Microsoft’s Albert Shum: Design leaders need to be teachers


Albert Shum, Microsoft’s CVP of design, always assumed teaching is like managing a team. Then he taught his first course at the School of Visual Arts and realized it’s anything but.

Last year, I published thoughts on the future of design education and the need for a change in pedagogy if we’re going to make a lasting impact as digital designers. This was in the optimistic “before times,” and my challenge to the industry to redesign itself hinged on a classical understanding of teaching and learning. The pandemic has further exposed the limitations to tried-and-true design thinking: It is insufficient against systemic issues of disinformation, polarization, and isolation exacerbated by technology. And while many are leading in the space to design responsibly, few are teaching, and this is concerning for the future of experience design. The conversation is more meta than ever: If teaching is leading, how do we empower leaders to teach?

I got a crash course in the realities of design pedagogy this past year as part of the faculty of the School of Visual Arts (SVA) MFA IxD program, chaired by Liz Danzico, who also leads design at NPR (no small feat to transform the NPR experience through design while leading the next generation). The motivation for teaching was a personal challenge to stay creative by seeking inspiration and making new connections; it was a privilege to be able to do so with a talented group of students.

The goal of the course, Foundations of Responsible Design, is based on the need to bring responsibility into design education and to provide a foundation of understanding on the potential harm digital experiences can create, both intended and unintended. There is a crucial need to share practices to assess harm and find ways to mitigate that harm, and to shift from designing the product to designing the system and understanding how the system interacts with various stakeholders. This requires a pluriverse-like approach to design based on the past, present, and future all at once.

The first thing I learned is that leaders are not teachers. Design-in-tech leaders are great at sharing a vision and bringing a team together to deliver success, but we are not trained or expected to teach. Teaching is about providing a foundation and a theory to let students learn by applying theory to practice. This is difficult to do in the workplace. When your projects have a real, immediate impact on the customer and the business, you don’t necessarily want to “practice” and have things go wrong—we like to get it right the first time. But this is limited and assumes that employees are approaching problems with all the knowledge they need to be successful. This is almost never the case. For myself, working over 20 years in the industry, leading many different teams, and launching products from v1 to v1 billion, I had assumed teaching is like managing a team.

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