Spotify’s Leonardo de la Rocha on Building Relationships Through Transparency and Being Data-Driven

This is an insights-packed conversation around how to build better relationships at work, how to use data to your advantage, and about design ethics.

Photo of Leonardo de la Rocha
Photo of Leonardo de la Rocha

You can also listen to this on

Guests

Avatar
Global Head of Design @ Spotify Ads

Leonardo De La Rocha

Connect with Leonardo

LinkedIn, Instagram, Website, ADPlist

Selected links from the episode

99% Invisible Podcast

Full transcript

This transcript is provided by an automated transcription service and might not be entirely accurate.

Christian: Welcome to Design Meets Business, a show where design leaders talk about practical ways to quantify design about making our work more transparent, and about how designers can make a bigger impact in their organization. I’m your host, Christian Vasile, and before we begin, I’d like to thank you for tuning in today.

On the podcast today, Global Head of Design at Spotify Ads, Leonardo de la Rocha. It’s an insights packed conversation about the advantages of being a T-shaped generalist, about trust, transparency, and relationship building at work, and about something we don’t discuss often enough – design ethics. You are going to love this one. Enjoy.

Leonardo, Welcome to Design Meets Business I am so excited to have you on today. I’m very thankful we’re able to have this conversation and I have a lot of topics to discuss. So let’s just jump straight into it. You are running as you’re calling it a startup inside Spotify, which is Spotify Advertising, but you’ve got a long history of running design organizations.

Yeah. With Yahoo. In the past. So for anyone who doesn’t know who you are, can you give us a brief tour of your career so everyone can get acquainted with you? 

Leonardo: Absolutely. And thank you for having me. I’m glad to be on the call with you. Um, my name is Leonardo, the literature. I’m a, an American born and raised in Denver, Colorado, but live in Silicon valley, which is where there’s a lot of opportunity for disruption and you know, through design thinking and through design.

Um, I actually got my start as a developer. I was a backend engineer, moved to front end engineering and then front end design eventually where I found my love, I co-founded a company back in 2004, which was acquired by Yahoo. And that was a publishing company. And I joined Yahoo to oversee Yahoo publishing.

 Did that well for a couple of years, moved into Yahoo advertising to help rebuild that portion of their business. Also successfully, and then eventually landed at Facebook where I joined, um, an amazing leadership team to oversee part of the business products there, specifically the advertising tools.

And after about five years at Facebook, took a little bit of a break back into entrepreneurship, but then eventually went to Intuit where I oversaw their design system discipline and help them build a design system that joined the, all of their brands together in a really amazing way. And then, ended up at Spotify where I.

Advertising design. And if you didn’t pick up on it, I’ve been in enterprise design my entire career. So publishing, advertising, design systems, generally the less sexy side of design, but to me the most amazing. 

Christian: Yeah, well, I’ve, uh, I can relate to that. Most of my career is in enterprise software. So I find that to be so many opportunities there because everyone wants to work on the 60 stuff.

Everyone wants to work on the consumer product. But there is so much space for disruption in the enterprise world because nobody really wants to work there. I find that to be fascinating as well. One of the, yeah, go ahead. Well, I was 

Leonardo: just going to build on that. You’re absolutely right. And there’s also the biggest opportunity for designer growth in enterprise space because.

Tackle some of the gnarliest challenges, some of the most difficult things. And in my opinion, and in my experience, if you’ve worked in business design or enterprise design, you’re one of the strongest product designers on the planet. And you’re the most valuable as 

Christian: well. Yeah, for sure. And I’ve seen that as well in the past, we look at portfolios when you try to hire or anything like that.

And there is more of a, of a vibe of a generalist. When you work in enterprise software, it just seems like you’re able to tackle much more. Complex issues then specifics like you sometimes do, in consumer, especially if you’ve been with the same company for a long time.

Most of the time you just work on the same thing, time and time again. So, yeah. So one of the things that I’ve noticed about your career and you’ve touched upon it a little bit, is that you have transitioned from being an engineer, to being a designer, to being a creative executive, to an advisor, to different companies.

So. To me, it sounds and correct me if I’m wrong. That you’re more of a generalist. And especially as I’m sure you’re a specialist in some areas, but the broad experience that you’ve got in, in the tech world sounds like comes from someone who’s more of a generalist. So what’s your take on that because I’m a big fan of generally.

So I believe that you can become much more valuable as a generalist in today’s design world. What’s your take on that? 

Leonardo: Yeah, I, I, well I think you’re absolutely right on both fronts for me personally. My career has lends itself to dabbling in almost everything. Part and every subdiscipline of design and it’s empowered me and I can I can speak to executives.

I could speak to engineers, I could speak to product managers. I can even speak to non, uh, business types and help them get excited and fall in love with design. And so my experience in moving around the way I have, and, um, switching contexts, where I have, has added tremendous value to me and to others who I mentor and.

Yeah. I, I, I think of myself as any T-shaped designer, like broad across the spectrum and believe it or not, my expertise is actually in illustration. I don’t read that for a living, but I love to do it as a side hustle. So any company I’ve been at has reaped the benefits. Getting free design, free sticker, design, swag, design, logo, design for their teams, because that’s where my passion is.

Christian: And yeah. And you were mentioning growth earlier growth as a designer. I think that when, uh, one of the better places where you can grow as a designer is. One of the places where he can wear many hats, most of the time, early stage startups. And I find that early stage startups usually tend to look for generalists because they can’t afford to hire teams of illustrators in teams of researchers and teams of UI designers.

