A Q&A with Design Leader Lea Stewart

“You have to be really good at what you do”

A Q&A with Design Leader Lea Stewart

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them.  In this interview, we speak with design leader Lea Stewart, an industrial designer with expertise in
team management, strategy, and concept development in multiple product categories.

Lea currently oversees a global team of industrial designers in the baby division at Newell Brands. Oh, and she’s a professional speaker as well, specializing in design leadership, women in design, the value of design, and much more. Basically, she’s cool. We asked her about being a woman in industrial design and how we can better support women in the industry.

Head shot of Lea Stewart, industrial design leader.
Lea Stewart is a leader in industrial design as well as a speaker and educator. Photo courtesy of Lea Stewart.

Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?

A: So let me explain what I do, and then it will make more sense why certain things are interesting to me. I lead the design group for Newell Brands that develops all the products for our baby business unit. That’s one section of the corporation, but it includes many different brands you might be familiar with, like Graco, which is strollers and car seats, and Nuk, which is bottles and pacifiers and feeding tools. Everything to do with babies, toddlers, etc.

We have a project right now that I’m super excited about, going into a new category. And I wish I could tell you more. New category expansion is rare, because we’re so saturated in categories that we’re already in. Going into a new white space is really exciting. It’s a hard thing to not be known in a space and then develop that first product. It’s got to win if you’re going to continue to be in that space, so it’s high pressure, but it also doesn’t have any precedent.

It’s really cool when I think “oh man, I wish this existed when I first had my child.” My son is now four. That’s all I can say for now but that’s what gets me excited; when there’s a huge challenge of “gotta win” in that totally new space.

Q: Could you tell us about one of your favorite projects and share why it is important to you?

A: Like picking a favorite child! 

It’s hard to pick one thing when you’ve been working in the field for 20 years, so I’m going to pick from projects that launched in the last year, and tell you about the Baby Jogger City Sights stroller. It started a couple of years ago, because it takes quite a while to get to market. When we started to work on it, what was so cool was the team interaction. It was one of our first ground up strollers for that brand. A lot of the projects we were doing initially was updating aesthetics, but not quite reinventing the way that the stroller worked. This stroller was completely rethinking how we would get a modular stroller—which means the seat would come off—to be compact, lightweight and super premium. And we started from scratch. 

When I say we it was cross-functional teams. We had a war room we were working in. We had folks that work specifically on fabrics and fashion and soft goods. We had engineers, the suppliers that we were partnering with, and then the design team. The other thing that I love about it: it’s beautiful, especially in the mode where the bassinet is attached. A bassinet attachment is usually an afterthought in stroller development…and it doesn’t look right. The use of the bassinet mode is really popular in Europe especially, and this mode looks just gorgeous. 

We just won a Red Dot award, so I’m super excited about that. Parenting is such a difficult job that it feels very fulfilling to help with that in any kind of way, because it is tough. It is so tough.

Q: At what point in your career did you transition from designing to designing and leading teams? 

A: Yeah, super interesting question. It made me think a lot, because even in my very first job, which was lifeguarding when I was in high school, it always ended up that whoever I was working for naturally said, Oh well, now you’re not just a lifeguard, you’re going to be the manager of the lifeguards. They would notice something in me where they would give me responsibility. 

When I got into the design world, in early roles, I might have had an intern or been working with an outside contractor. You need to be thinking, what kind of work should I be asking them to do? As I got more experience with that it started really motivating me. I would love to do the planning and the thinking around what should we do in this project, and then have someone else activate it or work with them to activate it, and mentor and coach them. It happened pretty naturally. I think people recognized that responsibility or that ability in me, and I started to notice that it was inspiring me, to see other people develop. That’s how I knew management was a path I wanted to take.

Q: How did your public speaking start?

A: It didn’t really have anything to do with a connection to people-managing or leadership. In my early career it was more about networking, and wanting to be known as an industry expert. I felt like I had something I could contribute, so I would give talks about my work. In 2020, I got asked to speak at an Industrial Design Society of America panel about different generations of women. There were three other women on the panel and they all had more experience than I did. One of them was actually in her 90s. And I’m thinking to myself, How do I not know these women? 

