On this episode of the Design Mind frogcast, we’re joined by former frog President Doreen Lorenzo, now Assistant Dean of the School of Design and Creative Technologies, UT, Austin and co-founder of Vidlet, a mobile research insights company. She’s here to share her commitment to diversifying design and elevating the voices of women in the industry.
Women are increasingly entering the design industry, but few are being hired to leadership positions. Through her work as a design leader and educator, Doreen is committed to doing something about that. From revamping curriculum to reimagining job descriptions to writing a column for Fast Company that profiles women in design, Doreen is dedicated to using empathy and storytelling as a powerful catalyst for change.
Design Mind frogcast
[00:09] 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] Today on our show, we’re talking about Designing Women. No, not the brilliant 1980s American sitcom about four sassy southern women and their thriving interior decorating business. We’re talking about women in the design industry—and why there are still so few of them at the top today. Joining us is frog alum Doreen Lorenzo [DL]. Doreen became President of frog after successfully leading the company’s first digital business beginning in 1997. These days, she’s co-founder of a mobile research insights company called Vidlet as well as Assistant Dean of the School of Design and Creative Technologies at the University of Texas in Austin. She also writes a column for Fast Company magazine profiling women designers. Doreen has dedicated much of her work to diversifying who has access to a design career, from changing curriculum to rewriting job descriptions to leading by example. Here’s Doreen now.
[01:12] DL: I think creativity without boundaries, doesn’t get you far. I watch a lot of fine artists that we have in the College of Fine Arts, just an incredible art program, or dance or music program, and they are creating things for themselves. Right? It’s art, it’s an expression of them.
[01:32] DL: For creativity in the design world, you’re solving a problem. And you’re looking at parameters that are around you. So there’s a box that goes around there. It’s time. It’s money. It’s business objectives, whatever. You know, it’s a framing. If you understand all those parameters, you design a better product because otherwise you’re creating an art piece. A beautiful artifact without solving a problem is an unused product or service. We don’t want that.
[02:01] DL: In our world, our success is when people use something, and they gravitate, and they understand that. It’s making things better. Designers just make things better. And so for me, that creativity has to have parameters around it. Otherwise, it’s self expression. And that’s not the industry we’re in.
[02:20] DL: My name’s Doreen Lorenzo. And I’m currently the Assistant Dean of the School of Design and Creative Technologies at the University of Texas in Austin. I’m also the co-founder of Vidlet, a mobile insights research company.
[02:34] DL: I’m originally from New York City. I grew up in Queens, New York many years ago. Went to college at State University at Stony Brook, majored in theater. I very quickly realized that wasn’t going to get me too far, but also realized I was much better behind the scenes than I was in front. And so being really smart, I had no idea what I was going to do. So I decided to go to graduate school right out of college, and I went to Boston University. I studied Radio/TV/Film, but mostly film and TV, which was great because it ‘sprungboard’ me into a career for the next 12 years. What I worked on was documentaries, commercials, corporate videos. I mean, you name it. I learned a lot about creating content, creating stories, managing large scale productions, managing people.
[03:18] DL: I moved to Austin, Texas in 1995. And there was no film or TV here, but got very quickly involved with a computer company. And again, it was about the storytelling and was really looking at this digital platform that was just starting—this ‘web’ thing. And how you maybe would be able to create digital content. It took about 25 years, but it eventually happened.
[03:43] DL: And that’s kind of the evolution. I think, for me, people who said, “How did you get there? How did you do that?” What I tell everybody: doors are opening for you every single day. Doors open every day. Opportunities are there every day. Are you ready to look at them? Are you ready to accept them? Do you feel you can do that? What’s holding you back? What’s stopping you? I often tell people, look, nobody’s asking you to do open-heart surgery. You know, they might ask you to do something that’s a little out of your comfort zone. You’re not going to tank the organization or the company. Try it. They see something in you—try it. And I think that’s been my whole career.
[04:19] EW: Doreen’s role as an Assistant Dean at the University of Texas means she can help bring a formal design education to local students entering the global design community. For her, it’s all about broadening who has access to a career in the creative industries.
