Alicia Calderón González

Design Strategy Lead

Profile picture of Alicia Calderón González

It was 2010 and I was starting my bachelor's in Industrial Design Engineering.

Apple had introduced the iPhone only 3 years before and most of the people around me had either a Blackberry or a phone that had to be slid or opened to type - yes, type. Most of us students had no data plans on our “smartphones”, as part of our tight student budgets, and this would go on for many of us for quite some years. If you were away from your university or home wifi, you were almost in a blackout; you could call and message, but forget about checking out anything online or using apps connected to the internet. I think I probably resisted getting a data plan the most. It was only when the public transport apps of Valencia started to be decent enough that I saw the benefit of being connected to the internet on the go.

Back then, iPhones or apps were not things I thought often about. I was too broke to buy Apple products, and for someone who loved graphic and editorial design, apps looked…well, unenticing. Instead, I was fascinated by the world of Italian and Scandinavian product design. At university we would study pieces of furniture or lighting fixtures for their artistic expression, but also for their use of materials, the way these had been produced, and their ergonomics, or, in other words, how “smart” the product felt when you used it. We trained how to go from ideas to materialised products that could be produced, if possible, in scale; we were industrial designers in training. The worlds of physical and digital design were not yet connected in my mind. Neither were they connected in our bachelor’s curriculum. Product, back then, meant physical. Sure, there were some mentions of the field of human-machine interaction when we studied automotive design history. We also did some basic user testing of a website for our Ergonomics class, which was my first stint with interface design and usability. That said, we were never given much context around all these “digital” aspects of design, their connection to “industrial design” and how they would fit within our future design jobs. So, how on earth did I end up having a design job at a software agency? Like we say in Spain, “it has rained quite a bit since then…” Let me take you through the journey of finding my place as a designer.

After four years of studying in Alcoy and Valencia, I knew I had enjoyed a great university experience and felt very lucky for it all. That said, I was feeling lost and anxious. I was so close to reaching a goal I had been working on for years, and finally becoming an official “designer”, but I had no clue what to do next. Designer with quotation marks, because that’s how I felt about it; was I even already a designer?

With graduation looming around the corner and in the thick of an internal crisis, I decided to extend my studies for some months to go on an Erasmus Exchange. Looking back, I realise it was the best choice I could have made, but back then, it felt like I was taking advantage of my family’s support instead of facing my uncertainty about entering the workforce. But what seemed driven by fear, was probably just me trying to listen to my gut feeling; I was not done learning about design, and I had not yet found what aspect of this very broad expertise I wanted to pursue as a career.

So there I was, on a snowy night in February 2015, landing in The Netherlands to spend the coming six months taking courses on “Strategic Product Design”. This was one of the TU Delft’s design faculty masters and, luckily, I was allowed to attend master courses because my bachelor's in Spain was one year longer than in The Netherlands, so I had the same amount of credits as Dutch students without having even graduated. It would be in this place, and through the field of strategic design that I would start to understand the throughline between industrial and digital design.

At first, there was an adaptation period. The TU Delft faculty of Industrial Design had its own language that you had to learn quickly to fit in among the local designers-in-training. Everybody seemed to know words like “business model canvas”, “design thinking”, “personas” and an endless amount of branded design tools and methods that I am sure were never mentioned in my studies in Spain. Oh, and The Netherlands loves an acronym! My courses had names like BPS, DTM and even LSD. That said, the faculty was beautiful and comfortable, the students ambitious, outgoing and perpetually inspired, and the teachers welcoming and almost always offered a very close treatment.

I fell in love from the get-go with the field of strategic design. At school, they taught us that design was a process and approach to making sense of things that could be applied to creating new products, but also to help shape companies, services, and even cities and societies. I learned about using my designer skills and processes to help set up innovation processes or even help citizens participate in designing their cities and communities. My previous design education was a bit too fixated on the form of what was being designed, but in this new faculty, the focus was on the practice of designing itself, and how fluid and valuable our skill set was.

Three months after I arrived, I submitted my formal application to their master’s in Strategic Product Design, with a motivation letter written from the iconic TU Delft library. In my application I tried to tell my story and be honest: I’ve had a taste of strategic design, and I want it all; I am having a great exchange student experience, but I want to be “all in”; I was quite lost before, this place helped me find out what I want to do. In August, after a long wait, they told me I was in. The master was pretty tough at times, but I loved it. And my new understanding of design helped me become open and curious about many other “things” that could be designed, including online experiences and digital products. I had spent so many years studying that by the time I graduated with my master’s, digital design had become the new norm.

Almost a decade after coming to The Netherlands, and fourteen years after I started my first studies as a designer, I still love physical design. I’ve come to realise I love pretty much all types of design. The idea of creating new things that solve an issue and function well, no matter the format, is what I enjoy the most about it. However, I am most driven by the challenges of designing companies and processes. If these are applied to organisations with a physical or digital output, or that offer a service or infrastructure instead, it’s all the same. Now I know what it means for me to be a designer: the value I bring is on the skillset and approach, being able to structure both the exploration and production process and knowing when to fall back on either one of them, and I am very lucky to be able to do just that every day at Miyagami.

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