They just hire a few people who can do everything. So I always say to people, if you want to grow and you want to grow fast, try to find a role where you’re. To do, um, a lot of things, some things even that don’t have anything to do with design in a way directly, a bit of marketing here and there, a bit of ads you know, stuff like that.

And it comes in very handy later during your career. 

Leonardo: I think you’re right. That’s good advice and to build on that, I would say that if you go into a small business or startup environment, wearing those many hats often means moving quickly and being decisive. So on top of. Gaining great experience at places like startups.

I think it’s also good advice to tell designers going there to be emboldened, to just have a strong point of view, to be decisive because the faster you can move through your decisioning, the more you can accomplish and the more challenges you can take on 

Christian: yeah. Being able to move fast though. Isn’t it also something that you’re able to do much easier when you already have built that trust with the rest of your organization.

W, what would you say to that? 

Leonardo: I think that’s true. However, yes. And there’s also some trust that you have that maybe you don’t recognize just for being there, that like you got hired at this company because they believe in you. And I think that we often look past that initial trust established when you join a company.

And my guidance to young designers is to embrace that like trust in yourself, trust in them, trust them the trust that they have in you and make those larger leaps. Don’t go overboard to where you break the trust, but just remember the trust that you have that got you there and embrace it 

Christian: and beyond just getting hired and having the natural level of trust from that, how can you as a designer, joining an organization build even more of it and it could be a long-term play, but how can you go about 

Leonardo: doing that?

Yeah. Gosh, that’s a great question. And I would say that today, looking back on my own career, but also with the people that I’ve mentored. The thing that I think gets you more trust is to be, and I know this is cliche, but I’ll say it anyways, like to be data backed to lead with your brain and take your heart with you versus the other way around frankly, data wins arguments, whether it’s a small company or a large company.

And if you can speak through the lens of. Uh, qual and Quan, you’re going to start proving yourself as a, kind of a target driven designer. And I think that’s what that’s where the most trust gets unlocked. 

Christian: Well, I don’t think it’s a cliche at all. If anything, I think it doesn’t get talked about enough and it is the whole, the whole reason of this podcast.

So one of the reasons why I brought you on in the first place is because I know that you and your team now, but also in the past, Made constant efforts of putting design in a spot where it’s seen as a business functional, capable of moving metrics. So I want to read a couple of paragraphs if that’s okay with you from from one of the articles that you wrote about this exact topic.

And then we can unpack that a little bit. I find this to be very interesting. So you’re saying. One of the best pieces of advice I was given early in my career and advice that continue to give to early career career creatives. Isn’t about the craft isn’t to make everyday is not to curate with care. The work that you let pull your heart strings.

It’s not even to work in a handshake mindset versus a handoff one with your development partners. All of that is excellent advice. I encourage designers to. He’d just not the best. In my opinion, the best advice is about unlocking your left brain analytical thinking to become a metrics guided creation.

And then you continue a measurement mindset allows you to look beyond your immediate or near term solution. It forces you to challenge even your best design sensibilities and make you comfortable with the idea of putting your solutions up against quantitative evaluation. Let’s talk about that. Cause I find that to be a really good summary of what I’m trying to do and with this 

Leonardo: podcast.

Yeah. Well, I’ll do math for a second and tell you that I, I got some tradition. Our training through a school called the art Institute. It was the artists in Colorado. And I found myself troubled because it was after I had already left my first stint of college. It was to go back to get a design management degree.

And the professors who were mostly speaking to younger kids were also speaking to me, somebody who went back in my older age and were saying things that just didn’t make sense. They were saying to fight for your design to fight for the decisions that you made it. Some marrying them there’s that makes sense to believe in what you did and to be intentional with what you’re designing, but what they weren’t saying to these kids.

And to me was that if you test your designs, quantitative data can actually help unlock and, and show you things that you didn’t know because you built something with your hands and your heart. And I think that’s the crux of the. Designers get too passionate about what they’re doing and to intentional when it comes to for their designs and they don’t have the ability to step back and look at it more objectively, that’s really what.

To be more like, and that’s what I encourage designers to be more like, try to be objective, try to step out of your own shoes. Can you look at your design and your work from different lenses and not just PM and engineers, but from executive lenses, from the people that you’re supporting as a manager. And if you get really good at getting out of your own shoes and looking at your work from these other lenses, coupled with data on how your design performed, you are one of the most powerful assets to any.

Right because you’re able to change and you’re not locked 

Christian: in. This reminds me, in a past episode, we had director of design at BP, and he was saying that one of the, the aspect of their work is this thing. Stakeholder experience. So yeah, you have user experience. You have all of that at, you already know about, but you also have stakeholder experience.

How do you talk about design to people in your organization? How you, how do you frame design? How do you bring them along on journeys? And I guess that’s what you’re also talking about is absolutely having that empathy for everyone else in the team. Yeah, 

Leonardo: and it goes beyond empathy. I think one of the, some of the best creatives, and by the way, I got to go back and listen to that podcast episode.

It sounds amazing. Um and the person you interviewed from BP, I think has it right on the head, being able to get out of your own mindset and getting in others that’s empathy. And that’s great. We should build on that, but when you can articulate your story and you can tell. Back to yourself, back to design from the lens of a product manager, why this is so amazing and why it’s going to make a difference and what metrics it’s going to push and what levers it’s going to attach itself to.

