Stephen Gates: What makes a good design leader?

Stephen Gates and Chris discuss the realities of design system leadership, unconventional sources of inspiration, and the impact of design on society.

September 7, 2022
by
Eva Morrison

Chris:

Hi, and welcome to the Design Systems Podcast. This podcast is about the place where design and development overlap. We talk with experts to get their point of view about trends in design, code, and how it relates to the world around us. As always, this podcast is brought to you by Knapsack. Check us out at knapsack.cloud. If you want to get in touch with the show, ask some questions, or generally tell us what you think. Go ahead and tweet us @TheDSPod. We'd love to hear from you.

Chris:

Hey everybody. Welcome to the Design System Podcast. I'm your host, Chris Strahl. I'm here with Stephen Gates once again. Hey Stephen. Welcome back to the program.

Stephen:

Thanks for having me. I think what, third time's the charm.

Chris:

Yeah, this time we're doing something a little bit different. We're talking about Patterns, which was the conference that we did in June over in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a great time for everybody. You were one of the speakers there. We sat on stage in front of a mic for about, I don't know, 45 minutes or so, and had just this amazing conversation that I wanted to recap. It touched on things like trust and design thinking and how organizations, even the United States military, think about design and the way we implement design in our day to day lives. Looking at a recap of that, kind of kick us off. How were you feeling on stage there? What was the vibe like?

Stephen:

It was good. I'll be honest. It was surreal to be back on stage, I think after having been away for what, probably two years. But look, I love events like that. I especially love Patterns just because I think anytime you're able to get leaders together who have similar challenges, who have similar successes, who are in a similar place, because look, I think it's hard enough around topics like leadership, but when you get into design systems and things like that, you don't have moments like that. And I think that was a big part of what made it so good or such a celebration was just to be around like-minded people, to be able to learn from them, to be able to just reconnect on every level and to be able to do that. So I think for me, that was where the conversation we had, I think that's why it was so good. I think that's why it resonated so well, but I really loved it.

Chris:

That's awesome. I also found it very inspiring. But I think that one of the things that you mentioned about finding that inspiration, where you stay up all night in your room doing a very specific thing, I'd love you to tell everybody about that, if you don't mind.

Stephen:

Yeah. Well, I mean, look, it came at a really interesting moment for me because I think it was a moment where whenever we talked about going to Patterns, I had a team. Between then and whenever I was there I'd been laid off, was still very much sort of early in that journey and that process takes a toll. And so I think my podcast had been on hiatus. I hadn't been doing that much stuff in the community and it was great to be able to come back to reconnect. And I think even I sort of shared that openly and a couple people had said, look, just because you don't have a team doesn't mean you're not a leader. And I think it was a real great turning point for me because I found myself one night sitting up and I think I wrote five shows in one night, which we're in the process of still going through and releasing. But that's why that's so important is just to feel that connection or sense of belonging. And I think just maybe the context, those are all things that whenever we went into remote, we lost.

Chris:

Yeah, I agree. And I think that was a big part of the intent of the conference was to try to get it so that a lot of people could come back out, frankly. Two years of us all sort of staying inside, not doing the things that we love, not really having that sense of community. It was really great for me to get that back. And it's actually inspired me to start a couple of local meetups and do some stuff in my hometown and also to have Knapsack sort of try to spread that love around the country. And so we're going to be talking about doing some stuff locally and really starting to get people connected again.

Stephen:

Nice. I think that's where we need that. And I think especially for designers, for leaders, I think that's always the thing is whenever we don't have that context, we don't have that conversation, we don't have that sense of community because look, I'll continue to argue. I think people who are in leadership positions, people who are running these sort of things get imposter syndrome worse than anybody because you've got a team that's looking for answers, you've got a boss that's looking for results. You probably, just to what you said. You're not networking the way you used to because now you've got the "big job" and you're supposed to be in charge with that. And in a lot of cases, you're probably doing things that is not your skillset. I mean, for me doing career planning or doing budget allocation or things like that, I'm pretty sure I went to art school not to do those things. And so again, you have this intersection of all of these things and I think it really does put a lot of people in a tough spot. And that's why getting people together, getting them in that small group, being able to say, Hey yeah, other people are doing that too. And I'm not alone. It's so valuable.

