvement, and a rediscovery of a passion to run my own business someday.

Almost overnight, I started downloading all kinds of leadership and business podcasts, and actually sat down to read some of the business and lifestyle books on my shelf. I mapped out my values, and started assessing small decisions against these values (which needs a post to itself). But the small decisions were only part of it — what about the big decisions of career, location and making a difference in the world?

Forensic accounting does give me the opportunity to do many things I love: stopping the bad guys, making processes easier and more effective for users, and working with some incredibly smart and diverse people. But I always felt like there was something more. So I started looking into design a bit more seriously.

An algorithm did something good?

At first I was all over the shop. Googling various types of design; wondering if how much coding I needed to do UX/UI design; questioning whether it was all just graphic design; or was there something broader? I stumbled across an inspiring post from Karen X and started teaching myself to draw better. I read about Google Material Design, wondering if I’d ever really understand tangibly what that was all about. I began to seriously consider I might have to give up long-held beliefs about operating systems and give Apple a proper try and learn to use Sketch so people would take me seriously as a designer…

Hold up! I needed to find a starting point. I wasn’t looking to give up my day job just yet, but to find a creative outlet that enabled me to work with purpose-driven businesses and people to build solutions that inspire humans to take action and move closer to success.

All these google searches for “design”, “design thinking”, “UX design”, “product design”, started to give my social media platforms some ideas. And for once it seems they were good ideas.

Through research and some well-timed ads, I stumbled across the Interaction Design Foundation, and a couple of months later, Harness Projects. Harness Projects was a beautiful idea that brought together social enterprises and UX design students to provide design work for the enterprise, and education to the students. This seemed like too good an opportunity too pass up. So a few interviews later, I enrolled and started to learn UX design.

Where to from here

I still feel like I’m in that overexcited phase of discovering something new where everything seems like a good idea. I’m studying the IDF courses, I’m reading design classics such as Don’t Make Me Think and The Design of Everyday Things for fun, and I’m listening to design podcasts, and I just created a website. Even I have to stop and wonder whether this is a deep-running passion, or just something that’s fun for now.

While everything in life has it’s seasons, I think I have stumbled onto a way of thinking and an area of work that is part of how I am made. And tonight, while I was listening to Meriah Garret on the DesignBetter.Co podcast, she said something that I could almost describe as my mission statement for my career, whether that’s design, accounting or the next thing: “Synthesise the world to make it actionable.”