In this episode of UX Leadership by Design, host Mark Baldino interviews Chris Willis, the Chief Design Officer at Domo. As a Chief Design Officer and futurist, Chris combines data technology and emerging trends to make Domo an indispensable platform for its customers. The episode provides practical advice for UX designers looking to have a more impactful career and for design leaders who want to grow and nurture their design team. This is a must-listen episode for anyone in the UX industry who wants to stay ahead of the game, stay competitive in their field, and future-proof their career.
About Our Guest
As Domo’s chief design officer and futurist, Chris’ hyper-focus on combining data, technology and emerging trends in innovative ways helps to make Domo an indispensable platform for its customers. He has nearly three decades of design leadership experience in web, mobile and data visualization. And as one of Domo’s earliest employees, he’s involved in every aspect – from initial design, strategy and execution – of building and developing solutions that solve even the most complex problems faced by customers.
- Transitioning from designer to design lead
- Importance of a creative’s background diversity
- Data technology and design trends.
- Soft skills for design leaders
- Gaps in traditional design education curriculum
- Aesthetic design vs problem solving
- Feedback and criticism in design
- Problem solving skills in design
- Teamwork and Trust in Design problem solving
Resources & Links
Connect with Chris on LinkedIn
Mark Baldino 0:00
Hello and welcome to UX leadership by design, the podcast by and for UX design leaders. I’m Mark Baldino your host. This podcast is and always will be brought to you by fuzzy math. The user experience design consultancy that brings consumer grade UX to the enterprise. fuzzy math delivers award winning digital product design and partners with internal UX design teams to augment, grow and scale their impact. Also founder so I’m really biased about fuzzy math, but that’s okay. Today we’re fortunate to have Chris Willis, who is the Chief Design Officer at Domo Chris’ his role not just as a Chief Design Officer, but also as a futurist combining data technology and emerging trends in innovative ways to help make Domo an indispensable platform for its customers. So I’m just warning you get ready for a slew of amazing advice. This is the down to earth practical guidance for anyone looking to have a more impactful design career, but also for design leaders who are looking to grow and nurture their design team, but also have an impactful, more impactful career themselves. So you know, in this case, Chris’ roll as a futurist is really in helping you future proof for your design career. So please listen and enjoy. Mark Baldino
Mark Baldino 1:05
Chris, how are you?
Chris Willis 1:14
Very well, how are you, Mark?
Mark Baldino 1:16
I’m doing well as well. Thanks for joining us on the podcast today. much appreciate it. Thank you. You know, just start with love. If you could give the audience a little bit of your background, maybe how you transition from a designer to a design lead, and you know, kind of where you are at your career in your career now.
Chris Willis 1:34
Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think everyone’s creative background is pretty unique. Mine’s no exception. I started right out of college. My first job out of college despite having a computer science minor in a and a international marketing finance major. I was an editorial cartoonist. So I was I’d always pursued art. I’d always pursued technology. This was a long time ago, this was like I got out of college 89. Around 90, and there was a there was a recession going on. So there was a lot of economic uncertainty. And my parents were really supportive. In terms of arts, my mom was an artist, my dad was a musician. But he was also in the technical field. And they said, why don’t you just take the time to figure out what you want to do. And so I’d been doing editorial cartoons, I had been taking studio art lessons. And that really kind of took me on a different journey. And I ended up in journalism. I had no journalism degree. But I ended up doing design infographics, I redesigned newspapers for some of the biggest newspapers and magazines in the country. And I even started my own magazine, in Detroit. It’s something called our Detroit, because I’d worked been working at the Detroit News. And I had this weird epiphany, there was a there was a point at which I’ll never forget this day where, you know, it’s almost like the universe is speaking to you, but it sometimes seems somewhat encoded language. I was sitting there trying to figure out how we were gonna get the next issue out. And one of our writers was a freelance writer, we did a lot of freelance writing with really good writers. So we didn’t have to maintain a big staff, we just kind of outsourced a lot of stuff. And this writer was super well respected, usually super reliable, called in saying, I can’t do it, I can’t do the cover story. I have a book deal. And I’m not going to make it. And so I’m just going to go offline for the next few months. We were three or four days from printing this magazine, and we had no cover story. And that’s when our editor said, Hey, why don’t you go out and write that story about that? That young startup in Detroit that was doing a bunch of