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Designing Women

Why More Women Should Tackle Technology's Design Problems

Design professor Kim Erwin talks about what women add to tech, sophisticated communication, and why hugging is a great design method.

Why More Women Should Tackle Technology's Design Problems

Doreen Lorenzo: Tell me about your journey. How did you get there? Did you know exactly where you were going, or did you take that curvy road?
Kim Erwin: I love the metaphor of the curvy road, because I would say that my road is not only curvy, it’s probably several roads connected by marshes and swamplands. I did not have a strong North Star about a career path, but I did have a strong North Star about doing interesting work and helping other people do interesting work.

My undergraduate degree is in philosophy—a pre-unemployment degree, as my father used to call it. The continuous thread through the things that I have pursued is that I’m deeply curious about how we come to know anything. And that idea of "knowing" as an action verb: How do you know something—not just in a superficial way but in a deep way, in a way that builds conviction, in a way that allows you to act differently or make good decisions? Knowing is, I think, a very complicated act, and what I have always been interested in is helping people who need to know something—who need contact with powerful ideas—to come into contact with those ideas in ways that build not just understanding but conviction.

So while getting my BA, I was also working at a major magazine as an editorial assistant. And I came into contact with all these organizations that were doing amazing, socially necessary work, but their branding and materials weren’t getting that across. At that time, I worked next to the art department, and it made me think: These organizations need more sophistication in how they communicate.

So I decided that a graduate degree in design was a logical next step.

How did you end up in academia, and how did you come to the IIT Institute of Design?
My father taught and did research at IIT in the Biological Science division from 1968 to 2001, so I was a campus child. And that’s where I first encountered design. One of our neighbors was getting her graduate degree at the Institute of Design, and she ended up becoming a mentor for me. I have a very explicit memory, in second grade, of asking her, "What is design?" And she said, "Design is problem solving." And I got it. I realized everything in this room, everything in this world, is designed. And that’s a very powerful capability.

So full circle, when I went to design school, I came back to IIT and the ID. After I got my masters, I worked for about 12 years in the field that would now be called "innovation consulting." I had never wanted to be a professor, never. But after years in industry, I came to see that I was missing some skills. And so I started teaching, in a sense, to teach myself. One thing led to another and I found out I loved teaching, and learning, and never really missed client-driven consulting.

What is your current research focus?
No surprise, given why I went into design in the first place, I am focused on what it takes to create effective communication, and how communication itself is a powerful method for design. Communication design, for me, is less about styling and beautifully designed posters and much more about the experiences necessary to build conviction.

My 2013 book Communicating the New: Methods to Shape and Accelerate Innovation sums up everything I knew at the time about how to take complex information and make it easier to understand. This idea of communicating the new has an assumption that people already want to know about the new, and have the time to know it. My next book is focused on what I call experiencing the new. Experiencing the new is about how we engage our bodies and the physical environment to help us come to know something new. So over the past five years, that has been my area of research focus: the role of space, interaction, and objects in communication. This builds on a school of inquiry known as phenomenology, which is part of philosophy, but has important implications for communication design.

Tell us a little bit about user research, and how you use that in design, because clearly that’s become an important aspect of what you’re doing.
User research means a lot of different things to different people. For me, the most relevant user research is what’s called contextual inquiry. This means you go into the space where people are doing the activity you think you’re designing for, and you do direct observation. You take notes and document what they do; you also ask questions about why they’re doing what they’re doing; and you may bring in prototypes or probes to help surface and drive that conversation to a level of specificity that would allow you to actually go back to your office and design something that fits the context of use.

Over the past two years, I have been focused on health care. Health care is ripe for contextual inquiry because it is stakeholder-abundant—patients, families, nurses, doctors, community health workers, drug companies, school principals, and more. To create solutions that work in really complex, people-intensive systems, we have to go into the clinics, we have to go into the emergency rooms, we have to go into users’ homes, and we have to go anywhere else the activity system is actually taking place. We need to see what’s taking place alongside it, what people are doing that they don’t even know they’re doing. And this has to be witnessed, because I’m not sure they would ever think to explain it to us. Think of design as a painting: Contextual inquiry allows you to create a relevant background and a detailed foreground, and to choose a focal point.

