Andrea Mignolo presented at the 2015 Prototypes, Process & Play conference and shares what happens when you, as a designer, finally get that seat at the table—and how the real work has just begun once you get there.
We hope you enjoy Andrea’s presentation, “So You’ve Bot a Seat at the Table. Now What?” and don’t forget to get your tickets for Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th and 12th!
Chief Design Officer, SimpleReach
Andrea Mignolo is the Chief Design Officer at SimpleReach, an analytics startup based in New York City. Previously she was the Creative Director at Nabewise, a neighborhood-centric startup that was aquired by Airbnb in 2012. An interaction designer by trade, she is currently obsessed with bringing design-centered practices to enterprise SaaS and building a kick-ass team of full-stack designers. In addition to design, Andrea loves gaming, hiking, beer, and funny hats.
So You’ve Got a Seat at the Table. Now What?
In recent years we’ve seen an emergence of design-led and design driven companies. Breathless articles in technology blogs herald the rise of design as the new competitive differentiator while titles like Chief Experience Officer and Chief Design Officer are becoming more common across companies big and small. In light of these trends, it’s generally accepted that design finally has a seat at the table.
But getting to the table is just the beginning — what happens next brings with it an entirely new and different set of challenges. Drawing from both my own experience as well as others, we’ll take a look at what the world looks like once you’re at the table, the types of challenges you’ll come across, and some practical methods for handling them.
Amazing! Cool, as Russ said my name is Andrea. You can also call me Andi or you can spell me “Pnts.” It’s spelled without an “A.” This is also how you can find me on the interbubes. I’m a designer by trade. My background is in interface, interaction, and product design. A little bit about me, I love beer. I hate pretzels. And I’m missing ten teeth. True story. I was just born that way. No good bar brawl ever happened. I know. I should make something up. Now that we know each other, let’s get on with the talk. Today we’re going to see what it looks like when we get a seat at the table. I’m going to tell you two stories. And another story about how an influential designer found himself at the table. I want to define what it means by being at the table. Equal corporate decision making power. Traditionally business parts of the company were all at the table. It also means to be part of the vision, mission, and strategy of an organization. So why are we talking about the table anyways, well let year I was on a panel.
And on that panel there was the esteemed P3 organizer, Russ. Look at him talking!
And so the panel is about finding a job, an organization and job that understands a lot of things. But at one point Russ said something really important. I couldn’t agree more. He said getting to the table isn’t the end of the road. Getting to the table is just the beginning. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last three years because I’m in the middle of this process myself about figuring out what that looks like at simple reach. What the role design is going to play. As a disclaimer, my role is largely with startups, but what I’m talking about today is equally as applicable in larger organizations.
How did I find myself at the table to begin with? We have to go back three and a half years ago and we were in discussions to be acquired by AirBNB. For me the experience was very eye opening. I had never experienced a company or startup founded by designers, and I never thought about the difference that might make. Seeing this organization that was founded by designers, and seeing how design was fused throughout the entire organization, it really shifted the way I thought about things. While we were out there, Airbnb was in the middle of their Snow White project. And they brought out Pixar animators. They referred back to this around decisions around customer service. I don’t think a company would have been able to do this without design at the table. Why don’t all companies have design at the table? It seems like a no‑brainer once you see it. Four weeks before I was about to move to San Francisco, the talks went really well, I got an offer from Simple Reach, and I said yes. It allowed me to be on the ground floor. I was at Simple Reach for about a month. At this point the organization was flat and titles didn’t matter. And a CEO comes up to me and asks me what I want my title to be. I said chief design officer. As you do. This is met with a really awkward silence.