That goes beyond empathy. And that’s like commiseration and coastal. And when you become a co celebrator and it could in a commiserate or around the work that you do again, you’re trusted, but you also learn and you make a bigger impact on your team. As I think there’s a lot of value and not just looking at your work from different lenses, but being able to speak to your work in those different languages or those different times.

Christian: I also remember I’m going to bring you back all the memories, but I used to work with a fantastic, uh, or in the team of a fantastic director of design a few years ago. And a lot of the work he was doing was the work of a translator. He was taking what we were doing on the ground and translating that in business language at executive level to get buy in for the next project and the next project.

And I found that to be such a. Uh spectacular skill to have, because as a designer, you don’t get trained in that. It’s probably the only way to build it is through experience. And I think you also need to have you also need. In order to learn that you need to have a focus on it relentlessly for years, to be able to learn how to frame design in a way that other people understand.

And in order to be able to do that, you need to understand what they understand. So you kind of put yourself in their shoes. It’s a, it’s probably a monumental amount of work. So let’s talk about that because running a design organization consists of. A lot of these work that nobody really sees you’re not pushing pixels anymore.

You’re maybe not even sitting in design critiques anymore because you don’t have the time you’re doing a lot of sitting in meetings, really talking about designs, shed some light on that work for us. 

Leonardo: Yeah. Well I think you’re right. Mostly. I continue to strive to be a servitude leader. And to me, servitude means spending time with the people that you support and to understand their needs intimately.

Yeah. So I will get to the stuff that you’re wanting to hear, like what is the day-to-day like for a creative executive, but I also want to say that good creative executives, which I hope I’m remembered as spend the time with their team. To get to and understand them and, and build on those nuances. I think a lot of my week does go to one-on-ones with my direct reports, but also I have a lot of skip levels because I say to every team that I’ve led my calendar.

I’m here for you and I’m only going to be successful if you’re successful. So get on the calendar, like be proactive, find time with me. And I take that a step further. And I actually my old boss, uh, into it, Kurt, well, lucky he had a ritual there called kerf coffee with Kurt and no managers. It was all of the direct reports, the skip levels at every level, he’s a VP SVP like head of design, essentially for Intuit.

He was still meet with the ICS on each and every one of his business units teams. And it would be casual, there’d be coffee. And it would be a place to have spicy conversations. We say conversations that are difficult to have when your managers in the room, because you don’t want shaped or not.

You don’t want to feel like there’s going to be any retribution that I think. It’s a big difference between a good creative leader with multiple teams and the ones that are just kind of doing the work, but the work’s important too. And two, going back to your question, the day-to-day for me, it is a lot of strategy.

It’s a lot of alignment sessions. It’s a lot of understanding what our leadership at Spotify sees as opportunity. Grokking those opportunities and then creating a strategy on how the team is going to go after those opportunities. So that’s what strategy means. It’s like, you’re basically putting the plan on a page for what leaderships think we can accomplish and how your team is going to get there.

Not prescriptively because you want a, a good culture is one where it’s high autonomy with high alignment. So you want to say, here’s the challenge. Here’s how I think we’re going to get there, but the teams are the ones that solve and create the tactics to go. Yeah. 

Christian: And part of that strategy, is it also, here are the metrics that we need to hit with this, or does that come at a later point?

Leonardo: Great question. Because they should change. I think, poorly run organization. Are like they have sticky KPIs. They have KPIs that don’t change. And I used the word sticky intentionally because they’re kind of gross when you have KPIs that don’t adapt. Nobody wants to touch them. Like we’ve already tested.

We’ve already tried. Nothing’s moving the needle on that metric. Why is that metric still there? Blow it up, rethink it and have KPIs that adjust and adapt based on what market needs are and based on what the team capabilities. 

Christian: And how do you encourage your teams on a daily basis to. Use designed for what it’s meant to be used, which is moving those metrics rather than the alternative, which is here’s, here’s the next feature that we need to design.

Go ahead and do it. And you know it might be a bit of a tough question for you to answer because I think it also heavily depends on the organization that you’re working as part of and the culture of that organization, but not every business has the metrics driven design. Organization a cultural story.

So how does that work for those people who are in different types of companies than Spotify or Intuit? Sure. 

Leonardo: Well, firstly. Um, I’m really proud of you for recognizing that it’s different company to company. Cause that’s a nuance that is often overlooked and you do need to understand what is the culture of a team?

What’s the culture of a company is a product driven. Is it design driven? Is it engine driven? All of those are factors that can impact the way that you frame something to be inspiring to your design team. But I’ll challenge your point a little bit. And I’ll say that I think it starts with the not framing, the work of designer to push.

Obviously that’s the case on the surface, but I don’t think it’s healthy to frame it that way. The way that I want to frame challenges are just that like, as customer challenges that are going to bring joy, delight, and solve things for the customer, if you do that well, and you’re aligned with, and you create a culture of customer centricity or what we call that into, it was customer obsession and I’m pushing for that culture at Spotify as well.

Then you can start framing opportunities as customers. And you’re in it with them. Like you’re alongside the customer. You understand why it sucks and that’s what you’re trying to fix. And then smartly you’re aligning your KPIs or metrics to those customer wins. And so you never really have to frame or inspiring the team by framing it’s metrics and its KPIs that we have to move.

