Insights – Lorna Ross

Lorna Ross's design career has been an interesting journey spanning more than 25 years, with stops in the world of fashion, wearable technology and, most recently, health. She is a futurist at heart, recognised for her ability to anticipate shifts in the social, cultural and economic context for design. She was one of the pioneering researchers to focus on wearable technologies and built a reputation for research activity in this arena. She later identified the theme of health as an emerging arena for design to thrive. She founded and led the Human Wellbeing Group at the MIT Media Lab. Her vision was to employ human centred design principles to address the biggest challenges facing the healthcare industry in delivering population health outcomes. 

She returned to Ireland from the US in 2017 to take up the position of Group Design Director at Fjord in Dublin. As the Fjord studio in Dublin sits within The Dock, Accenture’s global research and innovation centre, Lorna has a unique role placing design at the heart of the multi-disciplinary teams working on R&D projects addressing some of the biggest challenges facing society today.

Potolicchio: What are you doing at Fjord?

Ross: At The Dock, Accenture’s global research and innovation centre in Dublin, I’m the Group Director for the Fjord design studio.

Within Fjord, we are the R&D arm of the global design agency and our focus is mostly to anticipate the questions design will be asked to answer soon and the problems it will be asked to fix, and to build the skills and competencies we will need to respond effectively. Much of the work we do is to at the coalface of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, machine automation, computer vision, augmented reality where design helps to consider the human/machine compatibility.

Given that we’re based in an R&D hub, this has presented some interesting challenges in terms of discovering what design can contribute to in an innovation setting. As a result, we’ve had to challenge some of the orthodoxies around what of we consider ‘good design’. Traditionally design functions best with a clear design brief to work to and where are technical skills can be showcased.  Here our brief is wildly ambiguous, and our role is to consider everything from the ethical and social impact of a technology to its accessibility. I believe the designers working here are an emerging breed of designers who have deep data-fluency and hybrid tech/design skills.

Potolicchio: What can the field of design teach us about dealing with an uncertain world?

Ross: Well firstly, design is not about a single solution or ever needing to be right. It’s about considering a range of options and determining which may be best for that situation and that time. It’s also about experimentation and acting in the face of uncertainty. Design is in many ways a proxy for certainty as it can be practiced even when you do not have all the facts. It’s very forgiving and as it is iterative and generative, no effort is wasted.

Design is collaborative and that’s great at a time when no one person has the answer and the problems are confounding – as it is unlikely any one person could possibly really understand them fully.

A less understood value of design is it as a diagnostic process. It is a very powerful tool for unpacking and understanding complex problems and indeed deconstructing complexity into its parts, so it is less intimidating or daunting. Design is remarkably effective at exposing orthodoxies, stereotypes, bias and all the other invisible forces that hold us back. I like to say, ‘it makes the invisible, visible’ which can be very helpful when people don’t know what to believe in an uncertain world.

Lastly design is mostly a way to tap into imagination, which is deeply linked to empathy which in turn helps us practice tolerance and which I think we can all agree… we need more of. So, design can amplify tolerance.

I could go on and on… I think design is likely a discipline that thrives in uncertainty. It’s our superpower… like seeing through walls.

Potolicchio: What's something seemingly small that has made a big difference in your life (i.e. advice, book, product purchase, chance encounter)?

Ross: Serendipity has been the hallmark of my entire career it seems.  I studied fashion and textiles in Dublin and started a company straight out of college selling clothing in the late 1980s. Looking for a way to get more business skills, I applied to a Design Management programme in London at the Royal College of Art, intending to return to Dublin directly after.

Sadly, I was the only applicant to the programme that year and it was promptly cancelled. I was asked to instead join a handful of designers being recruited into a new experimental program in the industrial design department, bringing traditional designers in to explore what’s happening with emerging technologies and think about the implications back to their craft.”

The programme was called Computer Related Design back then (‘92) which grew into the iconic design programme Interaction Design and subsequently Design Interactions under Dunne & Raby.

