Insights from the Women in Design Committee

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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Collaborative Design Tools

The Smart List is a monthly list of multi-media recommendations on everything design, curated by Interwoven Design. As a group of aesthetically obsessed designers, there are a lot of beautiful products, objects, and resources that we love and enjoy. These products improve the quality of our daily lives and we want to share them with you. This issue is a collection of collaborative design tools to help you find accessible ways to work and design with others virtually and in person.

Smart List: Collaborative Design Tools

Milanote / Miro

Milanote is a cloud-based collaboration software designed to help creative teams manage storyboarding, creative writing and briefs, mind-mapping, note-taking, and brainstorming. It can be used to create mood boards, mind maps, briefs and more, all in one place. It lets us create boards and share projects with team members to collect feedback and ensure privacy.

Via https://milanote.com/ 

Similarly, Miro is a digital collaboration platform designed to facilitate remote and distributed team communication and project management. As an online workspace for innovation, it allows you to add various content from texts to images, create maps and diagrams, and work with visual templates together with a team of any size to dream and design the future together.

via Miro

Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design

Generative design research is like throwing a design party where everyone, especially the people we’re designing for, gets an invite to the creative process. This book isn’t just a read for the academic design research folks; it’s also a hot topic for the business and design crowd. And here’s the kicker – it’s a total game-changer in the realm of collaborative design. It’s like the guidebook for bringing minds together to make sure we’re hitting the right notes in creating products, systems, services, and spaces that truly click with people. Plus, there’s no other book out there hitting this collaborative design groove right now.

via Amazon

Community-Led Co-design Kit

The Community-led Co-design Kit, an initiative by the Inclusive Design Research Centre in Toronto, Canada, represents a significant step in inclusive design methodologies. Supported by the Hewlett Foundation through the Flexible Learning Open Education project, this first iteration of the kit draws on insights from projects like Co-designing Inclusive Cities, Platform Co-op Development Kit, and Coding to Learn and Create. Rooted in the experiences of working directly with communities, the kit also takes inspiration from disability justice, anti-oppression movements, and decolonialist research and design approaches. Emphasizing community input, the creators acknowledge the valuable feedback received, with plans to incorporate it into future versions of the kit, reflecting a commitment to continuous improvement based on collaborative engagement.

via Co-design

Design-Kit by IDEO

In 2009, IDEO introduced the HCD Toolkit, a groundbreaking book shedding light on the transformative potential of human-centered design (HCD) in the social sector. This unique approach quickly gained traction, drawing in a diverse community of designers, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who eagerly snapped up over 150,000 copies. Fast forward to April 2015, and IDEO.org took things up a notch with the launch of the Field Guide to Human-Centered Design. This dynamic 192-page book not only packs in 57 design methods, key mindsets, worksheets, and real-world case studies but also reflects the collaborative ethos of design thinking. The collaborative spirit embedded in the toolkit’s development aligns seamlessly with the principles of collaborative design, emphasizing the collective effort to bring about positive change in the social sector.

via IDEO

Design Strategy: Your Secret Weapon

Why are so many designers talking about strategy? Design Strategy is a new buzzword. Everywhere I turn, it seems that people are talking about it and how it has helped them design incredible (and successful) products. But let’s back up for a minute. What exactly is design strategy, and why do we need it? These are the questions that designers Katie Lim, IDSA, senior industrial designer at frog, Emilie Williams, IDSA, co-founder and leader of creative direction at Hydrific by LIXIL, Daniela Macías, IDSA, global experience design manager at Colgate-Palmolive, Monica Welcker, founder of Weft Designs, and I discussed on a panel at last month’s International Design Conference in NYC.

Putting It in Context

As designers, our primary task is to create new products. To do this most effectively, we need to master many skills. Even before we can start to sketch, model, and prototype our designs, we need to understand the landscape in which the product lives. Design strategy always is—or should be—at the forefront of our creative process. Lim said, “It’s the who, where, when, how, and why to define the what. Simply put, design strategy is a thoughtful, responsible, and intentional first step that considers everything before, around, and after your design.” Design strategy serves as a road map to align user needs, business goals, the product, and its manufacturing feasibility with the company’s mission and vision. Welcker summed it up as “design strategy is the intersection between design thinking and business development.”