stuff for the auto industry. And so I met these, I mean, they were pretty much my age, they were in their 20s. That’s where I was. And they were doing, you know, sort of interactive flash CDs, which at the time was a big deal. I don’t know if you remember getting, you know, mailers along with your AOL discs in the mail, right. And I spent the time I spent the time doing that. And I came back to the office and I talked to my, my co founder, and I said, we know how to do journalism, we know how to write we know how to design. But clearly where the world is going, is the world of tech. We need to figure out those skills and quick and the web was just starting to take off. This is just before web one oh took off. And since then, I find myself in a lot of sort of creative chief creative positions, you know, in trying to create both practical and tactical products, both in media and in, you know, very different kinds of startups from b2b to b2c and ended up taking a very, very different journey. And I think, you know, as creatives we look back on our path, and we might say, yeah, that’s, that’s a little strange, but I can kind of see the line. I don’t think there’s a path I mean, I think you kind of say yes to things in a creative life. And you let that take you on a particular journey. And if it’s working great, but it’s really hard to find, I think any one sort of way, you know, like, as, let’s say, maybe maybe this is wrong, but you know, medical career, you have to take an MCAT, you have to go into medical school, there’s going to be a residency of some sort, there’s an outline to where that that goes, in the creative life, it can go many different places. And so that’s why, you know, as we’re probably gonna talk about today, I think it requires a little bit more of a framework of thinking about how to develop your creative life, such that when opportunities arise, you’re ready. It’s a different, it’s a different mode, I think, then then typical career choices, where I’m at right now, I started with Josh, James, and a few others, a company that does business analytics in the cloud, so that people can kind of put data to work in really interesting ways. And we started that about 10 years ago, and I’m the Chief Design Officer there. And that’s been just a crazy journey, I could not predict how I got there, where it was going to take me.
Mark Baldino 6:07
Do you feel like the creative component and the lead component? Were kind of, oh, you’re in a car? So riding shotgun? Or did you like you’re kind of always leading and then you became a design lead? Or like, what’s the what was that path where it was like, I’m a practitioner of design, I mean, the creative space to I’m going to lead and I just I’m curious if they like develop that the exact same time over your career or was leading always something you were doing and the creative kind of lead leadership leading came a little bit later?
Chris Willis 6:34
Definitely something that I was always doing. And and the reason I hesitate there is, I’m wondering, as I’m saying that, you know, how much of that is kind of an innate personality type, you know, versus something you learn to do. I think there are learnable aspects of it. But I would say looking back on it, the best people I worked with, and the situation I found myself in was always being, for lack of a better term, a creative misfit, right, and sort of finding being an an outsider on the inside. Like, I think the best people, those are the people you’re looking for, to innovate in your organizations. And the the best creative types are the ones who take that up to the next level, meaning, they’re not just people who go in there and are disgruntled and skeptical and critical. There are people who channel that into conversations and activities that get people to think about their business differently and think about opportunities differently. So I would say until I feel like it’s been relatively recently, and by recently, I could almost peg it to the rise of apple and the iPhone, where organizations started to say, wait a minute, the biggest company in the planet, because right now, Apple is the biggest company by market cap, you know, it’s I didn’t check today. But recently, you know, $2.5 trillion market cap that is ridiculous. And the scale and the speed at which companies like that are growing. And the fact that a lot of it seems to be credited to a culture of design and design thinking, right, they still have to get the train to ship the trains to ship on time. There’s logistics, there’s legal, there’s engineering, all of that. But they have to come together in a package that is more than just what our previous manufacturing centered world understood, which was build widgets faster, better, cheaper to how do we create things that people can fall in love with. And that’s where design thinking and design leadership really become valuable. And I think, I think a lot of companies are still kind of figuring that out, in many ways, and that’s also where the opportunity lies. And so you have to be good at not just the basic skills of design, but you have to have some innate leadership, because you have to lead in lots of different areas. Right, you have to be great at selling across the organization. And I think we’re really just starting the, to see the rise of design leaders and design leadership in different ways in the organization.
