Design Strategies StackUp @ Projective Space

Last night I attended a StackUp on startup design practices where four startups presented some ideas and methods they use in regards to their design practices (mostly front end).  As this was for “designers only” I was able to penetrate the high level security of three flights of stairs and a bunch of friendly people.

Although I don’t have any immediate plans to become a visual, UX or UI designer, I’m interested in understanding the language these guys speak and I need to know the various processes designers use and why- At some point I will have a say in these processes as I work with design teams.

Points of interest:

  • The term “designer” is broad and, especially in the startup realm where definitions aren’t so much spelled out, can include an array of functions.
  • Agency processes have been heavily studied and documented, but the startup body of knowledge is only starting to grow.
  • Processes:  Designers at Kickstarter code their own work- this provides a greater sense of ownership and alleviates some handoff issues when the designer gives their work to a developer/engineer.  Product managers meet weekly for product road mapping sessions.  Branch pairs designers and back-end engineers for a few hours during the design process so that they can develop relationships and allow for smooth hand-offs.  HowAboutWe… relies on design focused weekly sprints, daily reviews with the CEO and product and retros (lessons learned).

"Talk Shop: UX Design" at General Assembly

Last night, General Assembly hosted a panel of UX designers (J. Crew, IDEO, Spotify, Charming Robot) to discuss what “good” UX means to them.   It’s interesting to note that all of the panel members had varying ideas of what a positive user experience is to them, although unsurprising due to their widely varying backgrounds and the fact that they all work in different organizations.  This is also unsurprising because depending on the product and type of experience in question, the meaning of an effective user experience should vary.

My very broad definition of a good user experience is that a user is able to achieve a predetermined goal/outcome successfully with little frustration.  An excellent user experience is all of that plus the experience being a memorable one.

Some interesting takeaways from last night:

  • Where does UX fit within the design process?  This generally depends on the project and the organization.  For example, IDEO likes to incorporate the UX process at the beginning of a project with a "synthesis session" where they identify users and, in person, get an idea of how they interact with a product and what the problems they encounter may be.  Spotify uses lots of up front real world testing and iterating.  Their process is not as defined but it works based on the nature of their product.
  • UX work is never finished.  Just like for digital product releases, it’s important to continuously iterate and refine.
  • A definition of a good UX design is one that is clean and simple.  Designers will tell you that this sounds easy, but as a product is iterated and more features are added, the level of complexity will increase and it will become more challenging to maintain simplicity.

A Technique for Producing Ideas

James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas is a classic writing on, well, formulating new ideas.  Young spent his career in the advertising industry and writes this book in reference to that, but it’s easy to see that the simple concepts in the book can be applied anytime there is a need for a creative, useful idea. 

The Distillation:

The combination of old elements + the ability to see relationships between these elements and concepts (sometimes seeming disparate) = the formation of new novel ideas. 

This is so true for a lot of innovation we see today and can be especially seen in the digital realm.  Take the concept of the API for instance which allows an application or program to incorporate functionality of another app to assist or enrich the experience of the new creation.

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Design Thinking: Top-Level Process and Application

Design Thinking: Top-Level Process and Application

As I mentioned previously, I’m super intrigued by the “Design Thinking” concept.  I’ve always had a thing for process and methodology as I see it is a good way to organize thought and get to some point of solution- When applying the right methodology to a question, I’m confident I’m making progress because the process has most likely been validated with rigorous testing.

…Anyhow, the above schematic is a simplified depiction of the design thinking process that includes 5 phases.  These are meant to proceed linearly only in the sense that there is a full intention to iterate and begin the "Empathize" phase over again after “Testing”.

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"Five Whys"


So, I’ve been working my way through Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup and as I read, I try to connect the concepts he mentions to work I’ve done in the past and the work I plan to do in the near future.  Eric mentions the “Five Whys”…a technique used to get to the root cause of a problem.  I had previously worked for Genentech, an amazingly innovative biotech company, where I was introduced to the concepts of Kaizen, lean manufacturing and Six Sigma – all tools used for process improvement.  I remember that the Five Whys technique, where you essentially identify a problem and ask “why” until you reach a root cause (often part of the RCA (Root Cause Analysis) methodology) is associated with these methods.

This is a fascinating (and simple on the surface) method to understand where problems originate.  To me, part of the beauty of this technique and other processes associated with design and general problem solving is that you can adapt them to your own life…I suspect that using the Five Whys method can help to come to an actual solution of an issue efficiently and rationally. 

We all need some rationale in our lives, right?