But design strategy can be more than just balancing business and user needs. Williams, who has a unique view being part of a startup within a large corporation, explained that “it’s important to define what we mean by ‘design strategy’ since it can mean something very different depending on the context, audience, or application—whether to a single product, an entire brand, a particular market, an innovation development, or even an internal company process.” She also said that developing and implementing a successful design strategy helps craft better products for people and the environment they exist within while also achieving those ever-critical business goals and providing consistent and engaging products and brands.

Macías, whose long career at Colgate-Palmolive has straddled working in two countries and multiple divisions, added that “creating a robust design strategy that aligns with the overall company’s strategy, enables designers to create a solid foundation for our design process. … It structures our creative thinking through frameworks, tools, methodologies, and design principles that help us, and the people we work with, make sense of the problem we are trying to solve together with a design solution.” She also said that with a design strategy, we can better plan, direct, negotiate, and coordinate our efforts. Ultimately, it helps us make informed decisions that lead to the sweet spot between desirability, feasibility, viability, and sustainability. Implementing a solid design strategy drives the design process to the finish line, resulting in a positive impact on the company’s goals through the transformative power of design.

Getting Started

What are the first steps? Where do you start? Lim said, “It’s important to identify and meet with all stakeholders around the product. Ask them how they define success. Everyone is looking at products through a different lens. This also teaches you how to speak their language and how to share your concepts so that when you present, you can first reiterate what they have said and highlight things that matter to them.” By bringing everyone into the conversation, you gain their trust. This is the secret to success and to becoming a thought leader from the start. She also said, “Design can often be the center of multiple teams within a company, so you need to know how to invest and manage those relationships.” Demonstrating that your design work addresses the goals of each stakeholder reduces resistance to new ideas. It helps keep minds open and discussions moving forward.

Starting to craft and implement a strategy can be a bit overwhelming. So what exactly does this all mean, and how do we implement a sound strategy to become thought leaders? “At the beginning of any project, it is our responsibility as creative leaders to understand, interpret and negotiate all of the inputs with our stakeholders so that we can synthesize, extract top priorities, realistically manage expectations, and find synergies,” explained Macías. Lim added, “Sometimes you have to lay out the pros and cons of prioritizing one side over the other, and you can use research and business goals to help make decisions.”

When launching a new design initiative, you should work to gain consensus on the project’s goals, including identifying the market opportunity, user needs, product engineering, manufacturing limitations, marketing, and, in a larger context, what will happen before the customer uses the product and what happens at the end of its life. All these things work together to create a full experience around the product you’re designing. Designers can use their inherent problem-solving skills to prioritize and emphasize how all these different elements come together. “It then becomes the designer’s responsibility to keep the user at the center of their design process and build the best possible product for both the user and the brand,” explained Welcker.

My experience is that a good strategy is a great place to start. I use it as a tool as I go through the design process. But you still need to use your strategy in the right way. One of the most important applications of strategy is to use it in your communications, both internally to the business team and externally to the user.

Other Useful Pointers

The panel discussed our tips and tricks for implementing our strategies. Macías said, “One of the most empowering tools that I have found to build belief behind our creative efforts is incorporating a robust design research plan into our design strategy as often as possible throughout the process.” She added that she has learned to speak many different business languages to build her case. Some of these languages include a solid timetable on a spreadsheet to guide the team, a beautiful deck for marketing, a rough prototype for packaging, and verbatim clips from user interviews for insights. Learning to speak these diverse business languages has been instrumental in advancing difficult projects throughout her career. Adding to this, Lim iterated that “we designers have a responsibility to stand for what is most accessible, inclusive, user-friendly, and sustainable.” Clear and relatable language—whether it’s pictures, words, or numbers—is critical to making your case through the lenses of all the stakeholders.