They were amazing. Am I doing the same thing? Not letting myself be seen by less experienced women? It would be great if they could see more representation in our industry. 

Since that realization—that representation is really important to less experienced women in particular—I’ve wanted everyone to see, Hey, yes. There are women that have 20 plus years experience in this industry. I pretty much just say yes to anybody who asks me to speak. I do a lot of talks with students. I take it as my form of volunteering right now, it’s something that I can give back.

Q: How do you navigate being a woman in the design industry? A woman in leadership?

A: I think that first, you have to be really good at what you do. I’m not going to have a seat at the table, if I’m not super badass at what I do. 

I work really, really hard to be good at design and design leadership. I’ve got to have the chops before I can do any kind of advocacy. Because I am really interested in equity for women in our field, I do a lot of work outside of my day job, to work towards that. Being a leader in the Industrial Design Society of America and a representative for the Central District is one thing, I’m also on the board of a community group called Women and ID Chicago. I volunteer myself a lot. I’m also active in employee resource groups for women in my company. 

At some large companies, they might have groups of folks interested in common goals. One group at my company focuses on how women can help women in the workplace. For example, we might meet and talk about a new study from McKinsey that talks about challenges for women in the workplace. We get guest speakers and offer tools and resources. It’s a place for women to talk about what it’s like. A place where, when something does come up, you have a network that you could talk to. It’s really helpful even just to have other people say, I know what you mean. I’ve been there, you’re not crazy

Q: What guidance do you have for women who aspire to leadership positions?

A: The work that I do, I wouldn’t classify it necessarily as activism or overt activism. It’s really about helping women navigate their careers. I have focused on women in industrial design because I feel like I can make change within our industry. To choose your focus might be something to think about. I’m super focused right now on advancing industrial design specifically. 

Leadership could be leading projects or initiatives. You don’t necessarily have to manage people in order to be a leader. You really should think about what motivates you. Do you really want to be responsible for other people’s development? When you see somebody else learn and grow, does that get you excited? Or is it more about the project management, figuring out what should happen in this project while not really wanting to develop people? You could mentor people, mentoring them on a skill and managing them is a little bit different. Think about what happens when you get a manager title: it’s not just about control and power. It comes with that responsibility for the people who will work for you, and I see that as a big difference. 

Other advice: let’s say you have no idea, you don’t know what you’d be motivated by. You could talk to the folks you work with about what they do. Could you shadow another manager? Could you sit in as a fly on the wall in a meeting that’s just for managers to see what kind of things they’re talking about?

Q: How was the transition into motherhood for you as a professional?

A: I think for all, becoming a parent is just hard. That’s whether you’re in industrial design or any field. It is hard. Your brain half works, your body’s all messed up, you’ve got a lot of responsibility and very little sleep. But all these things are short-term, so that normalizes after a while. You’ve got to create your own support network, whether that’s a partner or other forms of help. Get yourself a good network and recognize that you need that village. 


When I went back to work, the other moms that I work with were amazing. There were the most heartwarming memories when I first came back. There were two other moms using the pumping room and they decorated the room for me on my first week back. It was so sweet because they knew. They were already in it and they were like, We know this is hard, you got this.

Q: Were you already working in the baby division when you had your baby?

A: Yes, for several years actually, and I had a really hard time having a baby so that was interesting too, working in this category, being a leader in this category, while personally having a ton of trouble and going through a lot of infertility treatment. Then again, you realize that a lot of people go through that, and there were a lot of leaders in my business unit that went through it, too. 

My company is very supportive, they have policies in place. My managers worked with me. I feel very fortunate that I didn’t have a lot of challenges or things I had to navigate new, or be the first one. A lot of women go through that. If you’re working for a company that doesn’t have precedents set, you may be the first person to have gone on a maternity leave and have to set the policies with your company and discuss what’s going to happen.

Q: Do you think it changes what you’re bringing to the table as a designer, having had the experience yourself?

