A Q&A with UX Design Expert Jasmine Orange on Diversity in Design

“I try to make sure that I’m not just seeking answers from people that look like me.”

A Q&A with User Experience Design Expert Jasmine Orange

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 spoke with Jasmine Orange is a User Experience Design Lead at Ernst & Young based in Atlanta, GA. She is pursuing a Master’s in Human-Computer Interaction and speaks publicly about inclusion, design history, and design thinking. We asked Jasmine about User Experience design, how she started her design speaking career, and diversity and inclusion in design.

Spotlight: Jasmin Orange
Photo courtesy of Jasmine Orange

Q: What is User Experience Design?

A: User experience design is very broad. It’s basically designing the experiences you have when interacting with different products. Most of the time when you hear ‘user experience design’, it’s connected to digital products, but user experience design can apply to digital products as well as physical products. It’s about the experiences you have interacting with anything: to do work or to do play. It’s just your interactions. 

Q: What inspired you to focus on UX [User Experience]? 

A: I studied industrial design at Virginia Tech and I got out of school right around the time that UX was becoming a thing that people would say regularly. It was around the time that Instagram became really big. I was very focused on physical products but once I graduated, I was interested in UX. I started an internship at a cyber security company and two of the people that work there were UX designers. They taught me about what it really meant to do UX. Luckily, because industrial design is kind of like the grandfather to UX, I didn’t have to learn as much about the research side or the actual user experience. I had to learn more about UI [User Interaction] and how to build out a user interface.

What I like about UX is very similar to what I like about industrial design. I like the idea of understanding an issue that people have and then building something that helps. It can be delightful. Or maybe it’s something that they just need to start their day 10 minutes earlier. I’ve always been someone who has loved the craft of designing something and the challenge of engineering something, and design has always been right in the middle on both sides: physical and digital. That’s what I love.

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

A: I am also a human computer interaction graduate student right now, so the most interesting thing I’m doing is my thesis. But I also am leading a user experience team, dealing basically with everything involving my company’s third party data, so I’m working a lot with data scientists and analysts. It’s very numbers heavy, very analytics driven. That’s been a very interesting thing for me. It’s very traditional form-following-function work, whereas customer facing design is so flashy.

The reason I wanted my degree was that I have the knowledge of industrial design and where the fundamentals of industrial design come from, we had to learn that in school. But with UX, I never learned the history around it, and I didn’t know the principles. I didn’t know where those theories came from, and I didn’t know who they did the studies with for those theories. There were just these guidelines that we were taught to follow. I knew the only way I would learn these things was if I formally looked for them.

These principles inform so much about how design is done and what we deem important in our design process. When you start to look at the principles you think to yourself: Okay, this was made from this theory and that theory and the research that was done was done with very specific groups of people and not other groups of people. Then you realize that it makes sense why you think that this principle should be the one that we uphold all of the time. So I am learning about the history of human computer interaction and where our principles come from, but also learning the system: where there are cracks in it, where there are things that don’t make any sense, where the opportunities for innovation are. I think that one thing academia does well is that it really pushes innovation in ways that industry sometimes neglects. 

Q: How did your career as a speaker start?  

A: It started off small at local design communities here in Atlanta. It started because of the thoughts that I have about design and the questions I have. It’s never me trying to force my own opinion on other people. I would just walk around and talk to my friends and say, Why are things like that? Why is this like this? You know, even things: cameras. My friends would be taking pictures with their cameras and I was thinking, well, we don’t have film anymore, so why are cameras still shaped like that?

I started speaking because I was just curious; if I could reach enough people, would someone else have that same thought as me? And maybe I won’t come to a conclusion, ever. Maybe it just puts a good idea in someone else’s head, and then they’ll find the answer for me. I like asking the questions. I like putting the thoughts out there, and then I see what comes back.

Q: Could you talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion in design?

A: I think that there is something to be said about the design principles that exist and where they came from. There is an acronym called WEIRD, it stands for Western Evangelical Industrialized Rich Democratic. That’s normally where most studies come from. Psychology studies are built around that demographic. When it comes to our design work, I could see if we were just building things for that group of people. 

