AT&T VP of design talks about industry transformation

Sharp visuals are no longer enough in the design world

Andrea Sutton (above) is vice president of design technologies at AT&T. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.

Doreen Lorenzo: So how did you find your way into this whole design thing?

I was always drawing–I drew before I talked. It was my first language. My dad was amazed by it and tried to harness the skill to create ads for his furniture store. Surprisingly, the ads started to work, and so he got me involved with a friend of his who had an advertising agency. His friend was an old-fashioned, two-martini-lunch kind of guy—and he let me spend a day at his advertising agency. That opened my eyes to design as a way of life.

What do you love about your work?

There’s this remarkable scene from Westworld that exemplifies my work as a modern designer. A “prostitute host” is being reviewed by the design team. Intently, they are in assessing a very profound, new, behavioral nuance that has just been uploaded into her code. It manifests as a distant look in the eyes, a sense of yearning, and an “unconscious-like” stroking of her lip. The new code enables the machine to evoke “loneliness” and “loss”. This scene represents all that is great and all that is dangerous about design technology. We have arrived at a place where the great new technologies will enable all the nuances of humans in design.

Sharp visuals are no longer enough. Great design deconstructs our motives, and responses to life, and gets into our heads–leveraging our human-ness and our emotion. It is informed by research, and the demonstrates itself in the “lilt” of Alexa’s voice, the change in ambient light when we enter a room, or the automatic articulation of our car environment to match our comfort needs. As designers, our responsibility to the world has soared, because design + technology makes us extremely powerful influencers of what is to come.

What is “Design Technology”? What are you doing with it at AT&T?

My new team is helping to define this. Our core beliefs tell the modern story that design and technology are inextricable. AT&T has created some of the most powerful technologies in the world. These cloud-based services enable highly secure, highly-automated tools for companies to create vast networks. My designers are commissioned to create interfaces where networks can be built with the swipe of a finger. It’s our job to make complex things easy to do. That demands constant education of my team.

We are always asking ourselves questions like, “How should designers approach designing with AI and Machine Learning tools?”  “How do we help our designers understand human motivation in ways we can leverage it and not exploit it?”  “What changes do we need to make in our ethical standards around design?” “Will augmented reality impact a child’s sense of reality in detrimental ways?” “Should we create a voice technology system for every visual system we create?”

The demand for design teams that are willing to do critical thinking around these questions is high. We are hiring best and brightest to help us dig out the answers.

What’s your take on delivering design for humans?

Great question. I always wax poetic here. The first answer to this should never be about metrics, sales, or building great products. That floods in quickly but the question demands a philosophy before any of that business mindset enters.

As important as business requirements are, the power of design is our ability to reshape reality for our customers. It’s our designer superpower. Designers are not just combining code, line, form, and interaction models for products any longer. The most successful designs will tap the ways the human mind, brain, and emotions interplay and amplify a human’s power. We need to be as respectful of that.

Give some examples of things that you are doing at AT&T.

We are in a very serious transformational mode. We are changing the culture, the view of Design, the spectrum of our offerings. Everything. We are on our way to becoming a design-centered entertainment company.

Before this transformation started, Designers were commonly called “resources”. So we made a pact to call them “talent” instead. Every person on the team gently corrected anyone who used the term “resource”–no matter who spoke it. And they did it with a smile. It took a bit of time, but we succeeded. That single word change increased the esteem of the entire design team.

Another cultural change we established was scientifically based. The human face is capable of micro-expressions that convey trust, but in 90% of our internal meetings, we used meeting software with audio only. So we started to simply turn on the cameras on our laptops. Remarkably, the meetings changed from dry, announcement-type information sessions to active dialogues.

We are also beginning to use Design as an engine for innovation, by establishing Design Thinking in our processes.

What is your key to motivating people?

You have to motivate “in context”, right? When you are a designer here, you are pioneering a bit. Designers need to feel empowered. They need to know that their ideas have value, and they need to I will have their back, as long as the thinking is not shoddy.

Recently I went to Spain with the blessings of my leadership. We set up everything from my design leadership team. We wrote a playbook together, and they performed remarkably for those six weeks. While I was there, I walked Camino de Santiago—500 miles from Logroño to Santiago de Compostela.

One of the things about the Camino is that everybody who puts their first foot down has the same goal. And that goal is to get to the big cathedral near the ocean and let their last footstep be down on those cobblestones. And there’s no question about the goal. And about halfway through the walk, a huge tree fell down across the path. There were only three things you could do. You could go up this steep embankment, or you could slide down the big gorge, or you could move the tree. Without saying a word, as people arrived at the obstacle, they just moved the tree.

There was no “high five” afterward–just palpable camaraderie because the goal was so clear and strong. And I started thinking about that from a leadership perspective, and I said to myself, “If I could do a really good job of making the goals crystal clear for my team, no one would even have to say a word about what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Whatever is your obstacle, move it out of the way.

The last question for you, and this is a question I always ask everybody: I know we can’t hug in the workplace, but are you a hugger?

I’m a total hugger. I’m Italian, for crying out loud. We hug, are you kidding me? Yeah, we hug. We actually have a hugging culture at AT&T, which is wonderful to see. John Donovan [Chief Strategy Officer and Group President, AT&T Technology and Operations] hugged me at the end of my interview, so I’ve carried on that as a new tradition.