A: Somewhat. I think it can be good and bad. The good part is, you might know the kind of questions that could be in that mom’s mind. Say we’re going to build a new stroller; in using them yourself so many times, you kind of know the pain points a parent could have. And I say could have, because the danger is that you get in your own cycle of thinking, and my experience is not every mom’s experience. Every parenting experience is different, so that can be the danger: making yourself the consumer instead of listening to lots of consumers.

Q: What guidance do you have for those who want to be an ally to women?

A: As part of the Women Industrial Design Chicago Group, I lead a lot of their blog content. We did a really great series about allyship. The way I break it down is thinking about different phases of depth of your allyship. It could be you’re in the beginning, just realizing that allyship is needed and that bias does exist. You’re noticing things like micro-aggressions. Next you might want to do something about it but you don’t exactly know what to do, so you might need to educate yourself. That could be reading or listening to women podcasts, or going to women’s group meetings. We have a lot of men that attend the Employee Resource Group I mentioned. Then you might want to take more action. That could be giving voice to women and supporting an idea that you think is good that might have gotten passed over in a meeting, amplifying it. 

Even just listening intently when a woman is speaking is allyship. To just truly truly listen and give them as much attention as you would anyone else. If you’re in a position, you should hire women, you should mentor women. You could acknowledge any bias you see out loud. If you’re really bold and really want to be a good ally, you could get uncomfortable. You could point out people’s blind spots. You could have open conversations about equity for women in your workplace. 

The first step is to recognize the need for it, and that without allies, we’re not going to solve it. We really need allies to help. The worst thing to do is nothing! 

We made up a list of mantras that allies could state to themselves if they’re getting to that phase of realizing that there’s a need. I’m just going to read it out to you because I think it’s cool.

You can say:

  • I play a critical role in accelerating gender equality in industrial design. 
  • Women don’t have all the solutions to the problem either, we’re in this together. 
  • Gender equality makes economic sense. 
  • Gender balance and design will mean better products for users. 
  • Unrecognized and unaddressed bias could be hurting my design outcomes.

Q: Do you have anything else you’d like to add, or anything you wish you’d been asked?

A: I’m going to go back to that idea of just being really good at design. I think it’s overlooked a bit. There are so few women in this place of leadership that we get asked a lot to speak about women and design. We don’t get asked a lot to speak about just being a great designer. 

That could be another way to be an ally. Recognize women for being really good designers or managers or leaders.

What are Soft Goods?

In our AMA (Ask Me Anything) series, industrial designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman answers questions about design and process from Instagram and LinkedIn. Rebeccah is the founder of and principal designer at Interwoven Design Group, a design consultancy in Brooklyn, NY. She has over 25 years of design experience and has held positions as Design Director for Fila, Champion and Nike. She is the author of Smart Textiles for Designers: Inventing the Future of Fabrics, and speaks internationally on design and innovation. In this issue she answers the question, what are soft goods?

Watch the video or read the transcript below for Rebeccah’s definition of an industrial designer, then check out our Insight article on this topic for a more in-depth explanation.

What are soft goods?

Hi, I’m Rebeccah from Interwoven Design Group. I’m back again for another Ask Me Anything. Today’s question is, what are soft goods? So soft goods are basically products that are made with textiles. They’re smushy and soft, and they can be anything from outdoor gear to a backpack to stuffed animals or furniture. What we do at Interwoven is wearable technology, products that are worn on the body. 

If you’re curious about what we do, you can get in touch, we’d love to hear from you. Follow us on Instagram or come to our website, getinterwoven.com.

Still curious?

Soft goods are a specific subcategory in the design industry that includes products made with primarily but not exclusively non-rigid (soft) materials. It is a major category that makes up a significant part of the US consumer market and is driven by innovation, form, and aesthetics. Please check out our article on soft goods design to understand this topic further.

Do you have any questions about design? Let us know on social media! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development.

What is Wearable Technology?

What is Wearable Technology?

Here at Interwoven Design our design niche is the intersection of soft goods and wearable technology. We love the challenge of making rigid components work seamlessly with body mechanics, which is an area of design that pushes for innovation in materials and construction as well as in electronic components and integration strategies. We explained what soft goods design is, but what do we mean by wearable technology? What does anyone mean by it? 