Chris:

So it is funny. I had this great conversation with Nick Hahn, who I think you know, just a couple of days ago where he was talking about the context of leadership in the context of design and how design has oftentimes been the change maker inside of organizations where, like it or not, the burden of forcing some change on an organization has fallen on a design leader's shoulders. And that leadership isn't always the most natural thing. In fact, I think it's very rarely natural for people to end up being looked at that way and also to look at themselves that way. And that imposter syndrome that you talk about is very present. And I also think that leadership is not something that we're innately taught a lot about in our society. Like you said, you go to art school, but it's not exactly like you go to art leader school or whatever. And I think that's an interesting kind of angle for this conversation is when you think about a design system at a company or you think about somebody that is emerging as a design leader inside of an organization or inside of a community, what are the ways that they can come out of that that feel maybe less lonely or less terrifying?

Stephen:

I would even put a finer point on it where I think, the problem is leadership development at most companies I think happens by happenstance, which means, Hey, you're really good at a designer, you're really good at delivering, you seem like you're decently outgoing, you should be in leadership. And I feel like it's sort of that missing manual where they forget to tell you that, oh yeah, all the skills that got you to the point of being a leader, yeah, almost none of those actually apply to actually doing leadership. So the whole thing around psychology and sociology and inspiration and org planning and all that stuff that we're not going to teach you about, good luck figuring that out. And I think it's one of the hardest inflection points because you're like, look, I've been so successful. Why am I not doing better? And that's the problem is most companies don't recognize that. They don't teach it, mentor it, train it, do those sort of things. And so it is. It's leadership by happenstance of like, Hey, you're the next most senior person, let's put you in that role and see if you succeed. And if you do, we're geniuses. And if you don't, it's your fault.

Chris:

I think it's doubly painful too because you're taking someone who is likely a very talented contributor and putting them in a place that's very uncomfortable for them.

Stephen:

Oh yeah, no. I think most companies wreck more talent because of that because you take highly competent, very high achieving, very talented people, put them in this uncomfortable position without the education they need, without the support they need, and then make them feel like they're the problem. That's a huge part of the problem. And so I think a lot of it is that the burden falls on you to be a leader and to figure it out. This is why probably around 70% of the leaders I coach are in therapy, which I think is a great thing because it's just you're trying to reconcile, why am I not better at this? But I think there's a lot of things. I think one is either doing mentorship or reverse mentorship, meaning find another leader who you can learn from. Do reverse mentorship. Find people on your team, who you can say, how am I doing? What works? What doesn't? When can I learn from a different perspective? I think those are really good things.

Stephen:

I think that there's a lot around also going out and finding what is your support system? What are the things I do? It happened actually earlier today is once a month on a Friday, it's usually the first Friday of every month, I have an open invitation to about 60 of the smartest people, best design leaders, best friends that I have, and we just come together and talk about what it's like to be a leader, what's working, what's not. I'm having this problem. What did you know? So it's a little bit like what happened at Patterns, but be deliberate around putting that support system around yourself. Because if not, I think a lot of it's just either beating yourself up or trying to just stumble through and figure it out.

Chris:

Exactly. And how do you go about creating a community like that? In your particular circumstance? I mean, Patterns, we did a thing because we're a company that wants to go and talk about design systems and get all these wonderful people together in the same place and kind of build a community around design systems. But we have a very obvious motivation for that as a business that is out there selling a software product related to the thing that everybody's talking about. I also advocate for doing this in your personal life and I have my own way that I build my community. But I'm curious how you build yours. How do you find that group of 60 people and find that thing that is invigorating and special about it?