I’d always prefer to frame it as how are we going to help you? How are we going to help them have a better listener experience? How are we gonna help them have a better publishing experience? If you’re a podcast here and how are we gonna help them have a better advertising experience? If you’re a brand, just trying to push your narrative through our products.

That’s where you frame the challenge. And that’s what inspires design. It’s 

Christian: a great point. It’s a very different than what everyone else used to say on the podcast, which is well in a way or another, you’ve got to link business to this, or does that the design and what you’re doing with the business to kind of get buy in for the next project or show the value of design or build trust.

You, you mentioned earlier yourselves, you know, data builds trust. But this is just a different approach of how you can do that. I think this approach works really well in companies that are. Customer centric or driven by that. But I have had my fair share of experiences where that would not have worked.

So you join a company where people have no clue what design is. You’ve just, they just know that product teams need to have one of these people. So they hire one. The challenge is there are very different than the challenges at Spotify or at Intuit or at Facebook, because these are just companies at the top of the.

So if you had today join a company that has your you’re the first head of design of this company, or how would you tackle that challenge of talking about design and making it more important than people historically know it 

Leonardo: is? Yeah. Well, part of the answer is in your question, Christian, I think the best thing to do out of the gates.

Speaking to the value that design is going to bring by showing the work and I I’ve had this opportunity. I helped a friend who has a, an amazing startup of it’s, in the, um, tax sector is called neo.tax. His name’s Abraham, and we used to whiteboard in the coffee shop together, and I wasn’t.

Technically his first designer, but this was before he even founded the company. And he would ask me similar questions. Like we just need to ship a product. Like what’s up with all this design thinking or what, why is it important? And it was through the work that I showed him. It was like when we put together his first pitch deck for investors, that deck went from having raw data, that was very.

To having a story, a narrative, and it attracted different types of investors, like really, really impressive investing firms. And we would circle back and we would say, this is about design thinking because we’re understanding the needs of those investors. We’re putting ourselves in their shoes, we’re creating a mental model.

And now we’re doing the work in that lens. That’s customer obsession, that’s design thinking. And then we do a time and time again from like the presentation to investors, to the first landing page, to the first email marketing and that to everything else that he needed. And when you approach it that way with every project, you no longer have to convince them down the line.

You’ve already created that culture of design thinking by doing the work. Yeah. So that’s how I would begin it. That’s how I have started it. And it seems to be a pretty effective way, but it also means you’re doing a lot of extra work. 

Christian: Right. But as part of the job, isn’t it exactly. You said earlier that you like to spend time with the designers, will you use.

Your calendar is their calendar in a way. Yeah. I’m wondering when you have these conversations with them, what is it in general? What patterns can you get from there in what most designers are struggling with? 

Leonardo: Yeah. Great question. I think it’s a couple of things. One is given the state of the world and given all of the craziness that most of us are living through some more than others.

We have to pay attention to the emotional health of our people. And so by starting out the conversation, the connection with the very human touch, just like literally seriously, how are you? How are you? How are you feeling? How are you showing up this week? What baggage are you bringing? What have you been working through?

Like understanding how, where their emotional state is, and then creating a safe space through that understanding that’s super important. And, and we should all be doing that more with our teams, but when it comes to design and some of the biggest issues and what I see as themes, especially with bigger companies, the high-performance companies where you’re striving to be highly autonomous, highly aligned decisions get made pretty.

And sometimes that means designers get left out or they feel like they’re left out. And I hear it time and time again, like, Hey, we didn’t, nobody called us in here. We don’t feel like we have a seat at the table, or we don’t feel like our inputs being acknowledged or the MVP got whittled down to nothing and we haven’t even iterated on it.

We haven’t gone back to it. And I think that that’s evidence of a product led company, which isn’t a bad thing, but that’s an issue like when designers feel like they’re left behind. It means that designers don’t have a good relationship with our PM partners or their enjoy partners. And so w where I guide and where I give advice and where I give tactical go dues is building rapport and building bridges to those counterparts.

So the product counterpart or entropy counterpart, and that’s where I spent a lot of my time advice. It’s like, I understand. Well how did you try it before? Like, what does. What is the process that this pianos is looking at? Great. Well, maybe there’s an opportunity to change the process itself, or maybe there’s an opportunity to change your approach, but I, I try to get to, what’s broken about the relationship between you and your counterparts, and then focus on fixing that 

Christian: someone said to me, every problem, every word problem is a people problem.

So I guess that’s kind of what, you’re, what you’re hinting at. Almost anything can be solved by building rapport and. Talking to 

Leonardo: people. Yeah. And look, there’s always going to be people problems, but I think to take your quote, one step further, every challenge in an office, or every challenge in a business can be solved through a relationship by fixing something, improving something.

But you’re always going to have bad actors. You’re always going to have different personalities. Hopefully you’re working in a place where it’s a culture of many cultures and it’s not your place to change people. It’s your place to change relationships with those people. 

Christian: I find a very effective thing to do when you join our organization is to take a bit of time to meet with your most important stakeholders for 15 minutes, but make that meeting about them.

How can I help you? What are your goals here? How can design help you reach your goals? What has the previous designer done that I could do better? Or what has the previous designer done that? You enjoyed and you liked, and I could continue doing, how can I help you reach your goals? All these questions, not only help you understand where everyone is coming from, which we touched upon earlier, but they also automatically straight away built trust because everyone who joins companies.

