It’s hard not to look around at the world’s most interesting and innovative companies—like, say, Adobe—and wonder how those at the top of the proverbial masthead reached such peaks and pinnacles.
Luckily, the path of some execs—like, say, Jamie Myrold, Adobe’s VP of Design—is easier to trace than others. For in Myrold’s words and work, one finds a striking trail of breadcrumbs showcasing a masterful UX mind.
To ring in the latest episode of Design Matters, here are 22 of Myrold’s wisdoms on craft, design, and living a life of design—bits and pieces of a blueprint for anyone interested in following in her footfalls.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
“Like most designers, I was always a maker. From childhood through art college and into adulthood, I was always busy producing something with my hands. Home computers were a thing, but they weren’t my thing. Until they were. My first exposure to design software was, of course, Adobe Photoshop, and once I learned to place, mask and layer, there was no going back.”
“As designers, we think about more than form and function. We explore the boundaries between what users have, what they need, and what they desire.”
“The smartphone in a typical middle schooler’s shirt pocket is more powerful than the most powerful supercomputer of 1985 — which at three feet tall and five feet wide was itself much smaller than its less powerful predecessor. The leaps in technology that led from one to the other were the products of a multitude of curious brains that latched onto every little development, applied imagination and expertise, and moved us all forward, one communal lurch at a time.”
“A job is just a job, but a career is a design problem.”
“Be your company’s design evangelist (even if your company hates design). Not all companies support design-led thinking. Designers working for these types of employers have two sets of problems to solve: first, to do good design, and second, to help company leaders understand how good design can provide a strategic advantage.”
“Design isn’t just the pixels on a page or the labels in a wireframe, it’s about blending technology and business in a way that serves the users and supports the product strategy. Keep peeling the layers of the onion, visualizing each step of the way, in order to understand how the parts interrelate and how the product can be made more strategic.”
“Building relationships and respect are a bit like the story of the men and the elephant: A group of men in the dark touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement about what they’ve found. Exceptional designers not only reveal parts, but illuminate the whole. They build relationships across product management, marketing, and engineering. They wear multiple hats—regardless of their position in-house, at an agency, or working for themselves—to filter through various perspectives coming from bosses, clients, coworkers, users and more. They work with, not against, the differing perspectives.”
“Taking a risk to make a well-founded decision shows your organization’s leaders that you have the business sense to lead. It also shows your peers and subordinates that you are committed to doing the right thing—even at the risk of your own position. A leader who can do this is the sort of person others want to follow—someone who recognizes what is right and does what it takes to bring it to fruition.”
“Over the past year, I’ve had to remind myself more than once of the advice I’ve given so many designers over the years: ‘It’s OK not to know.’”
“I’ve developed a tool chest of people skills, technical knowledge, design expertise and organizational experience that I can draw on. Is my tool chest complete? No, there are still plenty of spaces left and that’s something to be grateful for, because filling in those mysterious blank spots is how growth happens. If I have a lesson to share with you, it’s that you have a tool chest, too—no matter the current level your career, you have knowledge that others need. You know what you know right now, and throughout your working life, you’ll keep finding out what you don’t know. And then you’ll learn that thing, and after that, you’ll do it again.”
“Ask questions. Shamelessly. It’s normal to look around a conference table at a lot of people whose job titles start with the word ‘chief’ and be afraid to speak up for fear of looking stupid. But staying silent is just as bad. After all, the reason you are in a meeting like that is because those chiefs want your help. Everyone is trying to solve a problem together — your titles don’t matter.”
“Concepts are hard to pitch. We use workflows to show our ideas to senior-level executives, but workflows are weak; they describe the user through the wrong end of the telescope, putting the logic of a software program before the humans it’s meant to serve.”
“Designers are the visual voice for customers. They make a product beautiful and user-friendly, but an experience that is only skin-deep will not sustain a product or a user base long-term. Exceptional designers put themselves in the shoes of the person they are designing for. In doing so, they become the communication bridge between the user and the business requirements, and they listen to both to find the best solution. Exceptional designers help transform business and product development into a human-centered endeavor rather than a numbers-based one.”
“People connect with people. Nobody looks at a rectangle and feels anything.”
“UX efforts fall into two categories. The first is the new delights. The second is what I like to call the Just Do It — the thousand paper cuts that bug you, those little weaknesses that hide in crevices and are so hard to find time to go back and fix.”
“Designers love a blank canvas. However, the shiny new object isn’t the biggest UX challenge. For designers who love to geek out on solving sticky problems, redesigning an existing system is the ultimate puzzle. Problems with legacy systems—those that have been around for a long time, perhaps before user interface design was even a consideration—go way beyond the user experience. Redesigning a legacy app is like an archeological dig, forcing a designer to push the limits of creativity within very specific boundaries—respecting what exists while imagining what can be.”
“People don’t like change, so sometimes a designer will need thick skin to be able to listen and then separate the tone from the content. A comment like ‘that font is ugly’ may sound useless, but understanding that the user means ‘that font is hard to read’ makes it useful. When a complaint about a feature is valid and it can be changed easily, change it right away.”
“We need to figure out how machine learning can create an overall better experience, one that provides magical moments of learning, or inspiration, or productivity. We haven’t even reached the frontier yet; we’re still rolling toward it in our covered wagons, figuring out the route as we go.”
“When a computer is making so many choices for the user, it may seem like no designers would be necessary, but that has turned out to be a false fear. In fact, we’re discovering that designing in this way expands our roles as designers, freeing us from the limitations of the interface and coupling our work more closely with that of the engineering team.”
“While today we work with images and specs, in the next few years, we may no longer work with look and feel at all, and instead work with movement or sound. We won’t develop a set of visuals; we’ll write a description or record a video. We won’t build a prototype; we’ll give rules that define starting points for what we want the machine to learn. That’s a lot of maybe and perhaps, but we do know one thing for sure: We’re going to have the opportunity to embrace a different thought process and push the boundaries of our creativity and our technology — and without even knowing where those boundaries lay.”
“It’s designers who are illuminating the path forward.”
“Businesses everywhere—from Silicon Valley to Sarasota—are hungry for design leadership. … This is the era of the designer, so know your value and let yourself shine.”
Jamie Myrold: I was a little bit surprised, like, "Can I do this?" Which then I told myself, "Of course you can do this." Then when I started going to more senior level meetings because of this new role, I realized like nobody really knows what they're doing.
Curtis Fox: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from Designobserver.com. On this episode Debbie talks with designer Jamie Myrold about her problems.
Jamie: There's just no end of great problems to solve. Design problems, product problems, operational problems. Like everything that I just love.
Curtis: The interview took place in October, 2018 at Adobe Max in Los Angeles in front of a live audience. But you won't hear the audience because it was recorded inside an AirStream trailer. Here's Debbie.
Debbie Millman: Jamie Myrold has led large scale design efforts at Adobe for more than 14 years, leading the company's development of next generation design tools. Her experience goes beyond redesigning applications. Instead, she is also helping to redefine Adobe's design business. In her role, Jamie aims to inspire the next wave of design leaders by encouraging her teams to push boundaries and develop leadership skills to contribute to all aspects of business strategy and product creation. Jamie Myrold, thank you for joining me today for this very special live episode of Design Matters here at Adobe MAX in Los Angeles, California.
Jamie: Thank you, Debbie.
Debbie: Jamie, I understand that every morning you sit and reflect on your day, taking stock of the good, the bad, and the ugly in an effort to do more good the following day. When and why did you start doing that?
Jamie: Oh, gosh, it's been for many, many, many, 20 plus years now.
Debbie: Oh, wow, so this is a real practice.
Jamie: Oh, yeah, this is a real practice. This is something that I think has kept me sane, one, but also has allowed me to grow in who I am as a human being, but also really be much more sensitive about what I'm doing and where I'm putting my focus every day.
And so, just really taking that time to clear out all of the cobwebs and really think about where am I putting my time and what's most important has always been ... It's just been a practice that's enabled me to be a bit more conscious about my career and just about my life in general.
Debbie: What made you decide to do this? 20 years is a long time. I was wondering if when I was going to ask the question you were going to say, "Oh, I did that for about three weeks and then stopped." 20 years is a long time.
Jamie: Gosh, let me think about how it actually happened. It was around the time that I met my husband, and he had been a crab fisherman, and his boat got lost at sea, in the Bering Sea, and so he was ... They were lost for 11 days, and then he was rescued. And then he and I met right after that.
And he had just come out of sort of a long term treatment for post-traumatic stress as a result of that. And he had a practice of meditating and sitting and reflecting, and really trying to understand what that life experience meant. And so I just sort of fell into that with him. And so it's sort of a rhythm that we've had in our life and in our marriage.
Debbie: Did that experience of being lost at sea for so long fundamentally change how he sees the world?
Jamie: Oh, I think so for sure. I mean, I think he was going down definitely one track of being a fisherman, and he was looking to become a skipper of a fishing boat. And now he's in IT. So I think when one door is shut, we have an opportunity to either try and go back and knock on that door or take that experience and see what other doors open.
And so that journey to technology for him was an interesting one for sure.
Debbie: And interesting now that you have that in common now as well.
Jamie: Yeah, exactly.
Debbie: You grew up in Coronado, California.
Debbie: What kind of childhood did you have? What did your parents do?
Jamie: So, originally from Chicago.
Debbie: Oh, originally.
Jamie: Yeah. So, I was born in Chicago. We were there until I was 10. And then we moved to Park City, Utah, and we lived there for a few years.
Debbie: Why Utah?
Jamie: Well, so okay. This is kind of a long story.
Debbie: That's okay. We have time.
Jamie: So, my parents were both in the Olympics.
Debbie: What? Okay. Hold everything. What did they do? Which Olympics? Oh my God.
Jamie: So it's the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. And they were both springboard divers. And my dad won a Gold Medal, and my mom a Silver. So obviously this was very instrumental in my upbringing to have this Olympic thing always sort of in the background. Though, my sisters and I, we always swam on the swim team, but none of us became divers.
My parents were always very supportive of us doing our own thing. So obviously I'm a designer. My younger sister is a lawyer, and my older sister is a beef cattle farmer and horse breeder.
Debbie: Wow. That's a lot of range in the family.
Jamie: Yeah. So we're all over the place. So anyway, we were living in Chicago and my dad was going to basically go into his ... You know, take over his father's business, which was like a tool and die business, old time Chicago business.
And there was a point where, because of his Olympic training, and he was always like on this track, he said, "I don't want to do that." And he had gone on a skiing trip to Park City. And it was at the time, this was probably in, let's see, very late '70s, maybe '79ish, and it was just being built up.
