Episodes

Andrea Mignolo on Designerly Ways of Being

“I feel that my mission is to help organizations create new ways of working, to support flourishing individuals and flourishing organizations.”

My guest today is Andrea Mignolo. Andrea is VP of Product and Design at Movable Ink, a marketing technology company based in New York. In this episode, we discuss design as a way of being in the world, and why it matters.

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Show notes

Read the full transcript

Jorge: All right, Andrea, welcome to the show.

Andrea: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Jorge: So for folks who don’t know you would you please introduce yourself?

Andrea: Sure. My name is Andrea Mignolo. I’m currently the Vice President of product and design at Movable Ink, a company in New York. I’m a designer by background. I came into it through interaction design and had a very winding path to where I am today.

Jorge: I’m curious about that, how has the path wound?

Andrea: My path started in… Probably in college. I went to Oberlin, and they have a program for… They have the ability for you to design your own major and I was very interested in technology. The internet was pretty nascent at that point, and I was really curious about how we shape technology and how technology shapes us. And I didn’t know about HCI at the time I think the programs that were visible to me were probably like the science technology and Society programs. So I kind of looked to those to model my own major and built something called techno-cultural studies. After that, I was really curious about just working in technology, so I ended up as a video game tester and then made my way over to running digital systems for a nonprofit called Free Speech TV from there. I went to Japan and taught English for four years business English, but while driving between all of the different companies that I was teaching at. I listened to a lot of podcasts, and this is kind of after the first internet crash the dot com bust, and new things were starting to happen on the internet. And I was just really obsessed with what people were building and what people were doing, and it was around that time also through these podcasts that I started to learn about interaction design. And something with that clicked for me, and I realized that is the thing that I wanted to do.

So from there, I made my way back to the States, gradually. I had a stop in Vancouver worked for some [inaudible] agencies, and then ended up in New York during a time where Rails is really getting big. And there were a number of interesting startup things happening. And so it’s just really windy.

Jorge: It sounds like the implementation side of things has played a role in your foundations as a professional. Do you consider yourself a more technically-inclined designer?

 Andrea: In my earlier days, I was definitely doing a lot more front-end development work, Was a WordPress developer for a while when I came to New York I joined a company that was. Kind of bringing in design for the first time. But they were a Rails shop. And so, I started to learn Rails. At my previous company, we used Ember, and I did all of the front-end development work for the first few years in that platform. These days, I don’t… Well, I am writing a little bit of code for a marketing site, but for the most part, I’m not doing that much anymore. But yeah, I would definitely say that I have a technical background.

Jorge: You’ve posted several articles to Medium that drew my attention, and I wanted to talk about that a little bit. You talk in these articles about the value of design, and the idea that design perhaps is not as valued as it should be. Would you please elaborate a bit on this idea of the value of design, as you see it?

Andrea: Yeah, I’ll see if I can unravel that when I first encountered design… Again, I think it was through interaction design, the Interaction Design Association, there’s something with it that really clicked for me. It was suddenly, “Oh, this is how I see the world. This is how I interact with it this is how I learn.” Which, you know coming up through the American school system, Oberlin was a great school and had kind of different styles of teaching, but we ended up in a lot of classrooms all the time just receiving information. And ever since then, I’ve just been kind of obsessed with it at first in my early career like what does it mean to be a designer? How do you engage in the craft of design? But then, in more recent years, I’ve been really trying to unravel, “What is it that we’re doing when we design?” Because I think it’s that attitude or that posture, that perspective, that allows us to explore the world in a unique way. I think that’s really the value. And also, obviously, the artifacts that we’re making that can push conversations along, etc. And everything that I’m talking about and writing about right now, I’m in the midst of like, there’s a lot that’s swirling, and I have a lot of unpublished posts and things that I’m trying to articulate to really get hands on this. And so, it’s still like a process in the midst of.

Jorge: I’m going interpret what it is that I read, and you tell me if that corresponds with the intent, is that design can be not just for making things but also as a way of knowing the world, somehow.

Andrea: Yeah.

Jorge: As a way of putting small feelers out that allow organizations to experiment with different ways of being.

Andrea: Yeah.

Jorge: You talk about the concept of VUCA. Could you unpack that a bit?

Andrea: VUCA is volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and what’s the C? I can’t remember.

Jorge: Complexity?

Andrea: It might be. But just this idea that we don’t live in a predictable world. We never have. There might have been a moment of perceived stability in our kind of limited human senses. But especially now, the complexity of the systems that we’ve built and the pushing of the ecosystem to the edge of sustainability, there’s nothing predictable anymore.

Jorge: Yeah, certainly. And business cycles seem to be… Not getting shorter, but the changes that are experienced in each cycle seem to be bigger in some way. It’s one of the things that resonated with me when I when I read them, this notion that the traditional way that business folk have gone about making decisions has had to do with models they build in spreadsheets, that presume that there are things about the future they can control or that they can they can forecast. And the argument that I thought you were making with the post was that design gives you a different way of knowing about the future, that doesn’t have to do with the numbers.

Andrea: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s, a lot of times the numbers, again, they point to potential certainty. And I think it’s important to use the numbers, and there are other models in financial valuation that can take in risk ambiguity and kind of different paths, but I think what design really points to is this ability to look very broadly and explore a lot of different scenarios that can be valuable to a business and to constantly… I think the reason why it’s… The learning part is very interesting to me and very important, and I think it dovetails with some of Peter Senge’s writings, is can it shift a conversation into what do we need to learn or what do we not know? There’s so much in conversations with business and ROI that’s just about like this is the thing. This is the way it is. Versus shifting into this constant open, curious, learning system that helps a business navigate all of these kinds of complexities.

Jorge: How would it do that through design?

Andrea: It’s a good question, what I’m still working on and trying to figure out. But I think, in a lot of ways, it’s potentially using things like design thinking across an organization to help shift some of these conversations.

I think a lot of people talk about wanting design-driven companies, but I think that that’s maybe a little too much hubris. I think it’s really design helping facilitate and spread these activities ways of thinking ways of exploring into other departments as well or just creating a culture where this is part of the approach. I think it might have been Phil Gilbert I was talking to, where one of the first things they did at IBM and they were spinning up design was that they partnered with HR and started working with how can design and HR work together to create human-centered experiences for employees. So I think there’s this kind of… Depending on the size of the organization, other things are happening. It’s a slow process. It’s… you know, you’re a system inside another system, and all these systems are dynamic and at play. And so you have to figure out how do you start putting, I think you had mentioned earlier, these feelers out. Or, how do you start doing small things and seeing how those start to shift and change in the conversations that are happening?

And so, I’m in the midst of being, I think… My writings right now are very abstract about it because I have to figure out what the thing is that I’m pointing to before bringing it back into, and in practice, where all those things are also happening, and what does it look like.

Jorge: I’m not familiar with Movable Ink. What does Movable Ink do?

Andrea: So we are a B2B SAAS company. We are in the marketing technology space, and basically I describe it as “design tool kits plus APIs.” So the idea is that marketers have very advanced marketing strategies, but it’s very hard to create all the content to serve, especially when we’re talking about things like micro-segmentation. It’s hard to get all of the creative and content to serve the various audiences that marketers are trying to reach.

So basically, we connect APIs to creative, like a Sketch- or Photoshop-like tool that we have. And you can connect your APIs to that, and then just generate creative at scale. So a lot of designers at some point in their career have created hundreds of banner ads for various things. And so we can automate a lot of that. So it’s kind of an interesting creative automation space that we’re playing in.

Jorge: So if I’m understanding that correctly, it makes iterating through designs that are perhaps very similar in some ways, iterating through variations in an automated fashion.

Andrea: Yeah, what will happen is that the creative will be composed at the moment someone uses it. So we take in contextual signals etc. so that there is a level of personalization. We started in email, so it was very opt-in. Right now, we’re moving into web and mobile. But yeah, so we take certain things that we know about the person, where they are, their name, etc. And instead of having a team who’s creating each one of those variations, the system just does it at the moment the person looks at the creative. So it’s not replacing the design tools that designers are using it’s more once those have been made marketing teams can take them, they connect data and then have them generate all the variations when somebody views it.

Jorge: I know organizations who would immediately see the value in having a way of scaling up their design production work through something that lets them plug their design tools into their APIs. I also know lots of organizations for whom, if I described that phrase, they would not even understand what I’m talking about. There’s this big gap in the world between those. I’m wondering, how does one appeal to them? How does one talk to folks? I’m asking because I’m struggling with the same thing. It’s like, how does one get folks to understand that the way that type of work has been done for a long time has gone away, and it’s moving to this other domain?

Andrea: I’m going to answer that probably more broadly than specifically about Movable Ink. But I recently completed a coaching program from New Ventures West in integral coaching, which is a kind of ontological approach to coaching and ways of being. And one of the things that you learn in coaching is that you have to meet the person where they’re at in order for developmental work to begin. And that when you start working with a client, there has to be an opening. And I think those two things are also very critical in working with organizations where there has to be an opening, something that has happened to make them open to, “Hey, wait a minute. Something’s not right here. We need to fix this.” Or you know, whatever it might be. And then the other is just, you have to meet them where they’re at.

And one of the reasons I ended up going to business school and getting an MBA was, I wasn’t sure how to have conversations with business using design language. So a lot of times you’re having those conversations, not talking about design at all, which I think some designers are uncomfortable with. But we only started using the word “design” in the 14th century, maybe. But I would argue we’ve been doing it for quite a bit longer than that. So whatever it is that you’re getting to, you’re trying to drive certain outcomes and work on something together. Language is also a technology, so use the one that’s going to help facilitate that communication and start transforming into whatever it is that you’re trying to get to.