On the surface, wearable technology is exactly what it sounds like: technology that is worn on the body. That said, as with any product category, there’s a bit more to understanding it than that. At least these days, technology here usually means smart electronics, or electronics that can ‘talk’ with other devices. Wearable tends to mean close to or actually on the skin, allowing for the detection, analysis, and transmission of information about the body. Smartwatches and fitness trackers are popular examples of wearable technology, or wearables, for short. For their smart technologies to function, you have to wear them throughout your day.

A baby wearing the WithMe device. WithMe is a small, repositionable sensing unit designed by Interwoven that works with a smart-enabled device to deliver vital information about a baby’s wellbeing to a phone or tablet.

How does wearable technology work?

The capabilities of wearables are all over the place, ranging from basic to complex, which means that how they function varies a lot, too, and often depends on the product category in question. Usually they use micro-sensors to gather information, and some combination of microprocessors, batteries, internet connectivity, and bluetooth technology to be able to sync with other devices. This synchronization is most likely in real time, providing immediate biofeedback in the case of a wearable collecting biometric data, like a fitness tracker, or location services in the case of personal safety devices. They are an important and growing category in the Internet of things that creates an ever-expanding network of devices around us.

What is wearable technology for?

The applications for wearable technology are numerous and growing. Wearables might be medical devices, clothing or clothing accessories, fitness devices, jewelry, or something else entirely. They might be assisting with navigation or rescue, providing biofeedback to refine athletic performance (like the Remo Haptic Training system), facilitating medical monitoring (like the WithMe baby monitor), providing entertainment, as with AR and VR headsets, offering consumer convenience, as with smartwatches and wireless earbuds, and much more. As they are worn on the body, they are hands-free devices that offer the wearer unencumbered movement along with the service they provide. 

Interwoven Wearable Technology Case Study:

Delta Gloves

a figure lifts weight wearing smart technology fitness gloves: Turn reps into results faster with gloves that track your workout.
The Delta Gloves track your workout in real time and transmit the data to an app on your smartphone.

We worked with PureCarbon to develop the Delta Gloves, connected strength training gloves that track people’s workouts, including exercise performed, sets, reps and weight.  All the information is transmitted to an app on your smartphone.

We considered a wide range of criteria,  including fit considerations, strength, breathability, insulation from the electronics and moisture management. In the case of this specific wearable, an electronic circuit contains sensors to detect weight. That circuit is printed onto a flexible film that’s laminated onto fabric and placed in the lining of the glove.

A figure lifts a weight wearing smart technology fitness gloves
A circuit is printed onto a flexible film that is laminated onto fabric and placed in the lining of the glove.

One of the key innovations in this project was the developing a fit for the glove that would allow for high athletic performance as well as high electronic circuit performance. Circuits printed on flexible TPU film allow for a greatly expanded range of applications in wearable technology, being flexible, washable, and durable. They don’t offer much stretch, however, and they don’t breathe. We worked through these limitations by applying the film only to select areas between the lining and the shell, and by using materials with moisture-management properties. We added mesh ventilation inserts between the fingers to release heat accumulating within the glove. 

Mesh ventilation inserts between the fingers allow heat accumulating within the glove to be released.

What are some more examples of wearable technology?

Medical, Health & Fitness

Using wearables to track health and fitness metrics is incredibly popular. Devices that track metrics like heart rate, blood pressure, calorie intake, and menstrual cycles are increasingly prominent in the market, in part boosted by the rise in personal health and hygiene caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Devices developed specifically for use in hospitals and the medical community are a growing subcategory.

Smart Clothing

Smart watches, shoes, clothing, and jewelry fall into the category of smart clothing, also called intelligent fashion. These are wearable devices that offer service and fashion in one, integrating technology to provide useful data, or perhaps to create a dramatic visual statement, as in the case of the Fiber Optic Tutus we created for the Brooklyn Ballet. 

