Anna Shaw, VP of Design at Knit Heath: Design is About Solving Problems and That’s Why It’s Not Art

This interview is with Anna Shaw, VP of Design at Knit Health and a former creative director at Smart Design. She will be speaking at the Uncharted Minds Design Gurus Summit on May 17th. Click here to get 20% off tickets to the event.

Q. When you were growing up, were you always interested in design?

A. Off and on. I always had an aesthetic interest in my environment and what was around me. I remember playing “fashion designer” with my friends at a pretty young age and being really into finding just the right look and ideas. But I don’t think I ever considered it a career.

Q. What were some early influences on your career choice?

A. My mother studied design but then took a right hook in her career into other things. So I internalized that it’s not a field that is easy to get into. Then a slightly older relative began a career in design and I was really inspired by the projects he was producing. It demonstrated for me that it canbe a viable career path. So I think I finally just gave in to my desire to ‘make things’ and enrolled in some art classes. I was way behind my classmates who had taken art in high school and already had some type of portfolio for admission.

Q. What did you study in college?

A. I went to the University of Oregon and my major was Visual Design — which included photography, digital Media, animation and communication Design. I weighted my focus in Photography and Communication Design but also had valuable mentoring by the head of the digital media department — which (I’m aging myself here) was just emerging when I was in school.

Q. What did your parents do?

A. As I mentioned previously, my mother studied graphic design when I was in grade school and then followed a career in customer service and sales. My father was a mechanical engineer by background. As I evolve in my career, I like to think I have a blend of both their sensibilities.

Q. Tell me about your first design job.

A. When I was in school I began working (nearly) full time for a local design firm. It was one of two shops in my college town and had about eight to ten people in it. The firm did everything from award-winning campaigns for the local opera to support material for a chain of discount stores. Naturally, I did a lot of work for the latter — ranging from creating maps for all of their stores, to posters and coupons for myriad sponsored events.

It was my first introduction to design as a profession. A thing that you do from the moment you walk in the door to the moment you leave — not just something you think and doodle on until inspiration strikes. I learned from the designers around me how to create a personal toolbox of processes and tricks to help you work through a problem — even when you’re “not feelin’ it.

Q. What were some early lessons you learned about design?

A. The POWER of design to guide human behavior in a big or small way.

Maybe this is top of mind because it’s an election year, but for me, a powerful example of how important design can be was the Florida voting failures of the 2000 election. For background, voters in Florida had a poorly designed and executed “butterfly ballot” that made it look like they were voting for one candidate but they were actually casting their ballot for another. Further, poor design of the equipment meant some ballots weren’t even counted because they couldn’t be read. And what ended up happening is that the vote counts in that state were so close that a recount was ordered and the resulting president was determined based on a razor thin margin in that one state. Bad design had a role in the outcome of the election. So all of a sudden design was thrust on the national stage. People began a discussion of its impact and consequences. From then on, my perspective widened and I understood my responsibility in this field.

Q. Tell me about your approach to design today.

A. Design is about solving problems and that’s what it’s not art. I start by making sure my team and I understand the objectives we’re trying to meet and the problems that we’re trying to solve. Then, we figure out what we don’t know and how we can learn enough to make important decisions. It’s also important to look for opportunities to step outside our normal way of thinking and expose ourselves to new ideas.

It’s equally important to recognize that design is a journey, not a straight line. Collaboration and communication are essential.

Q. How do you find clients today?

A. Currently, I don’t have to go hunting for clients. But throughout my career, my approach has been to do great work and establish good relationships with my clients. Design is just as much about partnership and collaboration as much as it is about doing great work. Additionally, I’ve started writing articles and talks about subjects I’m passionate about. And when I’ve done that, I find new people who want to work with me because of the things I’m interested in or the way I think.

Q. What career advice would you give to young people today?

A. Listen and learn from everyone around you. When I was a young designer I craved ownership and independence. And someone a little older than me once said, “Design is an apprenticeship. You learn the most from those around you.” That’s hard to take in when we elevate the rock stars and celebrate kids crushing it right out of school. But the chapters in my career when I let go of my ego and opened myself to learning have enabled the strongest long-term skills and knowledge.

Q. Hardest part of being a designer?

A. There’s rarely a singular “right” answer. There are so many ways to approach a problem and many possible solutions. So as a designer, or as a director, or even as a client how do you know what you’re doing is right? How do you know when it’s ready to ship? Sure, you have design research, analytics and surveys to inform us. But at the end of the day, after the opinions, ideas and measures, you just have intuition backed by your experience. And your ability to convince those around you to trust it.

Q. Favorite part of being a designer?

A. That design has the power to make things better. We’re always in a position of building and improving.