Lee-Sean Huang is a talented designer, a supportive educator, founder of a creative consultancy called Foossa and the Director of Design Content & Learning at AIGA. It was lovely to talk with him about his journey.
What’s an urgent issue facing education?
The dominant business model for higher education in the U.S. is broken. Students and their families are having to pay higher and higher tuition for school, often taking on huge loans to do so. We see an environment where public funding for education is being cut while political interference in curricula is increasing. And many universities, including the ones where I have taught, have a large proportion of classes taught by adjunct faculty, who often live in conditions of economic precarity due to low pay and often lack of job security or benefits in these positions. This kind of financial stress on students and teachers affects the quality of learning, which will ultimately result in larger consequences for our economy and society. But we are also seeing a wave of activism ranging from advocates of student loan forgiveness and reform, on-campus labor organizing among academic workers, and other forms of student movements.
Do you have a favorite quote?
One of my favorite quotes is from the book, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by anthropologist David Graeber.
Graeber writes, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
To me, this quote is an important reminder that besides the immutable laws of physics, the rest of how we experience the world is the result of human choices and action. In other words, everything is designed, and can therefore be redesigned. I mean this in the broadest sense of the word “design.” While making change happen can be hard, it is never impossible. The status quo is not “natural,” it did not just happen by accident. Almost every choice we make will have some sort of bearing on how the future will play out. That makes me feel that everyone has a degree of agency that matters.
What’s the best way students learn?
I don’t think there is necessarily a “best way” for students to learn. Everyone learns in their own ways, but as an educator, I see my role as helping my students figure that out for themselves. Some students are more visual, others are more verbal. As a design educator, a lot of what I do with my students is learning by doing. It’s project-based. Students make work individually or in teams, and then show their progress along the way to get feedback from their peers and from me. This models design practice in a professional team. I think it’s the interactive elements of a class that really add value to students’ learning. For the most part, students don’t need to come to class to watch me monologue long lectures every week. There are better, more flexible ways to deliver that content, as a video recording, or broken into more digestible pieces. Class time, whether in-person or on Zoom
What is one industry book that a newcomer must read?
I recommend Scott Berkun’s book, How Design Makes the World to seasoned designers and newcomers to design as well. Berkun’s book is entertaining and easily readable by a general audience, but packs some real substance as well. It is probably one of the best overviews and introductions to the big fuzzy discipline of design that I have ever read.
How did I end up where I am today?
I got into storytelling and other creative pursuits from an early age. When I was growing up in Arizona, the local university had a program for kids to learn things like creative writing and video/TV production. My friends and I in the program had the chance to make our very first film when we were in junior high. I was a teen correspondent for our local newspaper when I was in high school. And I was also playing piano, cello, and composing my own music on a computer. I got into design through music. I started making graphics in Photoshop for the bands I was playing in.
Fast-forward a bit, I taught English in Japan for a few years after college, and then came back to the US and started working in advocacy communications for the non-profit sector. As part of those jobs, I was also doing de facto design work. I went back to school and did a masters in interactive media. I started working part-time at a creative agency while in grad school, and ended up working there full-time after I graduated. Then I started teaching design part-time at the undergraduate and graduate level, and around that time my partner David Colby Reed and I started Foossa, a service design and strategy consultancy. We started out doing branding and user experience design, and then evolved our practice to also include content creation, service design, social innovation, and facilitation.
A few years ago, David decided to go back to school, so we put Foossa in hibernation, although we still do some private commissions and small projects here and there. I took a job at AIGA, the oldest the largest professional association for design in the United States. I’m now the director of design content and learning, which means I’m in charge of producing and promoting our online courses, videos, podcast, and in-person experiences related to professional development.
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