DESIGN is… (What CEOs Should Know About Design)

I joined Khosla Ventures as an operating partner two weeks ago, focusing on design for the portfolio companies. At the annual KV Summit this week, I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on design with the CEOs in our portfolio companies.

DESIGN is as important as TECHNOLOGY

Today, design is as important as technology. I was meeting with a startup last week when the principal architect asked me why is design more important now than ever before? And to answer that, let’s reflect on the evolution of automobile design.

When the Model T first came out, the focus was on getting the technology right. We labored over getting the car from point A to point B and laying infrastructure down to support automotive networks. Back then, consumers did not have much choice in the design of their car. Cars were offered in black, black, or black, in this style only. Then, as technology and infrastructure became good enough, design became the differentiator. It wasn’t enough for your car to be fast, but it also had to look fast, or expensive, or powerful. Design has become the differentiator for the car market.

Design has become the differentiator in the car market

Similarly, in the early days of the internet, the major challenges of the day were focused on getting it to work, reliably moving packets from A to B across proxies and servers and operating systems. Technology was so expensive that it required a lot of capital to form a company, and the technology was not yet widely in the hands of most consumers.

We’ve reached a stage where technology is now good enough. We have sensors and chips where we need them when we need them. We have compute cycles either in the device or in the cloud. We have storage for us to save every moment of our lives in high definition. Bandwidth is now fast enough that the internet just feels like it works. Not to say all the problems are all solved or that this future is evenly distributed across the planet, but the challenges of product development are now shifting towards building useful and emotional experiences that people get from using and interacting with technology. 

Another factor driving the rise of design particularly in enterprise markets is the consumerization of IT. As consumer users, we enjoy the simplicity and power of applications like Google Docs and Gmail, and we don’t want to spend 10 hours a day in Microsoft Office and Outlook anymore. Google had an explicit strategy of spoiling users at home so they would demand the same tools at work. Moreover, younger generations are just living on the internet, and this is what they know and feel comfortable with.

Microsoft Office and Outlook vs. Google Docs and Gmail


Let’s play a game… I airbrushed the logos out of some car pictures. Can you identify what car this is?

Some of these cars are easily recognizable. Why? They include design elements that get carried over from generation to generation, and across each model car in the portfolio. The design of these cars is so consistent that you instantly recognize what they are. The cars that are less recognizable suffer because they lack this consistency. Lexus, for example, changes their designs every 2-3 years, which makes our mental models of what the car looks like less stable in our minds and thus harder to recognize.

When we think of brands, we think of logos and identities. But these are just symbols that represent companies. A company’s brand is consumers’ perception of that company, and that perception is built up over time, through experiences. When a consumer is interacting with your company through any capacity, you are literally in the process of creating your brand. Because consumers are interacting with companies mostly through their products, the fastest way for companies to build a strong brand is through design consistency. Thus, design is the brand.

Logos do not make a brand; experiences do


Here are some products designed and sold by Muji. Muji is a Japanese company that sells common affordable household items with better design and lower cost packaging. Muji refers to its design philosophy as “Kanketsu”, which translates into “Simplicity”. Their aim is to “bring a quiet sense of calm into strenuous every day lives”. There is a Zen-like quality to their product design, and even though these products are simple and affordable, they don’t feel disposable.

Muji product design principle:  Kanketsu (simplicity)

… but SIMPLICITY is very difficult to achieve!

Simplicity is easy to say but hard to do. Let’s look at the evolution of the Google home page as a case study. This is what Google looked like in 1999….








It wasn’t until 2014 that Google truly achieved a simple home page, even simpler than what it looked like when it first launched. It took 15 years in the making of a company to achieve this level of simplicity, and certainly not because of lack of will or talent. That it took this long shows how difficult it is to achieve simplicity in the face of many people’s opinions, competing agendas, and growing product requirements and features. It’s a simple design, but was an incredibly difficult journey to get there.


Let’s look at the products from Braun produced in the middle of the last century, under the direction of Dieter Rams. Dieter Rams joined Braun in 1955 and had a forty year career there, eventually becoming their Chief Design Officer. The key principle that drove the design direction for all of Braun’s products during this era was “Less, but better”, the idea being that the products would be stripped down to only what is essential, that the essential would be amplified, and made better. These products are so streamlined that they are elegant and modern, and still relevant, even though they were designed decades ago.

Braun product design:  “Less, but better”

Whether we’re talking about product design or graphic design, great design is iconic. It’s not a fad, not showy, not trendy, not easily thrown away.

Timeless design


Design is all about the details, yet it’s the details that we often overlook, or take for granted, or forgo because we don’t have the time or resources. But there is no great design unless there is great attention paid to detail.

The details matter because they directly impact how we feel about a product or service after we interact with it. For example, here is a picture of a typical bridge with wrought iron railing. The vertical slats make you feel like you’re in prison. In Japan, when you look at railing, you get the sense that people are always thinking about how they can make even the mundane delightful.

Railings in Japan

Manhole covers are another example. A typical manhole cover in the US looks like this. Yet when you look at manhole covers in Japan, every single manhole cover is beautiful, inspired, and different, making the journey through the streets of Japan more entertaining and joyful.

Typical manhole cover in the US

Manhole covers in Japan

In some contexts, attention paid to design details means the difference between delighting your users or not. In other contexts, insufficient attention paid to design details can impact conversion, adoption, engagement, and user trust.

DESIGN is EMPATHY made tangible

Design details include not only how things look but also how they work, their ability to satisfy your needs, and the emotions you feel from interacting with them. To create a great experience for users requires tremendous empathy for others, an understanding of their needs and motivations.

Let’s look at another example from Japan. Here is a ticket counter at a subway station. At the edge of the counter is a plastic strip, placed there so one can rest their umbrella or cane there while they fish out money for their ticket. Whoever designed this must have had tremendous empathy and compassion for people to have the insight to include this detail here. And whoever was writing the check for the creation of these ticket counters must have supported whoever had that design insight.

Train ticket counter in Japan

Going back to the Google Apps example, we use Google Apps, not just because the apps are simple and easy to use, but because of what they allow us to do. The ability to collaboratively create and edit documents in real time, the ability to archive and search email, are functionality that people need, even if they didn’t understand that they wanted to do be able to do those things before they existed.


