Shani Sandy

Shani Sandy

Shani Sandy

June 10, 2024

June 10, 2024

June 10, 2024

What does 'designing forward' in your career, leadership, and craft look like?

What does 'designing forward' in your career, leadership, and craft look like?

Join Shani, a Design Executive at IBM, serving as Vice President of Experience Design. She is an award winning creative leader, working at the intersection of design, technology, and leadership. “Designing Forward” is her philosophy—tune in to hear more!

Join Shani, a Design Executive at IBM, serving as Vice President of Experience Design. She is an award winning creative leader, working at the intersection of design, technology, and leadership. “Designing Forward” is her philosophy—tune in to hear more!

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Episode Transcript

Shani Sandy 0:00

The shaping of your point of view is your number one job.

Liz Gerber (host) 0:15

Welcome to the Technical Difficulties podcast. I'm Liz Gerber and a design professor at Northwestern.

Lauren Lin (host) 0:20

And I'm Lauren Lin and I'm a student who has also worked in the design industry. Each week we speak with women leaders in design and technology.

Liz Gerber (host) 0:28

Today, we're so excited to welcome Shani Sandy. Shani Sandy is a design executive at IBM serving as Vice President of Experience Design. She's an award winning creative leader, working at the intersection of design, technology and leadership. Designing forward is her philosophy, which we can't wait to hear more about. So Shani, that's your front facing bio. How would you introduce yourself? What's the behind the scenes bio? Did I miss anything?

Shani Sandy 0:55

I would say..yeah, I would say that I'm always evolving. I say to people, when I introduce myself, Yes, I'm a designer. Yes, I'm an executive. Yes, I am a practitioner. But I'm also fill in the blank. I'm still evolving. I'm still becoming.

Liz Gerber (host) 1:17

Wow, that's beautiful. Thank you. We can't wait to hear more of those stories Shani. Thank you. And thank you for being with us today.

Shani Sandy 1:23

Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Liz Gerber (host) 1:26

So we'd like to start by asking everyone, how did you get your start in technology and design? Another way of thinking about this is, was there a moment when you had "Oh, I'm a designer" or "I'm a technologist"? Or was it only in retrospect that you had this? How would you think about that?

Shani Sandy 1:45

Yeah, I think I've never not been a designer. I think I was born a designer. And if anything, I would take it back a notch and say I was born an artist. I think for me, the way that I've processed the world has always been through my sensitivity. And I had to figure out how to make that work for me, in the business world, because sometimes that sensitivity can be a deterrent in a world where it's, it's, it's not emotional, it's very much driven by business needs and emotions have been put to the side. But if I think about that question more, I think I've always been a designer, I've always been an artist. And maybe the addition is when I got to the point of adopting the label of designer, is maybe the distinction, right? Because I was always kind of making things and, you know, looking at scraps of materials and putting that together to make a new outfit. For my jean jacket design or doing notebook designs for classmates, I was always making things. My, my poor siblings, like, I would put them in like into classrooms in our domain, not true classrooms, like in our bedroom, like create like a class who would be the teacher to have us draw together, I was always the one like, let's, let's make something and that was just part of how we grew up. So it's just part of how I know myself to be. But it's not saying the label of designer, I think that came with more formal education. And then people started to say, Oh, you have this type of skill set, then you could probably apply that to be a graphic designer, or being a web designer. But that came after, I think I was always just a maker.

Liz Gerber (host) 3:59

I found it fascinating to your statement about using sensitivity to your advantage in a environment that doesn't necessarily prioritize that. Can you give a concrete example of how you do that, it sounds like a secret. If you can reveal your secrets!

