Women in Industrial Design: A Conversation with Angela Yeh

Over the last 6 months, we’ve been examining the issue of gender gap in the industrial design profession. Along the way we have been engaging with female leaders in the industry to gain perspective, and then sharing these insights with the design community.

This month we sat down with Angela Yeh, a thought leader and entrepreneur at the intersection of design, strategy and business. Angela is CEO of Yeh IDeology, a talent strategy consulting firm for design professionals and for the design industry. For the past 20 years, Angela has led  professional development career coaching for creative professionals— from industrial design to UI and UX to design management. We were eager to learn about her view as she sits at the nexus between business and design and between employer and talent. She shared her unique perspective and what she’s hearing through the “industry grapevine.”

On making culture part of the industry conversation

Everyone talks about how critical culture is for a company, but to be honest, no place is perfect. Culture is an element that shifts and changes like the weather. The founders and leaders of a company set the initial tone, but it’s the people that make up a company who really affect company culture (and in fact we as designers can change culture more than anyone). Corporate values mutate by the actions we allow and accept from employees within. Leaders are often not fully aware of the shifts within the foundation of their organization and being at the top creates that disconnection.

As a design recruitment firm and career coach for design professionals, we are connected to an insane number of people and are privy to conversations that most would never hear about. This industry grapevine offers us a great deal of information from a wide range of perspectives. We hear from everyone; the founders, the design leaders and teams, engineers, HR, and even outside vendors.

When employers come to us, we do our due diligence to connect to the industry and better understand their reputation. It’s frustrating, I hear so many stories that I would never see on Glassdoor. The piece employers don’t tell us about is the culture, so we always make a point to ask and inquire. 

On being a positive catalyst for change in workplace culture— 

I feel like the design industry has equipped us more than any other profession to be mindful, self-aware, and conscientious of others. Everyone can value quality of life and everyone can see injustice. But it won’t change until we keep having conversations about it. If we want to see change, we need to make it happen— we need to step up and act.

People will do things— some are not even conscious of it— that need to be called out or nothing will change. Don’t just leave a situation; speak up and say something. Do it for the next designers coming in. Do what you can to vocalize what you’re seeing that’s not right; that is the first step. Because suggesting change, whether you lead that change or not, is important. 

Culture is something that changes through human dynamics. If management allows dissonance it will start to grow. It doesn’t matter if you’re a team leader or staff level designer, it’s something that we all have to address. 

On women developing their design leadership skills— 

When we source talent for an employment opportunity, we look for people who have natural leadership traits regardless of title. We focus on the question, “How do you lead?” I think women are phenomenal natural leaders, but they have to know how to own and respect their ability, own their space, and know how to represent that. We meet many female designers that are more than qualified to lead and manage, and yet they are not confident enough to want those roles. In fact, we find many women are already leading and managing yet not aware and thus not claiming their role.

Female designers tend to be more emphatic than most, have the ability to simultaneously employ disparate skills, and have a more nuanced sensibility. Unfortunately I’ve met many female designers who are not aware of this innate ability so they don’t know how to own this ability and it’s impact. For instance in companies, the biggest challenge is siloing of divisions. We’ve seen this often where there is miscommunication between engineering, design, accounting, and product management. I know many female leaders who are able to see from a broader vantage point than most, skilled at mediating between all these different divisions, and adept at bringing these different voices to some common ground. So many companies and organizations need this ability, and female designers are highly skilled and capable of solving these challenges.

When we work with women advancing in their careers we’re not just looking at their expertise. We start by understanding their mindset to ensure they are aware of their defining abilities, and break through perceptions that might be holding them back from being a great leader. We delve deep. We move through scenarios to really unpack and motivate them to own and believe in their leadership abilities within their team meetings. For instance during a time when they’re not speaking up. Preventing an opportunity from being lost. Unpacking whether they were ‘mansplained’ and not given credit for their ideas and how they can take back their authority. Could they have said, “Well, that’s similar to what I said. And I love how you expounded on it. But let me explain why I framed it this way.” That’s one great way to take back your voice. 