Found Inspiration: David Kelley on Design Thinking

This is the first in a series of posts I'll frequently put up highlighting nuggets of inspiration I find, or that seemingly find me.  These are things that excite me, keep me going and inspire me to continue learning and moving forward.

First up: IDEO’s David Kelley on Design Thinking (pardon the “60 Minutes” stiff reporting style, the material speaks for itself).

I have a science background, so part of my trained thought process is observational and methodical.  Design Thinking is a super intriguing theory/practice because it combines human behavior observation, methodical process with creativity and art/design…all to make things better for people. 

I’m also in love with the fact that Kelley believes that design thinking should be taught and practiced by people from a range of backgrounds (I agree).  A team should consist of a diverse group of people who can build off of each other’s ideas. 

Completely solid and I’m completely sold.  This is the essence of my interest.

Meeting People is Easy: Informational Interviews

metting people is easy.png

One of the most helpful things I do as I make progress in my career transformation is to be open to meeting as many people as I can who work in the industry I’m moving into.  I started out small, knowing very few people working in digital or at a design firm or at a tech company but as I meet people, my network grows.  People enjoy talking about what they do and helping others who want to learn.  People are proud of the work they do and it’s their way of giving back.

So, I set up in-person meetings at my contacts' convenience.  Meeting in person is critical as it establishes a good report and allows me to get the person’s full attention.  It's also more fun and I have a chance to show some personality.

I make sure to leave every meeting with the following:

  1. Insight on information specific to the industry, role(s) I’m curious about and very importantly, what steps I can take to learn and develop.
  2. Another contact.  I make a point to ask the person if they know and are willing to put me in touch with some other folks who might be able to and want to help out.

I meet with as many people as I can, even if they may give me very similar information as another person who I’ve spoken to – There is something to be said about getting different perspectives. Even when a meeting is not what I had hoped for, I have always been able to take at least one positive from the experience. 

Progress Report: Digital Design Process

I thought it wise to begin my knowledge pursuit in the digital design end of the design/product development spectrum.  As I networked and met people involved with digital and independently researched I picked up on areas that seemed to be common themes to target.

My thinking began as such:

  • I am looking to work in digital. 
  • More specifically, I’d like to first contribute as a project manager working with teams creating a digital product.

So I began to ask myself (and other people) what it takes to be a successful PM in the digital world.  What hard knowledge should I familiarize myself with?

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Bridging the Gap - Hard Knowledge: Digital Design

I have mentioned the importance of bridging the gap with hard knowledge and skills that pertain to the industry and type of role I’m looking to move into.  To begin to understand which knowledge areas I need to get familiar with, I needed to target an area that I am interested in within the design/product development realm and would make immediate sense to pursue.

Digital Design

I have a personal interest in being an important part of a team that creates well designed products.  (I suppose this is the first hint at my interest in product development and I will explore this further in future posts.)  A product is not limited to physical objects - A beautiful, well conceived and useful product can also be digital, say a website or an app.

I decided to explore the digital end of the design spectrum first for a number of reasons:

  1. I am interested in what makes a great digital product and the process it takes to do so.
  2. There are companies I admire and want to be a part of doing great work in this field. 
  3. I recognize that digital design reaches across several types of organizations: digital agencies, design firms, tech startups and companies with a complete or partial digital presence.
  4. Digital design / digital product development has a need for project management and similar roles.

Next, I'll speak to the progress I am making learning different aspects of the digital design process.

Shameless Self-Promotion: A Diverse Background Adds to a Team

Making a career change inherently means that my past professional background and experience in the pharmaceutical industry will differ from the backgrounds of most of the people working in design at say an agency or firm.  Maybe these people have formal degrees in the associated disciplines or the industry has in essence turned them into lifers by way of years of experience.  It’s easy to let this fact intimidate me as I continue my work, meet people and speak with prospective employers.  Sure, there will be some people who look at a background that seems radically different than theirs as a hindrance…but I actually look at it as an interesting strength. 

Imagine a team comprised of all amazingly bright people, but completely homogeneous when it comes to professional background and training.  A team such as this is perfectly great and will probably produce great results.  On the other hand, a team comprised of capable people with diverse backgrounds can not only produce great results but can also benefit from different perspectives, ideas and ways of thinking.  It has been proven and studied that innovation and new ideas form quicker in an environment where team members contribute in their own ways and can offer unique points of view.

I argue that my background and training will offer a fresh perspective.  Yes, there is a caveat to all of this -  A diverse background alone is not enough to make someone a great candidate and magically boost a team’s strength.  It is important that the prospective team member prove that he/she is able to transfer skills, have a solid understanding of the business, ability and healthy desire to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible.  They must also have a desire and passion for the work at hand.