Design is still a job and it has to make money, so you’re making things and it’s supposed to spread across different groups and different cultures…but then you don’t have any interest in learning about those different groups and cultures. Even if you did have interest in it, that’s not the same as being a part of that culture. That’s not the same as you being in it. And so I really try to push for people to think, not just, Oh, make sure you’re designing for everyone. No, no, no. Who else is in the room? Who’s designing here?

We don’t need this to be a white savior thing. We need it to be something that feels as inclusive as the people that you’re designing it for. I think that so often, because we have the privilege of only knowing our own experiences, that it’s very easy not to even think about other groups of people and how they’ll interact with something. It’s powerful when you have other people who are there to say, Hey, I’m from this group, and that’s not how we do things. Or, Hey, we use it this way. You get so many interesting insights and you start to understand what an interaction with the product really means, from the way that they look at it when it’s sitting there on the shelf versus how they actively use it in certain situations. So many times we don’t recognize that by not thinking about other groups of people and how they interact with products, we could be causing harm to them. 

Q: Have you seen the landscape of design shifting in terms of diversity? 

A: I have. When I was in school for industrial design, it was very homogeneous. I can’t even think of many moments where designers of color were mentioned. I think it’s starting to change but, much like any other large scale change involving people of color, it’s very slow. I think there was a big spike of diversity and inclusion in conversations when the George Floyd murder happened and the protests surrounding it. Now we’re starting to see the flip-side of that, of people saying, All right, we’ve done that for a few years, let’s do something else now. Let’s talk about something else here. I put up the sticker. I don’t know what else you want from me. Diversity and inclusion in many ways can be seen as like this fun little bumper sticker to put on your company to say that you’re diverse, you’re inclusive, but what does that mean on the ground level?

I think that DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] has become something that companies are eager to promote for their own profits and self-interest, but what does that mean inside of the company? Does it really matter if you’re including different groups of people if those people don’t feel heard or encouraged? You can also forget all kinds of people. And it’s not a fault to have unconscious biases. Sometimes the bias is about privilege; not having to think about the plight of so many other groups of people. Even in my own oppressions—as someone who’s black, someone who is a woman, someone who’s queer—I don’t have to think about the plight of trans women constantly because I’m not trans, and I have different impressions than a woman who is trans. Even though we’re both women, we still have lived experiences, and the only way I would know about those lived experiences is if I seek the information out, which many people aren’t going to do. I could also have that person in the room, but I have to have already thought to have that person in the room for that to happen, and I have to have thought about what it means to make a safe environment for that person to want to be in the room with me. It’s very complicated.

Q: What advice would you give designers who want to support DEI?

A: I try to make sure that I’m not just seeking answers from people that look like me. I’m looking at answers from different people. I’m reading the literature and the texts that they have. I also try to encourage people to speak out about these things. I think that it makes it a lot easier to talk about these things with designers because we’re so used to critique. That’s a part of our job, and being able to tell someone, Hey, you designed this form field in a way that doesn’t allow you to have special characters in it, but my last name has a special character in it, so it’s not going to work for South America. It’s being mindful of people who aren’t like you. I would never suggest to someone, especially in a marginalized group, to put themselves in a mentally stressful situation if they don’t have to. I think there are ways for us to make it a part of any other critique. It’s fine for you to say, This handle isn’t going to really work for someone who has arthritis. It’s going to be really hard for them to hold it. I also try to tell people to back things up with research. There’s so much research out there. And then making sure that the research that you’re doing with your users is as diverse as possible, so that if you do get pushback on it, you can rely on the research.

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. 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!

A Q&A with Sustainability Consultant and Educator Frank Millero

Everything goes back to that word, ‘value’. What do we value? And how do we use all of these tools to support our values? “

A Q&A with Sustainability Consultant and Educator Frank Millero

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 spoke with Frank Millero, a design and sustainability consultant as well as design educator. He has been helping companies with sustainable initiatives for over twelve years and he has taught a range of design courses at Pratt Institute for nearly twenty.

Frank Millero is on the Board of Directors for SERVV, a nonprofit dedicated to fair and ethical trade, where he works to empower small-scale global artisans and farmers. Trained as an industrial designer at Pratt Institute, he brings his passion for sustainability and his boundless curiosity to all of his projects. We asked Frank about prototyping and designing for sustainability, his history as a design educator, and the future of sustainable design.

