Insight - 01/16/24

Insights from the Women in Design Committee

10 min

By Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman

The Women in Design Committee comprises a rich tapestry of individuals hailing from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Our membership is a dynamic mix of practitioners and academics spanning young professionals and seasoned designers, including entrepreneurs and those employed by large corporations. We proudly represent gender and racial diversity.

We represent five distinct regions across the United States. Marcelle van Beusekom, IDSA, senior designer at Aruliden, represents the Western district. Elham Morshedzadeh, PhD, IDSA, assistant professor at the University of Houston, represents the Southern district. Annie Abell, IDSA, associate professor of practice at Ohio State, represents the Central district. Priyankaa Krishnan, IDSA, design and change manager at Meta represents the Midwest district. I, the founder and principal of the Interwoven Design Group and Professor at Pratt Institute, represent the Northeast district, and Lea Stewart, IDSA, senior manager at Newell Brands, leads the committee.

In this article, the six of us come together to engage in a conversation about our experiences. Our objective is to uncover shared experiences, explore our differences, and, ultimately, convey our collective wisdom, which we are excited to share with you. The following features excerpts from our conversation.

Breaking Barriers 

Entering the field of industrial design can be a challenge, and landing that first job can be a pivotal moment in one’s design career. We all have experiences to share about that transition. My path is rather unconventional. I came from a highly successful corporate career in apparel design, having held design director positions at Nike, Fila, and Champion. However, transitioning to industrial design proved to be exceptionally challenging. After completing my MID, I faced difficulty finding a job. Ultimately, I charted my own course, combining my skills and reimagining myself as an expert in wearable technology and smart textiles. I leveraged my experience, merging it with product design to jumpstart my career as a design consultant.

Setting yourself apart is the key to standing out in a job search. Van Beusekom recalled a disheartening comment she received during an interview for her first internship: “They said, ‘Oh, they still have you design this device in your school?’ It was then that I realized not all schools support students in building a strong, distinctive portfolio. Fortunately, I learned this before graduating and spent a year studying abroad at a different school. This allowed me to create unique and relevant case studies, learn from others, and enhance my foundational skills. A stronger, more distinctive portfolio helped me secure my first full-time role.”

Many of us on the committee had to be creative in our entry into the profession. Morshedzadeh, for instance, did not secure her first job solely due to her design skills. She networked extensively during her undergraduate years, and once she landed the job, continually had to prove her value. “In my position, I had to work diligently to earn the respect of my co-workers, especially as a woman and an immigrant with a different appearance, perspective, and communication style,” she explained.

Abell reflected that “women can encounter various hidden and invisible barriers ingrained in society and workplace cultures.” However, one of the toughest challenges is recognizing that you can also be a barrier to yourself. Imposter syndrome is real. This same sentiment resonated with Krishnan, who faced significant pressure in an orthodox Indian family where the expectation was to become a doctor or engineer, or else face social ridicule. “I applied to over 700 jobs over three years, completing two degrees while struggling to secure employment until I finally received a life-changing offer from a renowned company,” she shared. Perseverance paid off, but the journey was long and arduous.

Navigating the Field

Historically, women have been underrepresented in industrial design, and navigating this landscape has required us to employ various strategies to overcome gender-related obstacles. Van Beusekom initially had a degree of naivety about this issue. Her graduating class was gender-diverse, and it was only after graduation that she realized the industry’s disparities. “I decided to turn the difference into my advantage, lean into my strengths and unique perspective, and have continued to build on those ever since,” she explained.

Abell emphasized the importance of finding your support system, explaining, “Having a support system is critical. Identifying allies in your workplace can be invaluable. Building positive relationships with peers or, even better, those with authority, can greatly assist you when facing various obstacles.”

Morshedzadeh found herself working harder, keeping a lower profile, and being less outspoken, both in her home country of Iran and when she immigrated to the U.S. She experienced discrimination as the norm. Krishnan also encountered discrimination, particularly when expressing her dream of working for IDEO while pursuing her master’s degree. Two male professors discouraged her, saying, “Women designers from the Midwest do not get jobs at IDEO and Silicon Valley.” However, she ultimately succeeded in landing a coveted job in Silicon Valley.

