There can be few designers who can genuinely claim to have had a front row seat as UX and design thinking has been adopted by enterprises, but Maria Guidice is one of them. Over her 30 year career, she was building websites before UX was a discipline, worked with pioneers of information architecture, founded the seminal San Francisco experience design agency, Hot Studio, and went on to hold senior roles at Facebook and Autodesk, before moving into her current career phase as a celebrated author and executive coach.
Her career path makes more sense when you consider that from an early age Maria wanted to be an artist, but her creative urges were always tempered with an entrepreneurial streak.
“When I was a teenager, I would paint jean jackets of album covers,” laughs Maria. “This is where I'm really dating myself. I would charge a hundred dollars a jean jacket, which was outrageous at the time, and I would do it while babysitting, essentially doubling my hourly rate.”
Initially skeptical of graphic design at college (“I just thought it was a formulaic exercise – here are your fonts, here's the white space, slap an image, make sure your type is flush left and call it a day. Right?”), things changed almost overnight for her when she encountered Richard Wurman as a guest speaker in her final year of college.
“You're all full of shit. Design is not about you. It's about helping people make sense of the world.”
“I didn't know who he was and most people in my class didn't know who he was. He looked nothing like a typical designer in the eighties. We're talking the mid-eighties, when designers were predominantly white males who were beautifully dressed in black, who were mean to their employees, who were misogynistic and had no interest in collaboration.
“I really didn't feel like I belonged in design, but that all changed when I met Richard. He looked at us all in the class and said - I'm paraphrasing, but this is how I remember it - “You're all full of shit. Design is not about you. It's about helping people make sense of the world.” And it was like, fucking mic drop. It was a lightning bolt moment.”
Inspired by Wurman’s vision that design could be a tool to help people understand, rather than just improving aesthetics, she joined his design firm straight out of college and jumped into the nascent world of digital design.
“In those early days when the web was emerging, we were really figuring our way through it. The web created a need for multidisciplinary people to work together.
Nobody called themself a UX person. I love that within the experience design field people come into the profession later on in their career. So they don't have to follow the singular path of having to go to art school, get a certificate in UX, do the X, Y and Z. You can come into this from other points of view, which are going to be additive in terms of your life experience and what you bring to the table.”
“I remember telling somebody, “I don't want to be put in a box”. And one of my bosses said “Maria, you are in corporate America. You will be put in a box!”
With such a love of collaboration and openness, it’s not surprising that Maria felt starting and building an agency would be a natural next step, so Hot Studio was founded in 1997 with an emphasis on multidisciplinary collaboration and co-creation with clients. With Hot Studio Maria also wanted to surround herself with “incredible people to work together to solve problems”. Building from her own early specialization in web design, the agency initially focused on information design, before layering on other disciplines.
“I never said I wanted to have a huge company, but by the time I sold Hot the company was about 80 people, 100 with freelancers. It just grew over time because the work got more complicated and more interesting.”
Approaching the age of 50 and with two kids, Maria was questioning what she wanted to do with the rest of her career, when Facebook came knocking. The social network was already a Hot client and it was looking to boost its design capabilities as it experienced massive growth.
“I underestimated how hard it would be on myself and others,” remembers Maria. “Some people had corporate experience and really thrived, others didn't. I struggled at Facebook because I remember telling somebody, “I don't want to be put in a box”. And one of my bosses said “Maria, you are in corporate America. You will be put in a box!” I felt like I couldn't be strategic – it was all about execution, which wasn't really right for me.”
At Facebook, she also came up against a perennial issue in the world of design; the different operating models at an agency and in-house.
“There were certain designers at Facebook who I think didn't really understand or respect the skills that agency people can bring in. Because the thing about agencies is, boy, you learn how to work fast. You learn how to work on budget, you learn how to execute, you learn how to work with clients. Whereas in product you learn how to go deep, you learn how to look at data, you learn how to work more closely with engineers and product managers.
I believe that designers should work in both contexts. Within the agency world you don't really have the access to the quality of data that you do in product because the data is always outside of your purview. The other downfall of working in an agency is you are hired for a period of time, and then you don't really know if your work is ever going to come to fruition. So there is that risk that you've done all of this work and then you leave it with somebody and it can just blow up.”
After two years an opportunity came up to move to Autodesk, which seemed culturally a better fit, but Maria does not look at her time at Facebook as wasted.
“I learned so much from that experience. I learned how to ship at scale. I learned the impact that design could have on people outside the US. I worked with the smartest people I've ever met in my entire life.”
“In big corporate America, one of the biggest challenges is breaking out of the silos. At Autodesk, if you were trying to go from a customer who's interested in a product to purchasing a product, there were like 37 touchpoints to get from interest to purchasing a product, cutting across 5 different silos.”
