Prior to joining Designation’s Sapphire Cohort in 2016, Preunky Akther worked as Communications Director at Game Theory Academy in Oakland. After graduation, she completed the Technology, Innovation, and Education master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and secured an experience researcher internship at the legendary MIT Media Lab. Today, she works as an interaction designer at Continuum in Boston.
Tell us briefly about your job today.
I work as an interaction designer at Continuum, which combines a lot of roles since Continuum is a consultancy. So I do everything from recruiting for research, creating a research plan, interviewing subjects, interviewing clients and stakeholders, ideating on insights I’ve collected, designing, testing, iterating, and repeating those last three steps over and over until we build a prototype. Projects can last from a month to eight or nine months; on average, it’s 3–6 months. Project teams often have a designer or two, a design strategist, a business strategist, and an envisioner, and we do everything together. If there’s something I want to do, I’m not limited to a single role; I can do anything I want, as long as it fulfills my skill set. When I started at Continuum, I had to work on whatever project needed a designer. But now that I’ve been there for a year, I have more priority about getting to choose which project I’m on.
We work with a wide variety of projects and clients. Maybe 25% are in the medical industry, another big percent is in finance/insurance, and the rest are in consumer products. So far, I’ve been able to work on all three types of client—one in the finance industry, one in the medical robotics industry, one in the dentistry industry, and now I’m back in the finance industry. We present to the client along the way, sharing our ideas with them; some are hands-off, but others want to be really involved, and that’s something Continuum really values—bringing the clients along on the journey. Pretty much all my clients like coming along to do research and interviews and giving their input.
What did you do professionally before you started at Designation?
My first job out of undergrad was as communications director at Game Theory Academy, a non-profit education technology/finance organization in the Bay Area. As with most non-profits, I wore multiple hats, and similar to Designation, it featured multiple cohorts of people coming in to work with us. I helped facilitate the curriculum and cohorts’ experiences. I also started my own internship program there, which allowed marginalized and underprivileged people to come in and work with us over summers, and it served 12 people each year.
I was actually doing design before I knew what it was; at Berkeley, I was a researcher for the Boxer Computer Environment project, a visual programming language for ed-tech, and we’d do research and iterate on how students used it. It was only after I graduated and looked at my past experiences that it was design. At GTA, I was able to do it too, within the constraints of a communications role, and redesign experiences for our people.
How did you hear about Designation, and why did you decide to attend?
I heard about Designation through my partner, who was looking into design schools at the time. He was at the Art Center School of Design and when I explained to him what I really enjoyed from school and work, he said, “that’s what design is.” Once I learned that design wasn’t just about making polished screens, I was really into the process; I didn’t care about the outcome as much as the road to get there. I think that’s something a lot of people don’t understand about design—the analysis, the thought process, the collaboration on the road to get to something beautiful and effective.
I was at GTA for two years and got prepared to go to grad school, but I traveled for a few months and realized I had a chunk of time before it where I wanted to gain skills. I tend to do things pretty quickly, so if I get an idea about doing something and do my research, I just go for it. I’d heard great things about Designation, so I thought it would be a great investment of my time and resources. I knew that grad school tended to be very freeform and theoretical, so before that, I wanted to gain some hard skills about the steps of the process. So I decided to fit Designation in before I started at Harvard. It worked out really well when I think about it now. Designation gave me the skill set and the confidence to do what I’m doing, and the foundations to start something bigger. And Designation put me far ahead of so many of my Harvard classmates; those skills allowed me to be a leader on projects there. I came out of each project with something tangible we could present, not just a framework, because of Designation.
Designation put me far ahead of so many of my Harvard classmates; those skills allowed me to be a leader on projects there. I came out of each project with something tangible we could present, not just a framework, because of Designation.
Looking back at your Designation experience, how do you describe its impact?
There are two things I really took away from Designation. The first was learning how to work with different personalities, which is really important in the design world because we work with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. That’s really what makes design a wonderful thing. It’s not a pain-free process, opening yourself up to other people, but Designation gave me that early on. I was able to see how those ideas came together to create something even better, and that was remarkable about Designation. It allowed me to gain respect for everyone, and always improve based on feedback.
