Storyboard: Al Van Noy

How empathy and curiosity forged my path to design

I’ve always maintained that design isn’t just a practice. It’s a way of looking at the world.

The designer’s mindset is one that will lead you down a singular path. Part of the journey is rooted in a kind of insatiable curiosity, in addition to an ongoing personal desire to improve the world you inhabit. A designer is always asking how things can be made better or more unique.

Another crucial tenet of design is the ability to have empathy for both people and for the planet at large. A good designer must be attuned to people’s needs and how those needs change over time. This was something I understood long before I even felt comfortable calling myself a designer.

Though it may surprise you, growing up, I never thought of myself as a “creative kid.” I was into sports. I grew up skiing and racing motorcycles. However, in the midst of these activities, I found myself tinkering with my equipment. It didn’t matter what it was, I was fascinated by how things worked and how I could change them. I remember studying the geometry of my motorcycle and even going so far as attempting to modify my ski boots. I didn’t think of myself as a designer then, that came later but my innate empathy and curiosity were constantly driving me to think outside of the box.

After high school graduation, I went on to study architecture in Bozeman, Montana. It wasn’t long before I realized that architecture was not the right path for me. What I loved was the element of “design.” Once I began to understand what “design” meant, the stars of my creative journey began to align.

Moving away from architecture was sort of my “wow” moment – my personal tipping point if you will. I began to understand that design was a creative path without limits. Since those early days, I have developed different values and principles. Nevertheless, I remain curious and empathic. That, I believe, is the key to my success. Something that no one tells you about design is that, if one wishes to be a great designer, one must assume nothing. Why? Because assumption is the eternal sworn enemy of great ideas.

Fast forward a bit. I ended up at ArtCenter, graduating with a degree in Product Design in the late ‘80s. These days, I’m the leader of Adidas’ global innovation program – a title I’ve enjoyed for 19-plus years. Every creative challenge I’ve ever faced in my life has led me to this position. Really, it’s the perfect job for me – the one that feeds the dueling forces of curiosity and empathy that have always given me purpose.

My son is also a graduate of ArtCenter, with a degree in Product Design. When he was first enrolled at the school, he and I would spend a great deal of time on the phone trying to work through the challenges that are specific to this course of study. I see in my son the same qualities that have allowed me to thrive in the world of design: perseverance, empathy, a sense of restless innovation, and an inherent curiosity about how to improve our world. It has been a joy to watch him grow and evolve. I can’t wait to see how he puts his well-honed skills to use making our world a better place.

You can tell yourself you know the answer to every problem. You don’t. And that’s totally fine. In fact, it’s a good thing. Being creative is all about connecting dots between unrelated insights and observations. It’s about building your own unique path to discovery. ArtCenter was the place that put me on that path, and there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for that.

Al Van Noy
BS 87 Product Design
Head of Innovation, ADIDAS

Something that no one tells you about design is that if one wishes to be a great designer, one must assume nothing. Why? Because assumption is the eternal sworn enemy of great ideas.

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