And so he saw the opportunity there and decided to move us all there and become a land developer. So he sort of left the family business to go off and sort of be this independent land developer. And then from there, because of his experience with diving in the Olympics, he was a commentator for ABC Wide World Of Sports, and would do the cliff diving in Acapulco and the high diving at Sea World in San Diego. And so there was a time when he went to San Diego to do the commentary for the high diving. And he went to Coronado, and it was sort of in the same place that Park City was a few years ago.
And he said, "Okay. We're going to move to Coronado." So we moved there. So I was in Coronado from eighth grade through graduating high school. And I mean ... Have you been to Coronado?
Debbie: I have not.
Jamie: Okay. So, the biggest landmark there is the Hotel Del Coronado, which some people may recognize. Big old beautiful hotel, beautiful beach. It's just like the most idyllic growing up, but also very sheltered. You know, I left San Diego, came to L.A. to go to school. I went to Otis Art Institute. You know, that was a whole new thing for me to be in a city, and then I eventually moved to San Francisco.
So I look back on living in San Diego or in Coronado as it was a very sheltered growing up, and I'm glad to have had the experience, but I'm also happy to have other experiences to see more diverse set of people.
Debbie: You've said that you were always a maker from childhood through art college and into adulthood. You were always busy producing something with your hands.
Debbie: What kinds of things were you making or are you making?
Jamie: Yeah. So much to the chagrin of my mother where I would just ...
Debbie: Were they disappointed that you weren't more sporty?
Jamie: No. We never got the feeling of that. Sports was always a thing. I always swam, I played soccer. I played tennis. We were always very active and physical, but I think they were so done with it, they were sort of happy that we didn't.
But, you know, when I was a kid I was always just collecting. I was a collector of things.
Debbie: What kinds of things?
Jamie: Just little boxes and sticks and rocks and anything. I was a collector of stuff. And I would keep it in my room and then I would just start making stuff out of it. And, you know, my mom was sort of always bringing me art supplies too, because that's the thing that sort of kept me going. And then I was young. I don't know how old I was. I might have been six, and she enrolled me in an art class in the sort of local community center in Hinsdale where I was living in Chicago.
And it was like a class with other kids my age. And after the first class, the teacher said, "You know, I really think she should go upstairs to the drawing and painting class with the adults."
Debbie: Wow. How old were you?
Jamie: I was like six or seven.
Jamie: I was little. So like this was amazing to me, because one, I get to go and do something that I love to do. And so I got to get an easel and like all of the paints and charcoals and colors.
Debbie: There's nothing like art supplies.
Jamie: I know.
Debbie: There's nothing.
Jamie: I had my art box and I just loved every aspect of it. And so, that's where I really learned how to sort of draw and see composition and was able to be a part of critiques with ...
Debbie: Adults when you were six.
Jamie: ... adults. So I think that was sort of ... That really rooted me in always creating. And then when I got into art school and it was really only because of my art teacher in high school, because I wasn't a great student, maybe A,B,Cs. And both of my sisters were like straight A students. And my older sister and I are only 11 months apart. And so when she started doing the whole college thing, I started thinking, "Oh, crap, what am I going to do? What am I going to do in college? I have no idea."
So I started talking to my art teacher, and she said, "You know, there's this program at Otis in the summer that is a life drawing class, and I want to recommend you for it." And so this was the summer between my junior and senior year. I took the train out to L.A., went to Otis. Had all my supplies, again, and got to sit in and do this life drawing class, which again, was just like, "Oh my God. This is what I need to be doing." And the drawings and paintings and stuff that we did in that class is what enabled me to have a portfolio that I then presented at Otis, and that's how I sort of got into going to art school, which was great.
Debbie: At that time were you looking to be a fine artist? I know you got a B.A. in communication design. Did you ...
Jamie: Yeah. I didn't know what I was going to do. So the first year, foundation is really the time where you figure it out. So through that I chose the communication and illustration design tract, which I figured I'll become a graphic designer. That seems like the right thing to do for me.
But I ended up really focusing in on letter press and handmade books and telling narrative and using my illustration. So I did sort of the whole end to end. And I loved that. I'm not a great graphic ... I mean, I am a good graphic designer, but I like to get messy. My process is really about what comes out not what I see in my head. Because what I see in my head is never what comes out the other end. And so I love that process.
And with letter press and finding and creating the books, it was the narrative, the illustration, but also this physical sort of 3D object that I was creating. So my books ended up being fairly sculptural in nature. Anyway, so I did that, and when I graduated, that's what I wanted to continue doing, which I did for quite some time until I met my husband.
And after he recovered and he was better and started working on computers himself, I had a letter press in our living room.
Debbie: Do you still?
Jamie: I don't. I don't. I wish I did, but I don't. But he did come to me one day and he said, "You know, why don't you try using the computer to do your art work versus having this gigantic thing in our living room?" And I'm like, "No, I don't think so. I don't want to do that." But anyway, he bought me one. And I ended up teaching myself how to use it. So I learned Photoshop, learned Illustrator. I taught myself HTML. And then I really started blending sort of my letter press work with this digital. And it was good. I really liked it.
Then we were in San Francisco. This was like 1993. It was the dot com boom.
Jamie: I was working a retail job while I was doing my letter press. And my husband ended up getting a job at Pacific Bell. And then he came to me. He said, "You know, there's a position for a web master." I'm like, "What the heck ..."