Followed up with oh maybe something like creative director might be better. We actually had to sit down and discuss why it was so important to have design sit alongside the business part of the organization. What it comes down to is. Design has to be that third leg of the stool. Because how can anyone sit at the table on a two‑legged stool? For me it didn’t matter if I was a CDO or not, I just wanted to work for an organization that believed in design the way I did and would have a foundation part of the company. So eventually the CEO came around and then the CTO came around. And guess what? You know the punch line. I got the title. So awesome, victory achieved, mission accomplished. I’m working for a company that believes in design. And there is a CDO, and that CDO is me! And then I paused for a second and I realized I had no idea what that really meant in practice. And that’s precisely why this seat is just the beginning. You’re at the table and that’s when the work really begins. No one besides you knows what design will look like at your organization. What role it will play. What falls under its purview, how it behaves. For one reason or another they believe it will result in a competitive advantage, but they’re not really sure how because they don’t know how or why design adds value, and that’s really fundamentally the question. How does design add value? And that’s what you need to show your organization when you’re at the table. Here I was at the table and I had no idea how to tell that story either, to show the company how design adds value. I know how it does and they know how it does. But they don’t. So I started to talk to people who had faced the same challenge and I began to do some research. Actually, there’s a lot going on in the space right now. While I was doing this research, they came out with the design and tech report, which is a really good summary of all the activity in the technology and design sector right now. As I was reading the report, I came across this slide that talks about design strategic value through the automobile industry. Harly Earl. So I see this reference to Harley Earl. There’s got to be some valuable insight from his story about how he got to the table. I started to do some research and found out how he got to the table. He started his career as day signer in his father’s car shop out in L.A. While he was doing this, he was starting to pioneer some new design techniques, like the use of modeling clay. Meanwhile out in Detroit, the big three companies are battling for market share. But in the ’20s it starts losing companies to Packard. So this smart man realized at the time they needed another car model in the Cadillac line to bring people back. But his key insight was not that they needed another product. They needed another differentiator to bring people back. And he realize that had differentiator needed to be appearance. He was more specific about it. He wanted a car that was going to be dashing and youthful. So they bring Harley Earl in as a contractor. He designs the LaSalle. It launched a huge market success and it was clear that appearance was going to help sell cars from there on out. He creates a division and asks them to join full time. He gives them a staff of 50 designers to start. He joins the company and thinks he’s going to have designers all over the place. Someone was like yo man, you need to chill out and work for me for a couple of years. Because the company is not ready for this. They’re going to be hostile. You need my patronage and support. Just how bad this environment was is explained well in this quote from a VP at the time. Even comfort initially was a secondary matter, and appearance, economy, et cetera was of second priority.
Desirable motor car features and characteristics, and I’m reading this because I have to laugh. I’ve seen this pattern before. This is just a ridiculous ad. And so here comes Earl in this world driven by engineering. He’s attempting to establish design as a stakeholder in the company and a partner in success. Earl’s attempts to bring design to Jam were met with skepticism and irrelevance. He struggled to legitimize his design practice. Even though he was head of an entire division, he was called one of the pretty picture boys, and his division was called the beauty parlor. I’m reading this and all the struggles he faced and I’m starting to panic. He’s excluded from strategy and decision making and I’m thinking holy shit. Is there any hope? And that’s what I’m here to tell you. There actually is some hope. Quite a lot of hope. But there’s some problems and challenges that we face once we get to the table. Our digital infrastructure has become standardized. We have high speed internet, APIs, cloud hosting, all of these things that have dramatically brought down the cost of software development and essentially commoditized technology. Better experiences are made through intentional, thoughtful, and customer‑centered design practices. This is fundamentally how design adds value and what you need to show when you get to the table. Harley Earl and I are going to show you how.
So the first challenge is vision. And the challenge of vision is exactly that. What is your vision for design at your organization? There are a few things you’re going to want to do when you first start working on your vision. You need to understand the systems and dynamics that are currently in place so you can start to determine where and how design is going to partner. Unless you’re a design founder there’s a series of oh, party time! This is something I just have to keep talking and wait until it comes back? So unless you’re a design founder, they were created way before there was any concept of design. There’s no design the DNA as part of the company. So you really have to focus on understanding the business technology and culture as it exists. And you have to really kind of understand that deeply.
