As former Silicon Valley CEOs, Maria Giudice and Christopher Ireland are well-known for their pioneering work as design-minded systems thinkers. Their careers followed parallel paths: after selling Hot Studio to Facebook, Maria went on to lead design at Autodesk and then to a second career coaching design-driven leaders. After selling Cheskin to communications company WPP, Christopher moved to teaching in the MFA programme at California College of the Arts, and then at Stanford in their Continuing Studies programme. 

Their latest collaboration, the forthcoming book Changemakers, is a testament to their shared belief that design can lead change if used as a guiding principle, not simply as a tool or process. WDO spoke to them about key insights learned in writing the book and what it really takes to create meaningful change in today’s world.

Tell us a little bit about this collaboration – had you worked together in the past? What drove you to write Changemakers and how did you go about ‘building’ the book? 

We were each fairly well-known as CEOs leading design firms in Silicon Valley, and many who knew us assumed we couldn’t work together. They thought we were too independent and headstrong to partner effectively, but we’ve surprised them. When we collaborate, we bring out the best in each other. 

We first worked together when we co-taught a course in the MFA programme at CCA helping grad students create startups. That led to us co-authoring our first book, Rise of the DEO in 2013 (now available free on Medium). We still co-teach, currently in the Continuing Studies programme at Stanford, on the topic of leading change.

We enjoy working together so authoring another book was mostly dependent on finding the time and right topic. We were both passionate about demystifying what it means to lead change in any organization and wanted to create a playbook based on people’s real world experiences. Once we agreed to take this journey together and invest our time in the idea, we ‘built’ the book like we would any new product.

We first assembled a team as if we were forming a new band. We recruited contributors who could play to and augment our strengths in ideation, storytelling, design, editing, production, and marketing. From there, we followed our typical process, treating the book creation as a design problem. We did a great deal of research. We refined the vision. We experimented with different approaches and ways of presenting the content. We made some mistakes and had to redo sections. As the book started to take final shape, we shared it with others for their feedback. And of course we had the help of a good editor, Marta Justak, and guidance from our publisher, Louis Rosenfeld.

What is something you learned while writing this book that surprised you?

The most surprising learning was how willing people were to share their missteps and shortcomings. We interviewed over 40 leading designers and entrepreneurs–people who normally are profiled for their accomplishments and success. Each candidly shared their low points, missteps, and outright failures. But rather than regretting these instances, they explained how they learned from them and how pivotal each was in shaping their later successes. A good example of this is captured in a recent interview with Kevin Bethune we shared. Kevin explains how he climbed back from a significant failure he suffered at Nike when he was a young designer full of ambition and bravado. That type of advice is rare and powerful.

In your opinion, what are some of the most important lessons to be extracted from the book?

The book has 4 sections that correspond to stages of a typical change project:

Foundation – The future can be designed by elevating the function of design from a task to a strategy, and by ensuring the desired change has the support, resources, and leadership it needs.

Process – A structured, collaborative process allows a team to be both more creative and productive, especially if fluid and safe collaboration practices are built-in from the start.

Experimentation – Solid research and agreed upon design principles can guide iterative development and permit small failures without disrupting existing power structures.

Scaling – A trusted and communicative relationship with all stakeholders enriches the team’s knowledge, empowers the vision, and enables slow, but steady scaling of the solution.

In the context of our insanely complex world, is there a particular set of skills that designers should be seeking out in order to affect meaningful change?

Skills are important, but so is aptitude. A designer who wants to lead change should have a compelling purpose he or she wants to pursue, along with the courage, resilience, and optimism to stick with it through the inevitable struggles. For example, a changemaker has to be able to take criticism, listen to feedback, and set their ego aside in order to find commonalities. A changemaker also needs passion, values, and integrity to attract and retain others because change is never accomplished alone. You have to be able to earn others’ trust and sustain psychological safety for your team.

In combination with these general qualities, specific skills are needed but there’s no ‘one’ skillset that’s optimal. The trick is understanding your strengths and weaknesses and then balancing your team so they leverage the skills you have and augment the ones you don’t. For example, Maria enjoys presenting and is excellent at engaging a large audience. Christopher could force herself to do those things, but she prefers writing and engaging smaller groups. We recognize these differences and align our responsibilities to fit them.

