Harish Venkatesan co-founded Designlab in 2012. In the past year, the company has begun to scale up – expanding its core staff from 3 to 12, growing its mentor base to 400 designers, and serving over a thousand students around the world in 2016. I talked to Harish about what motivated him to start Designlab, the mission and values that drive the company’s work today, and where he sees the future of design education
Hey Harish! I’d love to learn more about the story of Designlab. But before that, tell me where the company is at now. What is Designlab’s mission?
Our goal is to empower driven people to do the work they love. A huge part of people’s lives are spent working. Studies have found that even when people no longer need to work for a living, they continue to spend their time working by choice. Work can be so much more than a way to eke out a living and get by. At its best and most aspirational, work is a vehicle to find purpose, autonomy, and flow.
What do you mean by flow?
Something really magical happens when you immerse yourself in challenging work that you love and have some skill at. The hours fly by and you seem to lose yourself in that pursuit: for some, this is a sign that they have found their life’s vocation. We want to enable as many people as possible, worldwide, to find that feeling through their work. We want to help them to discover purposeful work that they love, and to build the skills they need to be great at it.
So how did you get the idea for Designlab?
I grew up in the Bay Area in the 90s, the center of the technology world, and I’ve always been fascinated how products (in all their forms) can improve people’s lives. After graduating college, I worked with a few startups and found myself constantly needing to learn new skills — ranging from customer development, through iOS coding, to product management. What I’d studied in college wasn’t nearly enough for on-the-job work, and I was struck by the need for continual learning. Free tutorials and websites were a big help, and I found that by doing extensive research and seeking help from friends and mentors, I could learn pretty much anything and put it into practice.
A couple of years after we’d both left college, I met up with Daniel Shapiro, who became my co-founder at Designlab. We started work on a side project based around a simple idea: that all the information already exists out there, just in poorly organized, poorly findable forms. We thought that we could solve this by building a platform to help experts curate learning pathways for learners to find and follow. Daniel learned core technical implementation and back-end skills, while I focused on my front-end programming and design chops. Through tutorials and sites like StackOverflow, we had a pretty smooth time building up our coding skills.
As time went on, I found myself wanting to get sharper on the design side. Back in 2012, I found there was a real lack of ways to improve my design skills online, so I went to a bookstore one day to browse for options — and bought this book called Creative Workshop. It was basically a set of practical exercises to help you improve as a designer. However, what I really wanted was some feedback after I’d sketched a design, and it seemed really apparent that this book should be an online platform – a community of learners creating projects, getting feedback on their work, and improving their skills. That was sort of an “aha” moment.
With this concept sketched out, we launched a landing page to gauge the viability of the idea (in true “lean startup” style). A day later, we were looking at a list of 10,000 email addresses – clear validation that people were interested in a new way of learning design skills. Daniel and I spent our nights and weekends on Designlab as a side project over the next few months. We got into Techstars (a startup incubator) in late 2013, which gave us a bit of seed funding and enabled us to focus on the company full-time. In the years since then, we’ve developed the product from a set of exercises delivered via email, to a full-fledged education platform with one-to-one mentoring and career services. But as the product has developed, our primary focus – building an online product which helps people to learn design or improve their skills – has never shifted.
Has that online focus been a challenge? I guess Designlab’s students and mentors are connected 100% remotely. Has that been difficult? Or an opportunity?
Building a community is challenging in any context. This is definitely amplified in an online setting, where it’s both extra important and extra difficult to create a strong group experience. Online courses — even short, lightweight ones — tend to isolate the student at their computer, both physically and pedagogically. A program that is longer, more intensive, and more demanding would feel pretty bleak without significant peer support and networking. In developing Designlab, we’ve spent a lot of time engineering a platform with features that foster inclusion and and a sense of solidarity and shared purpose amongst students.
Can you tell me more about those features? What is it about the platform that ensures students don’t become isolated?
When thinking about how we support the Designlab community, we focus on three main areas – first, having a quality bar for students who want to enroll; second, setting norms for interactions within the community; and third, monitoring feedback and responding promptly when there are problems.
The quality bar for students – how does that work? Is there an application process?
We have an admissions process for our most challenging program, UX Academy. When students apply to UXA, we look for evidence of a solid work ethic, a background or strong interest in design, and good communication skills. We believe that this process ensures students are working with talented and enthusiastic peers who have something special to contribute. We also vet mentors thoroughly before they join Designlab based on their design background and expertise — and we follow up with this through regular monitoring of feedback (more on this below).
And you mentioned norms for interaction within the Designlab community. How formal is that? Is there a code of practice?
As the community has grown, I think both students and mentors have come to recognise what kind of communication and interaction is valuable, and how to build up one another's skills and confidence. In turn, this has given us as founders the confidence to articulate guidelines for community interaction — you can see examples of this in our articles about how to provide good critique, our new mentor performance guidelines (see below), and the onboarding communication we send to new students about engaging with their mentors. We've found that setting out these expectations, and modeling the behaviors with the Designlab team, helps students and mentors to learn best practices, and we’re increasingly receiving feedback that these soft skills are beneficial to our graduates in the jobs they get after the course.
As for managing feedback, what kind of issues does Designlab deal with day to day? And how do you resolve them?
We undertake ongoing monitoring of the feedback students submit about their mentors, and we strive to be ultra-responsive in any support issues that are raised — either by mentors or students. We hope this means that, on the one hand, students feel secure that any difficulties with mentors will be appropriately managed; and on the other hand, that mentors have the opportunity to receive ongoing performance appraisal from their students and use that information to improve the service they offer.
