Design leader interview series: Amy Armock
By Lilly Smith
Header Image
Design leader interview series: Amy Armock
By Lilly Smith
Design leader interview series: Amy Armock
By Lilly Smith
Header Image

For AIGA Women Lead’s first interview series, we sat down with women pioneers at colleges, design studios, agencies, and large companies to share their unique stories: the journey from mentee to mentor, frank assessments of women and the design field today, and how they’ve demonstrated a commitment to gender equity in the workplaces they now lead.

As the studio director for Amazon’s Device and Services team, and with previous experience at Microsoft and Yahoo!, Amy Armock owns a legacy of building and growing diverse teams where it is notoriously difficult—the tech world. So how did she learn to do so successfully? In part, from great mentors, who gave her note-worthy advice (“Support your team,” “Listen first”) but also from other influencers, who taught her what not to do when in a leadership position. Armock spoke with AIGA executive director Julie Anixter about what it’s like to network as an introvert, the challenges of working with someone who proclaimed himself one of the original “Mad Men,” and what she learned from it: why, especially for women, shameless self-promotion isn’t a bad thing.

How long have you been a designer?

Since I was fifteen years old I wanted to be a fashion designer. My plan was to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. In my senior year of high school, I had moved from a fairly small high school in southern California to San Diego and attended Torrey Pines high school. The school had a “commercial art class,” which was essentially graphic design, and I absolutely fell in love with it. At that point, I decided that I was going to be a graphic designer. So that's where I switched gears. High school. From there, you just couldn't stop me.

What was the focus of your design training?

I went to school for graphic design. In my junior year, I decided that I was really interested in computers, and I switched over to a special major called Computer in Art, Design, Research and Education, which was partially design and experimental multi-media art. The program required interdisciplinary credits in another discipline. So, I focused on computer animation and sound design and I minored in advertising.

So fast forward to now. What is your role at Amazon, and what do you do?

I work in a studio that is responsible for designing the software experiences for Amazon Devices. This includes the Alexa line of products: Echo Dot, Amazon Tap, Echo, Fire Tablets, and Fire TV. We're always working on new and innovative devices coming out of Amazon.

I’m the Studio Director and am responsible for overseeing the entire product design organization: I run the business of design (specifically design operations), our UX research team, our design team that focuses on first run experiences, as well as a company-wide design community initiative called Amazon Design Leadership.

How did you transition from design to the business of design?

It was definitely a slow process. I've always been super hands-on. I was a Creative Director up until my last two jobs. I transitioned to Studio Director when I built a brand design studio at Microsoft for Windows Phone. I would do a lot of the design work myself, as well as inspire and mentor large design teams. At Xbox, I had sixty some odd designers working for me. I eventually realized that I get energized from building teams and building great cultures. To me, it's a natural professional evolution.

What were some of the challenges you’ve experienced as a woman in the creative industry and how did you survive in that environment?

In the beginning of my career, I worked in advertising, and it was a very male dominated world. From my perspective, it did not seem that women were generally promoted to a leadership role on the creative side of the house. My assessment of an ad agency was that most women sit on the account side. I worked for a well-known advertising agency at one point, and was the only female creative out of fifty creatives in that office—which gives you some perspective.

The ad agency world, quite frankly, wasn't for me. I quickly realized that and got out, because it was so toxic and I knew that I wasn't going to change it. At one of my previous companies, I worked for a VP of Marketing who proudly admitted he was one of the original “Mad Men.” He would boast all the time that he was part of the mythical advertising of the sixties and how great it was. And funnily enough, during my tenure at this company while he was my manager, he promoted three of my male peers even though I had more experience and was more senior. When this happened I asked him why I was not being promoted. He answered, “Amy, the cream always rises to the top.”

When you talk about self-promotion, what do you mean?

