An Interview with Molly Lafferty, Design Director at This Also

Get to know Designers from some of the world's leading companies in our new series of interviews, Designers Spilling Tea.

What was the moment you knew you wanted to work in design?

I had no idea what I wanted to study in college, so I picked something that sounded fun: film. And it was! But I had lots of other interests and also took classes in psychology, computer science, theatre design. When I saw a web design course listed it felt like an easy A – like many designers in my age, I had coded Livejournal themes during high school. But in that class, I was exposed to this concept of “interaction design” and it felt like this magic moment – all these disparate things I was interested in could be combined in this really interesting field.

How did you get to where you are now?

I took the unusual path of going straight from college to graduate school for design. After I discovered design, I shifted all my focus into that but was there were very few courses and opportunities at my school. So, I went to graduate school for interaction design, and from there I spent time as an interaction designer at a larger digital agency before settling into the smaller studio I work at now.

Anything you’d do differently?

My path worked out perfectly for me. That said, I don’t encourage most people to go directly to graduate school from undergrad. More undergraduate programs these days cover digital design, and there are many more entry-level product design positions than when I graduated college. But graduate school is a great option if you’re switching careers to move into design, or looking to dive more deeply into a certain aspect of design.

What did your teachers think of you?

You’d have to ask them 🙂 I will say I was one of those kids that did well at school because I can embrace rules and structure. I actually struggled a lot once I left the academic environment and had my first real world job because there were no grades and much less structure.

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

Have you applied design to any other areas of your life?

I’m a handweaver and design textiles in my spare time. The loom is the precursor to the computer in many ways, so there’s a nice parallel there. It’s fun to have a creative outlet independent of any client requirements, and to make things far removed from a computer screen.

What makes a day, a good day, for you?

Variety! An ideal day has a mix of project meetings, 1:1 check-ins with designers I manage, and a solid chunk of time to work. If possible, I like to keep meetings to the morning hours so after lunch I can totally focus on client work, internal projects, or writing.

What’s it like to working with big companies like Google, Xbox and Samsung like This Also has?

It’s a really fun challenge in both humility and creativity. Humility because our clients know their business better than we ever could, and we have to respect that and learn from them. Creativity because we then have to translate those learnings into something totally new that meets their goals.

We work on a wide range of challenges, from vision work that imagines what a product could look like in several years, to more tactical design work. And with some of our larger clients we get to work with different types of teams on different types of products across the entire business.

What frustrates you most about your current design process and how are you trying to change it?

Personally, that initial “blank page” start of the process is the most intimidating part, especially when working on vision projects where the possibilities can feel endless and the ideas don’t always seem to flow.

I’ve been working on articulating some strategies I use to help shift my perspective on whatever field I’m designing for, things like digging into the history of the medium or questioning absolute statements I keep hearing about a technology or field.

Biggest learning from managing design teams?

“Good design direction is about creating a mental space for your team to work within and problem solve, rather than directing them toward a specific solution.”

I had long thought of creative directors as these larger-than-life figures who swoop in, give a big, game-changing idea, and then leave everyone to make it happen. And perhaps it’s like that some places, but at This Also we’re highly collaborative at all levels and really invested in helping our more junior team members grow.

My role is about fostering their skills and framing their ideation in terms of our client’s goals, and then helping us execute on the vision.

How do you ensure client vision, brief and design is aligned throughout a project?

We tend to work in quick, one-or-two week sprints. At the start of the project, we’ll have a plan that roughly outlines the activities for these sprints based on the brief and what we’ve heard from our client. But staying flexible and responsive is the key to ensuring alignment and success, so it’s not until the end of the week that we firmly establish what we’ll focus on in the upcoming week.

This helps us quickly account for any new knowledge or blockers we may be facing–if one part of the project needs to put on hold so the client can align internally, then we can tackle another area.

“Ultimately the key, as with many aspects of design, is strong communication.”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten is less a piece of advice, and more something that I just keep in mind which is that, “it’s not magic”.

“It’s not magic.”

We know this, we know that the work that we do everyday is not magic, it doesn’t come out of thin air. However, as designers I think it’s really easy to get caught up in seeing other people’s work, seeing their ideas, talks or articles – whatever it might be. Then just thinking “That’s amazing!”, “That’s incredible”, “I could never do that” or “They make it seem so easy.”

“It’s important to ground yourself and remember it’s not magic, it’s just work and it’s all things that you yourself are capable of putting out into the world as well.”

And the worst?

Design trends that should die?

I think it’s our insistence on categorizing design styles as trends that should die, that should die. It’s a narrow way of thinking and can make us more reactive to a style just because it’s trendy or not, rather than evaluating whether it is right for the project. Plus, getting too hung up on what’s now or past can keep us distracted from moving towards the next thing.

Thoughts on the future of design tools?

“Earlier in my career I may have felt worried that automated design tools could leave me without a job one day, but now knowing first-hand the increasing complexity of identifying and solving problems, and executing on those, we won’t face that anytime soon.”

I’m really interested in those tools that will help us design experiences that are tied less to screens, or only tied to screens in certain moments of a broader user experience. For example, how do we design for a mix of inputs and outputs, such as designing for voice assistants in the context of a home with lots of other screens and devices?

What are you watching on Netflix right now? What are you reading/listening to right now?

Terrace House and Grand Designs are my favorite Netflix escapes right now.

I’m currently reading Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down. It’s a surprisingly entertaining book from 1978 that explains engineering concepts in very clear and basic terms.

Who’s work do you follow and admire?

Design-wise, Lara Hogan writes and advises on engineering management but a lot of her work can also be translated to design teams. And Amelie Lamont, who is both asking and answering really interesting questions at the intersection of design, language, race and anthropology. For inspiration outside of digital, Es Devlin is a really prolific and creative force in stage design.

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Writing for Marvel. Writing for fun. Eating everywhere, all the time.

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