Stephen:

A lot of it for me is just, it's people I've picked up along the way. It's people that I've found interesting that whenever you find somebody you have a connection with in cultivating that. And it's a community that I started just by sort of saying, Hey, I think you're smart. I think you're awesome. There's a group of other really smart and awesome people. Because again, most of these are people that when they're in town, we have lunch and we go, wow, we should do this more often. This is a great conversation. I don't get this sort of support normally. And again, it's that, we just sort of leave it up to chance. And so I think just being that deliberate of, Hey, it's once a month, if you're available show up, if you're not cool. Come whenever you're doing great. Come when you're doing horrible. And it really is formed this community where I think you can get support.

Stephen:

Recently, one person quit a job and got somebody else from the group hired to replace them. But it's just being deliberate around, we need each other. And also that what we do has a very particular form of stress and pressure and things that while you can go talk to your friends or your significant other, they may give you empathy or understanding, but they don't really get it and can't lend often the sort of advice that you really need. So I think that's my thing. Just start, stick a date on the calendar, invite a bunch of people, see what happens.

Chris:

Yeah. I definitely feel that. We have a CEO group that I meet with once a month and it's often very lonely in a CEO position, as I'm sure it is in a lot of different leadership positions because you get that empathy, you get that understanding, but you don't really get that sense of this person totally gets the thing I'm going through in the same way that I do because they have that same job.

Stephen:

Or can't really offer that advice. And I think it happened at Patterns. I see it at other things. Day one, everybody's great. Everybody's happy. Everybody's teams are well funded. They're all work is fantastic. Their CEOs all love them. And then sometime on day two, it's sort of like, yeah, this isn't working. I feel like I'm a complete imposter. I'm about to lose my job. I wish I got packaged out. That sort of vulnerability is often not rewarded, which I think is a huge problem. And so I think creating those safe spaces where you can be vulnerable and connect or vent or whatever it is is incredibly important.

Chris:

Definitely. Reminds me of the anecdote from Patterns around the river trip. The idea that on day one, everybody's kind of trying to get to know each other. Nobody really totally understands what this big river trip is about. You're all sitting there loading boats and hauling gear and figuring out how to be safe in the water. And then by the third day, everybody is each other's best friends. And there's things that I've told people on day three of a river trip that I've never told anybody else, because you build that sense of community by just simply being there and acting in a way that creates a very vulnerable situation for everyone.

Stephen:

No, I think that's it exactly. But it's also putting yourself in the position to take that trip the first time, but then also to be deliberate around keeping that relationship and keeping that space and honestly just prioritizing yourself. Because I think especially as leaders, we tend to be really bad at that because so much of what we do is about we, it's about the team, it's about the company, it's about the impact of our work and a lot of things like that. And sometimes the I, and what I need can get lost in that.

Chris:

So bringing it back to design systems for a minute, when we think about the change that design system makes in an organization, it is pretty fundamental. And especially recently I've seen more and more people that have had design systems or design technologist titles that are being created largely to spearhead these systems. We're minting new leaders and we're minting occasionally even new executives based on this need to create systems for how we manage the creation of product inside of our organizations. And so as somebody that is not just a new leader, but also a new leader in a new space that frankly doesn't have a lot of precedent, what would be the advice you give somebody that is suddenly in this opportunity or sees this opportunity to lead one of these massive change efforts inside their organization?

Stephen:

Yeah, it's such a good question. And honestly, I think it's such a hard role for a few reasons because I think bringing a bunch of people together to do something like that is hard enough, but doing it around what often is viewed as infrastructure is so much harder because just, they don't look at it the same way. They don't relate to it the same way. But the number one piece of advice that I always give to new leaders or to new people who are in the position is to realize that you need a plan. You don't need the answer. Because I think especially when you're new to leadership, there's very much that, I need to have all this figured out. I need to know the answers. If I don't know all the answers, they're going to know that I'm a fraud. That's what leaders do. They're in charge. You have to tell people what to do. And I think if you talk to anybody that's been leadership for any amount of time, that's not actually the case. That what you need to do is to provide structure, a direction. And so I think a lot of it for me is, you need to come up with a plan and we're all used to doing this when we design things, when we build things. You don't have all the answers when you start. But somehow when we're in that leadership newly minted role, it's like, I have to have all this figured out. You don't.

