She was recently interviewed by Mary Lynch, ChE ’82.
What did you enjoy most about your time at The Cooper Union?
I was lucky to be attending art school in the 1980s, when Andy Warhol could be seen at parties and Keith Haring was creating chalk masterpieces in the subway stations. The East Village was alive and vibrant, spewing with creativity. I knew then that I was surrounded by world renown teachers and the smartest and most talented students in the world. On top of this, my education was free, which I felt incredibly grateful and fortunate to receive.
Which professors influenced you the most?
When I entered Cooper Union, I thought I would graduate as a fine artist. My painting teacher during sophomore year encouraged me to diversify and so I took design classes and a programming class at the engineering school. My love of letterforms came from Don Kunz, who taught Calligraphy. He had a profound impact on me personally as well as professionally throughout my college years. Peter Bradford was my Design instructor during my senior year. He helped me discover my love and appreciation for information design. Peter had our class define our own design problems to solve. I chose to tackle the problem of how people discover and find things on Staten Island. I designed a map, for use at the Ferry terminal, that was more intuitive for the users. It’s great to see something like that exists today at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.
How did you find your way into design work?
During my senior year of college, Peter Bradford asked Richard Saul Wurman to speak to our class. Richard came into the class and essentially “yelled” at us (at least that is how I remember it). He said something to the effect of “Stop designing for other designers — design is about helping real people make sense of the world.” That lecture fundamentally changed the way I looked at graphic design and I landed a job working for Richard right out of college designing guidebooks and information systems at Access Press.
How did you end up in San Francisco?
Richard Wurman was hired by the Pacific Bell Yellow Pages to help reimagine how people consume and access information with a tool people relied on everyday. He opened an office in San Francisco called The Understanding Business, (TUB). Coincidentally, my college friend Sandra Kelch from Cooper was moving to San Francisco, so we road-tripped to San Francisco where I helped set up the West Coast office. I sublet my NYC apartment because I thought this would be a temporary assignment. Three years later, I gave up that apartment when I finally admitted to myself I was in here to stay in the Bay Area.
What was involved in redesigning the Yellow Pages?
A lot was involved. You may remember that back then that it sometimes wasn’t easy to find the information you were looking for. The Yellow Pages entries were arranged in alphabetical order, but often not using the key words that users intuitively look under. For example, “Car repair” was not under “C.” You needed to look it up as “Automobile Service & Repair.”
We redesigned the Yellow Pages to be more people friendly and to include expanded information. We asked ourselves, what would a new resident of San Diego need to know? This led to the inclusion of maps and other well-designed locally-based information.
What also made this period of design exciting was the paradigm shift of moving from analog to digital processes using Macintosh computers. Richard Wurman was an early adopter of this new technology, and I fell in love with learning design in this new way.
I also fell in love with the collaborative culture that existed in our San Francisco office at that time and took that love with me when I started by first business.
Tell us about that venture.
That firm was called YO and was a partnership with Lynne Stiles, whom I worked with at The Understanding Business. We left TUB at different times but came together and founded YO in 1992 which ended it in 1997. During that time we were early adopters and learned how to design for this new medium called the World Wide Web. People of diverse backgrounds — writers, artists, designers, and developers—were working collaboratively and learning how to use this new medium simultaneously. It was exciting work. Our book, Elements of Web Design was written during these years. It was first published in 1995.
What came next after YO?
I wanted to devote more time to creating digital works, so in 1997, I went out on my own and founded Hot Studio, a human-centered experience design firm. Our team was diverse and multi-disciplinary. We designed high-quality end-to-end solutions that included high level strategic insight through delivery of fully-functional digital products and services. Our clients loved our highly collaborative and co-creative process. Over the past 15 years, Hot Studio grew to 75 people in two locations, San Francisco and New York City.
Earlier this year, HOT was acquired by Facebook. How did that come about?
My team began working with Facebook and our companies seemed to work really well together. We shared similar working styles and cultural values. We quickly felt like we were all part of the same collaborative team. It was during this time that Facebook showed interest in acquiring our talented team. I was open to the idea and discussions began about a year ago. I am always looking forward and am open to new possibilities. It’s not everyday where you get a chance in your career to work on a platform that serves over a billion people all around the world.
What is your current position at Facebook and what are you currently working on?
I am Director of Product Design and I am collaborating on the design of the next generation of Facebook user experiences. Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. It’s really exciting to be with a company that is less than 10 years old and is making such a big impact around the world. I’m thrilled to be on this journey, along with many of my former employees who came over with the acquisition this year.
What mediums excite you now?
We are in an incredible time when computers are changing the way we live at a very elemental level. Our “real” and “virtual” lives are becoming more integrated. This is happening in part, because our “virtual” life is no longer exclusively accessed via computer. The smartphone is having a profound impact on how we live our lives. Good design is not dependent on a platform or medium. The smartphone, the digital wall and the computer screen are all canvases for designers.
Tell us about your most recent book, The Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design
Rise of the DEO explores the intersection of creativity and business acumen, explaining how and why this unlikely coupling produces leaders most capable of solving our increasingly complex business problems.
A DEO, or Design Executive Officer, is a hybrid. The DEO is part strategic business executive and part creative problem solver. The DEO views an organization as a design project that requires both skill sets. DEOs see themselves as catalysts for transformation and as agents of cultural change. With this perspective and these abilities, the DEO looks at business problems as design problems, solvable through the right mix of imagination and metrics. Learn More
I am guessing that you formed many of your ideas about leadership from your own experiences. What qualities do you believe are most important for corporate leaders and when did you realize this?
Our book provides six defining characteristics of a DEO:
Change agent: They are comfortable disrupting the status quo if it gets in the way of their dream.
Systems thinkers: They understand the interconnectedness of their world.
Risk takers: They embrace risk as an inherent part of life and a key ingredient of creativity.
Socially intelligent: They instinctively connect with others and integrate them into well-defined and heavily accessed networks.
Intuitive: They have the ability to feel what’s right, by using their intense perceptual and observational skills or through deep expertise.
GSD (Get Shit Done): They feel an urgency to get personally involved, to understand details through their own interaction, and to lead by example. DEOs make things happen.
Did you have any special challenges as a female executive?
For me, finding time to balance family responsibilities with work was a challenge. Running a design studio requires a lot of travel. I did cut back some on the travel, especially during those years when my children were small. Also, I realized that there were only so many hours in the day, so compromises had to be made when it came to building my career and being a parent. Finally, I have a supportive husband who understands the importance of partnership when it comes to making a living and raising children.
How did your preparation at Cooper prepare you for the work you are doing today?
I didn’t realize it when I was a student, but Peter Cooper was very wise and intuitive when he brought Art and Science together in the same school. Design is very interdisciplinary. In my businesses, I have hired people of many disciplines from art, architecture and engineering. The overlap and interconnectedness of those disciplines in today’s world is amazing. Who knew that the Fortran programming course I took in the engineering school would have direct implications for the work that I am doing today?
Do you remain close with any of your classmates?
Yes. Sandra Kelch, Sue Laurita, Tim Horn, Josh Madonna and a bunch of other Cooper friends that live here in Bay Area. I was so lucky to be at Cooper. I was surrounded by talented colleagues who are currently thriving in their respective fields and are fulfilling their passions.