[04:34] DL: All right, well sit back. This is a little bit of a story. I came to the University of Texas, I was part-time, and the idea was really to understand how to bring the concept of Human Centered Design or what we know as ‘design thinking’ into curriculum—into having students really understand what that is. And so after hundreds, literally I had 400 meetings in my first year at the University of Texas, we very quickly developed a curriculum. And what was interesting is it took off like wildfire. We had business students, and we had design students, and we had architecture students, and we had engineering students all coming together to take classes. And we were giving them projects to work with as you will do in the real world. Using design methodologies, understanding insights, understanding empathy, understanding how they work together, we began to grow this program.
[05:24] DL: That was four years ago. We currently have 600 students. We just started two new Master’s programs. It has a degree in Arts and Entertainment Technologies, which is really immersive design. It includes, you know, AR/VR. It includes game development and includes all this experience design. And then a BA, BFA, MFA and MA in Design. I mean, we’re limited by space, but our applications to the design program increased by 75% this year.
[05:55] DL: Normally the best design programs are always in the elite private schools. And what happens with that is you narrow who can actually have access to a design career. Now, why that may be problematic is designers solve problems. That’s the job, right? We produce artifacts, but we solve problems. And we need all different types of people to understand the problems we’re going to solve. And we need to involve those different types of people in the design process because they’re going to bring different sensibilities that we could not even imagine.
[06:31] DL: Kate Canales, another frog alum, is the chair of the department. She really is doing some incredibly innovative things within the department, which is really bringing design that was always very elite, always done at private schools, but excellence in design to a whole group of students who would have never been able to have afforded doing this. Part of my goal was we have to diversify design. And a school like this is the place to do it. And we’re doing it. It’s pretty exciting. And we’re doing it. We’re doing it through the faculty we hire, the students we bring in. We’ve totally revamped curriculum. So it’s pretty exciting. I think it’s important for the design industry, you know? Students may go to the University of Texas, they will practice design all over the world.
[07:18] EW: Here at frog, we like to say ‘form follows emotion’. It’s a saying our founder Hartmut Esslinger coined to reject the old adage that ‘form follows function’. But we also use the saying to acknowledge how inextricably linked design and emotions are. Good design surprises, it delights—it makes you feel something. And according to Doreen, emotions are actually powerful skillsets to deploy in business environments—when used wisely. Here again is where empathy and a diversity of perspective can help.
[07:47] DL: People come from different experiences, different socioeconomic worlds, different genders, different colors and different life experiences. And when you’re creating a product or service that will perhaps impact many, many different people, it’s great to have different points of view.
[08:08] DL: If you have designers that come from different experiences, it could be amazing. I remember sitting in a room, it was at frog, and we were developing some female, you know, device or apparatus. And it was all men sitting in the room but me.
[08:21] DL: People don’t accept that anymore. I mean, I think the world has changed, too. I think those that are involved should have a voice and we should understand it. And we should make sure that we are getting an understanding of where people are coming from. Not everybody is like us, right? Not everybody’s like me. So I want to understand all that and I want you to bring that sensibility into the design process.
[08:42] DL: And so, for me, being empathetic kind of came naturally. Now, what I learned over the years now studying it is, it’s a skill you can learn. It’s just that we don’t practice it. We don’t teach it. We don’t practice it, but the more you do it, the better you’re at. What I learned in business is that bringing those empathetic skills into a business environment is really powerful.
[09:04] DL: Empathy just is, you know, it’s like another arm. It just kind of comes with the territory. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t as empathetic. Or sometimes I really do feel. I could feel people’s pain and sometimes that’s really hard.
[09:15] DL: I think I’ve learned over the years that my emotions are a powerful differentiator that can help people. And that’s the main focus of, you know, everything I’ve done, right? In design, you’re helping people. Helping people in their careers. As a leader, you help people in their careers and you help them grow. As an educator, you’re helping students get to the best. So using emotional skills to help people has always probably been who I am as a person. And I accept that. You know, I accept that. As you age, you begin to just accept who you are. And I accept that in myself.