Shani Sandy 4:17

My secrets? Yeah, I think for sure. I mean, I think it's on a daily basis, right? So there's some more indirect ways that that translates that I think, may not seem as potent if I tell stories about it, but I'll do my best. So, um, you know, a lot of the work that you do, particularly when you're in a business setting, particularly when you're in a company that is highly matrixed, so meaning that you work with a lot of different types of collaborators. You work with people pulling in and outside the organization. And you have different responsibilities and allegiances based on where you're set up and organization, it requires that you work really well together to get to an outcome, you have to be collaborative. In order to get stuff done. No one is doing the high impact, critical work on their own. It's always team based. And so what I started to realize inside of corporations in particular, is, there is an emotional intelligence that I was able to wield, because I really I picked up on a lot of cues, that wasn't just the audible verbal cues, but the way that tonalities would be conveyed, or the way that someone might make eye contact, or the distance between someone or just energies, like I pick that stuff up very quickly. And sometimes I could pick that up, and it can make me feel like, oh, this person is not as receptive to me as I would hope they are. And I could think, oh, wow, there's going to be a challenge. And that could be a deterrent, that could make me be a bit apprehensive of my going to create a relationship with this particular professional colleague, or what have you, to end up getting to like the outcomes, I know, we have to get to together. And I feel like they are not really on the same page, they kind of kind of not receptive to me. And so for me, typically, when I pick that up, it's typically true. And so I'm already doing the work of figuring out how do I start to build rapport. And it can be sometimes as simple as just sharing a bit about who I am, and being more conversational, and less transactional with the way I engage with with my colleagues. You know, sometimes it can just be after a conversation, or a meeting with a few folks coming back afterwards and saying, Hey, I'd love to have a little bit time with you one on one, just to make sure like, we're connected on some of the things that you talked about, or just kind of affirming something that I heard on the sidelines to build that rapport. And so when I pick up on those types of things, where I feel like there may be a bit of a disconnect, I do my own work to then help bring the person who I feel a disconnect with, into a place of better rapport. Because I know that's what's what it's going to take to get to some form of relationship where we can actually work together and achieve outcomes. So it's interesting, right? Because I think people think, okay, the work is the work that has to get done, and make sure that, you know, box, a, b, and c are all checked. It's also how you do it. It's not just what you do. And so I think that how piece is where my sensitivity has, has, has worked to my advantage.

Lauren Lin (host) 8:09

That's a great example of what it's like to build leadership skills. And that's something that I feel like they don't teach you in school. That's something that you learn on the job in the workforce, when you're working with diverse stakeholders. I do want to pivot back to your education. And the moment in the beginning when you said that design was like a label that became more formalized to you through like more formal education rather than like learning on the job, maybe. So you got your BA in Art History and Painting and Computer Art at Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. So I'm wondering how this educational path maybe solidified some of those design labels for you. And maybe what you realized, "I did not learn this at school. And this is what I learned on the job." And it's just as important.

Shani Sandy 9:03

Yeah, for sure, Lauren. It's a dynamic journey for me when I think about my educational path. So a little bit of refining on that journey/story. I ended up doing dual degrees because when I started my formal collegiate education, I realized by the end of my freshman year, that the type of education that I wanted in terms of hands on creativity, and artistry, I was not receiving where I was, and it was a tough decision because I have busted my butt to get into Columbia. That's where I was at Columbia University in New York City, and was excited to be back in New York City and be a Columbia they have an amazing history program and I I wanted to still pursue art history. But I also wanted to pursue studio art with more rigor than I was getting in Columbia. So I made the decision in my sophomore year to transfer and go to Tufts University in the School, the Museum of Fine Arts because I was able to continue my BFA and do the art history piece that I wanted to do would also add to that studio art. And then to my BA, I think I got it turned around my BA in Art History and my BFA in studio art, nevertheless, so I already was fairly deliberate in realizing it was time for me to pivot so that I could have that hands on education that was also complemented by more of the theoretical scholarly endeavors of our history. So there was that as my backdrop. And once I moved into this tool to degree program, there was a requirement of taking a computer science course, that was part of the core curriculum, and it was like computer science 101, I'm talking about basics. And when I was in this course, at first, I was like, I cannot be able to take a computer science course. But okay, here we go, let's get this over with. And one of the requirements was to build a website. And that was the gateway into understanding that, oh, there's this artistry that I've been doing as a painter. And there's this art history, the study of painting and other types of art forms. But there's also the space for like, using my art in digital mediums. And that was the opportunity for me to create my first web site,, 1999. It was my own website, where I actually featured my artwork and featured my my writing because I used to do poetry and all of that. And in doing that, I started to realize, Oh, they're kind of formal disciplines that go beyond studio arts and art history. And they're called things like, at that time, it was called computer art a few years later, it suddenly kind of transmitted become more like web design, and eventually expanded into things like user experience, HCI, and so on, and so forth. But that's when I started to understand Oh, there are these different types of paths that I can take under this larger umbrella called design. And that really was the gateway for me, that got me into one digital oriented design practice.