Photo courtesy of Frank Millero

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

A: For me teaching is endlessly interesting. I got to teach a design research class last fall and that was a fun opportunity to think about what my research process is in the work that I do. In terms of design work, recently I got to work with a nonprofit called Mayan Hands. They work with weavers in Guatemala to produce textiles. What I really enjoyed about it was that I got to learn what the techniques were and how they were done. I wanted to create something that was really culturally sensitive because they were using a traditional technique, but I didn’t want the project to be necessarily traditional. How do you find that compromise between creating something new but also honoring the tradition?

The good thing was that the weavers were really excited to try new things, so I worked on developing color palettes and designs based on the biogeography of Guatemala. That was a point of departure that made a connection to the land and to the people. It was a fun project in many ways. I got to learn about their textiles, but also about Guatemala.

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

A: In Cambodia I worked with the nonprofit SERVV to come up with designs and design ideas. I was there for a month and I got to see how they make things. They were using large, traditional wood looms and they did cut-and-sew. The program was set up to help support women, especially women in farming communities. Part of the year they didn’t have any income from farming and so this provided them with another source of income.

One of the things that we did that was a little bit of a departure from the traditional techniques was creating something that was quick and easy to make. They had some screen printing capacity, so I worked with the director to find local canvas from the market and we used the screen printing techniques that they knew to create tote bags. It was a simple project but it was great because it was a teaching tool for people who were learning to cut and sew simple constructions. It was also really affordable to make and they could make a lot, so it was profitable.

I think the most interesting thing about that project was connecting directly to the people who were making the product and learning about their culture, learning about the way that they were producing things. I knew  a lot about the environmental dimension of sustainability but this gave me an opportunity to think about the social dimension of sustainability and to realize how important that was.

Q: What is sustainable design?

A: Sustainable design is a fascinating challenge of creating high value products and services that consider environmental, social, and economic factors throughout the life cycle. I use that phrase ‘high value’. How you define value is important because there are always so many trade-offs when you’re thinking about what impacts there are, what you have to live with, and what you can work towards. It depends on so many different factors. 

One of the things I realized when thinking about that word value is that the designers can’t really decide this on their own. It has to be something that’s built into the design brief at the beginning, so that everyone who’s working on the project understands what the values are. Having that discussion early is important. When you get to a point where things conflict and you have to have trade-offs, how do you make those decisions?

Q: How can we design with sustainability in mind?

A: That part is fairly straightforward to me. I think it’s about education and awareness first. Like any aspect of our design process, the more we understand it, the better we can achieve what we’re looking for. Education is also about asking a lot of questions. 

When I go to a factory, I try to ask as many questions as I can to find out what they are doing and what they are hoping to improve. What are the best practices in their industry? Certifications are helpful because they help you understand what some of the best practices are, but not all partners will be certified or have the money to be certified. So it’s really important to ask them directly about their practices, and that goes for social practices, too.

Take some of the textile vendors I worked with early on in my career; I would ask them if they had organic cotton and some of them had no idea what that even meant. So you educate them and explain what it means and why it’s important. We would have them create two samples or at least cost out conventional cotton and organic cotton. It was always a bit of a battle with the merchants to say, it’s 20 cents more but this is really worth it. Sometimes it took creating a whole story around it to get people to understand the value and importance of it. 

Some people just graduating and entering a job might feel like they don’t have a lot of say in the decision making, but they do have an opportunity to communicate and propose ideas. They can find somebody who’s a mentor within the organization, maybe higher up, who can be an advocate for their ideas. It’s important that you have people at different levels in an organization who are committed to sustainability.

It’s also important to realize that everyone and every organization is going to be at different stages of incorporating these ideas. Wherever you’re at, it’s you need to set goals, figure out how you’re going to measure them, and hold yourself accountable. The more specific they are the better, because then you can measure them in some way, at least qualitatively. But hopefully quantitatively, too. 

Q: Could you share some products that you think are good examples of sustainable design?

A:  I worked with an organization called Get Paper in Nepal. The products were high quality and they had parts of their business that helped support the other parts. One part was handmade paper and the other part was more conventional paper-making. They produced a lot of packaging.

They got off-cuts from a local T-shirt factory and used that cotton as raw material for their handmade paper. They incorporated artisans in the governance of the organization, and that is a really unusual way to govern your organization. We think of most organizations as top-down, but more and more there are opportunities for people to think about cooperative organizations and new kinds of economic models. I thought this one was great because the artisans were on the decision-making panel. It wasn’t just outsiders coming in and designing things, the product was also coming from the artisans themselves. 