I don’t look at my professional background as "different" in a negative connotation, it’s a unique strength and I am excited to add my perspective to a team and have the opportunity to learn as much as possible.

Bridging the Gap: “Hard Knowledge”

“Hard Knowledge” is information pertaining to and specific to an industry or line of work.  The pharmaceutical industry is complex and I needed to learn and know very detailed information specific to my job.  The same is true for the industry I’m pursuing.  I have transferable professional knowledge that I will use from my experience in my last career, but there are PLENTY of knowledge areas that I need to understand so I can feel comfortable with the business, its processes and the work various teams are responsible for.

I have a big time interest in learning as much as I can about the design/digital design industry, including its technical areas.  I want to know what constitutes great design, how innovative products are taken from conception to launch/production, what is involved in running a successful project, etc., etc., etc.  I spend my time familiarizing myself with concepts and this is an ongoing endeavor.


  1. I take classes at General Assembly.
  2. I attend as many Meetups as possible (this is a great, free resource to learn and meet other like-minded people)
  3. I bother people - I network and set up as many informational interviews with as many people as possible for the sake of learning and getting as many unique perspectives as I can.
  4. Read, Read, Read: I read industry and agency/firm news and blogs and I take time to work my way through books each day.

I’m hungry for information and I find ways to get the knowledge I need to begin to bridge the gap.  I will dig deeper into these topics in upcoming posts.

Bridging the Gap: Pharma to Design - Leverage Past Experience

I am making a move from the Pharmaceutical industry to the design/digital design world: Wow, how different could two disciplines be?  At first thought, very.  And my first thought is a correct and valid assumption in that I am planning to work in a radically different field.  With this being said, it was smart and strategic for me to consider the aspects of my past work that I enjoyed and excelled at and to leverage this experience.

There are a couple ways I look at leveraging my experience and skills:

  1. I enjoy working on projects with teams and solving problems and I have years of experience doing so.  Why would I waste these efforts, especially if I enjoy these types of roles?  I have worked hard to get the experience and the skills I have now and I do not want to waste that effort and I shouldn’t have to.
  2. It’s strategic: I made a connection (Project Management) between my past work experience and the field I want to work in. I look at this as a good “in,” a way for me to enter the design field, contribute immediately and have the opportunity to learn and expose myself to new knowledge.

  Why would I waste these efforts, especially if I enjoy these types of roles?  I have worked hard to get the experience and the skills I have now and I do not want to waste that effort and I shouldn’t have to.

…But only identifying my strengths will not get me to my next exciting career.  Although valuable, I have taken my experience from the pharmaceutical industry…I need to supplement that experience with specific “hard knowledge” and actual experience in the discipline I plan to work in. 

Finding Daily Inspiration

Let’s be honest, tackling a career change can be daunting and it’s easy to lose sight of why you are doing this at all.  I find it extremely important to spend some time each day reading regularly updated industry news and blogs that have industry tidbits, tips, company showcases and feature interesting and innovative products produced from the types of firms I want to work for.

Of everything I read in this specific area, my favorite place to cull inspiration and ideas is Fast Company (  These guys focus on everything from innovation to technology to productivity to business and entrepreneurship and more.  I find the reads to be succinct, informative and they get my day going.

I also like to read the blogs of companies that I admire.   A few of these are:




I will frequently post pieces of inspiration I come across that are specific to the knowledge areas I’m pursuing.  These posts will be specific or related to the design industry.

Bridging the Gap: How to get from Here to There

So, I've set my sights on a discipline to pursue: I am targeting a Project Management role at a Digital Agency or Design firm.  I spent a lot of effort evaluating the design industry and it was important to determine what experience/skills I already have and how I could strategically leverage my ability to make a move.  This is an important exercise because it helps inform the types and kinds of steps that I may need to take to “bridge the gap” so to speak - The “gap” being industry specific hard knowledge and experience.  

Supplementing the experience I already have with skills and experience I may need to excel in my next career is a complicated and lengthy phase and I will discuss pieces of it at a time in upcoming posts, but in general, my thought process went something like this:

  1. I took time to think about and diagram out my work experience and skills.
  2. I researched Project Management and other similar roles in the digital and design world to get a top level understanding of what is required to be successful (ongoing).
  3. I compared the outputs from steps 1 and 2 to determine what I was missing (ongoing).
  4. I set out to bridge that knowledge and experience gap (ongoing).

At the moment I’m heavily involved in finding the experience and hard knowledge/skills I need to succeed in the design world and I will detail the work I have been doing.  Some topics you can expect are those on education, independent research, industry meetings/talks, informational interviews and more.