Liz Gerber (host) 12:45

I love And that was available in 1999. I got in 1999. I relate to that. I relate to that story!

Shani Sandy 12:59

Yeah for sure! I hope I answered it because I think there were like two questions there to Lauren's?

Lauren Lin 12:59

I think you did!

Shani Sandy 13:04

Yeah, I did?

Liz Gerber (host) 13:09

That was a great answer.

Shani Sandy 13:16

Yeah, but that was that was the entry point. That was the gateway and, and to this day, I'm like, a bit of .com hoarder. Like I probably have like 30 different .coms that I just continually renew because it's just that was the bug that got me in it. It never shook. Are you that too Liz? It's ridiculous. I don't even want to know how much money I spend like monthly just on maintaining these dot coms. These domain names just out there. You know, just in the world. Anyway.

Liz Gerber (host) 13:49

We could do a whole episode just on how the how the early 2000s messed with our brain. Yeah, and remember how companies had to have the word .com and them to be a tech company? That was one of my early contributions at my job. I told a bunch of my older colleagues that they weren't .com Unless they had a .com in their name. Anyway, you know, I was really into branding, what was going on there.

Liz Gerber (host) 14:20

So obviously, we could talk forever. So you are now an executive at IBM, which is, to many of us, like what an incredible position. It looks like everything has gone perfectly in your career. And yet, I will I must ask. Were there ever moments of like any any defining career failures or moments where you went the wrong direction and you had to correct that you are willing to share with us. Any career defining moments?

Shani Sandy 14:56

Oh my goodness...far from I said, In the beginning, I'm still evolving! There's a fill in the blank that I'm continuously rewriting. And even in the last five years that I've been at IBM, I'm in my third role in five years. And that even I think speaks volumes to what it means to continually design your career. And I tell all of my friends, my mentees, protegees, what have you, that I'm still learning to. And for me, just as much as I'm a design practitioner, and that's my core. I also use that in my life. And that means that my career, I'm also thinking about how am I continually using my design chops to evolve my career path. So I've had a bunch of failures. And those are necessary, right, there's no way that I could have been at this point in my career without those, I think, when I reflect on defining moments, there are several that stand out to me one, defining moment, probably mid career for me, I was a creative director of a company called Capital IQ, and the story there, just quickly, is interesting because it was my first formal gig, so to speak. So before I got into Capital IQ, I had my own studio, I was a one woman shop, doing all types of work, you know, working for like the mom and pop cleaners and doing their brand identity. And then even had like clients in La Jolla doing their their funding website and their brand identity and just just taking in work and gain experience as an emerging designer. And so I spent almost four years doing that on my own. And that was both by design, but it was also because of the environment. It was right after 9/11, it was very challenging to find work. And I had 10s and 1000s to pay back in financial loans. And so it was imperative that I figured out how to make it work to make it work. So when I eventually found a full time gig, which I needed, I needed stability of income at that time. It was a financial company, financial technology company. And I had really taken a liking to being the first designer. But I quickly also understood as the first designer could only do so much. And so I got to this point in my career where I'm like, Okay, I am learning, I'm growing, I'm getting my hands into all types of things, from marketing to platform, design, UX, and all these types of things. But I need help, I can't continue to be that was one woman shop inside of this company to do so. And that became a reflection moment for me to realize that there was more that needed to happen in order for me to make greater impact. And so I went to my boss at the time, and I was in marketing at the time. And I basically pitched a role. And explain that this is where I am is what I'm doing, I can do so much more. But in order for me to do so much more, I need a team to do that. And the pitch went over well, well enough that I was able to get the ability to hire few interns. And gradually that group—so I first brought on two interns, interns and evolved to freelancers, freelancers, then evolved to full time staff. And like within maybe the span of about four years or so I had a small team as a creative director in that business. But that wouldn't have happened if I didn't take the initiative to say, I see opportunity for my growth. And I also see how this growth opportunity for me can help build out the this actual company and experiences that we want to create as part of as part of, you know, this growing startup. So that's probably one of the you know, one of the defining moments that I had where I realized I have to also design my career and take control of that and be the one to be my biggest advocate and say this is what I need. But also like, here's why you want to also invest in me, but I'm the product right? So that that's what I had plenty more. Plenty more. But that would be one but I'm happy to see another one but it depends on time and what we want to do.

