Women in Leadership & Design (WILD) kicked off the “WILD Portraits” series starting with our very own WILD Chair, Rachel Gogel. Our conversation with Rachel was wide-ranging, from understanding her career journey, to her hopes for the WILD community, to her perspective on design leadership. This is Part 2 of that two part conversation; you can find Part 1 on the aigasf.org blog.
What’s your view on the state of design today?
I think there’s a lot of work to do when it comes to making it truly equitable. If you pick up a more traditional or “classic” graphic design history book, there’s a very selective version of what that looks like and what good design is. Just living in San Francisco alone, I think there’s just a lot associated with tech and Silicon Valley and what “success” looks like. This makes me think about a great quote by the CEO and founder of Acumen, Jacqueline Novogratz, who is actually one of my clients now. She once said, “What if we measured true success, not by the amount of money you have, but by the amount of human energy you unlock, the amount of potential you enable. If that were our metric, our world would be a different place.” And as designers, we have so much power to create, change, and influence so many things happening in our lives. Design is everywhere. More people need to own up to that responsibility and become more aware of that.
There’s also this urgency, as I said, to take these necessary actions to advance racial equity on our design teams and foster engagement instead of retreat. And because of the more distributed-first models and new flexible working philosophies, we can ensure that our teams—no matter their employment contract status or location—more accurately reflect the diverse populations that we aim to serve. My hope is that we continue to close the gender gap so that more self-identifying women and non-binary designers not only find themselves in leadership positions but also get paid more. And that we as leaders can effectively design a more equitable future, and hire more diverse people—in all aspects of the word “diverse”. That’s the future of work that we should be getting ready for and really leaning into. I’m really excited about it, but there’s a lot of work to do.
It’s an exciting mandate for WILD and WILD’s contribution there too!
Okay, give us your leadership tips.
1. Never stop learning. You can learn just as much from your direct reports as they can learn from you. So there’s an element of humility.
2. Relationships are key. No matter how known you are or not known, you are really spending time fostering relationships and nurturing them and renewing them and really getting to know people as humans. That serves anyone at any level.
3. Lean into more human-centered leadership practices. Because a lot of people have gotten a taste of what it's like being more autonomous and having more freedom in this world that we've been living in, this idea of leadership as micromanagement or leadership as top-down is dead. People will have a harder time influencing teams and having people really be inspired by them if they follow older leadership tactics. Basically, act more like a coach than an old school “boss.”
4. Model behaviors that you want to see. It’s about being more supportive, more empathetic, and compassionate. How will you expect your team to set boundaries if you don’t?
5. Encourage autonomy and innovation. Be sure to continue distributing and delegating work so that everyone can feel like an equal contributor.
6. Increase recognition and feedback. Feedback is both positive and constructive, and it’s critical to make that a team ritual, an ongoing thing; it shouldn’t just happen around performance reviews. Companies need to build into the culture and leaders then need to foster a safe environment, so that feedback is a gift.
I could go on and on, but those are 6 tips that are top of mind.
How do you see the intersection of leadership and design?
I think both spaces hold a lot of power, and so both of them are quite big responsibilities. If you are an effective design leader, you not only understand the power of what design can do and the responsibility that you hold, but you have to question things and make sure that you’re designing with people, not just for people. You want to be very inclusive in how you approach any kind of problem solving exercise. It’s one thing to be a designer, but once you earn the title of “Leader” in the industry, it’s not to be taken lightly. There are very few inspiring design leaders out there who are actually adding positive things to the world, and I aspire to be someone like that. To be remembered as someone who was able to make an impact that had a positive contribution to our planet in some way.
Me too. It’s a huge part of my driving force! What else is important for people to know about your perspective as a design leader?
