“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.
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.