There was a study across 160 websites that looked at the impact of latency on the user experience. Just a delay of one second, resulted in a 7% decrease in conversions, 11% in page views, and 16% decrease in customer satisfaction.

Google really took this design insight to heart. While Braun’s design principle was “Less but better” and Muji’s was to “bring calm to people’s stressful lives”, Google’s main design principle has always been “Fast”. This principle has informed every design decision, and is reflected throughout the experience. For example, we show how long it takes to serve a search result. We strip away the page of clutter so users can better focus on the results. We know from human interface research that black text against a white background provides the best contrast for reading text on screens, thus enabling people to get to their destination faster.

Google design principle: “Fast”

While the insight that latency matters was very much a design driven insight, the commitment to speed went beyond the purview of the design team. This value permeated throughout the company, from billions of dollars of capital outlay to create infrastructure to make web search as fast as possible to company OKRs centered around reducing latency. This aspect of the user experience could not have been achieved without a company wide commitment.

When we think about design, we often think about how a product looks. As makers of technology we might also understand deeply that design is not just about how a product looks but how it works: components that enable people to use your product, and how it all fits together. All that cascades from your company’s strategy, values, and principles, and the scope of the problem you choose to tackle. All of that manifests itself in the design of the experiences you offer.

Design runs deep and reflects the company’s internal state (credit:  Jesse James Garrett)

Just as a person’s posture can reflect his or her inner state, so does your product’s design reflect the state of your company. I’ve seen org charts, power struggles, and agendas manifest through design. I’ve seen the absence of strategy, values, principles, and a clear point of view manifest through design. You need to think about design from the inside-out. You can’t fix your design without fixing these deep issues and this is why every CEO is a designer, whether they recognize it or not. If your expectation is that your design team can work around or patch over your company’s organizational issues, power struggles, and agendas, or lack of strategy, clear values, principles, or point of view, you’re shunning your responsibility in making design great for your users.

No New Tale to Tell

I’m a fan of 80s alternative music. While preparing for this talk, I was reminded of a song from one of my favorite bands from that era, Love and Rockets. In that song, “No New Tale to Tell”, they sing “You cannot go against nature, because if you do / go against nature / that’s part of nature too”. I think this is a nice way to think about design. You can’t not have “no design”. Because whatever you end up with, whether you pay attention to design or not, is your design. There is only careless design or thoughtful design. Choose to design thoughtfully.

I’m joining Khosla Ventures!

I’m thrilled to be joining Khosla Ventures as an Operating Partner! As part of my new role, I will help portfolio companies build design-centric organizations, recruit the world’s best design talent, and lead them through a process towards great design. Helping companies create well-designed products and services goes deeper than people and process; design is a manifestation of the company’s vision, values, strategy, scope, and ability to execute — to that end I expect to work with founders and CEOs on all of these challenges.

As a design leader at Google, Yahoo!, Udacity, and Netscape, I’ve initiated, developed to scale, and managed some of the largest design organizations at world class technology companies. I’ve worked with the most senior executives at these companies to create conditions that result in well-designed experiences. I’m eager to share what I can offer toward new endeavors and the startup community.
I am especially excited to join Khosla Ventures for several reasons. Vinod has assembled a team with deep operating experience. Second, Khosla Ventures aims to invest in solving problems that matter, as reflected by the diverse companies in its portfolio. Third, Vinod and the broader team care deeply about design. Beyond being a competitive advantage for startups or a marketable service for potential portfolio companies, we simply want to see better design in the world, and we recognize that design needs an advocate and advisor at the highest levels of the company for it to be successful. 
I am grateful to take on this opportunity while remaining committed to teaching yoga, which deeply informs how I approach design and life in general. I will continue to teach my classes at Avalon Art and Yoga in Palo Alto.
I start at Khosla Ventures in early May.

Tales from the trenches: Lessons learned from Netscape, Yahoo!, and Google

Note: This is a transcript of my opening keynote speech for the 2014 IA Summit.  #ias14

There has never been a better time to be in the UX profession. Design jobs are on the rise. Companies, large and small, can’t hire designers fast enough. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the job outlook for web design and development to be 20% through 2022.

Even though more people than ever are trying to enter the UX profession, hiring managers will tell you how incredibly hard it is to hire great designers these days.

On the flip side, I get asked a lot by people for career advice. A lot of the questions center around getting to some destination, such as “How do I get promoted to the next level?” or “What kinds of career paths are available for designers?” In other words,

“Where am I going, and how do I level up?”

As a yoga teacher, to me “path” refers to a way of being in the world, like a code of conduct. In this sense, the way you are in the world informs how you do your work. In turn, through your work you can learn some of life’s greatest lessons. So it’s no surprise that when I get asked for career advice the conversation inevitably turns to how we deal with our own internal challenges in the face of adversity. For example, if you don’t have the right skills, what is keeping you from learning the skills you need? If you have the skills but don’t get the job, why do you keep getting rejected? If you have been in the same job for years but want to get promoted, why do you feel so stuck?

I’d like to share the story of my career with you and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. By sharing my own challenges and lessons learned, I hope to give you insight into how you can face your own challenges. I’ll share one story each from Netscape, Yahoo, and Google.


In 1996, I landed my first full-time job, at Netscape as an interaction designer. That time during Netscape was so intoxicating. We were making the viewfinder to the internet and bringing the web to everyone! The engineers were the most amazing, opinionated, passionate, talented engineers I would ever encounter in my life, only to see many of them again later at Google.

I remember one engineer in particular, I’ll call him John. John had few friends and a strong opinion about everything, most of which was negative. One day he got particularly upset by a spec I had published; he was so livid he went to my team lead to complain about me.

I was a 23 year old woman going head to head with a much more experienced former Apple engineer twice my age, so this was a pretty scary experience for me. I wasn’t used to people complaining about me to my bosses so I wasn’t sure if I was going to get fired. I felt like a failure for coming up with a spec that was worth complaining about.