Debbie: Sounds impressive.
Jamie: It sounds like something I could do. So anyway, I applied for that, got that job. And in doing that job I took care of two of the intranet websites at Pacific Bell. And I was really able to hone my skill and HTML and sort of designing in code and creating graphic elements and stuff in Photoshop and in Illustrator, and sort of blending that all together. And I just went on from there.
Debbie: Now, you say this as if it's just perfectly natural to teach yourself these things. I have been trying for decades. I read that your first exposure to design software was Photoshop, and I read that once you learned to place, mask and layer, there was no going back. So you just took to it so naturally.
Jamie: Well, I guess it wasn't that naturally.
Debbie: I mean, you taught yourself it all, the HTML, the whole thing?
Jamie: Yeah. I mean, I would take classes. And at that time Adobe had classroom in a book, so I went through the whole classroom in a book for Photoshop. And just did all those tutorials and really ... I guess the concepts did come to me fairly easily. And I think potentially that's because when I was in school we weren't designing on a computer, and we were using all the different layers of the films and laying it out on the big camera and cutting up Letraset and putting it down.
Debbie: Yeah, I did that too.
Jamie: That's not it?
Debbie: I mean, I'd love to say, "Sure, yeah." But, no, I did all of that and I've yet to master any of the things that you mastered on your own like 40 years ago.
But after Pacific Bell you then got a job, I believe it was the director of user experience at March First, which became U.S. Web, which became CKS. And then you were an experienced designer at Arriba.
Debbie: So your jobs were always in the tech realm.
Jamie: Yeah. Yeah, for the most part in my professional career, yeah.
Jamie: I mean, other than when I was just doing my own freelance work. Yeah, so I started doing like banner ads and micro sites and then had the opportunity to, when sort of my March First conglomerate of things, to work with a team that was actually building like a web app, which was quite new during that time. It was like 1996. It was for web casting. So there wasn't anything at that time.
But there is where I really learned that this digital realm is more about an experience or a work flow or how someone is interacting with something versus with the micro sites it was still much more of a layout and sort of a visual, graphical experience and much more static, or at least the things that I was working. And the banner ads, of course, were that as well. And so I kind of learned a new skill set by working with product management, product marketing and technology folks where when I was just doing the ad stuff, it was more I was just designing.
And so, from there I'm like, "Okay. This is what I really ... Like I like doing this." And when March First started to sort of disintegrate, I found a job at Arriba, and that's where I really learned about building web base software and designing web base software and how to work on a team and how to interact with all the different functions and to start really thinking about design systems, because we had sort of a suite of apps and they all looked different, but we needed to bring them together so that they were consistent and looked like sort of a family of things.
My boss at the time, I was there for about four years, and when my boss left, he went to go to Adobe. And I loved him. And I'm like, "Okay. I'm going with you."
Debbie: Hitching my star to your star.
Jamie: And so I went on line and searched on the Adobe website for positions, and there happened to be one in the design department for a design lead for common URI. So this was around the CS2 timeframe and Adobe was trying to bring everything together as a suite. And I had just gone through sort of like four years of that at Arriba.
So I applied and I said, "This is why I should have the job." And like I got a call instantly. And then I've been there ever since.
Debbie: You were part of that first big wave of the growth of the internet, the growth of commerce on the internet, communication of all sorts on the internet. What was it like to work at that time as a woman in technology?
Jamie: Yeah, I mean, the conversation about women wasn't happening at that time, obviously. The teams that I worked on I actually had women on them. Like I had ... but both at March First and Arriba it was a fairly even Steven, but most of the people we interface on the technology side were obviously male. But it wasn't something that had sort of seeped into my consciousness. I think partially because I was in this just sort of intense like learning, like, "I just don't know but I want to know."
That's where my focus was more on, "How do I actually learn all the things that I need to learn or think I need to learn?"
Debbie: Right. Yeah. You started as an experienced senior design manager but from what I can understand you were very quickly promoted to director of product design.
Jamie: At Adobe.
Debbie: At Adobe, yeah. Within the first year you were promoted.
Jamie: Yeah. So I actually started as an individual contributor, as a design lead. This was 2004, and then we merged with Macro Media. And then when that happened, there was a design team that was Adobe centralized design UX team which was probably about, let's say, 60 people at that time. And then there was the Macra Media design team, which was a little bit smaller. But the culture clash that came together with those teams was intense.
But with that coming together they asked me to become a design manager and I managed the consumer products at Adobe, which was Photoshop elements, Premier elements. And I remember that being such a huge transition for me. One, coming from web software and we were still designing perpetual license desktop software. I had never done that before.
So in that first year I really had to learn about what does it mean to design desktop software with really long and monolithic cycles, and then I was given the responsibility of being a design manager, so then it was like ... I always had this feeling like, "Okay. I don't know enough to manage these people because they've all been designing desktop software for many more years than me."
So, I was always feeling like, "Okay. I'm an imposter and I'm pretending and ..."
Debbie: I mean, do you really think you would have gotten the job if you weren't qualified?
Jamie: No. And so that was the other. It's like you have this balance. The voice that tells you you're faking it, and then the voice that tells you like, "No, I'm not. I know what I'm doing and I'm very capable to do this." And so this has been my career.
So, yeah, I managed that for a couple years, and then I was promoted into a director over ...
