11.15.22
Dana Arnett + Kevin Bethune | Audio

S10E7: Marcia Lausen


Marcia Lausen is Director of the UIC School of Design and founder of the Chicago office of Studio/lab.

From her educational vantage point, Marcia spoke to the potential of future designers:
Their generation of leaders really understand design as a pathway to leadership because we are comfortable in the unknown. We learn to be comfortable there and nobody else is comfortable with the unknown. And to have that ability to navigate that space is powerful.

This episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design is brought to you by Morningstar: investment research, data, and strategies to empower long-term investor success.

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TRANSCRIPT

Kevin Bethune
Welcome to The Design of Business,

Dana Arnett
The Business of Design.

Kevin Bethune
Where we talk with leaders in their fields.

Dana Arnett
About how innovation, access and curiosity are redesigning their worlds. I'm Dana Arnett.

Kevin Bethune
And I'm Kevin Bethune.

Dana Arnett
This episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design is brought to you by Morningstar.

Kevin Bethune
People don't just want financial information. They need to be able to understand it and use it. At Morningstar, great design transforms the way investors interact with financial data. Deeper insights, more personalized strategies, broader definitions of success. Start your journey at Morningstar.com.

Dana Arnett
On today's episode: Theory, practice, and the power of design.

Marcia Lausen
I don't like using the word brand at school at all. I think it's very specific and I think a lot of people misunderstand what it means.

Kevin Bethune
Marcia Lausen is director of the University of Illinois Chicago School of Design.

Dana Arnett
She's also the founder of Chicago office Studio/lab, a practice that advocates for the value of design in commercial, cultural, urban, and civic activity.

Kevin Bethune
Marcia, welcome to the podcast.

Marcia Lausen
Thank you. Happy to be here.

Dana Arnett
So, Marcia, you and I, having practice in Chicago many years, have run into the same people and mentored by many leaders. Many of those people actually not only established Chicago's identity, but helped to establish Chicago within the American design movement.

Marcia Lausen
Oh, yes, absolutely. And as I conclude my term as a school director, which is, I hate to admit, almost two decades at the University of Illinois, Chicago, I have been reflecting a lot on this. And I think the influence of Chicago has been really great on my career. I've stayed here for one thing. I used to move around quite a lot, and there's just there's a real core of strong activity.

Kevin Bethune
Marcia, I'm not sure if you remember, but you and Steven Melamed invited me to come speak virtually to UIC students in April of 2021, I believe. I was so impressed by just the creativity, the curiosity, the engagement, the appetite for learning that your students embodied by their questions and their open discussion. Can you take us back to what your own design education was like?

Marcia Lausen
Oh, yes, I'd love to. I think many— you ask any educator why they became a teacher of design and they will name a teacher. And for me, it began at Indiana University. I am from Indiana. It was the place my friends were going. But I happened into a really important design program at that time, led by a man named Tom Coleman. And Tom was just a really great teacher. He had studied at Yale. And my other teachers had to because, of course, he had hired his classmates to teach. And then they encouraged me to apply to Yale University, which I later went to study at the graduate level. And I think I, you know, happened in to a very special group of people really involved in education, both in the it began locally. You know, it was quickly spread to a national understanding because of the connection to Yale University. And they were, of course, connected in many ways to certainly to Europe. So it it was very expansive. And there were amazing mentors. I had amazing mentors in my career as a student. I was very, very lucky person. I happened into an amazing world.

Dana Arnett
Yeah, the right place at the right time. So from Indiana to New Haven. And then what? What was your first job and what did that teach you?

Marcia Lausen
Oh, so I have to retract a little bit because I didn't get into Yale the first time I tried, which I think is an important thing for for people to know, you know, you can set your sight on something and not achieve it the first round. And I had, you know, I only was thinking Yale, I wasn't thinking graduate school. So I didn't- I hadn't applied to other schools. I knew I would try again. It was right out of undergraduate school. It's not that's not the best way to go into grad school. So I just thought, well, you know, I'm not going to stay around in Indiana. I'm going to try something new. And I moved to Boston because it was close to New Haven, but it wasn't New Haven. And Boston turned out to be a really great experience for me because I met a woman named Samina Quareshi who was a real amazing mentor and friend. And yeah, my first day on the job was the day I went with- for my for my interview. She just told me to take off my coat and get to work. And we worked in her home and her home had her two amazing children that I still remained friends with today. And her mother was the cook at the time. And I just basically kind of lived there. I didn't literally live there, but I worked there, which meant I lived there, and became kind of an extended member of the family. And we had amazing work because it was very international, very a lot of work in the Middle East. I'd like to tell people that in my first week as a as a graphic designer, as a professional coming from Indiana, I had to figure out how to proofread Arabic because we were working on a project in Saudi Arabia. So it was it was an eye opening experience for me in every possible way.