Jorge: There’s a diagram in one of your Medium stories that has what I see as a sort of feedback loop. It has a feedback loop where you have four stages of what you’ve labeled the Experiential Learning Cycle. Can you describe those?

Andrea: Yeah, the Experiential Learning Cycle is actually something that I learned when I was in my MBA program. So this is all research and scholarship that comes out of Case Western Reserve University. And it was just so fascinating being in school and everything that we would learn, I’d be like, “Oh, that sounds like design.” And that was something we did in the first the very first session we had together, and we all took… It’s called the learning style inventory. I use it with my teams at work. And there’s a quick survey or whatever you can take to understand where you fall, or where your comfort zone is, in the learning style inventory. And so we did this in the beginning, and part of it was because we needed to understand… There are certain polarities in that learning cycle where two people might… It might be very hard for them to work together if they don’t understand where their comfort zones are, which is why it’s really great to use for teams. But we did this because we had to form our study groups, and we were stuck with a study group for two years. So they had us, you know, visualize everyone on a Big Grid and then we kind of… They locked us in a room, and we had to form chains, and it was really awkward.

But anyway, I remember learning about this when we saw the experiential learning cycle. And I went up to my professor, and I was just like, “Oh, this is design. This is what we do when we design.” He looked at me. And so, I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and it wasn’t till I had some time after graduation that I could start exploring that more. But I think that as we move through, what I like about the experiential learning cycle is that it has these two axes. One is about transforming experiences; the other is about grasping those experiences. I think that there are things that they get mapped to. But as you’re moving through it, there are these tensions that you’re trying to resolve to understand what’s happening. And I think that those tensions are where creativity comes from. And so it gets very interesting when you map that to design. And I, originally in that post, I also segued into double-loop learning, but then it just got overwhelming. So there’s another article at some point that’s about the double-loop learning with experiential learning, but that’s for later.

Jorge: You talked about these two sets of tensions, and you described one of them as… I’m probably not going to use the exact terms you used, but the way that I understood them is, one of them has to do with changing things in some way, and the other has to do with reflecting on the impact of those changes. Is that right?

Andrea: The reflection can happen. In the Experiential Learning Cycle the transforming experience is acting and reflecting, and then the other axis is feeling and thinking. And so it’s kind of like an understanding versus reflection.

Jorge: So the way I’m understanding this is that this is a way of understanding what’s going on by making things and intervening in things, in the way they are, and then gauging the results of what you’ve done and the impact they’ve had. Is that fair?

Andrea: I think so.

Jorge: I’m wondering If this line of thinking, or how this line of thinking has had an impact on your own way of being in the world; how you work?

Andrea: I think that’s what drew me again to the coaching program that I was in, this integral coaching. Because it really is about ways of being but using metaphors to kind of invite you. Into new ways of being and using that language or technology of language into opening up possibilities. And so with the experiential learning cycle with any of these things, it’s… I think that’s what I’m exploring is: What is this when it’s embodied and lived and embraced fully? Versus, you know, “Hey, this is the craft that’s producing this thing.” And this is where I think design often can maybe get stuck in organizations, is really focusing on, oh, the product or the service. But that’s a small facet of a much larger environment in which we’re acting and behaving and affecting various things.

Jorge: I hear more and more of our peers, folks who are our colleagues, getting into coaching. What led you to explore that?

Andrea: I care a lot about flourishing. It’s a very important word to me, and I feel that my mission is to help organizations create new ways of working to support flourishing individuals and flourishing organizations. So part of the reason I went back to business school was trying to understand how organizations work, right? Like, how do I start affecting things at the organizational level, in an organizational-design kind of way? And Case also has a really great organizational behavior program.

But you don’t learn about the people part in business school. So I had design, and I had business, but I didn’t have people. And in researching various programs, I knew that ontological coaching was very important to me. I’ve [been] influenced by Fernando Flores and ontological design. And I think a lot of what’s happening in that program. And when you when you design these programs for people, it’s just another exploration embodiment of what it means to design and be in the world.

Jorge: I’m unfamiliar with ontological coaching. Can you describe it?

Andrea: Yeah, ontological coaching really is about people’s ways of being and what I talked about earlier, in terms of using metaphors to shift how you’re showing up in the world, how you are embodied in the world, what is possible for you. That’s ontological coaching.

A lot of times coaching might take the form of like, “Go do these five things and then do this other thing.” Or, you know, If it’s a compliance thing for an organization where somebody maybe is on a pip, there’s very different forms. But the purpose of this style of coaching in this ontological coaching, is to help people start to become aware of what keeps them stuck, and to build self-generating behavior. So the idea is that you wouldn’t have an integral coach for five years, right? Maybe have a six-month engagement, and it’s tied to certain types of developmental outcomes. But it’s all about your way of being in the world. That’s the thing that we learn, it’s the thing we learn how to understand. We do use various models. But we also use our own… The first six months of the program, you’re building your own capacity to be present and to be in relationship with someone to understand what’s happening with them.