Debbie: And now you're ...
Jamie: And now I'm ...
Jamie: Now I'm vice-president.
Debbie: You're Vice President of Design at Adobe.
Debbie: Do you always have your sights on that kind of position, or has it been a surprise sort of journey to the top?
Jamie: It's been a little bit of both. I remember when I first started at Adobe, the director was a woman. And I was always like, "I want to do her job one day. I really want to do that job." And then it wasn't like, "I want to do that job, like I'm super ambitious." It was just like, "Oh, I would really love to do that job." And so, when I was promoted to director, I was a little bit surprised like, "Can I do this?" Which then I told myself, "Of course you can do this."
Then when I started going to more senior level meetings because of this new role, I realized like nobody really knows what they're doing. It was so eye opening for me. And I was mostly the only woman in a room of men. And just kind of listening. And my style is, I'm very sort of lean forward, but I'm also very ... I only really speak when I feel like I need to. I'm not someone who like sort of fills up the air in the room just to hear themselves talk or to feel like they have something they're contributing.
I really wait. I'm very sort of sensitive and conscientious about when I do sort of voice my opinion in a sort of strategy meeting.
So when I first started going to these meetings, I would sit back and I would listen and I would say, "Holy ... Nobody knows." And that was super eye ...
Debbie: Just terrifying and ...
Jamie: It was terrifying but also ...
Debbie: ... inspiring.
Jamie: ... it's the process and it's okay not to know. But if you pretend like you do know, like that's not okay in my book, anyway.
Debbie: Yeah. People that I've interviewed, I find that more people than not have a sense of incredulity as to how they got to where they got.
Debbie: But one thing I think I figured out about this is that for those people that do experience profound imposter syndrome, their desire to be something is bigger. And so they might still have it, but the notion of wanting more in their lives is more important and takes more precedence.
Jamie: Yeah. For me it's always been about the people that I work with, the products, obviously, but it's really the people and just solving problems. I'm not super like picky about the problems, I just like to solve problems. And developing software experiences ... It's sort of the problem space of the tool and the thing that you're designing, but it's also just sort of the organizational, operational like, "How do we get this thing done with a bunch of different personalities?" And I love that piece of it as well.
Debbie: Yeah, you said that your effectiveness on your job is very much dependent on connecting with people.
Debbie: How do you go about doing that? What are some ways in which you are able to most effectively communicate?
Jamie: Yeah. I mean, I think I have an inherent way of just like seeing where the gaps are and where the connections need to be made. And I don't know where that actually comes from. I think it may just be in my nature. Like I was the kid on the playground that was always like bringing everybody together. Like don't leave anybody out. And sometimes now it's to my detriment. Like I want to bring everybody together, where the dinner party starts out as two and ends up being 50 because I don't want to leave anyone out.
And so I think when I'm working with an Adobe and I'm working on one project, I just see the connections across everything else. And I want to include the voices of the ... sort of the extended part of what we need to be doing. And I think also just my ability to sort of listen and be calm. And I think that going back to sort of the meditation practice and the reflection, I feel like that ... It's just part of who I am. I get that a lot. People say, "How are you so calm?" And I think it's just because I do take that time to calm my inner being.
Debbie: Do you seek out people on various teams that are more shy or less communicative to try to bring them out more?
Jamie: Absolutely. And I also kind of gravitate to like the loudest voice or the person that everybody is saying like, "I can't work with that person." Like I love that challenge.
Debbie: In what way? How do you manage through that? I tend to run in the other direction when those people are near by.
Jamie: I just schedule a one on one with them. I meet with them and talk to them about what their thoughts are and what their opinions are. And we'll just start building a relationship in that way. And then once I sort of gain the trust, then I'll start putting my opinion in too and start formulating things that way.
But I find that if you can really establish the trust before you wholeheartedly put your own point of view out, you can get a two-way street. It might take a little bit longer, but you can get ...
Debbie: Yeah, and you need a lot of patience for that.
Jamie: Yeah, you need a lot of patience.
Debbie: I read that design and design-led thinking comes easily to you. And there's a lot of commentary now these days about design thinking and whether it is as valuable as some people or organizations have thought it was. And I'm just curious as to what your thinking is about design thinking and how you use it.
Jamie: Yeah. So, I mean, it's a hard one, because design thinking, from my perspective, is just an iterative design process where we learn, we come together, we iterate, we prototype, all these things. That's how my team just naturally works. Where we use design thinking or design workshops or design stretches or different ways to sort of introduce that iterative process and that sort of, it's okay not to know and it's okay to be wrong is, you know, we do a lot of workshops with our product management and engineering counterparts in Adobe. That's how we use it. It's just kind of in our DNA now.
And a few years ago it was this big buzz word like, "We got to do design thinking." But it's not in our vernacular in that way anymore. But I have started working with my son's school, and they're really trying to change the way in which they approach curriculum to a more project based curriculum.
Jamie: And so, we went, a couple of folks from my team and I, we went and we ran a design thinking workshop, like introduce what those concepts are and talk to them about iteration and coming together as a team. So I ran an exercise with them and then gave them a prompt to solve. It was around how can Roycemore School introduce more creativity into the curriculum?
And so we put the teachers in groups. They went off, they did their brainstorming. They did their iteration and then they came to a presentation that they gave to each other. And that was really valuable to me, to sort of take that process and bring it into a school and to see the teachers. Some of them have been at this school for 30 plus years ...
