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Jennifer Kilian Doesn’t Think Design Is Boring Anymore (Sorry, Mr. Bermont!)

From thinking “design is boring” in the 5th grade to leading a design powerhouse.

Jennifer Kilian Doesn’t Think Design Is Boring Anymore (Sorry, Mr. Bermont!)
[Top Photo: via Jennifer Kilian. Illustrations: EkaArt via Shutterstock]

D: How did you get to your position?

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J: I was always interested in people and design. My parents were both psychologists, so I was taught empathy from a young age. And since I was always interested in fine art and making things and curious, design was a natural calling. I chose a path that was design-focused in my studies and always looked for opportunities that allowed me to go deep on understanding people and making situations better for them in the real world.

I started out in print design briefly, and when the web emerged I taught myself how to design for it in the evenings in 1994 for my first freelance client—a printed circuit board manufacturer. I have worked part of my career “in-house” at places like Apple, Intuit, IBM, and Facebook. The other part, I worked at consultancies like frog design, hot studio, and now McKinsey. I think it’s critical to understand both sides of the table—going deep and owning a product or service design, plus business context, iteration over iteration in-house, and alternatively, being able to work across analogous industries and issues at a design firm where you can really flex your creative and empathetic muscles.

D: When did you realize you were interested in design?

J: When I was 10. I used to draw all the time in class and my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Bermont, called me up to his desk one day in my NYC elementary school. He spread out the copy of The New York Times he was reading and tried to explain layout and print design to me. He asked if doing that was something I would like to do when I grew up, to which I responded, “No that sounds incredibly boring.” But I proceeded to try to find out more about what design was on my own.

D: You have worked in agencies and companies leading design teams; is there a difference?

J: Yes, and it’s wonderful to be able to empathize with both sides of the table, so to speak. I find the beauty of being inside a product or service company is the ability to go deep—to really intrinsically understand the population you are designing for, to grow the business, and to see version after version of something go to market, more delightfully each time (mostly).

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Alternatively, the beauty of being inside a design firm or consultancy is the ability to work across industries, companies and products and services. It’s really invigorating to be able to use what you learn in one area and apply it to analogous industries or experiences you are crafting. It’s amazing how things you learn about an expert audience (for example, studying cockpits of pilots, operating rooms of doctors, desks of traders) can apply to another expert area. I think it makes you a broader and better thinker when it comes to truly innovating.

D: What’s the hardest lesson you have learned in the design world?

J: When someone critiques your design and you made it, it feels like any suggestion for improvement can be a criticism of you not being perfect. It’s a very deep, gut-level reaction. I found that it took me time to realize that my designs were not extensions of me, that they needed to be specifically not about me and for the people I was making them for.

The second lesson was about the “glass ceiling.” I was lucky early in my career to work for companies that were forward thinking about women in leadership roles. Then in one job I really loved, I started as the only woman among five peers. Years later, the company had significantly grown in size, and I was still the only woman in my role. I realized that I probably wouldn’t progress further, and that was a tough lesson. I have always been optimistic in my belief that hard work gets rewarded, and I still am. But it was also a great wake-up call, that sometimes you need to move on to grow to your next level. I am proud of the female designers I mentored there who are staying and formed a women’s group to further hash out the issues and raise awareness for the company.

D: Did you have a mentor or female role model?

J: I feel incredibly lucky to have had several.

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Sometimes I was lucky enough to be hired by one. Each one was critical to me in that they had that certain je ne sais quoi of personality, warmth, and combination of creative and business talent, but expressed differently in each of them. Other times I needed to seek them out in other ways, like joining boards or collaborating on conferences.

Nowadays, I am less worried about approaching people I want to meet and share ideas with. I even reach out on social media to connect with women I admire but haven’t met and have been impressed by their openness to connect. What have I got to lose?

D: What does design mean to you today? Has it changed over time?

J: Today, to me, design means freedom from the past and the opportunity to create a new future. In the past, I would have said, design means problem-solving. Now I believe design is an enormously evolved and broad space. I can say that now to me, there is no problem too large for design. I love the awareness of design thinking at executive tables, and in developing nations’ non-profits alike. It’s like an explosion for good.

I think design has always been about activating the new to some extent. Only now, people seem ready to embrace that and use it wisely. Design seems to have limitless possibilities. I have loved every minute of being a designer, and I am so inspired to see where the next generation of designers will take us.

D: Design is a business obsession today, but are there cases where design and business goals conflict?

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J: I think we have come to a place where both design and business have matured by leaning in toward one another. Design is out in front understanding the ideal journeys for people and the business cart is there to take them on that journey. Today they are attached and collaborative—design is no longer an after-thought to a business plan. It helps co-create the model.

So while they are now more integrated than ever, they can still serve different purposes. Business goals are about saving or making money. Design is about developing long-term relationships with people through products, services or experiences they love.

D: Many designers are mission-driven—they believe they have a skill that can help change the world. But can every designer truly achieve this, or are there other reasons to become a designer?

