Audrey with several DMI Conference attendees.
Audrey with several DMI Conference attendees.

MCAD student Audrey De Ridder is awarded the experience of a lifetime thanks to the Design Management Institute.

The Design Management Institute (DMI) is an international membership organization that connects design to business, culture, and customers in order to benefit the world economically, socially, and environmentally. Each year, leaders from around the state are invited to attend the DMI Design Leadership Conference in Minneapolis, which brings together a community of every discipline you can possibly think of: educators, researchers, designers, and so on. Emerging leaders (also known as college students) are also given the opportunity to attend through an essay contest. MCAD's very own Audrey De Ridder is one of the lucky few who was invited to attend the full three days of sessions based on her excellent essay (which you can read below!).

Following the conference in late September, I sat down with Audrey to chat about her experience.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a junior transfer student in the entrepreneurial studies (ES) program. I am a Texas native, but I grew up in Houston, Palo Alto, and Paris. In my free time, I enjoy cooking, reading, and anything involving real estate. I applied to MCAD sight unseen specifically for the ES program; I wanted a degree that dealt with problem-solving and strategy within a creative context.

Describe the DMI Design Leadership Conference in three words. 

Influential, Inspiring, Overwhelming (in a good, information-overload way!)

What was the conference like?

I applied when they reopened the essay contest to Minneapolis students. I didn’t know much about the organization, much less the conference. This was my first industry event, so I did not have any context going into it. I expected to meet a lot of people and hear a lot of talks about the overall themes of design. On the first day of the conference, I was overwhelmed by the influential pool of attendees. The room was full of industry leaders, and the talks given were based on extensive experience working for some of the most innovative and powerful companies in the world. Everything that was said was insightful. I filled an entire notebook in two days. Everyone was approachable and eager to introduce themselves. It didn’t feel cliquey, even though a lot of the DMI members have worked together at one point or another.

“Everything that was said was insightful. I filled an entire notebook in two days.”

What was your favorite moment?

The highlight for me was on the last day. We had just finished our tour of Target Headquarters and were having a final happy hour at Brit’s Pub. I was sitting with a design executive from Procter & Gamble and he was advising me on transitioning from education to industry. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see Jay Coogan at the bar. I tell my company that I’m 99% sure that I see the president of my school, and he tells me to Google Jay, and we confirm it. I go over and introduce myself and then the three of us sit down and have a beer and talk about the conference and overall experience of DMI. After two days full of networking and meeting people from all over the world, it was so unexpected to see a familiar face. I ended up having to leave early to get to a night class, but it was the perfect way to end the conference.

Who did you meet at the conference that made the biggest impression?

Everyone I met made an impression on me, so it’s challenging to narrow it down to one!

I got to have dinner with the head of brand identity and design at AT&T. He was so humble but full of insight. We talked about everything from transferring as an executive between companies to the college application process and living overseas.

Learning from the last speaker of the night left everyone feeling so inspired. He spoke about designing products that people love.

The chief design officer at Pepsi spoke about design's role in business. He was so energetic and open about the challenge of being innovative in a large corporation.  

I went to a breakout session with the head of design research and planning at Amazon Video as well as the senior researcher at Microsoft. They spoke about the common user experience errors companies make and were quick to share several errors made in their own company. It was definitely one of the most insightful talks and so refreshing that they first pointed to their own errors. This was a theme of the entire conference. Nobody was trying to oversell themselves. It was really about sharing insights and learning from others' mistakes or design process.

“Nobody was trying to oversell themselves. It was really about sharing insights and learning from others' mistakes or design process.”

Would you advise other students to attend this conference?

The experience was so valuable; I would say design students cannot afford not to attend this conference. As a student, I spend so much time learning about the hypothetical. This was a chance to be surrounded by people who are doing the work and leading the industry. The opportunity to spend three days surrounded by the leaders of the companies you admire and study is incredible. You get to learn from them, but beyond that, they want to engage in conversation, offer professional advice, share things they wish they knew as students, invite you into their network. I had no idea what a rich, inspiring, and rare opportunity I had gotten myself into when I applied. 

What was the greatest lesson you learned by attending?

Again, it is hard to narrow it down to just one. Skimming through my notes, a big theme that made an impression was the idea of “fail fast and cheaply.” It contradicts the concept of making something perfect and replaces it with the value of learning from mistakes. Another theme was that in design thinking, you have to listen to the user, but don’t believe them. This is such a simple idea but really struck a chord. Lastly, in the context of designing products that people will love, designers are people in love with people. When you design a product, how can you expect people to love something that you don’t love? 

My biggest takeaway is that the industry is rich with talent guiding it in the right direction. Beyond being inspiring and insightful, the leaders of design are helpful. Everyone I met was authentic, kind, interested, and engaging. DMI confirmed that this is the industry I want to work in and I am excited about the people I will be working alongside.

DMI Conference at Aria Minneapolis

Audrey's Essay

My first memory of a group project was in first grade. We were making a class calendar and every group was assigned one month. Someone with nice handwriting drew the grid, someone looked up holidays and school events, and someone created artwork. I assumed the role as orchestrater, handing out assignments and taking over at the last minute when someone dropped the ball. All through elementary school, group projects were central to my education and I quickly grew to resent them. As I got older and education became more focused on evaluation, group projects become obsolete, only appearing at the end of the year once standardize testing had been completed. I became a competitive student, taking equal pride in my work and my class rank. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at The Minneapolis College of Art and Design and learned that the entire curriculum revolved around collaboration, better known as group projects.  

As I enter my junior year, I have become a collaboration convert, welcoming the input of others and thriving in an environment where everyone is equally invested in the outcome. Looking towards graduation and future careers, I know that the skills and exposure to collaborative work will be my most valuable skill. Yet a part of me still feels unprepared to fully commit to collaboration. While it strengthens my work, I often feel the pull of pride and fear interfering with my process.  

Part of collaboration is incorporating the ideas of others into my own work, but the other, more humbling part is allowing my work to be adapted and improved in the hands of peers. I have to constantly remind myself that the work did not belong to me in the first place. I cannot take credit for the inspiration- the words and works of others, the beauty of nature surrounding me, the relationships and interactions I witness - that weaves itself into the final product. I cannot justify taking full credit for my creations, because the sum of my work is full of external influences. I can only be receptive to my surroundings and seek out the underlying themes. When I lean into this concept, the stress and struggle of group work evaporates.  

Regardless of what industry I enter, there is no escaping collaboration. The future innovations will happen in the hands of many, with designers, experts, and users all coming together to solve society’s biggest challenges. Maybe I’ll get to be the orchestrator, pulling all the ideas together, or maybe I’ll get to contribute my individual experience and perspective into the larger conversation of innovation. Either way, I’ll be in good company. The history of design is full of big names, footnote contributors, overlooked credit, and solutions that change the way we live. Nothing is accomplished alone.