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Dreams of Design with Director of Experience & Product Design Ana Nicolau

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Resilience, hard work and an endless passion for design. These the ingredients that brought Vocabulary Director of Experience & Product Ana Nicolau to become who she is today – an accomplished leader and established woman in the creative industry.

And building a career in the industry as a woman can be quite challenging, as Ana herself confirms and as we've already heard from Patola Figueroa not long ago. It takes a good amount of emotional and physical strength to push through the status quo and subvert it from within – but Ana is certainly one who wouldn't falter before such a challenge. And that's because, in her own words, being able to dream and knowing how to execute it into reality is priceless.

Today we are Getting to Know Ana and her dreams for the creative industry, a leader who lives with making complex challenges appear seamlessly simple.

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Ana Nicolau, Director of Experience & Product Design

Tell us about your current role!

I'm a Director of Experience and Product Design, working with clients to make complex things seamlessly simple.

The work can shape up in the form of product design end-to-end (apps/websites), leading teams into high-performance by implementing processes and workflows, or service design and strategy developing KPIs frameworks, always focused on business goals and ROI. The exposure to different environments and industry verticals through the years, from e-commerce to publishing and startups to FinTech, meant working with great brands like IKEA, Tom Ford, Condé Nast, The Times and NatWest.

Recently created DRIVE, a groundbreaking framework that measures both the tangible and intangible impact of design in business terms - ie. numbers, spreadsheets and data visualisation - retrospectively and prospectively by team, product, company and market at micro and macro level.

It's very exciting work because it allows businesses to identify costly blind spots they didn't even know existed and redirect effort to more effective and efficient outcomes.

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DRIVE Framework - Quarterly analysis report, Scorecard results overview

How did you get to your current position? What was the biggest challenge?

By working hard and a good amount of resilience. It’s a tough lesson to learn, realising your journey is not 100% shaped by the quality of your output or impact of your contribution, rather so many other factors outside your control.

Also, being a woman designer in this industry doesn’t come without dedicated burdens. Sometimes just being allowed the space to do the work without distractions, feels like a blessing. Multiple daily microaggressions are exhausting, and it requires a level of emotional management many colleagues can’t even fathom, or want to.

It's an ongoing challenge for women at all levels in the industry and a direct consequence of the lack of women in senior leadership roles which make up only for about 10% - that's 10 women for every 90 men. Imagine the outrage if these numbers were inverse? Representation matters, for both teams and end-customers.

Which is why I recently founded Women In Design App, a global slack community of women in design, based on the principles of kindness, having the space to be real and, most importantly, yourself. We’re a group of women empowering, educating and elevating each other intelligently. And a resource for recruiters and hiring managers to find us. There's no excuse.

What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?

I studied Communication Design at university. It was a five-year degree that felt like a lifetime. Thinking about it now, it was a great learning experience I would gladly go through again. We had a proper classical education.

The first two years were foundational and focussed on the Fine Arts aspect of the discipline. We delved into Art History, Aesthetics, Art Theory, Anatomy, Drawing, Photography, Geometry, among others. It was pretty much about learning the rules so that - I realise it now - we could break them later by backing it up with a solid point of view. It was meant to help us develop our own language.

The last three years focussed on Design Thinking, Psychology, Anthropology, Ergonomics, Marketing, Strategy, Cognitive Science, Graphic/Digital/Interactive design, Technology, among others. It elevated our thinking and understanding that tools serve the purpose we give them - ie. we choose the tools we need for a particular purpose but we’re never controlled by them. Cross-discipline work was very much encouraged.

The lasting lesson was that Design is always about people–always.

The level of thinking, resourcefulness and execution required was so high, the transition to the 'real world' was seamless. At 24, I was the only Designer leading the design of a whole company with a print, e-commerce and brick & mortar business. It was hard work but very fulfilling.

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The Times - 'Know Your Times' national digital campaign

Which individuals and/or agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

I don't believe in heroes, I believe in pieces of work that are inspiring by how well they resolved a challenge. And more rarely, I find inspiration in people I respect by the values they hold, how they translate them into their work and approach to life. That said, anyone walking their talk is worth noting and learning from. Realness is always inspiring.

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

Right now, living by the beach all year round, surfing, writing, reading and painting. But then I would be missing Design, can’t stay away from it. I absolutely love it.

What’s your secret to keeping the team inspired and motivated?

First and foremost listening–to the team as a whole and each person individually. It’s important to be honest about concerns, goals and aspirations so we can work together in accomplishing them. Leading a team is all about creating the conditions for people to grow and feeling their purpose having a positive impact on the business.

Transparency, accountability and ownership will accomplish that.

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IKEA Family Live website

How has COVID-19 affected you as a leader?

It has actually amplified reach and strengthened connections.

As Designers most of our tools and workflows were already set up online in a highly collaborative manner, so working from home didn’t have as much impact as it might have had in other roles.

We might be physically apart but we’re emotionally closer. Conversations are rawer and truer, and there’s a specific wfh sense of humour that deflates stress.

It reminds me a bit or mIRC in the 90s!

What have you learned from 2020?

So much! More than anything I finally learned what it means to believe in myself in a way I hadn't before. I knew the theory but now I understand it in practice.

What is your biggest hope for 2021?

To get to December, look back and think 'Wow, I did that'.

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NatWest

What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?

Self-confidence and lack thereof. Wins happen when you focus on the former and losses on the latter. It's a mind game.

What is your one advice to aspiring creatives looking to be successful?

Don’t let yourself to ever be defined by other people’s limitations of what’s possible and what’s not. It’s your job to dream big and deliver. Pair that with humility, and you’re gold.

How do you recharge away from the office?

I’m an avid reader and super curious so I’m always learning something new. Side-projects are essential for a more creative release. I turn to life-drawing, yoga and Nature when I need to properly relax.

What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?

Design presence at C-Level, senior executives with a real hands-on design experience background. There's a certain depth of knowledge that can only be acquired by doing, not just by reading books and articles.

When that happens and it becomes a mainstream approach for companies, our industry will take a quantum leap forward by truly exploring the possibilities of what can be done with a purpose, to dream so big the only limits are those of imagination.

Being able to dream and knowing how to execute it into reality is priceless. That's Design.

Do you have any websites, books or resources that you would recommend?

I recommend people. Anyone who says, does or makes you feel something. Follow that lead. It will align you with the most serendipitous moments and none of it is a coincidence. 

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