Dana Arnett
And then markup that manuscript and sent to a typehouse, right.

Marcia Lausen
That's right. In this case, it was it was calligraphy. So we would get we would get our markups back from a calligrapher.

Dana Arnett
And then cut and paste them and put them on an illustration boards and send them to the printer.

Marcia Lausen
Absolutely. That's what we did.

Dana Arnett
Far cry from today.

Kevin Bethune
In your 2015 AIGA medalist highlight reel — we did some homework on you of course — you mentioned that your early days in corporate America felt a bit uncomfortable, maybe due to some initial shyness that you sort of had and maybe you didn't see yourself quite as a leader at the time. Did that feeling change for you over time? And maybe, how so?

Marcia Lausen
Oh, that's that's thank you for that question, because I think a lot of young students see that, and they certainly don't see me as the director of the school, as someone who's shy. So I think it was- that's absolutely true. I'm very humbled by everything that's happened to me in my career. And I was not someone who was outspoken or saw myself as the leader of anything. But what happened is I became good at something and gained a lot of experience and skill. And it's that ability that made me brave enough to be in front of people. And if you want to be an educator and if you really want to be deeply involved in education, you have no choice. The requirements for achievement in that world require you to be out in in your profession making a difference. And so it was maybe that plus in practice, I think it was easier for me to push forth the work of my colleagues and, you know, brag about that and push forward and sell it in ways that it wasn't as easy for me to do for myself. So in both cases, if if the studio is going to succeed, if I'm going to become an educator, this is something I have to cultivate. And it probably was a bit of cultivation at the beginning. It seems like a long time ago now, but yes, that's for sure. It came from the ability.

Dana Arnett
So tell us about Studio/lab. What is it? What do you do?

Marcia Lausen
Studio/lab is kind of an idea. It was named Studio/lab, partly because my my partner Susan Berman in San Francisco is an engineer first and a graphic designer second. She went to mechanical engineering school at Stanford, I think Kevin has that background — and her partner in San Francisco is an artist. And the three of us were were there together at the start. They started in San Francisco first. And then when I wanted to go out on my own, I wanted to be with them so that it has to do with the names of our backgrounds, but it also has to do with the words we use in the academic world, studio and lab. You know, we have studio classes and there are laboratories. And so it's the creativity and experimentation. So that's where the name comes from. At that time, remote working wasn't really a thing, but we we gave ourselves the same name so that we would stay connected. We're actually two separate businesses. And so that commitment, I think, to the idea is still what it is. And it's gone through lots of changes in terms of number of people and locations in each city, but it stays as an idea. And, you know, will, as long as we're interested in being designers. The work has gone more and more toward work with social impact. This has a lot to do with the fact that Susan and I are both educators. She founded the Center for Design in the Public Interest at UC Davis. And of course, I've known for the Design for Democracy initiative. So we are we have both engaged in large scale social impact projects involving our students, our colleagues, both academic and professional. And it exists in that way. But I- any design problem that's of interest to us is something we can take on.

Dana Arnett
Yeah. So I'm going to go right to one of your greatest hits that you just mentioned, Design for Democracy, which was like a sonic boom in the design community. I just think you have a lot to be proud of for what you did, which back then was woke everybody up to the impact and power design could have. Can you talk a little bit about that work and especially in light of more than 20 years later, we're looking at things that are impacting the political landscape, especially in voting.

Marcia Lausen
I was just back in touch with a man named John Lindback, who was at the time we were doing that work, the director of elections for the State of Oregon and the incoming director for the National Association of State Election Directors. He's the one that originally contacted AIGA and brought the whole work to a national level. And, you know, it was great to reconnect with him and to hear his perspective on things happening now. At the time, it almost seems a little quaint now, but at the time it was really about a ballot that was very confusing in Florida, famous butterfly ballot that really changed the outcome of that of the 2000 presidential election. And, you know, here we were designers looking at that ballot in the newspapers and knowing that we could do better. And I was just there was already the Design for Democracy initiative [inaudible] Fey and Sylvia Harris had done a lot of work top down, trying to get language about design into legislation. And I was on the board in Chicago with a number of amazing people who were very involved in the beginning. And we just said, you know, we can help and we're in the position to do that. I specifically was because I could bring it to the classroom, you know, I could put symbol on it. And I did this together. We brought an industrial design class and a graphic design class together and redesigned the voting experience for Cooke County. So instrumental in that, we're Lance Rudder, who was the AIGA Chicago president at the time, and Bob Zinni, who was very involved, he was managing the press and representing us wonderfully in the media. And we set out to, you know, show what it could look like if it were designers were involved in election process.