[09:49] DL: Design is emotional because that’s how people buy. That’s how people use things. You’re drawn to something. You want to use it. You want to be part of it. So it’s important to understand that skill because it is translated into a product or service that you do. You have to learn how to take a step back. And you have to learn how to be objective about empathy, too—taking that information as something for good.
[11:11] DL: I’ve been in the design world a long time. Design has tended to be very white. For the longest time, it was very male, but that’s changing. We have a lot of female students.
[11:23] DL: I mean, I think the design industry mimics most industries, right? There’s still a small percentage of women on boards. There’s only two women that lead Fortune 50 companies. I mean, it’s 2021. It’s sad. It’s a sad situation.
[11:36] DL: The systematic problem is, you know, women are still responsible for most of the child-rearing and childcare and household issues. Even if you have a 50/50 split household, women are still responsible for that. And we have to begin to look at: How do we help women? You know, how do we help them more? Because it’s a shame that we’re losing women. It’s a shame that we’re not promoting them in a way that they should get promoted.
[12:00] EW: Doreen’s Fast Company magazine column ‘Designing Women’ is all about precisely this—putting a spotlight on the women making their mark in the world of design.
[12:09] DL: I was an anomaly—I apparently still am—as a woman who led a big design company for so many years to great heights. And what I used to hear was, “There’s no women in design. You’re the only one.” And I began to think, you know, unless we start showcasing these women, we’re never going to get anywhere, unless we start talking about it.
[12:30] DL: I was having a conversation with one of the editors from FastCo, and I was talking to her about it. She goes, “Well write a column.” I said, “Really? Never thought about that.” “Yeah,” she goes. “Write a column, we’ll publish it.” That was five years ago.
[12:40] DL: I have met the most amazing women who literally don’t get any airplay. And they are truly these amazing women that are out there doing incredible design work on all different levels with all different types of organizations. And I feel really good that we could showcase them. That we can bring them to the forefront, that people could see that there are these leaders, these women that are cutting through racial barriers and gender barriers and producing this incredible work, leading companies, leading organizations. I just want to elevate them, you know? I want people to know that that’s out there. Because as much as I like to think the fight is over, it’s not. It’s just not over. And that makes me really mad. I have a daughter. It makes me sad.
[13:27] EW: I asked Doreen who she most wants to be an avid reader of her column.
[13:32] DL: Men. No, I want everybody to read it. Anybody who has the ability to make change. You’re better when you have fantastic people on your team. That’s the key to success: the people on your team. The better the people are, the more successful everybody is—all boats rise. I have seen that play out over and over again. You get an amazing team of people, you create an environment where people could do their best, and there’s almost no stopping you. To me, it’s such a simple formula and I don’t know why everybody screws it up constantly.
[14:02] DL: I think we forget that women are great leaders. I think people get scared by it. I think frog wasn’t that kind of place. And for me, you know, it was really clear to me who the best people were. And they were, there were a lot of men, but there were a lot of women, too. And so it was bringing them in and understanding that those sensibilities, female sensibilities and male sensibilities, working together, that’s when you get great products and services, right? Nothing is weighted more or the other.
[14:30] DL: You know, look what’s going on in the United States. I mean, we still live in this world of the 1800s. I mean, we’re still dealing with racial issues, we’re dealing with gender issues. I mean, there’s a sensibility that if I am leading, or I am in charge, or I am rising on the food chain, then you’re not. And that’s the wrong attitude. And that’s whether, you know, it’s a racial issue, or it’s a gender issue, it’s ridiculous, right? Unfortunately, that is a divide that we have. And sometimes I just bang my head thinking, I’ve been at this for so many years, and we still are having the same conversations. It’s ridiculous. It’s truly ridiculous. If you look at the classes, not just our school, but in design programs across the US, there’s a lot of female designers. So that’s good, because there used to be a lot of just white male designers.
[15:22] DL: There’s a lot of female designers, but they aren’t getting into leadership roles. So we still have work to do in our industry to bring women up into a leadership role. And we have to examine this and we have to understand why they back down. Women tend to put their head down and just work. They don’t ask for a lot of accolades. We need to consciously go in there and begin to promote women and put women in those leadership roles because we know—I mean, studies have proven—women that lead do better than men. And that’s a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow, but it’s real. And we need to own it and not be afraid of it.
[16:02] DL: Part of not being afraid of making change is refusing to accept that any one improvement is ‘good enough.’ Doreen recommends taking a hard look at where the industry is today and where you want it to be—then doing what you can to make that happen. For those in hiring positions, for instance, one tactic might be reimagining job descriptions. She recommends taking a look at the language to determine who might be being excluded, and rewriting the job descriptions to be more welcoming to a wider group of people.
[16:30] DL: There’s hope, but we can’t accept that any of this is okay. We can’t accept that we’ve done enough. We can’t accept that “I’ve got my one Black person or Latinx person, I’m good.” That’s not okay. We have to look at what’s representative of the society, our community. And we have to, in design, we have to include that. And we have to give people the opportunity to learn about design through education and then send them out in the world to make great products and services.
[17:00] DL: And you have to write job descriptions differently. And you have to begin to look outside of what has been the norm, and you have to begin to break some of the rules that you have. Maybe people work 50% of their time from home because they’re working parents, I don’t know. You have to begin to look at the problem differently in order to bring in new people. You have to go to different schools to hire students who are going to come in students of color. You have to do things differently. And you know what? If people don’t think it’s their problem, then they’re just putting their head in the sand. They’re just, you know, they’re just perpetuating their complacency. And that’s not okay.
[17:37] DL: This year, we wrote a job description, and we put it out there for an open rec. We got hundreds of applications and over 50% of those applications were from diversity candidates the first time because it was written differently. And so, really, you’ve got to tear down what we know to be true, because it’s not true anymore, and you’re hurting people. And you’re keeping a huge part of the population in the dark. And they’re not going to appreciate what you do. Everybody is responsible for making this change. Everybody is responsible. There are no excuses anymore.
[18:05] DL: I should just sit in my garden, but somehow this keeps nagging me and I think if we could get this next generation of students, this diversity of students into the workplace, we’re gonna have good things that are going to happen. My legacy is I could make that happen. If I could just be that catalyst, right? I’m just a catalyst providing the vessel. Then good things are gonna happen for everybody.
[18:27] EW: Doreen does acknowledge that for many, there can be plenty of discomfort in this kind of change. Whether it’s leading a storied industrial design company into the digital era or changing the face of the modern design workforce, disrupting the status quo is bound to lead to some adversity and critique. That’s why Doreen says it’s important to trust in yourself.
[18:47] DL: I think if you’re a change maker in your life, and you’re in the design world, you understand that there’s patterns. There’s insights. You begin to look at things. You begin to see behaviors. Those are your guiding principles. The media will tell you differently. People will tell you differently because, guess what, change is hard. Who Moved My Cheese? How many years was that book on the bestseller list? I mean, you’d see it in every airport because people hated change.
[19:14] DL: So the more that we could lead, the better control we had on the outcome that would always have the concept of doing good. You know, you wanted to make change for good not change for bad. So yeah, I mean, when you’re making change, there’s always going to be criticism. You’ve got to trust that you have done your homework. You have looked at the way things should be. Sometimes it’s not going to work, but most of the time it comes out okay.
[19:40] EW: While Doreen remains fully committed to making change in the design industry her legacy, I did ask what she planned to do if her work ever does feel finished. As it turns out, even the most visionary leaders can’t resist ‘the Boss.’
[19:53] DL: If Bruce Springsteen goes back on tour again, because you know, he’s 70 or 71 now, I may have to retire and just follow him. When Bruce Springsteen went out on the road a few years ago, I was dragging my husband around. He loves it too. But we’re going to this city, that city. And then he said, “I think you just want to travel the world and just follow Bruce Springsteen.” And I looked at him, I said, “That’s an option? Oh, okay. That’s good. Why not?”
[20:21] EW: That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a global design and strategy consultancy. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation. We want to sincerely thank frog alum Doreen Lorenzo, Assistant Dean at the School for Design and Creative Technologies at the University of Texas in Austin. 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.
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