inside the mind of design leaders featuring martyn reding, head of digital experience


digital, Creative, Kristie-Craft...

Within this series, Kristie sits down with Design Leaders to get their insight into their successes, challenges and advice. This week, Kristie speaks to Martyn Reding - Head of Digital Experience at Virgin Atlantic 

Could you give us a short introduction of yourself, and how you got into design?

My design career started when I was 13 on careers day. I liked drawing and copying cartoons, but I had no idea that it would ever become anything that I did with my life.

Then this parent came in, who was simply the coolest person that I'd ever seen in my life. He arrived in a Ferrari and described his career as a designer, and that was it. I was completely and utterly hooked on the idea, through qualifications, college and everything.

I was completely in love with it, although I still don't have a Ferrari…

The first 10 years of my career were in agencies because I thought that's all you did. I had all the usual fun along the way with launch parties, awards, pitches, new clients, and so on.

Throughout 2010, the agency that I was with pretty much collapsed and I started meeting with other agencies to find my next role. I was presented with this opportunity to go in house and I thought, well, that's terrifying. I'd never done that before.

For the last 10 years, I've been product side and just found a whole new world that I have thrown myself into. It has been fantastic. A whole different type of design and design leadership is required.

So, my current role is Head of User Experience at Virgin Atlantic. Prior to me starting there, back in 2017, we didn't have a Head of User Experience or a User Experience team per se, so the team that we have today is built from scratch. We now have product designers, content strategists, UX writers, etc.

Our role covers all of the customer facing digital touchpoints. From the websites which exist in lots of different languages around the world to the app to the kiosks in the airport, to the seatback in-flight entertainment on a plane, and, probably more importantly, all of the gaps in between those touchpoints.

When building out design teams, what are the key qualities and skills you look for in a designer?

I think it's very rare to ever find a need for the same mixture of skills and personalities in every business, because I think each organisation has distinct cultures and distinct challenges, due to the nature of the product itself, whether it's travel, or finance, or SaaS, or whatever.

I'm very keen to always spend time determining what's necessary in that moment, rather than here's my idea of what a good designer is like, because someone who's fantastic in one company might just crash and burn in another company. It doesn't mean that they're a bad designer, it just means that they're a bad fit in that organisation.

There's not an awful lot of commonality between any of the people that I hire, to be honest with you. The clues that I look for in recruiting people are signs that somebody loves their discipline or craft, that they have spent time learning about it and developing their understanding in some way, shape or form.

It can be really difficult to succeed and develop teams, when you have people who just don't really care about the role that they play and the community that they're in. I look for those signs, I don't mind what those signs are, whether it's somebody who just attends a lot of events, somebody who writes articles, somebody who goes off and learns new bits of code or software, somebody who just has an interesting side project, anything that shows an indication that they do their job but it's something that they enjoy and they love and theyre invested in. That's the only real thread for me.

I think design by it's definition involves a lot of personal, emotional and intellectual investment from the designer. If you don't really care about it, then it looks like a design created by someone who doesn't care.

Did you scale your design teams with a set plan and structure in place? Or, was it an organic growth plan?

I've done both. In my last job, it happened in fits and starts. There would be a rocket under us for some structural change, then other times it would slowly develop depending on what the needs were.

At Virgin, I don't think they were sure what I was going to do when I first arrived, they thought there were two or three empty roles and they just said, well, you can fill those with designers if you want. And now, there's over 20 of us.

It was a situation whereby I said, Okay, well, here's the current situation, and then highlighted the issues and opportunities for it to be better. It would mean a rebalance of investment. I said, Well, you're spending this much getting this stuff done. You let me hire these people, you'll spend a fraction of that and we'll get more done.

I put together a business case for increasing headcount. So, nothing has been organic, it's been very much a concerted effort which I've taken hold of. It often comes down to knowing what are the levers that you can pull to get the right reaction in a business.  Lots of businesses will resist increasing headcount for obvious reasons. Right now, no organisation wants to increase overheads without signs that the bottom line will benefit from it.

