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If Harley students could design their future, what would that future look like?

By Steve Miller
Featured in in Becoming 2020


The answers are rooted in an understanding of the future of work itself and in an even greater understanding of the impact of the design process upon that future.

Carole Bilson: leadership critical thinking design-thinking problem-solving empathy

People like Carole Bilson are already starting to shape that world.

Bilson, who has a Grade 9 student at Harley and who sits on the school’s Board of Trustees, is president of the Design Management Institute (DMI). The premier global (non-profit) organization that “connects, promotes, and elevates the role of Design, Design Management, and Design Innovation in business, culture, and society.”

DMI “brings together innovators, educators, researchers, and leaders from every design discipline, every industry, and every corner of the planet to facilitate transformational organizational change and design-driven innovation.

As mission statements go, that’s pretty straightforward. But what does it mean?

Designing at the Speed of Change

Let Bilson explain.

“The world is changing at exponential speeds,” Bilson said in a recent email interview. “Consider the fact that it used to take decades for widespread adoption of a new technology. Now it takes days, weeks, or months as opposed to years. For example, when Pokemon Go (the augmented reality mobile app game) was released in 2016, it had been downloaded more than 500 million times worldwide by the end of the year.

“With all of these technological advances are coming at us, it is critical to represent the end-user/customer/consumer of these in order to design technology and experiences that people will adopt and that will enhance the lives of users.”

This is where designers come into the picture: by focusing on the experience of the user and working to understand the needs, motivations, and context in which the user lives, works, and plays they ensure the user experience is seamless and pleasing—and that the solution created meets their needs. Designers may build physical things (from diapers to trains), develop intuitive user displays, conduct user observations/studies, and generate design strategy and roadmaps. In short, if it’s made, it’s designed.

This represents a challenging responsibility, and it isn’t getting any easier, thanks to all of the technology we have at our disposal.

 “The internet and mobile phones have each dramatically increased the pace of use and adoption of new technology,” Bilson said. “For example, before the internet, when faxes were in use, you would receive a fax with work requests and the requestor would accept getting a reply in several days to a week. The average person was not used to getting same-day written replies.

“Now that we have instant messaging on mobile phones and emails that move in seconds, people have come to expect responses from each other in minutes and hours. So, the pace of work has become more intense because of this changed expectation.”

Anyone who has waited too long for a response to a text surely can relate to that “changed expectation.”

Impacting the Workplace

And that expectation continues to have a huge impact upon the workplace, especially in terms of how businesses address change itself. Companies are recognizing the role of design and are adjusting their corporate structures to make it a primary focus of how they relate to customers.

“Classical design and designers have been moving up the organizational ladder because many CEOs and companies recognize the value design can bring to an organization,” Bilson said. “You will now find the title ‘Chief Design Officer’ at many Fortune 500 companies.

Design is being recognized as a strategic business priority in many companies as leaders look for ways to stay competitive. Advancements in augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and automation are happening so quickly that humans can’t keep up. 

“Design and design thinking is being seen as the perspective that can help bring everything back together in a holistic way because at the center is the human user,” she said. “It focuses our questions not on the technology and its capabilities, but rather on how it can meet a human need and provides grounding on how technology will impact individuals and the society at large.”

What kind of people will best succeed in this world? Specifically, what do companies look for in newly minted graduates? Bilson says the short list of attributes includes “leadership, critical thinking, design thinking/problem-solving skills, empathy, and the ability to collaborate in multi-disciplinary groups and to be a leader through the influence of others.”

If they are to achieve success, today’s Harley students—whether or not they choose to become a classical designer, a design officer, or a computational designer—will need to demonstrate these qualities, and more, in order to gracefully adapt to an ever-changing environment. When they do, it will seem as though it’s by design. Because in many ways, it will be.

Holistic education.
Impressive preparation.
Harley students don’t settle for
the status quo.

What is the future of the workplace, and what role will Harley School students play in it?

What qualities should Harley students possess to achieve success in that ever-changing environment?

These are questions that put Harley faculty and resources to the test on a daily basis. Finding the answers is what drives and motivates everyone from students to faculty and administrators.

Jeffrey Alexis, M.D. Fear of failure can stunt growth and prevent advancement.

Fortunately, parents and alumni provide guidance to students as they prepare to embark upon their careers. Dr. Jeffrey Alexis P ’20, ’23, ’27 is one such person. And he is uniquely qualified to offer perspective on Harley’s impact upon the work experience. Dr. Alexis is medical director for the LVAD (left ventricular assist device) program at the University of Rochester. An LVAD is a pump device that provides assistance in the case of a failing heart.
And he has three children attending Harley.

So what does he think of the role the school plays in the futures of not only his children, but of all Harley students?


“I believe that Harley prepares its students very well for the ever-changing nature of their future professional lives,” Dr. Alexis said in a recent email interview. “Harley teaches its students to have inquisitive minds and to not simply settle for the status quo. And that there is joy in learning and that learning never ends. I’m impressed how Harley teaches its students that learning in school is not simply about grades, but about thinking, learning about oneself and others, asking questions, and seeking solutions.”

As for his own personal experience, there is one area where Dr. Alexis wishes he had received greater guidance in his younger days. One area that just happens to be a hallmark of the Harley education.

“In terms of my training, one thing that I wish I had been exposed to earlier was more career advice,” he said. “Training is often about the here and now, but it is important to train one for the future, and learning about different career options and different paths one can take is something that I wish I had learned earlier.”

What kind of students can most benefit from a Harley education? “I believe that people who look for better ways to do things are adventurous, not afraid of making mistakes, and are people who are full of confidence,” Dr. Alexis said. “Fear of failure can stunt growth and prevent advancement.” These qualities are also what prospective employers consider when evaluating job candidates.

“In medicine, in looking at recent graduates, we look for people who are well trained, have inquisitive minds and work well with others,” he said. “Diversity is also important— including racial and ethnic diversity, gender diversity, and diversity of thought.” As in many fields, that diversity has great value in the medical world, where it’s not just about being up to speed with the latest technological advances. Students need to be able to think on their feet, as well. “In terms of common sense or technical prowess and which is more valuable, I think that it depends on the situation,” said Dr. Alexis. “Both can be helpful, but too much of one with little of the other is not ideal. That is one reason why having people with different perspectives working together is often best.”

And those people just might help Dr. Alexis achieve a medical breakthrough.

“In my field, we use mechanical devices to take over the pumping function of the heart,” he said. “These devices are powered by batteries that are outside the body, whereas the device itself is internal. We have discussed for more than a decade that we really need the entire device to be internal. I do believe that we will get there, but it has taken a long time. Advances in medicine greatly impact the way doctors are trained. Younger doctors sometimes have more advanced skills than their older colleagues and help push advances.”

Who knows? Perhaps a current or future Harley student will be doing the pushing someday.