Based on the insights you gathered, what do you think defines a true changemaker?

We were initially inspired by the description offered by Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka, an organization that helped define the social entrepreneur movement. He described changemakers as:

People who can see the patterns around them, identify the problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve the problem, organize fluid teams, lead collective action, and then continually adapt as situations change.

One of the real-world examples we cite in the book is Chef José Andrés. He noted the patterns of poor disaster relief response amid an abundance of underutilized food resources. He tried to work within existing hierarchical structures, but quickly realized that the problems were often due to the regulations and bureaucracies that enforced them. As an alternative, he founded World Central Kitchen, and led an ad hoc community of chefs and food providers to rapidly focus resources exactly where needed without hierarchies, strategic plans, or ROI concerns. He continues to iterate, learning from failures or flaws.

What does it mean to ‘lead with design’?

To us this means adopting the mindset of a designer to make change. Not as a task or stage in the development, but as a strategy. A changemaker doesn’t have to be a designer, but does need to emulate one. It’s not about using the tools that designers employ. It’s about embracing the qualities of a DEO (Design Executive Officer) in order to lead change: smart risk taking, using intuition and imagination in addition to metrics, commitment to being people-centered, applying systems thinking, and having a plan to get shit done.

As changemakers in your own rights, what advice would you offer to those who are looking to make a difference but don’t necessarily know where to start?

If you’ve never led change, start by being a team member and supporting a good changemaker. Learn what it means to trust others, to build fluidity and safety into a collaboration, to iterate, to fail, to restart. 

If you’ve had that experience and now want to lead change, choose a goal that is important enough to you that you will sacrifice time, money, and perhaps some of your sanity to accomplish it. Leading change is not easy and it can quickly lead to burnout so you have to find rewards in the work itself, not just the outcome. Once you’ve identified a purpose or goal, look for your ‘tribe’,— others who share your passion and can compliment your abilities. Finally, be mindful that change initiatives can be triggering. Show up with empathy and compassionate understanding that even the hint of change can upset others.

Where does design need to go next in order to meet the challenges of tomorrow?

It needs to deal with some uncomfortable truths. Design is highly influential, in practice and in its thought leadership. It needs to find and raise its voice on complex topics like the role and ethics of AI, virtual reality, climate change, and more. 

Also, in a world where communication is increasingly visual and where creativity is a basic skill, we’d love to see design taught in primary grades along with reading and math. Why wouldn’t we want children to learn how to creatively solve problems? Or how to turn ideas into reality? Or how virtual worlds can impact your emotions? Or how colour, shape, and texture influence preferences? These are significant design skills and everyone will need them in the world that’s evolving around us.

Researcher, strategist, idea generator, and alliance builder – Christopher Ireland started her career with the notion that businesses could benefit from a better understanding of people and culture. Her ability to create simple explanations of complex human behaviour and to translate those insights into effective design and development strategies attracted clients from both technology and consumer goods companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Pepsi, Levis, GM and more. As co-founder and CEO of Cheskin, a firm that pioneered design research in Silicon Valley, Christopher and her partners had ringside seats to unrivalled feats of creation, innovation, and reinvention. She and her partners sold Cheskin in 2007, and walked away with their sanity mostly intact. Christopher is a co-author of Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design and China’s New Culture of Cool. She received an MBA from UCLA and currently teaches leadership and design strategy courses for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program.

Innovator, artist, protagonist, activist, and positive provocateur, Maria Giudice has pursued a vision of intelligent, elegant, people-centered design throughout her professional life. Her grasp of the pragmatic, the authentic, and the essential have kept her at the forefront of design and business for over 30 years. When Facebook acquired Hot Studio, a design agency, founder Maria Giudice felt some sense of validation. For some, design is an after-thought. The acquisition sent a message to companies all over, “Design is strategic. It’s not just execution.” Her expertise lies in fostering a vision and bringing people together to execute it. She knows how to overcome team silos and lead with influence instead of authority.