Jamie: ... teaching their same curriculum. And just to see them be like, "Oh my goodness. This is such a great process." And to see how they came together and came out with so many different ideas of things that they could do. It was very rewarding.
Debbie: You've done quite a lot of writing, and I want to talk to you about some of the articles that you've posted both on medium as well as the Adobe blog. And all of these pieces are pretty easy for our listeners to find.
One of the most recent challenges you've written about facing has been the way the relationship you have to Adobe's designers has changed. In what way?
Jamie: Well, I think just design at Adobe has changed. When I first started it was a fairly flat organization. You know, we had one director and maybe a couple of design managers, and then the rest were individual contributors. And so over the years as design has become much more at the upfront where we're looking at strategy and we're helping with product strategy, and we're also working with engineers to solve the problems., we're not just waiting for them to code things, but we're really helping them to look at what is the right architecture and what do we need to scale our applications.
In doing that and sort of scaling the teams over the years, we've added in more design leadership and also we've introduced design operations. So the relationship had really changed in terms of like there's sort of the business of design, like how do we actually be sort of effective members of the team. Because at Adobe we're a centralized organization. We don't report into the product teams. So we really have to run our own organization so that we can be strong partners.
But also as I've kind of gone up the ladder in my career, I've really been able to be much more of a mentor to younger designers and also design leaders that are coming up, and have really been able to share my experiences of how important it is to connect with the people you're working with, no matter what their background or if you like them or not. That's not really what it's about. It's about how do you get the right sort of culture and nature to a team.
And I really feel like designers can bring that to the table. They're sort of the objective, sort of the middle ground and can have bits and pieces of all the other skill sets in the room and be that sort of bridge and connector of things.
Debbie: Last year you wrote a letter to the design community that stated the following: "The Smartphone in a typical middle schooler's shirt pocket is more powerful than the most powerful super computer of 1985, which at three feet tall and five feet wide was itself much smaller than its less powerful predecessor. The leaps in technology that led from one to the other with the products of a multitude of curious brains that latched on to every little development applied imagination and expertise and moved us all forward one communal lurch at a time. Now we're entering another technological sea change and this one is going to push designers to rethink everything about the user experience and about our own processes. I'm talking, of course, about machine learning and virtual reality. Software is soon going to look and feel a lot different than it does today. And while the user population may perceive the transformation as gradual and natural, the design community knows how much work it will take to shape and package the next evolution."
I love that, Jamie, and I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about what role you have now in shaping that evolution at Adobe.
Jamie: Yeah. So I'll start with sort of the machine learning and artificial intelligence aspect, because I've actually been putting quite a bit of my focus there of late. We have Sensei, which is our machine learning and artificial intelligence platform. When I started sort of interfacing with some of our research scientists at Adobe on sort of what does it mean, what is this going to mean for designers? What is this going to mean for the way in which we build software at Adobe? They were coming to me and saying, "We need designers to tell us what to do."
As they're looking at the different training data and they're looking at what should the algorithms be, they came to me and said, "You know, we can't do this without you." And so, I built a design team specifically to work on the Sensei platform, and we call that the Machine Intelligence Design Team.
Jamie: And it's made up of designers that have quite a different background to mine. Like they come more from technical or computational design where they're really looking at both the coding of a thing and then also just looking at, what is the potential of the technology when we're looking at creative fields?
So there's a few things that we're looking at. One is, how do we design these algorithms? Like what do they need to do? So that's one aspect of it, which isn't Pixels, right?
Debbie: Right. But it's also really hard. Do the designers you're working with have a different background? Are they more engineering focused, or are they polymaths?
Jamie: Yeah, they're a little more engineering focused or they're very much a blend of different things.
Debbie: It's a whole new hybrid of designers that's evolving.
Jamie: Yeah. They're definitely not visually bent. That's not their skill set. They're more around this deep thinking of how to tie the technology to something that's going to be an interface or something that's going to be content. And it ends up being, in some regards, artists as well that are trying to figure out how to do sort of computational design, design that's very supported by code, and they don't have the tools to make the thing that they want to make. And so they have to make the tool so that they can make the thing.
Debbie: So it doesn't seem like the design world is really going to be obsolete as we get more and more into ....
Jamie: Oh, yeah, no.
Debbie: ... computers making decisions for us.
Jamie: No. No. I think it's going to open up yet another set of skills that designers that are bent that way will learn. And then for the new tooling and for what we can do to make more intelligent interfaces, it's only going to help make designers be more productive and sort of take more menial tasks out of their way so that they can really be putting all of their time and energy into the deep creative thinking and deep creation of things.
Debbie: What about movement and sound? What is Adobe doing in those areas?
Jamie: So we're looking ... I mean, when it comes to VR, or AR in particular, that's more spacial, like looking at what is the type of content we're going to want to be projecting out into the world, or how do we make that technology relevant, and how do we help brands to really think far enough out to what types of content might they want to be creating with that. How do they want to be talking to their customers about that?
Debbie: How do you do that? How do you work with them to determine what might be happening two, three, five, 10 years into the future?
Jamie: Again, it's just a lot of brainstorming and talking.
Debbie: What ifs.
Jamie: What ifs.
Jamie: Yeah. Let's try this and let's try that. It's this really great era of we don't have the tools, we're not quite sure what the content is going to be, so I feel there's going to be this sort of back and forth of the tool moves forward, somebody has some great idea with content, the tool moves forward.
