I never thought I’d go back to school. But as I near the completion of my MBA, I couldn’t be more excited about my future possibilities. With an undergraduate in graphic design, I happily worked as a designer for years. I had passion for the profession and believed in the power of design. But after running my own successful design studio in San Francisco for over 10 years, something changed. The economy tanked, business was not great, and, more importantly, my passion faded.
I knew it was time for a change. After much soul searching, my business partner and I made the decision to close our studio. In addition to the challenging economic times, we realized we were moving in separate directions and neither one of us was entirely happy. Over a number of months we laid off our last employee and closed out our remaining projects. It was a bit of a scary time, but I knew it was the right thing to do. I retained a few clients so I could continue to have income while I figured out my next move. I wasn’t sure what that next move would be until I found the MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. The DMBA, as it’s known, is a fairly new program that seeks to prepare the next generation of innovation leaders for a world that is profitable, sustainable, and ethical. A business school within an art school? Really? The DMBA combines design (design thinking and design process), sustainability (and systems thinking) and business (particularly new approaches to management, leadership and economics). It was instantly clear that this was where I needed to be.
As I mentioned, I never planned on going back to school and I was not looking for MBA programs. I was intuitively searching for the intersection of design and business, and I found it at the DMBA. As I already lived in San Francisco, the choice to apply was even easier. In addition, the low-residency format makes it possible to continue working while in the program. I was accepted into the third cohort of this unique program and jumped in with both feet.
Much of the work in the program is team-based and focuses on working with real businesses, not just case studies (although there are plenty of those too). The solutions we create rely on user-centered research, prototyping, critique, and iteration. Traditional business and organizational issues such as finance, economics, operations and marketing are also covered but always incorporating design approaches and processes.
On the cusp of graduation, I can reflect on some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned.
Being in school is fun.
I’d been a teacher more recently than a student, and I forgot how much I enjoyed being surrounded by smart, creative individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds who share a passion for making the world a better place. It’s also a lot of work, but digging into self-defined projects has been exciting and rewarding in a way that client-defined projects seldom were. Whether concepting business-model innovations for AT&T or figuring out a way to bring solar lighting to one-million Africans by the end of 2013, school is a safe space to explore new interactions and solutions that, often, aren’t enabled by many organizations’ day-to-day requirements. My passion is back as I learn to apply my design skills in a business context.
Design-business experience is relevant.
I wasn’t sure how a graphic design background would play-out in business school, but much of my experience has been highly relevant—I just needed to look at it from a new perspective. Running a design studio gave me first-hand experience in standard business-school material such as accounting, finance and entrepreneurship. And my design education and work experience set me up for the innovative, design and integrative thinking component that’s unique to the DMBA.
Having the degree is important.
There are those who’ve said I could have just read some great business books and not gone back to school. I’ve learned a lot in school that I probably wouldn’t have learned on my own, and, aside from the incredible experience I’ve had in the program, having an MBA makes a statement. It gives traditional thinkers who might not believe that “just” a graphic designer could help innovate their business the confidence to work with me. And it’s giving me confidence that I can step into this new world, speak the language and make a real difference.
Design is the future of business.
Kind of a big statement, but after spending two years in the DMBA, I believe it’s true. In the business world, successful strategies favor innovation and sustainability. The processes, unique collaborative and empathetic skills and perspectives that designers bring are invaluable to this approach. In the end, I’ll have an MBA, but I’m still a designer, although my definition of what it means to be a designer has greatly expanded. It now encompasses all of my classmates, whether they come from finance, nonprofit or traditional design backgrounds like me. I don’t yet know exactly what I’ll be doing after graduation — whether I’ll open another business, get a full-time job, or operate as a consultant — but I see a world of opportunities to work collaboratively at the intersection of design, business and sustainability to make a greater impact and create positive change in the world.