Oh, that was, or rather should I say no one who joins companies does that. So you’re setting yourself apart. Everyone will soon understand this person is here to be part of the team and to help everyone reach their goals rather than, or this is a as a new designer who joined and wants to change everything like all designers want to do.

So. Yeah. I love that. I always say I always say to designers who were about to start their jobs. Take five to seven stakeholders and schedule 15 minutes meetings and ask them these questions. And you will see the change in their attitude towards you and attitude towards design.

Leonardo: Yeah, I, I couldn’t agree. More wonderful advice and I’ll push that one step further and tell you that. Additionally successful is to create a space of vulnerability. So if you’re, if you’re doing a good job of connecting with people and you’re helping them understand that you’re there to help. That’s great.

And you’re right. It leads to great relationships, but what leads to even better relationships or they understand that they can be vulnerable around you because you’re vulnerable around them. And it’s, it’s a gamble, but I found success. Saying look, I’m here to help you. And here’s what I can offer, but also here’s what I can cause some growth opportunities for me are this, this and this.

Maybe there’s some coaching that you can provide on that front. So you’re not asking, you’re not only asking, you’re only offering your help, but you’re giving them an opportunity to help you back in something that they’re good at. And so you’re kind of jumping the line and building that rapport by creating that arable.

Yeah. 

Christian: Well, this is also about talking and about asking. I find that whenever there’s something I don’t understand in the analytics of a product, if I go to the product and at least that we’ve got on a team, he would be more than happy to explain it to me. Cause that’s his daily job. He loves everybody’s daily jobs, just like I love it all my design.

Right. So I think we need to get out of this little cubicles that we’re sitting in, dude, there’s design and there’s engineering and then there’s testing. And then. And have more conversation across these teams to try to understand each other. And the moment you do that, people are more likely to do things back for you is as you said.

 And I find those to be the best teams to work with. I couldn’t run it more. So you’ve been around for 15, 20 years. And I can only assume that you have seen the role of a designer evolve into what it is today. What’s your take on where it’s going with, new technologies emerging and all of these uncertainties around, you know around the world and around web 3.0 and all of these things that nobody knows anything about.

How do you see the role of designers fitting. 

Leonardo: Well, first of all, I’m super excited with how quickly the landscape changes. I know that can be frustrating. Uh, like five, maybe seven years ago when everyone was like, holy crap sketches, amazing. I want to discuss that. And then two years later was like, oh crap, here’s Figma.

And we all had to relearn like there. Yes, it’s frustrating. But there’s something really special about that. Like, we’re changing so much so quickly that in and of itself is signal that there’s value in what. There’s an industry behind it and people want it to be faster and better. So that should be signaled to designers who are listening to this, that you are valuable, you’re important.

And you’re a big part of businesses, whether they agree or don’t like it, that’s just, the industry is showing us that. And I’m going to date myself for a second, but to go from. Cold fusion studio, which was a macro media product, which eventually was purchased by a Adobe. And then it was sunset. Like that’s when I started building products and it was literally two different, three different tools that I would use to create an experience, not to mention using flash to make that experience a little bit more approachable or funner.

And so to have all of that change to have go from like four different tools that you’re using to create a. To not even needing a tool and using a UI or just a IDE and write your code and it’s done, it’s amazing. That’s tremendous growth for any industry. So it excites me so much in terms of where it’s going.

I, and who knows, like I don’t even know much about the metaverse and I’m pretty close to the companies that are making it. But I think for designers, the advice there, the learning there, the maybe the insight is. To pay attention more than you ever have understand what tools people are using, why they’re using them and go and beyond your own design tools look at the product development tools, look at the communication tools.

Um, oh, I forget that. I can’t think of the name of a tool that I’ve been using to take notes, but even look at like documentation tools and then start to piece together. What’s good. What’s bad where your friends are going and where companies are going and you’ll start to be able to apply yourself.

This massive change because it’s not done. We’re going to see even more. Yeah. 

Christian: Knowing the industry changes so fast, how can we prepare future designers in a better way to be adaptable? To be able to change. 

Leonardo: Yeah, damn. That’s a million dollar question and 

Christian: knew, 

Leonardo: and I kind of am. I’m not personally, but I’m using a product.

I’m part of an ecosystem. Uh, many of our listeners might know this already. It’s called ADP list. Awesome design people’s lists. And I think that’s at the core of how to equip future generations to be amazing when you pair. People with mentorship that’s meaningful and specific. And this goes back to a previous point you were making like, how can we help designers get that experience to navigate and to converse and to speak executive, to speak PM and to tell stories to engineers that inspire them.

You can find mentors now so easily through platforms like ADP list, and I’m sure others, and then ask those questions like, Hey, can we role play? Can we just do this interview or do this a design crit, or do this product review? That’s how you’re going to get good at having those conversations with cross-functional partners.

And that’s how we’re going to as leaders help future generations remain. Yeah, for 

Christian: sure. ADP list is an amazing tool. I’m there myself and, you also get something in return as a, as a mentor, uh, which is you can’t really put a price on just knowing you contributed to someone’s career just in a tiny little way, but you know, you’ve, you’ve contributed that.

I remember growing up in designer. Really had any mentors, there was no platform where he could find people that was all of these things. I’ve kind of learned on my own. I can imagine how much faster you can learn and accelerate today. If you just use some of these tools, whether it’s mentoring, whether it’s podcasts, whether it’s articles, whether it’s books, whatever it is.

