Hello Sara, we’re happy to have you on The Grit. Let’s start with who you are and what you do.
Thanks for having me! I’m a product design manager in Berlin, with a mixed background of product design, brand design and studio arts. I spent the first 7 years of my career at digital agencies before taking on roles in-house. I started out in Minnesota, then headed out west to San Francisco, and for the last 4 years I’ve been living in Berlin. I truly love the variety and new challenges that working in design offers— I’ve learned so much from designing solutions for Apple, Audi, Medtronic, Contentful, Zalando and most recently Delivery Hero.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I love to get away from my computer and all things digital when I’m not working. I get so much energy from being outside, and skiing and hiking in the mountains absolutely fills me up. Other than that, most weekend mornings you’ll find me reading non-fiction with a big mug of tea. I’m a distance runner, and lately I’ve enjoyed going for long runs around Berlin while working my way through different courses from creatives on Masterclass. Living in Europe has provided incredible travel opportunities, so I’m enjoying that quite a bit as well.
What's your design journey? Please walk us through it.
I’m really grateful to work in this ever-changing field. My answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” as a kid was always to work as an artist.
Growing up in northern Minnesota, my creative outlets were writing and music. I started college as an English major, and I didn’t think seriously about pursuing a career in design until I studied abroad in Milan my sophomore year. Milan is a celebrated design city, and after an immersive semester surrounded by industrial, fashion, architecture, graphic and experience design, I was hooked.
When I packed up my bags to head back home to Minnesota, I decided to pursue design more seriously. I took a max credit load of art, design and journalism classes every remaining semester of college, mostly out of interest for so many new disciplines. I’m still so grateful for the chance to learn lithography, block printing, animation, and book arts. I even took a mechanical engineering course, and by the end of the semester I was demoing a robot I built! (Quick aside, this experience made me wish I had more STEM opportunities much earlier). I ended up graduating with nearly 3 majors.
Coming out of university, my heart was set on working as an art director in an agency. However, I graduated in 2009 during the last recession, and ended up interning for over a year before settling into my first role as an agency designer. In retrospect, 1+ year is not that long, but I remember feeling a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty during this time. The experience of trying to break into a competitive field during a recession taught me grit and career strategy, and has embedded a desire to mentor emerging designers.
I stayed at my first job— an incredibly fun, digital agency in Fargo— for over 3 years, and it was a great place to hone my craft as a designer. I worked on brand and product design solutions, mostly for healthcare companies. On the side, I utilized some of the skills I developed in my studio arts degree to create hand-bound wood albums with custom, screen-printed covers, which I sold on Etsy. I had my own art studio space to complete this work, which felt pretty special.
My design journey led me from Minnesota to San Francisco. After digging myself out of college debt, I made the move out west and quickly started freelancing at digital agencies. I looked at freelancing as a strategic way to move out of my niche as a healthcare designer, and selected contracts that moved me towards digital product design for tech brands. I eventually landed at AKQA, where I worked on a product solution for Audi, branding for Visa, and exciting new business pitches. I later moved on-site to Apple (via Kettle) and was embedded as a visual designer in different marketing teams.
I worked with many international teams in San Francisco, and realized for the first time that working in tech can be a passport to work anywhere in the world. I considered Stockholm, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires and Singapore before deciding on Berlin. I accepted a job at Zalando and made the move to Berlin! I later gained my first start-up experience as a product designer at Contentful, a technical B2B SaaS product. Recently, I moved into the incredibly dynamic space of multinational food delivery as a product design manager at Delivery Hero in Berlin.
What was your very first design job?
My first full-time job as an agency designer at Sundog in Fargo was very special— I worked with a really great group of people on mostly healthcare brands and product design solutions for companies based in the Midwest. Every year we went on an ice fishing trip together in Northern Minnesota. Yes, you read that correctly. 🙂
It was an experience that is still unmatched.
Prior to that I interned at an indie advertising agency in Minneapolis- Clarity Coverdale Fury, where I worked on mostly print design! Times have changed. 🙂
What do you look for in potential candidates?
