Rania Svoronou, Design Director at IBM iX on design mentorship, resilience, and finding your voice as a creative.
The Grit

Rania Svoronou, Design Director at IBM iX on design mentorship, resilience, and finding your voice as a creative.

Paulina  KlaucovaPaulina Klaucova

Hi Rania. Thanks for taking the time. Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

I’ve come a long way to learn that who I am and what I do have always been interrelated. I was born and raised in Athens, Greece, studied in the UK and a year ago I moved to New York from London.

I'm a Design Director at IBM iX based in Manhattan, I manage different teams across the globe with a variety of client projects and I am responsible for driving business outcomes.

I love being up to date with the industry, the education and the startup world. This is why besides my day to day role, I am also actively involved as a global mentor, speaker and as a guest lecturer at some of the world’s top universities.

Having a passion for design, people and the business is what brings everything together for me. I remember that the first line on every cover letter that I wrote from my university to employment applications started with: “Design is not an option, it’s a passion”.

It was hard for me to find my voice and confidence, especially in foreign countries, but all the experiences I’ve gained along the way have shaped me into who I am. I’ve built a strong voice not to shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard and represented.

What’s your design journey? Walk us through it.

My design journey goes back to when I started drawing at the age of 7. My parents saw that I was so enamored whenever they gave me coloring books and crayons. This led me to learn more about art and design as I grew up and by the age of 15 I knew exactly what I wanted to do; I wanted to be a graphic designer. My first inspiration and exposure to Graphic Design was from Paul Rand, ironic since now I work for IBM. This whole concept that you could communicate visually, for me was mind-blowing and that is why I decided to pursue design. Finding and having a “why” throughout your career and life can be very powerful.

I left Greece at the age of 17 to pursue my dreams abroad, which was life-changing because suddenly I was placed in a country with a completely different culture and was surrounded by people that pioneered design. Collaborating with so many talented individuals from such a young age broke the bubble that I grew up in.

Saying this, it was tough to adjust and adapt and I remember there were a few times that I wanted to quit as I could not see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ but I pushed through the doubt because I truly love design and I knew that in the long-run this pain and unsettle I felt would be beneficial to my future, and I was right. Growth and comfort do not co-exist and throughout all these years I’ve been placing myself into situations that made me uncomfortable.

After I finished my studies, I literally ran back to Athens and was determined that I would never leave my country again. Little did I know that I would be part of the “brain drain” effect that hit my country due to the economic crisis; which meant that many talented Greeks left the country to pursue opportunities abroad. So, I packed up my stuff again, borrowed the money for my expenses, and went to London to pursue my Master’s in Interaction Design at the London College of Communication, UAL. I wanted to bridge my design craft skills and the world of human-computer interaction and user experience.

After graduation I had no idea what my next move would be. I felt lost and overwhelmed and one of my mentors helped me get back on track by reminding me and telling me “Rania, do not forget that you are a designer and design is what you do best”. Shortly after that, I got my first job offer in London and I jumped on the UX / UI Design bandwagon.

What was your very first design job?

I can remember my first job was an unpaid internship. The job market was very tough and there was this mentality of being grateful that you even have a job which never resonated with me.

My first job that I was being paid for, was as a junior designer in a small local print shop in Athens. I was the only designer on staff. The pay was terrible, there was no direction, minimal support, 9 hour minimum daily working schedule, and usually a 15 minute lunch break at my desk. I was also performing as part-time secretary – picking up most phone calls, dealing with client appointments – while also presenting to the clients! I would also be told sometimes to wash the water glasses after client meetings. That was the reality for me starting in the design world. People usually don’t talk about these things – but bullying and sexism are serious problems as a female designer starting in the industry.

You are either forced to toughen up or the industry will show you the way out. It is no surprise that there is still such a large gender gap in the creative field. It’s one of the reasons I am a global mentor and supporter of the new generation of female creatives.

This inauspicious start really shaped my character and resilience. I always believed that if I worked hard and dreamed big that I would be able to build up a good portfolio, find a more supportive environment as well as learn from others. So even though my first paid job was not the best experience, I learned a lot and it was able to bring me to my second and third jobs. I've worked in six different places before I joined IBM iX where I’ve been for the past five years.

