Meet Aparna Ashok, Design Strategist and Anthropologist
Updated: Mar 8, 2020
"No one ever got to the top of the mountain in one giant jump. Challenges can be overcome, goals can be reached, but it can happen only one step at a time."
Aparna Ashok, Design Strategist, Anthropologist, Entrepreneur Coach and Sudoku Lover is currently working on her Master of Arts in Digital Experience Design at Hyper Island. Her last position before starting the program was working as a Design Strategist at Robosoft Technologies. Prior to that, she was an Artist-Curator at Maati Baani, a Development Manager at Barefoot Acupuncturists and an Incubation Associate at UnLtd India.
Aparna was a sole proprietor for a few years, working as a Producer and Ethnographer at A-shock Production. One of her first jobs was working as a Video Editor at Luther College (Go Norse!), where we met. She also worked as Student Manager, Cashier, and Resident Assistant. Aparna got a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Media from Luther College, and while studying there, she did an exchange program in Culture and Media at the University of Nottingham.
What does a typical day as a design strategist look like?
As a design strategist, the one thing that is guaranteed is that every day will bring new challenges and new ways to respond to uncertainties. If I am in the early stages of a project, the day would consist of gathering information from secondary sources, setting up or conducting interviews, and immersive research. If it is a project that is further along my team and I would be synthesizing the insights gathered from various research methods and ideating ways to bring those opportunity areas to life. If the project is nearing the end, then I would be focusing on communicating the concept effectively to various stakeholders - this involves building prototypes, strategic roadmaps, and a strong presentation.
What are you passionate about?
Regarding work, I’m passionate about helping businesses to identify and address the core human needs in the ever-changing digital landscape. Currently, I am working on an action research project on ‘Digital Ethics’ to build an ethical framework when developing emerging technologies. We are on the brink of exponential change with technological breakthroughs happening regularly at all levels across the world. Yes, it sounds like science fiction, but as futurist Ray Kurzweil says, we will experience 20,000 years worth of progress in the 21st century. To me, this is an opportunity for us as a human ecosystem to reimagine progress through better long-term choices.
In my personal life, I do vipassana meditation every day to find some grounding amongst all this change. Vipassana meditation training involves a 10-day silent retreat where all you do is meditate for 11 hours a day - it was a refreshing life-changing experience. I am also passionate about Indian classical music and how different ragas (combination of notes) produce entirely different emotions. At the moment I am experimenting with dream yoga and sleep yoga techniques.
What do you find most challenging about being a Design Strategist?
In the beginning, the most challenging thing was the lack of a methodology. Now after working on a few projects and doing an MA in Digital Experience Design from Hyper Island, I see the method to the madness, and it's exhilarating. Now, I realize the other big challenge, or rather an opportunity for growth is emotion management. Your own and that of your team. For the most part, when doing exploratory research, you are in ‘the fog.' The process of innovation is filled with dead ends and sticky messes, with a magical door thrown in occasionally. It’s paramount for the team to trust and support each other and for each member to embrace prototyping as an opportunity to learn.
What do you find most enriching about being a Design Strategist?
Every project is a journey filled with uncertainty and discovery. What I find most enriching is the novelty of each project and the magic that comes out of multi-disciplinary teamwork. There are so many ways to approach each project, and I enjoy coming up with the research plan to get the needed insights that fit into the time and scope of the project. Since these projects come from different industries and sectors, they are opportunities to deep-dive into in that industry and its trends. As a collaborative activity, each team member brings a distinct approach, making the product bigger than the sum of its parts.
How did you find yourself in your current career?
By serendipity. I studied anthropology and started my career in social entrepreneurship helping set up and scale early-stage social ventures. I was doing service design but wasn’t aware of the term then. Initially, problem-solving was done through strategic and operational changes. I got acquainted with technological solutions when we looked into implementing digital health records for a grassroots health organization preparing to scale. From then on, there was no turning back from digital.
I worked with an international music project where all the audio and video was put together through digital collaboration. Then I joined a technology company that made mobile apps where I got a taste for the vast world of design and technology. Most recently, at Hyper Island, I got exposed to lots of industry leaders actively shaping the human-technology future and a wide array of new roles such as service design, digital transformation, etc.
Early in my career, I had asked a Google executive for career advice that I have since taken to heart. He said that his current job didn’t exist when he was studying. His advice was, “Your biggest currency is your skills and how you can apply them. Find something that you are passionate about doing, articulate it, approach people who need that and tell them how you can use your skills to help them achieve their goals”.
Words of advice for anyone who wants to pursue this career?
Design strategist is a newer role where you need to use design for strategic innovation. People often confuse this with knowledge in visual or industrial design. The word ‘design’ here is used broadly. It refers to using design-related principles (read: design thinking) to come up with new ways of doing things. It is about leveraging your previous work experience to do creative problem-solving in an increasingly digital world. Those with liberal arts backgrounds will do particularly well in these roles which require interdisciplinary work.
Showing the work experience is a chicken and an egg situation. My advice is to get a grasp on Human Centered Design and apply it to a real-world problem with a small team. It can be a small 3-week project. The community garden, waste disposal, finding interesting activities to do around the city - take your pick. Document the process and think about how you can apply the process to a work challenge or another real-world problem that bugs you. IDEO and Acumen+ have a great online course on it. Experiential learning is the best and will help articulate how you approach problem-solving when interviewing for a position such as Design Strategist. For starters, you can also read books like Change by Design (Tim Brown) and Creative Confidence (David Kelly).
If you want view examples of her work and learn more about her career journey, visit her website.
Thanks for reading!