For designers that are seeking their first job today, I often suggest to simply start designing. I find spec work absolutely acceptable in a portfolio, and want to see how designers approach design problems, their interests, and if they already have the baseline skills required to be successful in a design team.
A few ways to get started are to join a hackathon team, blog about design learnings, and just get your hands dirty and dig into design projects. You never know what will lead to a job opportunity. One thing I look for in potential candidates is resourcefulness and a growth mindset. I feel that in many work environments there is a need to figure things out and find a solution that may require some extra digging, and candidates that demonstrate they are comfortable pushing through ambiguity always stand out to me.
What design tools you started with and what tools are you using right now?
I started with the Adobe Creative Suite — Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, After Effects and Premier Pro. I now work primarily with Sketch or Figma (depending on the job), InVision, and sometimes still the Adobe Creative Suite if I am supporting cross-company work. I also work with Jira, Abstract and documentation tools such as Confluence, Notion and the Google Suite. Plus, you know, a notebook and stickies. 🙂
You have worked with companies like Audi, Apple, Visa and Zalando. Could you share some highlights/lessons learned from each of these experiences?
Over the past 12 years I like to look back and take note of how the industry has changed, and how the work I’ve done has become a sign of the times. For example, one big theme in the design challenges we helped solve across clients at AKQA in 2014-2015 was bridging the experience for retailers from offline (brick and mortar stores) to online. I worked on a tablet app for Audi dealers at AKQA, and one challenge we solved for Audi was to enable dealerships to retrieve the dream car configurations that customers created on their computers at home, so when customers visited the dealership the conversation could start where the customer left off. Working on the Audi Sales Assist tablet app was one of my first experiences conducting onsite user interviews, and it was pretty interesting to go to dealerships and gain insights on how this sales tool could help dealers give more context to customers through videos and accolades as they walked around a lot together.
Overall, working as a visual designer on Apple marketing campaigns was a unique experience, and in a lot of ways it felt like a finishing school for design. I enjoyed the design critiques, the level of detail each discussion brought, and the collaborative design atmosphere. I appreciate how this world-class brand can take on different tones without ever changing their recognizable voice. This was my first experience working in house (via AKQA and Kettle), and I worked on campaign landing pages and App Store marketing. I have never really played mobile games or thought twice about the apps I downloaded and how they are marketed, so I enjoyed working with a fun and talented team on this topic quite a bit.
I’m probably also the only person who enjoyed this 1+ hour Apple bus commute from San Francisco to Cupertino or Sunnyvale! At some point I realized I was living inside an emoji:
My experience at Zalando offered a lot of variety, and felt a bit like an agency environment. I worked on range of projects— from product design experiments and product design for an internal tool— to marketing campaigns, such as a niche Finnish campaign built around the rapper Paperi T. I also worked on the partner experience for the Zalando music and fashion festival, B&&B. Overall, it was my first time working in the European market and I loved the new learning opportunities that came with that.
My role has developed throughout the years along with the industry changes and cities I’ve worked in. At digital agencies, I enjoyed the variety of clients and the opportunity to design solutions for both brand and product experiences. When I moved in-house, it became time to decide between Visual and Product design roles. Ultimately I leaned towards product design because I feel the business strategy and working closely with product managers and engineers suits me pretty well. Working as a visual designer on Apple marketing design, and later working as a product designer at Contentful were the only two times when I’d say I colored inside the lines of a defined design role.
Your next steps led to Contentful. Tell us about that.
Contentful was an unexpected role for me, and one of the best surprises.
I had a mentor when I started out who suggested that I always accept interviews, because you never know what can happen or where it will lead. Working in tech lends itself to many recruiter introductions, and in San Francisco I felt interviewing in different environments helped me to deeply understand the tech scene and the opportunities available to me. It’s also quite interesting to learn what some of the top companies in the world are cooking up behind the scenes. 😉
Overall, I love learning new things and look at interviews as learning experiences and open conversations— it’s great when they lead to a role, but they can also lead to a referral on my side at a later point. Most of my career moves have started from a recruiter introduction, and I have a lot of respect for their work.