I've never felt comfortable with anything just going bang, either product launches or all changes, I think 'incrementally' is how I naturally operate. I was keen to take a small thing, prove it on a small scale and say, Okay, well, if you give me X more, then I will achieve results that are even higher than what we saw.

When I put it in those terms, I abandoned all my sensibilities around talking about quality and culture. All that kind of stuff is important in building a design team but for proposing changes, you come down to saying, I'm going to reduce your spend by this much, I'm going to increase your metrics by this much, I'm going to improve team engagement by this much

I had to nail my colours to the cross as it were and say, This is what I'm going to give you if you give me this, this is why I'm going to achieve it and if I don't, then you can pin me off.

What are some of the top challenges you have faced as a Design Leader?

Learning to talk business, to listen and respond appropriately to an organisation.

I found that I made this mistake lots of times, if I go in and start talking about lean UX, design sprints and design systems to a sales team, they're probably just going to shrug their shoulders and say, who cares, right?

Whereas if I find a way of taking the things that I want to achieve within the design process, the team and set up, then frame it in a way that is going to work the sales team, for instance, I'm going to be able to increase retention rates and lower your cost of sale', then they're happy.

Learning to frame it and talk less about design and more about outcomes, maybe shifting the conversation away from outputs. Thats been quite a tough and complicated lesson.

I would say the other side of it is pure leadership, knowing what type of leader or leadership is necessary at each time. I've that I found very difficult and something that I've had to learn a lot about because I think there's lots of different types of leaders. Theres the wartime leader who's there to make cuts and make very tough decisions, battle through tricky situations. There are growth leaders who are just going to expand everything up and scale everything. There are leaders who need to inspire new directions and there are leaders who just need to get right into the details, knowing what's needed at any one time and completely adapting leadership style to suit what's necessary.

Going from agency to in house, did you find a significant change to your leadership style/approach?

Leadership is not unlike design, in that your style, approach and your skillsets develop.

The more you do it and the more different situations that you design for, you hone certain design chops and then in leadership there's certain things that you develop equally.

Moving from agency to in-house, I mean, it's just a whole different game and there's almost nothing transferrable. I found with agencies, it felt like it was up to me to be that inspirational leader continually going out into the world, finding out what's new and interesting, bringing it back and creating a new spin on it. It was like continually being a cultural sponge and generating ideas, encouraging other people to generate ideas and inspiring all the way.

In-house was very much a case of learning how to focus and be conscious of the bigger picture, knowing that you didn't have to do it in three months or in two weeks, but actually, the things that you were doing now may just set people up for next year. The more foundational strategic approach, knowing when to push back a project and say, this isn't going get us to where we need to go' and getting everybody aligned. I found it to be a whole different game, which is why I moved because it was completely new and completely terrifying. It felt like this whole new area of my skill set and experience.

Was it hard, going from agency to inhouse and being the only designer? Did you find it hard to be the only ‘design voice’?

Yes, imagine that, right?! Over 80,000 people worldwide, and not to say there wasn't fantastic leadership at RSA at the time, but initially not from a design background.

As we grew, it came along. Then I was no longer the only voice in the company and you have to set aside your ego very quickly.

I'd gone from leading pitches, running a studio and setting out these design strategies to getting back in the saddle. Moving pixels around, sitting down with developers and talking to them about how I wanted it to work and operate, and Id have to do sketches. As the team slowly built up, then I could step back.

How did you find being the first designer, or were you brought on to scale the team?

I liked the idea of being in on the ground floor. It's something that grows and moves. I like the idea of joining before anyone else wanted to join and to scale with something.

It certainly did that as we went from one, and then it was quickly three, and then it was up to around ninety. When you're in at the ground floor, you can influence things in a deep-rooted foundational way.

That was the plan, and that was the exciting part.

How did you effectively implement global design processes and ways of working?