This wasn’t even a spec that required incredible engineering cooperation to execute. It was a spec for the design of the menu structures for the client software. Most of the lead engineers were happy to have a designer make decisions about the front end. I considered my next steps. I fantasized about telling the engineer that since I didn’t tell him how to code, he didn’t need to tell me how to design. Or alternatively I could deny him power over the spec by ignoring him.

Instead, I sat down with him for a couple of hours as we worked through the design spec together. To show my good faith in him, I put him in the driver’s seat; I let him edit the document. I made sure he knew I heard him. In the end, we ended up with exactly what I had originally spec’ed out. But, we both got what we wanted: I got the design I wanted, and he felt heard, and he got the design he thought he wanted.

That experience taught me how to listen and negotiate and practice compassion for others. Sometimes, what’s important is not the arguments or the content of the discussion or who is right, but the feeling one is left with at the end of an interaction.

After this experience, John became a great ally, and one of my biggest advocates. I started to build a reputation for dealing with difficult situations so much that Netscape gave me the “Jump Into the Fire” award. Eventually, I was named to lead the design of Netscape 5.0 because of the strength of the relationships I had formed with my engineering colleagues.
Netscape “Jump Into the Fire Award”

Lesson 1: Form bridges and connections with people, even if they don’t like you. Cultivate the capacity to develop relationships with people who are very different from you.

As a designer, your ability to get anything done rests crucially on how much decision makers trust you. The more you can build relationships, especially amongst those who are different from you, the better able you are to make design decisions that stick, to convince others on the right process, and to make people want to cooperate with you in achieving a shared goal. Moreover, the more relationships you have with diverse networks of people, the more connected to the world you will be, and will be more likely to receive important information about ideas, threats, and opportunities in time to respond to them.


When Netscape decided to open source the browser code and form Mozilla, I decided to leave the company. I felt that the most interesting design challenges of the time were emerging around content, and not the viewfinder in which it was displayed. Among many options, I chose to go to Yahoo! This was in 1998 when the site was entirely blue underlined text against the browser’s default background color.

My colleagues at Netscape, who were much more experienced than I, snickered

“Why would you want to go to Yahoo? What kind of design is happening there?”

These colleagues were designers with a capital D. They had amazing portfolios and would never dream of being associated with anything visually ugly; they felt like it was a career killer.

At that time, Yahoo! was largely text based and by most standards ugly. It was mostly a directory with little interaction design. Most designers chided at the opportunity to work on a website that looked like this:

Yahoo! circa 1998

Their reaction left a lot of doubt in my mind about whether I had a viable career there and what it would do for my future.

I saw a little more beyond this directory. My Yahoo! had just launched, and Yahoo! had just acquired Four11 which developed RocketMail which meant Yahoo! would soon offer web based email. Yahoo! was just starting to develop interactive products. My background in Human-Computer Interaction would allow me to help shape the way products were designed and developed at Yahoo! (or any other web company) completely differently than they had been. I knew that I could contribute in a meaningful way and that it would be a lot of fun. Where other designers saw Yahoo! as ugly, I saw a blank slate that I could make great.

As much as my boss embraced what I had to offer, it was not an easy ride at Yahoo! My entry into the team created a sort of existential crisis among the producers, who were used to defining the product and designing the user experience, and the graphic designers, who were used to designing the UI. They didn’t understand what interaction designers or user researchers did; usability studies were referred to as “focus groups”. I hired a team of three people, and we strategically chose to work on a few projects where we believed the conditions were ripe for us to add value without much of an uphill battle. Over time, we bootstrapped off the success of the projects we worked on which created more demand for our expertise. Instead of spreading ourselves thin across too many projects, we went deep into a smaller set of projects and did those really well. With that strategy, we were able to create a high quality internal brand for the team, which led to further investment in the team and enthusiastic stakeholders ready to work with us. What started out as an odd, non-obvious place for designers to work at has become one of the largest employers of UX talent in Silicon Valley to this day.

Lesson 2: Instead of being heads-down and going with what’s been done before, be willing to see around corners. If it’s not great, make it great. Shape your future, instead of just reacting to it.

Too often we go through life with a plan, a fixed idea of where we want to be and how to get there. When we’re heads down going forth on our plan, we don’t leave a lot of room for serendipity and flexibility. Instead, when we are present, we are more able to see opportunities when they arise. Moreover, when we are present, we are more able to trust our gut instincts and seize opportunities when we see them.

Eight years after I first joined Yahoo!, Google came knocking on my door, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Even though it was basically the same role I had at Yahoo, I knew it would challenge me and push me to grow in ways that I needed to grow.

The challenges of running design at Google were pretty well known in the industry at the time. I remember telling a former colleague at Yahoo! that I was taking the top design job at Google, she laughed and said,

“Oh, you took that job!”

as if to say,

“You are stupid and crazy enough to take that job!”

That laugh was a foreboding warning of what I was to face.

I could not have imagined what I would encounter at Google at that time in 2006. By this time, I thought I knew how to do the job. I knew the culture was different, but I had enough experience under my belt to have a strong vision for what needed to be done and how to do it. But, there were all kinds of factors I had not accounted for. Managers at Google typically had 50-100 direct reports so that they were burdened with so much people management responsibilities they couldn’t actually get involved with any projects and lead anything. When I joined Google, I had 60 direct reports, and had to write performance reviews for all of them within my first three months on the job. With its bottom-up, engineering dominated culture, and everything run by committee, I found myself in a role that seemed impossible. As a manager at Google, you couldn’t tell anyone what to do; as a designer at Google, you really couldn’t tell anyone what to do.

It was rumored that all designers who were being hired for design roles at Google were required by Larry Page to have computer science degrees or at least know how to code. When I started to hire designers with capital D’s who did not have CS degrees, in an effort to make Google more beautiful, Larry would not allow me to hire them, and rejected the offers we wanted to extend.

For the first couple of years there I resisted the environment I was in, wanting to change it. I thought that’s what leadership was all about: leading change and not accepting the status quo. Eventually I realized that in order for me to lead effectively I needed to be a better follower.

I ended up starting over from scratch. I embraced Larry’s coding requirements for designers. I introduced a code interview for designers who had coding skills, to help bring in more designers who could code, and to show that I was listening to Larry. Interestingly, by bringing in more designers who could code, I then gained more latitude to hire designers who didn’t code.