For those of you who are new to the idea of creating a design strategy, the panel had some thoughts on how you can start to develop and use this tool. First, we all agreed that there is nothing quite like learning by experience. Macías said, “Just practice, practice, practice!” Weckler advocated, “If you work for a brand with a go-to-market process, get involved! Ask if you can attend the various meetings, and be genuinely curious about what goes on in marketing and sales.” For some practical advice, Strategyzer and the Harvard Business School offer great free templates and frameworks. Macías said that even though these models may not be design-centric, she has found them helpful. IDEO also has some valuable free resources that can get you started. They can be downloaded directly from their website. IDEO also offers paid courses throughout the year on different topics. We all agreed that researching and learning about new tools and frameworks is something we like to do. We all are constantly reading, learning, and experimenting with new strategic plans.

Finally, we all agreed that design strategy leads to products that are better for people and the environment, meet the business goals, and produce engaging products and brands. A good design strategy allows all the voices at the table to be heard. Each of the stakeholders from design, product development, sales, marketing, and manufacturing are involved in the creation of a product. From identifying the needs to production and the product’s end of life and everything in between, every step has different immediate needs. A good strategy aligns all parties on a common goal. We believe that industrial designers will be instrumental in helping solve the world’s problems because that is our unique superpower: bringing creative solutions to life. And with a solid design strategy, we can get there.

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Design Weeks Around the Globe

The Smart List is a monthly list of multi-media recommendations on everything design, curated by Interwoven Design. In this issue we share the Design Weeks Around the Globe that we are really looking forward to this fall. As any creative knows, you can’t generate output if you aren’t continually feeding yourself inspiration. In addition to helping us stay informed about art and design, going to the fantastic Design Weeks around the Globe is a great way to be influenced by international design culture and stay up to date with aesthetic and functional trends.

Designart Tokyo 2023

Tokyo, Japan

Designart, situated in the vibrant and culturally diverse city of Tokyo, stands as one of Japan’s premier art and design festivals. In its 7th year, this year’s theme, “Sparks – Freeing Your Thought,” invites visitors to explore groundbreaking creations that liberate their thinking, enabling them to embrace change and discover emerging societal trends. Acting as a dynamic platform, Designart Tokyo continually evolves to showcase a rich array of Japanese art and design to a global audience. The event unfolds over 10 days, running from October 20 to October 29, 2023.

via Designart

Design for Planet Festival: Collaborate

Norwich, United Kingdom

The Design for Planet Festival, now in its third edition, is an award-winning, free-of-charge event that rallies the design community to confront the climate crisis. Taking place from October 17 to October 18, 2023, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, United Kingdom, this year’s festival features online workshops and panel discussions featuring some of the world’s most influential thinkers and talents in the design community, all centered on the theme of sustainability. “Collaborate” takes center stage this year, emphasizing the importance of cross-pollination not only within design but also among consumers, nature, AI, supply chains, and various disciplines from engineering to the performing arts as we strive to build a regenerative world.

via Design Council

Habitare: Together

Helsinki, Finland

Habitare, Finland’s premier furniture, design, and interior decoration event, is scheduled from September 13 to September 17, 2023. Designers Anna Pirkola and Kirsikka Simberg, partners at Studio Plenty, creatively manifest the theme, “Together,” this year’s focus centers on humanity’s desire for togetherness in today’s world, while also emphasizing the need to jointly care for nature and one another. Habitare 2023 doesn’t just highlight the challenges our world faces, such as pollution, inequality, biodiversity loss, and the climate crisis; it positions these issues as opportunities for positive change. The organizers encourage collective action, fostering unity through joy, empathy, purpose, and hope as we work towards a common goal during these challenging times.

via Habitare

Barcelona Design Week 2023: Design for Human Future

Barcelona, Spain

Created by the Barcelona Design Centre in 2006, Barcelona Design Week has a clear mission: to launch a global initiative that promotes the 17 sustainable goals outlined by the United Nations. Under the banner of “Designing for Human Future,” this event addresses the pressing need to navigate a world marked by uncertainty, complexity, and volatility. As we reach the halfway point of the 2030 Agenda launched in 2015, Barcelona Design Week seeks to provide a realistic assessment of what has been accomplished and what remains to be done. As a proud member of World Design Weeks, BDW advocates for the significance of design. The event is scheduled from October 16 to October 28, 2023, and is organized by the Barcelona Centre de Disseny in collaboration with the Barcelona City Council, FAD Fostering Arts and Design, and Museu del Disseny.

via Barcelona Design Week

And there you have it, Design Weeks Around the Globe! Follow us on Instagram for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!