Dana Arnett
Yeah, and it was interesting because it was both a exercise and a visual exercise, but more importantly, it was tied to such an extraordinary moment in history.

Marcia Lausen
Well, that's I think I think that's something that I took away from that that I no longer, a word I no longer feel we have to shy away from just, you know, be opportunistic. I mean, that's when you can make a big difference when when the media's talking about ballot design. I mean, the word design was never on the front page of any newspaper or very rarely. And suddenly ballot design was on the front page of every newspaper back when there were newspapers. But it was, you know, there it was right in front of us. And it was like, I feel a little dutiful sometimes. I mean, this is a part of me that comes from that being, you know, the girl from Indiana. It's like, I can help. I should do that, you know? And so that's that drives me in many, many situations. I think whether I like it or not.

Dana Arnett
It was incredible work. And we're still talking about it for the right reasons now.

Marcia Lausen
Yeah, now, you know, and you did reference now I don't know what to say about now. You know, it's- we really used the word trust back then. We were we talked about building trust in government and making communications clear. But the challenge of trust is is just so great now, you know, ballot design alone is not going to fix the problem. So I think we'll be part of what can be done to make things better. And there's a lot of us there are many, many people behind this Design for Democracy initiative, and many of us know a lot about election process. And we've met the people that produce elections. And they are they're amazing people who are really dedicated to do a good job. And I think for me, in many ways, that's where my trust is, is trust the people who produce elections and, you know, and ask, how can I help? Because there will be needs, yeah.

Dana Arnett
The Design of Business | The Business of Design is brought to you by Morningstar — investment research, data, and strategies to empower long term investor success.

Jordan Sheckman
I'm Jordan Sheckman. I'm a design director within individual investor at Morningstar.

Kevin Bethune
Jordan spoke about the benefit of Morningstar's unique commitment to design.

Jordan Sheckman
Design has always been one of the tenets of what Morningstar does. It's really important to have enablement from the top down and in design organization. So because design has always been so paramount, we have a chief design officer here that really advocates for design at the top level and everyone recognizes that they know that design is important. And to have that advocacy at the highest level within a company is super important. I haven't really seen that at other companies I've been at. You know, a lot of times design is seen as is just a function where it's really embedded here. And, you know, we we call our design org a design org and that stands for organization. But I think it also stands for organism. We are a growing creature and there are so many parts to it and sometimes we reach outside of that organization. We have to partner with product and we have to partner with engineering. But what's great about Morningstar is we are a collective unto ourselves and we collaborate with each other and we reach out to each other. We have our own touch points. We have all these ceremonies where we make sure that design is treated as a discipline with agreed upon standards, with agreed upon ways to approach our practice. And so I have seen that design can be embedded in the fabric of our company, and it doesn't have to be an afterthought. It doesn't have to be a role where work is handed to a designer, make it look pretty, and then it ships. It's something that is foundational.

Dana Arnett
Morningstar design, collaboration and community at the intersection of design and investing. Find out more at Morningstar.com slash careers.

Kevin Bethune
So perhaps in another talk that I listened to of yours, I heard you remark that there's a difference and sometimes in terminology. And I think one example comes to mind where you made a distinction between brand and identity and you tend to use terms for your design approach that might differ from how companies or even brands might call these things. And I guess, can you unpack why is that? Why are some of these nuances so important?

Marcia Lausen
Yeah, this comes from being an educator, right. We we have to think about words and what they mean. I don't like using the word brand at school at all. I think it's very specific and I think a lot of people misunderstand what it means. But I also love the word because what it did for practice at the time I was practicing was tremendous because we went from being people who designed logos to brand consultants and that was great for what we knew we could contribute. So, you know, that's why the terminology is different in one hand and the other, because I need to use it when I'm talking to clients, and that's why they're going to knock on my door. But I want students to think about designing identity or what is identity and not what is a brand, because they can learn that really quickly in their first job. You know, it's it's once you're in the commercial world, the the learning is fast. Give it, but it's contextual. It's where you work and what is needed for that job and the language that they use. And I think our graduates are able to think about words and what they mean and have those conversations. I mean, I've told many clients that I don't like the word brand, but I don't do that when they knock on the door. I do that after the relationship is well-established. But yeah, there's a lot of terms like that that we don't like to use in the academic setting. That's where the theory is very important and and where we where it's very practical to use them in the corporate setting or in the professional setting.