Stephen:

What you need to figure out is what is the direction? What can people expect from you? What are you expecting from them? What are the milestones? When are we going to report back? How are we going to measure our success? These things. And so I think just giving yourself the grace to know that whenever you start, like I said, the plan doesn't have to be the answer. Because the plan gives direction. It creates the space, it creates the confidence. It does the things that you need to do as a leader. But then it gives you the space to figure that out, to get your feet underneath you, to figure out the team, to figure out where the problems are, and to work through what that is. Because I think that fundamentally is the biggest thing, is everybody just jumps in and tries to solve it all at once. And then is immediately overwhelmed, feels completely inferior, and like they're not doing it right.

Chris:

Well, and there's always chaos. Everything is always this imperfect system and trying to derive, just meaning from even the chaotic amount of data that you suddenly have in front of you. There's signal everywhere when you're a leader and trying to understand what the right signal is to act upon. It really is about that much more systematic approach to how you tackle information, how you tackle uncertainty, how you tackle all of the nuance to the disruption that you're causing inside of an organization. And fundamentally try to figure out a way to lead people through it is much more of a journey than it is a destination.

Stephen:

Oh yeah, no, absolutely. And I think one, for years I have said, mostly as a joke, but I think there's a lot of reality to it, that a lot of modern design leadership is made up of executive hysteria management, which means some executives said something and everybody started running around and started to design things and buy companies and do prototypes. And it's like, and nobody said, Hey, is that a good idea? And I think that's why the best, the best description I've ever heard of a leader is somebody who has the ability to be the most confident, uncertain person. Because it is. It's all about change. It's like 16 different variables. And as soon as you get most of them right, then something else changes. And it is, it's such a dance. And plus at the end of the day, people...

Stephen:

Somebody sent me a meme the other day that said, "Today was going great. And then, people". And it is. It's such a variable that's in there to be able to do that. But I think it's giving yourself the grace, giving yourself the space and the time, and also to bring your team along with you. Most transformation work, most work fails, because the team isn't empowered to go along with you. And I think doing those sort of things and not that like, oh my God, I have to have all the answers, that shift or that thinking I think just puts you in a much more sustainable place.

Chris:

We've talked a lot in prior episodes about the need to engender trust and foster the idea of autonomy and the idea that there is support for the people within your team. I think that that context was largely on the idea of, how do you create a more high performing team? Like context also benefits the leader themselves. And that obviously a high performing team usually means that there's a high performing leader at the helm of it. But I think even beyond that, the idea of empowering a team to be able to do great things, teaches you a lot about the value of leadership and what you should and shouldn't be doing.

Stephen:

No, it definitely does. And I think it also teaches you not all leadership is visible. Because I do think for me, I always think whenever I'm leading at my best, the team probably doesn't see about 60% of what I'm doing. Because it's the problem that didn't happen. It's the budget that we did get and that not everything is this sort of in the movie, stand on top of the hill, waving a big flag. And again, this is why I always study so many other sorts of leadership or types or where that comes to life is to try to look at how are they looking at it from other perspectives. Because again, I think sometimes you can find some really interesting insights there.

Chris:

Well, at Patterns you were talking... Speaking of flag waving at the top of the hill, you were talking about the design thinking that the US military employees, and I thought this was a particularly interesting anecdote because it's not what you think. So go ahead and dive into that a little bit.

