[DesignUp 2021] From pixel to Excel – design success tips from Dave Malouf, design operations leader

As media partner for the DesignUp 2021 conference and fundraising event, YourStory presents this expert interview on design operations, excellence and education.

[DesignUp 2021] From pixel to Excel – design success tips from Dave Malouf, design operations leader

Sunday June 13, 2021,

7 min Read

Dave Malouf, Founder of The Interaction Design Association (IxDA), is a design operations leader, coach, and trainer. Based in New York, his focus areas include design management, interaction design, service design, and qualitative research.

He was earlier Senior Director of Strategy and Operations at Northwestern Mutual, Director of Product Design at DigitalOcean, and Principal Experience Strategist at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Dave is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and will be speaking at the DesignUp conference.

This year, the DesignUp 2021 conference team’s response to India’s apocalyptic second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is to organise a virtual fundraising drive along with the stellar lineup of speakers. To be held on the weekends of June 11-20, 100 percent of donations will go to charities bringing much-needed relief to rural India, in the form of dry rations, oxygen concentrators, and health centre wards.

As media partner for the conference series, see YourStory’s coverage of DesignUp’s earlier online panels in 2020, May the Fourth be with you and The pandemic’s impact on design. See also our write-ups on the annual DesignUp conference editions from 2019, 2018 and 2017, and our d-Zen (‘Design Zen’) section for more design resources.


Dave Malouf joins us in this interview on design management, leadership strategies, and pandemic resilience.

Edited excerpts of the interview below:

YourStory [YS]: What are the success factors for good designers to become good design managers?

Dave Malouf [DM]: There are two key things.

A. Stop designing. Good managers are better business people than they are designers. Not that they weren’t good designers, but they need to put down the pixel and open up the Excel.

B. It’s about people. You are here to develop your people. Making them better people, better designers is the new goal. Let the better design flow from the better people.

[YS]: What are ways in which industry and academia can collaborate to improve design education?

[DM]: Through all my work with IxDA (Interaction Design Association), this question has been at the centre for me — whether it was through making collaboration with education institutions a core part of our global industry conferences, or the creation of initiatives that focused on education, such as The Student Design Challenge, and the Interaction Design Education Summit.

Creating spaces where education and industry meet together is at the core of this answer. But it needs to be done in a way where they speak the same language, so inviting industry people to academic events just doesn’t work.

The most effective opportunities I have seen while I was a professor were when industry invests in school programmes with time and money by sponsoring project studios. These opportunities have been invaluable to helping students get real-world experience. It also helps schools to better understand how the industry is changing, so they can adapt their curriculum.

Lastly, it helps if industry leaders can join the advisory boards of school programmes, and evaluate both curriculums and student work. Visa versa, creating opportunities for faculty to work with industry would be another area to make these types of experience exchanges.

When I was a professor, I was looking for opportunities to contribute professionally to industry, through types of fellowships.


[YS]: What are three core skillsets or mindsets that designers need in the uncertain post-pandemic world, especially in virtual or remote settings?


1. Your designs will only be as good as your ability to communicate.

2. Your communication will only succeed if you collaborate.

3. Collaboration only succeeds if you are able to create safe spaces for open and inclusive conversations.

[YS]: What are some outstanding examples you have seen of effective design during the pandemic?

[DM]: Apple. The way it changed FaceID 2x to accommodate people with face coverings. First, the company recognised the face covering and jumped to PIN input right away. Then it made it so that you can unlock your phone with an Apple Watch.

Another good example is Zoom adding reactions.

[YS]: What are the key challenges facing designers in these grim times, and how can they be overcome?

[DM]: What is clearer than ever is that designers are labour, and we face all the stress that all people in labour face.

The other major issue of this period is responsibility. Designers around the world need to start being accountable for their contributions to systemic oppression.

Whether racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc., designers need to take on their role in enabling and colluding with these systems.

[YS]: What are some notable projects or research initiatives you are currently engaged in?

[DM]: My work is less in the design and research trenches as I work on the operations side. But in my last role, I was leading as product owner the creation of a new tool to help bridge data and mapping.

Most mapping tools are just drawn. They are not generated from data or even connected to data. What if we could connect drawing and data when it comes to the design maps or visualisation tools that we rely on?


[YS]: Many entrepreneurs with a tech/business background tend to underestimate the importance of design. What advice would you give founders on when and how to engage with designers?

[DM]: Never really liked this question, to be honest. It constantly puts design in the back of the bus. I have found that it is nearly impossible to convince anyone of the importance of design. They have to see good design succeed in a way where they can connect it to their own work.

Can you bring this good design to them? Maybe. But constantly throwing Tesla and Apple at people won’t convince them of the importance of good design in AI, manufacturing, infrastructure, finance, operations, and other similar non-consumer areas.

I will say that instead of talking about design, it is best to talk about people. If you can get business people to figure out how to include people, they’ll start to see how the unique qualities of cognition and emotion impact how people perceive value. And value is something that everyone can understand.

[YS]: What are the leadership opportunities for designers in a world where inclusion and environmental sustainability are becoming key concerns?

[DM]: Inclusion and sustainability are values. You either bring them in to what you do, or you don’t. As a white, western, straight, man I can say my challenge is how to make space.

How do I not fall into the trap of the zero-sum game? How do I find my own success while amplifying others to reach their success? THAT is something that is a challenge.

It might mean for now that for the remainder of my generation, I actually have to limit my success so that others can have more of a chance to be successful so that in the next generations we can have a truly balanced, unprivileged space where everyone has equal opportunity to become successful.


[YS]: What are three daily habits of yours that help in strengthening your design sensibilities?


1. The best things happen from serendipity, but serendipity just doesn’t happen on its own. It happens because of a combination of setting up things to be connected that wouldn’t have been otherwise, and having a sense of awareness and openness for it to happen.

2. Write, or sketch, or both – every day. Doesn’t matter what you do, but just get your thinking out of your head where you can reflect on it.

3. Share one idea with a person a day. Like writing and sketching, but including someone in your journey.

[YS]: From your reading list, what are three good books about design you would recommend for the “non-designers” out there?

[DM]: Creativity, Inc. (Ed Catmull); How to Make Sense of Any Mess (Abby Covert); and Sense and Respond (Jeff Gothelf, Josh Seiden).

[YS]: What are your tips or parting words of advice for the aspiring designers in our audience?

[DM]: Stay curious. Remember the deliverable is not the point; it’s the impact it has. Lastly, it takes a village — no design succeeds through the designer alone. You need many people to make your intention into an impactful reality. More than you think.

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta