Q&A with Design Industry Leader Doreen Lorenzo

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Doreen LorenzoDesign industry leader Doreen Lorenzo has joined the Design faculty in the College of Fine Arts to oversee a campus-wide initiative to integrate design thinking into the curriculum across The University of Texas at Austin. A successful leader of global creative firms, Lorenzo has advised Fortune 100 companies on design and innovation issues for decades. She is the former president of the global design firms Frog and Quirky, co-founder of the mobile video insights firm Vidlet, a board member and adviser to several startup companies, and a columnist for Fast Company Co. Design and Medium. A thought leader on business and design issues, she speaks publicly about her signature leadership style and the power of empathy to drive business results. We recently chatted with her about her work and what drew her to this opportunity at the university.

You’ve worked in a variety of environments throughout your career—large global design firms, startups and as a consultant. What attracted you to this new role at The University of Texas at Austin?

The University of Texas has so many incredible programs they offer, and the ability to take the best of those and combine all of these great schools together to create a holistic approach to designing products and services is really exciting to me. We’re creating an environment where students will be able to apply this idea of design thinking to solving really tough programs. Because design is no longer just about creating artifacts; it’s about systems thinking.

I want students to be able to look at problems that are out there in the world that could be solved through the concept of design thinking and be able to work in teams to try to solve those problems. This approach can be applied to government and public policy, healthcare, education, cities and, obviously, business. I mean, any number of issues. I look forward to working with the staff and faculty at UT to be able to create this kind of integrated design program to encourage students to think in this very multidimensional and multidisciplinary way.

In your new role at UT, you’ll be working to integrate design curriculum across the university and to connect with design industry leaders. Can you talk about how design principles are shaping businesses and strategy today?

In the complicated business world of today, you can no longer try to solve problems in a one-dimensional way. You have to acknowledge the different dimensions and ecosystems that make up the market today. And the new workforce is going to need to think and respond in a way that reflects that—it’s kind of a design process, systems thinking, where you’re beginning to link all these pieces together to form the shape of what you’re going to deliver, whether that’s a physical product, a service, a piece of policy, etc.

When we look at business challenges that exist today, we need to teach students to look at how they can do it differently and how they can do it better. The truth is most people get used to things being marginal, and design thinking teaches us that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

For an undergraduate studying business or engineering, what is the value of learning design techniques, aesthetics, research methods, history and theory?

No matter what sector you’re in today, you have to understand your audience, consumer and user, and this holistic approach allows you to do that.

Simply put, this approach is imperative in the market today. It’s just how businesses are being run now. Every new business that’s starting today is interdisciplinary. This old world thinking of businesses existing in silos doesn’t exist anymore. The market is changing so dramatically that education has to make sure that it stays in step with how fast things have moved.

You worked at global design firm frog for 16 years, and during your seven-year tenure as president, you oversaw a major growth period for the company. What’s it like to lead a company through such a major growth period, from 50 employees to about 1,000 people with 11 offices worldwide?  And, as a leader, how did you cultivate and facilitate a cohesive and innovative culture within the company as you scaled up?

First and foremost, it’s all about the people that you hire and creating an environment where people can succeed, which means you have to create an environment where they have the freedom to both experiment and potentially fail and people have to experiment. You also have to create a space where teamwork matters and the sum of the parts is greater than the whole of them. Design, after all, is a team sport, and people working together in interdisciplinary teams yields a better outcome.

In your bio, you write that you are an “ardent believer in the advantages of soft skills like empathy and humor in business. Can you talk more about how these soft skills have set you up for success in your career?

I frequently lecture and give talks on this exact topic. It’s really important in business to understand the data in your business—financials are important, metrics are very important—but that’s only half of understanding a business. If you don’t understand your people, if you can’t deeply understand what drives and motivates them, you’re not going to be able to make great decisions. In today’s environment, you can’t run a business from the bottom of a spreadsheet.

With this approach, you’re actually making more rational business decisions because you’re using both sides of the equation to really create cohesive decisions. This is the part of business and business education that has mostly been neglected up until this point—empathy. And it’s something people can learn and get better at. I liken it to the medical profession and medical school—people didn't teach soft skills to doctors until very recently. They were very clinical and delivered information, but they had no bedside manner. And now they’re teaching this skill as part of their curriculum. And there are all sorts of statistics around this that demonstrate that companies that understand and make business decisions based on what drives their employees actually run and perform better than those that don’t.

I understand you received your undergraduate degree in theatre from State University of New York, Stony Brook. Are there skills that you learned as a theater student that you apply in your role as a business leader today?

People always ask me in all these years of hiring creative people who I look for in that process. Obviously you want them to be talented, but you also want them to be effective communicators because when you’re introducing something new and different you need to be able to talk and speak about it. If they can’t explain, and in some cases defend, why they chose a certain design or strategy, it likely won’t get chosen or implemented. And theater has really taught me the presentation skills and the ability to get up and talk to people about why I’m choosing what I’m doing, what’s the decision about. So that’s where it’s really been helpful. And I think that’s a very, very important skill for someone in a creative or innovative profession to have because it’s not just about coming up with an idea. It’s really about being able to articulate why that idea is relevant to your audience or stakeholders.