Supporting Women in Design

A conversation with industry leaders Jillian Tackaberry, Jordan Bahler, and Verena Paepcke-Hjeltness on women breaking into design

October 28, 2020

Whipsaw partnered with Women in Design (WID)’s San Jose State University chapter last month on a virtual event dedicated to guiding the young female industrial design community through their transitions from school to the business world.

Industry leaders Jillian Tackaberry of MNML, Jordan Bahler of IDSA, and Verena Paepcke-Hjeltness of IDSA and Iowa State University examined strategies students should employ to get their foot in the door, along with methods to help them thrive in the business world once they do. The panelists’ diverse backgrounds enabled them to bring consultancy, corporate, and academic perspectives to this critical topic. They also explored how to navigate this male-dominated field and feel empowered in the process.

Transitioning Out of College

Roughly 43% of industrial design college students are female, but women make up less than 20% of the profession. There is a clear need for female ID recruitment and guidance on successfully breaking into the field. As Bahler noted, “Historically, things have been designed and manufactured by men—even feminine products—despite the fact that approximately half the population is female.” Tackaberry echoed this sentiment, saying, “It’s very important to half the world’s population that they are represented in design.”

Here are some ways student designers can start preparing for their future careers today.

Build confidence and find your voice

Bahler: The observation skills I learned as a design student truly helped me in the corporate world. When I entered, no one expected me to take charge, but I used that to my advantage. I learned to observe and read the room. I learned that when I did speak, people would actually listen.

Use your time as a student to experience as many things as possible so you know what you like and what you don’t like. – Jillian Tackaberry

Tackaberry: If you’re having trouble finding your voice, use your time as a student to experience as many things as possible so you know what you like and what you don’t like. There are so many different directions you can go in with design. Be strategic with your time in school. Look around, do some research, and experience what part of design you actually like.

Paepcke-Hjeltness: And if you already do have a strong voice, don’t hesitate to use it, starting now. I’ve introduced myself as the “squeaky wheel” throughout my career, but now I reframe that in a positive light. Turn the fact that you have a voice into an asset. Speak up.

Bahler: I would also remember that companies need female designers right now, so you should be confident in that right out the gate.

Paepcke-Hjeltness: To build confidence, I would advise students entering the business world to focus on what they’re good at, and to not compare themselves with other designers. You may also hear the phrase, “You sketch like a girl.” My advice would be…own it.

Get it right with your portfolio

Bahler: There is no formula for the perfect portfolio. Every company has a different perspective, but there are certain areas you need to show: sketch and appearance, process, and research.

You have to have all three of those to get past that first glance. Also, if it’s not your best work, don’t show it. Fix it or nix it. Don’t fill your portfolio with something you’re not number one at. Put your best project first because sometimes that’s as far as people get. If they see that first page and it’s not great, your portfolio might get tossed into the pile.

We also love to see that pie in the sky project in portfolios, but in the manufacturing world, sometimes you’ll need to create the product that you’re being asked to design. That can be a difficult mindset to shift into because now you’re dealing with restrictions, so just make sure you also have a good balance of projects in your portfolio that are more easily doable.

If your portfolio is messy and we can’t understand it, then we’re not going to take the time to interpret it. – Jordan Bahler

Tackaberry: It’s also really important that your portfolio looks like it came from a designer. That means it’s well laid out, well organized, visually pleasing, and communicates in a concise manner.

We look for obvious stuff, (like what was your thinking behind your designs), but we also want to see that you have one skill we feel they’re very good at. That skill could be CAD renderings, laying out presentations, or your ability to find beautiful inspiration images. Whatever your strongest skill is, make that your brand.

Bahler: It’s so crucial to communicate your layout. If your portfolio is messy and we can’t understand it, then we’re not going to take the time to interpret it. Have multiple people review your portfolio first. Get different opinions and then continue to revise and reframe it.

Next, ask yourself if you understand your user, and whether or not your solution solves the problem you originally set out to do. If you have a product for a handicapped user, for example, did you create a product that they would buy? It doesn’t have to be the coolest or flashiest product, but it has to be something the owner would feel comfortable using.

Whatever your strongest skill is, make that your brand. – Tackaberry

Tackaberry: It’s also becoming less important to have a physical portfolio at all these days. A website is more important, or having a nice pdf.

Paepcke-Hjeltness: And make sure you send your portfolio out as a pdf file—no more than five megabytes. Your portfolio will constantly change as you learn.

Bahler: Just be sure not to ever show up to an interview without a laptop or tablet or something to show your work on.

Paepcke-Hjeltness: Yes. Have multiple ways to show your work at all times.

Find your niche

Bahler: We’re not expecting students to walk out of school at a senior level. If you already know your passion, great. If not, maybe your passion is discovering it. Be open-minded. If you have a niche and know you want to go towards research or management, share that. But don’t pigeonhole yourself by saying you only want to work at certain places. Take chances. If an offer comes your way, take it. It’s a lot easier to find a job if you have one.

Paepcke-Hjeltness: Agreed. If you have a job, make it work. There are experiences that will come your way once you’re in the new job that you can’t anticipate in advance.

