Q&A with Praveen Vajpeyi, Executive Creative Director at The College Board

Praveen Vajpeyi, Executive Creative Director for the College Board, will be a speaker at Agile India 2018, co-hosted by Designit and Cooper in Bangalore India March 7th, 2018. College Board’s mission is to connect students to success and opportunity in higher education. Born in Calcutta, Praveen began his career as an apprentice at his family’s printing press. After a few years, he founded Iris Communications, a design studio that focused on solving a wide range of creative challenges through innovative design. Believing that honesty in design lies in its elegant simplicity, the studio provided a wide range of cross-channel solutions—from brand strategy, graphic, to interactive and web design. In 1999, Praveen craved a creative challenge and moved to New York to pursue an MFA in design and technology at Parsons School of Design. His thesis, Designing Rich Sensory Experiences with Strategies of Transformation and Augmentation, won wide acclaim.

After earning his degree, Praveen joined a small ed-tech start-up, fully determined to return to India after a few months. However, once he saw how his work could play a vital role in making education more accessible to more people, he couldn’t leave. He has been involved in promoting education ever since, never straying from his commitment to craft innovative, user-centric experiences to further education.

Praveen is presenting Unleashing Your Innovation Potential at Agile India 2018 on March 7th, 2018. Click here for conference details and registration.

Q: How did you find design?

A. I started working at my father’s printing press in high school: accounting, scheduling, pressing checks, proofreading, and troubleshooting, then began to dabble with design and layout when we imported Macs. In due course, I founded Iris Communications, a design studio, offering a wide range of creative services, including brand identity systems, print publications, promotional + marketing collateral, interactive solutions, film, interiors, and eventually, the web!

Q: Describe your role.

A. As a leader, I shift between strategy, operations, and management on a day-to-day basis. Over the past few years, I’ve had to wean off being a hands-on creative as I focus my energies on mentoring and managing the team, developing talent, empowering people to make decisions, defining strategies, connecting dots, leading with inquiry as well as advocacy, and practicing strategic leadership. In all honesty, I spend a lot of time managing static every day—running interventions, problem solving, clarifying context, drawing connections, and supporting both my leadership, and my team.

Q: How do you and your colleagues generate creative ideas?

A. There are various strategies we use—ideation, brainstorming, co-design sessions, qualitative and quantitative research to understand user needs, etc. Other than that, I encourage each member of the team to step into the field to experience what our users have to deal with on a daily basis. I want them to understand and look at problems from the users’ perspectives, build empathy, and then work towards solutions that meet, nay, exceed user expectations and add value in small, meaningful ways. Oftentimes, we focus on the big new thing—I call it the Shiny Object Syndrome—while overlooking core user needs that the business is completely missing! A good place to start is looking at data from those on the frontline—digging in, understanding it, and figuring out how to solve those problems.

Q: How do you encourage collaboration between teams?

A. I am a strong advocate of integrated, cross-functional teams that are empowered and held responsible for outcomes rather than output. Open communication, clear lanes, mutual respect, empathy, and support are all crucial for success.

Q: What advice do you have for leaders attempting to create an innovative workspace?

A. Today, innovation is everybody’s business—be it an entrepreneur, a manager, a teacher, a government employee—everybody is expected to become lean, smart, and to do more with less. Cheaper. Faster. Better. 

I fiercely dispute the Moses Myth: innovation is a miracle that happens when a special person raises his hands to God… the Red Sea parts and the iPhone X is born. This is not true. Genius is not the only way to innovation and believing this myth undermines the confidence of leaders.

All successful innovation begins with an accurate assessment of the current reality. Do not run to the future just yet—attend to the present to change the definition of the problem or the the opportunity you want to tackle. Focus on the unarticulated and unmet needs of users and help build differentiated solutions like Uber, Airbnb, etc. Then, transition to “what if”: generate ideas and explore possible solutions. “What if anything was possible?” So often we start with constraints instead of possibilities and the future becomes very much like the present. Use insight gathered in the assessment of the current reality to generate multiple creative ideas. Treat each business concept as a hypothesis and evaluate against your design criteria. Create low fidelity prototypes. Test them. Refine. Repeat.

Q: How do you see the design business evolving over the next years?

A. Designers will have to learn to problem-solve and build solutions for environments that are evolving and changing. However, at the core, we need to stay focused on functional and user-centric design solutions to complex problems. Simplicity will remain key as interfaces continue to recede, integrate, and become ambient. Designers will have to deepen their reliance on analytics, on data, while learning to work creatively with intelligent machines. 

The role of designers will increase and expand, of this I am certain. 

Q: What types of Agile processes have you implemented before?

A. Primarily for digital product development. 

Q: What is your idea of an Agile mindset in the context of UX Design?

A. Depends entirely on the work or project we are engaged in—we work from integrated legacy applications to serverless applications; and our approach changes as per the needs of the project (“wagile to agile”).

Q: How have you evolved the Agile process in your department? How does it impact your engagement with development teams?

A. About a year ago, the organization established an Agile Center of Excellence to make Agile a reality. Some teams have embraced Agile and are working flawlessly, others, less so. 

We bring together product, IT, project management and other stakeholders for quarterly planning meetings where the different workstreams articulate their work/expectations and we map them to sprints. We follow the rituals and share progress, demos, et al. 

Q: How can one utilize the Design Thinking approach in an Agile environment?

A. Design Thinking is a solutions-based approach to problem-solving and the phases can be mapped to Agile easily enough, I should think: Discover/Research, Define/Synthesis, Develop/Ideation, and Deliver/implementation. There may be a different cast of characters that are brought in at different points, but the core team could remain the same to develop a common understanding of the problem, and approach towards the solution. 

Q: What is the hardest part about being a leader?

A. Helping the broader organization appreciate the need for design—especially as our work becomes increasingly ambient. 

Q: What is your favorite part?

A. Appreciating the impact of our work in the world. 

Q: What advice do you have for young people?

A. We have entered a world of intelligent machines with digital technology transforming our labor markets. This restructuring will a
ccelerate as intelligent machines reduce the gap between humans and machines. We will rely increasingly on machines to perform routine tasks. Many jobs will be outsourced or automated—and there will be others that will be more valued in the machine age: data visualization, analytics, high-speed data networks and communication technology, people who can tease values out of complex machines will thrive. 

The big question: Will you be good at working with intelligent machines? 

To See Nick, register here. If you cannot attend, presentation videos will be available. 

Praveen Vajpeyi

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