I am now exactly where I want to be.

In the past you have worked in a range of office cultures, from start ups, design studios, agencies to leading global corporations in 3 different countries including Greece, UK and USA. Could you share some lessons learned from these experiences? Do you prefer the working culture of one of these countries over another?

The kind of company or location is less important to me. I prefer an environment that gives me access to good work, good people, and good opportunities. When I got my first corporate job right after my Master’s graduation I was questioned on the fact that I did not have enterprise experience as I was mainly working for small Greek startups, unknown design studios and advertising agencies. The question was really around how I felt joining a multibillion-dollar Fortune 500 company; my response was really that I'm still hired to be a designer.

One fundamental thing I would say throughout my Greece - UK - USA journey was the rise of competition, my confidence levels and support system. I always made sure that I would align myself with the leaders that I really believe shared the same values. I would always ask them to be my mentors and learn whatever I could from them.\

I prefer the UK and USA working cultures as this is where I truly found a support system that is meritorious and fair. All I’m asking and fighting for is a fair and respectable workplace for all the creatives out there, especially the young female creatives.

You’re a Design Director at IBM iX right now. What is your main focus?

IBM iX is the business design arm of IBM Services. My responsibilities vary from owning and driving client engagements to DesignOps.

One of my main focus areas is solving large-scale complex problems and execution while managing and owning work from vision to final deliverables with my teams. Evangelizing design both internally and externally and of course, developing our talents on both technical and soft skills level.

Currently, I’m leading a design engagement for a global client with a team of designers, data scientists, developers, testers, machine learning and AI engineers, making sure we're delivering great experiences. I cannot disclose more information since it is confidential, as is most of our work at IBM iX – however, I can say is that it’s always an exciting and challenging journey designing for AI and how you communicate the value of design to a deep engineering and data science environment.

My aspiration was always to find a way “to change the world” via design and a place like IBM gives me the opportunity to do that due to the scale and complexity of the projects we are dealing with. Changing the world can be different to everyone and it can start with one person – one project – one problem to solve.

What projects are you currently working on at IBM iX?

Most of the projects that I work on at IBM iX are highly confidential but one of my favorite projects was the “GRAMMY Insights” with IBM Watson (IBM’s Artificial Intelligence Supercomputer). It was launched early in January 2020.

It was one of my first projects since I arrived in the NYC Studio and being part of this team was fascinating. GRAMMY Insights with IBM Watson analyzes over 18 million articles, blogs, and bios to produce bite-sized insights on hundreds of GRAMMY artists and celebrities. This helped serve up relevant facts to the Recording Academy's editorial team, boosting their coverage with artificial intelligence.

The idea came together in the iX NYC Studio while brainstorming around the topic. There was a moment where we saw an image of the beautiful Red Carpet and I thought “Wow, it must be such a unique experience waking down this Red Carpet”. Long story short we started brainstorming around the idea of the “Red Carpet” and surfaced all the interesting interviews and discussions that happen during this time and then we started sketching and mocking up ideas. We had many different ideas and the one that was executed was the “GRAMMY Insights with IBM Watson”.

What's it like to be a part of the IBM iX design team?

The biggest challenge and exciting thing for me and I think for most of the designers that join us is the opportunity to tackle real complex problems at scale. That is why we rely on the strength of diverse multidisciplinary teams to envision and execute on solutions that generate value for both our users and clients. Rather than isolating designers into a single studio space, we distribute them throughout teams and clients across IBM iX.

Embedding designers directly into the business allows them to build a rigorous understanding of the domain they’re working in. This knowledge, in turn, helps them align and collaborate more effectively with developers, engineers, and all of the other disciplines that must come together to deliver a great outcome. Human-centered design goes far beyond just speaking with a few people before you get started; it’s about truly co-creating with your business users and stakeholders by bringing them into the design process from Day 1. Being a design consultant gives you exposure to so many different settings and industries with the goal of improving our users lives and driving business outcomes at a global scale. Pre – COVID 19, travel was a big part of our process and now we work fully remote across the globe using all the digital resources available.

