My Career Path: How I Became a Design Researcher
This is part of a series on the unique and circuitous career journeys of the IDEO community. Read more articles on career development and mentorship on the IDEO U blog.
What’s your role at IDEO?
I’m a senior design lead with a focus on design research. This means I lead the research stream within client projects. In the early stages, this includes understanding who we need to learn from, choosing methods that will get our team immersed into what we’re learning about, and crafting a research plan. I sometimes joke that much of my job is about asking good questions. With a plan complete, we move into conducting the research, then making sense of it all. Drawing out insights and telling stories from the research is one of my favorite parts. It’s all highly collaborative with others who focus on things like business or interaction design.
“There are opportunities to be creative and grow almost anywhere, and you never know what doors might open up if you keep learning.”
How would you describe your career path?
I hold a degree in creative writing. My mom loved to tell stories of me as a kid staying up past my bedtime, reading out loud and in character. Stories were probably my first true love. This led to an unexpected seven year stint at Barnes & Noble, which I often call my accidental career. I joined for the books, but got a crash course in business. I also led planning for events, which combined with my writing degree got my foot in the door at United Way.
I served as marketing & communication director at United Way. There I conducted my first market research, and learned about strategic planning, evaluation and graphic design. I interviewed families living at and below the poverty line, and carry many of those stories with me still. While I was only there for three years, working in the nonprofit sector shaped me in big ways. I learned life changing lessons about resourcefulness and empathy.
I then took a hybrid role as a design strategist and Chief Culture Officer at a 20-person creative agency. One day I’d be designing our internal performance management processes, and the next helping a Big Ten university reimagine their alumni experience. Starting off with smaller agencies was a good fit for me. I learned research methods on the job and got to shape how we approached our creative work. This gave me the experience and confidence to forge out on my own.
In 2017, I founded a design and consulting practice called Yes and Yonder where I worked on things like helping a private foundation redesign their grantmaking processes, launching an innovation lab within a 140+ year old financial services company, and helping a nonprofit adult day care center envision an online support community for caregivers of folks with dementia.
What career advice would you give others?
I remember fretting about what to do with my life just after college. I didn’t have a career path all mapped out. In the meantime, I was learning skills that laid a foundation for things to come. There are opportunities to be creative and grow almost anywhere, and you never know what doors might open up if you keep learning.
A collection of doodles, one for each day of Sara’s first two weeks at IDEO, plus a few extras made while waiting for Zooms to start.
More than once I thought: I’ll never get this job or promotion, or I’ll never win this big client project, but I’m going to try anyway. If you find yourself thinking that, just go for it. Send the crazy email. Make the big ask. It’s fun to prove “never” wrong!
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