What inspired you to pursue a career at the intersection of design and business? I had always been veering in that direction, doing work and having interests that bridged design and business, as well as creativity and strategy. I worked in the fashion industry as a hat designer and in global sourcing. I worked in the nonprofit sector as well as in corporate. But it wasn’t until I started my PhD in design management that I learned a formalized process and place for this way of thinking. I was ecstatic! Studying service design—planning and organizing a business’s resources to improve its service—gave words and a process to something that always was very intuitive to me.
How did you get started in strategic design and learn the necessary skills? After completing my PhD in design management, I approached some of the staff at Thomas Jefferson University, where I taught at the time, to convince them that we should be offering academic programs in the strategic design space. They turned to me and said, “OK, then you start something.” So I created the strategic design MBA program, which integrated design thinking into the way graduate students were learning about leadership, operations, branding and financial models. A year after creating the program, I gave a TEDxPhiladelphia talk on how to redesign business, and companies started inviting me to give workshops and talks based on what I had spoken about. Those projects became more and more interesting, so I started my creative strategy and design research consultancy, Figure 8 Thinking, LLC.
How does your background in the fashion world inform your work? It equips me with both a creative lens and a business lens. I co-created a seven-point workshop framework called fashion thinking with design expert Valerie Jacobs and mass media and entertainment expert Johanna Blakley. At Figure 8, we use it to help nonfashion firms innovate by thinking more like a fashion designer. I also bring a lot of my fashion background into the way I do scenario-planning work because fashion has always used trends as data points. For example, on a social and societal level, assimilation is out and standing out is in. Therefore, we see more customization as an option in fashion as well as people gravitating to vintage, which enables you to have one-of-a-kind items. The vintage piece is also a nod to nostalgia in a time of economic and political turmoil and unrest.
Do you ever feel that the business impulse competes with the creative impulse? I believe strategy is a creative process, so no. To build a business, you must be incredibly creative. The day-to-day operations may not require a lot of creativity, but people forget that creativity is not all fun and gumdrops. It requires rigor and time spent on tasks.
Design thinking has become a buzzword today. How has this impacted your job? It has been great in the sense that more people want to learn it and incorporate it into their work. I help my clients by “training the trainer” in design thinking—giving them the skills to begin to scale design thinking projects in their organizations. I also have longer-term engagements where we use design thinking as the means to the end—for cultural transformation, breaking down silos in teams, and redesigning work processes and experiences.
How can designers strengthen their skills in ethnographic research? Design researchers incorporate quite a bit of ethnography—interviews, observation and contextual inquiry. Some of it starts in how designers are educated; some of it comes from breaking down the lingo. And a lot of it comes from a willingness for both the designer and the client to be invested in a longer-term horizon to find insights. Ethnographic research yields depth with a smaller sample size, or what I call the worm’s-eye view, while quantitative research gives you the big picture in a shorter amount of time, or more of the bird’s-eye view. The best scenario is when qualitative and quantitative are integrated and used in conjunction with each other.
What steps do you take to ensure that an ideation session is fruitful? Clarity, clariy, clarity! It is important that I am clear on what the desired outcomes are—what success might look like at the end of the process. It is also important that I am clear on instructions and guidelines. I am also a big proponent of design sprints and using time as a constraint for creativity.
What cultural or business trends are you most interested in right now? I am fascinated with the return of desire among people to learn by doing. This is becoming possible because of digital platforms and all of the various ways that DIY is taking off. This could also prove to be disruptive to higher education and traditional models of learning.
What skills do designers need to succeed today? Curiosity, storytelling, public speaking, marketing and having the basic business operational skills necessary to sustain their businesses. Designers have great opportunities to be entrepreneurial—if that’s what they want.
What are the most important lessons on leadership you’ve learned? Lead by asking questions. Listen a lot. And prepare to pay it forward by having a succession plan.