Reflecting on the experiences of the past year is a difficult assignment. Not because the year has passed without many adventures, but because the range of mixed emotions, unforgettable experiences and amazing people who have crossed my path is simply too hard to express in words, not even 2000 words. Nevertheless, I’ll take the challenge and brace it courageously, hoping I won’t end up flooding my keyboard with tears for the end of an exciting time. If the reader wishes to join me on this adventure, prepare for a truly empathic experience. As stories are what differentiate us as a specie, what unite communities and help us share experiences, what becomes “infectious” (McKinsey, 2011), let me share the story of my year.
One of the first things that was transferred from my previous knowledge in marketing to design thinking was the need for a persona – a mixture of user profiles from a particular category, describing their demographic details, behaviours and lifestyle choices in order to use it for the development of user experience in testing (Idoughi et al, 2011). So here you are, the MACE persona.
Learning to think all over again
The number one and most enduring lesson I have learned in MACE is: empathise. Empathise with your customers/users as part of the design thinking process to create something innovative. Observe them, without interrupting the flow of their actions. In fact, empathy and observation are closely linked together and design thinkers observe the world in great detail in order to take a human-centred approach (Brown, 2008). And only they have done that, can they start the thinking and brainstorming phase. Because if you create something out of thin air that no one needs, you’ll simply become one of the many companies which don’t make it too far, one of the 85% of new products that fail when they come to the market (Wong, 2010).
First product idea – a multi-functional iPad case
Lesson number two? Failure is good. Or, if I may rephrase, learning from failure is good – as prototyping, going through several iterations and incorporating users into your design process means the feedback you receive can help you build something great (Innovation Management, 2011). It’s because failure is the proof that one is prolific in one’s ideas – since they can’t all succeed, failing some is proof that you actually have more ideas. And I learned it on my own in our business group called 42. The first product we wanted to make (among others that failed afterwards) was a customisable iPad case with changeable inserts to suit different lifestyles. It turned out people were quite happy with what Apple had produced. But empathy and learning from failure lead us to Tabli, which was one of the major rewards of the year. It was only when we observed children playing, mothers being busy and having trouble balancing child-minding and household chores that we managed to create a product to keep both of them happy. And it was only after different sizes and finishing processes were tested that we arrived at the finished product ready to put on the market.
Learning to start up
No, I didn’t miss the hyphen in there. ‘Starting up’ are two words that can definitely describe the past year as I had to adjust to a new country, a new home, a new education system, a new university and new, amazing people. For that I had to start up with a new life and it has been very rewarding, exciting, sometimes nerve-wracking, sometimes I just felt overwhelmed and on the edge of quitting. But I’m sure glad I didn’t.
At the Kingston Market Square Fair using face-paint to attract children to our stall
Now, starting a start-up was one of the biggest challenges that I faced as I would have never realised until going through everything, just how difficult it is. Starting with finding a team which proved rather difficult as everyone was a stranger more or less, I can now say I was lucky to have found the right people. And the struggle started right at the beginning as our group was slightly too large and didn’t comply to the rules. There were times when we weren’t on the same page, time zone or path, but what I would say defined 42 is unity (‘teamwork’ is used and abused). That no matter how tough it was, we worked on it together, when we were annoyed we ranted to each other, when things weren’t quite right, we brainstormed and found a solution and we welcomed ideas from everyone for everything. An example of this was finding a promotional strategy for our first trade fair when we all put our minds to work and titles like Operations Director, Finance Director or Marketing Director didn’t impact in any way the effort or worthiness of the idea we were bringing to the brainstorm.
Winning £250 prize at Bright Ideas
We had to have titles in order to divide official responsibility, but what I think made us so successful was the fact that when it came to performing any task, we were doing it together. Because we were successful at it, Tabli sold in 48 units, we won a Bright Ideas prize, a Best Sales Team prize and we represented London at the Young Enterprise National Final.
Being part of 42 has helped me personally and professionally as I have developed my direct selling skills, I have gained practical experience in marketing and I now feel more confident in pitch situations and presentations for my desired advertising career. 42 has also inspired me to open my own business one day in the baking industry as I have discovered that with the right people, determination and enthusiasm, rewards soon come.
Regarding the process of creating Tabli, it was much like IDEO’s (2009) Human Centred Design process based on three stages: Hear – Create – Deliver.