From the initial visioning stages to delivery and beyond; we work closely with our users and clients to ensure that every decision we make is rooted in a deep understanding of their goals and needs.

When you’re hiring a designer, what is it that are you looking at?

What I look for in potential candidates when I’m interviewing is usually a ratio of 60-70% technical skills and 30-40% soft skills, aspirations, and growth potential. Depending on the role and the seniority I’m hiring for, I’ll pay attention to different things for potential candidates. For more junior positions I would look for craft, their thinking process, and the ‘hunger’ to learn and to grow. I despise any type of arrogance or bad behavior that gets in the way of effective collaboration, especially in a period of 100% virtual collaboration which is much harder.

For a design leader, besides the design experience, I will focus a bigger part on the soft skills and communication side, and on the challenges they had to overcome throughout their journey showing me they have high levels of adaptability.

Grit and resilience are traits that I highly value and respect. Also, having empathy and a high level of consciousness and emotional intelligence, because being a good leader and being a good designer are two different things. I’ve seen great designers and talents that are struggling with leadership roles and I’ve seen some phenomenal design leaders that might not be the most talented designers; they do know however how to put a high performing and talented team together and lead them towards a goal.

I’ll usually scan a CV and will jump straight to the portfolio. I don’t have preference over a website and/or PDF Portfolio, as long as it is well crafted and presented. Portfolios today should be telling us a story; we should be deviating from the gallery approach of ‘here is my name, my CV and my 10 pictures of my work’. There is an overload of mock up mobile app screens out there. Tell a story and try to be authentic.

You are an active mentor, judge, and guest speaker for various programs and universities such as UCL or London Business School. What advice do you tend to give young people?

It really depends on what each person is looking for with advice; no matter what journey they are embarking on I believe in the cliché that you must love what you do. If you don’t love what you do, especially in design, it’s extremely hard to put in the sweat equity and tears that are required in order to be really good at it.

First of all, let’s start with the fact that you don’t just find your dream job, you create it. It’s a journey that requires a lot of hard work and persistence to reach your so-called ‘dream job’ and I think that is where a lot of young talents might feel unmotivated in their first role or even in their first 2-3 jobs. It took me almost 8 years to say that I created my dream job. Saying this, I always believed that being the hardest working person in the room as well as being kind can cultivate a positive outcome.

Another thing that I point out often is that if you don’t ask you don't get. Don’t assume someone knows about your ideas or that because you’re doing great work that you’ll get recognized. Networking and soft skills are equally important as technical skills and knowing who to listen to is something that I’ve learned along the road. Nowadays, there seems to be an information overload of good advice as well as poor advice. It’s important to listen to everything but keep only what works for you and your journey. One of my mentors told me that the people whose opinions truly matter should fit onto a 1’’x1’’ piece of paper, which translates to around 6 names.

What do you think are the main benefits of having a mentor? Did you have any good mentors that helped you shape your design career?

I am both a mentor and a mentee; my mentors were crucial to my life and shaped my design path. Good mentors can give you sound advice, great mentors show you the way. Having gone through their own experiences they can get you back on track when you get lost; you want to make sure you get the right advice from the right person because inevitably you will get lost along the way.

During one of my key career points, my first female mentor urged me to contact a Creative Director I admired, this approach eventually landed me my first job in digital UI design. Early in my career I faced the dilemma between staying at Unilever or taking the offer from IBM iX. I had just joined Unilever 6 months previously and although IBM iX offered less pay and less responsibilities, there was a higher potential for growth. After speaking with my mentor, I made the decision to go with IBM iX because it felt like it was the right place for me to grow and challenge myself.

My mentor played a critical role in the decision that really shifted my career. Two of my mentors in IBM UK were the ones who got me thinking of moving to NYC in order to gain further international experience. I vividly remember a summer afternoon back in 2018 at a café next to my office where one of my Mentors told me “Rania if there was anything in the world you would want to do what would you do next?” and it’s a question you don’t receive often in all seriousness.

My answer was that I had no idea what was next; I always just kept going and hadn’t really paused to reflect on any next move. Long story short I thought about it during that same night and when I went back to him I said “I would like to move to America”. I finally got my VISA and got transferred to the NYC Studio.

