It Girl | SAMANTHA ZUCKER
About a month and a half ago, Sam led a session I had the pleasure of attending at StartingBloc RDU '18. As a self-taught designer, I had no idea what to expect from her session but I left feeling inspired and excited to take a new-to-me approach with my clients. The idea behind Design Thinking is using methods and strategies that designers use to work through problems. After this introduction, I knew that Sam would have some amazing insight, and OMG she is awesome! Get to know Sam and her work now!
Name: Sam Zucker
Job Title/Company: Designer and Strategist - Samantha Zucker Design Co
Education Background: Bachelor of Humanities and Art in Communication Design and Sociolinguistics from Carnegie Mellon University (I made it up!)
1. Tell us a little about who you are.
I always try to avoid this question. Once, in my purest moment of procrastination, I asked my friends to write haikus about me instead of answering it myself. They used words like creative, graceful, flexible, proactive, versatile, smart, honest, funny, loyal, trustworthy, dedicated, stubborn, passionate, entertaining, “a little nuts but in the good way”. It’s by far the nicest description I could ask for.
Professionally, I’m an independent Designer and Strategist. I provide creative problem solving for companies hell-bent on changing the world. I use Design Thinking, which is both a process and a mindset for creative problem solving. I’ve transformed the process I use to be equitable to the communities I serve, and adaptable for the companies trying to build these skills.
There are a few core pieces within my process
Assume you don’t know. I aim to start each project from a place of humility and learning. I seek out the people impacted by the challenge. This allows me to invite them into the project, elevate their voice and ideas, and let their expertise drive the problems we actually solve.
Reframe the challenge. I reframe challenges into opportunities. I reframe assumptions that are inherent in the challenge. This intentional questioning of our own perspective forces new understanding and drives creativity.
Go wild and test quickly. When it comes to ideas, I push them big and bold, and then work hard to quickly build prototypes to bring back to the community. I have a firm and stubborn belief that you can prototype anything in 10 minutes if you get creative enough. I use this iterative process to continue learning with the community about what will and won’t work.
Through this process, and with a mix of skills from art, graphic design, linguistics, and tech, I’ve designed a variety of outcomes – from apps and websites to conversations and outreach strategies. People sometimes struggle to know what problems I can help with. Generally, if it’s particularly challenging, you feel stuck and don’t know the first step, and involves the complexities of people being people, I can probably help.
2. What sparked your interest in Design Thinking?
Finding design, and particularly the Design Thinking framework, was like finding a language for everything I was already trying to express. Rather than sparking a new interest, it gave me the vocabulary to articulate my my passion. Design Thinking encourages me to use all my skills at once - creativity, analytical thinking, and empathy - without forcing me to choose one side or the other. Instead, all those aspects are valued and necessary.
I also recognized Design Thinking as a powerful tool for changing how the world works. I was fascinated by jobs that allowed me to use creativity to do something other than selling unnecessary products. When I was getting started, the the Design for Good movement was just beginning. It felt like the perfect way to have positive impact on the world while doing what I love.
3. Who are you most influenced by?
Artists and activists have been always been a consistent theme. Those aren’t labels I would use for myself, but I try to use design as a vehicle to accomplish my own artistic and activism goals, while supporting others and learning from others.
I do a lot of work with high school students and find that they constantly influence me. Not in their fashion or language (I clearly can’t keep up), but in their view of the world. When testing a design, I learn the most from people who haven’t seen it before and are completely new to the idea. High schoolers feel like that but for life. These things we’ve started to take for granted as ‘just the way it is’ they still question; they have the audacity to envision a new world. Hanging out with them for work is one of my greatest job perks and keeps me to continue to question the world.
4. What was your first job and how long did you hold that position?
My very first job according to the IRS was working check-out at a fancy grocery store in my hometown during a summer in high school. I got really good at identifying different types of vegetables based on sight. I can also pack a perfect grocery bag. My eggs and bread never get crushed. My parents made me quit since I had SATs coming up that year.
5. Can you share one of your proudest achievements with us?
Living bravely. I’ve found ways to consistently use fear as motivation to do the damn thing, instead of letting it block me. Instead of hiding from it, when I start to feel a welling-up of fear, I recognize it and jump head first into it, because it’s usually a sign of incredible things on the other side. Fear sent me to Nicaragua at 17. It got me to believe I could succeed at Carnegie Mellon, it pushed me to move to Spain for a summer without knowing anyone. It convinced me to drop everything and move to DC to start an innovation lab with a woman I’d met once, and convinced me again when it was time to throw my life into chaos, pack up, and start a new business. Asking myself what I’m scared of, acknowledging it, and choosing to do it anyways are always the moments I feel most proud.
6. What were your initial goals with your work? How have they evolved?
I went solo with my business a year ago. A lot of factors made that feel like the right decision, but a huge part was that I had outpaced my five year plan. I was hoping in five years I might shift into doing less digital UX work and more designing strategy and full experiences. I was hoping to rise up to being a mid-level or senior designer by then. Instead, 5 years in, I had co-founded an innovation lab focused on addressing the student loan crisis, and was leading a team of designers on full-fledged experience design projects. Honestly, I was worried I peaked early, and I was super burnt-out. My main goal a year ago was to see if working for myself and remotely was both possible and what I wanted. Figuring out how to get clients, manage myself, and run all the aspects of the business have been challenging, but I’ve never been happier, calmer, or more fulfilled in my work. My goals have now shifted to making my business sustainable, while redefining growth for myself.
