Vol. 24
Lucinda Burtt Typography Portrait

Leading by Design with Lucinda Burtt

January 2017

Stylish Minimalist, Design Intraprenuer

Lucinda’s suggestion of The Rabbit Hole turns out to be the perfect setting for an interview on a humid day in Sydney. We order Soda Teas off tap, a different source of caffeine but an apt thirst quenching bubbly elixir to accompany a discussion about looking beyond the norms and facades which often distort our understanding of design.

As a Visual Communications graduate, Lucinda had a meteoric rise as a digital designer at Fairfax, from a junior to heading up their online products. Throughout her journey she has learnt that design cannot exist apart from the business with juxtaposing goals, but rather, that it needs to be considered at the highest levels within organisations.

In this interview, we’ll get an insight in the mentality and approach to design which has reaped rewards for Lucinda but also the experiences that helped her shape them.

Lucinda Burtt--- 19 November 2016

By Lorenzo Princi

What do you do?

Okay, look, I like to say first of all I’m a designer but what I do these days is not just about design. So, I studied design and then I’ve had the opportunity to then work as a technical specialist but now I work more as a design manager and a design leader.

Before we get too much into your design career, I know fashion plays an important part in your life and you’ve used it as a means to engage with an audience on social media, what is it about fashion you enjoy and find important.

Yeah, absolutely. Well the connection with fashion is actually-- is really interesting. So, I started design, like straight out of school and I was doing Visual Communication. So, I wasn’t doing fashion and it wasn’t until I actually went overseas to Mexico-- so I did my degree as a double with international studies; I chose Spanish as my language and Mexico as my country of choice for cultural study.

And I went over to Mexico and I suddenly realised in Mexico that I loved fashion and the reason I realised that is when I was spending time, like, you know, by myself-- you spend a lot of time by yourself when you're in a foreign city. You spend lots of time out but you also spend a lot of time with yourself, like, doing study, doing projects and things like that. Everything I wanted to read was about fashion and that’s just when blogs were starting to explode. Like, I remember discovering The Sartorialist back when he was still cool and I realised that it had this big style thing about it-- I remember spending time as well, like with my friends-- like we would go to some of the big plazas-- like the big shopping centres there and we would just go and try on clothes and I just realised that was something I really enjoy doing. I enjoyed that style thing but for some reason I just never embraced it and I think the advantage of being overseas in a different country, different culture-- I felt like I was finally able to be me, finally let some things out and not judged by what people knew me as before.

So I came back with like heaps of clothes I’d bought in Mexico [laughs] and also this real sense of wanting to do stuff to do with style and I kind of still kept it dormant though. So I finished the rest of my design studies, then I started work and then when I was at work I suddenly realised that I had to do something to do with this fashion stuff. I started my blog as soon as I started work and it was amazing! Being able to actually talk about style. I met heaps of people in the fashion space and for me it became this real sort of way of starting to understand the way I felt about design. What design could do but through the medium of fashion. I think for me-- because I was doing everything digital by that point, it didn’t feel really tangible, I felt a bit disconnected from the space-- everything’s very transient and yet fashion was where I was able to start playing with style and playing with colour and shape and form and it felt really tangible and really real to me.

"The advantage of being overseas in a different country, different culture-- I felt like I was finally able to be me, finally let some things out and not judged by what people knew me as before."
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You studied Visual Comm but quickly entered the digital space pretty much on arrival in the workforce. Was this intentional, was there any inclination to go with print, or just the nature of the industry at that point?

Mexico was the first time I started thinking about digital and the reason for that was, once again, feeling really alienated and feeling really apart from my family. I suddenly started consuming tonnes of websites and went, “oh my gosh, these things actually need to be designed!” It kind of tweaked in my mind and so when I came back I really pushed myself toward the digital side. I learnt how to do HTML (Hyper-Text Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) so I become what is now known as like-- I guess like a UI Developer/Designer but then that started-- the design part was stronger so I knew that was my strength rather than being a developer but at the time-- yeah I really found that really powerful, to be able to create websites as well.