When I moved to Berlin, I craved a deeper understanding of the tech scene in this city. Initially, while working at Zalando, I co-led Ladies, Wine and Design events which helped me to meet more designers and understand the scene. When I heard from a recruiter for a role at Contentful, I was not initially interested in working on a B2B SAAS product, but did want to understand this popular Berlin start-up a bit better. I really enjoyed my conversations with the people I met, especially the design manager at the time, Ben. I loved the product design challenge, and ultimately it was a natural choice. I do feel this was my first time choosing a role based on the people I’d work with rather than the product itself.
At Contentful, I unraveled the universe of B2B SAAS, the past and future of the CMS industry, and worked in a start-up and agile product team for the first time. I realized early on that working in a start-up was a great environment for a Jill of all Trades who loves learning opportunities, and truly enjoyed all aspects of this job. I worked on growth topics, such as onboarding and admin workflows and also designed solutions for the content experience. On growth I especially enjoyed working with and learning from stakeholders across the company.
You have recently took on a new position as a Product Design Manager at Delivery Hero. Can you briefly describe how did you make this decision and your key responsibilities?
As the world has changed with the pandemic, I became increasingly interested in the delivery space. As I started to explore it, I quickly learned it’s incredible dynamic and constantly changing. I’m only 2 months in to my role at Delivery Hero, and I’m enjoying the possibility to work with new markets, new challenges and so much data! I’m a product design manager for a group that focuses on order tracking, customer identity, billing and internal tools.
You have made a leap from working in the United States to joining the companies in Berlin, Germany. How was the cultural transition? Did you notice any differences in the approach to the design?
Initially, my biggest surprise when making the move from San Francisco to Berlin is… it really isn’t all the different! Both cities are full of expats and the work environments have been pretty similar.
After more time here, I recognize that it can be quite different— I now observe the nuances of different cultures and communication styles. Books like The Culture Map have helped me to understand this subject a bit more deeply.
In terms of designing a great User Experience, many people say: "Keep the copy short, people don’t read anyway nowadays!" What’s your take on this?
Good question. It depends on the type of copy and where it will live in an experience. I believe that copy should be intentional; UX copy serves a purpose of helping people move through an experience. UX copy should be direct, succinct and simple. Practicing progressive disclosure can often be helpful to introduce people to a topic and let them decide if they want to interact with it to learn more. Hopefully a product designer is working with a UX writer for guidance on this topic. When in doubt, we can always test whether or not users are reading it. 😉
What design project that you worked on in the past is your favorite?
It has been rewarding to work on a variety of design solutions— from marketing campaigns that have reached millions of people to a technical product feature for a niche market of people. Any time I learn something interesting from a new industry or customer insight I feel a surge of excitement for my work as a designer.
However, my favorite design project I’ve worked on in the past is the coptic-stitched, hand-bound, custom screen printed albums I made for over 200 customers through my Etsy shop in my early career. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I learned many applicable skills while building something I loved. I learned how to grow my reach through SEO, iterate on my product offering based on customer insights, find new markets, build customer empathy, pricing strategy, shipping logistics, product photography and so much more. I learned all this while working with my hands to cut wood, screen print, mix ink to just the right color for thread dye, and manage customer requests. It also built a confidence in me as a designer. 🙂
What makes a great Product Designer?
A great product designer is one who is user centric, and creates a design solution with the users in mind. In practice, this means starting from a defined and validated problem and gaining user insights on that problem. Once a few solutions are narrowed down, a great product designer will test with users to determine which solution solves the user problems, and what iterations can be made to make a solution even more usable.
Additionally, I feel a great product designer partners closely with a product manager to understand the business problems and greater industry. A great product designer will also partner with engineers to understand the feasibility of a solution.
You are a Design mentor and an instructor. What advice do you tend to give people?
