The Journey From Graphic to UX Designer

We talked to Doug Powell about how he transforms thousands of people's lives for the better through design

Doug Powell UX designer

OctoTalks is on its fourth episode! For this one, we had the pleasure of talking with Doug Powell, design leader with 30+ years of experience in companies such as IBM and Expedia. We invited him to talk about his passion and his drive for valuing  businesses and society through design. Here is an extract from that conversation; if you prefer listening, head to your favorite podcast platform!

OctoTalks is a podcast about exceptional digital experiences: the people who dream them and how to create them. Would you also like to create unique experiences that disrupt the tech scene? Get in touch.

Who is Doug? How do you define yourself? 

Well, I think first and foremost, I’m a designer. That’s what I’m passionate about. As technology evolved, I adapted my design skills to cater to digital interactions and user experiences. This journey has been unpredictable, but fascinating, and I continue to find inspiration in design. Although I no longer do hands-on design like before, I incorporate my design thinking and skills into everything I do. Adaptability is essential in our profession, and I believe evolving as a professional is exciting and necessary. With the ever-changing landscape, including advancements like AI, we are facing new challenges that demand us to find innovative ways to stay relevant and contribute meaningfully. It’s an ongoing process of learning and growing as designers and creative professionals.

Let’s go a little bit back, Doug, to your days as a beginner. Can you tell us what inspired you to become a designer? 

Well, I always loved drawing and I could do it very well; I was the kid in school who could draw pictures and they looked like the thing that I was trying to make them look like. So I tried to find a way to continue to make pictures and also make a living. At that time, graphic design as a profession was really just becoming a thing, and I was lucky enough to study visual communications at University and to learn some of the formal aspects of making visual images in a way that could be used to solve business problems. But, the entry point for me was graphic design. 

From that entry moment,  now you are a design leader, so maybe you can give us an overview of how you made those exchanges. From that graphic designer to the design leader you are today. And also, can you speak to your evolution as a design leader? 

In my career, I didn’t have a predetermined path to becoming an executive design leader, I didn’t think, “In 30 years, I’m going to be an executive design leader. How do I get there?” Instead, I followed the evolution of design and technology, adapting to new practices and staying current with my skills. Teaching early in my career helped me develop analytical and leadership skills, which are still valuable today. My involvement with AIGA taught me a lot about leadership, an important lesson in working with volunteers. Then, at IBM, I faced the challenge of building a new global design program with a thousand new designers, creating career frameworks and integrating them into the company. 

My small team and I had a lot of questions: Where were we gonna find a thousand designers? How are we going to convince them to come to this company that didn’t really have a design culture at that time? How are we going to integrate them into the company? How are we going to get the rest of the company to accept them and to work with them? All really serious questions that we didn’t know the answers to. We had to figure it out every day that I was working there

Each step presented new challenges, which I embraced and learned from, even if I didn’t know it at the time. The journey has been a constant learning process, responding to emerging changes in design and technology.

Doug, you just mentioned IBM and I know that you also worked at Expedia. I would like to know a little bit more about leading design processes in bigger companies. Is it different from smaller ones? 

I’ll say it’s both different and the same. In bigger companies, scale is a major consideration. I experienced this at IBM when we were building a design thinking practice. Although we impacted 10,000 people, we realized that we needed to reach a much larger audience of 400,000 employees worldwide. So, thinking about scale becomes crucial.

However, regardless of the company’s size, the design process remains essential. As designers, we must continue to use our methodology to approach  problem-solving. Prototyping is one of my key mantras, emphasizing the importance of quickly testing new ideas on a small scale. Even in large companies, we must continually prototype, test, and iterate to make our work accessible and meaningful to a wide audience. The core principles of the design process remain essential regardless of the company’s size.

It’s impressive and it sounds very challenging. I always have this sense that bigger companies mean slower processes. I see that you are always balancing velocity and processes and making sure things move forward. 

Yeah, velocity is a big theme in big companies right now, because they all know that their tendency is to move slowly. That’s a risk for a big company because there are smaller companies and startups out there that can move very fast and can disrupt markets in very unexpected ways. So as we’re working as designers in big companies, we need to constantly not only work faster, but demonstrate that we’re working faster and that they can work faster, too. Especially if they work in our ways, because there’s a myth emerging that designers are slowing things down, and I don’t believe this is the case. 

Our design team is going through those challenges, even if on a smaller scale. When I told them that I was going to interview you, they sent some questions. One of them was: What is your creative process when facing a new project? 

When starting a new project, understanding the users is crucial. Those are key questions at the beginning of any project: Who are we designing for? What do we know about them? What do we not know about them? And that’s the way we work, that understanding of human beings, human needs, human behaviors. We use various design practices to achieve that, including spending time with users, observing them, and asking questions. Once we understand their needs, we move into prototyping and rapidly build solutions. Feedback from users helps us refine and improve our designs iteratively. And if we didn’t get it right – which is most of the time, by the way – they’ll tell us how we could make it better. This process can happen multiple times in a day if we move swiftly and use short, light prototypes. The goal is to continuously improve and simplify the user experience.