Lauren Lin (host) 19:59

It's up to you. But if you are excited to share another story, I think that would be really fun to listen to, I mean, your first story alone, I think that's a great moment of reflection for me too, to recognize, like as a student, or like emerging talent, what are some moments where you feel like you're hitting that ceiling, or your path is sort of like hitting a limit, and you need to go and advocate for yourself. So if you want to share another!

Shani Sandy 20:30

Yeah, I love what you're saying too, about this plateau, it will continue to happen. If you're truly growing and learning in your life, it will continue to happen. So I've had several, I mean, more than this handful, more than five moments of, Okay, it's time for something else, I'm feeling like I'm getting to a plateau, it's time to expand, I think we're here on this earth to expand and to grow. And so, you know, one other, I mean, this is less of a moment, and probably more of a realization, particularly as someone whose core like I shared with you all before is about making and creating things and like, you know, sensing the world and feeling that out, and then processing it through how I sense the world. As I started to become more entrenched in corporations, you have to be more attuned to what corporations need from you. And I had to get more savvy about business because that was what I was in, I was inside of a business construct. And so I started to kind of refactor myself and realize, okay, yes, I'm still a practitioner, and it was gonna take that away from me. But also, now I'm a business leader. And so as a business leader, how do I take what I do as a designer to impact business, and that was kind of the new way, I had to look at things. But then what that meant for me was, oh, shoot, I don't understand business that much. Maybe I need to learn more about business. So that was like a reckoning like, should should I should I go into an MBA? Should I talk to people who are more, you know, in the C suite? Like, what, what should I do to get these business chops, and I did through formal education, I don't necessarily think that everyone has to do that you have to decide what you think is best for you. But I did end up saying, I want to have more formal learning in the areas of business management, change management, understanding the basics of balance sheets, and how companies are profitable. So I did go ahead and actually eventually pursued an MBA. But prior to that I did a lot of smaller learning programs around businesses and how they function to understand I translate inside of a business context, right. So the kind of takeaway point for me is this: as a practitioner, I was very much especially early in my career, I was very much heads down, getting the work done. getting the work done on time on schedule, on quality, that was my goal all the time, to look around, like, wait a second, some of these folks who came in around the time that I did, or didn't have the amount of work that I do, or what's the some questionable things going on here and there, and they're moving on up. They're moving on up through the, you know, the ranks of promotions. And what I started to realize is, I couldn't just look down at my work, I had to look up and around and understand what it looks like for me to progress in my career. And that's not just doing the traditional output of work. The work is more than the output. The work is both in relationships, the work is working on yourself. The work is understanding the context you're in. For me, that was business. So the work for us, especially if you're inside of these types of corporations, goes beyond the day to day output. That's important. That's table stakes. But it's more expansive than that. And that was probably the biggest learning for me.

Lauren Lin (host) 24:21

Wow, that's a great story. And I think it's so clear, you live and breathe your philosophy designing forward, like you're always evolving. I just find it really inspiring that you've developed this point of view, and you've used it to frame like your whole life and growth. I'm curious, what are you excited to work on today could be at work or outside of work. And how is that an extension of you designing forward?