The moral of this story is how important it is to surround yourself with people that want you to become your best self and also see that in you when you don’t see it yourself. To request a mentor, you need to have a clear objective. What do you want to learn? What do you want to get out of this mentorship? Why should this person invest time in you? Great mentoring requires great chemistry between two people.

Once the pandemic hit, I felt quite lost and that is when I found my current mentor. This person is truly helping me navigate my design career in the US which operates completely different from Europe. My mentor introduced me to The Amazing Design People list mentorship global scheme where I mentor multiple designers every week. It feels really good to be able to give back. The question I get asked most often is how to make the switch from being a designer to a leader. As Simon Sinek says, “Leadership is a choice, not a rank. Anyone in an organization can be a leader.” A leader can be someone who is proactive, takes responsibilities, solves problems, protects their colleagues and has a positive can-do attitude. A title is the output, not the input.

Nowadays the design world is filled with enough conferences and talks to last a few lifetimes. It is also getting more and more difficult to distinguish between the ones that are truly inspirational and the ones that are vague but greatly marketed. How do you choose what conferences to attend as a speaker?

The whole events / conference space has completely changed after COVID-19, so it’s even harder to distinguish what could be worth watching or not, especially when most of us are suffering from virtual collaboration and fatigue from video calls. Part of the charm of those conferences were the networking opportunities, the energy, the inspiration and so many other things that ‘virtual’ can’t replace.

I was a speaker at TNW 2019 in Amsterdam and on Digital Thailand 2019 where both experiences were amazing and greatly organized. I usually check the speaker's agenda, the way a conference or space is organized, the key topics and timings. I believe that every detail is crucial to a successful conference. I’ve attended numerous conferences and events throughout the years including the D&AD, web summit, IBM Think, TechCrunch, Young Lions and so on. I might remember a few moments and ideas, but mainly I remember the way each of them made me feel. How inspired and excited an event makes you feel is in my opinion the true success of a creative and/or tech conference. I won’t remember almost any of the slides or most of the content, but I’ll remember if what I heard helped me or my creativity in some way. A big part is also the people whom I have met.

The best way to choose what’s best for you is also knowing what the goal is for attending in the first place. I think now we’re at the point that we really want to hear honest stories, not just the next cool project down the line. We want to hear relevant ideas and get a feel for the impact design is going to have in the world moving forward. For example, I’d like to better understand the complexities of working remotely and how leaders are dealing with it. Also, maybe how to foster inspiration and engagement virtually when no one really wants to open their cameras and global travel is on pause. The world is evolving and so are human interactions and behaviors; we have to adapt.

How do you educate yourself these days?

There is so much content out there that it’s really easy to go down the rabbit hole of spending hours online on design blogs and articles about keeping high performance, latest design and tech trends or even how to turn your living room into your new office. There is a lot of good content out there but at the same time it can feel overwhelming.

After spending most of the day in front of my screen for work, I actually now enjoy more than ever to go ‘offscreen’ and listen to a podcast or read a good book about leadership, design and emotional intelligence. More recently I listened to the Business Thinking for Designers by Ryan Rumsey which I loved and my favorite podcasts are ‘The Crazy One’ by Stephen Gates and ‘Design Matters’ by Debbie Miller. I’m focusing more on my psychology lately as we’re living in unprecedented times. Things like keeping a positive attitude are now equally important as the reading about DesignOps and the great work that is happening around the world. I like Dezeen for more architectural inspiration as I tend to look away from UX/UI/product design for inspiration to be honest, so I can keep an open mind to creativity. I read blogs such as thrive global and medium and articles that talk about work life integration. I learned that, sometimes it is not being ahead of the crowd that's important but rather bringing the people alongside with you.

We need more empathy and resilience in the creative world more than ever. I can get cutting edge insights from either academia, or by joining conferences or just reading the latest news around the industry. What is crucial I think is knowing how to cut through the noise and knowing how to put the pieces together that work best for you and your team.

What would be your suggestion for young women on how to start in design?

Be confident. I was told that from a very young age but with all honesty, it didn’t work just by hearing it. I had to really work through any challenges thrown at me, get a really good support system around to help me find my voice. I had to see it to believe it. You can’t be what you can’t see. It’s also one of the reasons I always make sure I recognize my team’s work and efforts by empowering them.

