George Joseph is currently a Communication Designer with IDEO, the famed design and innovation studio. When George decided to pursue design as a career, little did he know how designers earned a living, much less how they impact our everyday lives, and never did he anticipate he would join the prestigious studio right out of university. I sat down with him to discuss how he put himself out there and took many shots into the dark to get to where he is today.
For easy reading, my questions are in Italics, and George’s answers are in regular.
How would you describe yourself?
My name is George, and I’m 26 years old. I have lived in multiple places and have been with IDEO for four years with the last two years here in Singapore. At IDEO, we aim to create impact through design. I can’t imagine working in another place right now.
What made you decide to pursue design as a career?
I started by fooling around with design at 10th or 11th grade using Microsoft Paint, and I kept doing more and more. I kept asking people if I could do stuff for them; I made posters, album covers for my brother’s band, designed an entire school magazine. I clearly had an eye for it; people complimented my work and gave me more. Putting work out there and getting positive feedback did something for me.
It was tough when I told my parents that I wanted to do design. It seemed more like a hobby – something I found pleasure in. I couldn’t prove it could lead me anywhere, it was hard for my parents to believe it would lead me to success. Typical of growing up in Asia, parents and society had certain expectations of what will lead to a good life. At that point, everyone was talking about engineering. It didn’t help that my teachers told my parents, if I didn’t pull up my socks, I won’t be successful. I had many debates with my mom in the car where she would say, “What’s wrong with engineering and finding a stable career?”
“What’s wrong with engineering and finding a stable career?”
What did you do then?
I wasn’t adept in math and physics – I didn’t learn that way. It came to a point my parents figured engineering was not it, “This kid isn’t doing well in subjects important for engineering. If he wants to pursue something creative, why won't he go into a more stable creative field like architecture? We can deal with that.”
I didn’t want to disappoint my parents so I applied to architecture schools and design schools. In the end, I was accepted to one of each. Finally, it was crunch time; I only had a week to make a final decision. It was extremely stressful because I really wanted to do design but my parents wanted architecture. My saving grace was our neighbours. The neighbours, husband and wife, are both practising designers. They seemed successful – both made a living from design and one of them even owned a company. The wife sat down with my parents and showed them that design is a good decision. She became the “voice of reason” for them and eased their nervousness. At the end of the day, my parents only wanted the best for me. They just needed affirmation that I will be ok. When I entered design school, I showed them my work and how happy I was working on it, they saw a transformation in me.
How did you learn about IDEO?
In the second year of design school, we started to learn how drawing and painting skills are used as tools to solve problems, there are practical applications that make a difference in people’s lives. I went to a couple of conferences to see how people are using design in the world. My dad was also reading and learning more about design to help me find my way, based on things he and I valued. He introduced the book, “The Art of Innovation” by Tom Kelley, who is a partner at IDEO. My dad said, “If you are going to join a company, you should join this one.” I read it and was hooked.
In my third year, we had to do a one-month internship. I asked one of my faculty members, if I applied to IDEO (which only had minimum three-month internships), and if I got in, could I skip classes and go? He rained on my parade and just laughed. That killed the idea and I didn’t apply, but I was determined to prove to him I could get into a company like IDEO. My plan was to do a postgrad right after graduating, then gain experience in companies similar to IDEO. Finally, I would apply to the company with some experience under my belt.
Then unexpectedly in my final year, my roommate and best friend got into IDEO for our final year six-months placement. No one anticipated a kid from the outskirts in India, in a brand new, unknown school could get in. He encouraged me to apply, and why not. I went for it and took the shot in the dark. In the end, two best friends from this unknown school in India got into the company we were both dying to work at.
And did the internship lead to a permanent job with IDEO?
Not at all. But getting that internship did throw my original plans out the window. Now that I’m here, should I continue my plan to go into postgrad? Andréa, my mentor during the internship with IDEO Munich, gave invaluable advice – you’ll learn so much more from designing real products and services than from doing a postgrad degree and working on hypothetical cases. When I finished the internship and returned to India to graduate, she did an amazing thing by writing a recommendation letter to the director of IDEO’s newly opened Mumbai office. Although they weren’t looking for anyone, that letter got my name in their radar. It eventually led to another internship, and then a job with them.
What do you think contributed to this series of unexpected events?
Taking shots into the dark can lead to totally unanticipated places. It may sound opportunistic and random, but it’s not. I put information out into the world, or things I think I’m interested in. By just telling people things that you care about, the chances of opportunities happening become higher, it’s not random. If there’s something that you’re interested in, just tell people or apply to that company you don’t think you can get into. Take chances, you never know if something’s possible until you try it.
We go through an ambiguous and uncomfortable journey for every project in IDEO. We set out on the journey excited, then we drop into a rabbit hole, self-doubt creeps in with questions like why are we doing this, will we manage to do anything interesting. We always trust that by spending time speaking with people and listening to them, we can design opportunities to help them. This is the journey every time. It applies to work, life or relationships. You need to have faith that you will come out with a strong opinion on what to do. Having that experience once or twice in my life, I believe in it.
Examples are also very important, like what that neighbour aunty was for me. One of my proudest moments was being able to be an example for my younger cousin who wanted to be a game designer. I became the “voice of reason” for his parents to allow him to pursue that career. If there’s a possibility to make a living from something you enjoy – why not? And when people do what makes them happy, they will be more willing to find jobs that pay them well and give them the satisfaction, they won’t settle for just ok. They will read more, practice more, push more, and that will lead them to a better place.
What are you interested in doing right now?
I’m now part of a project to design a new school from scratch. I had good experiences in school but there are so many aspects of a school that were frustrating. I've always wondered if our education systems are turning obsolete, or if there are ways to set kids up better for their futures.
Again, I couldn’t have predicted this opportunity would happen. I had this gripe with the world of education and always had a grand ambition to one-day redesign schools. A couple of years ago in Munich, I shared my thoughts and interest with IDEO’s global head of education. We became work friends and kept in touch. When this project came up in Singapore, she invited me to join the meeting and made sure I was part of the team. Now we are speaking with experts in different countries to design a school for kids of the future. It’s not a local problem, it’s a global problem; I hope to create a new school in one city that might set an example for others.
Big thanks to George for sharing his story!
Also, watch his talk on CreativeMornings last year about how his early experiences shaped his work.
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