There are currently so many conferences and free industry events that will help you build connections. – Verena Paepcke-Hjeltness

Network now

Tackaberry: One of the ways I learn someone is looking for work is when they message me on LinkedIn. The worst thing that can happen is I’ll say we’re not hiring at the moment, but at least I saw their name and their work.  

Bahler: In non-Covid times, I would recommend attending in-person events at the IDSA. Now, however, there are IDSA chapters across the country holding virtual events. Another thing I’d suggest is to run for an IDSA position. When I graduated, there wasn’t a local chapter so I became an officer just because I asked.

One of the ways I learn someone is looking for work is when they message me on LinkedIn. –  Tackaberry

Tackaberry: To gain experience, focus your outreach on landing an internship. A lot of companies will hire you after you’ve completed your internship. Many of these companies will have more UX and UI openings, but those are still a good place to start and they will give you a very valuable skill set.

Paepcke-Hjeltness: I would also take advantage of all the free stuff going on right now. There are currently so many conferences and free industry events that will help you build connections.

Jillian Tackaberry, Verena Paepcke-Hjeletness, Jordan Bahler

Thriving in the Business of Design

Students often find their first internship or job out of college challenging to navigate. They are now expected to collaborate on projects under tight deadlines while also taking the client’s specific preferences into consideration for the first time. This is what the panelists recommended on how to flourish within the design business world.

Embrace your team

Bahler: When you start out at a professional organization, you really need to learn your work environment. Take a step back and be the fly on the wall. Some corporations are old school in terms of adhering to a 9-5 culture. Observe that. Don’t walk in at 10 am. You’ll be respected and your opinions will be listened to more quickly. It gives you a lot of power if you can learn to read the room—from the dress codes to when you should leave the office. For me, that was the biggest adjustment out of school.

Tackaberry: Deadlines in a team setting can be overwhelming at first. When you’re working as a student, you can have an extended timeline for concepts, but professionally things move at a much faster pace. You need to know how to manage your time—particularly in terms of knowing when it’s time to stop designing and start moving onto next steps.

Paepcke-Hjeltness: It’s important to learn how to keep track of your time—not only for yourself, but for billing your clients as well.

Tackaberry: I would also remember that in a team setting, your job is to embrace the team. You’re all in it together working towards a common goal. It’s important to remind yourself that they are your teammates, not your competitors.

In the business world, you need to learn to function as part of the process, whereas in school you’re in charge of the entire process. -Paepcke-Hjeltness

Learn to work well with clients

Tackaberry: In a consultancy, we work with all types of clients. The biggest lesson is determining how to communicate differently with each client. Sometimes you have to walk the client through the entire design process, because not everyone is familiar with design. Other times you have large corporations that have their own design teams, and they have high expectations because you’re now working as part of their team. Working with clients can be a balancing act.

Bahler: Sometimes your only job in a corporation might be to focus on the physical object, and in a team setting it can feel odd later when you’re not the one presenting the project, or if you find you don’t even like the brand. In the business world, you need to learn to function as part of the process, whereas in school you’re in charge of the entire process. You have to trust your team and communicate well with them and with your client.

Paepcke-Hjeltness: It’s also important to be able to read the people you’re working with—especially your client. It’ll backfire if you don’t. If you’re giving a presentation, have a good pace, and make sure your client is with you while you’re walking them through everything. Read the people. Look at your coworkers and go with the flow.

Bahler: In the business world, your resources are also different. When you work for a company you have to focus on what’s given to you. You’re no longer defining the problem. I would be mindful of that.

Stay innovative and productive now

Paepcke-Hjeltness: It’s so important during the pandemic to have a proper workspace in order to stay productive. It’s also a good idea to maintain a routine. Get up early. Get dressed for work. Get outside at some point. Exercise. Don’t just let video calls wash over you all day. This is a good time for you to acclimatize to this virtual space, so when you do hit the job market, you’ll know all the online resources and how to collaborate virtually. Companies will want you later if you become an expert now.

Embrace this time if you can by building your skills and staying connected to your peers. – Bahler

Bahler: If you can set yourself up for success now, being an independent employee is going to be amazing for you. You’ll also be able to prove to your boss that you’re a self-starter and an independent worker. Embrace this time if you can by building your skills and staying connected to your peers.

Tackaberry: Also, remember to be patient during the pandemic. People may take longer to get back to you. On the flip side, if someone is willing to give you time and review your work, don’t go dark. Stay professional and courteous and look for opportunities to grow.

Maintain a good work-life balance

Paepcke-Hjeltness: Make sure to develop interests and passions outside of work to help balance out the demands of this time-consuming profession. Discover what other things you enjoy doing, and make time for them.

Bahler: I would also like to add, to female designers out there worried about whether they can have a career and a family…the answer is yes. I had three children while working at Delta Faucet and returned to work after all three. I also continued to take on more projects…one project being my family. Your priorities in life might change, but it’s all doable. I find that I’m a better designer and a better mother for having both perspectives.

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