They had this cool community program where they would count how much paper they used per year, translate that into trees, go to a local area of degraded land and everyone in the community—the school would be closed for the day, the factory would be closed for the day—would go plant trees. 

Over time this helped to increase the water table because without the trees there was a lot of erosion. The community really saw the value in the tree planting because they immediately saw the effect. There are a lot of tree planting programs in the world and I think that they’re great in general, but when it’s directly connected to the community I think it’s even more powerful. It really shows that connection. 

Another example: Bill McKibben has an organization called Third Act. This is an organization to activate people who are over 60 to support sustainability projects. His idea was that we have this large population, some of them are starting to retire but they have all of this wisdom and experience. They were also passionate in the 60’s and 70’s about environmental and social causes. He was tapping into that history and also their skills. The idea was that everyone should be involved in this kind of activism. What’s amazing is that they vote, so they have a lot of influence in terms of policy.

Q: When did sustainability become a focus for you as a designer and what inspired that specialization?

A: My background was in biology, and I spent 10 years working as a staff biologist and exhibit developer at the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco. This was a very important starting point for my career. I feel like I was practicing sustainability in some ways there and I didn’t even know it. The mantra of the museum is, “Here is being created a community museum, dedicated to awareness.”

While I was there I got more and more interested in design. I took design classes at night through UC Berkeley: furniture classes, different kinds of design classes, and also art classes. Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World was really influential for me. There were a few books I read at the time that got me interested in sustainable design, one was The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, and another was Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins. Another really influential book was Biomimicry by Janine Benyus.

This was all in the late 90’s. And so I thought, Well, you know, I have a biology background. There are all of these interesting opportunities to think about connections, and that’s what led me to Pratt for my graduate program. While I was there, I was interested in looking at the intersection of science and design. I wasn’t focused so much on sustainability but it was an underlying current. Later I was invited to teach a junior studio about sustainable design at Pratt. It was challenging because they told me just a couple of weeks before the class started, and this was one of my first times teaching. It was an early prototype. I got interested in this idea of What tools do students need?What tools do designers need to help them get engaged in this topic and care about it? That was a key starting point for me.

Q: Could you talk about the prototyping process in the context of a sustainable design project? What does sustainable prototyping look like?

A: I think that it’s never too early to prototype and test out your ideas, to test your assumptions. Sometimes at the Exploratorium I would just take a table out, put a microscope on it with a video monitor, go outside and get some pond water, and put it on the microscope and invite people to look at it. I would ask, What do you notice? What’s going on? This was really primitive prototyping to get ideas for the experience.

Keeping people on the same page is also important. I’ve been at organizations where designers say, we’re not going to show it to them yet, because they’re afraid that it’s going to get shut down early. You have to have check-ins along the way, and this is a challenging balance. You want to have some creative freedom, you don’t want to be shut down early, but you do want to make sure that you’re checking in along the way. That’s what prototyping allows you to do: create new directions and be really collaborative. 

I think that the prototyping impacts are small compared to large production runs, so I don’t worry too much about it. It’s a good investment, basically. It is important to look at the issues of toxicity, because there are some materials, especially model-making materials, that do have health impacts for the people involved. If you’re ordering the model, you are still responsible for those health impacts, because somebody else could be exposed. 

Finding partners who have best practices in the industry, have protection for workers, reduce the amount of exposure…all of those things are really important questions to ask. There are different types of prototypes— looks-like, feels-like, works-like—and you may not need something that’s really beautiful if you’re just creating a works-like prototype. Communicating that to producers might help to see what the alternatives are.

Really simple materials like paper tape and glue are some of my best prototyping tools. There are also opportunities for you to recycle and reuse some of the materials you have. I like to use cardboard, it seems like there’s an endless supply of cardboard from boxes. These kinds of materials can get you to where you want.

Q: What inspired you to become a design educator?

A: I’m the middle child. I have an older sister and a younger brother, so I got to learn from them but also to teach both of them at the same time, and I really enjoyed that. My brother is five years younger than I am, so he was a little kid, and I enjoyed that process of seeing him learn new things

When I was in high school, I had a job at a grocery store as a bag boy, and this was in Miami so it was super hot. I’d have to go out and collect the shopping carts, and I had to wear a tie and mop the floor. And I was making, I don’t know, three dollars an hour. And one of my teachers asked me if I wanted to be a math tutor. I got paid twice as much, I was in the air conditioning, and I got to work with my peers, helping them with math. This was a really exciting experience for me. 