Mark Baldino 9:10
Yeah. You mentioned communication as kind of a core skill selling across the business. Do you have a series of like, leadership and UX sort of core or foundational principles that you think are required? Maybe both maybe to do UX, but maybe more importantly, to kind of to lead folks? Chris Willis 9:29 Yeah, yeah, I would say that probably encompasses a class of soft skills that you have to be developing. The soft skills, I think often get overlooked, but let’s let’s take sort of the interpersonal skills. You know, number one on that list is don’t be a jerk. Right. And you can be a jerk without even realizing that right? You can. You can be a jerk, not just by, you know, maybe mistreating people or maybe entering a room with a a whole You’re than thou type attitude. Or it could just be straight up, you’re not using the language that they understand. So you’re misunderstood. And you’re seen as part of a problem. So the first thing I would suggest is, you know, working on your interpersonal skills, learning how to have conversations and learning how to be more of a big ear than a big mouth. And that’s difficult, right? That requires some, some discipline, but understanding that your role in ultimately bringing value to the organization means you have to understand the value of design in the organization. And and this is a, this is a key thing that I think, a lot of UX potential UX stars myths, which is they don’t speak the language of the business. And that comes from not understanding how does the business work? And to understand that you have to ask the question, how do we make money? Like how do we make $1 in this company? Where does that comes from? Right. And that’s where I think a lot of creative misfits end up getting severely misunderstood. So understanding how marketing works, how engineering works, the language, the vocabulary of the business, you might understand parts of the business. But if you use the wrong words, you’re probably going to be discounted. I worked on Wall Street for a bit. And that was probably the hardest part of my job was understanding the language, which in many cases in high finance is cloaked to begin with language is somewhat weaponized in high finance, right? Because it’s, it’s both efficient, but it’s also a way of protecting your role in the business. And that was really hard because there was no dictionary, right? There was no way to figure that out. But that’s not the case in most businesses, many times, just get good at asking people say, tell me a little bit, how do we, how do we get a lead for a customer? Where does that come from? How do we think about return on investment on our marketing spend? How can we use JIRA better? You know, learn about the basics of GitHub, right? How do you? What’s a repo, right? How do you merge? How do you fork? Right, these little things that are terms, there’ll be thrown around. And what you will find very quickly is that people want to help you, they want to be helpful, they’d love to talk about what they do. So there’s probably no end of sort of the kindness of strangers within your organization. So I would leverage that, I would also get good at understanding from a leadership perspective. That there, you don’t have to have the title to be a good leader, you don’t have to be director or manager or VP, to be a leader, you can lead in lots of situations. And I think, especially for designers, it’s important because you probably experience on a daily basis, Mark, you’re you’re not on the periphery of the project, you’re at the center of the project, right? You’re the one who has to take the the technical constraints, the customer research, the competitive intelligence, and myriad other aspects and turn that into a design, which is really a hypothesis. Right? It’s, here’s how we think about the problem. Here’s how we’re thinking about the solution to the problem. And that’s where I would say the next most important soft skill is how do you sell ideas, and I think there are ways to sell and ways to be very persuasive, that really take practice. So for example, our natural sort of desire to want to own an idea and be original, can really hamper what you do. Right? So, hey, guess what, I did a bunch of work, and I’m going to guard it. And then I’m going to sort of show it. And I’m going to try to make sure that everyone knows that I did this, and I want to take credit for it. The way you persuade people, honestly, is to come up with the idea idea together, or help them think that that idea was their idea. Right? So I would say the best designers are able to create a shared ownership with the team. And I would say one of the, my, my gauges for success when we’re in meetings, when we’re reviewing product ideas. I love seeing teams where anyone on that around that table can explain that idea and explain it in an authentic way that suggests that, oh, they feel they have ownership in this. So that that would be a few right. So it’d be learning, you know, how to work well with others. How to not feel so that you’re the only owner of every good idea. I think that comes from a thought that there’s still originality and I I would not get bogged down by coming up with an original idea. Coming up with solutions that work. That’s where the value is. And then, you know, ultimately get good at sort of leading at different levels in learning how to sell your idea. You don’t have to have a design to sell an idea. pitch them, right? Like, hey, what if, right? Or did we think about this. And it also takes time to, I think seek out the people who are somewhat like minded, they may not have your same skills, but they have the same desire, which is to kind of innovate and think differently, and unlock new forms of creativity in the organization. So those might be like the black sheep of the organization. But yeah, you’ll find like minded people, if you
Mark Baldino 15:28
Yeah, right. Right. Right. But some outliers that you think, you know, you can vibe with, or that are your maybe already speaking the same language with maybe their, you know, insiders who want to do something a little bit differently, and you can try to identify them and, and work alongside of them. We’ve talked a lot about the soft skills of design, as you said, maybe not the design itself, like, do you think if you flip the script, and you’re thinking I might design lead now, and I have a team of designers with me, like, are those where you should be focusing your mentorship and kind of nurturing of team members along as in that communication? Is that sales getting along with people? Not to say that you want to forsake the technical design skills of actually putting a wireframe or visual comp together? But like, is that what you think the maybe the gap of of education is on the design side? And that’s where you would focus your sort of mentoring or nurturing of of designer?