Stephen:

So I'm constantly searching for new ideas. I'm constantly searching for different inspiration and I always find it really interesting places. So what I ended up doing was I ended up falling down this rabbit hole after I discovered that the US Army, of all places, actually runs design thinking. And I found this fascinating, because it's like, how does some place that seems to be so structured and so rigid as the US Army do design thinking? Well, what I discovered was several years back, really after the wars in Afghanistan and things like that, the army just said, look, the problems we're trying to solve are more complicated than ever. They are more dynamic than ever because we have countries and politics and people and so much involved that this isn't just sort of a simple, straightforward, Hey, there's the bad guy, go get them sort of problem anymore.

Chris:

Yeah. Unconventional.

Stephen:

Right. So what happened was a number of years ago, the US Army actually put design into the doctrine of the US Military, which I think is such a fascinating thing. But what they did was they created what's called ADM, which is the army design methodology, which is the Army's version of design thinking. Now, this is something that they teach at one of the military colleges whenever you can go in and learn how to actually go in and apply design thinking to problems in the military. Now, this can be everything from, how much gas you put in the tank to get it across the desert to how do we figure out how to let everybody in Afghanistan vote? So these are not simple problems. These are not small problems. But as I got into it, it was really, really fascinating to see that they made some really interesting changes to what traditional design thinking has been.

Stephen:

I've sort of fallen down this rabbit hole. If you're interested, I did a whole podcast of it. I posted the books about it and all this stuff, but they really break it down into three parts. They frame the environment, they frame the problem, and they frame the solution. Now the latter two are framing the problem and the solution. Everybody listening to this will be familiar with that. But the part that they added that I found so fascinating was framing the environment. And this is really the first thing they do. And it's really how do we get an in depth understanding of the environment that we're going into? And then what is the environment that we want? Because the interplay between the environment and the problem could change the problem. There could be factors in there that we're not aware of. And if you think about it, every problem in corporate America or things like that, the state of budgets, of leadership. Environment is a variable that is always there, but we never stop to do that step.

Stephen:

We just want to jump right into the problem. And then if they're in environmental factors, we'll figure that out. But it is, it's interesting to watch something like the army, how much they value what design can do, how they want non-linear thinking, how they're teaching people to be able to do this. And again, if you want to look it up, it's the United States Army School of Advanced Military Studies. They refer to it as SAMS. And then ADM, the army design methodology. But it was really interesting to see a group like that maybe have a better understanding of how to solve complicated problems than corporate America who's been doing it far longer.

Chris:

Yeah. The thing that I loved about that part of the conversation in particular is there were a lot of people that started to immediately think about their own environment and the own thing that they were building for. And when I started to search for this at Knapsack, the thing that I found really interesting specifically about the way that we've thought about software design is that our software goes into a huge variety of environments. Everything from startups to fortune 50 enterprises. And in that gigantic range, there was kind of a choice that we had. We could offer a really opinionated solution that was basically like, this is how you should build the infrastructure to house your design system. Or we could offer something that was very highly flexible and un-opinionated. And largely because of the environment of where design systems are at a macro sense right now, we offered this very un-opinionated model for our software.

Chris:

And we did this largely because frankly, there's a lot of different definitions still to this day about what a design system is, how you build it, how you construct it. And oftentimes that relates very specifically to the environmental context of those people are aware of, what they've heard a design system is. Lots of people are like, oh yeah, my design system, my Figma files, or it's some set of documentation or whatever. But the idea is, how do you create something that can work across different environments? Was kind of how we thought about that. And this was the most salient example for me relative to what you were talking about is, there was this ultimate and eventual choice that we had. Do we go hard into an opinionated way of doing things and try to get people to see that opinion or do we want to create that more flexible system that can work everywhere? And we very much geared it towards the ladder just because when we looked at the maturity of the environment and the maturity of the market, nobody actually knows what the right way is yet.

