Designer Kate Spade passed two days ago. This news maybe just one of the many headlines for several of you reading this note, but I find this loss personally sad, as if a very distant aunt has passed. First of all, I adore the brand. To many Kate Spade regulars out there, the brand’s aesthetics stands for a bold, optimistic “can-do” attitude towards life and adventures, with a touch of social graces and glamour. This is why the circumstances surrounding her death came to me as so shocking and tragic, to realize that Kate was only human, too, and she could not be fun and cheerful all the time, the way the brand she represented was supposed to. I feel for her, and her family.
I agree at a personal level what this New Yorker writer pointed out about many young women who love Kate Spade:
Owning a Kate Spade bag was drinking champagne out of a chipped teacup, or pairing your grandmother’s pearls with a frothy lime-green party dress. A woman who carried Kate Spade was expressing a kind of madcap determination to make it in the big city, even if she was living in a small town and had no intention to leave.
Carrying a Kate Spade bag, or wearing one of her accessories – be it a polka dot coffee mug, or crisp stationery with sassy quotes – always made me happy. But more importantly, I admire Kate for fusing creativity and business so well, something I myself aspire to do. I love that Kate gave out Emily Post’s “Etiquette” books to her employees, saying the book is “the essential bible for any ambitious woman in a professional space.” Her designs were so thoughtful, and the little gestures resonate/d well with me. Like me, Kate loved thanking someone with a handwritten letter. She loved her Japanese aesthetics, from Mikomoto pearls to Rei Kawakubo. She loved colors, and she loved life.
Kate’s passing made me want to write this post, but I have been thinking a ton about design lately, as I am finishing my MBA, figuring out my career, and coming out of a 3-year relationship.
My first job back in Myanmar was at a design social enterprise, called Proximity Designs, which designed such farming gadgets as solar pumps, foot treadle pumps, and durable, portable water tanks, tailored to the needs of smallholder rural farmers. The design lab and manufacturing facilities in Yangon were headed by Stanford engineers, heavily linked to its Design for Extreme Affordability course.
I noticed there that the designers I knew in my life were insistent on the fact that art and designs are distinct disciplines. This distinction has two profound insights for my love life and my career.
(1) Love Life
Sometimes, relationships fail without any grand betrayal or blame, even if love still lingers. To me, love and a relationship are like art and design; only the latter has any noteworthy functional purpose. Several beautiful objects around us are perhaps qualified to be called a work of art, but not all artistic objects have design merit because design is supposed to be functional and solve a specific problem tailored to a specific need. In romance, the nice, raw energy called love is a good thing to experience, and makes me feel human and grounded, but love lacks discipline, and therefore on its own, is simply unfulfilling.
Massimo Vignelli, who passed in 2014, said that design has three core aspects: semantic, syntactic and pragmatic. He argues that design is characterized by function, discipline, and responsibility, and I view relationships exactly the same. Regarding responsibility in designers, Vignelli broke it down into the following components.
As designers, we have three levels of responsibility:
One – to ourselves, the integrity of the project and all its components.
Two – to the Client, to solve the problem in a way that is economically sound and efficient.
Three – to the public at large, the consumer, the user of the final design.
On each one of these levels, we should be ready to commit ourselves to reach the most appropriate solution, the one that solves the problem without compromises for the benefit of everyone.
In the end, a design should stand by itself, without excuses, explanations, apologies. It should represent the fulfillment of a successful process in all its beauty. A responsible solution.
In a successful relationship, we are responsible to ourselves, our partners, and even the public at large. Depending on your context, the “public” could be the children, respective families, or whoever you care about enough to consider into the equation. A relationship that does not have these considerations is design without discipline, which in Vignelli’s opinion, is anarchy and a mere exercise of irresponsibility. A relationship, therefore, results in a certain consistency of output, whereas love alone is instantaneous, flimsy, and inconsistent…unreliable.
On design and output:
Design is a discipline, a creative process with its own rules, controlling the consistency of its output toward its objective in the most direct and expressive way.
On design and clarity:
We design things which we think are semantically correct and syntactically consistent but if, at the point of fruition, no one understands the result, or the meaning of all that effort, the entire work is useless. Sometimes it may need some explanation but it is better when not necessary. Any artifact should stand by itself in all its clarity. Otherwise, something really important has been missed.
This is how I find myself judging the quality of a relationship, and how I aspire to behave in one. I have inadvertently been reading love advice from these designers I have never met in person, and Kate and Vignelli will both be missed by me.
(2) Hacking my career
I hear this word at many VC events these days: serendipity. Many successful product solutions or great businesses came out because you are simply at the right place at the right time. The last person I heard it from was Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen at Multiple:X Conference back in April.
Yet, I am often not at the right place. I have often had to work to put myself at the right place. I was born and raised in this little corner of the earth called Myanmar, closed off from the world for five decades, with all its charm, nostalgia, and dysfunction. What comes off as a serendipitous event to a Silicon Valley investor or a London-based entrepreneur (who are probably a white male in most cases) is often a product of sacrifices and trade-offs for someone from Myanmar living abroad.
I have gotten too comfortable in my mid-twenties with my career, and if I wanted to, I was being groomed into a country Chief Marketing Officer job for a global brand. Yet, I did not want to be there. I wanted to be someplace else, and came to a bigger city, away from family, friends, and all things familiar, to do my MBA. If I had not brought more intentionality to my education and work, if I had shied away from pursuing a series of personal challenges, I think I would be very frustrated with my life by now, and would not even know it, like those who remain in Plato’s Cave. For this reason, I have always been heavier on intentionality and lighter on serendipity.
This often-cited TED talk is from the MD of Matter Ventures, Corey Ford, who said that his career trajectory has been marked by intentional serendipity, where he never planned more than two years down the line in this increasingly disruptive world, where lexicon for this livelihood today did not exist when he was younger, where he went through a series of “flare” and “focus” episodes. I do not completely buy Lars’ conviction in serendipity; I am more of a believer in Ford’s intentional serendipity.
With these two thoughts, I leave you here.