01/31/2013 02:32 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

Design Your Life

Life Lessons From a Discussion of Design Thinking With Coca-Cola's Head of Design for North America

Vince Voron and I met last November when we were both speakers at the World Innovation Convention in Cannes. Vince, now associate vice president and head of design for Coca-Cola North America, used to be a senior industrial design manager at Apple. And we know what great product design has done for Apple.

As someone who uses associational thinking to design experiences that help people innovate in their lives, I couldn't help but wonder if traditional design thinking could be applied to designs for life. I decided to interview Vince to learn more about design thinking and see if my hunch -- that there might be some great life lessons tucked in this type of thinking -- was correct.

Here's our conversation:

Lisa: What makes a design mind?

Vince: People process information differently. I see objects first and words second. I took me 20 years to realize that not everyone sees things in the same way. Understanding has allowed me to change my communication style. Words are powerful. I learned through text-based marketing that I had to find the balance between the two.

Lisa: What allows you to step back and be a learner?

Vince: If you can't reinvent yourself, you can't help corporations reinvent themselves. At times, I lacked knowledge. I started as an electrical engineer. In my early days at Apple, I was intimidated by the MBA-speak of the consultants who ruled the business world at the time. I went back to school to get my MBA to learn how to effectively communicate with those I needed to interact with. As I got further along in design, I went back to get a master's degree in design. I always push myself to learn.

Lisa: What creates the desire to learn more?

Vince: The desire to do more for myself and my employers. Having respect for those in my field adds to that desire. I don't just jump in without the proper skills or knowledge. I learn the skills I need to be a better cross-functional leader.

Lisa: Did you always have a design mind?

Vince: I was encouraged as a child to have an expressive graphic and verbal style. As humans, we all have a design part in our brain. It gets sequestered at about five or six years old when you start getting judged. Art should not be graded.

My parents encouraged unusual expression instead of judging. I took extracurricular classes in art and music. Sketching and painting classes helped foster left-brain, right-brain development. It's important to nurture personal abilities in a balanced way.

Lisa: When given an assignment to create a new design, what is your very first step?

Vince: I question things. I try to understand. I read the briefs to grasp the full business applications and aspects. I work with my partners to understand why type of emotional response we want. I create a visual brief to accompany the text brief. I go back to my partners with my findings and ask if I understood correctly.

Lisa: What are the three key elements any great design must have?

  1. It has to be alluring from 20 feet away and intimately engaging from 20 inches away.
  2. It has to be intuitive and easy to use.
  3. It has to be sustainable -- not just environmentally but something you want to keep and cherish and pass on to a loved one.

Lisa: If you had to teach someone with no design experience how to be a designer, what would you tell them to do?

Vince: To be continuously curious, but to be persistent and patient enough to learn about all the areas and individuals that may interact with solutions you are designing for.

To have the personal courage and confidence to open up and foster inclusivity.

Design is subjective, so people turn that part off so they are not judged. Great designers may have been judged and did not stop. Don't stop. And when you learn how to do it, bring others along in an inclusive way.

Lisa: What do you do when a design does not work out as you envisioned?

Vince: Have the confidence and humility to start over; to be wise when enough is enough.

Lisa: Have you ever experienced a really bad idea turning into a great one?

Vince: Yes. There are lots of great examples of something that was designed for one purpose, then someone used it for something else, and a great new purpose was found.

Lisa: When your design teams get stuck, what's the best way to get them unstuck?

Vince: Get them out of their four walls. Get into open space, get into nature, get inspired, engage them with customers, shake things up.

Lisa: Have you ever not known where to start. If so, what did you do?

Vince: All the time. But I have a great tolerance for risk. The more you throw yourself into cold water, the more you surprise yourself with how you get out or how you adapt.

Lisa: Thanks, Vince.

Now let's look at what happens when we superimpose these elements onto our life design:

  1. Learn to consistently reinvent yourself.
  2. Stay educated -- it's a sign of respect.
  3. Nurture personal abilities.
  4. Design a life that's alluring from far away, engaging on an intimate level, as well as intuitive and something you want to pass on to loved ones.
  5. Be curious, persistent and patient; have the courage to open up and foster inclusivity.
  6. Don't stop, even if you are judged. And once you figure it out, share it.
  7. Have the confidence and humility to start over, and know when enough is enough.
  8. Sometimes, something starts as one thing and turns into something else that's even better.
  9. If you get stuck, find inspiration, change your environment, shake things up.
  10. It's OK not to know where to start -- as long as you do.