PGS Alumna Basak Altan speaks at Art Institute in Santa Clara Commencement


By Basak Altan (C9)

Published 1.14.15

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I was honored to be the commencement speaker at the Art Institute in Santa Clara this past week.

Sharing my speech from the commencement with you as it focuses on my journey as a designer and fits well with the theme of design strategy. 

Hello Class of 2014, Congratulations!

I am honored to be a part of your celebration and send you off to the real world in your brand new career!

When I was asked to give a graduation speech two thoughts came to my mind:

1.  Wow, I must be getting old!

2.  Which speeches were the most remarkable ones that stuck with me?
So I hope to step up to the challenge, and inspire you with my own journey…

I began my career similar to you sitting in my cap and gown with feelings of excitement and anxiety at the same time of starting out in the real world. I had just graduated from Industrial design department from Syracuse University completing a year long thesis project on transitional housing for refugees called the Tree of Life.

During my college years the Kosovo War was raging in the Balkans, a war struck region in the middle of Europe very close to my country and I felt that I needed to do something about it. So I set out to design a system rather than a product that was meaningful and gave its users the ability to design their own make shift dwellings. Similar to me, another young architect had decided that he wanted to do something about this and designed a design competition. As a result, Tree of Life was selected as one of the finalists.  The competition evolved to became Cameron Sinclair’s great non-profit called: Architecture for Humanity…It provided my project the needed media attention.

My journey was not a typical one:  I took risks, I failed and learned from my mistakes, and I was laid off during the economic downturns.

Similar to you, when I graduated, the world was changing at fast speeds, my profession was redefining its existence, and I really had one thing in mind: I wanted to be nimble, work on meaningful projects, meet different people outside of my industry and to not limit my scope of what a designer could be. Instead of designing just products, I continued to focus on designing systems.

The first few years were not easy. When you are hired as a product designer fresh out of school, you are both hired for your creativity and fresh point of view on trends, but you are also hired to do the most mundane tasks that senior designers don’t have the time to do.  While working for a few large corporations, I learned how to render products, build better models, how to write professional proposals, create technical specs, meet and talk with clients, how to sell your design idea to an audience, and further more, all the details of what was involved in designing and producing products. From the beginning to the end, these experiences and the different types of people I worked with became a strong foundation of my career. I balanced my corporate life with the issues that I valued most by volunteering and working on sustainable projects on the side.

For example: When I was laid of from my corporate job, I took an opportunity to became a certified Permaculturist by attending a workshop in Arcosanti, Arizona which lead me to move to Berkeley, where I still live with my family.  In Berkeley, I was fortunate to meet and work with the late landscape architect Karl Linn, who was a survivor of the holocaust, and one who had designed and created the community gardens and the ecohouse in Berkeley. I not only coordinated the programs of this ecological demonstration home but I also I lived in it and learned close hand about sustainable systems. These experiences and valuable connections outside of my design industry inspired me to design a workshop and start a community garden back in my hometown in Turkey where green spaces were decreasing at high speeds.

If you have heard of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul Turkey, a whole city and eventually a nation rose up to protect the very few urban green spaces left despite the very heavy government crackdown where innocent lives were lost.  Despite the danger of being developed, I am happy to report that our urban garden is in its 11th year and thriving today with over 40 volunteers.

I continued to create my dream projects while designing products for my clients. I left positions and took on new ones that gave me the opportunity to travel internationally to oversee production lines in factories and to learn better how products were made. By seeing the grim reality on the production floors and talking with the workers who produced these items I realized how much of a direct impact I had on the world resources as a designer.  My experience in fusing together different disciplines came handy when a textile company, hired me on as their design director to bridge the gap between their soft goods and hard goods.

Even at a director level I was feeling like I was being asked to design band-aid design solutions and most of my frustration came due to the fact that “design thinking” was being brought in too late in the process.  I decided to go back to school and get my sustainable business management degree so I can have the ability to speak the business language at a board level.

Since then, I have been consulting as a design strategist, working on some exciting projects from my studio in Berkeley helping startups and firms to help build more meaningful, innovative solutions for their companies and the services the provide. On the side, I am in the process of designing a weekend school for my 3.5 year old daughter, keeping the non-profit garden overseas alive as well as being a mom.

I hope you start designing your own journey by taking risks, by working with different types of people from different backgrounds and by working on things that matter the most to you. Because in this world, you make your own reputation by being true to your self, by playing well with others and working on what matters most to you. Produce mindful, authentic work, and be yourself!  And enjoy it while you do it!

Good luck!

This article was originally posted on Basak Altan's personal blog and is published here with her permission.

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Basak Altan Commencement design
Basak Altan (C9)

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