Chris Willis 16:29
That’s a great question. I do quite a bit of mentoring. And in fact, I just recently gave a talk to at a local college, here in Utah. And what what I sensed was that for the most part, you know, in the sort of the traditional design school, there’s still a very traditional curriculum, you know, where it’s, you learn the basics, typography, grid, color, etc. There’s maybe some curriculum around interaction design, but I’ve never gotten the sense that it’s, it’s very comprehensive. And then ultimately, it’s like, you deliver a portfolio and along the way, you get a lot of kind of feedback through, you know, criticism, right? It’s like, okay, and that, to me was a very, seems very traditional, right. But that’s not really the way it works. Nowadays. You’ll definitely get feedback, you’ll get criticism, right. But you have to be able to one, and this is one of the things I think I see people struggle with, they think that the design is the thing they’re being hired for, when really, that’s assume that you can do that really well. Right, what they’re what we’re really looking for, and I think what other you know, especially fast moving startups are looking for is, can you think through a problem. So designed to me, is not primarily an aesthetic problem. But obviously, a lot of people in the organization look at it that way. And I think a lot of designers still look at their value that way. And those are the designers that typically see move laterally, they end up kind of finding themselves in kind of glorified pixel pusher type careers. What design leaders need to do to move up to the higher levels is to get good at solving problems. And what that means is, you have to get really deep in the weeds. So you have to do in some ways, your own competitive intelligence, you have to learn about all the ways that you shouldn’t solve this problem. So for me, design, oftentimes is a search problem. And sometimes you have the information, you need to perform that search and you work your algorithm other times you need more. And then ultimately, as you get better, you’re gonna be working with teams, and you have to learn, you have to teach them to see how to solve that problem. And that’s a muscle that is hard to build, because it requires a lot of trust. Right? So a lot of times there’s a pressure component, right? There’s resource constraints, and you’re put in a room and you’ve got a whiteboard up there, and you’re sketching stuff out. And like we have to come up with an answer. Well, one, what’s the question you’re trying to answer? And two, is that even the question you should be asking. So part of that development of becoming a good problem solver, is the recognition that not all problems are the same. And so the way I think about this is that there are tame problems, and there are wild problems, there are known and unknown. And so as you build your career, and as you grow and experience, you start to, I think, intuitively sense the difference between these problems. And just very briefly, you know, I would think of like a known problem as one where best practices exist. So if there are books or great website articles written about this, where you could point to some really good sites that do it. Well, you know, you’re done. That’s a known problem. So your job in that case is to simply The explore different ways to incrementally improve it or make it fit within, you know the context that you’re designing for. But when you’re moving into a startup, and you’re trying to be disruptive and innovative, well, that’s where you’re, by definition, in a unknown, or unknowable problem space, those are where the wild problems exist. And that requires different approaches, different leadership skills, and developing even different interpersonal skills. We could definitely dive into those. But I mean, that’s a lot.