7. What do you think is the most important life skill you learned through your work?
How to get started. So much of the design process is focused on just getting something down so you can try it, see, and adapt. The mindset has fully melded in almost every facet of my life. It’s given me the space to try new things, forgiveness for myself when they don’t go as planned, and the resilience to try again.
8. Where do you hope to be in five years?
After my last time planning for five years was so off, I’ve sort of quit trying for the moment. I hope I continue to feel challenged in the right ways, and that my work and mission continue to evolve.
9. What is a typical day like for you?
Everyday is a completely different, which I love. I’ve never been a creature of habit. Generally I’ll get up and make a real breakfast. I’m the least morning person there is, so working for myself has meant bending my schedule to fit what feels best for me. I’ll start the day knocking out emails, and generally schedule meetings and phone calls in the morning. Then, I select a few key work pieces I need to do. I’ll focus on each one and send them off. Around 3 I’ll usually go for a walk, run an errand, or do something else to get out of the midday slump, then set up working at a coffee shop for the afternoon. Unless I’m on the road running a workshop or out doing research, or I’ve said screw it and gone to a museum. That typical day probably happens max once a week. I hate habits.
10. What was the biggest obstacle you’ve faced so far in the process of pursuing your goals?
Pitching myself has always been the hardest thing for me. Going independent means every conversation is a potential sale. When I started, I hated it. It felt disingenuous and just sleazy. It’s not how I operate at all. It took me a few months to really get over the hurdle and shift my own mentality. I had to find my own ways to pitch that felt truer to me. And also build up my thick skin for rejection. It’s usually just a ‘Not right now,’ not a no.
11. What is the best piece of advice you have received?
“Be a bridge.”
I spent all of college essentially in a constant panic attack. I was building my own weird major around all of these soft ideas on communication, while existing on a campus that’s known for hard sciences and tangible trades. It felt like everyone I knew was going to have way more knowledge than me because they focused on one thing while I was busy poking my nose in everything. My college advisor (who is the emblem of what every advisor should be) sat me down one day and told me I was just being a bridge. Everyone out here was busy digging deep holes of knowledge, but they couldn’t see anything around them at all. I’m what connects them. It’s been my mantra every since. I’ve even got a bridge tattoo now. This concept is what I love about design too. My areas of expertise mean I get to dabble in everything. When I freak out about not knowing enough or start feeling imposter syndrome, I lean back into the idea that I’m not supposed to know everything. I can find the person digging a hole who knows what I need. I just need to connect them.
12. When do you get your best ideas?
When I turn off my screens and start moving. I’m a big fan of taking a walk around the block. On a remote project, my coworker apparently thought I was just using it as an expression. When we spent a week in person she was shocked: ‘Oh you meant it, you just walked around the block?’ If I’m feeling really stuck on something, I’ll walk without a destination and just get lost in my head working through it.
13. Can you share with us one time that you failed and what you learned from that failure?
I didn’t actually get into design school. I got rejected my freshman year, then spent all of sophomore year working on reapplying. All my classes were based on building the portfolio, I got permission from professors to take their class without being in the major, I taught myself online, I went to a portfolio review right after getting released from the hospital with mono. And then I got rejected again. And I’m not going to lie, it devastated me. I moped for a full month and took it really hard. I considered transferring schools. Then I picked myself up and started working on a new plan. Over the summer, the program realized they had desk space and reversed their decision and let me in.
Navigating bureaucracies taught me again and again that just because you heard no doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line. I’ve gotten way better at finding advocates who would sign off and approve what I wanted to do. There’s a lot of people in this world. You don’t need them all to say yes. You just need a few who are willing to take the chance and open a door for you.
14. How do you unwind?
I’m madly in love with plants. I could do this whole interview about how incredible and amazing plants are. My apartment is filled with them, and when I need to relax, I’ll go have a chat with them. I particularly love seeing how they’ve grown and changed day to day. They’re all named and have their own instagram @hillary_duffodil. Sometimes I’ll pull out my art skills and draw them too.
15. What would you tell someone else who is interested in entering your field?
Design Thinking is insanely rewarding and you should do it!! I would especially love to see more WOC and diverse socioeconomic backgrounds in Design. Designers bring themselves and their experiences into the work, so diversity in design has massive impacts on the designs that get put back into the world.
It’s also not an easy career transition. The field has done a ton of outreach to get people aware of design which sometimes sends the message that we’re all already designers, when they mean that we can all use the design mindset. Those workshops are tasters. Learning design is honestly like retraining all your brain muscles to default to a different mindset. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen by just reading about it. And unfortunately, the design industry is doing a bad job of creating entry level roles that train people, so it takes individual commitment to make it happen. On the plus side, once you’re in, it’s a well-paid, meaningful career with tons of opportunity for growth. So it’s definitely doable and worthwhile. I just like to prep people for what that transition looks like before they start.
I always encourage people to find ways to try out the framework and mindset at the job they already have to build their skills and make the transition. For instance, do you work in customer support? You can learn about the research process and build experience by asking different questions of your users. How does the conversation shift? What happens to the tone? Can you design a better way to have difficult conversations? All of these questions are relevant to the field and help you develop your skills.
If you want support, I offer coaching on developing and using a design thinking mindset. I’ve also coached on career transitioning.
16. What do you hope people take away from your story?
Design is a mindset. All our choices are designs that we can change and iterate on. Once you see that, you start to see your own power, and that is an incredible moment.