Shani Sandy 24:52

Yes, yes, I'm excited about so much right now. For me design forward is exactly what it sounds I was like, it's being very intentional about what's next. But also leaving room for the possibilities as well. And I think that's kind of what I always loved about design is that there's intention involved for sure. I remember I took this course with Milton Glaser. Now like, maybe 12 years ago now, and I have so many gems and nuggets from that. But one of the things he talks about when it comes to design is this idea of it being an act, it's an act of moving from an existing condition to a preferred condition. And so for me, when I think about designing for that's exactly what I'm doing. I'm, I'm in a current state, and I'm looking to move into a future state. And I'm doing that using this larger understanding of design, right, moving from one, one state to a preferred state. So for me, there's two things on my mind right now, personally and professionally. So personally, having moved back to Brooklyn that I'm so excited about—I've been back in Brooklyn for about six months—and we have a space that is highly raw space. And it's going to be a labor of love, but we're going to be designing this space from top to bottom, there is nothing in it other than boxes, and boxes, and more boxes. So we're doing a true renovation. And some of our goals in this renovation is to really design a space that speaks our creativity. But it also brings in crafts people that typically don't get the experience and exposure that that they should. And so we want to take time to highlight those people. So we're going to document that experience in building a home for us, but also using our community and amazing crafts people to help us do it. So that's, that's one of the big things we have going on there I'm very, very excited about. And the second thing is also around six months ago—when I tell y'all, when it rains, it pours, right. So I also moved into a new role about six months ago still inside of IBM. And so it's an exciting time to create a lot of foundational work in building a team, I have a team already, but it's a fairly small team. And we need to build a team that has more capability to drive a lot of change and how we engage with our clients and how we provide optimal experiences and some of the services that we put out into the world. And we just need more capacity to do that we need more of a team to do that leads to mature the team. And I love being able to grow teams. That's one of the things that, to me, that's also an act of design. And so top of mind for me is growing that muscle, that capability inside of our business, through creating a team, but also helping designers and our peers. Think about what it means to design for people and making sure that those people are at the center of how we're thinking about the products and the services and plans of the world. And yes, we have to care about that matching our business requirements. That's always going to be a factor. How are we also doing that with the humans in mind that we're creating these products and services for? So those are the two things there are always other things. The two things that are most most exciting for me at the moment.

Liz Gerber (host) 28:45

Shani, I feel like we could talk to you forever. You're a fountain of wisdom. We will respect your time. I have pages of notes. Is there anything we haven't asked you yet? Any advice, points of view, that you feel like you really want to make sure is broadcasted to the world? Open stage at this point for you to say anything that you have to say?

Shani Sandy 29:10

I think I think one thing I would add, you know, Liz and Lauren, I think that often times, especially emerging designers will ask me, you know, what, what should I do? What courses should I take? What books should I read? What school should I go to and I'm very reluctant in being prescriptive. I do, however, like to share that: the shaping of your point of view is your number one job. You are like I said before, a little bit jokingly but you in many ways our product. And so you know, you have to have a unique point of view and you already do just being you. But it often means that we have to shape that and be very clear about what our point of view is, people bring you into a space people bring you into a job, people bring you into initiative, because you offer a special point of view. So get clear on what your point of view is, and own that point of view. And if you don't know what it is, go out into the world and experience it. Make the experiences unfiltered, make the experiences vary, but go out into the world and experience those opportunities. And I think that would always be my guidance to not just emerging designers to all of us, I still, I still do that to this day, I can do better, I can do better at that. But I think that is the beauty of just being able to have a mindset of growth, that we're here to have the experiences, and we're here uniquely us. And so like continue to kind of shape that unique aspect of yourself. And you're the ones that define it and be able to own it. And that I think is where I would always place the emphasis with anyone just trying to navigate this thing called life. So that would be my tidbit.

Shani Sandy 30:15

What is my point of view? My point of view...Yeah, I mean, it really goes back to that designing forward philosophy that I know in my core that because I understand the world through designer's eyes enhances sensitivity, that I get this real fullness out of life. And when I'm there when I'm really, really there, because I'm not always present. But when I'm really really there, I'm my fullest self, and I do my best work. And it propels me forward when I'm really there. So for me, design has been that thing that's kind of saved me a bit of things to propel me in my career and in my life. And that's for me, what my point of view is that I've found my thing for me, it's designed. For me, it's even largely speaking art, really. And that's, that's my claim. That's my core, I always go back to that in my compass, trying to figure out how I navigate this world. So yeah, so that's my product. That's my unique point of view, you know, that like? It's, it's, it's one of those things that I think I feel very fortunate to have found fairly early in my life. But it reshapes itself all the time. Like, you know, I'm always having a conversation brought through, what does it mean to be a designer? I don't know, maybe I'm over this thing called design. But, you know, the word is the word in itself is not the thing. It's the act, I guess, is the point.

Liz Gerber (host) 32:58

Shani, thank you. Wow.

Shani Sandy 33:01

Thank you both, Liz, Lauren. Thank you.

Lauren Lin (host) 33:05

That was Shani Sandy, and you can find out more about her work in the show notes. And you can learn more about this show by going to drop us a note at or leave us a review on your favorite podcast app. It really helps people discover the show. We're especially curious to know what stories and insights resonated.

Liz Gerber (host) 33:26

This show is produced by Lauren Lin and Liz Gerber and made possible by the Center for Human Computer Interaction and design at Northwestern. Thank you so much for listening.

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