Um, none of this was around when I started and certainly when we started. So, uh, 

Leonardo: yeah. Yeah. And really quickly you touched on something that I think is also valuable. The, the amount of COVID. Podcast content that we have access to is just remarkable. And in addition to the mentoring I do, and like the guidance I give with design, like.

Probably do I also advise what are the podcasts that are teaching me things? And it’s funny. Like what, what I learned from now is not what I expected. Like I learned from 99% invisible I’m Roman Mars podcast out of Oakland, California. It’s amazing. And he talks about design, but it’s abstract. In a way that gives you insights.

It gleans into something that you weren’t even thinking about. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into an executive meeting room with like Roman Mars is amazing soothing voice in the back of my head telling a story and bringing insights to life the way he does. So, there’s things to be gleaned from, from all of the podcast content that exists out there.

And I think that’s something we should build as designers and like a repository, a directory of some sort, that guy. Alongside mentors, guides designers to the content. That’s going to help fortify some of the dimensions there’s trying to get better at. 

Christian: So talking about content because there is a lot of content out there.

And I said that today is probably one of the better times to become a designer because there is so much out there for free that you can just learn from. And someone counter argued. And said, well, actually I think this is one of the harder times to becomes a designer, but to become a designer because yeah, you’ve got all this information for sure.

But first of all, you don’t know what’s legit and what’s not. And second of all, the barrier of entry is much higher than it used to be 10, 15 years ago. It’s when, as a junior designer, you’re expected to just move mountains. What’s your take on that? Is it easier? Is it harder to become a designer today?

What would. 

Leonardo: I think that’s fair. and I’ll be honest. I haven’t given it much thought, but it’s a great thing to explore and just shooting from the hip or thinking out loud. I think there’s definitely expectations that are unrealistic. I’ve seen job descriptions for startups, and they’re asking for like 10 years of experience in Figma, it’s like relaxed, but, and then when you get to the job, There’s also unrealistic expectations to take things end to end without having done that before and without having any guidance to do so.

And I think it starts with schools, D design schools and just universities smartly redesigning their curriculum to meet the demands of the companies that’s where the change needs to start. But I think to help designers in this really high bar, this different, if it is difficult, which I trust it is, or more difficult than it ever was to become a designer.

The guidance that I’ve given folks is to be an expert at something like find the niche or that, that bar that goes down in the T shape of your designer life and hone that craft become valuable in something more specific, and then go after the roles that are looking for that thing more than anything else.

And if they get that one good thing from you, whether it’s motion designer or the UX designer, And then you have the opportunity to build the trust, to do that. Well, then you’re going to grow in the other dimensions that you need to, so maybe, yeah, if it’s harder, hone in on the thing that you think is the most valuable for the types of jobs you want to go after and focus on growing there.

I, I 

Christian: forgive, I will take that even further I always give that advice to people who ask. Oh, what is your advice on how to design portfolios? And I say, don’t necessarily put your best work there, put the work that you want to do more of. So if you want to do business to business software as a service, Put all the businesses business or not all, you know, put the best business to business software as a surface experience you’ve got there because in my experience, whenever we go and look at the portfolio, you go and look at portfolio with a problem in mind.

You’ve you’ve in your team. You’ve got a problem to solve, which is we need someone to do X. And who are you more likely to want to have a conversation with off the back of a portfolio? Someone who’s done X a million times before or someone who’s dabbled in a, B and C and a little bit of X. Yeah. So I only say focus.

Leonardo: I don’t think you’re wrong, Christian, but let me maybe challenge that a little bit. And there’s two things I want to say one, I’ve heard the feedback and I’ve given the feedback of having a liquid portfolio, one that adapts to the needs of what you’re applying for. So you might have various pages in your portfolio that speaks to different things, right?

That’s not bad advice. I think that’s good. And it’s a lot of work, but like you said, that’s the job, like do the work, show the work, but the thing that’s controversial that I’ll say is. I don’t agree that showing only the best pieces or to your point, nuanced pieces, like a handful of them five to 10 is the right approach anymore.

And I think showing as much as you can, as quickly as. Is a better approach. And I have a hypothesis why that’s true. And you can blow it out of the water if you, if you feel like it. But the way that we consume information as hiring managers, as executives, frankly, as people like, if we’re on Tik TOK or Instagram, and we scroll so quickly through things, we are grokking harder concepts so much faster than ever before.

And I think we haven’t applied that thinking to when we’re doing our own storytelling, our own selling. And when I look at portfolio. Like you or any design leader it’s usually in between meetings, um, TMI, but it’s also maybe when you’re on the toilet, it’s when you have those split seconds of time. So what’s better in that mental model or what’s better in that use case to show deep, thoughtful, well, articulated multi-page.

Or to just show all of the amazing swagger that you’re able to produce. And then when I’m interested, let me dig in, but that principle of progressively revealing, but starting by showing everything seems like it’s going to land you or serve you better than not. 

Christian: We had on a podcast a director of design at Salesforce.

And she said that she only has, anywhere between 15 and 20 seconds for each portfolio, she sees it as an initial opinion. Right. But that’s how you met. That’s how much time you’ve got to make the first impression. And he said, oh, she said one of the, one of the aspects of a portfolio that attracts my attention straight away is when someone can write really well.

