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“You are never stuck”: How to find job satisfaction in an age of upheaval

June 16, 2020, 10:59 AM UTC

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I’ve often noted in this space that the words “design” and “design thinking” can mean different things to different people. In a business context, the terms often imply a problem-solving process focused on customers—one that involves gaining deeper insight into customer needs or desires in order to develop or improve a particular product or service.

But what if you were to turn the focus of that process inwards and use the techniques of designers and design thinkers to figure out your own life?

Two California professors asked that question over lunch some years back and the result was “Designing Your Life,” a course that went on to become the most popular elective at Stanford University and, in 2016, a best-selling book: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.

Designing Your Life began as a way of helping students of Stanford’s multidisciplinary design program map out their careers. It morphed into a project with grander aspirations. The professors, Silicon Valley design veterans Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, argued that design can help students figure out not just what, but who they want to be when they grow up.

Burnett and Evans were both trained as engineers. But they argued that life is a problem better suited to the methods of designers than engineers because it is one for which there is no precedent, no predetermined outcome, and no one right answer.

“Design doesn’t just work for creating cool stuff like computers and Ferraris; it works in creating a cool life,” they promised. “You can use design thinking to create a life that is meaningful, joyful, and fulfilling. It doesn’t matter who you are or were, what you do or did for a living, how young or old you are—you can use the same thinking that created the most amazing technology, products, and spaces to design your career and your life. A well-designed life is a life that is generative—it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise.”

In February, as the coronavirus reached the U.S., Burnett and Evans published a follow-up, Designing Your Work Life: How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work. The new book strikes a far less ebullient tone than the first—and feels in places like a grim survival guide for readers clinging to bad jobs in an increasingly precarious economy.

Not all of us can “run off and become a scuba instructor in Bimini,” the authors acknowledge.

Burnett and Evans also concede the turbulence of our globalized, digitized age. “The workplace isn’t just changing—it’s restructuring. The Gig Economy, artificial intelligence, and The Robots aren’t coming, they’re already here and they’re poised to reshape everything we think we know about work.” And that was before the U.S. economy was ravaged by a pandemic, the biggest collapse in employment since the Great Depression, and weeks of protests against racism.

The authors end on a hopeful note. “Our core message is the same,” they write. “You are the creative designer of your life…. You are never stuck. Perhaps paused on occasion, but never stuck… The truth is Life Design is always a work in progress.”

That’s a very California state of mind. But perhaps it’s one that resonates in this moment of economic and political upheaval.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler


Ralph Caplan

Design critic Ralph Caplan, who began his career in design with a quick rise to editor of Industrial Design in 1959, died June 5 at the age of 95. The New York Times describes him as “big on sit-ins,” saying Caplan viewed the act of civil disobedience as the “most emblematic and successful design of the 20th century.”

Good game

In a world first, the FDA authorized the first prescription video game for children with ADHD. The game, Endeavor RX, underwent seven years of clinical trials to determine whether it was any use as a prescriptive measure. The FDA will allow doctors to prescribe the mobile game to children between the ages of 8 and 12.

Pay me

The world is going cashless but not everyone is on board. Designing the systems to ease the transition can be difficult. For a case study, here’s how HSBC used design thinking to develop its Venmo-like app, PayMe, in Hong Kong. As a resident, I can say Hong Kong lags far behind the rest of the world on digital payments. Cash reigns supreme.


The world’s first fully transparent surgical mask, designed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne and Swiss Materials Lab EMPA, is entering mass production. Traditional, opaque masks hide a lot of facial features; that presents a communication issue for the deaf community and can sometimes make patients feel uncomfortable.


June: The month-long London Festival of Architecture is running a stripped back event online this year, with the core public program moved to (hopefully) later this year. The San Francisco Design Week, which started June 15, has gone digital too

July: Christie’s is planning a semi-virtual auction for July 10. The “first of its kind” event will livestream auctions from four cities—Hong Kong, New York, Paris and London; D&AD’s New Blood Festival—a celebration of upcoming talent in design—will be running online this year, July 6-10. The digital festival marks New Blood’s 40th anniversary.

September: Art Basel in Switzerland—initially rescheduled from June to September—has been cancelled, set to return in June 2021.

Ongoing: Dezeen’s Virtual Design Festival has been extended to July 10


A friend of mine recently stayed at the beautifully designed and wonderfully repurposed TWA Hotel at JFK Airport, New York. The hotel was once an airport terminal, designed by Eero Saarinen in the 1960s, but was decommissioned in 2001.

The iconic building was retired because planes simply grew too large for the chic terminal to handle. In a great article outlining the multiple challenges and shortfalls in airport design, Anthony Paletta writes in Citylab that many airports “were myopically focused on practices of a given moment, frequently favoring whatever airline was dominant at a facility precisely then.”

The often short-term focus of airport design has left them vulnerable to a range of societal changes: the collapse of individual airlines; sweeping security measures implemented after 9/11; the proliferation of Uber; and, of course, COVID-19.

As travel very tentatively begins to resume across the world, the way people use airports is going to change. Not all airports have the structural design to neatly accommodate that change, creating a unique challenge for managers to repurpose interior space. Some airports might become obsolete; future designs will need to be more adaptable.


“I believe that if you care about addressing the barriers that have kept America’s Black and Brown communities from closing the wealth and income gaps, the much more important and impactful position is the secretary of the Treasury.”

Kneeland Youngblood, founding partner and chairman of Pharos Capital Group, makes a compelling argument for how appointing a person of color to the role of Treasury Secretary could have a major impact in redress the structural economic issues facing non-white Americans. Youngblood’s argument is a semi-counter to a campaign for Biden to nominate a black vice presidential running mate.

This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him at