Doreen Lorenzo on design becoming the core DNA of an organization

The O’Reilly Design Podcast:  Designing women, avoiding the buzzword curse, and the F word.

By Mary Treseler
August 18, 2016
Warp Core. Warp Core. (source: Jan on Flickr)

In this week’s Design Podcast, I sit down with former president of Frog, Doreen Lorenzo. Lorenzo is currently the director for the Center of Integrated Design at the University of Texas at Austin. We talk about the design in education, women in design, and failing fast versus learning fast.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

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On being a female designer

I can tell you that I think I went through the first 20 years of my career not even thinking about it. Putting my head down, doing the work that needed to get done. Working really closely with all my employees. Creating a great environment. Leading an organization. Making a business successful and profitable. I think I just did all those things. I never really thought about being a woman. I thought at one point, “Well, we’ve come far.” Then I put my head up as we sometimes do in life … and said, “Wow, we haven’t come that far.”

I would say the number one similarity I see with women is they’re suited to be fabulous designers because they’re so empathetic. Most women that I’ve interviewed are really empathetic and really understand the importance of understanding your user, understanding their employees and creating an environment where creativity and doing your best work thrives.

ROI on design

I have spent pretty much 20 years of my professional career trying to emphasize the ROI on design, the value of what design brings to an organization. I lightheartedly, but truthfully, say, ‘When I started out in this industry, designers weren’t allowed to have a seat at any table,’ were barely allowed in the building—the people dressed in black, the crazy people who said silly things.

You can see the evolution where you were kind of allowed into the building especially when it was cold. They were nice enough and put us in the back of the board room. Now, what you see is design is all the rage.

I’m very happy about that, but I want to make sure is that it doesn’t turn into the buzzword of innovation, that design really becomes part of the core DNA of an organization. This is the only way their change is actually going to happen, and design thinking by its nature, which is really just the name for a methodology that designers have always used. It’s a problem solving methodology. Organizations have to understand how to be agile, how to work quickly, how to have creative, autonomous thinking that goes on in problem solving.

Learning fast vs. failing fast

We’re in a continuous learning environment all our lives, at least I hope we are. In scientific methodology, the more false results you get, the closer you get to success. That’s looked upon as something that’s good. In business, if you don’t get it right the first time, that’s looked upon as something that’s bad. I think what we’re learning along the way here is that we have to make sure that people have the ability to learn and gain knowledge, because the more you can learn, the closer you can get to success.

I think that’s what the design methodology allows you to do. You’re testing, you’re prototyping, you’re getting the results, and you’re seeing where you are along the spectrum. I think we should stop scaring people about the concept of failure. I see that in the university. These students are so afraid to step outside because they don’t want to fail. That’s a really bad thing. It’s not about failure. It is in fact about learning. You get better at things when you know what doesn’t work versus when you know what does work.

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