Maria Giudice is the founder of Hot Studio, a design firm that Facebook acquired in 2013, and a former vice president at Autodesk. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.
Doreen Lorenzo: You founded Hot Studio at the height of the internet era in 1997–there were not a lot of women-owned design studios back then.
Maria Giudice: That’s right. Then and now, in terms of leadership style, I do think that women-owned businesses have a different tone and emphasis. I always said I was the blue-collar design company. We work for the people! Fifty percent of my team were women, and we had a wide variety of cultures very early on. When Hot Studio got acquired by Facebook, they were so happy because I brought women and people of color to Facebook.
DL: How did you make the decision to be acquired?
MG: There were a couple of factors. First of all, it was an exhausting run. I had been running Hot Studio for 15 years, surviving downturns. There’s a lot of nuance to staying in business in the agency world. We were healthy, but we didn’t have huge margins. I was thinking about the next phase of my career. I didn’t know when I would make the change, but I knew it would be for the right reason at the right time. I knew I didn’t have to sell, so I had time on my side.
At one point [VP of Product Design] Margaret Stewart hired Hot Studio to supplement her team at Facebook, so we had embedded designers there and they could not recruit enough people to do the work. She wanted more designers, and I was like, “I can’t send all these designers to Facebook. I have other client work.” And she’s like, “Well, how would you feel about being acquired?” I said I would be interested in that conversation. Then I remember getting a call from Sheryl Sandberg’s assistant: “Sheryl would like to have coffee with you.” I drove down there thinking I was having coffee–just an informal conversation with Sheryl Sandberg. I was whisked into a conference room where it was Mark [Zuckerberg] and Sheryl.
I didn’t have a presentation; I didn’t have any of that. I was just shocked. And then the next thing I know an offer was made. That conversation happened in December, and we closed and made the announcement in March. So for acquisition standards, that was very fast.
The acquisition of Hot Studio to Facebook was one of those moments when people started really understanding the value of design. We had spent so many years prior to that defending design to businesses–the value of design for business, that design should have a seat at the table, and that design is strategic; it’s not just execution. Now there was this visceral event where Facebook was acquiring a giant company just for their designers. That was an important turning point, I felt. We weren’t the first, but we were definitely one of the largest at the time.
DL: What are you up to now?
MG: I’m consulting now under the Hot Studio brand, which I still own. I was a VP at Autodesk for two years. I left last year, and I’ve been resisting joining another company. I wanted to take the year off to reflect on my career and really figure out: What is the value that I could bring for the next three years? Who’s the company that I want to work for? Who are the people I want to work for? Based on my longevity in my career, how could my experience help people?
Designers have arrived—all the conferences talk about the intersection of design and business. Design thinking methodology is being taught in giant corporations at a record clip. Everybody is talking about design. Well here’s the thing—everybody wants design, but they don’t really understand what that means in terms of its impact on the company culturally and operationally. When designers enter traditional companies, they bring with them a whole different set of values and culture. So I’ve been helping companies integrate design. They’re hiring designers—how do you organize them? What are the career ladders for designers in your company? How do you integrate design process with agile methodology? How do you co-create and teach design methods across the company? There are all of these questions that remain unanswered, because they don’t really have enough design leaders to make those changes happen. So I’ve been consulting with companies, helping them adapt to design becoming part of their DNA.
DL: How is it different than it was 20 years ago, in the way that clients respond to you as a designer?
MG: Well 20 years ago, they didn’t have design inside companies. They had a few designers, but it was really to support technology solutions. And when they needed innovation, oftentimes they went to agencies.
Clients would come to us telling us they have a problem to solve. But our job as designers is to identify the real problem to be solved. Designers look at the problem very differently. So agencies would come in and do the innovation work, give them deliverables, and hope that they would follow them and build capacity inside their company. Then there was a turning point, around the time Hot Studio was acquired, when companies realized that they need designers in-house. But at the same time, there’s a lot of resistance inside companies to have designers integrated as change agents, and so where we’re at right now.
DL: Do you think that’s changing how people define design for themselves?
MG: Some companies understand the value of design. Look at IBM as an example. IBM caught design religion, and they’re training everybody in design thinking methods. At Autodesk, when I was there, they were doing similar things. So I think that people are grokking what design could be, understanding what design can be. Yet there are still people who think of design as pure execution. So I think we’ve made a lot of inroads inside companies. But more often than not, designers aren’t set up to succeed unless they have enlightened leaders at the top.
I often say for people who are coming in as senior designers whose job it is to bring design culture, bring design methods, organize workforces, you better look up—and if the people above you do not have your back, if they don’t understand why you’re there, they don’t understand the value that design can bring, then that’s a huge red flag. You have to have executive support. You have to have enlightened leaders at the top in order for design leaders to be successful, because they have a large, hard job ahead of them to change culture.
DL: You have a lot of knowledge about design and the industry. What do you want people know about?
MG: Designers are at an interesting point in time. We have seen the downside of moving too fast and being overly optimistic about what technology can do for people. It’s important now, more than ever, to be designing for unintended consequences—to design for evil, really—for what I call negative personas. Everybody is always defining their target audience in the most ideal way; they’re not thinking about people who are going to exploit technology in ways that we haven’t thought about. We have to start taking a stand to not just design for maximum growth, but to make sure that we’re doing the right thing for people and humanity. People really need to ask, “Should I?” instead of, “Could I?”
DL: Do you think we should be teaching design ethics now?
MG: Oh, absolutely. Back then technology was still very much about handling constraints. Now we are at a point where technology can really influence the way we think. Back then the technology was constraining. But now anything is possible, and it’s only going to get more integrated and more intelligent. So as designers, we have to start understanding what the line is in terms of what should be innovated and what shouldn’t be. And that’s going to be open to debate, because it’s not like the line is clear, and you can see it with Facebook and Twitter right now. Everybody is demonizing Facebook, but for somebody who’s worked at Facebook, I know how hard it is to make those nuanced decisions. Sometimes you don’t know something’s wrong until it’s too late.
DL: Hindsight is 20/20.
MG: Exactly. But I also don’t think that people were asking, “What could go wrong?” I didn’t go to business school; I went to art school, but I ran a successful business, and that’s because I treated everything like a design problem. One of the things that I always did as a CEO is ask people to paint me the worst-case scenario. You have to think of the downsides of every decision. That’s where the ethics comes in.
DL: We are on the cusp of a new era of design because of emerging technologies getting to the point where they can be put into more mainstream applications. What are you excited about, and what are you worried about with these shifts?
MG: Are we better off with all of this technology, or is Armageddon going to happen? History does repeat itself, but we’re only looking at the context we’re living in right now. In every generation there’s a different set of technology that enables people to live their lives, and in every generation you’re going to get the good and the bad.
I’m always amazed that all these social, scientific, technological advances keep getting more sophisticated, but human beings stay exactly the same. We’re like the control group–we don’t change! That’s what’s so amazing about humans: We have our own set of constraints, and technology will augment us to be better or worse. And we’re more connected than ever before. Now when bad things happen, they’re global. That’s why I think designers—people who create products and services, not just people who identify as designers—have to be thoughtful about the implications of the things that we’re bringing into the world.
We’re going to make more mistakes. It’s going to be great and it’s going to suck at the same time. But we have to adapt, because we’re still the control group. And the more bad things that happen, the smarter we get in terms of lessons learned that are going to help us make better decisions. That’s the good thing about mistakes–you can learn from them. So it’s exciting, but it’s scary at the same time.