Stephen:

Well, but that's also, I mean, again, there's a very sort of deeper meta conversation of it, does right even exist, but that's the problem. And I think this goes back to what I said before. But I think this is actually a more complicated problem than usual because part of the problem is in the name and that some people, whenever they hear design system, like design thinking, they hear that as ownership, not as a descriptor, that design owns it. My joke is always, if you want to scale design, don't ever call it that. So I think one, you have a, oh, is that a design thing? Which we all know it's not. You're having to get multiple parties to come together. It has to be a living system that is ongoing. It's a partnership between you and engineering. It absolutely has an impact on the product you ship, but most of the company doesn't understand it as a product. They see it as this weird infrastructure thing. So why does this matter? And I just think all of these are creating a lot more complexity and a lot more problems. I would argue you probably having a regular product or product launch. I think flexible is the right way to do it. Because every time you go into a company, all those variables are going to be so completely different.

Chris:

And I think there is even a point where while we see more and more leaders emerging in this space every single day, every week there's more people that I see with, again, those titles I mentioned, directors, VPs, design technologists that are cropping up because this is being recognized as a trend, but there are still not a lot of examples or a lot of characterizations for them to draw from that represent the right way of doing this. If there even really is one. And I think that there is still this emergent idea of what is our best practice? What is our structure that we want to think about that represents that future of how we build digital product? And I'm interested to watch this community of leaders sort co-define that together. And you did tie into this a little bit at Patterns as well, where the sense of the people that are all around us, how do we bring all that wonderful stuff that we talked about, all those wonderful learnings we had, that community we built back into our respective organizations?

Stephen:

That's the tough part of this is that one, I don't think there's a right way to be able to do it. Because again, the conversation we had at Patterns would probably be different than we had it now because the economy was in a different place. Companies were in a different place in hiring. Their investment was in a different place. So I would argue just even honestly, a few weeks later, it's a different conversation. And so that's where I think that there is that constant read and react. How do you look at what's going on? Because again, I'm guessing whenever companies get like this, usually they're not like, Hey, let's go spend more on design systems. If anything, they start to look at design and go, we don't need that. They're expendable. Only to realize three months later how much they really need them and try to hire everybody back.

Chris:

Well, this is exactly what Dana Lawson was getting to at Netlify. She's like, have you all ever felt the pinch? It's coming because you're going to be asked to do more with less every single day.

Stephen:

And this is why with a lot of those teams, even on my own, I'll try to get them to understand that there's sort of producer teams and consumer teams. And the recent supply chain issues should have really highlighted this for a lot of people. But a design system is a producer team, which means you produce something that others consume. You produce it just like a grocery store. You're putting the ingredients on the shelf so people can take the food home and go cook their recipes. As a result of that, if that supply chain slows down, if all of a sudden that's not running the way that it used to, then yeah, you actually put the whole thing at risk. Because all of a sudden people are like, oh I can't do what I want. It's not evolving. I'm going to go do my own thing. And then all of a sudden there's four design systems and a lot of that sort of stuff. So it's tough. And that's what I mean is I think this space in particular is so fraught with so many of these challenges. That's why it's so difficult.

Chris:

I mean, not to mention that you're completely disrupting the way those consumers think about actually how they build their product. Because I think that there is sort of a chain here. And you brought up supply chain. I think it's a great way of thinking about it. A great sort of analogous system where you have, for example, if you're buying a car, you have all the people that supply the raw materials of the car, you have the car manufacturer, you have the dealer, and ultimately there's a customer value that happens after four or five different steps in that chain. I think we face that very similar problem in the way that we create digital products today, where you have a bunch of low level libraries or frameworks or whatever other people use. There's a bunch of people that are now creating reusable parts represented in a design system, vis a vi components that then ultimately end up being assembled into an application by a different team that it ultimately then represents user value, like three or four points down that chain.

Chris:

That's a really intricate, complex, interdependent web of how you go about building product. And if not everybody understands their role to play in that chain, it sort of breaks it. And if you're that person that is now all of a sudden expected to get a package from a design system that concludes all the componentry that I then assemble into a production application, that's a big departure. And I think that this, again, coming back to the leadership side of it, represents this interesting challenge and also leadership opportunity for people in design and for people that are leading design systems to say, this is not just a difference in the way we think about how we supply things. It's a difference in our overall supply chain for products.