J: We are all doing our part to make the world better through our work. It’s extremely mission driven. It always has been for me, and I think it’s true of many of the brightest, most talented designers I have had the luck to work with or hire through the years.

D: Is design ever detrimental to society?

J: I would say in the case of propaganda or manipulative communication design that it could be perceived to misuse the beauty of design for business purposes. Design as an agent of planned obsolescence is also bad. Manipulating feelings, persuasive everything, subtle messaging can also have very negative impact.

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D: How does being a woman make your job harder? Easier?

J: Empathy makes it easier. Certain types of integrative thinking that women tend to be great at make it easier too—but that may be true specifically of the role and path I have chosen as a designer. All the traditional gender role stuff makes it harder. And that’s true for men and women. Luckily we are changing that for the better.

I once was at a woman’s event where we addressed tough topics like unconscious bias. One of the most eye opening discussions was brought up by a man who said in the past that he felt he couldn’t be honest about not wanting to attend a meeting abroad because it was his daughter’s birthday. He said he would be asked (back then) to go anyway. And he knew he wouldn’t have had the same treatment as a working mother.

D: Do you think there are leadership approaches that come more naturally to women—like empathy, emotional intelligence, and managing the emotions of colleagues and team members?

J: I am not sure I chalk that up to gender so much as the individual, but those are definitely qualities and skills that I have personally leaned on in my career.

D: What have you learned from leading creative people?

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J: We are a tough but worthy stock. We watch and listen and understand. We make the tough connections. We have people in mind and we create the best designs for humankind that we can. Designers are incredible people. Design is not a solo sport.

D: Creativity usually involves a departure from the norm. How do you drive yourself and others to look beyond the obvious?

J: I look at analogous industries and different domains for inspiration. Remember what is competing for your users’ time is more likely something like Google than a business competitor’s product, app, site, or service.

Have a set of experiential exemplars to get your team tuned into the best experiences of the day (think the Uber app, Starwood Hotel keyless iPhone entry) and show these at the start of creative sessions.

Go deep on design research and get in front of your potential users early and often— use foundational research to understand their mental models, generative research to co-create solutions with them, and evaluative research to refine the new concepts you want to introduce.

Create or use existing design thinking exercises that leverage lateral thinking, metaphors, provocations, empathy, journey mapping, and others.

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D: When you walk into a room to present a crazy idea, do you have any advice on how to do it?

J: Do it with as much confidence and passion as you can muster. And know every detail of fact around it that you can to support why your crazy idea is breakthrough in the right way.

And then of course, there are the users. If you can show (first-hand invite to observe is always best) your audience or client how a user will respond to an idea or why there is even a need for your idea through primary research and contextual interviews, you are likely to convert them to your perspective.

D: I know we can’t hug in the workplace but if we could . . . Are you a hugger?

J: Yes! Or maybe I’d even pinch a cheek and say “such a face!” like my Italian great grandmother!

I recall a study was done about workplace recognition and behavioral impact. A group of people were given things like small denomination Starbucks gift cards and notes that they had done a great job. The other group was given loud verbal acknowledgement and a “high-five” in front of peers for a job well done. Almost all the employees preferred the high five.

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So if you aren’t a hugger, consider being a hand slapper or fist bumper.

D: What is the best creative story that impacted you?

J: So many over time…

The Swiffer (mythical?) story that people from a design firm and researchers were watching people in dorms and someone saw a person use a stick with a towel to clean up. Charles and Ray Eames inventing the new production process of bentwood to make a design vision a reality. Post-its: the failure of the glue that didn’t stick long led to using this glue on pieces of paper and it turned a failure into a massive success. Massimo Vignelli subway maps: they saw that showing a linear path with sequential stops as dots was more important (relative and abstracted info) than depicting the realistic path of the above ground journey.

D: If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?

J: That answer has certainly changed over time. When I was very young I thought being an ice cream truck driver was a great profession—people-oriented, and I could clearly see the benefits. After that I had a long affair with the idea of archeology because I was intrigued by the opportunity to “discover” something. It was perhaps spurred on by a third-grade class trip with a “dig” in a sandbox at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.

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Then when I was in high school (maybe because I went to a science high school) I thought I might want to be a biogenetic engineer. After getting my BFA in design from Carnegie Mellon, and with my parents always hoping I would pick a “profession,” I always had in my head that I would go to law school (and even studied for the LSAT) when I got “bored” of design. I still haven’t gotten bored. Since then I have encountered fields I have innate curiosity about, like cultural anthropology, urban planning, and almost anything health care related.

That said, I am pretty sure that being a designer in this day and age has the effect of letting me do whatever I need and want to do, for people, across industries and geographies, in whatever way I can dream up, faster and better than before in this digital era. And for that I am eternally thankful.

In the coming months I’ll be profiling 21st-century women like me who have built—or are building—careers in the product design industry. It’s historically a male-dominated field, but today it’s brimming with talented and ambitious females. I’ll share their stories and how they are evolving design practice through their unique perspectives on art, culture, technology, and business. — Doreen Lorenzo

About the author

Doreen Lorenzo is an independent business advisor and the former president of frog and Quirky.

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