Inside The Mind of Design Leaders Featuring Bryn Ray, Design Executive Consultant at American Express


Kristie-Craft, digital, UX...

Within this series, Kristie sits down with Design Leaders to get their insight into their successes, challenges and advice. This week, Kristie speaks to Bryn Ray, Executive Consultant of Design at American Express.

Could you tell me a bit about yourself, your current role and the company you work for?

“I came from a very traditional information architecture background and worked my way into User Experience.

This was from 2008 to 2010, I was finishing up education and working on academic record systems and Library Management Tools. Platforms that are hardcore information architecture, but digital.

Then I studied architecture, which is where I refined creative and design process and got a bit obsessed with things like city planning and governance, the idea of how you put restrictions and structure around creativity to make sure that something works.

I freelanced my way through university, becoming more and more interested in user experience, and eventually went on to study an MSc in User Experience Design.

Pretty much, for the last 10 to 12 years, I've worked as an independent contractor. I’m currently at American Express leading a cool piece that basically connects all their products, services and all the different online platforms.”

In your current role as an IC, working across the business but not managing, are you seen as a design leader?

“So as an IC, I'm positioned as a counterpart between a couple of Design Directors and a Design VP, who all manage teams. They’re certainly the people leaders.

I'm responsible for helping them shape the strategy and help put the tools together that enable people to do their job. So, there's more practical doing and a lot of actual legwork in figuring things out.

Often, they'll take that work and pitch it, sell it, talk to senior leaders and then communicate that into their design team.”

Throughout your career, what are some of the top challenges that you've faced as a designer?

“I mean, the top was definitely the identity crisis that most designers have at some point. Grappling with the obsession of trying to put yourself in a box, and offering a specific service, rather than being someone who has an adaptable skillset that can be applied in many different ways.

I guess that's where the 'Design Thinking' movement has come from, it's more about solving a problem. Then PR is battling with the traditional perception of design, and where it’s placed in a business. It's often reduced to being thought of as graphic design was done by an external agency, which, you know, has value and its place, but it doesn't really encompass the world of design.

And the last is focusing on the skills that you want to develop and what parts of that you want to push. For a lot of people, myself included, you fall into doing work you don’t like because of the jobs you get offered, meaning you get better at something you don’t want to do.

The challenge is to try and keep aligned with the stuff that you like the most.

I spent a lot of years being very generalised across a spectrum of things, but in the last few years have really found a lot more success in turning down work that doesn't align with what I like, and actually becoming an expert at something.”

Coming back to your point on an identity crisis and finding your key offering as a leader, do you think you've found that?

“Yeah, a lot of our traditional design leaders are the people who manage the teams, have the broad understanding of the entire creative process and the different types of skills needed, often acquired by not focusing on something specific. However, it can be hugely beneficial because they can hire people into a wide range of disciplines.

But being an IC, it’s my opinion that you must be a heavyweight at something, you must bring a skill at a different level that enables people to do things they otherwise couldn’t.

For me, I really tried to isolate that 'thing' that made me excited to go to work. It doesn't necessarily have a name or brand, but it is leveraging things like system thinking to improve the way that you work across designers.

That's where I see my value as a leader, rather than being a traditional Design Leader.”

So your niche offering is system thinking?

“Yes, for American Express, they see it as complex information architecture. In other places, it’s been more about design systems.

The trend through all of it is about connecting all of the different parts of what's happening as a system and trying to put the right amount of guidance and structure in place to enable other people to do their job. So sometimes that comes down to an operating model and organisational design.”

Do you have a design philosophy that you live by?

“Nothing's original really… the primary one I always use is a quote by William Edward Denning, who said "A bad system will beat a good person every time." which has become highly apparent in my work.

The other is inspiration is drawn from my traditional architecture background. A favourite Architect of mine called Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who coined the phrase 'Less is more'. He was very much about functional beauty.

I also love philosophies introduced in manufacturing years gone past. They have so much to teach that can be applied to design. Of those through “locally” is the thing I always come back to – right place, right time. So, in summary, systems, simplicity, and locality. That’s my philosophical checklist.”

And so just on yourself being a practitioner, do you think it limits / could limit you from being a design leader?

“The first thing is, define the limit and define leader because they mean different things to everyone. In the traditional sense, yes, there is some limitations, particularly outside of design dreamland.

