What We Should Be Doing

So I watched a talk by Aaron Draplin today at work. It was part of the 2012 Brand New Conference, which is held in New York City once a year and is hosted by Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio, the fine folks who run Brand New, a logo and branding blog known throughout the design community for it’s insightful critique of new logos and the resulting…let’s call it “lively”…comments section. While my colleagues and I are not able to travel to NYC to attend the day-long conference, videos of each speaker are made available and we usually purchase the video package and watch a video here and there throughout the year.

It’s hard to know how to describe Aaron Draplin. He’s pretty much the exact opposite of what you expect a “rock star” designer to look like. He’s a “large” man with a big, out-of-control beard and is usually seen wearing a Carhart jacket, jeans and a trucker hat. He swears like a sailor, so if you watch his videos at work, I recommend headphones…unless you work in a design studio…in which case you probably already know who Aaron Draplin is and are waiting for me to get to the damn point already.

Aaron Draplin Photo by David Nakamoto

Aaron Draplin
Photo by David Nakamoto

The point is, Aaron Draplin is one of the most passionate, inspiring designers out there right now. Once you get past the swearing and the mildly abrasive personality, that man is absolutely in love with design. He loves it with every fiber of his being. You can feel it with the force of his personality and the fire in his voice. It’s in his blood. Some of his projects pay thousands of dollars. Some of them pay nothing. He doesn’t care. He redesigned a logo for his friend’s hot dog cart out of the goodness of his heart. The logo is flawless. He clearly spent a lot of time on it. For what? For the love of it. Aaron Draplin wouldn’t stop designing if you paid him a million dollars.

So what? Isn’t this blog about a girl leaving behind the wild world of design for the sober, right-angled, left-brained world of engineering? It is. Don’t worry. I haven’t changed my mind. What I’m getting at here is that when you watch Aaron Draplin talk, you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was born to be a designer. Design is what he should be doing, and the world is a better place because of it.

So what should we be doing? What should I be doing? I asked myself that question a lot when I was contemplating a career change. And honestly, I probably asked myself that question even as I was in art school and starting out as a designer. Is this the right thing for me to be giving back to the world? Is the world a better place because I’m doing this?

Mind you, I think this is different than pursuing your passion. Or at least it can be. I think it’s about doing the thing that will have the most positive impact on yourself, your community, or if you really want to go big, on humanity, given your unique skills, intellect and personality. That’s a mouthful. Let’s unpack. I, for example, enjoy design. I actually think I’m fairly good at it. I don’t, however, have the personality necessary to get out there and grab hold of the kinds of projects that I think would really make an impact in my community or the world.

Circling back to engineering (I promised it would happen). Raise your hand if you’ve heard the acronym “S.T.E.M.” If you haven’t raised your hand, possibly you’ve been living under a rock. Come on out! It’s spring! STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and it’s been a huge buzzword in politics, business and education for a number of years – The U.S. is falling behind in STEM! U.S. students aren’t pursuing STEM careers! There’s a shortage of qualified STEM employees! China and India are surging ahead of the U.S. in STEM fields! How can we get girls interested in STEM?

Apparently the Girl Scouts have STEM-related badges now. Not gonna lie – that's pretty cool.

Apparently the Girl Scouts have STEM-related badges now? Not gonna lie – that’s pretty cool.

What this all boils down to is that, for myriad reasons, the United States isn’t keeping up with the rest of the world when it comes to science and math education and advancement, and as a result, we risk being left in the dust by China and India and other up-and-coming countries.

And let me tell you, we have a lot of challenges ahead. Overpopulation, climate change, water shortages, oil scarcity and more. These challenges won’t be easy to solve, and they will require people who are good at science, technology, engineering and math.

All this was swirling around in my head as I was considering whether or not I had a future as a designer. Even President Obama was launching a White House initiative to get more American students interested in science and math, especially girls. I kept hearing this tiny voice in the back of my head, whispering, “Psst!! You’re good at math, you know. You love math. You’re not too shabby at science, either. And by the way, you’re also a girl. A girl who loves math and is good at math. They need you.”

Obama getting his science on with middle-school girls. Photo by Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

Obama getting his science on with middle-school girls.
Photo by Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

More and more, I had a nagging feeling that I was taking this gift that I had, this skill that was so desperately needed in my society, and just wasting it. These problems, these huge problems that needed solving, problems that I very much wanted to be a part of solving, were all just hanging out there and I knew could be in the trenches helping – and I was doing nothing.

So I decided to do something. I decided to do the thing that will have the biggest impact on the world given my unique skills, intellect and personality. Science, technology, engineering and math are what I should be doing. And with any luck, the world will be a better place because of it.

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