Mark Baldino 20:32
It’s like you mentioned trust, it takes time, it’s easy for people to sort of glom on to the hard skills that you learn in a program. And problem solving, depending on the length of the program is probably going to be short circuited in some way, shape, or form. So you’re get you have to get this experience within your organization, kind of hunt out some of these more these Wilder problems, right, and sort of dive in. And it’s like, if I’m a, if I’m a designer, and I’m interested in being a lead, I need to be curious about that. You mentioned this sort of like, horizontal movement you see amongst a lot of designers, and then certain certain people that are able to, like level up or continue to level up, like, if I’m a designer now. And I’m interested in that, you know, we think what do I do, because I’m tasked with A, B, and C, and that doesn’t always fall into the really interesting. You know, it falls into the more known known universe, like, what’s advice you give to designers outside of kind of being curious and asking the right questions, which I think are good ones, like, what would you say to your team about, hey, this is, you know, how you can ensure you have a bright future in design and a bright future as a design leader?
Chris Willis 21:50
I can boil that down to one piece of advice, which is, as you’re saying yes to things a creative life starts with Yes. Right. So saying yes to some of those things, which you may not feel totally comfortable with. But putting in the work, and then being able to explain to anybody why you made the decisions you made. This is often overlooked. And I don’t know exactly why that is, I don’t know if that’s, it’s just never been taught. It’s a discipline problem, or it’s a part of an impostor syndrome. Like I don’t, I don’t trust like, I know what I know what I’m talking about, you know, what I mean? It’s, it’s one of those situations where I see people with the opportunity to grow, and to move up or build trust in the organization. They ultimately devalue their own work, because they can’t explain why they do what they do. So I think I would ask this of designers when I either all the way back when I was working in newspapers, or, you know, every day at work, if someone chooses something, let’s say you have a design system, right? And they go off the design system. Great. Why? What what did the design system not provide, you know, that you found necessary to go off of it, most of the times, what I’ll hear is, I’m just kind of bored. That’s not a great way to build trust, you know, and, and confidence in your design skills. It’s tough as a younger designer, because you you don’t have enough experience to have sort of that natural internal compass that points you in the right direction. And so you can’t evaluate very quickly what’s right and what’s not. So one of the exercises I give is, you know, with if you have a design system, start there. If you’re just starting out with, you know, understanding typography, color, interaction, etc. Start with the simplest thing, you know, use one typeface, use one color. When I was growing up, my, my, my dad and brother are jazz musicians. And one of our exercises, we met once with the famous drummer jazz drummer Max Roach. And I remember, one of the best lessons I learned from him as it applied to design, obviously, to music was, we’re just going to take our drumstick and we’re going to play one kind of beat, we’re not going to we’re going to use either this block or this drum, we’re not going to use the whole drum set. How much music can you make playing one note on the piano playing one, using one stick on a drum or on a cymbal? And it was all about focusing on what’s the most interesting rhythm we can make. And how do we make that rhythm if it’s just on one instrument Well, or one piece of the instrument? Well, there’s cadence, intonation, there’s, you know, volume. There’s different sorts of syncopation, right. There’s all these different things. You have to be able to explore in a in a smaller space, because the world is flooding you with all of these great tools and all of this variety. And it’s very hard to turn away from that. But you have to sort of build that internal discipline so that you can start building that that large library of knowledge that helps you understand why you do what you do. Very, a real easy way to counteract that is to say, you know, I’m not going to change anything, unless it’s obvious that it’s not working. And so if it’s not, I’m going to change it in a specific way. So I think one of the things that makes design really complicated is, there’s almost a continuum of options. And then it’s combined with other options. So there’s a massive amount of combinations to explore and design. So you have to actively keep making it a very small finite number of things, and then learn from those and then build on those concepts. So it’s difficult. Yeah, it’s, it’s, you know, you want to be, you know, just stuffing your face at the buffet all the time. But you have to be kind of disciplined. And the way I do it is say, Can I explain why I did this? Can I rationalize this? Is it based on something that’s well understood? And if not, then I have to be ready to explain that? I don’t that helps.
