Maria is a true design visionary, creative leader, author and thinker. I'm deeply grateful that she's been one of my design mentors and has personally guided and inspired my leadership approach. In this conversation, Maria shares her journey, and we explore the meaning of leadership in service to people.
I immediately admired Maria Giudice after reading her seminal book, Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design, and was subsequently fortunate to get to know her as a mentee and then a student at her excellent Stanford courses. It was illuminating to learn from one of the most respected names in the world of design.
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Maria’s design journey has undeniably been long and fruitful. She founded her own design practice which ran successfully for nearly 20 years and amassed an impressive list of loyal Fortune 500 clients, before being acquired by a global tech leader in 2013. She moved to become the first VP of Experience Design at software giant Autodesk after two years, and simultaneously began authoring excellent design leadership books that have been both influential and transformative in the world of design and in my own professional journey.
Meaningful connections with design
When we spoke, I was interested in her approach to design on a profound level as it drives her to inspire others to unlock their own meaningful connection to the craft. I was keen to learn more about her relationship with design, and explore the idea of design as an application of the spiritual concept Amanah - a trust or responsibility gifted in the form of talent, inspiration and skill to be in service to others. She started her answer by explaining that “The fundamental mission of design has never changed”, she explained. “Styles come and go, mediums come and go, software comes and goes, but human behaviour doesn’t change; humans don’t fundamentally change.”
To illustrate her point, she told me a story of her own design mentor, Richard Saul Wurman, who, among his many achievements, created the TED conference, and published over ninety books. By coincidence (or by design?), she had just spoken to him, now aged 85, right before our own conversation; but her story starts many years earlier. “In 1985, I was a senior in college, studying at the Cooper Union school of Art in New York. I was taking graphic design classes and I was not getting design at all. It just felt static to me, it felt empty. I felt like it was formulaic. I was curious enough to take some classes but I really wasn't sold on its value. So I struggled with design, but in my senior year of school, Richard Saul Wurman was invited as a guest speaker.” She told me that the moment Richard came in, he was cursing up a storm. Her connection to design was rekindled when he told the audience: “Stop designing for yourselves, it's not about you. Design is about being in service to others, design is about helping people make sense of the world”. For Maria, something clicked, as she shared “that was the moment it hit me. That's the fundamental thing that brought me into design; it's to help people make sense of the world, it's about being in service to others”.
“Service to others, service to the end user, service to my employees, service to my clients – it's about this co-creative empathetic process where there's a mission in which you're trying to just improve somebody's life.”
As the talk ended, Maria had just found a fundamental guiding force that would accompany her throughout her design journey. “That’s the thing that has carried me to this day; the common theme throughout my entire career’. Indeed, Maria has become renowned for her ‘People-centered design’. The value of design is in the eyes and hearts of people, in how it touches their lives, connects them to their everyday spaces, and moves them towards what is most meaningful. The intention of the designer is essential in every design made. For Maria, the intention was to help people. “And so, service to others, service to the end user, service to my employees, service to my clients – it's about this co-creative empathetic process where there's a mission in which you're trying to just improve somebody's life. Even if it's just a little thing, even if it's a piece of design whose goal is to just make somebody smile, or a piece of instruction from IKEA that is just so beautifully done.”
Maria was always mindful of how her designs impacted people, how it can enhance their lives even minutely. “It's those things that just make the world a little better, and that is the common theme of design, and to this day, it still gets me up in the morning and inspires me, that we have a superpower - we have special superpowers that are gifts to the world, that can help people live in this world.”
Design as service
I saw a link between her lifetime of advocating design as a service and my understanding of Amanah, a pillar of Heart-Centered Design. To regard her abilities as a medium for helping others, I feel Maria has also embodied the concept of Amanah in her design philosophy.
We ventured deeper into her personal and spiritual path as the conversation went on. I was intent on learning how she connected service and spirituality with her design practice. She had a lot to share on the topic as she has been coaching emerging creative leaders in recent years.
“A lot of my clients are designers, and they're not accessing the spiritual layer,” she said. “So many designers get stuck in their head. A large part of my job now is to get them out of their head and into their heart, and I usually tell my clients that your head's a sixth of your body. You're giving all the power to your head, which by the way has fewer neurons than your body has. There are actually more neurons in your gut than there are in your head. So if you're not tapping into the rest of your body and listening to your body, you're missing out on so much information”.
“That's kind of what spirituality is. It's another level of information to connect you to your purpose of life, through the lens of design.”
She then told me: “And that's kind of what spirituality is. It's another level of information to connect you to your purpose of life, through the lens of design”.
As our discussion neared its end, I was directly grateful for her service, for sharing her years of design leadership with me through our conversations, her books, workshops and even the excellent community efforts she champions in promoting design education. Long after our conversation, her inspiring words of wisdom have not only been the subject of my reflections, but have also directly touched my life and my own design path. The gems she has passed on to me live through the values of my own design team, moving to our clients, and then to their clients and customers.
Design can ripple through our lives, and so can the intention of design; I continue to think of her own design mentor and how he influenced countless designers over the years and the project and lives they enhanced with design.
I feel like a part of this ripple, for this kind of service is an essential part of Heart-Centered Design. To reframe our own work as a service, we must understand it as a capability and a trust – a responsibility to serve and empower others. It takes time, focus, and sincere intention, but the results can truly be profound and unlock dimensions of purpose and beauty.
My talk with Maria deepened my appreciation of design as an Amanah. Rather than design being superficial, cursory or even detrimental, service transforms it into something powerful; a way to enhance, improve, teach, connect, elevate and do good in endless creative, exciting, and beautiful ways.