Hear – Create – Deliver (IDEO, 2009, p.8-9)
But even after learning about that, I would have never realised through how many iterations our Tabli would go through to finish the Delivering stage:
- we first had a thicker MDF wood, so we changed it to a thinner one afterwards;
- we first gave it one coating but that didn’t really work out and the brush strokes were visible. Then we tried spray painting and noticed it didn’t leave a nice surface which meant the chalk was very visible even after careful washing. So we returned to paint and tried rollers to make it smooth. Then Ray discovered that finishing all of that with light sanding followed by full chalking and washing would result in the smoothest, most effective surface;
- we didn’t know how to package it so we thought of drawstring bags as the children could use them as a backpack as well but only after ordering them did we realise that just because the measurements fit doesn’t mean the bag will close;
- we found that painting with black chalkboard paint in a room with a beige carpet isn’t the best idea but it’s something you can laugh at later;
- we found that people you know are really important as we used acquaintances and friends to have CAD drawings of the product and produce our prototypes;
- we discovered that being honest is appreciated by our audiences as our presentation at Young Enterprise National Final about our journey was very well received.
Learning to swim in a blue ocean
This might sound weird to some, but most of us are swimming in a Red Ocean: an ocean where companies obey the traditional rules of trade, produce commoditised products, their purpose is to outsmart the competition and they fight like sharks for profits. Blue Oceans, on the other hand, find a niche, define a market, change the rules and break the boundaries (Kim and Mauborgne, 2006). Attempting to do this as a brand might be hard enough, but MACE taught us more. It made us think as a Blue Ocean swimmer even for our own sakes: not to be part of the endless graduates that leave university, not to join just any environment or conform to the rules, MACE taught us that we should strive for more, challenge knowledge more, criticise, discover, never give up and surround ourselves by like-minded people ready to put a dent in the universe.
Learning about people
A major component of the past year has been the amazing, new, supportive and talented people I have known. MACE is a highly international course which helped in giving multiple perspectives of issues discussed in class and a chance for me to learn about more cultures, which is what I have always been interested in. From challenges such as Dragon’s Den to the happy moments like MACE Friday or a well-said joke, I have learned that even when it’s harder to accept the personality of others, each person will give you a valuable lesson about life.
Part of the MACE class of 2013
Even though adding a new person to my network every day was not possible, I feel that I have understood the value and importance of networking more. I have built relationships with people who will work in the creative industries, just like me, my dear classmates and I hope I will always find some advice and help in them should the situation arise. Just as they are welcome to find it in me. I have learned about emotional intelligence and its components: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills (Jane, 2006). But not just what emotional intelligence is, also how you can build it and its importance in my future career should I be in the position to lead creative people. Because this century’s organisation is made by people for the people. Another granted wish were the opportunities to network offered by the university: in class, in networking events, career events or my own efforts, as I had long dreamed of being able to do this. My undergraduate studies in Denmark offered similar opportunities, but these were hindered by my lack of acquaintance with the language.
Learning about value and power
Even though my previous background in marketing communications had acquainted me with some principles of new media and social media and I can feel these media’s power on my own skin, this past year I’ve learned more about the mechanics behind it. So that in order to create value in this social era, you need to stop thinking that the consumer is just the person at the end of the value chain. He is a co-creator now, he is part of a community that, if utilised properly with permission, can help your company grow. The social era is the time when how we organise, deliver and connect is changing and where innovation happens openly (Merchant, 2012).
Learning that school kills creativity…does it?
Following Sir Ken Robinson’s (2012)
TED Talk about the fact that educational curricula and systems tend to suppress creativity within people by placing the accent on traditional subjects like maths and literature, I was at a loss for a bit as to my reason for being still in university after 16 years of education. In the end, Khan Academy (n.d.)
can offer education for whatever you are passionate about, for free. So why do we spend so much time in educational institutions, for a paper we receive at the end? But soon I realised, it’s for the social interaction. We need to be around people, to learn from others, both tutors and classmates, in order to be ready to go forward. As for killing creativity, maybe some schools/universities do, maybe most of them do, but there are some exceptions worth the while like the MACE course. Because in the framework it was allowed to work, MACE encouraged, challenged, disputed creativity, ideas, theories and outcomes. So I think it was worth it.
I can’t say I learned everything about design thinking, or about management and leadership, I can’t say I’ve decided on a definition and a list of the creative industries. I probably never will. But I can say one thing: I have learned about myself through learning about life and this is the most practical and valuable lesson I could take away.
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Idoughi, D., et al. (2011) Adding user experience into the interactive service design loop: a persona-based approach. Behaviour & Information Technology, 31 (3), p.287-303.
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