And so, yeah, it's pretty exciting.
Debbie: This is a question you've posed that I'd like to get your opinion on.
Debbie: You state, "Designers used to design a web page and an engineer would build it. Then dynamic design came along and there was more variability but the experience was still pretty static. With machine learning, a software application cannot only ingest data, but can act upon the results delivering a personalized experience that changes to meet every user's needs on the fly."
So Jamie, the question that you posed that I'd love to get your insight on is this, a software package with one million users may generate a different interface for each one of them, so how can a designer accommodate that fluidity? Two part question.
And when a software application resides in a virtual world, will it even have an interface at all?
Jamie: Yeah. So for the first question, it's really interesting. One of the things that we've been focusing on is this notion of creative intent. We've traditionally been focused on a creative pro, and someone who knows our tools or has the gumption to learn them or learns them in school and then uses them every day in their work, so they get them.
But we have this whole other class of users that want to be creative and they may not know what tool to start with. They may not even know exactly what they want to create or what is possible. So, with the machine learning and data, we can start to learn and understand their intent. And the more we can understand that intent, the more we can serve up the appropriate thing at the appropriate time, whether that's learned content or the right application or the right piece of inspiration, it's really going to enable us to speak the language of the individual and not try to have a one size fits all.
Jamie: Which is super exciting.
Debbie: It's really exciting and daunting and barely feels possible.
Jamie: Yeah. So I mean, again, it's all learning, you know?
Debbie: Uh-huh (Affirmative).
Jamie: I don't want to say we're completely in the dark, but it's like, how do you get the signals, what are those signals? Is this the right signal? So it's a lot of iteration, testing, trying, experimenting and learning.
Debbie: It feels very blurry still.
Debbie: And I'm trying to wrap my head around it. And you go on to say that right now the problem that you're trying to solve is centered more around abstract inputs.
Debbie: Where users don't even know they're giving the machine information. And this was really fascinating to me. You go on to state that we're already experiencing this if we use Facebook. Facebook system learns who you interact with, what pages you like, which ads you respond to. The more the system learns about you, the more it can learn about you.
Debbie: So it offers you slightly different choices to decide what to offer you next, and you're constantly being AB tested and you probably don't even notice.
Debbie: That was terrifying as well, and I'm wondering how do you feel about this access to our information?
Jamie: Yeah. This one is a big one for me, and especially as we're looking at Sensei and the Sensei platform. And this notion of helping users be more productive or being sort of an assistant to their creativity. Like what does that mean? Like how much do we make it very obvious? Like presence in the UI or in the experience is a big question for me right now. It's like, do you have sort of a clippy experience where you're very obvious and you're talking to this and asking for help, or do you completely hide it and it's just sort of in the DNA of the product?
Debbie: That feels more unsafe somehow.
Jamie: Yeah. So this whole notion of privacy and security and being safe and also not hiding anything from the user. But also, we're not ... Like we don't know who you are. We're not collecting personal data by any stretch of anyone's imagination.
Debbie: Yeah. I never felt like Adobe was seeking more information from me than they needed.
Jamie: Yeah. But I think it's this blend of being transparent, and then also getting it right. So if it's delighting you and if it's actually helping you, I think that feels more safe than if it feels icky.
Debbie: Yeah. As one of the most senior women in design and technology, you've also written quite a lot about the arch of a designer's career, and you said that a job is just a job but a career is a design problem. And like people in any discipline, designers tend to fall into a career path. If your first job is with a software company, your next one is likely to be as well. If you start with a job in a non-profit, you stay in the non-profit sector.
Unless you make deliberate career decisions, your vertical may decide it for you. So any advice for designers that are looking to move more into that engineering realm or any other part of the discipline in an effort to help them make better, more deliberate decisions about how they can go further next?
Jamie: Yeah. I mean, I think my biggest piece of advice is just don't be afraid. If you're in one place but you want to be in this other place and it feels like that journey or that trajectory is just too wildly far out, I would say, go talk to people that are doing that job and tell them you want to do that job and learn how they got that job. And then I think just by having a conversation it will open many doors.
I mean, there was a woman at Adobe who was an engineering manager, but she went to design school, but ended up in technology. And she wanted to get back to design. And she basically just started meeting with me and told me about her path and her career path.
Debbie: So she just reached out to you and you were willing to sit with her?
Jamie: Yeah. And now she's on my team.
Debbie: Wow. One of your recommendations is to ask questions.
Debbie: And so many people are afraid to ask questions because they feel they'll seem dumb or opportunistic. What advice would you have for people who want to ask better questions or to take that step and call someone that might be able to help them, aside from just do it, which I know is an easy thing to say, but really, really hard to do?
Jamie: Yeah. I think that connecting and like having a mentor and just like having a network of people that ...
Debbie: Sort of like a board of directors almost?
Jamie: Yeah, kind of like a board of directors, but people that you reach out to. And I think taking the opportunity to do that and like if you run into someone in the café at work, don't put your head down and walk the other direction, like say hello. I mean, I think, for me, it's all about the human connection and knowing that no question is a dumb question. I know it's cliché and everybody says it, but really, it's like, ask questions and find someone. And it could be someone that you're really comfortable with just to ... But say the things that are going on in your head, I think, is the thing to do.