You also have to understand how things are run and how things get decided. All of this understanding comes from listening and your user research skills will come in handy here to help you make sense of all the chaos. You’ll start to learn the shorthand, the jargon, undocumented decisions, and underlying assumptions that are in place. David van Eselstyn gave a great talk. He emphasizes spending his time in the beginning to listen, as well. But he warns us to remember that design leaders are not just here to listen and consult, we are also hired to lead. You should keep that in the back of your mind as you go through this process.
As you listen, you can formulate ideas of what you want design to be at your organization. You should start to clarify why design is important to your organization. But this requires a long, hard, and honest look at the companies and clients that you work with. And after doing this research and analysis, you should come to the conclusion that the role of design that you would hope have happened at your organization wasn’t possible. You can shift and move into this new role, or you might find that it’s time to leave. But if you stick around and you’re listening and thinking about what you want design to be, your North Star will start to emerge.
As I began to start to understand Simple Reach as an identity, a technology company, and the type of users we had, my north star emerged as data for humans. What would Harley Earl do. His north star was oblong. Seriously, literally. He wanted cars to be road and rounder, because it pleased his sense of aesthetic proportion. He said my primary purpose for 28 years has been to lengthen and lower the automobile. Why? Because sense of proportion tells me oblongs are more attractive than squares. It drove the engineers crazy, but he fundamentally changed the face of the American auto industry, and I think that’s pretty bad ass.
The first challenge vision was about understanding the company. Buy‑in is about getting your companies to understand design. One of the most important ways to get buy‑in is to show and don’t tell. This piece of writerly advice is as applicable to design. Showing is interactive. And as designers, we know how effective it is when things are kind of built and presented that way. It helps people to learn and to understand new things and really internalize them. Also, as designers we know that things work better as a narrative. So make sure that you expose design in that way, as well.
The complete opposite of this is assigning people homework. You absolutely do not want to do this. Don’t send people lists of articles, books, and videos, and expect them to go away and come back as fully versed designers. A, it’s not going to work, B, it’s not going to happen, C, you’ll probably make them run for the hills. Because as Brad pointed out the other day, people are lazy. Your company is asking you to show them what design does. And that’s exactly what you do. Have a deep understanding and you can start to use that to communicate the values of design. But there’s a caveat. You can’t use design language at all. This prevents you from using design lingo. It shows you are willing to care and partner and build trust. That is foundation for building and design at a company.
This is actually one of the bigger mistakes I made at SimpleReach. I was so focused on making a space for design and protecting design that I didn’t have empathy for my colleagues. To Denise’s point yesterday I was doing the yeah, but instead of the “yes and.” And when people didn’t understand why research was important or didn’t like a particular implementation of a feature, instead of sharing, teaching, and explaining, I kind of shut people out and had a very negative impact on my ability as a designer.
I’m showing you a picture of a little cute kitten begging to make myself feel terrible as I confess this horrible mistake I made. The issue has since been fixed but I want to share this with you.
Co‑design is a really good way to show people how design works. This has been talked about extensively. Sketching sessions. Invite people to participate in your brainstorming and sketch sessions. Bring them to your user research sessions. Maybe you don’t call them user research sessions. Make your methodologies transparent and accessible. And you know, make it visible. By printing our screens and wires and sketches, and covering the walls with them, you externalize design. It piques people’s curiosity and they engage more. You can put post‑it notes everywhere. Especially the UX side of design. You can continue that stereotype. By promoting, you can help people understand. You can’t promote it in an asshole way. You have to do it in a teaching way. You can talk about how awesome you are, but make sure you have context around it.
You can do it in all‑hands meetings. Have lunch and learns. The most important thing while you’re promoting the work is to talk about the what and why. This facilitates the understanding. It’s very important for you at the table. So what would Harley Earl do? He used modeling clay and imaging to create these life‑size sketches. People have really gotten into this. Going back to promoting your work, et cetera, I really like the lab coats and I think I might start using those at my company. It feels very official. And the design studio jam became a place of cross collaboration. People love to visit the studio and great conversation was happening and everyone was interested in what the design team was working on.