What the project is about in two or three sentences. And then that acts as a. But it interests me or not. That’s a whole different, you as a designer, don’t have any control over that. But what you can, what you do have control over is how well you can write that hook, that introduction. So maybe it’s a bit 

Leonardo: similar to what you’re saying it is.

And I’ll build on that point and say, cause 90 sounds very smart. It’s a great advice. And it’s very true. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration if you’re able to. Tell your story in a traditional three-part way, the way that cinema tell stories, you introduce the characters, you introduce drama and tension, and then you get to this resolution and close it out.

The faster you can give me as a hiring manager, that three-part story. The more likely I am to read another story. Okay. And then start earning trust that yeah. This person got 

what 

Christian: it takes. Yeah. Do you know what? It just, it just clicked with me now. Cause you said tick-tock earlier, which I don’t use, but uh, you know, I am on Instagram and you know, kind of the same algorithm are behind it kind of the same user behavior of scrolling endlessly.

Sure. Your portfolio or a study case of your portfolio in tick-tock format or an Instagram or whatever people can just scroll through. Oh, great. You know what? I might cut this up now. I won’t, I won’t. I was like, whoa. If people are on Instagram anyway, and it’s just so happens that they’re looking for a designer.

Well, how about them scrolling through study cases 

Leonardo: and let the algorithm work for you? Like if you’ve been on LinkedIn and they have some of that tracking data, maybe they know that you’re an executive or you’re in a business, right. And then you can even boost and promote your posts, like spend exactly spend the 10 bucks on Instagram to boost your post and let it be like a multi-page swiping, Which is your screens from your portfolio, for sure.

Christian: Yeah. Yeah. So there’s something that I really want to talk about, before the end, because if years ago I was planning a talk about design ethics, and I just put it together. I put the narrative together. I just couldn’t make it stick. And I find very few days. Yeah. Talk about this. I mean, we know Mike Montero that’s all the time.

 He’s probably the most well-known cause he’s, you know abrasive and loves talking about it. So that’s, that’s why it’s so great to follow him. He is the man. Uh, so you also talk about design ethics in one of your articles, and I thought it would be an interesting matter to discuss with you. So let’s dive a bit into ethics and.

What is for everyone who doesn’t haven’t hasn’t thought about this what’s ethics and how does one practice ethical design on a daily basis? 

Leonardo: Um, it’s a great question. It’s a complex one too, because you can like Mike Montero does, you could talk about design ethics for days and you should, because designers have.

A lot of responsibility in terms of keeping society on a healthy path, because we’re the ones that are putting the products in their hands. And we’re the ones that are potentially causing or creating an ability for misuse cases. And that’s the core of what design ethics is. A good designer has the ability to look beyond the use cases they’re solving.

And to almost do postmortems, rather pre-mortems on how their product is going to be used and misused. And it’s a dark experience to go through this with your team, but because you’re going through some really serious things, like what if somebody uses your targeting UI in the, in an app platform to divide two zip codes or two different parts of the city.

One where there’s a lot of underserved under. Minorities and one where there’s affluent, you know, more homogenized communities and you’re able to target them with different messages at the same time to the same end. That is a misuse case. That’s awful. And unless you think about how can my solution be, who is for bad, you’re not doing a good job in design ethics, and you’re frankly not.

At the level of designing that you should be. And so design ethics is more of a practice and being able to look beyond the use cases and look at things more broadly. I think when I think about design ethics, just for, to give you a more tactical or your listeners, more tactical advice on how to implement it starts with the core of what you’re building.

I think what’s important to do is have design ethics conversation. At the design system level, when you’re building components when you’re looking at the atoms of what you’re about to build, how can each of the pieces be misused or be misinterpreted or be ignored when they shouldn’t be? And if you build that into your platform, if you will like where that kind of work is happening, as well as accessibility and inclusion, best practices, build that into where you’re building the building blocks of your products.

Then inherently the products that you build are going to have designer. And accessibility and inclusion built in, but then you also need to do checkpoints along the way. At Spotify, we have an amazing product development process with what we call phase gates. So everyone’s familiar with the phases of a product dev process.

Understand it, think it, build it, ship it, tweak it. That’s great, but what’s better is to have phase gates where you have design emphasis in the. Running these kinds of workshops. So after the understand phase, before you go into the thinking, you’re sinking with design ethics, thinkers, and you’re getting their input before you go to the next phase.

And then again, before you go to the building, and then again, before you go to the shipper, I think that’s world-class design ethics practice and what we’re striving to do at Spotify. 

Christian: Yeah, that sounds awesome too, to be able to have those person in the room. To counsel or guide you or guide the product development process.

 The other. Aspect of this that I’ve heard before is what you just need to create some sort of guidelines, some sort of design values, and then make sure that every single day you follow those. But I find that whenever you do that, it’s so easy to get lost in a day to day that you kind of forgetting about it, but I find your approach to say, well, let’s get a team together and talk about how could this.

Misused. I find that to be a much more accessible approach, something you can do as part of your product development process, much easier to tackle than just every single thing I move in in Figma. I have to think through these 10 values and principles and it’s just too complex. So I find your approach to be that much more accessible.

Yeah. You’ve also written an article about design critiques. Um, probably should have talked about this a bit earlier, but. You’re saying how these are a fundamental part of the design process. So let’s talk about design critiques, because I find a lot of companies are not doing them or maybe not doing them as well as.