Jorge: You’ve been using this phrase “being in the world,” and I’m reminded of a documentary called Being in the World. It’s a film about the philosophy of Heidegger, and it’s centered on Hubert Dreyfus. And it’s about this very subject.

Andrea: Yeah, and that’s the type of philosophy that informs this program. There’s Heidegger, a lot of Maturana, Flores, John Dewey. So, it’s definitely a world that had underpinnings and foundations with people that had already been very influential in my own thinking, in terms of design. So to see it kind of pull into this program where you’re working with people and understanding them and helping them design different ways to show up in the world.

Jorge: You know, I can see how something like ontological coaching can transform someone’s life. And I’m wondering if it’s possible for organizations to do something like that. Not just for people, right?

Andrea: That’s what I’m wondering as well. And when you think about like metaphors that we use for organizations, the author’s blanking… But there’s, I think he had categorized eight metaphors: organization as organism, organization as machine, organization as political system, organization as psychic prison. You know, metaphors open the door to possibilities, but they also can shut down possibilities.

And so, understanding the metaphors that we’re approaching organizations with, I think is incredibly important for what it means for an organization to shift its way of being. And I know that this form of coaching, the woman who is our master coach does a lot of this with teams and groups. And I know that you can also apply the narrative in the metaphors to them, and I think it’s definitely scales up to the organizational level as well.

Jorge: Yeah, I suspect that. It takes us back to the topic we covered earlier about creating a particular culture in the organization so that they understand themselves differently.

Andrea: Yeah.

Jorge: I’m curious about this idea of using metaphors as a way of inviting you into new ways of being. Do you have an example of what that looks like?

Andrea: Yeah, I mean it’s tied up with the approach in the methodology. So integral coaching is really about, you know, there’s different types of coaching for compliance coaching for outcomes Etc. And interview coaching is developmental. It takes, like I mentioned earlier, there’s usually like an opening someone will come to you with some problem They’re having or something they want to work on.

Through the methodology you look at everything else that’s going on in their world as well this idea that you have to look at the whole system and starting to get a sense of what’s really happening underneath that that core thing and what it’s like for that person to be in the world and where they’re getting stuck and through that you start to understand what’s the metaphor that might… Their experience in the world right now. And I will share it. We joke, the cohort that I was in. We recently went through certification, and you have to coach someone live in front of a panel and also part of your class. And we share a list of metaphors that we’ve used, narratives with our clients. And we’re joking, “Hey, Let’s use an oak tree and Joan of Arc. Like everyone can have an oak tree and Joan of Arc. It’s going to fit we’re going to try to do it.”

It was a total joke because we definitely want to be present with the person you’re coaching. But the idea would be like, yeah, maybe you are like an oak tree right now, and you’re kind of grounded, but you’re not connected whatever and if there was some opening for them to be maybe I don’t know Joan of Arc riding into battle or whatever. It might be but something. That very particularly connects with your felt sense of what they’re experiencing, and what’s possible that type of thing you keep coming back to: “Oh, but what is it like to be in the world in this way?” Or another example, I recently got from my coach was to be of the whale.

Jorge: A whale?

Andrea: Yeah, to show up like a whale. And so, that’s how I think about each day. It’s like, what is that? And I’m exploring this way of being in the world. So it’s like a whale, and it does open up completely different possibilities.

Jorge: Can you unpack the whale metaphor a little bit?

Andrea: I think for me, and what I’ve been working with the being in the world and a whale way is in its embracing the bigness right of just like being here not being small, but also not being affected by things right? You’re just kind of… You’re a big whale. And you can smack the little boats if you need to. But yeah, it was a new narrative. It was offered to me about a month ago. So I’m still exploring it and working with it.

Jorge: I find this fascinating, this idea that you can take really what is kind of a verbal construct, and allow that to become an embodied way of being different in the world.

Andrea: Yeah, well, and that’s the beauty of integral coaching is it is somatic, it is heart-centered, and it is head-centered. So all of these centers have to be online, and you have to work with all of them for any shift to happen. It can’t just be an intellectual activity. It has to be felt, it has to be embodied, and it has to be connected in your heart.

Jorge: That’s a wonderful place to wrap up the conversation. Where can folks follow up with you?

Andrea: I’m on Twitter as pnts; [it’s] probably the best place to follow up with me is Twitter I have a site pnts.us I have a very sporadic newsletter that I send out, but I need to finish one and get it out the door, but… And I’m on Medium as well.

Jorge: Fantastic. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Andrea: Thank you for having me.