Design Museums Around the World

The Smart List is a monthly list of multi-media recommendations on everything design, curated by Interwoven Design. In this issue we share the Exhibits and Design Museums Around the World that we are really looking forward to this fall. As any creative knows, you can’t generate output if you aren’t continually feeding yourself inspiration. In addition to helping us stay informed about art and design, going to the fantastic galleries and museums throughout the city is a crucial strategy for those of us in the studio to stay engaged and open as creative people.

Life Cycles: The Materials of Contemporary Design

at the Museum of Modern Art

From September 2, 2023 to July 7, 2024, The exhibition “Life Cycles: The Materials of Contemporary Design” delves into the rejuvenating influence of design as it shifts its attention towards a more cooperative relationship with the environment.

Within this showcase, the artifacts on display illuminate the complete life span of the materials from which they are crafted. Starting from their extraction to eventual reuse or disposal, designers are delving into novel approaches—sometimes inspired by age-old customs—to engage materials in their endeavor to harmonize ecosystems. The instances on display prove that design can possess grace, originality, and allure, all while introducing fresh tactics to mend our planet.

via MoMA

A Dark, a Light, a Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes

at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Dorothy Liebes, the eminent textile designer, wielded a profound influence across a multitude of design realms, encompassing fashion, interior design, and industrial design. Through her masterful use of vibrant colors, materials, and finishes, Dorothy pioneered her own distinctive style known as the “Liebes Look.” Her collaborations extended to an illustrious roster of architects and designers, boasting names like Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Dreyfuss, Raymon Loewy, Pauline Trigère, and Adrian, among others.

From July 7, 2023, to February 4, 2024, the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York City will host an exhibition featuring over 175 works by Dorothy Liebes. This captivating display will encompass textiles, fashion pieces, furniture, photographs, and other documentation that left an indelible mark on the American fashion industry of the mid-20th century.

via Cooper Hewitt

Garden Futures: Designing with Nature

at the Vitra Design Museum

Gardens encompass realms of leisure, delight, and productivity. They serve as canvases where our aspirations and desires have been projected for centuries—an interface bridging the human and natural domains. In the present age, issues pertaining to climate change, ecological balance, food insecurity, and social equity saturate our daily existence.

The upcoming exhibition titled “Garden Futures,” slated for presentation from March 25, 2023, to October 3, 2023, explores gardens as domains of experimentation and potential horizons. This showcase portrays an array of historical, modern, and speculative garden concepts. Encompassed within are not solely remarkable gardens, but also contributions from artists and landscape architects who conceive of gardens as experimental grounds for testing novel ecological and social synergies.

The exhibits encompass a spectrum ranging from visionary landscape architects’ concept sketches to immersive contemporary audiovisual installations, artistic creations, furnishings, tools, and photographs.

via Vitra Design Museum

Indigenous Histories

at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo

Spanning from October 20, 2023, to February 25, 2024, the expansive collective exhibition “Indigenous Histories” unveils diverse narratives of native histories worldwide through the lens of art and visual cultures. This assembly brings together an assortment of works across multiple mediums, genres, origins, and eras.

Structured into eight distinct sections, “Indigenous Histories” is composed of seven sections that delve into varied regions around the globe, alongside one section themed around indigenous activism. These seven regional segments will delve into indigenous histories spanning Oceania, North America, South America, and Scandinavia. The objective is not to comprehensively encapsulate the indigenous histories of each specific region, but rather to offer a cross-sectional, fragmentary, or illustrative insight into these narratives via a concise yet pertinent selection. This approach encourages a comparative exploration with narratives from different corners of the world.

via Contemporary and América Latina

And there you have it, Design Museums Around the World! Follow us on Instagram for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!