Intentions always matter when it comes to making things for real people in the real world. Whether it’s taking the proper time to deeply understand the challenge you’re trying to solve, scoping a diverse team that better reflects your customer and community, or asking the hard questions about a design’s potential impact, the meaning we infuse into what we make is as important as the final product. frog Design Director Alexis Puchek joins us to explain the importance of leading with intentionality throughout the entire process—and the consequences of failing to do so.
Design Mind frogcast
Episode 14: Increase Your Intention Span
Guests: Alexis Puchek, Design Director, frog Austin
[00:09] EW: Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood [EW].
[00:25] EW: Today on our show, we’re talking about making things that matter. To do so, we’re joined by Alexis Puchek [AP], a Design Director in frog’s Austin, Texas studio. Alexis wears many hats here at frog—I’ll let her tell you all about these various hats shortly. But you should first know that Alexis is a born leader and a self-proclaimed “people person,” which means that so much of her focus is on bringing people together, whether that involves facilitating better collaborations in the workplace or advocating for marginalized communities in the world at-large. For Alexis, it’s all about bringing your authentic self to every situation and intentionality into everything you do. Here’s Alexis now.
[01:05] AP: I know that work is just work for some people. But, to me, this is where I spend all of my time outside of hanging out with my wife and my cat and my friends. So I want work to be more than just work and I want people to feel celebrated and safe and inspired to come do their absolute best for themselves, for the clients and for the people whose solutions we’re creating. And I think it’s really difficult to do that if you cannot be authentic and if you have to spend part of your time hiding who you are in the day, because that takes so much energy and effort that is just exhausting—and takes away that energy and effort that could be spent doing something awesome.
[01:58] AP: Hey, everyone. My name is Alexis Puchek. I’m a director of design at frog. And what that really means is that I’m working with the teams to make sure that they feel comfortable and confident in the work that they’re doing in their day to day. I’m also working with the clients to assure them that we’re aligning toward the vision, we’re being transparent, and we’re really connecting with them so they feel like they are coming along with us as we do our work.
[02:26] AP: I wear many hats at frog. So I run our internship program in Austin. I’m the interaction design discipline lead for the Americas. I lean in as a design lead for product design and delivery, as well as our emerging technology practices. I sit on our Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee, and I mentor anyone and everyone who has a question or needs some help along the way. I really do that because I want to invest in the company that is investing in me. And I really care about the people that I’m working with. Because I have so much free time outside of frog, I also teach as an adjunct professor at Austin Community College in the visual communications department.
[03:09] EW: Instilling a sense of community actually matters a lot in a design and consulting context. Arriving at the right solution usually means making sure different voices are heard. It means sharing ideas, advocating for the user, and expressing yourself through your craft. It’s a very personal, very human thing. And it doesn’t really work if team members don’t feel safe being who they are.
[03:33] AP: I live life as authentically as possible. I’m a masculine woman. I’m a queer woman. I have a pompadour and facial piercings. And I’m on, you know, a podcast, so no one can see me. So I thought I’d give you all a little peek. I’m a very outspoken voice and person advocating for women, advocating for queer and marginalized individuals. And frog was that company. frog…I saw it when I started to have conversations with them, or I guess with us, and it’s a place where I wanted to be and to really spend my time to not only do amazing, diverse, complicated and fun work that is meaningful, but also have that opportunity to really work with the individuals and help shape what I think frog is and could be both locally and globally.
[04:30] AP: I grew up in San Antonio, Texas. At the time, I felt it was…‘stifling’ might be the right word. I was an, unbeknownst to me, queer kid trying to figure out my sexuality throughout my entire life. I worked at trying to figure out who I was, but only in like the most surface-level ways as you do in middle school and high school and things like that.
[04:55] AP: In college, I became a mentor pretty easily with the gay community and queer community at UT Austin. And so I found myself wanting to invest in my community, and working with student government, and then working with student organizations to make sure that I could help mentor and give advice or just perspective to individuals who were kids coming into school for the first time, maybe coming from small towns where they’ve had to shun themselves or hide who they were authentically because they were concerned about how coming out would affect them, either personally or their relationships with their family.
[05:35] AP: I can’t really recall a time where me being my authentic self, and maybe speaking about something I was passionate about outside of work product resulted in any kind of, you know, pushback or anything else. What I have seen is I have become a mentor and a confidant and a safe space for anyone from interns to vice presidents and chief design officers of companies. I think to some degree it’s scary because I don’t know everything and I can’t be the voice for everyone. But it’s reassuring that people want to learn more, that they want to find the ways to invest in something, anything that is separate or different from their own lived experience.