Personal Update: Career and Role

I mentioned before that the previous posts are meant to set up my story and thought pattern as I find a new career – these are written in retrospect and take a fairly linear approach. It makes sense at this point to jump to the present and add some color to the story.

After doing a lot of thinking, exploring, research and observation, I have made the decision to pursue a career in the design industry- I am specifically interested in working for a digital agency or design firm.

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Acknowledge Reality

I mentioned the importance of thinking in ideal terms when putting together a picture of an ideal work situation.  In the beginning, it was important for me to be a bit of a dreamer because it kept me focused on what it is that makes me excited and driven and gave me a goal to strive for.  It was also vital in keeping me inspired and motivated to find an awesome job.

There also comes a time when it is important to inject a sense of reality into the equation. The reality factor is equally important because it helped me parse out values that I absolutely needed to fulfill and those that may not be as important.  This is life we’re talking about here: nothing is absolutely perfect.  Most importantly, thinking rationally and realistically helps me focus on HOW to get to where I want to be. 


A Quick Word on Content

As I mentioned before, I’m writing some of this blog in retrospect.  This is mainly because I was well into my work heading to a new career when I realized the benefits of documenting it.  The posts before today read linearly and the material is fairly general to most people seeking career fulfillment.  This was calculated, as I wanted to set my story up and create an easy to follow dialogue.  Keeping that in mind, I will begin to transform future posts to be more diverse pieces which will hopefully read less like a textbook and provide nuggets of information which once taken as a whole, create a detailed picture of my specific situation, where I’m heading and the work I’m doing to get there.  All of these posts should continue to have meaning for people making (or thinking about making) a switch to an area different than the path I’m choosing.

Thanks for reading!

Map and Match Values

After coming up with a good list of what is important to me, my core values, I wanted to dig deeper and match these values to disciplines and industries.  I thought about the essence of each value on my list and how each could translate to the professional world.  I made sure to keep these ideas fresh in my mind so that I could make connections as I attended events, met people and actively researched.

There are a number of ways to make connections between what is important to you and the type of work that will satisfy this...but my best advice to be CURIOUS.  Always keep your values in mind and explore.  There's no linear, prescribed method - It is you who will have an idea already what you will and will not do, can and cannot do.  Be persistent and explore.

A good friend of mine so happens to be leading a tech startup and invited myself and a group of friends down to the technology portion of SXSW to help promote his business.  Not only did I want to go to help him out and the event would be a ton of fun, I saw the connection that there was a great opportunity to network and learn about an industry which at the time was new to me.  Creativity, innovation, design and technology are some key words on my list of values and all of these things are synonymous with the mission of SXSW.

Going into that experience, I didn't know what to expect.  I’m happy to say that I left the festival having made progress in discovering an area to explore - I met some exciting people who worked for a digital agency and were nice enough to fill me in on their world.  I left SXWS having discovered an area of interest and I was pumped to dive in and learn more.

Identifying Your Core Values

It was easy for me to say that it was time to make a change.  Sometimes the easiest and most obvious way to make a decision to move on to something new is when there is a persistent and chronic pain point.  I knew what I didn’t like about my work situation.  Being unhappy is unpleasant and that made it clear to me that I needed to make a change.  I have a great professional record and the easy route to take would have been to immediately begin looking for similar jobs within my industry.  Finding another job for the sake of finding another job would not have taken much time, effort or creativity.  Most importantly, following this path wouldn’t have addressed the core issues central to my problem.Read More

Connecting the Dots: Treating Career Transformation as a Professional Project – Take Time to Plan

I am at a point in my life where I am able to act on my curiosity and I am fortunate enough to be able to fully dedicate my days working towards my goal.  I want to be certain that I make the right decisions and I’m ensuring that I am as thorough as possible.  I’m all in and I am taking this time very seriously. 

One common theme you will see throughout this blog is the idea of making connections.  Maybe more now than ever, I’ve noticed the importance and benefits of connecting ideas, thoughts and principles between seemingly disparate disciplines or knowledge areas.  Viewing this time from a high level, it seems logical and natural for me to treat my work as I would conduct a project in the professional world. 

I understand that a project has little to no chance of succeeding if it is not properly planned.  Thoroughly planning a project will dramatically increase the odds that it will produce great results.  A common question my friends have asked me in conversation has been: “Have you started applying for jobs yet?” and my answer has steadfastly been “No.”  I am dedicating as much time (within reason) to ensure that I have organized and constructed a plan that I can feel confident acting on. 

The first steps in my planning were to formulate a thought process.  I had to do some classic soul searching.