For a couple of years in Berlin, I taught design with an amazing group of volunteers through the Redi School of Digital Integration. I am currently mentoring designers through Amazing Design People. I think mentoring is a really important to the design industry and can help to break down walls and lead to more diversity in tech. I always try to make time for mentoring; this quote from Toni Morrison resonates with me quite a bit—
I often cater design guidance to the person and situation. Currently, I advise many emerging designers to try to understand how to contribute to and work with design systems if I see that gap in their portfolio or knowledge.
My overall guidance to both students and mentees starting out is to put the work in. Put the work in to mastering your craft. Put the work in to your portfolio. Your portfolio is a product; consider the attention span of the desired user (hiring manager or recruiter) and how to make it consumable and interesting. Also, apply principles of the product design process to your job search— seek out feedback and iterate. 🙂
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?
Many of the people that may be mentoring emerging designers are likely also the people interviewing designers on a regular basis. For that reason, I think it’s helpful for designers to seek out informal conversations with a mentor. I had a great mentor when I was starting out; we were matched through the alumni network at my University. One piece of advice she gave me that I’ve passed down to designers I mentor is:
Most mentor conversations center around breaking into the industry and portfolio reviews. I appreciate when mentee’s are intentional about the time and come prepared with questions.
How do you educate yourself these days?
For the past few years, I’ve educated myself by learning more about the product roles I work with, including product managers, engineers and data scientists. Understanding their responsibilities and motivations has helped me become a better designer and manager. I also find it important to take time to understand the industry I’m working in— I’m currently educating myself about the future of delivery.
One subject I’ve learned much more about over the past few years is building and managing a design system. For this subject, my education source has primarily been hearing from speakers at a design system meet-up that is organized by friends from Contentful.
I’m incredibly grateful for two courses I took over the past few years through my education budget at Contentful— the Reforge growth program for product leaders, and a MIT Media Lab urban design course. Immersing myself in these subjects with other professionals was a rich and rewarding experience. The urban design course was particularly interesting as it covered how technology can create meaningful solutions for overpopulated areas lacking basic infrastructure, and how design solutions for micro-living may help to retain more diversity in the heart of cities. I’d eventually like to tie my work in tech design to the urban design field.
Other than that, I read a lot of non-fiction.
What would be your suggestion for young women on how to start in design?
Learn your craft inside and out, and be confident in your abilities. Focus on outcomes.
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Are there any favourite female design communities or initiatives every young woman should know about?
There’s a few on my radar: Ladies Wine and Design, Lean-In circles, Girl Develop It, and Geekettes. I used to co-lead Ladies Wine and Design events and loved the focus on small salon nights- we capped events at 6-8 women and met at artist studios or designer’s homes across the city. Also, wine was involved. 🙂
There is also a great (unofficially STEM) program in Germany, Girl’s Day, that you can encourage your tech company to get involved with. Last year at Contentful we hosted a group of 18 girls and planned workshops in the functions of design, coding, sales and agile presentation. I co-led the product design workshop and we introduced the girls to user-centered design.
What was your biggest failure, and what have you learned from it?
A lesson I’ve learned throughout many small failures over time is that outcome greatly outweighs effort or output. A designer is hired or brought into a project for a specific reason, and it’s their responsibility to cut through distractions and produce results.
Who would you like to see next on The Grit?
Where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
What excites you and worries you about design in 2020?
I’m really excited that many companies have shared their intention to hire more diverse and underrepresented candidates. I’m worried that it’s performative.
What would be the one thing you've learned over your long career that stuck with you up to this point?
That working smart is more important than working hard, and to focus on your strengths.
Who inspires you the most in the design world?
I love how Jessica Hische has created her career and opportunities for herself! I’ve learned a lot from reading the columns and book from Julie Zhuo. I’m very inspired by self-made creatives from other industries such as Shonda Rhimes, Lizzo and so many more.
Bonus question: Avocado vs Guacamole?
What is Avocode?
It’s an all-in-one tool for teams that want to code and collaborate on UI design files 2x faster.