[06:30] EW: For Alexis, making things that matter for people in the real world really comes down to being as intentional as possible.
[06:38] AP: For me, intentionality is giving a damn. Period. Being intentional doesn’t have to do with one discipline or another. It’s really about focusing on craft, the client and what their needs are. What are they trying to get us to solve? Why? Who is this going to affect?
[06:58] AP: I think it’s always important to ask “Why?” And “How?” Always keep asking “What else?” Find the ways to provoke them—not in like a threatening way—but to provoke new ideas and probe to really figure out what the best solution is. So intentionality for me is more than the work. It’s more than the output of the thing. It’s investing in understanding what we’re creating and why, and taking the time to rationalize our decisions, and think systemically about the solutions so that we understand how these things will unfold.
[07:46] AP: I love seeing so many companies doing nowadays, which I didn’t see 17 years ago, is around research and involving actual people in the work that we’re doing, and whether that is involving them through qualitative or quantitative research, or very iterative test-and-learn cycles as we continuously evolve products. It means that we’re using people to make sure that we’re moving in the right direction, by getting their feedback.
[08:20] AP: Being intentional doesn’t mean you always have to have all the right answers all the time. It means that you’re questioning the ways that things work today and finding ways to improve them. Even if that means asking for help. Or especially if that means asking for help.
[08:41] EW: Along with knowing when to ask for help, Alexis feels it’s important to set up a team for success. And that inherently requires diverse perspectives.
[08:50] AP: I love and think it’s very important to have diversity in the designs and in the process and in the research. I am a cisgender, queer, white woman. And I have all of the biases and perspectives that only come from my life. I think the failures of UX or UI really emphasize the need to continue to expand our perspectives, expand the conversations, expand the work. And that expansion will always help amplify underrepresented voices.
[09:30] AP: If you think about even door knobs, right? So doorknobs were created, I don’t know, like a century ago. And they were all sort of these round, wrist-turning door knobs, which at the time made sense. But as individuals aged and had arthritis, like all of a sudden, people can’t open doors. And that lack of intentionality on bringing other people into the room who had different experiences. And not just designing for them. But actually designing with these individuals means that we had to shift how door knobs were designed when someone finally had, you know, a light bulb go off and say, “Oh, yeah, what if we had a universal design principle that could create door knobs that allowed people with arthritis to open them?” Or, “Someone’s got something in their hands, can they use another appendage to open the door?”
[10:22] EW: Another example Alexis referenced to highlight the need for universal design principles are curb cuts. Curb cuts are those sloped cuts at crosswalks that eliminate the need for people to step down from an elevated curb. They were originally designed to give much-needed access to people who use wheelchairs, but now, everyone can enjoy the benefits.
[10:41] AP: [Curb cuts are] helping more people than just people in wheelchairs. It’s helping the elderly. It’s helping parents or family members that have children in strollers. It’s helping people who have fragile bones who are concerned about stepping off of a curb. It’s given us so many more opportunities to just support all of us as a community. But it took such a fight from our disabled communities to say, “You have to give us this access. You’re denying us fundamental rights of living in your world as people. And we’re the same as you.” And without them fighting, other people wouldn’t have benefited from curb cuts.
[11:34] AP: There are, I want to say, somewhere north of 30 million individuals in the United States that have a disability and a disability that requires some sort of accessible assistance. You look at the need for accessible websites, screen readers, cognitive considerations. If we bring it back to money, which is what organizations connect with, that is a huge market that you are not tapping into if your website is not accessible.
[12:08] EW: We’re going to take a short break. When we return, Alexis shares why all the intentionality in the world can’t save a lack of accountability.
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[12:55] EW: Now back to Alexis Puchek. During our conversation, Alexis spoke not only of the need to make business and design decisions with intentionality, but to also put real accountability behind your efforts.
[13:06] AP: I think if there is no accountability, there’s no real need to follow through on anything. And accountability can come in many ways. That might mean publishing your intention and how you measure up to the world publicly on your website. That can be one of the clearest forms. Maybe it’s setting internal KPIs on, you know, what different studios or different regions need to follow through on in terms of hiring practices or managerial training. There are so many ways you can show up. You just need to, and you need to do it consistently.
[13:47] AP: As we look at Pride Month, and as a queer woman, every year, this is sort of like the collective eye rolling that I think the entire global queer community sort of puts forth, because “rainbow washing” happens. And what rainbow washing is, is where companies in the month of June, because it’s Pride Month, change their logo to rainbow, and they put up a stock photo of people celebrating in the streets with rainbow flags saying “Love is love” and “We support you.” And on the surface level, that feels really good.