The second was being able to interface with clients. That’s not something a lot of people get from school environments or the types of jobs I did before I was a designer. Being able to do that at Designation helped me at Harvard and now at Continuum.
What were your favorite parts of life at Designation? This can be anything—a specific memory, your cohort, a project, a workshop, the food, etc.
There was so much to do in Chicago—parks, restaurants, comedy clubs, and the food. Boston doesn’t compare with food. My cohort ended up renting boats and went on a river cruise. We attended Designation in the summer, so we were able to walk around outside.
What's the staff like at Designation? Did anyone help you in specific, important ways?
Our guest creative director Andrew Twigg was amazing. He was one of the most open-minded, approachable, knowledgeable instructors I’ve had in my entire educational career. And I’ve had a lot of education so far, so that says a lot about his quality. He was very sensitive about individuals and their needs, and it reflected in how he perceived us as being able to learn anything. The designers-in-residence were great about checking in on us; they went through the program themselves, so it made it easier for us to ask them questions.
What advice or recommendations do you have for people considering applying to Designation, or for those already in the program?
Come here with an open mindset, and when you get here, see each and every person in your cohort as someone bringing value, even if it’s not visible yet. Your time here is limited, and the more you can learn from people, the happier you’ll be. My peers were great; we supported each other, and it was key to have that mindset of sharing and helping. I learned a lot from the people on my project teams. Take advantage of the client meetings, don’t be scared of them, and use them as a way to get over your fears to try something new. This is where it’s okay if you mess up.
Come here with an open mindset, and when you get here, see each and every person in your cohort as someone bringing value, even if it’s not visible yet.
What was your job interview process like?
I applied to an internship at Continuum when I was finishing my degree at Harvard, and I’d had the chance to really polish my portfolio and be confident in sending it out. The first interview was over Skype, where I walked through a Designation project and a Harvard project with designers and a design principal. I was called in for an in-person interview and presented my other projects; they asked me about my design decisions and whether I’d be a good fit for the consultancy life. There were about five people for that interview, and it lasted an hour.
It felt like a Designation client presentation, which was great, and I had my deck ready. I was an intern there for the first three months, and interns there are treated as full-time designers. So it allowed me to understand the culture and refine my skills, learn from other people, and give them ways to get to know me. Consultancies don’t hire for full-time roles very often, so the timing worked out well because someone was leaving at the end of those three months. I went through another round of interviews, and it was more rigorous; I presented my work through my internship to a lot of design principals, designers, and strategists. They grilled me! That process took two weeks to go through.
What were the most useful skills, tools, or experiences at Designation that have been the most useful for you in your job?
I learned Sketch at Designation, and that’s been my go-to tool at Continuum. A lot of designers there came from design schools, so they tend to use Adobe products, but the interaction design team uses Sketch. Knowing it put me in a good place from the start, and I was able to collaborate with other designers there.
What do you do in your current job that uses anything from your pre-design jobs?
Mainly my communication skills from undergrad. I was an English major, and that really helped in being able to write eloquently and express my ideas in a concise way. It’s important to be articulate without being overlong, and I needed to be able to get to the point quickly. And Game Theory allowed me to create a lot of things on my own—take the initiative and create something and facilitate it.
What's next for you, professionally speaking?
Short-term: I’m about to go into a phase on my project at Continuum where we’ll create a service journey map. My goal for that is that is to lead the team to create that map and guide that discussion. A couple of years from now, I see myself leading design projects and teaching on the side because that’s something that’s always been a passion. I want to be able to start giving back, to guide people and share my experiences with others. If I can help them grow and learn things from them too, that’s my goal.
What advice do you have for people looking to get their start in the design field?
I talked to a lot of people, and that helped me the most. I reached out to people through LinkedIn or I emailed them directly to get their perspective and ask if I’d be a good fit for design. They were in positions that seemed exciting to me. It was initially awkward and I worried I was bothering people, but a lot of them had been in my shoes and they wanted to help me. Those conversations helped me feel confident in my decision to come to Designation and in what my options might be after graduation. When people reach out to me now, now that I’m on the other side of this decisions, I know how it feels to be in that place and I enjoy talking with them.