Initially I turned the offer down as I knew nothing about computers, and I thought it sounded terrifying. However, the programme director was convinced and persisted, offering me a generous scholarship. I really struggled in the first year. I’d come from fashion, a deeply craft-based discipline. I was trained to make things with my hands, joking once with a tutor that the only machine I knew how to use was a sewing machine. We were a class of about eight, most of the other students coming from graphic design and what was at that time called ‘multimedia’ backgrounds. I felt like a complete idiot. It was really intimidating, and just as I was considering leaving and returning to Dublin, something seemingly insignificant happened that changed everything.

One week in the spring semester, Bill Moggridge, co-founder of IDEO, came to visit and set us a design brief. He wanted us to redesign the telephone. This seemed so far away from what I knew and so impossible to resolve with the design skills I had. I decided I needed to think about it like I would if I were designing a piece of clothing or accessory and so I built a telephone as a wearable glove. It was hideously ugly I was so embarrassed to show it to anyone. I waited in the back of the room during the critique, hoping we would run out of time before I had to present to Bill.  

Looking back, I had no idea I had just launched myself into a career in wearable tech that would persist for 15 years and would have me relocate to the West Coast and not back to Dublin. I had done exactly what the programme director had hoped… taken my craft into the 21st century and collided it with tech.

Potolicchio: Among other ventures you have worked in the healthcare industry, fashion, wearable technology and founded the Wellbeing Lab at MIT. What's your advice on pivoting and succeeding in so many different industries?

Ross: Don’t get too comfortable. You will stop learning and will instead spend all your time and energy defending yourself…and no one will want to be around you when that happens.

I have intentionally blown up my career and started again from scratch every decade. In the 90s I was known for my expertise in wearable tech, in the teens I was the go-to person for design in healthcare innovation.

It’s incredibly terrifying to go from being the expert to being the novice and it can make you feel incredibly vulnerable, but it is also so liberating (I know that sounds like such a cliché). Being a novice means you get to ask questions again and you can be curious and really interested in other people. Being a novice means you can ask others for help and they will, which at a human level will remind you that people are generally really kind and that’s a good thing to remember when you are 20 years into a career…how to still ask for help. Being a novice teaches humility, yet another cliché, but it helps reset your own expectations of yourself and of what you may have thought success for you was so here again. It’s powerful.

Finally, what I love most about having reinvented myself multiple times is that is helps keep my outlook optimistic. Right now, at The Dock, my team is largely in their 20s and early 30s, the same age as my children, and it’s just so energizing to be with them every day and to be learning from them and seeing the world through their eyes. I am very thankful for this.

Potolicchio: What's a book you would gift the Secretary General today?

Ross: All of Maria Montessori’s writings particularly The Discovery of the Child and The Secret of Childhood. It’s an embarrassment that we can teach a car to drive itself and a computer how to think but we cannot educate our children in a respectful and nurturing manner and one which celebrates their own unique capacity and potential. We need to make a real investment in the next generation. If only we had as much interest investing in humans as we do in investing in technology the world would be a much less scary place.

Potolicchio: What's a book you would have a young leader embarking on their career read?

Ross: I think reading history is very important. We forget that we have all been here before, humanity faced with some terrible conundrum, paralyzed with fear of the future, stuck between sentimentality and progress. It’s a story as old as we are. History shows us the randomness of things. It basically says… “blah blah… this happened… but the opposite could have also happened too…. but it didn’t” … it’s a good reminder of how little we can control the future.

Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is just such a perfect journey through human history, it’s the original and a classic. I also love the Ghost Map by Steven Johnson which is a perfect mix of history and mystery chronicling the story of the cholera epidemic of 1854 Victorian London and the origins of epidemiology.

And finally, anything by the magnificent Oliver Sachs who reminds us how very fragile our grasp on reality really is and how quickly our brain can mislead us. He reminds us to be humble, have compassion and broaden our very narrow view of what it is to be ‘normal’.

Potolicchio: Who do you most admire and why?

Ross: Working for 8 years at The Mayo Clinic I learnt a lot about the human spirit and its capacity to persist in the face of crushing suffering and sadness… I have such admiration for the people there helping the patients navigate such a scary experience with compassion and dignity. It is a remarkable place full of exceptional people who never give up.