Your third challenge is alignment. Right? So you have this vision. People are starting to totally get design. They might even be requesting design resources or using design methodologies inure their own work. Now your challenge is getting the company aligned around the role that design is going to play.
Part of this comes from repeating things. Things as designers are obvious, but the rest of the company aren’t. You’ll have to repeat things like design isn’t just making things pretty. It’s not just lipstick on a pig. Pro tip. Don’t Google lipstick on a pig because there are so many frightening ones earlier. I did this over breakfast. I couldn’t eat.
Whenever someone says make it pretty, I take a shot. I don’t take a shot anymore. It forces them to drink. You probably don’t want to do it. You’ll have to repeat things like designing begins at the planning phase. You should include design from the beginning so you can make better quality products. Design is problem solving. Design may find a different way to solve a problem than engineering or business. Nothing will feel as good at that day when you see an engineer repeating this to a new employee at the company. Your heart will seriously smile.
Another thing that is really important and it seems obviously is always worth repeating is to be the voice of the customer. By representing the customer rather than design, you really get people focused on a shared goal and ultimately get people on their side. Everyone is focused on helping the customer achieve their goals and prevent them from failing.
The focus isn’t on design. It’s something everyone can get behind. Going back to Airbnb, they were a design‑led company. And that’s what the media talked about before. But an article came out in Wire earlier this year. Why the head of Airbnb doesn’t like design‑led companies and why they don’t work. So the shift at Airbnb right now is to embed customer‑centric viewpoints. It’s not that design doesn’t have a seat at the table anymore, but people can align more strongly around these customer‑centric viewpoints, around design principles and design methodologies. To Braden’s point yesterday, this is easier when you have a customer centric mindset.
Alignment also comes from starting with small, well scoped projects that are quickly executable. At Simple Reach, I started with an overhaul of the sign‑up flow. This wasn’t the sexiest project and it wasn’t my North Star, but it showed how design could be valuable. People were even tweeting about it and that made everyone at the company kind of realize oh, so this is what design does. If you get a few of these early on, you kind of build that credibility and trust. So when you start working on those more complex projects, you’ll have the support of your entire organization, because they now understand what you’re actually doing.
So what would Harley Earl do? Well Harley Earl was a master of this type of alignment. He aligned people within GM, but the American public as a whole.
He created a precursor to the motor shows we know today. He also created the concept car. And the concept cars captured the hearts and imagination of the American public and gave him another avenue for additional research where he could gauge customer responses to new style and engineering concepts.
Challenge number four is culture. This is your biggest, hairiest, and longest challenge. Chris covered this section the morning. I’ll go through it quickly. It’s not that you want to create a culture of design per se, but you want design to be a part of the culture. But change is hard and slow, and a lot of people will be resistant. That’s why it’s important to establish this vision and buy‑in that we talked about. Part of shifting the culture also means inserting design into the decision‑making process. Design should be a partner when it comes to deciding how things work and what you should build. The small scoped projects that we just talked about, those are good places to start prototyping how you can adjust existing processes both on the engineering side to start accommodate design. Another thing that impacts culture is how the company will organize around design. It might mean a change in how design works. Kind of taking a hard look at where certain skill sets and divisions fall. There’s a big question. We heard about it yesterday. Where does marketing fall, copyrighting fall. As you answer this for your organization, you may come to the conclusion that you need to do a reorg.
Hiring is very important when it comes to culture. This is something that you should own yourself. Don’t outsource it to a recruiter. You can work with them, but lead the process yourself. Even something as small as your own job descriptions has an outside impact. Designers can immediately tell when another designer has written the job description. That’s the kind of organization I would want to work for. People who care to write the descriptions themselves.
Your early hires are key. Someone who shares the same visions and values that you do and someone you can trust because they’re going to help build it. Culture trumps skills when it comes down to it.
If you find someone who is a culture fit, you can always train them in the things they’re missing, be it’s hard to make someone a good culture fit.
This one bit us in the ass at Simple Reach. But it’s not that uncommon. Yesterday there were some questions that led me to believe that other people were experiencing this.
