A conversation with multidisciplinary designer Lisa Baird

Lisa Baird is a multidisciplinary designer based in downtown Oakland, California. A true jack of all trades, she is a design strategist, information architect, writer, and interactive data visualizer. It is difficult to pin down just one title to describe Lisa as a professional.

“I’m a business designer, strategist, venture designer, systems designer, service designer. I got my interaction design degree a couple of years ago, so I do that as well. And my journalism degree means I’m also a copywriter…It’s funny because I do pretty much everything except actual graphic design. I’m like all the things except for the one you know.”

Lisa Baird.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Lisa about falling in love with the problem, the helpfulness of curmudgeonly people, and the deeper systems underneath user experience.

Stumbling into Innovation

Lisa didn’t start her career with innovation or design in mind. When she started undergrad in finance and journalism, she had her sights on reporting for the Wall Street journal. After graduation, she ended up as an entry analyst at J.P. Morgan. “I found out I could make…$55,000/year in salary back then, plus whatever bonus,” she told me. “To become a starting journalist at some local newspaper somewhere in the country would be like $18,000/year, with no bonus and I could not get onboard with that.”

It wasn’t until a chance encounter while getting her MBA at UC Berkeley that she realized her future would be in innovation.

Lisa Baird.

“My friend Jessica was like, ‘come to my class on Wednesday night so we can sit in the back and catch up,’” Lisa said. “I showed up to her Wednesday class and the guest speaker was Jocelyn Wyatt, who’s the founder and CEO of IDEO.org.”

Lisa recounted the 2-hour rapid prototyping session Jocelyn led that night as well as the concept her group created. “We envisioned the MoMA in New York City where you come up to that mezzanine level and you see Monet’s Water Lilies, a 40-foot long painting. It’s just all made out of textures rather than paint on a canvas, so the visually impaired can walk right up to it and feel the painting…We invented this Pantone book of color, but instead it’s a Pantone book of textures.”

“I just had an amazing experience that night,” Lisa said. The next day, she decided to write a thank you email to Jocelyn. Within 20 minutes, she received an email back. Jocelyn remembered her from the workshop and offered her an internship at IDEO.org, which turned into a full-time job offer at IDEO at the end of the summer.

When I asked Lisa what it was about that Guest Speaker session with Jocelyn that awoke something in her, she said, “it was like the power of just saying yes. The power of devoting two hours to an interesting problem where the default position of everybody in the room is [that]…everything that you say could be possible… There’s freedom in that.”

Falling in Love with the Problem & The Joan of Arc Fallacy

According to Lisa, the “biggest unspoken, invisible, insidious assumption in the whole entire world” is that every available choice is already on the table – and all managers need to do is come in and choose one.

“There has to be a concerted and devoted period of time where the whole point is to generate choice. And then, after you have really given that part of the process its due, you can start making choices,” she explained. “Everybody needs to start falling in love with the problem rather than the solution. If you devote yourself to understanding the problem, then it will become very apparent very quickly what choices will resolve that problem.”

Lisa Baird.

Another fallacy Lisa identified was the treatment of clients as story antagonists, which she described as rampant in the world of design consulting. “You feel like you’ve been hired to be sort of the Joan of Arc, defending the hapless user who’s been given a bad experience through some bad product or service, and you’re there to go to battle on their behalf,” she said. “Well there’s got to be some kind of antagonist in that story, right?”

Lisa told me this type of thinking is particularly common amongst younger designers who don’t yet have the experience to navigate client relationships with more nuance. “It’s easier intellectually to defend the user from the antagonist/bad client than it is to think of the client as another user group…It’s why a lot of design work doesn’t show up in the world, because that narrative just doesn’t push the implementers to implement.”

Who Should be Involved: Delinquents & Confessionals

In addition to the Joan of Arc Fallacy, Lisa identified organizational problems as a reason that a lot of work goes to waste. “Innovation processes aren’t very fruitful if the person involved in it on the client side isn’t actually empowered to implement whatever comes out of the process,” she said. “It needs to be whoever is actually empowered to change. Go as far up as you have to, all the way to the board if you have to. That’s who should be involved.”

Who else should be involved? According to Lisa, the troublemakers – “talk to the least compliant, most delinquent, trouble-making, curmudgeonly person you can find.” Why? She says it’s the best way to observe how a full array of users will interact with a design.

There is a line, however, between the curmudgeonly delinquents whom innovators can benefit from observing and those who are so noncompliant that they will hinder the process. Lisa calls these people ‘immovable enemies.’ She warned to never underestimate “the endurance, fervor, or illogic” of immovable enemies. “There is a limit to the notion of bringing people along in some cases. Know whom to bring along and whom to outright avoid.”

According to Lisa, the move away from in-person meetings doesn’t have to hinder people’s ability to be involved. In fact, it may be more of a blessing than a curse for getting good feedback. She said voice calls are her favorite way to communicate with clients. “People open up,” she said. “It makes me think there is a reason Catholic confessional booths are designed the way they are.”

“I just find that every research interview I’ve ever done, it’s been easier to get to the real nut of the issue quicker if you’re not in the same room as each other. There are fewer signals that you have to be managing, both in and out. I think that relieves a lot of cognitive load for people, and when they have reduced cognitive load, they’re able to just spill the beans.”

Outside of freelance designer-client relationships, Lisa highlighted how important it is for companies to include every piece of their business in innovation. She said that companies that treat innovation like a “sidecar activity” for one designated group to handle outside of the main operation of the organization are thinking about innovation wrong.

“That’s like saying the electricity group is just a utility. It’s a liberal art. It has to be infused through all of the operations of every part of the business. Anybody who treats it like a separate activity just doesn’t fundamentally understand it that way.”

User-Centered Design vs The Deeper System

When I asked what approach to innovation she found to be wrong-headed, Lisa shared her distaste for user-centered design that excludes the system that the user’s experience is built upon from the innovation aperture. She provided an example using the American higher education system, which she described as being in a moment of huge redesign due to the student debt crisis.

“A lot of universities and colleges are trying to redesign their student experience,” she told me. “But that kind of assumes that the whole entire system that experience sits on top of is good. It assumes that taking out loans in order to get your bachelor’s degree is a good approach. It assumes a lot of things.”

She said that trying to build a better user experience upon a deeper system that is inherently bad for the user will not end in a better user experience after all. “You can have wonderful onboarding, wonderful student orientations, and wonderful immersive digital experiences,” she continued. “You can have all of these things, but they all sit on top of this bigger, deeper system.”

“It’d be like being asked by the client to redesign knee pads when you know that you could just invent shoes. Why do we have to have a better knee pad to crawl around on our knees when I could just invent shoes and we could just stand up and walk?”

Check out other stories in our #InnovationSeries