Permission to Ask “Why”

by Joel Derksen

August 30, 2017


Barbara Franz
Barbara Franz

An interview with Barbara Franz


This is the first in a series of Q&As in which art director Joel Derksen chats with international designers about their craft.


Looking to Europe, Canadian designers may wonder if the grass is truly greener on the other side. Here, Barbara Franz, senior design and research lead at innovation firm IDEO, talks about what it takes for designers to be respected and how her approach to design has changed working for a global innovation design company.


Barbara’s career began at the world-famous Studio Massaud in Paris and at luxury appliance maker Gaggenau. After completing her master’s degree at Helsinki’s Aalto University, she focused on improving lives through design at IDEO Munich.

Joel Dersken: You studied in Germany, France and Finland. What’s different between them?


Barbara Franz: Each country in Europe has strengths and weaknesses. Design is advanced in different ways in each country.


Stuttgart has a strong, rational Bauhaus heritage. France allowed me to explore an emotional and playful approach.


The Scandinavian approach is democratic, with ambitions of improving the life of everyone. With a strong history in architecture and product design, Scandinavians apply design to social challenges. In Finland, for example, we worked in multidisciplinary teams with students from engineering and economics.

I am very impressed by the mandate that is given to designers in Finland; it’s something I am still waiting to see in Germany.


JD: How did that impact your design approach?


BF: I turn to Finland when I am looking for bold examples of policies and public services. Helsinki’s ambitions to become car-free by 2025, and their smart city experiments in Kalasatama, are inspiring projects. I am a fan of the iconic Finnish product designers and architects, like Saarinen (St. Louis’ Gateway Arch), Wirkkala (Iittala’s Ultima Thule glassware), Alvar Aalto (Artek; Finlandia Hall) or companies like Marimekko, [which] challenged [its] industries through innovative processes, materials and new ways of thinking. Finland is a source of inspiration in many different ways and has had a deep impact on my personal journey.


I was in Finland when I applied to IDEO, because it was a natural step after receiving an education that focused on creating positive impact through design.


Here&There, an airline food experience project 


JD: What changes when you join a place like IDEO?


BF: You are given the liberty to ask why. It is our duty to question the brief and come up with a more relevant one if necessary. What guides any design at IDEO—not just industrial design—at IDEO are the insights we discover through research. You must learn to overcome prejudice and test assumptions by continuously learning from users and looking at the data your team has gathered. The design that results is less a matter of personal opinion and more guided by objective evidence.


JD: How has research changed your approach?


BF: My understanding of design has shifted so much, from only form and materials to the contexts that inform that object.


Research shows me the multitude of factors that play into the success of a new product, service, brand or company. For example, when designing services, it is important to not only design with the user in mind, but with a deep understanding of staff needs, capabilities, training opportunities, etc. This was not on my radar when I started as product designer, but is central to my work today.



Franz participated in an overhaul of Lufthansa's business class at IDEO Munich. Photo provided by IDEO

JD: How do designers get more respect?


BF: You must have confidence in the value you bring. Designers expect to be understood, but do designers have an understanding of the world? It really is a two-way street. To have more authority, you have to understand business holistically.


Designers must have multi-dimensional, strategic understanding. When I started, I didn’t think about the user’s identity, how the product fit into their lives, the system it lives within, or the client’s business strategy. At the start of my career I was certainly more focused on the small part I was designing. My thinking progressed. Today, my strongest skill is to understand our clients’ needs and take them along on the journey of innovation.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Joel Derksen is a freelance art director and designer working in London and Amsterdam. joelderksen.com


Leave a Comment

* required field

Name: *

Optional URL: (include http://)

Comment: *

Verification: 1 + 6 = *

NOTE: Comments are moderated and should appear on the site shortly, pending approval.


Are you a designer, ad exec, copywriter, illustrator, interactive designer, or photographer with a flair for the written word? We're always looking for guest columnists and contributors on the Applied Arts website! Email editorial[at]appliedartsmag.com to introduce yourself.