The definition of “design leadership” is changing, or it needs to change. I’m noticing that some organizations are identifying that need. It’s mainly related to the fact that the new way that people are working—whether that’s hybrid, in person, virtual, or whatever— is affecting what people are needing from their leaders and organizations. I just hope that companies recognize that and develop leadership curriculums and training programs to help foster better leaders altogether. Hopefully, if they invest in their leaders, then ultimately they’re investing in the rest of the employees, because their leaders are getting help and can show up better for their direct reports. That would definitely help with retention, the culture, and everything else. It’s a domino effect. It’s important to acknowledge that there was already a lack of leadership investment and management training pre-pandemic, or the programs felt a little bit dated. So my hope is that organizations see that as a priority, now more than ever. There’s a lot of movement happening right now too, as a lot of people are questioning their jobs and how they spend their time. I do think that a lot of this depends on who your manager is and who your leaders are. It's not to be ignored.
Yeah, totally. I am feeling that myself. Who your leader is, is one of the most important things about any job or role. How they’re enabling your growth and development.
Yes, it’s a big responsibility and a wonderful challenge. There are obviously different kinds of leaders out there, some of whom may have been put in a position that they did not want to be in, or maybe prematurely were made a manager or a leader without as much experience, or whatever it may be. I do think there’s a way to improve that. By doing that, I think certain organizations could stand out from the pack. If they show that they care about the future leaders that they’re fostering, I believe that it could become a potential draw for prospective candidates to want to work there.
What inspires you? Or how do you stay inspired?
A combination of questioning things, reading, and now that it’s a little bit safer to go back to museums and art galleries, that definitely is a big source of inspiration for me. Same with traveling. Being part of AIGA San Francisco's Board of Directors and WILD, obviously. We’re just getting started still, but building my committee and starting to re-engage the local design community has been really invigorating already. It’s nice to have those types of aspirations and be surrounded by like-minded women who are interested in doing similar things.
Otherwise, there’s always Instagram, although obviously there are a lot of problems with the algorithm. Because I have sourced a lot of creatives and artists through that platform, my Explorer tab is pretty successful at feeding me new work, new inspiration, and so I am often exposed to new people. I’ve built a network from job to job just trying to source different types of artists and creatives, so I’m always looking into who’s doing what, and it’s not just graphic design either. It’s cross-disciplinary: illustration, photography, and mixed media. I follow other digital resources, some fun blogs. I’m definitely trying to stay in-the-know and stay informed about what's going on in my industry as much as possible. It’s not like I go too deep every day, but generally I like just knowing who’s doing what. I do like mixing up my daily inspiration habits just to see where I end up and who I’m exposed to next.
Of those folks you’ve sourced on Instagram, or maybe other sources, who’s your design hero? Who are you really into in terms of designers or design leaders?
Over the last few years, I’ve been actively expanding my resources and references to include more BIPOC creatives. For example, I love what Tré Seals is doing with Vocal Type. He’s a type designer, and I’m happy to see him succeeding and gaining more traction. He’s tapped for a lot of projects, and he seems like he’s able to juggle a lot of projects at once. I'm really impressed by him. And I love that not just Tré Seals, but other creatives, mostly BIPOC, who are helping to diversify (and challenge the notion of) what “good” looks like or what “taste” means in our field. I feel like there’s some unlearning that I’m doing to broaden my perspective, my visual palette. But, that’s a hard question. I personally don’t really have one person that I look up to that I want to be like or that I want to follow in their footsteps. I’ve never really been someone like that. However, there are definitely a lot of people who inspire me or whose work I come across that I want to work with or partner with. I often get impressed by how much other creatives seem to be able to handle. But I don’t really like the term “hero,” it’s inherently gendered and I seek to ultimately mark my own path in this world.
Yeah, it’s hard to pick a favorite, right?
I’m glad that more non-white creatives and designers are getting more work and visibility. I like knowing that graphic design is being decolonized and that certain design histories are being rewritten as we speak to be more inclusive. I’m learning a lot about key events and design figures that I didn’t necessarily learn in school, unfortunately.
As Women in Leadership & Design (WILD) redefines paradigms of design leadership, we elevate the perspectives of the creative leaders in our midst. “WILD Portraits” shares the distinct stories of Bay Area women and non-binary design leaders, highlighting each individual’s unique path and point of view. Together, these profiles provide a sketch of the state of design leadership and how it’s evolving.