We also hope that the availability of Designlab’s support team means that both students and mentors know that we will be there as soon as they need help. In turn, this creates a sense of safety and trust on the platform. An advantage of the online medium is that we also have the opportunity to monitor any negative or harmful behavior and take action to resolve it immediately. In a conventional offline college setting, negative behavior can be trickier to handle because boundaries between the personal and the educational are less clear.
Does feedback from the community drive changes to the product itself?
Yes – with our product focus, we naturally have a very design-minded community. We’ve been extremely open to feedback from both mentors and students since our inception — continually listening, asking for areas for improvement, and building out our roadmap partly based on this insight. We encourage students and mentors to have a voice and take ownership in what we’re building. So from that standpoint, it certainly feels like students take pride in belonging to our program and seeing the steady improvement over time. We truly believe our community is helping us co-create the product and experience, and we’re really grateful for that.
As Designlab's student and mentor community has grown, what values have emerged?
We have a couple of core principles that drive our work. Above all, we believe that we are all capable of much more than we think. We live in a world of possibilities, yet we all tend to place artificial limits on ourselves. We all therefore need empowerment to be who we want to be, and the autonomy to excel.
Second, we believe that people are most fulfilled when overcoming challenges. Constantly pushing beyond your comfort zone is the surest way to feel rewarded, both in the moment, and after accomplishing something. You will have loads of fun in the process, and break through to somewhere new with a fresh perspective and an enhanced set of skills.
So, empowerment, autonomy, and challenges – how are these values reflected in the Designlab’s product? And in the team that run the company?
Empowerment: We have Student Advocates (current students who volunteer to manage the UX Academy Slack community) and Critique Leaders (who facilitate our Group Crits). We’ve discovered that talented people find their ways to more responsibility, and all of these people are drawn from our student community. We’ve been impressed by their efforts to improve the experience and help other students. In our UX Academy admissions process, we make sure to select committed, driven individuals who are clearly interested in working hard to master new skills.
In terms of the Designlab team, we’ve been fortunate to attract extremely growth-minded individuals — people who are driven to push their own comfort zones, learn new skills, and continually try new things they might fail at. Some of our best features (like Group Crits, conceived by mentor Patrick Multani) have been side projects started by people who had the idea and ran with it.
Autonomy: Our curriculum is designed to give students increasing autonomy as they go through the courses — to allow students to make more decisions about their work and treat it as their own. At the same time, we encourage students and mentors to adapt the coursework to their needs, which helps them feel further invested in the program and the skills they’re acquiring.
The team running Designlab has a flexible, remote culture: we travel and work from anywhere. As founders, we trust our team to make their own decisions about how they spend their time. The quality of their output matters far more than their location or the time they spend working. In our hiring process to date, we’ve always started working with people on a part-time basis — allowing an organic relationship to grow and individuals to ramp up their efforts if they decide it’s valuable enough for them.
Challenge: There’s no doubt that our coursework is considered challenging and time-intensive, and this is by design. We believe that the magic happens just outside one’s comfort zone — that’s where you’re pushed to continually grow. For example, some students initially find that participating in online hangouts and Group Crits is firmly outside of their comfort zone. But in alumni feedback, we hear time and again about how students came to recognize the value of sharing and discussing their work, and in time embraced those opportunities for feedback.
Designlab staff set hard goals for themselves — whether in terms of increasing student satisfaction with quicker customer support, or growing the community while keeping product quality high — and relish the process of making those things come to life. Recently we invested in an overhaul of our student-to-mentor feedback process, and we published a detailed product update about that to explain our process to the community.
We’ve been working on the Designlab product and the Designlab company in parallel — with similar values and ideals impacting our decision-making on both sides. We hope that our growth as a team will continue to mirror the growth that students and mentors experience during their time with us.
Finally, let’s looks to the future. The education marketplace is changing rapidly, particularly for providers of online training, and even more particularly in the shifting discipline of design. What challenges and opportunities do you see ahead in the next 2 or 3 years?
There are 2 huge trends that we’re in the middle of, and they’re both driven by technology. The first is the continually shifting paradigm of user experience with technology. The devices and services we use, and the ways we interact with them, are continually changing. 10 years ago, the smartphone as we know it had yet to be invented! Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) will soon push us into new technological landscapes, and we’ll need a huge amount of education and re-training — not only to keep us up to date, but also to help create fantastic user experiences that maximize the opportunities presented by new technologies.
The second is the changing nature of education and work. In-demand workforce skills are continually evolving, and new technologies like automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will accelerate these shifts for large segments of the workforce. In the long term, this will likely require a society-wide reimagining of the role of work and labor in sustaining a healthy and happy populace. In the near-term, there’s a huge opportunity, and responsibility, to guide people along as they navigate this unsteady social and economic environment and seek to empower themselves.
Designlab was built in the midst of these winds of change. Flexibility and reactivity to market demands are in our core DNA, compared to traditional education institutions, which often can’t adapt as rapidly. We stay directly connected to the market through our wide mentor network; we conduct regular industry program audits; and we are judged constantly on our program outcomes. All of these factors keep us accountable to our students, and incentivize us to provide the best value we can.
As these changes happen, Designlab will never lose its connection to our student and mentor community, and we’ll keep pushing beyond our own comfort zone as a company to create amazing new learning experiences.
We couldn’t be more excited!
Designlab offers online design education and mentoring, both through short foundational courses like Design 101, and through in-depth programs like UX Academy. Ready to push your own comfort zone? Find out more!