While Facebook was notorious at the time for moving fast and breaking things, and Maria found the generational gap a struggle (most of her peers were much younger than her), Autodesk was looking to move from being engineering-centric to being people-centred in terms of design. As VP of Design, Maria got to work across the whole company and both the CEO and Chief Product Officer, who she reported to, respected what she brought to the table as an experienced design leader.
With a whole company remit, Maria became acutely aware that if she was to successfully instigate change and make good design decisions, she would need to learn how to deal with hierarchy and internal politics.
“In big corporate America, one of the biggest challenges is breaking out of the silos. I saw this really clearly at Autodesk. If you were trying to go from a customer who's interested in a product to purchasing a product, there were like 37 touchpoints to get from interest to purchasing a product, cutting across 5 different silos.
You could see the seams of the silos in this very fractured customer experience. So a part of my job was to expose those seams, to say, ‘OK silo I'm going to show you what it's like to buy a product on Autodesk, and here's some customer stories that show you that you are doing a disservice to your customers because they are struggling at every point going from one silo to another’.”
She found the key to success in these scenarios is having empathy and trying to understand what was threatening leaders in the hierarchy who were blockers.
“People who are in hierarchical organizations really fight hard to be in the career ladder that they're in. It's almost like a battleground for them. “I made it to senior manager, I'm not going to let this person screw with me getting to VP, right? I don't care if it's better for the customer, I care about getting to the VP level, so I'm going to protect my battleground.”
[As design leaders] if we can be compassionate and empathetic towards them and realize they're afraid we’re going to derail their goals, whether they're personal or professional or company goals. So how do you align better with these potential detractors in an organization? How do we help them be successful?”
This is not always easy for designers who have the idea of being faithful to the end users' needs instilled in them throughout their career. But when dealing with a large corporation, design leaders need to develop a similar relationship with their peers.
“If we can show the same amount of empathy and compassion to people inside companies than we do with the customers outside companies, we're going to be better at what we do. It's not going to eliminate silos or threats, but we can smooth out those edges and we might be able to get further along than just being blocked from an action that needs to happen inside a company.”
“The word UX gets in the way because people think of UX as wire framing.”
Another major learning during her time in corporate America was that designers need to realize that their discipline is not the center of the universe and such attitudes may actually do them a disservice.
“We have been clawing our way for decades to get respect in companies. We always felt like the ugly stepchild that always had to defend why our work is so critically important. Because of that, we have really gotten louder, which is great.
“We talk about design, we evangelize design and we are constantly using data and customers as evidence for our relevance. But we need to realize that many people and companies don't really understand what design is. As much as we try to explain it to them, they get hung up on it thinking it might mean decoration, it might mean something that's not important enough.
“They're going to bring their own bias into that idea and so as designers, we have to just drop the word design altogether. My advice is be aware of the taxonomy in the culture and the environment that you're in, because design is going to happen, but sometimes the word itself gets in the way. And UX itself, the word UX gets in the way because people think of UX as wire framing.”
“Fundamentally, our role as designers is changing. We're no longer leading design. We're leading change at scale.”
Illustrating the point after “two years of bliss” at Autodesk, there was a change of leadership at the top, and design was no longer a priority in the C-suite. Maria started interviewing for VP of Design roles, but a chance meeting with Clement Mok, who was Apple’s Creative Director when Steve Jobs was there, changed her path.
“I was telling him how I was feeling - I was going on all these interviews and I was feeling like I was faking it. And he just said, “Why?” He was right – I didn't need the money and I had already proven myself in the industry – but yet my critical voice was saying, you have to keep going. He advised me to stop, which is just what I did.”
“I just started getting curious and doing things that I never got to do because I always had a job and children and never enough time. I wrote Rise of the DEO in 2013, which was a book about how people who think like designers make great CEOs. It’s based on a simple idea that design leaders are DEOs, right? Design Executive Officers. If we look at it 10 years later, there's so many designers in these high positions of power. There are DEOs all over the place now. Fundamentally, our role as designers is changing. We're no longer leading design. We're leading change at scale.
“I was just applying good design thinking to solving problems about how to create systemic change at scale. I embarked on interviewing design leaders for three years about their roles and their failures and successes and tips and tricks. And that became the book that came out in January called Changemakers, which I co-authored with Christopher Island, who co-authored Rise of the DEO with me.”
Having seen the rise of an industry and a sea change in how design is perceived in the enterprise, what does Maria expect to have the focus and energy of UX professionals over the coming 5-10 years.
“I am so grateful to be in this industry, in this field, because we are so grounded in skills that are going to be applicable no matter what is thrown at us in the future. The fact that we are compassionate, empathetic people who care about making an impact on people's lives, being in service to others, being able to look at systems, using intuition and analytics and risk taking, and being change agents. All of these skills that we have are evergreen and can be reapplied in any context that is coming at us in the future. And that's a beautiful thing.”