You’re telling me the process, Doug, and I was thinking of our design leader, Ines; she’s always advocating about the importance of empathizing with the user and putting ourselves in their shoes. So, I wanted to know, what other skills besides the technical ones do you think designers should have in order to be able to empathize – to be able to understand the user and really think about solutions for those people? 

It’s easy to think that a designer’s most important skills are in craft. Craft is crucial for a designer, but creating something beautiful becomes meaningless if nobody cares about or uses it. Many designers fall into the trap of becoming addicted to craft and aesthetics. To avoid this, it’s essential for designers to be in touch with the end-users. I find that most designers have a natural ability to be curious about human behaviors and natural empathy. They have the ability to see a person and understand their needs or to discover them. 

When I was at IBM, we were hiring a lot of entry-level designers who had just graduated from university. They would come in and they would spend time with us in a sort of a bootcamp onboarding experience, that was oftentimes very challenging for them. Because the projects that IBM is working on are not those where you know exactly who the user is, and you can go find them easily and understand them. A typical IBM project might be for a government or it might be for a healthcare system or a shipping company. Things that most of us just don’t even think about; we have no idea who these people are. The designers did well  finding these people and getting to know them. Being curious and empathetic are essential skills

Give us an example of how your work  transformed the experiences or  lives of other people; maybe something you designed transformed others’ lives? 

Before my time at IBM and Expedia, I was deeply involved in healthcare, particularly focused on the experience of families dealing with a child’s health diagnosis. This idea came from my personal experience with my daughter, Maya, being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of seven. When you get that information, everything changes and you have to do things differently. There’s all sorts of needles, blood tests, and a lot of measuring food; it’s all very scary and sudden. It requires the whole community to be involved in this: parents, grandparents, babysitters, teachers, soccer coaches, and everyone around the child. This inspired me to find ways to make the process easier for families facing similar challenges. So, together with my ex-wife, who is a designer, and Maya’s mother, we created tools like cards, magnets, and sticky notes to assist families in managing medications, food, and other aspects of the condition. This initiative not only helped us but also became a product line that we shared with other families, offering support and solutions to those going through similar situations.

Thank you so much for sharing that story, Doug. At the beginning of our conversation, we talked about the importance of being able to adapt and evolve as technology evolves. How do you think designers are going to be affected by new trends such as AI? Do you have an opinion on that? And do you think  there’s something we as designers should be doing in order to get ready for this revolution? 

I believe this is a significant moment for designers, especially in this generation. Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed transformative shifts with the introduction of computers and the internet. Each time, there were concerns that technology would replace designers, but we adapted and continued to thrive. Now, we face another pivotal moment with the rise of AI, and there’s fear that it will take over our work. However, I think users will only become better at recognizing a human-generated design, and prefer it over AI-generated content. As designers, we can leverage AI as a tool to enhance our creativity, improve efficiency, and deliver more impactful solutions. While it may be intimidating, I believe this will ultimately be a positive and empowering change for design and designers.

And Doug, how do you keep yourself up to date in terms of these new trends or new tools / news in general about design? Do you have any specific channels or people you follow or anything to recommend in terms of being updated with all of those changes?

I enjoy staying informed through podcasts, including this one. I keep myself connected by scanning social networks like LinkedIn and curating my feed to track relevant people. Additionally, I find it intriguing when non-designers discuss design, like the podcast “Design Lab with Bon Ku” hosted by a physician; he’s not a design guy, but he has a lot of curiosity and such interesting insights from his experiences with people. I highly recommend giving it a listen. 

Oh, that’s a great tip. I didn’t know this one. But I always feel like when you have a fresh pair of eyes looking at what you are creating, they always will bring something different. So, Doug, if you had to go back in time, is there something in your career or experience that you would have done differently now that you have all the information you have? 

I often joke that my secret fantasy job is to become a postal carrier because of the satisfaction they get from completing their tasks in a day and seeing their bag empty at the end of the day. In my current job, I work on long projects, and even when one is finished, there are always others ongoing, making it hard to fully appreciate the milestones. As a graphic designer early in my career, I enjoyed the satisfaction of creating physical pieces like posters and books that went to printing and became a final product, and you got to open it up and see it for the first time and smell it. I miss those satisfying aspects of being a graphic designer. But I would remind myself that it’s important to enjoy the milestones, even if at the moment you’re working on nine other projects in process.

My final question, Doug, what are your next plans and goals? Is there anything that you’re working on that you want to share? So we know where we can find you in the future 

Well, thank you for that. I recently left my role at Expedia, and I’m currently in the process of figuring out what’s next for me. I have some time to explore different options. One project I’m working on is a podcast, and I’ll be sharing more about it on LinkedIn. I enjoy being an executive design leader in big companies, and I also have a passion for teaching and education. Thankfully, the world of design continues to unfold and expand, and I’m curious about exploring new spaces where I can contribute and learn. So, while I don’t have a concrete answer yet, I’m excited to see what the future holds.

Having Doug as a guest was super inspiring. We loved hearing his stories about why he fell in love with design, and how it can change so many people’s lives – if you’d like to listen as well, the full episode is available here.

See related posts