"Mexico was the first time I started thinking about digital and the reason for that was, once again, feeling really alienated and feeling really apart from my family. I suddenly started consuming tonnes of websites and went, 'oh my gosh, these things actually need to be designed!'"
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Whether you're decorating your house, wardrobe or the products you design. You have a minimalist aesthetic. What drives you to try push things to their absolute simplest viable form.

I think you’ve just hit the nail on the head about getting down to its simplest form or its simplest essence. I think that’s the piece for me and that’s what design just tries to do-- Like really good design tries to take out the superfluous and adds back things where it really adds value. So I think that’s the way I approach my design. So, I think that’s also the other reason I was never was truly into print because print people tend to be people who love flourishes, they love texture, they love beautiful typography, maybe they’re an illustrator? That’s not me, I’m very much about bringing it back down to its essence. Bringing it back down to really just black and white, playing with grid, playing with form rather than those other decorative elements. So I think that’s the reason why-- the reason why I do that and I also find that it helps to make me just feel a bit calmer about life when I reduce-- so take the clutter away and I can be more creative in other aspects because I don’t have too much around me in my space or I don’t have too much on my body I feel like I can throw myself into the experiences that I’m having.

"Good design tries to take out the superfluous and adds back things where it really adds value."
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You’ve risen through the ranks at Fairfax Media from a Junior Designer, to heading up mobile innovations to now, Head of Product Design. It’s a fairly rare thing for a designer these days to stay in one organisation and stick with it. Why do you feel to really know and grow with the business?

Yeah, look it’s a really tough one because whenever I speak to people of-- like our generation, people give me a bit of shit for having been at the same place for so long [laughs]. Because they’re sort of saying, “oh, what? Are you trying to stay there for life? Are you like trying to get-- sort of long service leave?” And to be honest, it’s really been because I’ve had different opportunities there. So every time I’ve really thought about leaving, I’ve had the opportunity to do something else and that’s been really interesting for me but also I think if you want to really impact a company for a long period of time and you want them to be sustainable it actually makes sense to be there for the long haul. I’ve definitely seen the benefit of it, especially after I was there for about five years, people started realising I was taking more of a long term view and it meant that you start getting different support, you start getting mentors, you start getting people wanting to kind of poach you into, like, that next role.

Look, I really believe that design should be in the highest levels of leadership inside organisations, whether that means that there are, like, a Chief Designer Office role or whether it’s about like Chief Experience Officer role or someone who’s in design who is maybe a CPO, so Chief Product Officer or a CMO, a Chief Marketing Officer. I just think it’s so important but you can’t do that unless you can show that you are really committed to the business and that you do want to go on that journey. If you just keep hopping around between specialist roles, you’ll probably have a fantastic career but you won't be able to go into that leadership space.

"I really believe that design should be in the highest levels of leadership inside organisations."
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The advent of the “Influencer” and I guess even the idea of intrapreneurial careers in recent years see companies now needing to adapt to empowered employees which act as consultants more than staff. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this as you fall very much into this category.

Absolutely, I think you need to show that you know the business, that you know that there are different facets and I think you especially, in the case of Fairfax Media, the editorial part of the business is only a part of it and-- so a lot of people see that as being the only real-- the really cool, core part. There are so many other pieces. I’ve had the opportunity since I’ve been there to not only be doing digital design but also commercial product design. The reality is that-- of the business-- is that advertising is one of the things that generates revenue so it’s not the content per se, it’s the ability to be able to then monetise people’s attention.

Because of that-- that kind of side is really important so if you’re only coming in to it from that artistic point of view of, “okay, let’s make better content, let’s do this, let’s do that” because that’s not the thing that actually helps monetise it, it means that it’s then very hard to have conversations that are really high level because when you’re thinking about people who are working in the strategy space or working in the C-Suite they are thinking about, “how do we make this business sustainable? And how do we deliver a return for our investors? How do we make this something that’s actually going to have longevity as well?” And the reality is, making money is one of the ways you ensure a company survives and everyone continues to get paid and continues to get to do what they do.

"You need to show that you know the business, that you know that there are different facets."
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Regarding your work, how have traditional media company such as Fairfax had to adapt to the disruptive nature of internet companies such as Twitter/Facebook/Mashable becoming the go to for news?