Any kind of challenge thrown at you, don’t say why me, say try me. I wish I had a dollar for every time I was told things like you’re too ambitious or you’re a go-getter or you’re not ready or even that’s impossible; ignoring the naysayers is probably the hardest and the best thing you can do for yourself.

I see too many times where a talented young female will be shy and feel less confident about her work unless it’s perfect whereas I see many young males fully assertive and confident about their work and where they stand. It’s a common gender education gap that unfortunately follows most of us on our career paths too. That is why you see a good number with young female creatives but then on more senior / director / CCO levels males predominantly fill the ranks. After some point, soft skills and networking play a more important role and that is where we still see the old school ‘mad men’ approach to the industry. You don’t want to go on the other side of overselling yourself or showing off but standing your ground and seeking respect over attention is a good way to start and grow.

Are there any favourite female design communities or initiatives every young woman should know about?

There are many out there, but the ones I’ve been involved in the most are the ‘Ladies, Wine & Design’ global community which started in Brooklyn by Jessica Walsh with the idea of women supporting women. ‘Ladies that UX’ was also popular in London and also ‘Women Who Design’ which is a Twitter directory of accomplished women in the design industry and also serves as a design job portal.

I’m part of many of those communities. I’m a high advocate of supporting more women in design and tech and I’ve also mentored hundreds of young talents for the past 7 years. I’ve noticed that we need to bring both males and females in the same design community and not separate them. I would want to see more males supporting all those female design communities or else we’re still going to have that separation ten years from now. I’m still trying to find that sweet spot where we can all co-exist in the creative world. I remember once there was a male creative at one of the female creative meetups and he mentioned that for the first time he felt so uncomfortable and understood the feeling of being the only female in a room which is a common case in the creative and tech industry.

I’ve mentored and judged in many hackathons and events where I was the only female. This divide is real and although we’ve made great progress, I’d love to see more men taking a stand and being a part of it.

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Who would you like to see next on The Grit?

My incredible mentor and an exceptional global design leader Stephen Gates.

Where is the best place for people to connect with you online?

I am a regular user of LinkedIn and I respond to most questions that are sent to me. Instagram is also a way to get to know me more on a personal level.

What excites you and worries you about design in 2020?

The pandemic has produced a high level of uncertainty around us for the future ways of working. I would say what excites me the most is the way design has been brought into the center of the world as a way to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, such as social distance, touch less digital experiences and many more. What worries me the most is technology taking over without the input of design and the time that is required to design for diversity, ethics and empathy. My Master’s research paper was how to humanize the IoT (Internet of Things) world via interaction design. We need humane product design to take over more than ever.

What would be the one thing you've learned over your long career that stuck with you up to this point?

Adaptability is extremely important. Moving companies and cities throughout my career have given me tough but valuable lessons. I learned from a young age to adapt to new environments and situations and become a very fast learner. When you have to learn to adapt to a new country and culture alone, then trying to adapt to a new company or ways of working seems to be more of a walk in the park. Saying this, I am a high advocate and supporter that when you feel too comfortable at a job role, then something needs to change. There’s no growth in the comfort zone.

Who inspires you the most in the design world?

I can name multiple notable designers that have inspired me along the way. However, I want to point out three design leaders that besides inspiring me, have also influenced me. I’ll start with my current mentor Stephen Gates (InVision Head Design Evangelist), as he selflessly accepted to mentor me during this difficult time we are all experiencing and has supported me to a great extent. Also, my current manager Bob Lukasik (IBM Design Principal) who also acts at the same time as my mentor; I respect him, he knows me well, knows my goals and leads me towards that. Last but not least, one of my key mentors back in Greece, Zissis Bellas (Co-Founder and CCO Pollfish) who taught me most of the UI design skills I possess today and also showed me the way of being an empowering and empathetic leader. He is behind most of my key decisions and for that, I will always look up to him.

Bonus question: Avocado vs Guacamole?

Avocado (with some feta cheese of course).

Want to stay in touch with Rania? Find her on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or check her website.

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