Krishnan’s advice to aspiring designers, especially young women entering the industry, is to “never let anyone discourage you from pursuing your dream. Keep pushing towards success.” Morshedzadeh stresses her advocacy for designers, especially her students, by helping them find their unique voice in design, igniting a deeper drive for their future, and empowering them.

Aspiring designers should be aware that there are various paths to success within the field of design and product development, spanning industrial design, user experience, product management, and more. Van Beusekom suggests, “My advice is to get started, whether at a consultancy or a company. Rather than trying to define success up front, I have often found it more valuable to try something new, learn from the people around me, and reflect on the role, team, or environment I enjoyed the most. Following your joy and keeping it at the forefront is the most motivational way to move forward.”

Balancing Act

We are all well aware that balancing a career, personal life, and family commitments can be particularly challenging for women in male-dominated design offices. In such settings, women often find themselves navigating a work culture that may not fully understand or appreciate their unique life commitments and responsibilities.

One significant challenge stems from the differing life commitments and home responsibilities between men and women, which often go unnoticed or unacknowledged. Women in these environments may fear that taking time off or requesting flexibility to fulfill their home responsibilities could make them appear less committed to the team. The pressure to conform to the perceived standard of putting work first can be overwhelming.

Conversely, some women may worry about putting too much into work at the expense of their personal lives. The fear of losing the balance between work and life is a genuine concern, as it can lead to burnout and negatively impact well-being. In this context, it’s important to acknowledge that working at a large company can have benefits, including established leave policies that provide a sense of security. However, smaller companies can also be suitable places for women to work, as they may provide more opportunities to create flexible schedules, customized flexibility plans that cater specifically to individual needs.

I have embraced a flexible working schedule for Interwoven Design that allows designers to pursue other interests. About five years ago, I established a four-day workweek. We are all in the office Monday through Thursday and off on Friday, which we call Flexible Fridays. People in the office have this time to pursue outside interests, teach classes, play and coach sports, and have room in their schedule for life. Our productivity has not decreased, and everyone is happier to be at work when they are in the office.
Abell has found balance in her life and success in her career as an academic. She explained, “Working in academia gives me a very flexible schedule, and I have the freedom to schedule or tend to life matters anytime I’m not in class or in a meeting.” She also maintains healthy boundaries with work, particularly email, by turning off notifications to avoid constant distractions.

Defining Success

Success in the field of design takes on various forms, and many of us grapple with defining what success means while striving to achieve a fulfilling work-life balance. Achieving equilibrium between your design career, personal life, and family commitments is a continuous journey that necessitates self-awareness and adaptability. It’s about feeling empowered to allocate your time and effort according to your priorities, rather than comparing yourself to others.

Stewart shared her evolving perspective on success throughout her journey. Initially, success was tied to personal growth through learning and project completion. As she progressed and assumed leadership roles, her definition of success transformed. She explained, “Early on, success meant acquiring skills and accomplishing design projects. Yet, as I became a mentor and manager, I found deeper fulfillment in fostering the growth and achievements of my team members. Witnessing their development and career progression became a significant measure of my success.” While project completion remains important, it’s now seen as a collective effort tied to team growth. Success has shifted from an individual pursuit to a shared journey. Today, her greatest satisfaction lies in empowering fellow designers, supporting their goals, and contributing to their success.

Van Beusekom’s view of success has also evolved over time. She initially measured success by the ability to bring exceptional products to the market and earn design awards. However, her perspective on success and successful design broadened as she gained a deeper understanding of what makes a product truly great, qualities such as desirability, attractiveness, delightfulness, meaningfulness, responsibility, impact, and differentiation. She continues to refine this perspective as she grows as a designer and creative leader.

In conclusion, I want to express my heartfelt thanks to the dedicated members of the Women in Design Committee. Their unwavering commitment, honesty, and openness have been the driving force behind this insightful discussion. Our committee is a tapestry of diverse individuals, representing a broad spectrum of experiences, from different regions of the United States, backgrounds, and design roles. Through this article, we came together to share our personal journeys, challenges, and wisdom.

Our experiences have revealed the evolving definition of success, the significance of support networks, and the importance of flexibility in our professional and personal lives. We believe that our stories will inspire and empower others in the design community, particularly those facing similar challenges. I extend my warmest thanks to each member for their contributions, and we eagerly anticipate sharing more of our collective insights in the future. Together, we are forging a path toward a more inclusive and diverse design world.

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