Dana Arnett
I mean, I briefly taught as an adjunct at UIC. Did you have to get in and really rewire the sort of old traditional models of the curriculum? And how hard was that or how fun was that?

Marcia Lausen
Yeah, I'm so glad you asked this. So did we need to rewire the traditional? We are so committed to traditional learning, so we didn't rewire tradition. What we did was we just kept adding. I think we refined what we're teaching from a traditional standpoint. We still believe very strongly in skill building and in the chops of being a designer. And I think you all who hire our students depend on that. So so we're very committed there, especially when it comes to typography in our graphic design program that's we're absolutely committed to helping our students be expert typographers. But-but there's so much more and so it was yes, this adding on that we were doing. And the pivotal thing that happened was that we were able to become an independent school of design. That happened in 2013 and we gained access to at the undergraduate level to all four years. Whereas before it was the tradition of many research universities is that there's a foundation year that's more arts based find what you think you're interested in art, design which kind of is which discipline and we committed to people coming to our school know they want to be designers we get that first year. So that's the really intense skill building year. Then we get three years and then we do things that really purposely build toward being ready to enter the professional world. But we don't talk about that a lot. When we're there, we try to get students and parents to understand that you don't have to think about getting the job while you're in school. You do that the minute you're ready. You know, when you're senior, you can start thinking that way because what you're getting here is going to prepare you for that. And you need to sort of step back from that anxiety and engage with learning. And so that in many ways it- we rewired.

Kevin Bethune
Has teaching always been a goal of yours?

Marcia Lausen
No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Teaching was not always a goal. I happened to do this as well. This is kind of a nice Chicago story. When I was working, I worked for a number of different firms in Chicago when I first moved here, never really finding my place there. And I used to get together for dinner every Wednesday night with Philip Burton and David Williams. And because we knew each other from Yale, Philip was our teacher david and I were classmates, we'd go to Sole Mio and sit in the window seat if we could get it and we would, you know, complain about our jobs. And Philip's job that he was complaining about was working at UIC. And, you know, he loves teaching and has been in teaching for a long time. But there was one night at dinner at Sole Mio that he said to me, well, if you want to teach, now is the time. I had taught as an adjunct for one semester and enjoyed that, and they were doing a search for a tenured faculty member. I had no idea what that meant, you know, I just applied and I think he did a lot of advocacy behind the scenes to sort of make sure it happened. It was a time when we were trying to, the dean was trying to create a better gender balance in education. So I think they got two women instead of one man or something like that. So I don't think I was the top candidate at the time. I think I happened into that as well. But it turned out to totally changed my life.

Kevin Bethune
And it seems like earlier you definitely, maybe indirectly explained the symbiosis between navigating professional practice in parallel with shaping and cultivating the next generation of talent at UIC. I think, were there any surprise learnings or unique learnings that stuck out to you that you discovered through that special symbiosis?

Marcia Lausen
Yeah, I think I guess I was surprised by the need to keep it so separate and thrilled by the moments when the connections were valued on both sides. So for an example, I don't in many interactions with clients, I didn't talk about the fact that I was professor at the university because that wasn't of interest to them. Clients that hired us because they did the research and knew that I was doing that were always the best clients because they were looking for a higher level of engagement, I think. They were looking to be taught what we know. And so that that's pretty cool. And that didn't happen very often. But-but it did. And then at school, I don't I don't stress a lot the professional work because that's what the students want too much, you know, they want, you know, in the beginning they want that they just want the job. They want to be in the setting. And I think there's a lot of reason to be in the classroom and to be in the theory and to really understand how to think and be a designer so that you're bringing your self to those questions. One of the things that we— here's here's a very specific learning: When I first started teaching and we used to review portfolios to accept students into the school, we don't do that now we take them in and we do the portfolio review after the first year because we want to give everybody a chance, and it's hard to judge what people have learned elsewhere, but when I first started teaching, we used to do that, and the students showing their work would always want to show their things they did, you know, professionally, you know, the ad they did for their uncle who owns something. And of course, it was their worst work. I mean, we all know we do our worst for each other. And anyway, they did they they would show this work and they were just so proud of it. And I realized that the minute a student is paid a paycheck by somebody, they stop listening to their teacher. So it's it's important to keep them in the world of, I think that's less true now than then, I think- I think we have really smart young folks in the world. But I think it was very true then that the goal in their mind at the undergraduate level was to get a job. If I'm getting paid to do this, who's this person you know that's not paying me.