It's unrealistic to deny that for most companies becoming leaders for people, is about leading people. Unless you're in a very modern company - design doesn't go all the way to the top. At the same time, it doesn't mean to say that your sphere of influence can't be as big, if not bigger, by leading a “thing”.

My role now is essentially craft leadership, which is still a type of leadership, but because of HR flexibility (or lack of), traditional barriers and egos, internal versus external and getting budgets, you are often just a consultant. It's the only way they can really get you in there doing what you want to do, but even just the fact they're doing that is a vote of confidence.

Ultimately, the person who can lead a design or organisation system is probably not the same person who has a skill set of managing people. Making sure they're feeling safe in their job, working on their personal development etc…”

Great point and follows on to my next question, do you think the perspective of design leaders today across businesses is that design leaders are too far detached from the work? And is that problematic, or do you think it has to be that way?

“I think it's massively contextual. I think there are some cases where you don't need to be attached, but other (particularly in smaller companies) where you do need to be much more attached.

At the end of the day, I think you need to consider differentiation. There is a leadership of people and there is a leadership of craft and in some cases, the two may merge.

In a company like American Express as an example, the most senior person in design has never done design. They were in the business beforehand, but the reason for that is, the design was having reputational problems and had a PR issue. So, we needed someone who could look outwards from the team. They can do brand building education, they can empathise with people who didn't understand it, they know how the business works and they know what stakeholders want.

It was an immature digital organisation, they needed someone who was detached from what didn't matter. They had grown Design Directors who could manage the design work, who they trusted so were able to detach, but at the same time, it's very difficult for that person to stay on top of everything that's happening and to be able to act quickly.

I've also worked in companies where design goes all the way to the top, and yes, that person is still in the day to day - they will participate in design sprints, they will still come to critics and personally, I find that more healthy. The more senior you can have somebody who has ‘hands-on’ the better.

It's a traditional management question I guess, how many layers is too many layers?”

In your view, do you think there needs to be a C level design leader for the business to be more design led?

“In a corporate, you need senior sponsorship, that would be the long and short of it.

Currently we're getting a lot done, because we have a very senior person massively bought into what we’re doing, despite not having a design title. It'd be much easier if that person had a design title though.

The main thing is sponsorship. Annoyingly you assume you live in a perfect world, you do it the right way and think everybody gets it, but this is just not the case. A lot of companies are very bureaucratic, they're still hierarchical, and they will just do whatever they're told. So finding the space to think design first, finding the space to do things like paying down technical debt, for example, finding the space to go and do proper exploration work and have a strategy and a plan that you're going to work through, is tough.

People need to take time out delivering stuff right now, they need to stop focusing on features all the time, but they need somebody to give them the licence to do that. The only person who is going to grant the licence to do that is the person who signs off the budgets against the metrics, and the person who does that, is going to be very senior, so somebody needs to sponsor it.

Take Pinterest as an example, which was started by designers. They have fewer problems with this because the person right at the top of the company can empathise with the need to do that, the need to define what's right and do the exploration work upfront. They don't expect to see things instantly. You expect things to take time and you have to invest in that.”

And lastly, can you recommend any blogs, books, or podcasts that you've found helpful as a designer? Especially for those coming into the industry and that are looking for some guidance, whether that's on leadership or just in general?

“I do a lot of reading around the periphery of design. I think you need to do that in order to get the design process nailed.

For an IC particularly there's other things you need to consider, and a lot of that comes with understanding how other people work. We often just focus on design and we don't focus on how design interacts with other people. The surest way an IC can add value is to help people get things done, and that starts with understanding how they work.

The first recommendation is a book called Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows.

Others would be The Phoenix Project and The Unicorn Project by Jean Kim, these are novels so they're fictional, but they're written about digital transformation. One of them focuses on DevOps, one of them focus on development, but the whole thing really helps demystify how things get done.

For audiobooks, there are two of the 'Great Courses', which are lectures that are put on Audible. One of them is on critical thinking and one of them is on complexity science.

Finally, a book called Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke. It covers thinking about the different ways that we can make decisions with incomplete data. So as a designer, trying to think about when we should just design and put something out there, versus, when we should invest and research it, or how can we learn about something better, that's again the relationship bridge with your research counterparts and your data counterparts.”

Thanks Bryn.