Gaming

The gaming and entertainment industries were key pioneers in exploring wearables like smart glasses, VR and AR headsets, and specialty controllers. These remain at the cutting edge of what these industries have to offer, and aim to create increasingly seamless interactions between the user and the media experience. 

There you have it!

Wearable technology is our wheelhouse, so we could talk about it all day. Wearables are devices that incorporate smart technology and interface with the body to generate data that can be used in a number of ways, from medical health and daily fitness to virtual entertainment and fashion innovation. Check out our Insight posts to learn more about what we do at Interwoven Design. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!

How Does an Idea Become a Product?

How Does an Idea Become a Product?

Millions of products launch every year but the process behind how they all come to be is often mysterious. How does an idea become a product? What is going on behind the scenes?

In our What is Soft Goods Design? post we shared a broad overview of the product development cycle that we follow for each project at Interwoven Design. In this post, we’ll walk through our specific studio process in detail, breaking down each phase of our workflow to provide insight into how a design studio functions, and how a good idea becomes a great product.

Product Development

Our design process embodies the true nature of collaboration. Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, our fearless leader and the founder and principal designer at Interwoven Design, leads our team to achieve ambitious goals throughout the design and product development life cycle. By approaching industrial design with a start-up mindset we can iterate quickly, constantly informed by user testing and feedback that allows us to create innovative and functional wearable products like the Apex Exosuit.

Interwoven Design Process: Research, Design, Prototype, Manufacture & Launch
The Interwoven Design Process has four main stages: Research, Design, Prototype, and Manufacture & Launch

Design Research & Analysis

We conduct design research and analysis that includes key requirements, physical constraints of the product, marketing objectives, examples of similar solutions, materials inquiries, aesthetics, and preliminary fabric research. Using this research as a jumping off point, our team explores additional aesthetic research, including trend, silhouette, texture and colors.

Brainstorming

Collaborative discussions to brainstorm product features and technical options based on market and technical research can be highly generative. All ideas are then put forward and distilled into a single product goal.

Research

Market research includes observational research, existing products, comparing features, benefits and capabilities, determining how price and performance compare across the current market, and first-hand teardowns of competitor products.

Planning & Design Concepts

The planning phase is a collaborative and internal effort to initiate the product development process. From a detailed definition of the product scope to the initiation of the creative design process, this includes concept creation, color development, materials research required for the full product, and silhouette sketches for both the apparel (as we do a lot of products that are worn on the body) and industrial design.

Product Scope & Management

Defining the scope is a collaborative effort to create the product vision, finalize the list of product requirements, and establish a product roadmap wherein every required feature is tied to a user need.

Concept Development

We provide textile (apparel and soft goods), product and technology design solutions guided by research. Multiple solutions are presented at this stage. This phase includes preliminary fabric research and the establishment of a product technology platform for the client brand as well.

Alpha Prototype

We create a series of ideation sketches and alpha (first round) prototype mock-ups for conceptual solutions. These proof-of-concept prototypes are created quickly and consist of looks-like and works-like models to promote rapid iteration. The goal is to test and iterate as fast as possible to get to the best solution.

Ideation Sketches

We provide refined conceptual designs that have been selected from the sketched concepts. Detailed drawings of each of the selected designs are presented in multiple views and rendered with a high level of detail.

Alpha Prototype Mock-ups

Two to three proof-of-concept alpha prototypes of the conceptual designs are developed. Materials are identified and low fidelity alternatives are used where needed. Each subsystem is prototyped independently with each iterated upon two to five times until it meets the chosen requirements. An aesthetic prototype can be created if requested by the client.

Beta Prototype

We make a collaborative effort with the client to choose the final subsystem implementations to be used in the beta (second round) prototype. The final product offering is determined and the final design is triggered. This final stage is often where the most difficult decisions are made between functionality, cost, and aesthetics.

Prototype

This phase involves the development of a fully functional and looks-like pre-production prototype that matches the list of requirements. It involves two to three iterations of design, development, testing, and redesigning, depending on the product and client needs. CAD files are created for rapid prototyping, preliminary mold making, and pattern making.

