Design Leadership Conference 2018— Incredibly Inspiring

6 min readOct 17, 2018


This time last week, I was just beginning to come to terms with what had been an incredibly surreal experience after I had been selected as a Student Essay Winner to attend the Design Management Institute’s Design Leadership Conference in Boston. It was a wonderful opportunity and one that has left me buzzing with new ideas, direction and hope. I think two days of meeting some of the most inspiring minds in design and design management from around the world for a range of talks, panels, thought provoking workshops and deeply meaningful discussions can do that to you. It’s hard to summarize everything that I experienced, but here are some of the highlights that I found really meaningful.

We kicked things off with the student winners breakfast, a discussion filled with great advice from Ernesto Quinteros (Chief Design Officer, J&J) and Bob Schwartz (GM Global Design, GE Healthcare). Picture Credit — JiaYing Chew

Kwame Nyanning — “Butterfly of Death”

I’m starting the highlights with Kwame’s description of the “butterfly of death” because it is so fundamental to every design process. The double diamond process is something almost everyone who knows about design is aware of, but what people don’t realize enough is how the two phases that cause the most discomfort (as shown in the image above) are also the phases where projects can fizzle out and die because of our inability to deal with the discomfort. In order for design to deliver value, navigating these two phases are key and I loved that it was described so succinctly.

Kwame is currently in the middle of some exciting times with Design at McKinsey and I’m excited to see what the final outcome is.

Velvette DeLaney — “Landfill is a choice”

The idea of design decisions having consequences that are either unintended or simply ignored is something that’s been resonating a lot with me lately. It is a topic I hope to explore further and Velvette’s talk related to designing for sustainability touched on some fascinating points. As the image above indicates in no ambiguous terms, 80% of the environmental impact is determined by decisions that we, the designers, make. If at the end of a product’s life, it ends up in a landfill with components that are unlikely to break down for decades or even centuries, that is a choice that we are making. How do we fix this?

“Our design (and production) choices must go beyond the accolades and consider the entire impact of our design decisions”

In addition, Velvette and DewDropStudios are developing an incredible software tool focused on designing for sustainability. I look forward to seeing it in action soon and helping designers everywhere make better choices with the materials and production processes they use. You can find out more from Velvette at @dewdropstudios on Twitter.

John Maeda — “Strive to be the best supporting actress/actor”

Picture credit: DMI Flickr Page

During his thoroughly engaging keynote on Inclusive Design Leadership in Tech, John Maeda touched upon this concept of how, as designers, we shouldn’t be so stuck on “design led” paradigms in our organizations. Instead, we can maximize the impact we have, not by being the heroes in the story, but rather by striving to be the best possible in a supporting role. The way I interpret it, it’s in this role in which doing a stellar job that supports and enhances those around is the ultimate goal and is a win-win for everyone involved — and I think this should be a mantra for many designers. You can read more about this on John’s site.

The keynote also included this fabulous quote that I can’t help but include among my highlights.

“It’s a terrible problem you (designers) all have. You can’t help but notice that the world is interesting”

Linda Quarles — “You cannot outsource belief”

Having worked as a design consultant for a few years, I’ve seen first hand, the sometimes adversarial relationship between designers and their clients, particularly when clients don’t want to do something that the designers are excited about. Frog Design’s Linda Quarles’ talk on “Using New Product Innovation to Drive Organizational Change” provided some fantastic points on how a good designer can deal with these situations in a way that is beneficial for everyone.

The two takeaways that stand out for me as particularly significant from personal experience would be stakeholder empathy and being politically savvy. The latter is something that isn’t fun to deal with but is a reality, and as Linda crucially highlights, navigating the politics with patience and resilience is a key skill for any designer to have. For a very cool sketch summary of the talk, Linda has linked to the one created by fellow student winner Nakia Shelton below.

Rama Gheerawo — “Don’t Design a Toaster”

Picture Credit — JiaYing Chew

I decided to save Rama’s talk for last because his was likely the most impactful keynote for me. It was titled “Finding Opportunities for Innovation in Emerging Technologies” and given it’s an area I’m particularly interested in having worked with AR/VR lately, I was excited. However, his talk wasn’t the usual spiel on emerging tech that I went in expecting as the things he discussed and the work he described, opened my mind to possibilities beyond anything I had ever imagined. Whether it’s dealing with hopes and fears around AI, improving lives with VR based therapy, mindful vocal technology or even something as astonishing as using emerging tech to try and prevent suicides, I think it’s fair to say that my jaw was well and truly on the floor by the end of his talk.

Rather than describe the contents further, I’m just going to share two of his quotes that really make it clear what the underlying principles need to be when it comes to inclusive design with emerging tech. These have truly inspired me to rethink my own paradigms around emerging tech and embrace the possibilities.

“I’m allergic to personas, there are 7 billion real people out there, go find a real one, you don’t need a fake one”

In addition to doing incredibly inspiring work, Rama was kind enough to invite all the student winners to attend a second talk of his, as well as a paid workshop he was conducting, for free. You can find more about Rama and the work he’s doing with RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Center for Design on Twitter (@RamaGheerawo).

These were but a few highlights that were really meaningful to me over the course of the conference. I would be here for a long time if I were to include everything, whether it was Cheryl Heller on Social Design or Mark Wolfe on UX or any of the other amazing speakers and workshop hosts.

So instead, I’d like to conclude by thanking DMI (especially Carole and Patricia) for selecting me as a student essay winner and providing the incredible opportunity to attend this conference. I even had a couple of design fanboy moments when I met Bob Schwartz and Dori Tunstall in particular, as I knew of both of them from the amazing work they did but to interact with them and get advice from them, I don’t think I’ve been able to fully process that it happened yet. I think it goes without saying, but the learning and connections made over the duration of the conference will have a lasting impact on me. I’m really looking forward to renewing this dose of inspiration by attending the next DMI conference in London in April next year.

Picture Credit — JiaYing Chew




Education Designer, Design Strategist, Feminist, Leftist, Traveler, Foodie, Polyglot, Arsenal