“Melissa, you are spreading ze message!” a smiling Blaise Bertrand said to me in his charming French accent. I knew Blaise from my days at IDEO, where he wasthen a managing director, but this was a chance encounter, years later, at the Whole Foods checkout line in Palo Alto. At that point, I’d been working at TripAdvisor for about a year, and Blaise was referring to my trying to bring the design principles and sensibilities of IDEO to a company that had historically viewed design with a skeptical eye.
For me, it was a familiar theme. My own journey has long been one of trying to balance the analytical with the artistic—especially trying to find room for my creative inclinations. At Dartmouth, I majored in economics because I love numbers. At the same time, I hurried to complete the assignments, so that I would be able to take art history classes, hammer out beveled silver rings and copper bracelets, make my own coffee table, and draw charcoal portraits of my professors. When that wasn’t enough, I’d run off to work for a photographer in New York.
It was while working at Gap, I discovered that I could bring both sides of the brain together through product design, a foreign concept to me before then. Every Monday and Wednesday, someone would dump a stack of paper on my desk that was so tall that it needed to be held together by rubber bands. It didn’t take long for me to realize there had to be a better way. I took the sales numbers from a database and reshaped them in Excel to produce a tidy, one-page printout with only what was essential for making business decisions on it. I re-tooled many of our spreadsheets at Gap; then went on to do the same at Guess, saving both companies time, and a rainforest of paper, in the process.
In the middle of my second spreadsheet streamlining at Guess, I read a profile of David Kelley, the legendary founder of IDEO, which inspired the next several years of my life: I would go to Stanford Business School, in order to take classes at the d.school, so that I might land a job at IDEO. (This was the same kind of straightforward thinking that, as an undergrad, led me to majoring in econ, so that I could slip in courses in art history, and make jewelry, tables, and pottery.)
Miraculously, I did and I did. I got into Stanford, then joined IDEO. It was a dream come true. I loved my brief time at IDEO: the people, the meetings in the van, the free-flowing creativity rising out of conversations over morning bagels like steam from hot coffee.
Part of me wishes I had stayed at IDEO forever, but I was bitten by the entrepreneurship bug—specifically, tech entrepreneurship, where the product development cycle is so short that you’re always designing, shipping, and iterating. It was irresistible. And so, after a few years of experiments in pixels and code, Tiny Post, a micro-storytelling app, was born. The idea was to tell short, punchy stories—using a photo and just a few words—that bypassed the brain and went straight to the heart. It was a viral hit; and after 18 months, we were acquired by TripAdvisor.
When I arrived at TripAdvisor, design was not, let’s say, one of its core competencies. My mission was to refresh the decade-and-a-half-old company by introducing a design approach to solving problems—spreading ze message, as Blaise put it. I applied design thinking in my own teams to resuscitate the iPad app, build the TV app, and re-structure mobile navigation. I got the Palo Alto team into a class at Stanford’s d.school, and went on to run several design sprints with unprecedented collaboration across teams and offices.
I’m proud of the work that my team and I did at TripAdvisor. By the time I left the company, design thinking was no longer just an afterschool activity, it had taken root and spread, with others carrying the torch, enthusiastically. But I have to confess that, after a while, I missed being in a design culture—gratifying as it was to try to help build one. I’d also, to some extent, always regretted that my design education at IDEO wasn’t longer.
All this is to say, that’s why I joined Foundation Capital, and why I’m thrilled to be here working with Steve Vassallo on a design research project. We’re looking at ways to support designer founders, trying to understand what’s critical to the success of entrepreneurial designers and design-minded entrepreneurs, and exploring the centrality of design to modern businesses.
It’s a big, exciting project that allows me to live and breathe design. I’ve started to reconnect with the design community, and, in coming months, I’ll be reaching out to designers, entrepreneurs, and scholars for their insights. (Don’t be surprised if you get a call or email from me.) My years as a design missionary were deeply rewarding—but it feels good to be surrounded by designers again.