Production Hand-off

We coordinate the hand-off of the design and prototypes to an internal product development or production team. We can also work directly with a manufacturing partner to facilitate the transition from high fidelity prototype to mass production.

Manufaturing

As the work is in progress through manufacturing, I will remain available to give on going support the product through its final stages of development and consult with respect to whether what is being sourced, manufactured and delivered is in conformity with the specifications and of suitable quality.

On-going relationship

We maintain an ongoing client relationship throughout product manufacturing. This relationship can include any or all of the services listed here. Ongoing relationships are structured as a monthly retainer agreement.

Services

o Project management with manufacturing partner
o Continuing design innovation (R&D)
o Company technical advisor

So…that’s it!

So, that’s how an idea becomes a product, at least in our world of industrial design. Do you have an idea for a great product that you’d love to see brought to life? You just might want to reach out to us! Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!

Women in Industrial Design

Cultivating A Community That Supports Women in Industrial Design

Industrial design is a male-dominated field. The statistics don’t lie; only 19% of all industrial designers identify as female. This is a problem that has far-reaching repercussions, affecting everyone from budding designers to active professionals to the consumers using our products. Having an unequal playing field isn’t good for anyone, and frankly, it’s bad for business. Studies have shown that improving gender equality has positive impacts just about everywhere, improving everything from GDP to job growth to working conditions.

Just 19% of industrial designers identify as female. Via zippia
Women earn 89 cents for every $1 earned by men. Via zippia

Women as Design Leaders

At Interwoven Design, we’re working hard to change things. One of our main goals is to support women in design leadership. Although the number of women in design education and in academia has been growing over the past century, the percentage of women in leadership roles remains small. Across all industries, only 39% of executive roles are held by women, and a shocking 1% of all creative agencies are founded by women. These statistics speak to a larger problem of women being under represented in leadership roles, which has a critical impact on not only the products we are designing, but the world we are designing in.

The Interwoven Design team works on a project in the studio.

Having more women in design and design leadership roles is not just a theoretical concept; it results in tangible, on-the-ground product design solutions. Take our HeroWear Apex exosuit as an example. While conducting initial research for it, our team noticed a lack of warehouse equipment designed with women’s bodies in mind. Today, the Apex exosuit is considered a breakthrough wearable technology product: the world’s first exosuit specifically designed with a fit for everyone. The contoured straps and modular components offer multiple opportunities to customize the suits for both the female and male bodies.

a woman lifts a box in the Apex Exosuit
A female worker wearing the HeroWear Apex Exosuit by Interwoven Design lifts a box.
The Apex Exosuit is the first of its kind to be designed for all body types, including female body types.

Fostering Healthy Environments

Promoting women in leadership roles is a key part of cultivating a healthy community of designers. Lack of mentorship and unsupportive learning or working environments are two major reasons why women are underrepresented as professional designers. A recent study observed differences in communication styles between male- and female-dominant groups, and found that male-dominant groups resulted in less collaboration and cooperative sketching than groups that were either equally mixed-gender or female-dominant. Furthermore, countless female designers have stories of textbook gender discrimination: being treated differently than their male peers, standing by while their less-qualified male counterparts were promoted or given raises, experiencing aggression or sexual harassment from management. Toxic and unsupportive environments that foster these kinds of behavior eventually lead to women being pushed out, changing jobs, or changing careers altogether.

“When design teams are diverse, they call for vast spheres of influences and life experiences.” 

Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman discusses a project with her team at the Interwoven studio.

Interwoven uses every resource available to make industrial design a better, safer place for women. Interwoven’s founder, Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, was recently elected to the position of Northeastern District Representative for the Industrial Designer’s Society of America (IDSA), as part of their Women in Design Committee. This committee makes it their number one priority to support, mentor, and encourage participation among women industrial designers.

Interwoven makes an active effort to diversify our workplace and cultivate collaboration. Starting from the ground up, we are working hard to change the male-dominated paradigm and promote women at every level in design. Come meet our team! If you haven’t already, check out Part One of our Women in Design series and follow us on Instagram for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!