When I left Yahoo! for Google, everything I thought I knew about running a large design team inside a large consumer internet company wasn’t relevant anymore. I had to abandon prior experience and knowledge, and start over.

Lesson 3: Find the courage to abandon practices that made you successful in the past. What is familiar and comfortable may not work for you anymore. Keep a beginner’s mind, so that everything is always new. This is a concept in Zen Buddhism called Shoshin.

Our tendency as people is to feel like we know the answers once we’ve learned or experienced something. We think, “I have achieved this.” When we feel like we’ve achieved something, we have a “been there, done that” attitude. We have an inflated sense of self-importance. We then experience life with a skewed focus and look at things with an ever-present bias. We all do this.

With a beginner’s mind, you don’t think “I have achieved this.” You free yourself from any notion of success or failure. Instead, you are curious about the world with no preconceived notions about anything. “With a beginner’s mind, we see many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.”

Leaving Google

In 2011, when Larry became CEO, he suddenly embraced beautiful design. He started talking about how important beauty was in company all-hands meetings. Many of us wondered if this was the same Larry Page we had been working with for many years before. After years of insisting that all designers at Google have computer science degrees, he now wanted great visual design. Around the same time, Larry decided to decentralize all functions, which left me without a clear role. For me, this was infuriating and hurtful. I felt betrayed, discarded, and disrespected.
It took a while for me to embrace the realization that the only reason why decentralizing the UX team at Google was viable was because of how far the organization had come over the years I was there. After the reorg, I had the option to invent a new role for myself or join a team. Instead, I chose to spend the following year reflecting and exploring instead of eagerly jumping back into the fray. I took the time to deepen my yoga practice which enriched my life beyond my imagination. From that experience, I emerged completely transformed. I learned how to not attach my happiness to final outcomes; to be happy in spite of things that were beyond my control; to let go of my anger, bitterness, and grief; and to shed my sense of identity and worth from the professional role I had before. I became grateful for being unencumbered with any role or responsibilities, because it meant I was free to explore whatever my heart desired.

My yoga practice helped me understand my best path forward. Yoga gave me the courage to do what my heart wanted. Yoga has allowed me to find myself as I enter my 40s, and allows me to bring my best self to the table with a calm and focused mind.

The decision to leave Google was one of the hardest choices I’ve made. Google is an amazing company that many people would love to be part of. The prestige of being part of Google, the mental stimulation, the amazing people, the ambitious projects, the benefits, the food are trappings that are hard to let go. To this day, I still get questions from people about leaving Google. Even the TSA guy who processed by Global Entry application asked me
“Why would you ever leave Google for another job at a place no one has ever heard of?”

Entering the market as a yoga teacher is another journey onto itself. After a long career in design I once again find myself in the beginner’s seat, with no opportunity that can be taken for granted.

In this world, I am reminded of the sum of the lessons I had learned during my design career: What you know matters a lot less than how you do your work. Whether it’s design or yoga, everyone learns the same skills and curriculum; the attitude means so much more. Careers are made by how you deal with your challenging job situations and make it work for you.

Adversity and Listening

Looking back at my career, the most pivotal, significant moments of growth were all borne out of adversity: the cranky engineer at Netscape who hated my spec; the designers with capital Ds who snickered at the ugliness of Yahoo!; the engineering-driven culture at Google that was adverse to design; and eventually, my own struggle with leaving Google and the corporate world.

In each instance, what got me through the adversity I faced was the ability to listen deeply. I listened and built relationships with people who were against me, such as John. I saw something great in Yahoo! and listened to my gut instinct. I listened to Larry and adopted a beginner’s mind. And then I listened to myself and honored what would bring me true, meaningful happiness.

With that, take a moment to pause and tune in to the world. Close the eyes, take a deep breath, and just be with yourself for a moment. Maybe reflect on something related to your work or personal life that you are struggling with, or want to improve on, or are trying to move forward. What is needed in this moment from you?

Putting it into practice

Since this is the opening keynote for the IA Summit, let’s put these lessons into practice at this conference. Here are three things you can do:

1. Make at least three connections each day at this conference. Not as if you’re trying to collect people so you can use them later, but truly make a connection and listen to each other.

2. For the whole day, realize that you are a lucky person, and hold onto that feeling all day long. Open your mind to opportunities and be free of restricted thinking. Listen to your gut instincts and be bold, ready to seize a good opportunity when you see it.

3. Approach something old and tired with a beginner’s mind. Be willing to listen and receive feedback. Don’t fear failure and don’t get discouraged by it. And never lose your sense of humor and playfulness.

A career path is not about getting to a particular destination. It’s not about leveling up or getting some job title or managing a bunch of people. It’s about the journey you take, the lessons you learn along the way, and connecting with yourself to find true happiness.

Take a moment every day to listen to yourself and the world around you. That’s the key to the path ahead.

Check out these awesome sketchnotes from the conference (thank you Melinda, Nathan, Jason, and Veronica):

Sketchnotes by Melinda Miller
Sketchnotes by Nathan Rogers
Sketchnotes by Jason Alderman
Sketchnotes by Veronica Erb

New design manager seeking advice

A former colleague, an amazing designer who now finds himself running a team of 18, writes me with questions about managing a design team. These questions might be relevant to many new to design management — and there are a growing number of them now that more companies are investing in design talent.

What’s a good way of testing a designer? Our current process involves: portfolio, interview, day of working, week of working

This looks good to me. It is often hard to get people to contribute a day or week of working for an interview. In my experience, instead, we have asked designers to do a design exercise. At Yahoo, we would give the exercise on-site and give them an hour to work on it. At Google, we would assign the exercise after the phone screen and ask them to complete it for our review before we invited the candidate on-site. Once they come for the site interview, we would ask them to present their portfolio for 30 minutes, then their design exercise for 15 minutes.

Is there always initial management overhead with a designer or should they be able to hit the ground running?

Yes there is usually management overhead with new designers, even if they are experienced, and especially if they are more junior. It’s good to keep that in mind as you look to hire designers — if you don’t have the bandwidth or are unwilling to devote that overhead time, better to hire as senior as you can.

Do you have any tips for drawing the best out of your designers?