When I was in college, I tutored for Upward Bound. I was really inspired by the students because no one in their family had gone to college, and they just needed a little bit of help. They were eager to learn, and to see somebody with that passion for learning was so exciting for me. 

At the Exploratorium I had an opportunity to teach people as well. We had three different types of interns;  post-college interns, college-age interns, and high school interns. They would all be responsible for teaching each other, and I helped teach all of them. This idea of creating mentorship among the groups was really inspiring to see.

Q: How does your work as an educator inform your consulting work and vice versa?

A: I mentioned already that my experience at SERVV opened my eyes to the social dimension of sustainability. I realized in teaching my class that I was focused a lot on environmental issues but I hadn’t really thought about the social dimension, or intersection of the two. What is environmental justice? What happens when these two forces collide? 

My experiences with commercial clients has also taught me so much. I go to visit factories, to work on a team to understand the business side of the retail world – that’s a whole different language. So much to learn there. I used to go to the store and talk to all the salespeople and ask them, What’s selling? What do people like? Why don’t they like it? Getting the vibe from them. When I first started asking them, they were reluctant because they knew that I had designed it and they didn’t want to insult me. But then, over time, after we had a friendship, they would be really honest.

I bring in samples to my classrooms and say, This is what happened, these are the things that could go wrong in production. So here’s different stages of prototyping, and here’s what ended up in the store. I’ve been connected through my work to so many different design professionals, and I invite them into the classroom as well.

Q: How has the conversation around sustainability in design changed over the course of your career?

A: I think for sure there’s been a lot more discussion about sustainability. It was not really talked about so much 30 years ago. More discussion has created more awareness, and there are companies trying to do new things. There’s also some greenwashing that happens, too, because companies don’t want to be shamed for doing bad things. I guess that’s my concern; while it’s being talked about a lot more, you have to be even more vigilant about the trustworthiness of the message.

We also have to look at the bigger picture of consumption patterns. While individual products might be made with safer, better materials, a bigger picture is: what is our culture of consumption? What will happen if we don’t dramatically change this culture? Other countries are modeling their behavior on us in the U.S. and the Western world, and this is troubling to me, too.

Q: What do you see in the future of sustainable design?

A: I hope that it’s a point of inspiration for designers in the future. Up to this point, it’s been this sort of burden, Oh and it has to be sustainable. As if it’s going to squelch your creativity in some way. I think that if designers have a new point of view that sustainable design will give you new ideas and new points of inspiration, then that will be a different kind of attitude shift. That’s what I try to develop in my class as an understanding; that all these products have issues for sure, but we have an opportunity as creative designers and thinkers to come up with new approaches, and that should produce new aesthetics, new opportunities. 

I also hope that sustainability is integrated earlier in the design process. People think way too late about these issues, and it’s hard. Things get locked in really early. If it can get more integrated into design briefs earlier on in the process, we’ll have much better outcomes. 

I hope that designers can integrate more qualitative or quantitative approaches that can help them in their decision making, like the LCA. You can model something and see how well it achieves its goal. Is this new transportation route better? Well, you can mathematically find that out. It’s not unknowable. 

Designers can’t work alone, and corporations can’t work alone. It has to be governments, nonprofit corporations, consumers…everyone has to be involved in this in some way. And I think this is one of the things that’s concerning: some of the messaging is that, Oh, it’s the consumer’s fault because they’re not recycling properly, or whatever it is. Pushing it on people. Why did you buy this fast fashion? Well, I know why: it’s cheap and it’s available. So the practice of blaming people for all of these problems is something that I hope will change as well.

I see some really great opportunities in terms of understanding what environmental and social impacts are by having enough data, using AI and machine-learning, and having somebody in a sense smarter than us analyze the data to find the patterns and trends. These technologies can provide real benefits, they already have in terms of things related to climate change and biodiversity laws. 

Everything goes back to that word, value. What do we value? And how do we use all of these tools to support our values? 