Stephen:

And I had a couple really interesting conversations at Patterns around how it is part operational and part, I don't know what, social movement, because I think there's a little bit of, yes, we need the operations, but how is that going to work? And I think if you look at the car supply chain on average, from the time they get a piece of technology to the time you see it in a showroom is about two to three years because of that complexity. I also think that if we stick with the car analogy too, I think they're also smart enough to know that most people aren't showing up to car shows to see this year's model. Maybe some are, but a lot of them they're there to see the concept car. They're there to see the flash and the presentation. And I think again, you heard great stuff about Netflix and others who would put on events and try to get people with what they were doing to be able to come in and be a part of this.

Stephen:

And again, I think that part of making it a bit more of a social movement of understanding it's a mindset shift. Of understanding that we need to affect how people think as well and how do they perceive this and how do they participate in it and how do they see value in it? And to do those sort of things is really an important part of it and that kind of social engineering of how do we get you into this? How do we make this fun? But without it feeling like work or operational or flow charts or stuff like that. We heard from a lot of teams who took more of that approach and how do you onboard it? How do you a lot of those sort of things that it isn't just, we rolled it out, now everybody love it.

Chris:

It was really interesting talking to the Wayfair folks again about the sort of social structures, the service model they put in place for their design system that really looks deeply at the social implications of this for branding for them. Because for example, they have a lot of everyday consumer brands. They also have a lot of brands that serve very prestigious, elite wealthy folks. And there's a difference in how those brands think about building product as a result of their difference in audiences. And their ability to create a model that sort of helped those people along and built that hype train for something that ultimately they knew wasn't going to be realized for quite some time, a year or more in their case, to get people excited and enthusiastic about what was coming. I think that was a bit of their special sauce for how successful they were with that implementation.

Stephen:

But I think that was on two different sides because I think on the one hand there definitely was that ability to be able to get in there, to be able to get people educated, get them excited, get them onboarded doing again the social movement piece of it. But I think the other part of it, which I think I'm definitely hearing more and more of the more sophisticated teams, a lot of the higher end design teams, is really to start to have an increasing awareness. And I think this is not a popular topic, honestly, in a lot of the industry right now, is to realize that going forward a big part of design is our realization that we're really going to be in the consequence business. That what it is we design has an impact on society. What we do has an impact on the world, it has an impact on consumers. That we're sort out of that phase of let's just do it because we can and hide behind words like gamification or stickiness or things like that. That as you start to see screen addiction, as you start to see one of the number one surgeries in Los Angeles right now is to treat Snapchat dysmorphia, which is that people actually want plastic surgery to look more like their Snapchat filters. Product designs and design systems aren't just, make it pretty anymore. There's real implications to the work that we're putting out there.

Chris:

Certainly. A lot of echoes of Ethan Marca and talking about the bill of rights for your content and your creations. What is it that it means when you say, I've created this thing? What if that thing that you created ultimately ends up being a control in a remote drone in a place that people are going to die from that technology? Do you have the right to say how it's used? There's a lot there. And like you said, there's a bit of ostrich syndrome about that going around right now.

Stephen:

Yeah. But that's interesting because I do think there's a number of design system teams that I've actually come across lately that have started doing pre-mortems, which is before we design this sort of stuff, before we design either our product or things like that, what harm could we do? What do we need to think about? How do we bring in other opinions? How do we do some of those things before we design something, as opposed to the traditional model of like, okay, well let's design it and see what breaks or see what problems there are and then do it reactively or retroactively.

Chris:

So starting to be more mindful up front of the potential implications of something, rather than view it in post where you're understanding, how do I adjust? Yeah. I mean, it all comes back to mindfulness and therapy eventually, doesn't it?