Let them work on something that interests them. If they are not interested in the work/project, help them discover something about the work/project that they can love. It’s the job of the manager to inspire the designers who work for them; usually this is best done by giving designers strategic context and helping them understand why the project matters.

Coding. A necessary skill for anyone doing design for the web these days?

The ones who know how to code seem to be more effective, because they can prototype their ideas and help implement/fine tune the details. However, I don’t think it’s a necessary requirement, and have worked with many outstanding designers who do not code. Whether or not they code, they do need to work well with engineers.

Does their portfolio have to wow you, or is it worth letting them grow under your guidance. Conversely, what do you do if you like their portfolio but their actual work is sub par?

The more experience they have, the higher the expectations I have. I usually look for curiosity, passion, and eagerness to learn.

When you’re evaluating a portfolio, I assume you are evaluating it based on the work that is featured in it. If you are referring to the designer’s work once they start working for you, that’s a different story. It’s important then to understand why the work is not good. For example, are they not engaged, and if so, why? Is there something about their situation that is limiting their effectiveness, and what can you do as leader to fix the problem (for example, are they not empowered, or is there bad process, or is the Product Manager bad, or are the engineers not implementing what was designed, etc)?

What questions do you have about design management or introducing design in a company?  Send me questions at

"Not everything that counts can be counted"

In a test score- / metrics-obsessed world, remember some of the most important qualities cannot be measured:

  • Compassion 
  • Courage 
  • Creativity 
  • Critical thinking 
  • Curiosity 
  • Empathy
  • Endurance
  • Enthusiasm
  • Humility
  • Humor
  • Leadership
  • Motivation 
  • Persistence
  • Reliability
  • Resilience
  • Resourcefulness
  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Discipline 
  • Sense of Beauty 
  • Sense of Wonder 
  • Spontaneity 

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – Albert Einstein

Want a job? Act as if you already have the job.

An acquaintance of mine reached out to me about landing an internship for her daughter in product design.  
What I told her, and what I’d like to tell all high school students aspiring to be a young Jony Ive, is this:

Even if you don’t get an internship working as a product designer, I highly recommend spending your summer engaging in endeavors as if you already have the job. For example, invent your own project in which you observe human behavior and try to design a solution that meets people’s needs. Learn how to code so you can build prototypes of your concepts.  Or, for physical products, hang out at a maker studio so you can start prototyping or building stuff with your hands. This experience helps you build a portfolio of projects that you can later show potential employers; it’s a great way to demonstrate your passion for learning and for this area of work. Going through such an experience will also be a good indicator to you as to whether this is truly something you want to do for your career — if you love it, that will be reassuring, and if you hate it, you’ll know early before you invest more energy in it.

Want a job?  Act as if you already have the job.  Invent projects for yourself, start making, start tinkering.

Recently I spent an afternoon mentoring a group of high school girls who are working on their Technovation Challenge.  In 10 weeks, they are tasked with understanding user needs, assessing market fit, sketching, designing, and building a prototype of a product idea for the identified need.  It’s an amazing experience that will help them gain tangible, employable skills and build a portfolio of project work.  From the perspective of an employer (like Google) who has their choice of candidates, students with straight-A transcripts from elite schools are easy to come by; what helps them identify great candidates worth hiring ultimately comes down to the portfolio.
As a hiring manager, I always look for passion in a candidate’s portfolio.  Where there is passion, creativity and grit come much more easily; passion is what we do when it’s inconvenient.  A high school student who actually has a portfolio demonstrates their willingness to learn on their own and their fearlessness in trying new things and iterating.
Towards the end of my graduate studies I applied for and interviewed for several jobs with high tech companies.  I sat through many interviews where hiring managers asked broad, high level questions that didn’t seem to help reveal whether I had what it took to do the job.  Interviewing students with no work experience is especially hard for managers because there isn’t prior work experience to ask about.  It was only when I pulled out my project work related to my master’s thesis that helped turn my fate around the corner.  As I walked interviewers through my work, they could assess how I solved problems, the tradeoffs I made, the determination I had to go through many iterations to find the best solution given the constraints and requirements.  Showing my project work is what helped me land my first dream job at Netscape.
Throughout my career as I’ve interviewed, hired, and rejected hundreds of design, research, and web developer candidates,  I always give candidates a chance to show their work.  Beyond asking for a link to their portfolio, I ask them to walk me through it, because hearing their story reveals so much more:  what was the opportunity they saw, how they framed the problem, how they approached solving the problem, the iterations they tried (or whether they iterated at all), the feedback they got and how they responded to it.  If they’ve thought further about how they would improve the project if they had more time, it’s a good sign that there is some self-awareness and introspection going on.
As I began teaching yoga, I found this advice “Act as if you already have the job” to be especially true.  You can’t get a job teaching at a yoga studio unless you have experience teaching.  How does one get experience teaching yoga if one cannot teach at a studio?  You have to invent reasons to teach.  My mentors talked about how they would offer free yoga in the park (on a donation basis) just to give themselves an opportunity to teach.  They would offer discounted private instruction to friends and family and build a network from there.  They would offer to substitute for absent teachers and assist teachers (for free) in their classes.
Want a job?  Act as if you already have the job.

Yoga for Designers

Last week UXPA Magazine published my article on “Mindful Design: What the UX World Can Learn from Yoga” (also reprinted in a previous post on this blog). The article describes how mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga can benefit designers throughout the lifecycle of design activities, from seeking inspiration to ideation and execution. I wrote about a few ways in which designers can put mindfulness principles into practice. Here are a few simple poses to start a basic yoga practice that benefits the creative process.

Open the heart and the mind prior to user interviews: Chest and shoulder openers

Chest and shoulder openers counteract the effects of being hunched over a computer or steering wheel. The opening of the chest also symbolizes the opening of the heart, enabling compassion and connection to others. Before engaging in user research, open the chest and shoulders and prime the body to be more receptive to others.

Interlace your hands behind your back, and pull the heels of your hands together as you roll the heads of your shoulders up, back, and down. Start to lift the gaze and the chest up as you pull the hands down behind your back. Tuck the pelvis in slightly to protect the lower back; you can help your body do this by lengthening the tailbone towards and heels and/or lifting the pubic bone up towards the chest.