Kevin Bethune
Interesting. And I guess as you navigate between Studio/lab and UIC, what paradigms do you feel are top of mind for this next generation of talent?

Marcia Lausen
It's so exciting. It's so different, it's so fluid, and I'm excited to do away with the labels of the disciplines. I know we've been through that historically, but I, I don't like the terms industrial design, graphic design. We just don't-we keep them at UIC because we don't know what else to do, you know, because there is no term, there is no one term in a research institution. It's not easy to change the names of things. So we can't we never get on the marketing bandwagons like other schools and sort of name our programs what the current thing is, we sort of leave those labels alone and move in and around them and in between them. But I think it's about the in-between spaces. I think it's equally about the ability to make and think. I think it's very, very digital and fluid and it's it's wildly exciting. We have a new degree I'll just brag about a little bit the it just launched this year, it's a Bachelor of Science in computer science and design. And so we are going to be we have a program now where you are studying in the Department of Computer Science and you're studying in the School of Design. We expect, or I suspect, I guess, that we will have so many learnings in that program that will bring back to the Bachelor of Design and the being in Design Studies. It's really where I think the exciting stuff is happening visually is in the is in the digital world. And the fluidity has more to do with doing away with labels and figuring out all the different ways you can be a designer, not just the one.

Dana Arnett
And now that you step into your final year at the school, not retiring yet, but can you share one or two important lessons you've learned or come to value from your Chicago experience.

Marcia Lausen
Two learnings? Having been a Chicago designer for some time, I think one well, I guess I have to I wear two hats, so to learnings are quite easy. So I wear the head of a practitioner and it's always been important for me to be engaged in practice in an experimental way. And I wear a hat of an educator. So I my head is always in the future, you know, thinking about the future of the field. So what I've learned has a lot to do with the connection between those two things. As a practitioner, I want I've always wanted to bring the sort of curiosity for inquiry and research into my practice, into the boardroom, so to speak. You know, when you're dealing with corporate clients. And in the classroom, I wanted to bring some of the practicalities and realities of the professional world. So my life has been very much about connecting these two things.

Kevin Bethune
Indeed, indeed, in the spirit of what's next, maybe can you say more about the hope and optimism that you have for this next generation?

Marcia Lausen
Well, I just I think there's so capable and there I feel like students today get things really quickly. I think they understand what they're doing and why. You know, we do an event every year or a couple of times a year, an open house where families come in, prospective students. And when after we explain to them what the school is, we have our students answer the questions and they blow me away every time. The students can talk philosophically about our program and why they're in it and where they're going. That's — you used to just hope that some day on the job, the student is going to say: Oh, that's why they taught me that, you know, but they feels like they they get it now. And their generation of leaders, I think they really understand design as a pathway to leadership because we are comfortable in the unknown. Right. We learn to be comfortable there and nobody else comfortable with the unknown. And to have that that ability to navigate that space is powerful.

Kevin Bethune
Marcia, thank you so much for coming on the podcast with us.

Marcia Lausen
Thank you.

Dana Arnett
Great to see you again, Marcia.

Kevin Bethune
The Design of Business | The Business of Design is a podcast from Design Observer. Our website is D B B D dot Design Observer dot com. There you can find more about our guest today, Marcia Lausen, plus the complete archive from past guests and hosts. To listen, go to DBBD.designobserver.com

Dana Arnett
If you like what you heard today, please subscribe to the podcast. You can find The Design of Buisness | The Business of Design in Apple Podcasts, or however you listen to podcasts.

Kevin Bethune
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Dana Arnett
Thank you again to our partner Morningstar for making this conversation possible. Experience the intersection of design and investing at Morningstar.com. And between episodes you can keep up with Design Observer on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Kevin Bethune
Our producer is Adina Karp. Judybelle Camangyan edits the show. Betsy Varedell is Design Observer's executive producer. Our theme music is by Mike Errico. This episode was recorded at the Morningstar studio, thanks to the whole team there and to George Castady in the booth. Thanks as always, to Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand and other previous hosts, Ellen McGirt and Michael Bierut.

Dana Arnett
See you next time.

Kevin Bethune
Talk to you then.

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