I like to think about our connection to our history and to cultural heritage. I see young designers being interested in this idea of craft, of connection to their own personal past.  What’s special about their local community, or what’s special about their personal history, can be a component of the design process, something that they value. Diverse voices and perspectives being heard in the design process is an aspect of sustainable design as well. It’s an opportunity to have lots of different ideas and perspectives come together to create these solutions.

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. 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!

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.

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. 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!

A Q&A with Outdoor Expert Greg Bass

“The market really wants to embrace more types of people”

A Q&A with Outdoor Expert Greg Bass

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 spoke with Greg Bass, an expert in technical soft goods design and development with over 20 years of experience in the industry.

Greg has developed outdoor, cycling, and sport products for brands like Timbuk2, The North Face, and more. In 2018 he and his wife founded Telegraph Studio in Santa Cruz, California, where they offer product design, development, and strategy along with graphic and logo design. We asked him about what his love of outdoor activities brings to his work as a designer and what he sees in the future of outdoor and sport goods.

Greg Bass is an expert in technical soft goods design and development. Photo courtesy of Greg Bass.

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

A: I have a pretty wide variety of projects. I would say the ones that are the most interesting, inspiring, are ones where I’m able to push a brand into a new area. There are a couple of brands I’ve worked with for a long time, helping them to fulfill their mission. There’s a company I work with called Two Wheel Gear that is all about getting people to use their bicycles for transportation. They are looking at the bigger picture of how getting around a city without a car can really improve health, improve the environment, improve your mood for the day. They’re one that I always enjoy working with. I’ve been doing work with CamelBak recently on some new bags that are products they’ve never done before, I think that’s exciting, too. It is always a good challenge to help bring a brand into a new category or direction.

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

A: One that comes to mind is the No Reception Club project. My wife and I have a studio together: she does graphics and I do the product side. No Reception Club is really cool because they are a couple with this idea for a brand all about traveling with kids. We have kids too, so the two of us were able to relate and bond with them. We designed their bags, their graphics, the whole package, and it’s been super fulfilling. As a bonus the products have won multiple awards. They sold out on their initial production run quickly. That is a fun success story of a little startup that seems to be taking off, and it’s something that personally relates to my lifestyle.

Q: Everybody has a different way of defining soft goods, what does soft goods mean to you? 

A: There are a lot of different ways to define soft goods. I think of soft goods as any time that you’re using fabrics or other soft materials in designing a product, and that’s distinct from fashion design because fashion design has very specific parameters that make it fashion. There’s a bit of a blurry line between soft goods, product design, and fashion. I think it’s really just about using fabrics or soft materials in making some 3D object.

Q: I know that you specialize in cycling design and I also see a lot of photos of you on bicycles. How has your personal experience made you a better designer for these types of products?

A: I think that anytime that you really know the customer or deeply understand how they’re going to use their product, you can design it better. So I think that being into cycling personally in my free time and then also working with different brands on designing stuff for cyclists,  it helps me to get into the mindset. If you know, for example, with Two Wheel Gear: I don’t commute on my bike very often because our office is a home office, but I know what it feels like to ride your bike to an office or to a meeting. Being able to empathize and really take that experience and think, if I were riding my bike to an office, what would be things that would be difficult and how would I solve those problems? That’s all valuable, being able to understand the experience that you’re designing for.

Q: You’ve worked as a freelancer as well as in leadership. What did you like about those different roles? 

A: There are definitely pros and cons to both being in a corporate setting and being a design leader. It [being a design leader] has some real benefits as far as having a bit more of a defined role, a defined mission. Working in a big corporation, you have a budget and you have very clear structure. Managing people is another challenge for sure. I think designers who get into design leadership don’t think about that. Doing performance reviews and dealing with personnel issues, maybe somebody’s got a problem with somebody else they’re working with. That side of it is a whole other set of skills—that are outside of the design role—that you have to have when you’re managing a team.

Freelancing, on the flip side, has great flexibility and in some ways less flexibility. Being able to take off in the middle of the day to pick up a kid or go on a bike ride: I can schedule that in. But at the same time, my clients have meetings and deadlines that I always have to meet, so balancing that can be tricky. Being a freelancer is one of those things where, even when you’re busy, you have to be thinking about what your next contract is going to look like and who you can talk to. You don’t have the stability that you have in a corporate setting where you’re just focused on getting stuff done, getting the products out, and managing your team.