What big trends are you seeing in design?
The big one I’m tracking now is that design strategy has moved from something companies hire out to something they bring inside. This is sensible and overdue. I’ve never understood why an organization would outsource the most important conversations about its future. It leads to stillborn ideas, because consultants don’t really understand the organization, and the organization can’t act on foreign ideas. So the trend now is to build and lead design strategy in-house. But organizations don’t yet know how to support strategic design in their organization. So too often, they give designers a cool space and a coffee machine and a fun sofa and the right to wear jeans. Their impulse is to say, well, design needs to be protected; let’s not integrate with the rest of the organization, because the organization will kill the new ideas before they’re formed—all of which is true to an extent, but the net effect is that these organizations are setting up a unit inside their company that nobody else cares much about.

These "innovation" teams are not being asked to think broadly about what needs to be in the world. More often they are asked to create a "breakthrough product" that you can hear when it drops. What is the widget that you’re going to produce that’s going to justify your salary within three years? Other organizations are smarter about how they deploy their innovation teams. They start with the context. They look at service; they look at opportunities for quality improvement; they look at things that don’t necessarily end up as products. And I think that that is a smart use of design. Because design is great at improving and reframing a system of activities. It is not necessarily a good way to answer the inventor’s question: "What can I make to put into that context that will make me money?"

Do you think of yourself as a creative person?
My first impulse was to say no. I think creativity is a broad curiosity about how things could be different without needing a lot of stimulus for thinking about that. I am surrounded by creative people and creative students. They love having new ideas as a condition of their everyday existence. I am, however, somebody who is more structured and logical. I need to learn how people work and live to understand a problem broadly. I need that input. So I think I am creative about thinking about which people belong on a project. I’m creative about how to operationalize a discovery. I think I am creative with words. But I don’t think I’m a typical designer in that sense.

Being a woman in the design industry, you have one foot in the design world and one in academia. Is it harder or easier being a woman? And what characteristics do women bring to the table that you think are different or unique?
I feel like I wind up stereotyping every time I try and make strong distinctions between how men and women work. Especially in design, I’ve encountered so many men with what I would call well-developed feminine sides, and I have certainly gravitated toward women who have well-developed masculine sides: people who are strong and don’t shrink from their opinions, and advocate for themselves vocally. And yet, I do think as an instructor when I give the same problems to male and female students, female students do think differently. It’s not just a different aesthetic; it’s a different sensibility and approach.

I think it’s particularly important to put women on technology projects, because the subtle but significant differences in how women approach tech problems and solutions really matter. It’s not just that women have a slightly different sensibility, but especially when women are the target market it’s essential to have that voice and life experience in the mix. I did a project 15 years ago for a company in many categories of household maintenance. And most of the brand managers I worked with in categories such as home deodorizer or cat litter were 24-year-old men who’d never managed a home. And I thought, well, you are not qualified to run this brand, because you don’t understand what people are trying to achieve in their homes, never mind with this product. That’s never been your area of responsibility. So having women as brand managers would be a much better idea for categories that have predominantly women customers.

I know hugging in the workplace is not something that’s easily allowed without asking permission, but if you could, are you a hugger? Or not?
I am absolutely a hugger, and I don’t care about my workplace requirements. I hug all the time. It is about telling the people that I am working with that I care about them; that they’re not just a means to an end.

A thing that is great about design is that there is an underlying value system, with the people that I work with anyway, which is that we care about and want better outcomes for everybody. Everybody counts in design. We don’t prioritize patients over clinical staff. We don’t prioritize CEOs over factory-line workers. A good solution has to work for everybody. And so I cultivate and enjoy an egalitarian vibe with the people I teach and work with. Which is to say, I guess, hugging is a design method.

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