Q&A with Carrie Whitehead, Vice President, Design at Westfield Retail Solutions

Carrie is the Vice President of Design at Westfield Retail Solutions. She and her team are focused on transforming commerce by enhancing digital and physical shopping experiences for retailers, brands and venues. Prior to joining Westfield Retail Solutions, Carrie was the Director of Design at Fanatics, the largest online retailer of officially licensed sports merchandise in North America and led Product Strategy and User Experience at Zappos Labs. When she’s not working, you can find her tangled up in a yoga pose, hiking in the Sierras, or wandering in far-off countries.

She will be speaking at Uncharted Minds: Beyond the Button, Design for Conversational User Interfaces on May 24th. Click here to get 20% off tickets to the event.

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

A. I was! When my grandma wasn’t busy helping run the family funeral home business (that’s a different Six Feet Under-style story), she was an illustrator and used to spend time teaching me the basics of drawing. In addition, I have an uncle who is a photographer for the Associated Press and another who used to work in the advertising division of a large department store. Being exposed to such a variety of art forms growing up definitely fueled my interest in design and why I decided to study graphic design and advertising.

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

A. I watched a fair amount of TV growing up and I always enjoyed the commercials the most. I was fascinated by the idea of how a good story could capture someone’s attention. I also love music, so I was influenced by album cover artwork and promotion posters for bands.

Q. What did you study in college?

A. My primary area of study was graphic design. I majored in fine arts with a minor in advertising. That said, I was also interested in related fields like psychology and sociology. I made an effort to take as many classes in those areas as possible.

Q. What did your parents do?

A. My mom began working at Ticketmaster (now Live Nation) long before service fees were practically more expensive than the ticket itself. My dad recently retired from 30+ years in law enforcement serving in many roles including, leading the security detail for the mayor of Indianapolis, rolling out the first 9–1–1 system in Indianapolis (hello 1970s), and finally retiring after following in his father’s footsteps serving as Chief of Police of Lawrence, IN. My sister and brother-in-law are also in law enforcement.

Q. Tell me about your first design job.

A. My first design job was working as a graphic designer for the Fisher Institute of Health and Well-Being at Ball State University. Although, a great place to work, I think I was more excited about the $4.25 minimum wage I was making, than the job itself. My first career design job was at an interactive start up in Atlanta, GA where I served as a designer and developer for clients such as Fannie Mae, Coca-Cola, and Bank of America.

Q. What were some early lessons that shaped your approach to creativity and design?

A. I once worked at a start-up early that had a subpar telecommunications system. We all felt the frustration. But, one employee in particular got fed up. Documented everything that was wrong with the system and presented it to the founder. That day she was fired. The founder’s position: I hear your frustration, but don’t come to me with problems without having a proposed solution. I’ve learned throughout my career the importance of seeking creative solutions to problems. If the answer isn’t obvious, look at the problem from a different angle — turn it upside down and inside out; when you think there are no more solutions, seek another perspective.

I’ve also learned how important it is to know the problem you are solving for. I have more examples than I care to admit to of going down one path, only to discover that the customer’s core need wasn’t being met. It doesn’t matter how good the design is, a design solution needs to solve a real problem.

Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Talk to your customers. Try and gain a deep understand of the end-user, and their behavior.

Q. Tell me about your role with Westfield Retail Solutions.

A. I lead a team of amazing designers who are working on new and innovative ways to help connect brands, retailers, and venues to enhance the digital and physical shopping experience. Our work ranges from creating scalable design systems, to creating new products, services and generating innovative design ideas.

Q. What do you do for inspiration? How do you generate ideas and stay inspired?

A. I love to travel. I always gain perspective by being immersed in unfamiliar cultures and I am inspired by the stories that I hear along the way. In addition to travel, I get new ideas by taking classes in just about anything, visiting local art markets and galleries, and teaching design and even yoga.

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

A. Stay curious. Get outside of your comfort zone. Expose yourself to new and unexpected experiences. Look at problems from a new perspective. Keep learning about your industry as well as concepts outside of your industry. If you go beyond the expected, it can help you become a better problem solver, inspire creativity, and make life more exciting.

Focus on building lasting relationships. A large part of what you’ll do in your career, even as a designer, will require great people skills. Listen carefully to others, be honest, and appreciate that every interaction with someone is an opportunity to grow your network.

Be sure to have fun. Success in your career can mean hard work and long hours, but it’s important to avoid burnout. Ensure you’re doing work you are passionate about, working with people you enjoy being around, and always make time for the not-so-serious stuff.

Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of being a creative leader?

A. One of the more challenging aspects of leadership is inspiring your team even when you have major setbacks. I believe in taking risks, learning from mistakes, and course-correcting when needed. However, this can sometimes feel chaotic to people on the team. I always try to communicate what success looks like and keep the team focused on that.

Q. What’s your favorite aspect of being a creative leader?

A. Sharing everything I have learned and (hopefully) watching those around me use this wisdom to grow in their own careersThat said, I couldn’t be a leader without constantly learning from those around me, which I enjoy just as much.