An interview with Ryan Rumsey – Designing for business and social impact

We want to thank Ryan Rumsey for his advice to Yuan Zheng, our Product Design intern, during this exclusive interview. Ryan is the author of Business Thinking for Designers, a…

We want to thank Ryan Rumsey for his advice to Yuan Zheng, our Product Design intern, during this exclusive interview. Ryan is the author of Business Thinking for Designers, a book published by InVision, and the CEO of Second Wave Dive. He has previously led Experience Strategy at USAA, built Product and Design organizations at Electronic Arts as well as Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences, and developed best-in-class software for Apple. 

In this interview, Ryan talks about how an early career designer can navigate company business models, the role designers play in helping businesses create a more positive impact on society, and introduces the works of other design leaders committed to delivering social impact. He celebrates the works by Dori Tunstall, Erika Hall, and Mike Monteiro on ethical designs, as well as Boyuan Gao, Sam Kapila, and Jahan Mantin’s works on equity and inclusion. 

Yuan: How is your quarantine life going? I know you are a writer and music lover besides a design executive, are you reading or listening to anything interesting right now?

Hi Yuan! Thank you for asking. Quarantine life is exhausting, but we’re so fortunate to be able to isolate safely. Every day feels a bit like Groundhog Day, reliving the same events over and over again. All things relative, we’re doing ok. I’ve found that listening to music is a bit too much right now and that doesn’t calm my nervous system, so I’ve been reading a lot more. I just started How to Future: Leading and Sense-making in an Age of Hyperchange by Scott Smith and so far, so good!

I am a fan of your book “Business Thinking for Designers”! What advice would you give an early career professional such as myself when it comes to navigating company business models and processes? What information or feedback would be valuable to the UX or company leaders?

Thank you! I’m so glad the book resonated with you. One of the biggest pieces of advice I received early in my career and have shared with others is to be curious about how the actions customers of customers generate revenue or cost the company money. For example, a customer purchasing a software license generates revenue, but a customer calling customer support costs the company money. This is one of the most basic concepts that many company leaders don’t often share with employees; here’s how generate revenue and here’s where we have expenses. If a designer understands those basics, we can better understand how an experience both generates value for the customer and the company.For UX or company leaders, there is no silver bullet answers and every situation is unique. Building strong companies and design organizations is really, really difficult and messy. If you’re not comfortable with ambiguity and taking on risk, it will be even more difficult. Give a clear idea of what the expected outcome is and let your teams determine how to get there.

At Second Wave Dive, you founded a professional development program that dives into the intersections of strategy, business, innovation, org models, behavior change, and design for seasoned product and design leaders. What career advice would you give to an early career professional, and what are some of the recurring knowledge gaps you have observed during your time there?

For early career professionals, I believe it’s important to spend some time on your craft. It may tempting to dive straight into the intersections or feel like you’re not making progress day to day, but spending some time inside your craft and developing deeper expertise in one or two areas is a great foundational backbone for embracing the intersections later. 

Designers are increasingly given more responsibilities at a business level. How can designers help companies not just do well, but do good? How can an early career design professional help companies create a more positive impact on society?

It’s really important designers know enough about the business model and strategy of the organization they’re working for or with. Fundamentally, if a business is not rooted in providing societal, equitable, environmental, or human value as part of the business model, it’s going to be really difficult for any designer to help a company prioritize those values. That said, to create a more positive impact on society often means showing the financial and customer risks of not doing so. 

I really appreciate your advice! Do you know other design leaders who are committed to driving positive social impact I can follow or interview?

Yes. I love what Dori Tunstall is leading amazing work at OCAD on Respectful Design. Erika Hall and Mike Monteiro from Mule Design share a ton about ethics. Boyuan Gao and Jahan Mantin from Project Inkblot are doing amazing diversity focused work. My friend Sam Kapila is not only a wonderful designer, she is also super passionate about equity and inclusion.

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Ryan been designing professionally for 20+ years. Over the last decade he’s been building and leading design organizations while supporting some of the most category-defining companies in business today. He is the author of Business Thinking for Designers (2020; published by InVision) and CEO of Second Wave Dive. 

Previously, he led Experience Strategy at USAA, building and growing a team of thriving strategists and consultants who served our executive line-of-business teams.

Prior to that, he was responsible for building Product and Design organizations at Electronic Arts and Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences. Before building teams, he designed and developed best-in-class software for Apple.

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Yuan Zheng, Product Design Intern

Yuan is a Ph.D. candidate, who published as first/co-author on the PLOS Pathogens, Journal of Virology, Journal of Biological Chemistry and Science Reports. Her current focus is in the promotion of scientific literacy through UI/ UX design. Prior to her role at Unbuilt Labs, where she is reimagining research communication, she has optimized the reading experience of an online UX publication operated by senior designers at BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent).

  • Rochester Institute of Technology, M.F.A. Visual Communication Design ‘21
  • University of Minnesota, M.S. Pharmacology ‘18
  • Wuhan University, B.S. Biology ‘14