Q: Are there manufacturing techniques you are especially excited about right now?

A: I think that one of the things that’s not fully exploited yet—but I think we’ll be in the next five years—is computerized stitching and robotic operations. With the push to manufacture domestically or closer to home, labor costs are going to be such an issue that investing in a machine that can do a lot of sewing or a lot of the operations will help companies to be able to afford manufacturing stuff closer to home. I’ve seen factories in Asia where they didn’t want to invest in a CNC machine. They do and then, within a couple of years, they have banks of CNC machines because they save so much time and are just so much more accurate. So it’s good and bad.

Robots are going to replace people at some point but at the same time, companies are always pushing to have great quality and lower costs. I think that it’s the world we’re living in with 3D printing, with circular knitting, with all these different types of production that you can do that are more computerized and less hands-on. It’s going to open up new possibilities and I think it’s a give and take like anything else. It’ll be great to be able to manufacture things in North America more than we do now, but there won’t be as many people doing it. 

Q: How do you work with sustainable materials when designing for outdoor and sport?

A: That’s been a huge change over the last five to ten years. I would say 10 years ago we wanted to be using more sustainable materials, more recycled materials, and they were either really difficult to find or really expensive. But there’s been such a push from some of the big industry leaders, like Patagonia and REI and The North Face, that the fabric mills and the suppliers are all investing in it. These days, even if I’m working with a small company, it’s much easier to find recycled material or something that has natural content that will work. It’s not crazy expensive. That was always such a challenge; we would find a really cool material but it was three times the cost of something that wasn’t recycled. Now you can find something that’s maybe 50 cents a yard more, which is pretty easy for most customers to absorb.

I’ve seen more and more brands, even small startup brands, that want to use sustainable materials. It just wasn’t a consideration for people a while back. I think that definitely in outdoor and sport, people’s mindsets have shifted to be much more attuned, looking for sustainability as a benchmark or baseline.

Q: At this point in your career, what are your favorite kinds of problems to solve?

A: That sort of gets back to the first question. I think it’s about new innovation or doing something that is pushing a brand or a category. That’s always fun, you know? And it’s not always a big success because sometimes you’re pushing into something that’s too new or you’re ahead of the market. When I was working for Specialized [Specialized Bicycle Components], we did a collection of bags for bike packing. It was not a niche thing but it was just coming up at the time and we did a nice collection. It didn’t take off in a huge way but now, every brand has bike packing bags. That’s interesting; being able to know when the market is ready for your new innovation, or what you’re doing.

I like adventurous brands or somebody who’s willing to push their boundaries. I’ve worked with some brands that didn’t make soft goods, and helping them to imagine what a soft goods line would look like for their brand is sort of fun. Oh, you make Watches. What would a brand that makes watches do for travel? 

Q: Could you talk about what you see in the future of outdoor products?

A: The interesting thing that I see with outdoor products is that there are two divergent directions. One is to bring more people in and really expand the market to be almost anybody. There was an article I read the other day about how REI is going to take the word adventure out of their marketing and it’s going to be more about experiences, because some people are intimidated by climbing a mountain or, you know, freezing, or some of those adventure things. I can see that the market really wants to embrace more types of people and I think that’s great, being able to embrace different backgrounds, different body types, different abilities. I see that as a really big trend in a lot of brands.

The other side is the push for innovation and being super technical, things that use the highest tech materials and the newest manufacturing processes. Like a NASA level thing for climbing Mount Everest, which most people are never going to be able to appreciate, but for the people that do, it’s important to them. I remember when I worked for The North Face we had these Himalayan products that you only really need if you’re going to be sleeping on the side of a mountain, but we would sell a ton of them in Manhattan.

Q: Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to add or questions you wish you’d been asked?

A: One of the things for students or people who are just getting into soft goods design is being able to understand the various processes because, like I said, it’s sort of a gray area between fashion design and product design. That is sometimes intimidating for people. I’ve had people who are trained as industrial designers reach out to me and say, I don’t even know how to start designing a suitcase or a backpack. There aren’t a whole lot of programs out there for people who specifically want to do this kind of stuff. There are a few that steer that way, but I think that that’s something for people to dig into. There are resources online where you can see how bags are made or luggage is made or shoes are made, and those are all really good ways to start in the field.

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. 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!