Welcome Holly
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Welcome Holly

Design thinking

Holly May Mahoney has just joined as our new Design Lead here at Design Thinkers Academy in London. Mel Taylor, our Marketing Director, catches up with her at her new desk to find out about her creative adventures so far and what she’s planning next.

Mel: What sparked your love of design?

Holly: My interest in design came early on from my father, but I didn’t realise it until I had left home. I grew up on a sustainable vegetable farm in Norfolk – and I now look back and realise my dad designed everything! For example, we recycled rain water off the barn roof and he set up a system to collect it. He was very creative, practical and efficient. I think seeing what he did at an early age gave me a sense of why it’s important to design things well and how good design improves everyone’s lives.

When I was young my passion was graphic design. I studied art history, graphic design and photography at A level, the closest fit to my interests. I went on to do a BA at Falmouth University in graphic design. Service design as a course or discipline was not so much in the public eye back then and wasn’t on my radar.

At university, I was really obsessed with graphic design which I know sounds a bit geeky. I loved typography, layout and infographics. I made myself badges that said things like, ‘I love grids’ and made beautiful books.

Mel: So how did your design career start?

Holly: After a couple of internships, I worked at Applied_Wayfinding on several wayfinding projects including Legible London. This was an amazing first job that took me around the UK and abroad to the US and Canada. It kicked off my interest in service design – not that I called it that back then. Originally a graphic designer, my role transitioned into strategy as an information planner. I particularly enjoyed doing user research – talking to people and finding out about their needs and then working with other designers to design around that. We took cardboard signs out onto the street and tested them with people. There was a real practicality to the creativity at Applied_Wayfinding – trying to help people not get lost! I loved the user research and co-creation.

I then moved on to a couple of more classic graphic design roles, including for the amazing Morag Myerscough working on exhibitions and really artistic projects. After a while, for me it felt like graphic design had a ceiling in terms of the positive affect I was having on people and their day to day lives, and so I went in search of something where I could use my skills to have more social impact.

I took an MA in Service Design at the Royal College of Art in London and, along with freelancing for start-ups and service design agencies, I became a Research Associate at the Helen Hamlyn Centre. My studying gave me theoretical training but it was also project based with real clients. I worked on commercial projects and social ones within healthcare and education. It gave me a real taste of how service design can be applied in the real world.

Mel: When did you first become an advocate of design thinking?

Holly: Well, I was actually ‘doing’ design thinking for years, but didn’t ever label it or call it that. I was first a designer, then a strategist, then a service design strategist, and a lot of what I did I would call common sense. However, in 2016 I became a Teaching Fellow at Stanford’s d.school, and learnt that my attitude, the thought processes I had and my approach to design actually had a name! That was really useful as I was able to then communicate more clearly what I did day to day! And under the term ‘design thinking’ you can then create a system of behaviours, methods, tools and processes according to the context you’re in.

At Stanford, I went on a steep learning curve. I had to get to grips with new ways of thinking and talking about design, as well as US and Silicon Valley culture. I was fascinated to learn how the d.school came out of product design and innovation, and has evolved (as we all have) to include a more holistic view of the world – focussing on services and experiences. This is where I think most vital design and innovation work lies.

Mel: Why do you think design thinking is important?

Holly: Design thinking means businesses don’t fail! It’s that simple.

Lots of new products and services are rubbish. I get frustrated when things don’t work – self-service tills at the supermarket, mobile phone customer services and so on. Design thinking can help fix those things. I want to help fix them!

Design thinking is not just problem solving, it’s about problem finding. Using research and nurturing empathy to find what people really need. What should you be designing with them not just for them? You create real problems if you stop talking to people – the whole design process needs to be hyper-inclusive. We can all input into the design process to make things better. And my mantra is that good ideas come out of good research.

Mel: What lead you to join DK&A/ Design Thinkers Academy London?

Holly: It’s an amazing opportunity to work as a service designer on projects and to be a coach too. DK&A is embedded in industry – building people’s internal design thinking capacity as well as running training through DTA London. I’m looking forward to the best of both worlds. I’ll be splitting my time between working closely with clients and coaching on Design Thinkers Bootcamp.

Mel: What are your initial goals?

Holly: Simple really. I want to get to know everyone here, and the clients we’re serving. I’m keen to help evolve our training and our consultancy to keep meeting people’s needs as best we can. My aim in life is to help people improve in business and in life.

Mel: What do you enjoy when you aren’t working?

Holly: I love mountains, skiing and snowboarding and fresh air. As well as studying artistic subjects at school and college, I did French A-Level and was lucky enough to live in the French Alps in my gap year. It was magnifique!