Modified Standing Backbend (Anyvittasana)

At home, a restorative chest opener can be simple and relaxing. Roll up a blanket into a long, narrow log, and place it on the floor underneath your back, behind the heart. Drape yourself over the blanket and allow the shoulders to roll back. Your legs can be extended straight and relaxed, or you can passively open the hips by bringing the heels together and let the knees fall open to the sides.  (This is one of the most therapeutic things you can do for your chest and shoulders, and is especially restorative for people with respiratory problems such as asthma or getting over a cold.)

Supported Fish Pose (Matsyasana)

Boost your creative mind and playful energy: Hip openers

The psoas is the only muscle to connect the spine to the legs. It is also connected to the diaphragm through connective tissue (fascia) which affects our breath and fear reflex. For many of us, our fast paced modern lifestyle causes the psoas to be chronically triggered; this tightness can be a source of low back pain. Conversely, a relaxed psoas is the mark of play and creative expression. The relaxed and released psoas is ready to lengthen and open, to dance. Do these stretches before ideation and hackathons to boost your creative mind and playful energy.

Kneel on one knee and put the opposite foot in front (for the front foot, try to get the ankle directly under the knee on the same side leg to give the most structural support). Transfer your weight onto the front foot and push your hips forward and down until you feel a stretch along the front of your hip on the leg extended behind you.

Low crescent lunge (Anjaneyasana)

You can take this stretch further by employing a variety of options.  Raise the arm that is on the same side as the back leg, and lean diagonally towards the side of the front knee. Another option is to stretch the quadriceps by grabbing the ankle on the extended leg with the opposite hand and drawing the foot towards your sit bone.

Detox from the stress of negotiations and design reviews: Spinal twists

Seated twist poses can help relieve tension from deep within the body, which often shows itself as emotional stress. They also help mobilize the joints of your spine and squeeze internal organs, bringing oxygenated blood to your internal organs while eliminating toxins and metabolic waste products. Perform a twisting pose whenever you feel stress.

One spinal twist that is playful and fun to do before design brainstorms is a qigong spinal twist. Stand with your feet hip width distance apart, and make fists with your hands. Begin by moving the right arm in front and the left arm behind you as you twist from your standing body to the right. Switch directions and twist to the left, allowing the arms to switch sides. Gradually increase your speed, maybe gently massaging the acupressure point at the top of the chest under the shoulder with your opposite fist as you twist around.

Gentle spine twist, based on Qigong

Practice a more intense twist with a seated spinal twist. Sit with the legs extended from the hips. Cross the right foot over the left thigh and press it into the floor, to the left of the left thigh or knee. Place the right hand on the floor behind the right hip. As you inhale, reach the left arm towards the sky to lengthen the torso; as you exhale, twist to your right. Hook the left elbow outside the right knee to give more leverage in the twist. Alternatively, grab the outside of the right knee with your left hand if hooking the elbow outside the knee is too intense. With every inhale, lengthen the spine and grow taller; with every exhale, continue to twist to the right. Hold for 30-60 seconds and then switch sides.

Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyeandrasana)

Calm the mind for quiet design time: Forward folds

Forward folds have a detoxifying effect that can improve and stimulate digestion and help calm the mind and body. When you fold forward, you are turning inward physically, mentally, and emotionally, resulting in greater introspection and a sense of peace. Do forward folds at the end of the day and before quiet design time.

Stand with your feet hip width apart, with the outside edges of the feet parallel to each other. Fold forward at the hip crease, bringing the top of the pelvis forward. Lengthen the front of the body as you fold, keeping the neck and jaw relaxed. Engage the quadriceps to allow the hamstrings to lengthen. Let the weight be more on the balls of the feet, as opposed to the heels, to help align the hips over the ankles. As an option, you can choose to grab onto opposite elbows or forearms and just hang, noticing what you experience when you don’t have the goal of having to “get somewhere”. Remember that forward folds are not about how deep you can go but rather how deeply you can release.

Standing forward fold (Uttanasana)

Have Fun

Yoga is serious work, but don’t take the practice too seriously.  Adopt a playful attitude, know that “failures” are part of learning and growing, and have fun.  It’s during moments of joy and flow that we get the best, most creative work out of ourselves.  Namaste!
Laughter (Laughasana)
Photos courtesy of the creative, multi-talented (and fellow yogi) James Witt.

Mindful Design: What the UX World Can Learn from Yoga

This article is reprinted from the September 2013 issue of UXPA Magazine.

“Yoga will change your life.” I will never forget these words that my husband, who has practiced a tradition of meditation for 25 years, said to me when I told him I was signing up for yoga teacher training. My intention was not to become a yoga teacher, but to deepen my practice. I had practiced yoga at various times since I was a teenager, but it was only after I sought refuge from my hectic stressful life as an executive at Google and mother of two that I realized the benefits of yoga extended well beyond gaining flexibility and avoiding injury. Indeed, deepening my understanding of yogic philosophy and adopting a daily mindfulness practice were transformative in ways beyond my expectations. Most importantly, I gained a perspective that guides my ability to tend to what is ahead of me. Soon, I started to appreciate how this perspective permeates into everything I do in life. In this article, I will describe how mindfulness practices benefit designers, based on my firsthand experience as a design executive, mentor and yoga teacher.

Mindfulness Defined

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to, and seeing clearly whatever is happening in our lives. The attention paid is purposeful, in the moment, without judgment. To those unfamiliar with mindfulness practices, consider what it feels like to be “not present,” perhaps when you’re on autopilot or multitasking. When we are “not present”, we fail to notice the good things about our lives, fail to hear what our bodies are telling us, or we poison ourselves with toxic criticism. Mindfulness is the opposite of that: it’s about having the time and space to attend to what is ahead of us, in spite of distractions competing for our attention and our past history that shapes how we think and perceive the world. This focused attention is a tremendous asset to designers throughout the design process and all its activities: from inspiration and ideation, to design and implementation.

Being Mindful When Seeking Inspiration

Design is for people; if you cannot understand people you cannot design. During early stages of design, designers often seek inspiration and stimulate innovation by building empathy with users. The act of combining empathy to understand a problem with creativity during the generation of insights and solutions is at the core of “design thinking.” By uncovering people’s latent needs, we can gain insight into ways our interactions with objects or surroundings can be made joyful.

