Sydney Johnson collaborates with movers and shakers who care as deeply about other people. She uses service design as my lens to make change happen.
I consider myself very fortunate to have been exposed to design as early as I was: My mother is a graphic designer who has owned and operated her own communications firm since before I was born. She shared her passion for art with me throughout my childhood by taking me to every gallery she could. More importantly, she showed me that design is not only vital to society, but that it could be profitable as well. I grew up with a lot of people whose families told them they had to choose a profession that was “practical” (engineer, lawyer, doctor, etc.). In my family, a career in design was considered practical.
Early on in art school, I actually tried to move away from graphic design to try to forge my own path. However, design was where both my talents and me interests were, so that’s what I ultimately pursued. Later, I moved on to UX design and finally into service design. Today, I am able to play in design research and strategy spaces while resting on a strong visual foundation whenever I need it (and I often do).
As a service designer, my process always starts with research. It’s essential to fully understand what issues people are having before I can start to design a solution for them. I conduct in-depth research with the people that will be ultimately using and interacting with whatever I design. Next, a process of iteration: Designing something and then testing it with real users for multiple loops. Once I became heavily-involved in the customer-facing research part of the design process, I could never go back to creating something without it.
If I’m able (and if I can convince the client to do it), I try to keep the outcome as open as possible. This allows me to go fully into the process and examine all possibilities for the best solution without being pinned to a specific deliverable. If a client comes to me to design an app, maybe that’s what they need, but maybe it’s not! I first need to know how they came to that conclusion first.
In 2016, I completed a research and design project for my Master’s thesis that involved taking solo trip around the world. I was looking into challenges faced by female founders in design and technology spaces, and I was also interested in how culture would affect these findings, so I travelled to ten countries on four continents to interview women that fit this profile.
One of the most interesting things I found was that there was very little difference in the challenges these women had. I heard almost identical, unprompted anecdotes from women in completely different places. It was very jarring to realize that there was no escape from the misogyny one would experience as a woman in a leadership position in this or any other industry.
A common theme in my interviews was a desire among these women to better connect with others that were experiencing the same things. To address this, I designed and prototyped a service to connect female founders from different parts of the world to one another. Unfortunately, I haven’t taken this project beyond the testing stage (yet!), but I still believe in its value. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to allow these women to connect and to watch those connections blossom.
My professional philosophy revolves around the idea that design can truly make life better for people. This is at the heart of my company and was a large part of the reason that my previous role was in the healthcare space. I try to take on projects that will have some kind of positive impact on people’s lives. As a society, the more design becomes intrinsic to the process of creating anything, the better off we’ll all be.
I used to look outside for inspiration—nature, colours, textures. I still do now, but I find that I have started to rely on people for inspiration: relationships, working with emerging artists, and also being introspective and looking within myself.
I think that is because of my view of art and design has changed in the passed few years. External inspiration of art and nature is mostly aesthetic, and it inspires the “beauty” of my work. In recent years, I've been less interested in aesthetics and more about the context and narrative of the project. I am now more excited about stories, relationships, and experiences. When I get stuck on a concept, I like to call a friend or talk it out with a peer.
I am always proud of myself whenever I take on a longer project. I've worked on patterns and editorial jobs for so long that I rarely do work that goes on for more than two months. I like to juggle multiple jobs at once. It keeps me focused, excited, and busy. Other than teaching (I teach illustration at Edmonton Digital Arts College), I have never worked for more than one year at a salary job.
Probably something along the lines of “Make, think later.” I believe that it is always a good idea to stop what I'm doing (unless the project deadline doesn't allow for it), and trust my intuition to create when inspired.
I also think that art sometimes is too much “talk” and not enough “do.” I just want to create, and what better time than when I am inspired or when I get an idea? It's like a dream—If I wait too long, I will either forget the idea, or I just won't feel as passionate about it because the feeling is lost and cannot be translated 100%.
My post-secondary educational experience was confusing. I didn't know that I wanted to work in applied arts. During my first year of art school, I was struggling to pick between Fine Arts and Design (once you go into Design in second year, it's pretty much too late to change your major). And then once I went into Visual Communications (VCD) in second year, I really struggled to figure out my major between design and illustration.
I truly believe that I may be a stronger print designer, but I chose the path of illustration because I felt it was more honest to who I am. The sad thing is that in school, the structure is pretty much divided into paths. By choosing VCD, I could no longer take classes in painting, printmaking, and glass blowing. By choosing Illustration, I no longer was able to take advanced type classes and motion graphics. I am an extremely open-minded and optimistic person, and school was very restrictive for me and it forced me to make some important decisions. But I'm glad that in real life after school, all of the different art forms are much more integrated!
Without a doubt, it was leaving my full-time, salaried job to form my own company. I think all those who have done the same thing will answer this question that way. It’s incredibly scary and exhilarating, but I knew that I would forever regret it if I didn’t at least try to make my vision a reality. I’ve wanted to have my own firm as long as I’ve wanted to be a designer, and, while the nature of my design has changed over the years, my entrepreneurial spirit has never faded.
Impact, impact, impact. That is: Did my design make something better for someone?
As a woman in this business, I am unapologetically committed to championing diversity both in the makeup of the industry and in whom I choose to design for. This means advocacy not only for women will ensure your solution won’t work as well as it could. Being a woman gave me experience that allowed me to understand this fully and early on. In order to keep moving the needle, we all need to be committed those these ideals in our lives AND in our design work.
I loved my educational experience. I was fortunate enough to study in the U.K. for both of my degrees and was subsequently taught design in a society with a different perspective on it. This has made a major impact on my design philosophy and has had a strong impact on my career. It also contributed to the creation of my own company.
I give a lot of credit to the schools I went to for not imposing a particular outcome on most of the projects assigned. Parameters can be helpful and necessary, especially when you’re learning. However, design is about problem-solving, and the outcome may often not be what you expect it to be. I believe this kind of openness will be the next evolution of design education in Canada.
I often struggle with the best way to communicate the value of design to people who know nothing about it. I think that many outside the design industry have caught on to the importance of having a visual identity, but they’re only starting to realize the role design can play in people’s lives as they move through the world and interact with the systems around them.
Everything is designed, whether consciously or not. And when it’s not, it really shows. I want that to be more widely-known and for the value of design to continue to increase in our society.
Best advice: “If you want to go do something, just do it.”
Worst advice: “That’s risky. Don’t do it.”
First, listen to your intuition and follow it. Lots of people will tell you you’re doing the wrong thing or that you should do something a different way, but only you know what is right and what is wrong for you.
Second, educate yourself on what it means to be a woman both within design and in within society. It is essential to understand and anticipate the challenges you will face because you are female. Knowledge is power.
For me, my ideal creative workspace has less to do with the space itself and more to do with the people around me. I believe so much in the value of a team being able to share ideas and to push each other forward personally and professionally. A lot of my vision for the future of my company revolves around what I want the team to be.
Physically speaking, this brings to mind some kind of blank room where every surface can be drawn on, and everyone has a differently-coloured marker.