Leonardo: Yeah, well, I think you’re right. I think design crits for, if it’s new to you, it’s commonly referred to the design crits, but they are critiques there, their sessions. When you get your team together to understand the challenge that you’re working on as an individual contributor, and then you show them your approach and solutioning, and then they’re there to offer.

Critiques. And I think that’s where some of the problem lies. It shouldn’t feel like you’re critiquing. It should feel like you’re asking questions. And so in, in, I think the article you’re referring to was kind of a guide to a good, to running a good crit that starts with provocations that feel healthy, not that feels like you’re attacking the designer that you’re in the critique with.

And so framing, everything is a question. And I’ll give you an example, like I can tell you Christian amazing use of. But I think blue is going to work better for the CTA, because red is just like a negative situation for a lot of cultures probably makes sense and probably good advice, but that framing being prescriptive and saying you should use is the wrong approach and you’ll get defensive.

Yeah. You’ll get defensive. And you create this air of defensiveness for the entire team. A better approach would be Christian. I love the way the button looks. I love the type style that we’re choosing. I love the evolution of the CTA. I wonder, have you tried different color palettes and you can, and then you can say actually, yeah.

And you know what? We tested everything and what tested the best was this red suddenly I’m like, all right, I just got educated and now I have an insight. And now I know why Chris had made that decision. So that’s step one is framing things as a question then being constructive. But step two obviously is back on the presenter of the critique you Christian could have.

We’ve tested these dimensions and this design and give us, equip us with all of the background that you can. That’s another really good step to take the critiques. Come show up with background. Assume nobody knows anything about your solution and take the time to educate them. You’re going to get better feedback.

Yeah. 

Christian: And this also helps build transparency into the design process in your organization, which in turn also builds more trust down the line. We’ve talked a lot about trust today. So I think whenever you open up and you start to explain to people, not what you don’t give them the result, but you talk about the process, so they know how you got to the end result.

There are also sometimes that as you just get. Exemplified earlier gets rid of a lot of the concerns or a lot of the critiques, because now I understand where this decision is coming from. Therefore, there’s no reason for me to ask about the color palette. 

Leonardo: That’s exactly right. Um, let me make that last point though, or the last point that I was going to make, and I wanted to start with, this was words matter a lot.

We, we know that. So we actually just switched away from calling design crits, or critiques, and we call it design hour. But that suddenly just softens it’s so much better for sure. And so I just wanted to give that insight as well as it is what you call it. So call it what it is, call it what you want it to be.

It’s a design hour. It’s collaborative. It’s informative. It’s it should be fun. So call it something that resonates. 

Christian: I love that, right? Leonardo. We’re nearing the end. I’ve got two more questions, which everyone gets asked at the end of the podcast. So the first one is what is one soft skill that you wish more designers would possess?

That’s 

Leonardo: a good one. Um, I think designers are mostly good at this, but what we talked about earlier in like building up on empathy means listening. It means hearing more than you say, giving more than you take and that that’s a soft skill or that translates to a soft skill, just being a good listener.

And, but we’re also creative than I am one too, or I will interject and I will cut off if I have something. It’s bad behavior. And I think it’s good behavior to figure out how can I become a better listener because it’s going to make you a better designer. You’re going to get more information it’s going to fuel you sure.

Christian: But the other one is what’s one piece of advice that has changed your career for the better. 

Leonardo: Well, aside from the metrics mindedness that, uh was instilled in me early in my career, I’ll build on something I said earlier and say having a strong point of view that is data backed, but also. Comes with passion and it comes with experience is going to give you a lot of opportunities in your career growth.

And I don’t say that to mean be a bully, be the loudest voice in the room. Obviously that’s not going to help you, but if you’re decisive and you’re intentional and you have a strong point of view, and then you say why you have that strong point of view, even if the point of view is wrong, or even if somebody challenges it, you’re kind of showing that you have this.

To navigate really complex spaces with passion and strong ability, and you’re going to get shit done. And I think at the end of the day, designers, that exude that energy of like, I’m ready to rock. I’m ready to go. Give me a challenge. And I’m going to tell you what I think we should do about it is better than being the silent voice in the room.

Christian: I love that. I love that analogy at the end that you made here. I’m ready to rock and roll. Let’s go there. Another, this has been an absolute pleasure. I think I’ve learned a lot and I’m pretty sure the listeners have as well, but just in case they want to follow up just in case they want to follow you on whatever social media you’re on.

How can they get ahold of you? 

Leonardo: I’m an oversharer and I’m an open book and, uh, I am active on Instagram, mostly with art and design that I curate and collect. And it’s Delarosa with the zero. And then obviously you can find me on LinkedIn, Leonardo De La Rocha. I come up and yeah, connect with me. And you can also find me on ADP list.

I don’t have a lot of time these days, but whenever I unlock my calendar my calendar. 

Christian: For sure. We’ll put this in the show notes. So it’s easy for our listeners to find you. They’re not, now this has been an absolute pleasure. So thank you one more time for being part of the Design Meets business journey as I like to call it.

And, um, we’ll be in touch soon. 

Leonardo: Wonderful. Christine. It’s been my pleasure as well. Thanks for inviting me.

Christian: That’s a wrap for today. I hope you found this episode useful and that you’ve learned something that you’re ready to implement that work tomorrow. If you’ve enjoyed this. It would mean the world to me, if you’d share it with your community, if you’d leave a review. And of course, if you’d remember to tune in for the next one, peace.