The methods used to gain empathy in user experience work are by now well established. Field research, contextual inquiry, and usability studies are frequently used to bring attention and awareness to the actions we otherwise take for granted. These unconscious but ordinary acts reveal subtle but crucial ways we adapt to a world not perfectly tailored for our needs. The designer’s work as observer, not participant or judge, epitomizes the work of an empathic mind, not an analytical mind.

Empathic thinking is often easier said than done. Anthony Jack of Case Western University found that analytical thinking suppresses empathic thinking, and vice versa.  There is a brain divide, so to speak, that prevents us from invoking the analytical mind and the empathic mind at the same time. As we are constantly surrounded by computers and immersed in company cultures increasingly focused on making decisions based on data, empathic thinking can become even harder to come by. Mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation, which have been shown to increase empathy for others, offer a practical way for designers and team members to boost their ability to delve deeper into the mind, body, intuition, and feelings and integrate them into a creative expression that can be shared with the world.  While mindfulness practices can be effective when engaging in design research and interacting with users, the best outcomes arise when there is a regular practice, as empathic thinking becomes a muscle that can be flexed when needed.

Being Mindful When Ideating

During the ideation phase, designers must embrace a divergent thinking mindset. The main goal during this phase is to generate as many ideas as possible, and we give ourselves permission to come up with a lot of bad ideas in order to generate a few good ones. Mindful design during this phase is about abandoning judgment and fear: letting go of judging ideas as “good” or “bad” while brainstorming, and letting go of the need to achieve the One Big Idea.

Yoga teaches us a lot about how to be playful and abandon judgment and fear, and illustrates how mindfulness practices impact outcomes in the physical body. When we stay in the present moment, we stop comparing ourselves to others. Without the ego in the way, we are able to be with ourselves without judgment and can more effectively sink into the poses that stretch the body. When we allow ourselves to be playful and not worry about falling or reaching for a goal, we allow ourselves to experiment and try things we didn’t think we could do. When the mind is present, the shapes we make with our bodies are beautiful. If we stress ourselves to contort into various shapes, the shapes would not be beautiful, but alarming. Similarly with brainstorming, when we let go of our ego and let go of judgment and fear, we become more playful and creative.

Stanford psychologists Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd found that people with an orientation toward the process of making — that is, staying focused on the act of creating, rather than the end product — develop more creative outcomes. “When we are concerned about the product of the process in which we are engaged, we worry about how it will be evaluated, judged, accepted, and rejected. Our ego is put on the line. Worries can then feed back and distort the process of creating new ideas, new visions, new products.”

Mindfulness practices help us focus on the present. When we’re not worried about judgment of ideas, which comes later in the process, we can more easily relax and the creative mind can flow. As ideation becomes fun, joyful, and playful, ideas generated are similarly creative and fun. Thus it’s extremely important for designers to recognize what kind of mindset is appropriate for the stage of design they’re in. During brainstorming and ideation, where divergent thinking dominates, designers should adopt a playful, non-judging mindset.

Being Mindful When Designing Solutions

The thinking mind is not the creative mind. When designers are co-located with cross-functional team members to collaborate on a project, the team benefits from increased camaraderie, rapport, and trust built through frequent informal interactions. Yet, when designers are interacting with team members, conversation and negotiation invoke the thinking mind. In addition to co-locating designers with development teams, providing separate studio space for designers is an ideal way for designers to achieve the quiet contemplation necessary to connect with their creative minds, which is equally important.

Designers need not only different physical space but also separate mental space to design. While engineering and marketing counterparts often seek ways to add more functionality and features into a product, designers need to strike the right balance between features and functionality without overwhelming the user. The secret of good design is knowing what to leave out. Thus mindful design during this phase is about achieving a Zen-like quality of not being particularly attached to anything, whether a feature, a specific design element or solution, or a desired outcome. Ironically, by distancing yourself from the outcome, it becomes more possible to create a great design. This notion of “non-attachment” is a fundamental yogic principle: it is a mindset where you do the best you can and what you think is right, but not allow your happiness to depend on the outcome. As a designer, when your happiness does not depend on whether a pet feature or design solution gets included or not, or whether it’s your idea or someone else’s idea that gets embraced, less is at stake, and the mind is free to be more creative, more open, and more apt to explore.

Once ideation is over and it’s time to design, convergent thinking replaces divergent thinking, and attention shifts towards prototyping a few ideas to test. Mindfulness practices give us the strength to let go of the need to be perfect. Striving for perfection, after all, is about ego: perfectionism comes from the need to avoid shame and blame from creating a less-than-perfect solution. The rise of agile development practices has proven that it’s far better to invest time and energy into prototyping, testing, and iterating, than to take a waterfall approach in which plenty of time is invested in planning and designing a solution that might not actually be what works best. Be OK with testing a less than perfect design, but commit to gathering feedback and iterating to continuously improve.

The Mind-Body Connection: Putting Into Practice

Practicing yoga teaches you to notice what is happening in the body and respond to those cues. Subtle shifts in the mind can lead to changes in posture, energy flow, and the way one carries oneself in the body. Conversely, physical postures impact the mind as well; specific poses can induce surges of hormones that increase confidence, joy, assertiveness, etc. The next time you run a design meeting, consider doing some yoga:

  • Help people shed their ego by having them be in the present moment. At the beginning of a design review or brainstorm, have everyone pause for a few moments to practice focusing their attention and awareness on the breath. It may seem daunting and odd to ask people to do this, but in my experience, having a few moments to pause and declutter the mind is always well received!
  • Movement and cognition are highly related. Get people to move during meetings. Have them stand and gather around to review design mockups. Give them pens to scribble on printouts when they give feedback.
  • When facilitating brainstorms, clearly delineate space for divergent thinking and allow all ideas to flow through, regardless of judgment. Help others overcome their fear of rejection by responding with “Yes” or “Yes, AND” instead of “Yes BUT” or “No”.
Adopting a regular personal practice can help boost your design skills:
  • Consider a daily practice of meditation to boost empathic thinking, adopt a playful attitude, and practice letting go of attachment and letting go of the fear of being judged by yourself and others. Meditation can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be. Choose to meditate anywhere from 2 minutes to 1 hour per day. You can do this while lying down, walking, or sitting upright with the hips elevated above the knees. To help focus the mind, you can employ a variety of techniques: bring the attention back to the breath when the mind wanders; stare at a mandala, candle, or object of meditation; repeat a mantra. With practice, it becomes easier to quiet the mind and reach a calm, centered state.
  • It is not uncommon for people to report increased creativity when they practice yoga. When there is more openness in the body, there is more openness in the mind. Do a few stretches to open the chest and shoulders at the beginning of design sprints or hackathons; this helps prime the body and mind for receiving new ideas. The hips and psoas are often tight from too much sitting and standing, resulting in having us in a constant “fight or flight” posture; open this part of the body to enter a playful state of mind. Forward folds are introspective poses that are helpful for getting to a place of quiet contemplation.
  • We are most creative when we achieve a “relaxed but alert state”. A daily mindfulness practice, whether yoga or meditation or both, helps us practice putting the body and mind into such a state.

Most important of all is to recognize that you can choose your intention and to actively make that choice. In yoga, we begin each practice by setting an intention for how we are “being” in the present moment. Set your intentions based on what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values. As you gain insight from meditation and reflection, your ability to act from your intentions blossoms.

Similarly with design, be clear about what your intentions are with your offering, whether a product or service. Internalize your mission and values and let design be the expression of your intent. When your intentions are clear, so too are the fruits of your labor.


1. Anthony I. Jack, Abigail Dawson, Katelyn Begany, Regina L. Leckie, Kevin Barry, Angela Ciccia, Abraham Snyder. fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains. NeuroImage, 2012; DOI:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.10.061

2. Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, et al. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise.PLoS ONE. 2008; 3(3):e1897.

3. Jennifer S. Mascaro, James K. Rilling, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, and Charles L. Raison. Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci first published online September 5, 2012 doi:10.1093/scan/nss095

4. Zimbardo,P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (2008). The Time Paradox. New York: Free Press, Simon & Schuster.

Designer seeking advice…

Earlier this week I received a message from a young designer asking for advice on how to land her dream job.  With her permission, I’m reprinting it here (with some editing to not reveal her identity):

Hi Irene, How are you? Hope you are well 🙂 Sorry for the direct approach. My name is V. and I’m a Visual/UI/UX designer currently based in [city].  I’m a young designer in my mid-twentys [sic] aspiring to become a good UX designer. During the mean time I’m having a difficult time just to get started. It would be amazing if I could get some help on some career advise. I discovered [an opportunity] I really want to be part of, but as I’m not experienced enough for the highly skilled small team, I was not a great fit. The team lead has kindly given me some advise on what skills I need for the role.  Two years later, I’ve found myself not gaining the skills I wish to gain through my job. While working, I’m constantly reading blogs, books, and more in order try and improve my skills. I’m starting to get frustrated, since I’m not quite sure how to take my skills to the next level through work. Like most mid-twenty year olds trying to figure out ‘life’, I find myself so hungry for something, but I can’t quite pin point it out exactly. What I do know is that I do want to work on something meaningful, have contribution to the world through my skills. This is exactly why I find [this organization] so appealing, or you could say it was like love at first sight and the flame is still burning strong two years after. I strive for creating great user experiences through strategy, research and design. The only problem is, I have no idea on how to get there. Just yesterday I came across a design worksop that is going to be held at Google Headquarters – Mountain View. On the application it asks the applicant to explain one project that is in their portfolio that they are proud of. And I realised that I haven’t done any UX work that I’m proud of nor came across any major problem solving matters. I do love being a designer and I’m grateful that I have a design job in this economy. Thank you so much for reading this letter and I do apologise if this letter came across a little strong or intense. Have a lovely day! Best wishes, V.

A few years ago I would have responded with a reply naming my favorite UX books, authors, and consultants.  I would have given more blogs to read, specific workshops to take, and conferences to attend.  What I have observed over many years of mentoring and employing hundreds of designers is that it’s often not lack of skill but lack of an internal resource that limits them.  This is what I wrote to her:

Hi V., 

Since you asked for my advice, I will share my perspective with you, which has largely been shaped by my own career and studying and practicing the spiritual teachings of yoga. 

First, start where you are.  Stop worrying about the skills or expertise that you don’t have.  You already have a foundation and basket of skills to draw from.  When you worry about not having the skills or knowledge you need, you lose confidence, which undermines your ability to learn and be effective. 

Second, the best way to learn is by doing.  Get involved in projects that interest or inspire you. Maybe you will be lucky enough to engage in such projects that happen to also bring you income.  If not, find the time to engage in such projects on your own time.  Seek collaborators, or go on your own.  Make stuff, design stuff.  Invent projects for yourself to do that allow you to exercise your skills; you will learn a lot by practicing.  You will learn even more by seeking feedback, from mentors and users.  From the feedback, you will discover how you need to grow.  In your desire to make your product better, you will orient your energy toward activities that will help you grow. 

Third, notice and follow what brings you joy and energy.  If you are truly interested and passionate about the endeavors, your interests will guide you toward what you need to learn, and you will invest the time and energy into learning it.  You will also build a portfolio/body of work that you can later show to potential clients or employers; the joy you bring to your work will shine through and you will be able to see yourself more clearly — and people you talk to about hiring you will see that too.




This advice was inspired by three basic rules for practicing Hatha Yoga, which I wrote about last year.  In fact, these rules are relevant to almost any endeavor, whether starting a yoga practice or exercise regimen, advancing one’s career or beginning a new one, entering a new relationship, or creating a new product:

  1. Start where you are.  Stop worrying about what you don’t know or that others are further ahead than you.  Stop worrying about what the future holds.  Be in the present moment, and start with what you have, where you are, right now.
  2. Join movement and breath.  In other words, just do it.  Fear nothing.  The best way to learn is by doing and getting into it.
  3. Observe yourself.   Through self-study and observation we gain awareness and presence of mind.  We notice changes over time, understand cause-effect, and use that feedback to inform the future.
Hatha Yoga rules = Rules for Life