Stephen:

Whether you like it or not. But I also think a lot of it is just acknowledging it, talking about it. Because I think that's one of the things I've discovered over my career is every time I say something that I am sure is only impacting me or I'm sure, and again, that was a lot of what Patterns was. I think that's why I sort of found my way back in a lot of the voice was just giving voice to those fears and having a space where you felt safe enough to be able to do it, then to be able to find the acceptance. And I remember we all were sitting around and I said something and I thought I was alone in it and two other people went, me too. We'd been there for three days. And I was like, oh shit, I had no idea. I think those sort of moments of connection and support become really important.

Chris:

Absolutely. And I love that you found that there, I know that I did. It was really great to see so many like-minded folks just so excited about collaboration in that way. And like you said, you would say something out there that you thought you might be pretty alone in and you'd see a half a dozen hand shoot up and people's willingness to lend their voice to lend their support to that idea or that vulnerability was so cool.

Stephen:

Yeah.

Chris:

Well, thank you again for being on the program. It's always great to catch up, hang out, talk about anything and everything around leadership and the direction of design. And before we close out, is there anything you want to leave us with? You always say these wonderful final thoughts.

Stephen:

Oh man, no pressure. The final thought is that, again, I think things that we've hit on is that I think especially as a creative and as a leader, there's always so much pressure to feel like we're doing it right. How should you be as the person at your company? How should you be as a leader? How should you show up in the industry? Are you doing your career the right way? Your brain plays a trick on you. None of that is really real. I always ask people to think about your favorite artist, your favorite musician, your favorite creative. They didn't get to where they are by being like everybody else.

Stephen:

And I think that it really is still a moment where as a leader, as a creative showing up as your authentic self, valuing yourself, supporting yourself is often one of the most courageous and rebellious acts there is because there's so much pressure and it's so much easier to just fit in with everybody else. But I think long term, we don't get into this because that's the life we want or the way we want to be able to do work. And so I think that's where events like Patterns, like discussions like this, the ability to go out and to prioritize yourself, to understand what you want, to be able to understand how hard this is. I think even when you said before about being a CEO or a leader is lonely. I think a lot of people that probably doesn't make sense, but if you've ever been in those shoes, you know how true that is. Whenever you're the one that's trying to push a vision that you feel like only you see, that's a lot of the things I just try to remind people is probably the final thought.

Stephen:

Success is a concept that I think only exists in hindsight. I can't tell you how many times I have done something, how many times I've been working on something where I thought I was going to lose my job. I was going to get fired. Nobody understood what it was. Everybody's like, you're stupid. And then as soon as it worked, they all wanted to know if I was hiring. They all claimed that they were a part of it. They knew it all along. But it was like, whenever you're doing it, it doesn't ever feel like it's going to lead to that success.

Stephen:

But I really think that for a lot of us, I had somebody tell me this the other day, and I thought it was one of the smartest things I probably heard this year, that discomfort and uncertainty are the cost of admission for fulfillment. That to be able to get to do the things that you want to do, to be able to grow in the ways that you want to grow, those things sit on the other side of feeling that way. And I think too often when we feel that way, we sort of feel like we need to back away from it. But to start to train yourself that when you feel that, that you're actually heading in the right direction and to know that's the cost of admission to where you want to go. I think that sort of stuff makes an insane difference.

Chris:

That's awesome. I love that. I knew you'd come up with something on the fly. See, you didn't even know that was going to be successful. And now here's your validation.

Stephen:

That was totally working without a rope there. I was just was like, let's just start and trust that I'll land on my feet.

Chris:

I just so appreciate your time, your friendship, your energy towards this. Thank you so, so much. Wonderful to have you as always, Mr. Stephen Gates, much appreciated. Look forward to having you back again soon.

Stephen:

Yeah, yeah. Looking forward to it too. Thanks so much.

Chris:

That's all for today. This has been another episode of the Design Systems Podcast. Thanks for listening. If you have any questions or a topic you'd like to know more about, find us on Twitter @TheDSPod. We'd love to hear from you with show ideas, recommendations, questions, or comments. As always, this pod is brought to you by Knapsack. You can check us out at knapsack.cloud. Have a great day.

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