Yeah that’s a very good question. So, Mark Zuckerberg (Founder of Facebook) has said a lot about how Facebook is not a media company and yet the role that they are now playing in the consumption of media is huge. I think they do have to start acknowledging that they are a media distribution company, like, even if they are not media themselves. They do need to start thinking about their-- the way the algorithms are actually selecting information for people.

I think when these sorts of things come along and start shifting, you’ve just got to shift with it. There’s a possibility that the company will look really different in five, ten year’s time but if they stay true to what they believe in, if they stay true to that core of sharing information then that’ll still be fine.

What, if any added pressures has it put on ROI conversations when trying to be innovative?

Well it is really-- it is tough and I think it’s especially tough when you think about, like, my group which is doing user experience design. So, we’re trying to do things which create better experiences but we’re also thinking about, what is it that our users actually want? What is it that they’re trying to do on the site? And what they’re trying to do may be really different to what the business wants to do or what they see is important or the area where they’d like to move into. So, it is a bit of a push and pull, we do need to concede some ground in the sense that business priorities are really important-- it’s important to continue to deliver things in a sustainable way but we’re also spending time helping the business to start listening to, like- to our users and start listening to what they’re saying, where they’re really struggling and making sure that we’re creating things that are going to have value on both sides. Where not just creating things that just sound cool we're also trying to do stuff that really has kind of user value as well.

You’ve moderated panels and given talks at big industry events, how do you find that side of things? Where people are looking to you for thought leadership? Is there extra responsibility that goes with that?

Well… look, that’s something that I’ve chosen to do rather than something that I’ve been asked to do but I think that it is really important. It’s important because I do people manage and I do need to keep thinking about, “how do I attract great talent to the team?” And it’s really satisfying for me when I have people come up or come into interviews and they go, “oh, actually I’ve seen you around the place, I’ve seen you either present at this” or, “I’ve seen you do a talk”, or “I’ve read something that you’ve written.”

That’s good because it means that partially some of the reasons why I’m doing it started to work but also I think it is important to get that discussion out ... and think about some of the things that we’re trying to do, to get to keep spreading the word about just the reality of doing UX design inside businesses because I find that design is great at connecting with other people but it can sometimes choose to stay in that artistic space-- chose to stay in the-- the feel good projects and not thinking about the why design can have that really broad impact. I’d like us to talk a little bit more about that-- like I’d like people to start talking about that-- thinking about that-- how do we do design that really scales? Because when we are talking about the products that we’re creating, they’re going to have millions of users as opposed to just a small group and sometimes the word is tougher to get through but it can be just as satisfying.

You’re passionate about designers being more than just the creative but very much part of the business. What do you think caused the separation is in the first place in the graphic comms space that lead to designers not being as technical as designers in every other discipline?

Look I don’t even know if I can answer that question? It might be because I’m too young [laughs] but look I think Thought Leadership is really important whenever you have these emerging spaces-- I mean there’s still so much to be discussed and talked about. I think people are starting to take a step back and think about some of those early ideas. I think of digital products, so some of the things Eric Rees was talking about in The Lean Startup and the Jeff Gothelf in Lean UX, those were really the models of the way we do things. I think now people are starting to take a step back and going, “Wow, those are all really centred on getting products out the door, having a very fast iterative cycle, maybe we need to take a bit more care and maybe we need to give ourselves a bit more time in that research space-- bit more time in the-- what we call the discovery or the inception space before we move into the delivery side.” So, I think it is really important to keep talking about, there’s never going to be one particular solution for the industry, it’ll just keep changing and evolving.

Finally, what’s next for Lucinda?

Well this is a fairly interesting one for me. We’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about Fairfax. I’m actually going to be taking on a new challenge next year outside the company. This only just happened in the last little while. And-- so I think for me the real next challenge is thinking about, “how do I really bring together design and business.” So, I really care passionately about design, I also care about business and business strategy as well. Like, how do we create companies and products that are sustainable long term that keep delivering value, that don’t end up in a place where they become irrelevant. Businesses that can keep disrupting themselves and evolving rapidly at pace. I’m really interested in that side so I think my next-- my next few years is going to be really about, “how do I bring that business side into design as well.”

Find Lucinda on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

Proofreading by Luke Yates. Photography by Lorenzo Princi.