It was a really interesting time, I spent a lot of time in airports. There was no unified approach or philosophy around it at the time, and there was no unified level of maturity within the organization's.

For us to arrive with our suitcases and our English accents, got a few different responses, from Fantastic we're glad you're here, there's so much for you to do.' To the other end of the spectrum, We've got a design team, thank you very much. We don't need you.

In every single instance I started with What can I do to help?, and in some instances it was very much a case of, ‘Here's a whole bunch of stuff that we have already done and learnt' to almost prove we could be of value to these organisations.

All of that boils down to the very simple matter of winning peoples trust. If they start to trust you, they can start to see that youre just there to help and genuinely find a way to make their job easier and make them more successful.

Im never really comfortable with a combative approach, so if you march in there and say, Okay, this is how its going to be from now on folks, what you did before doesnt matter.' I dont buy in to that way of working. I dont think it creates sustainable long-term teams.

It may get you short term results. You might just hit a metric and get a thing done. Then its all high fives and then everyones really cross, they go back to what they needed to do, and it doesnt bring about change. I think it just affects an immediate response.

Do you have a design philosophy that you live by?

I have a belief that you can tie back to connections and the idea of connections. I have a Charles Eames quote which I keep by me,

“Eventually everything connects — people, ideas, objects...the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se”

That really stuck with me. Then when I think about all the times design has been done well, it's been about connecting a number of different ideas.

With a new product, it's just a few different things that have come together in a unique way. Maybe it's about connecting people to a brand in a way that has never been done before.

Ultimately, it's about connecting people to one another. I don't know if it's a design philosophy, that I can boil down to a nice repeatable quote, but for me, I think design always comes down to connections and the quality of connections.

In large organisations, you can find brilliant people doing brilliant things, but they're just not connecting to one another. There's lots of times where I've gone and put people together in a room and brilliant things happen. So, whether it's connecting people in organisations, or it's connecting separate ideas, or it's connecting one person to another or connecting to your brand message. I think it boils down to that.

Blogs, books or podcasts, are there any resources that are either helping you now have helped you in the past? Or any design teams that inspired you?

I'm still super hungry for learning about design. I was from the start of that career day when I was 13. I consume an awful lot. I still geek out on it, I never get tired of it.

In terms of books, Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee is a phenomenal book about anyone who's designing any kind of experiences or products or brands should take a moment to read that because it it's so rich with ideas about the tiniest details that can accumulate a huge effect, I think that's really fantastic.

Anyone who's working in tech should have read Calm Technology by Amber Case. There's so much important stuff in there. It relates a lot to the things worked on by Mark Weiser and the team at Xerox PARC. Its even more important today than it ever was

Design To Grow by David Butler, which is the story of how the design teams Coca Cola scaled. If you work in a big organisation, and you're trying to get the organisation to appreciate and value and understand design, read that book and just repeat it word for word because it's genius.

In terms of leadership and design leadership particularly, there's a really great book that was recommended to me on a Slack channel called The Five Dysfunctions Of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.

It's not what you think it's going to be, that book completely blindsided me. When I got it through the post it went to the bottom of the pile a few times, then I started it and it was brilliant. Anyone who's been in a team and anyone in any kind of leadership role should just read the first couple of chapters, you wont be able to put it down, I read it in a few days. I recommend it to anyone that I mentor or talk to.

Podcasts… I love listening to Intercom On Product because I think the stuff that goes on in intercom is very interesting and forward thinking but it's also just two guys who are obviously friends, who know each other very well. I just like listening to them chat.

I get really jealous and fixated on design teams and I want to emulate them.

I use Spotify everyday and I’m constantly falling in love with their product design. Over the years I think they not only contribute positively to the design community but also manage to maintain exceptionally high standards.

The Google Method podcast and the Google design team, both here in the UK and over in California, have just been phenomenal and the more you learn about them, and the people in processes inside those teams, the more you can understand why it's so successful. Their melding, of hardware and software design is something to be really taken note of, I think it's very interesting.

Thanks Martyn!