Zynga, LinkedIn, MySpace, Yahoo! – few people have the breadth of product and design experience that Christina Wodtke has. But lately she spends her time teaching people what “design” really means. From her students at Stanford and CCA to being a sought after member of the conference circuit. Sure, she is an expert on social web design, UX and information architecture (she founded Cucina Media and Webby-nominated design thinking magazine Boxes and Arrows, and helped found the Information Architecture Institute), but she has bigger message – design isn’t just about products.
This week we talked to Wodtke about what this means for designers and non-designers alike.
You teach design classes and design students, but didn’t go to design school—do you consider yourself more of a designer, or something else?
I don’t think of myself as a designer, to be quite honest; I consider myself a human. I do design businesses and experiences, but I have a lot of issues with people thinking of themselves as just one thing because I find it very limiting. Designers are often unwilling to take on advancement or product roles because they feel like it means giving up their identity.
But I do know from a huge amount of experience that the approach and thought processes I learned through design are incredibly powerful, especially when you’re looking for innovation.
You help business thinkers understand that, and help designers understand when the design approach is not the best?
Very much so. The problem that a lot of designers face is that they go to art school and never take any business classes. And then they go into the business world and bad things happen and they never really understand why. So, it was really important to me to go back to the design school and bring business, help them understand why business choices are made.
And then the opposite thing happens when I teach at Stanford. I get them to draw, I get them to use post-it notes, I get them to sort, and suddenly they’re excited and laughing and playful—they just unlock. All of the sudden they have an idea they didn’t have before, or they manipulate the data in a way that helps them understand what’s going on with users.
I feel like I’m bringing two halves of a whole together and I’m hoping the end-result will be a better class of products and services that’ll make the world better.
I feel like sometimes Silicon Valley forgets – everybody is so A/B and metrics oriented – that once you have knowledge, if you really want to make it sing then you have to loosen up and explore. It takes both sides of your brain to think.
Recently, our community started talking about what drives designers crazy. What do you think is most misunderstood about “design?”
A lot of people see designers as “the crazy people who sit in the corner and think things up.” But there really is a methodology to it. Designers are really good at something I’ve been researching a lot lately, which is called embodied cognition. It turns out that all of us don’t really think with our brains; we think with our brains and our hands and our world. We think much better when we quickly build prototypes, put pictures on the wall, draw, and take the data and fragment it.
And that does two really interesting things. First, it allows our brain to free up so it is not trying to spend all it’s energy remembering, because once you get these pictures of the customers and all that stuff on the wall. Second, it allows us to find new connections that we wouldn’t necessarily find just sitting there and trying to think about it, or even going for a walk. Designers know very well that we don’t know what we think about something until we see it, by making it.
What was your most formative career experience that you wish all designers had?
I was a an interactive designer for Yahoo working for Jeff Weiner, and one day Jeff said “We’re reorganizing into this giant thing called ‘Search and Marketplace.’ I’ll be the General Manager of it, and I want you to run design.” It meant I would suddenly have 45 people underneath me and I was really intimidated. He just looked me in the eye and said “I know you can do it, and I think you should trust me.” And he was right. Stepping into that role was the first time I realized you can design a lot more things than products. You can design business models, workspaces, organizations; the things that I knew just made sense in a completely new context. His absolute faith in me meant a lot to me both as a designer, and a woman in tech. I’m not sure I would’ve had as much faith in myself to do things like start my own company if Jeff hadn’t believed in me first.
Why do you think there are fewer designer entrepreneurs then say engineering or product?
Part of the answer is education. It looks scary and it looks hard, and many of us don’t have engineering or business background. Designers often don’t have a way to think about their business ideas. In fact, I was advising last summer at a design school and they had some designers in an accelerator, and one of them had what I think was a terrific idea. Their idea was to give it away for free because it could benefit the world. And I thought “That’s very nice, but you really don’t have to. In fact it’s more likely to be successful if you can build a business around it.” They just didn’t even know where to begin on that. Which is another reason, FounderDating’s network is so powerful.
The other thing that I think is problematic, and it’s one of those “good things gone wrong” is AIGA and other design organizations have said over and over again “Never ever do work for free.” A lot of designers have heard this, and when a startup comes to them and says “hey, come work with us, we’ll give you shares; we can’t give you any money but nobody’s taking any money,” they won’t join. They won’t cofound because nobody’s getting paid. And that’s why they don’t usually do open-source projects either. They don’t have a culture of doing work for free just because they love their craft so much.
The third leg of the problem is design has been seen as something you add later to make things look pretty. And nobody’s going to look for a cofounder whose job is to “make things look pretty” after it’s all been figured out. I think we’ve seen a lot of movements to prove that that’s not true.
You worked at LinkedIn, MySpace and Zynga—that’s a huge chunk of the social web. What was common user behavior that might surprise people throughout all of them?
Actually, I think what’s surprising is what’s uncommon across those things. We all think people will go on and they’ll share and talk all the time, like what you see on Twitter. But when we were at Llinkedin we realized that so much of your personal information is tied into what you share. It’s really hard to get people to be active when it comes to business social; I think it’s one of the harder things to crack. It’s very straightforward to do things like recruiting and job hunting, but it’s much harder to do the things that LinkedIn’s starting to do with knowledge and information sharing.
People are scared of writing words. Every time we put the status box up, people are staring at a blank white piece of paper. Every time I see a young startup that’s trying to be social, they think everybody’s going to start writing in there, but it’s just really hard to know what to say. Community is hard. Social is so hard. It looks easy, but it’s one of the single hardest things, because people are so complicated. Thats why I love it.
What’s one message you’d want to leave an up-and-coming designer or product manager with?
Anytime you’re sitting there just staring at a screen being stuck, just switch. Move, use your hands, draw; get things out of your head and into physical space.