Inspired by San Francisco Design Week, Angela Adams recently met with industry experts to gain their perspectives on power and diversity in design and tech. In this installment, we share insight from Jason Monberg and Curt Collinsworth regarding how power manifests.
Jason Monberg | Founder and CEO, Presence Product Group
Q: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in tech and design?
A: I began working in the tech space in 1995, as an engineer at a marketing agency. At that time, if you were a designer, you did everything – marketing, product, UI/UX. Now, design and product are more specialized.
The best work is produced by strong teams where designers and product developers work together. A really great team has a common approach to solving problems. That common approach rises from a range of perspectives and experiences. Diverse backgrounds and overlapping skill sets infuse our teams with power in that they allow us to achieve a higher level of business sophistication.
Q: How does that show up in your approach with clients?
A: At Presence, we take a business first approach. I expect every person on our team to understand how their work will impact the client’s business. We might be building a product where the client is trying to improve a workflow inside a large organization. Immediately, our work is to build the app. But more importantly, we are influencing how that organization does business. We stay focused on the business impact our work has.
Q: Some professional services experts say the consultant holds the power. What’s your take?
A: Ultimately, I think the client holds the power. They are the ones who can say “Thanks, but no. We disagree,” and choose to move in another direction. As designers and product developers or managers, we have a responsibility to apply our craft in a way that most benefits our client. That might mean I need to help a client see things from my perspective.
Q: Or, situations may arise where you have to say no. How do you handle that?
A: I tend to think power is best used when you don’t have to use it. If you use power in the way a monarch might use power, just telling someone what to do, that won’t ever give them a depth of understanding. Even if I see a situation where I know something is a bad call based on experience, rather than just stating “No,” I will try to learn more about the perspective the person has. Afterwards, if I still think my perspective is right, I’ll try to provide evidence to be able to “show, not tell” why I’d recommend something different.
I try to model that in leading our team, too. When we are building a product, our development team won’t agree on every decision. We try to talk it out and build consensus so that we are in general alignment. Sometimes if an issue is critical we might not be able to all be on the same page before a decision needs to be made, but it’s important to get the facts on the table.
Q: How do you observe power manifesting in your work with teams?
A: We all have power in different ways, different levels of power. We all owe it to ourselves to be responsible with the power we have. Lately, I’ve been noticing how team members who might not be “leading” a project display power. Designers have the power of the pen, developers have the power of the keyboard. As skills get more specialized, the person who can update the UX form, the person who has edit rights in Figma, the animators – they are the ones that hold the power.
Moments when we are deciding what’s being created, how things are being documented – there’s power there. Brainstorming meetings are an example: people often think the person holding the pen, the notetaker, doesn’t have much power. But from another perspective, that person has the power to decide what gets recorded. They have the power to choose what’s included or excluded. That’s why in good brainstorming you record everything! There are dozens of moments everyday for us to be aware of how we use our power.
Curt Collinsworth | Founder and CDO of Passage
Q: How has design changed with the emergence of collaborative tools like Figma?
A: At first, designers were using old tools to do new work. Tools limited what we were able to do in formatting, font, color, etc. Over the last couple of years, most of those limitations have been resolved. Tools are more flexible – you can do just about anything you want.
I’m a strong believer, though, that new tools can’t replace training and experience. We still need designers who learned design fundamentals in school, who have applied what they learned through experience. You don’t forget what you learn through practice. Good design seems natural, as if anyone could have done it. The craft is truly understanding what it takes to get to that point, the steps in the process to form good design.
Digital native tools like Miro and Figma allow us to be more collaborative and have made it easier to work as a distributed team. COVID really put this to the test: now we have design firms without offices, using tools like Miro and Figma to work with colleagues across the world.
Q: Do you think collaborative tools will lead to more designers from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in design and tech?
A: I certainly hope so. So much of design is Eurocentric. I’ve been in design since the 90s and typically haven’t had an opportunity to work with people outside of the US or Europe. There’s a ton of design we haven’t seen in the mainstream market because the designers don’t reside where the power resides. For example, there are many impressive up-and-coming African designers, but restrictions of time zones and collaboration have limited their exposure.
I am eager to see if designers from underrepresented groups are able to contribute to the mainstream market now that COVID’s shown design can be distributed. As they are able to contribute to the mainstream market, they will gain more experience and continue to hone their craft. Their designs will resonate with a broader consumer pool, which is good for business. When design is more representative of the actual population, where will the power be? The Apple aesthetic is too sterile – it’s time for some fresh design!
Q: Design involves presenting your ideas and perspectives and needing to enroll others. How do you approach enrolling clients or staff?
A: You have to share the power you have, or you will lose it. If you are authoritarian and present concepts or decisions with hard power, it won’t last because you’ll use up all your social capital with people. Instead, you enroll people through inspiring them, being inclusive and bringing them along.
This involves a lot of listening. You listen, when necessary you ask follow up questions or offer ideas. Sometimes you offer strong opinions, based on experience and best practice. Designers aren’t order takers; clients hire us to apply our expertise to their business needs. But it’s our job to present that expertise and recommendations in a way that invites them in.
We can never forget, we know the craft of design better than them, but they know their business better than us. We both are experts in our domains, power should be balanced. Hopefully it’s a partnership, not an improper balance tilted too much to one side or the other.
Q: What are some changes you’d like to see in the design industry, upon returning to work post COVID?
It’s time for more diversity. We need more perspectives to keep design fresh – and to keep it representative of consumers. I think this starts early, in early education. If you don’t see a path for yourself in design, if the only professional designers you see are White men, you won’t see heroes that resonate with you. You won’t think being a designer is something you can aspire to. The design world desperately needs representation from African-American and Latino designers. We aren’t where we need to be in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion in design. That needs to change.