Advice to women looking to propel their career in the ID profession—  

Getting into the industry is always fun and exciting but evolving your career once you are in this industry is a lot harder than other careers. If you’re going into medicine, law, or accounting, there’s a linear track. Usually, it’s a straight and narrow track. And like checkers, you just move on up to the next step. But when it comes to design, strategy, and innovation, each individual’s abilities evolve in unique ways. There are so many ways to become a specialist in this industry. With all the sub sectors in design to pivot into and succeed in, It’s like a chess game. You need to understand all the varying factors that affect your career and understand which strategic moves will propel your career. 

We meet candidates that are highly capable, highly talented, that have had initial success in their career but then hit a plateau. They don’t know where they are in their career or what kinds of opportunities are best for them to thrive in. When you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know how to represent yourself or how to choose which opportunities are best for you. 

Make time to design your career. Designing your career is one of the biggest projects that everyone should take time out to invest in. I’ve seen quite a few people, unfortunately, jumping from job to job thinking they are making the progress they seek without any understanding of all the different elements that are affecting them. 

Take time to step back and look at your career path to understand where you’re going. There are a few things you can start to do to reevaluate and design your career path:

Develop a mindset about your vision. Employers are not going to say, “Oh, you know, I don’t think her mindset was very healthy or self-aware”. But I can tell you when a candidate is not clear about what they bring to the table or what they want. It comes through in their language and shows up in their resume and portfolio. 

In the end, if you’re interviewing, you’re in the spotlight. For a management or leadership position you may have eight conversations before you get down to that final offer. So you really need to know how to represent your value in these evolving conversations with the different stakeholders in that interviewing process.

Employers can sense that ambiguity and that can translate as insecurity. Realize the work and the passion you bring to the table and be confident of your abilities and your impact.

For design leaders, that self-awareness is at the core of your mindset. It’s like the hard drive underneath. Everything emanates from that.  

Define your skill set. Designers often have the notion that, “I’m creating something so great. I’m solving problems. Shouldn’t they just see that?” Well, no. Our customers and clients don’t always necessarily know how to understand or appreciate what we’ve done to help them. Many times I have heard someone say, “I’m a designer. I solve problems.”  It’s a great starting point, but your clients need more specificity. Are you in UX or service design? Are you in strategy or customer experience? What’s your niche? If it’s in industrial design, is it medical? Consumer products? Is it more front-end or back-end? Are you client facing or a project manager? What’s your sector in the UX industry? How do you define it?

Understand your contribution. As designers, we are impacting a company, helping them create products, or solve problems. Whether it’s products, physical services, or culture, we often do not know how to own it; how to realize the impact of what you’re doing. It’s a misconception that giving and doing more work will help your client or employer see your value. The reality is that you need to know how you contribute— define your value so you can defend it, and represent yourself as a professional.

Learn to define your value. Know for yourself how much your work is impacting the company So you can tell the world. Stop and look at your work. Figure out how to define what you contributed; what piece of that project was your impact. You need to understand the financial and business impact of your creative and strategic work. Many creative professionals don’t know how to articulate this. 

Designers have combinations of such disparate abilities such as creative, aesthetic, strategic, analytical, technical, mechanical, systemic, and more that make them so valuable but so hard to describe. 

It can be difficult for someone who’s gifted in a variety of different things to be able to synthesize their unique value proposition. When our clients in Thrive by Design realize what their unique value proposition is, they understand how to choose the best opportunities that will allow them to bring deeper impact and shine. They unearth opportunities previously unseen, and they claim their value. In the end they are evolving and propelling their career faster and farther and thriving on impacting the world on a grander scale.

As designers, we are more equipped than most to move the world through change. We have more conviction and ability than most. Realize your unique combination of abilities, claim your impact, and be proud of why you have chosen this profession. 

Know that the world needs your abilities now. 

Further reading from the industry experts at Yeh IDeology—  

After 20 years in the innovation recruitment game, we’ve learned a lot about what makes an individual skyrocket and what makes a company soar, and why some in both categories fall flat. The Yeh IDeology blog is full of relevant, curated resources. Two blog posts in particular that may be especially helpful for those looking to dive in deeper on the topic are: Design Needs More Females: Own the Challenge and Get Your Mind Right.

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