Debbie: Yesterday I moderated a panel with design leaders at Google and Dropbox. And I was struck by one of the comments that one of the panelists made which was to actually prepare questions in advance for the people you do want to speak to that you might actually bump into.
Jamie: That's really good.
Debbie: And I thought that was really smart. Like just have them ready. Let's be prepared. I know that you're a big preparer as well.
Jamie: That is a great piece of advice, because then, again, sitting and reflecting, what are the questions that you have? What are the things that you want to do? What is important to you? What are sort of your non-negotiables? And who are the people that can help you get there?
Debbie: Another very big enthusiastic part of what you like to do, is talk about how designers can make better presentations. And this is one of my big evangelizing things on my bucket list, to make every designer a better presenter, because I think presentation skills are the single most important skill for a designer to master after design, and maybe equal to design. If we can't communicate about our ideas, than nobody is going to care about our ideas.
Debbie: I think designers are woefully, woefully under prepared for this part of their job.
Debbie: I mean, I think designers are actually more under prepared for this part of their job than almost any other creative discipline that I've come across. I'm still trying to find out why.
Jamie: I know, it's really interesting, because you would think that as designers we would be really good at putting together a narrative and telling a story. But what I think the crux of it is, is that younger designers or designers early in their career that may be partnering with a product manager or an engineer to put together a presentation. I think that they feel like they're sort of the presentation jockey. Like they're just the one that is sort of putting it together and making it look good.
And they forget about their own point of view in what's being presented. And so I think that's one challenge. And I think the other challenge is designers are sometimes shy. They like to be at their desk and creating and not putting themselves out there. And so in my team, it's one of the things that we focus a lot on in terms of giving all the designers opportunities to present at all hands or present to each other.
We brought a company in in San Francisco called Speechless to do improv training with them. And so ...
Debbie: That's great. Toast Masters is also great for ...
Jamie: Yeah, it's really good.
Debbie: ... designers.
Jamie: Yes. So I think being able to not only have sort of the gumption to present in front of an audience, but having a strong point of view, being able to articulate that point of view in a narrative form and then visualize it.
Debbie: I think also one of things that I learned from reading about your style of presenting and the advice that you've given others is to really know the goal.
Debbie: What do you want to achieve in that meeting? What kind of result do you want to come out with? And I think that that helps when you're trying to plan for next steps, when you actually go in with a very a specific outcome that you would like to foresee.
Jamie: Yeah. I took a presentation class when I first started at Adobe, which was called, Speaking To the Big Dogs, which I got a lot of good skills from that, which is like get to the point, don't tell me too much, and what do you need. So there's different types of presentations, and so I think, again, yeah, understanding the goal and what you're trying to communicate is super important.
Debbie: The last thing I want to ask you about your writing is about your recommendation that you suggest that designers need to become their company's design evangelist even if the company hates design. So assuming that a designer in a company that hates design, how can they become a design evangelist in that kind of an environment?
Jamie: Yeah, I think it's finding opportunities to either run workshops to bring people together, to sort of solve a problem in a design thinking sort of way. I think it's communicating and presenting to their boss the importance of design. I think also in this article I said, though, at some point if you're not making any traction, it might not be the right company and to move on.
But I feel like it is part of the designer's job to always be upleveling design, shouting at the rooftops about design. I wish we didn't have to, but we do. We continually have to fight for what our skill brings to the table and also be confident and have a strong point of view and be passionate about having your voice in the rooms where you're present.
Debbie: Yeah, I think we are getting more seats at more tables, but my concern now is that we don't have enough to say when we're at the table.
Jamie: Which is the problem, yeah. I mean, this is a dialogue that I have with my team. It's like, "Don't come crying to me that you're not invited to the table if you don't have something to give. Because if you're being invited, they want your voice. And so have that point of view."
Debbie: I also find that for those that are in environments where they're struggling because there might be a resistance to design or what design can do, is that that's where we can have the most impact.
Debbie: And that's the one thing I like about working in more dysfunctional environments, is because you have an impact to change things in the way that you envision that they can be changed.
Debbie: And I think that gives us an opportunity to make a difference.
Debbie: Jamie, my last question for you today is this: You've been at Adobe for nearly 15 years now and seem to have no intention of slowing down. What's kept you at Adobe for this long and what do you hope to be able to do in the next stage of your tenure?
Jamie: Yeah. I think the thing that's so great about Adobe is that we are continually, as a company, pushing forward and never sort of resting on our laurels. I think that any time that I start getting a little itchy or want to do something else, then the company goes in another direction. And so we spent a number of years sort of transitioning the business model to subscription and now it's all about the product and it's all about how do we reach this next level of creative ... people wanting to be creative.
There's just no end of great problems to solve. Design problems, product problems, operational problems, like everything that I just love. And the opportunity to build the Machine Intelligence Design Team. I've introduced international design focus this year and inclusive design focus. So it's just like as products and as experiences in this world continue to change and grow, it's just one more thing, and I have the opportunity to have some impact there.
And so, looking forward in the next five, 10 years if I'm still at Adobe, it would be to continue to scale design and really have that be the driving force of everything we do at Adobe.
Debbie: Jamie Myrold, thank you so much for sharing so much about your career, for being such a powerful leader, and for being on this very special episode of Design Matters Today.
Jamie: Thank you so much, Debbie. It's been great to be here.
Debbie: Thank you. Thank you so much. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference. We can make a difference or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking to you again soon.