Earlier on when we were heads down on view one of our product, I was the only designer at the time and I was also kind of building out and implementing the front end of our product. We just existed in the execution phase. That’s where things happened and that became expect that had everything was only going to happen in the execution phase and could move really quickly. By the time we raised an additional round of funding and started building out a design team, the damage had already been done. We are making sure we get design up front and we have time for a design to be designed.
To this end, Peter’s double diamond model has been helpful and creating that extra space and why you need definition in addition to execution. Denise also talked about this yesterday when she was discussing experimentation and implementation. Again, you really need that space to come before execution. Be very careful and don’t get stuck in the execution phase.
What would Harley Earl do? Well, we’ve taken a look at some of the ways he changed culture with design studios, and the Motorama shows. But he also changed the culture with his hiring. GM was the first company to employ women designers as full equals in the art and style division. It helped GM be as successful as it was. But Earl’s work was undone. His successor demoted all women saying no women are going to stand next to any senior designers of mine. Yeah. I know. We think we have it bad today.
The final challenge, one that I realized later than most is me. You. The first thing to remember really is to celebrate wins and learn from losses. This is especially important if you’re the only designer in you organization. It’s entirely possible that the rest of your company won’t realize when these milestones are occurring. Be vigilant about losses and reassess and adapt as you go. I don’t know if this photograph is a success or failure photograph. I saw Chris smiling, so for him it might be a success. You should always be learning. It ties back very nicely to all the learning we talked about in challenge number one of vision. But I like to emphasize that basically everything that you’re going to be learning about has nothing to do with design. You’re going to be continuing to learn about the business of business. What it’s like to grow an organization. Business models, all the stuff you spent the first 90 days learning. It’s also reciprocal. If you’re asking business to learn about design, it’s appropriate that you can’t to learn about the business, as well. It’s going to put the business in better place.
Be sure to mind mentors.
I’m fortunate to live in New York City where I have access to a number of groups.
I’m not going to go in detail right now. I’m happy to talk about them afterwards. But if this doesn’t exist where you are. If you don’t have a network of people you can talk to, then build it.
I’m actually a co‑organizer for meeting of the minds, and I used to be for the product design guild. Be proactive about creating the networks that you need.
Similarly if your organization is amenable, get an executive coach. Coaches will help you find your path and be effective in the goals that you want to achieve. This is a journey. This is something that Catherine Courage says all the time. Change won’t happen over night nor is it something with the finish line. Like World of Warcraft, the journey never ends. I’m a huge Warcraft player, if there’s anyone out there.
Processes of your organization. Dealing with these five challenges, vision, buy‑in, alignment, culture, and you, will help you in your journey at the table and help you demonstrate the value of design. Harley Earl joined GM in 1927. He was made vice president in 1940. And by 1950 they had equal decision making.
But there’s this ten‑year period between when he got the title and when he got decision making power. That’s why the table is just the beginning.
For further reading, I’ve collected these resources. I’ll tweet this out. It comes down to using our designerly ways to build the world that you want and the organization that you want.
I would like to leave you with two quotes. The future is something that you do, not something that happens to you. And don’t be in victim mode, drive change. Thank you.
Do we have time for questions? Or is it Italian ice time?
Okay. Questions? Everyone wants Italian ice.
So looking back, you were talking about how you got drawn right into the execution mode. I can relate to that. I might be there right now for all I know. What would you have done differently at that point to avoid that? Because the one thing I find is that execution doesn’t buy you credibility, especially early on.
Actually I don’t know if I would have done anything different in that execution phase because I don’t know if there was anything available at the time. We were in a race to get execution out to raise our next round of funding. The only difference I would have made was to maybe talk about it more. The same thing with the initial hey I’m going to be the chief design officer. Really having a broader conversation about what that meant, rather than just assuming that everybody knows what I know. But I think there are some times when you just can’t avoid being in the execution phase.
Cool. Let’s eat!
Thank you Andrea. Round of applause please.