Mark Baldino 26:03
100%? No, it’s I think it’s super interesting and super helpful. Because I think as creative professionals, we think we have to bring the full toolkit, you know, kind of got to bring maybe the bazooka sometimes and everything, we have to solve a problem. And I think I like to tell my team that, like design require at least a design we do, it requires constraints, right. And a lot of those are going to be put upon us as external constraints. I think what you’re mentioning here is like this is almost an internal constraint, you have to constrain your your thinking, boil it down to the very basics. And I think, as you said, what it enables you to do is, then you can explain why you made every single design decision that you made, as opposed to I got bored, which I don’t think a lot of designers will always admit, admit to so you have some folks on your team who were very upfront and honest, Oh, I saw it here. It seemed like a good idea. But as you strip it back, like you don’t have any choice there. And I think that’s a really, it’s almost the opposite of the creative approach approach I think a lot of people will take these days is, you know, more as more as opposed to kind of lessons. Yeah, let’s start there.
Chris Willis 27:06
I love the point that you brought up around constraints, because I think that many feel like that’s, that’s a bad word. But really, creativity is not useful without constraints. Creativity is about solving problems. And problems have constraints, if you’re being creative. Without constraints, I would suggest that’s called Art. Right? And unless you’re, that’s the business you’re in, it’s really hard to, you know, bring value to whatever projects you’re doing. So the internal constraint, or the external constraints, you have to embrace those. In fact, I love this. There’s this Chinese proverb I read in a book by a psychologist at Stanford, and it was, before we slay the beast, we must first make it beautiful. And I love that sentiment, which is you have to fall in love with the problem, you have to fall in love with the constraints. And until you do, you’ll never understand the problem you’re trying to solve. And that’s where you really bring value.
Mark Baldino 28:05
I couldn’t I couldn’t agree more, I think well, well said and appreciate that. Chris, I want to wrap up here, but want to see, are there any other pieces of advice that you’d like to offer the, you know, either designers who are looking to become leaders or current leaders and how to continue kind of accelerate their careers?
Chris Willis 28:23
Yeah, there were two pieces of advice I would give, I think, one for just working better in an organization, which is, you know, take every moment to learn how to sell your ideas. I think that’s important, right? Every opportunity to say yes to something to explain something to see if it’s working. A lot of times I find writing is really helpful. So can you write down your idea or your proposal in such a way that really gets people engaged? Sometimes we we miss the fact that writing is a great part of the design process. Being able to articulate and use different kinds of metaphors helps unlock a lot of different sort of creative solutions. I think that’s often missed. And then the second thing I would say is, as you start moving up the ranks as you start becoming a more visible leader in the organization, realize that the higher up you go in the organization, the more your actions, your words are going to be amplified. There’s sort of like a magnification effect that happens. So you have to be a lot more cognizant of the language you use your body language. I see oftentimes, people’s words or, you know, maybe just sort of the way they react in a meeting gets completely misconstrued. You know, they might just be a little tired or, you know, it’s been a long day or they’re a little hungry, and the design team is watching this leader, whether it’s like a CTO or CPO or something. And they’re taking all of this like these nonverbal signals. is back and saying oh my gosh, they hate it, we’ve really failed, right? And then that changes how they present this sooner you can relate real relate to that point of being maybe more visible. And understanding that what you do will be kind of amplified will help you not fall into a few traps, that will also help you be more effective as a communicator, because you will realize you don’t have to go overboard, right. And you lead by action. And I think that’s, you know, you will find people will pick up on those cues, and you’ll be a much more effective leader in that case.
Mark Baldino 30:34
Fantastic. I don’t know if you plans to write a book, but I think the world the design world could could benefit from a book if the advice you’re given just in the past 30 minutes is, it’s fantastic. It’s it’s really, I think, tactical and practical for new designers and I think guides folks in a strategic way who are who are looking to be either new leaders or continue to grow their leader. So I just want to mentally say thank you for I can tell you you truly care about this. You’re passionate not just about design, but actually like building the next generation of design leaders that’s needed in this world and in the design community. So I just want to thank you for your your time today. But again, your energy and passion and guidance for designers.
Chris Willis 31:11
Oh, same here, Mark, thank you for reaching out. I really enjoyed the conversation. You bet.
Mark Baldino 31:15
All right, Chris. Thanks again for your time.
Chris Willis 31:18
Awesome, thanks, Mark. safe safe travels.