[14:23] AP: Where it can be problematic in terms of performative action is if you’re not spending any other time throughout the rest of the year celebrating, supporting, creating safe space for those queer individuals, and you’re just turning your logo to a rainbow color, it’s performative because you’re not actually dismantling any systems that cause us harm actively. Why don’t you have rainbow socks all year round? Why is it only right now? And why are you only dedicating this money today? It’s important for you to actually invest in DEI, and measure what that investment is and what that investment means. In my mind, the best way to do that is to be transparent, to commit and to hold yourself accountable.
[15:20] EW: Alexis also stressed the need for teams to be diverse from a discipline perspective as well—especially in cases where the stakes can be much higher than just failing to design the best possible solution for a customer.
[15:32] AP: When I think about environments that might not let intentionality thrive, it might be in environments with siloed teams. And what I mean by that is designers only working with designers, engineers only working with engineers. You lose that cross-functional collaboration, conversation, and pushing on the right solution or the constraints. Which means that you’re only designing from one perspective.
[16:04] AP: If we continue to think about what could go wrong, it could be as serious as death. So we are now designing autonomous vehicles. We’re doing automotive interfaces, whether it’s UI and dashboards, or Zero UI and sound-based commands. But if you are designing something that takes someone’s attention away from a highly complex task like driving 65 miles an hour on a road surrounded by so many other people, who have so many other intentions and focus in their minds and hearts, something really bad can happen if they’re not paying attention. So I think there are these real-life consequences that can happen from a lack of intentionality.
[16:55] AP: But then if you consider what that means for yourself and your career, I think that fundamentally, you’re doing a disservice to yourself, to your client, to potential customers and communities, because you’re just not coming up with what the best thing could be.
[17:17] AP: I kind of mentioned phoning it in earlier as a designer, and I don’t want to say that that’s not the right thing to do, right? People show up to work for different reasons, and it’s okay to see work as just work, and then you go home, and that’s where your life is spent. I do want to instill that the things that we create now can absolutely be the things that last in the world for decades. And so if we can find those moments to just think a little bit deeper about what we’re putting out in the world. I think we’ll all be better off.
[17:58] AP: Whether it’s incremental change or broad, far-reaching change, you have to really push and just keep asking questions. Keep exploring ideas and solutions, and iterations and potential options. I think it’s all about building collaboration, building communication, building understanding, and building that breadth of exploration and intention to drive process and decisions forward.
[18:34] EW: For Alexis, asking questions and keeping an open mind allows you to notice things that you wouldn’t otherwise—and can lead you down some pretty unexpected paths.
[18:44] AP: I’ve always loved being outdoors. I’ve always loved nature and animals. We started to spend more time outside in our neighborhood, going on walks, kind of getting away from cars and using our feet and our bodies to move us around our community. And by we, I mean my wife and I.
[19:03] AP: We noticed these loose parrots in our neighborhood and were like, “Oh my God, did someone’s, like, pets get loose? This is terrible! What do we do?” And then all of a sudden, we saw like, 40 of these green parrots. We were like, okay, it’s something legit that is happening that is just nature. And we looked it up. And so there are what are called the monk parakeets in Austin. I believe they started in the 1970s. Kids in college had birds and they let them loose because “I graduated, now I’m adult, and who needs a bird?” And those birds fell into the ecosystem. And so now there is a massive monk parakeet colony here in Austin. And it’s incredible. And that just, like, hooked me. I was like, Okay, now I now I love birds. I don’t know what the deal is. This is my life.
[19:52] AP: There is an organization in Austin called Travis Audubon. I found over the years as I kind of worked with them and researched what they did and attended their events that there was this program called “Master Birder.” It’s a 10-week straight training program so you can learn about birds and then go do field trips and see birds. We spend about six hours bushwhacking, which is a beautiful word. And it means that we start on a trail, and if you hear the golden-cheeked warbler, you immediately get off that trail and you try and find it. Whether that’s climbing over cedar trees, or over a fence or through Poison Ivy. All of these things I’ve done. It’s the weirdest thing. It’s the coolest thing. I eat a lot of, like, granola bars out there because there’s nothing else to do. But you’re climbing over trees, finding birds, looking at them in your binoculars. It’s in Texas heat. I mean, what could be better?
[20:54] EW: That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a global design and strategy consultancy that is part of Capgemini Invent. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation. We really want to thank Alexis Puchek, Design Director in frog Austin, for sharing her story and her insights on designing with intention.
[21:14] EW: We also want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us, and be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at frog.co/designmind. Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at frog.co/contact. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.