The Power of Good Design

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As the words of Simon Sinek suggest, understanding the essence of WHY individuals or organizations do what they do is the most important element. It’s not WHAT you do, or WHO you are, it’s about having the right foresight and a plot focused on inspiration and purpose. He states “We embrace beliefs, not because they’re necessarily better, but because they represent values that are important to us. They make us feel like we belong.”

Recently I was stunned by an experience that made me stop and pause. I wondered why my perspective was so different than the one being presented in front of me. It transpired when I attended a fundraising gala for a local public-school district. After the Keynote speaker, the Superintendent began speaking about the new College and Career Readiness rooms being provided in each of the District’s high schools. He discussed their immense value, providing all students access to resources and guidance for their lives beyond high school. He had me hooked and fully invested in the belief that the District was making sure that their students’ possibilities became realities. That is, until he clarified something. When showing photos of the newly completed spaces, he went on almost apologetically to say, that even though the rooms look nice they didn’t spend too much money creating them. I wondered why was he professing their value and undermining their worth in the same breath.

Being a passionate proponent, strongly believing in the power of design and the impact it has on the world, I sat there with my jaw open. I wondered why he was justifying the great influence the rooms were making on the school community, and in the same moment was being humble and penitent about spending money to create them. Why at a fundraiser did he feel that he needed to defend the costs of thoughtful design that crafted the right environment for the program? This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the notion that design comes with an expensive price tag. It goes hand in hand with other comments I’ve heard from educators, such as “we want to improve the space, but don’t make it look too nice.”

Good design needn’t be associated with high costs, fruitless niceties, or extras. Some of the most powerful, well designed items are utilitarian and many organizations today recognize how when done well, design can impact the bottom line. “Good Design is Good Business” was a declaration made by IBM’s CEO Watson Jr, in 1973 at a lecture to the University of Pennsylvania, and continues to be a cornerstone belief for IBM for more than a century. When Ginny Rometty, IBM’s current Chairman, President, and CEO wrote about modernizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, she spoke of P-Tech and a new education vision designed to prepare American students for 21st Century jobs. “America’s workforce must be equipped with the skills high-tech employers are looking for, particularly in the STEM areas. We must align education and training with the evolving needs of the American economy to close the skills gap, connect high schools with post-secondary education, create quality jobs, boost productivity and prepare our nation’s youth to succeed in a new era of technology.” In the P-Tech model, the school experience was redesigned from a curriculum standpoint and equally as important, the spaces contained within the building are needing to support learners in a different way than they did in 1973 and a century ago.

Good design involves problem solving, innovation, doing things different than done before, sparking improvement, and anticipating what the horizon has in store. Well thought out design can influence the experience of the people who use the space, can create a sense of place, and provide a sense of pride over a person’s value in the space, not to mention impact one’s daily experiences. Good design can be democratic and enjoyed by anyone. It involves optimism, many perspectives, and empathy to find the greatest solutions.

The best acknowledgement of the night came when a student commented that because a little bit of attention was paid to the rooms, she felt like someone cared about her. She understood my WHY after spending time in the space that was created with a single purpose – make things better and put the learner first. Thankfully these students have a place that supports and inspires them to become art advocates, nonprofit leaders, governors, business owners, or F-16 pilots.

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