Making my work more visible to senior leadership and making the impact of my work more visible. I always assumed that I would be recognized for the work that I did. That's just not the case. So, whenever we were in a review, I would make sure to note that I came up with that idea, and I did all of the work, instead of letting somebody else take credit. That's how I dealt with it—making sure, clearly, these are my ideas, and this is my vision. The more that you do that, the more you build that brand—that's who you become.

What do you think is challenging for younger or mid-career women in the creative industry?

The same things. I don't think anything has changed quite frankly. It's starting to. I don't see this at Amazon, but certainly did at Microsoft, when I was there, it was very much all about promoting yourself and promoting what you do. We don't do that at Amazon. It's just not how we work. Everything is really customer-centric—it’s about the positive impact you've made for the customer on the products we design.

You mentioned that one of your responsibilities as studio leader is to “create a culture.” Can you speak about what it takes to create a culture wherein women (and everyone) can thrive?

I think part of it is diversifying your talent and I've made that one of my primary objectives in the past year and a half since I've joined Amazon. With support of my manager and my peers within the studio, our team has expanded. We have brought more women designers in to our team, and several more senior women designers as well. And we're promoting more women from within to more senior roles. In making sure that we have that diversity of thought and perspective, we're going to create better products for our customers, because our customers are diverse.

For me that's the key: giving opportunities and making sure that all voices are heard—because we do have some junior-level female designers who don't speak up for themselves. I'm one of the leads for an initiative that we're starting, called Women in Design at Amazon, which is a volunteer work group within Amazon. The objective for this workgroup is to create tools and mechanisms for female designers to grow into leaders. We're just starting to put together the charter and how we can roll that plan out to the rest of the company.

What have you learned from mentors (including the bad ones) about leadership?

I've had a lot of great mentors, managers, and role models, both male and female, throughout my career. The number one thing that all these influences taught me about leadership is:

    • Support your team
    • Listen first, don’t jump to conclusions
    • Coach in a way that still allows people to learn, grow, and come to solutions on their own
    • Always protect and have empathy for your team members—especially during times of uncertainty and change. That advice is from one of the strongest female leaders that I've ever worked for at Xbox.

That to me is true leadership, in the worst times there is turmoil, change, and you don't know what's going to happen the next day. You want to feel like you're protected, like someone has your back.

What is one of the greatest challenges you've faced, and how did you deal with it as you became a leader?

I’d say about half of my life I was a very shy person. Super introverted.

You've definitely overcome it.

It hindered my ability to become a leader, even though I really wanted to be a leader. What helped me to overcome my introversion and lack of self-confidence was to force myself to get out and network and to meet new people. And this brought many great new friendships and opportunities that I probably wouldn't have had otherwise. Most of my happy career moments actually came from opportunities that I created by networking with people.

I learned this the hard way with my first job at Microsoft. I was running a global team. I ran creative teams in Hong Kong, London, and Seattle. We were responsible for creating these rich media experiences for big advertisers on MSN. These deals were big time. I was working 24 hours a day, because we were launching all over the world.

After my first year, I get my first bad review in my entire career. And I was like, “How is this possible? I've been working my tail off.” We made the company many millions over the course of my first year. The bottom line is that none of the leadership knew who I was or what I did. After that I determined that I needed to change. And I needed a support network. I sought out as many creative people at the company as I could find, reached out to them, and just talked to them to find out how they were surviving at this big corporation—“What do you do?” “How do you work?” “How do you become successful at Microsoft?” Because I had nobody supporting me. I was sitting in an operations organization running a creative team. And that's how I got to my next job, which was Xbox.

How do you go from being an introvert and somebody who isn't comfortable talking, to somebody who’s at ease networking and going out and meeting people?

I think a lot of it is just having confidence and just not caring about what you think people are going to think about you. Like, “okay, I might look like an idiot, but I'm just going to go talk to these people and introduce myself, and throw something out there.” That's sort of how it happens, you know?

What have you learned that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

This is a good one. For one thing, don’t take criticism personally. You know, as a designer, art director, and creative director, you're always putting your heart and soul out on the table for people to judge. It took me what seems like forever to figure out that most feedback you get is not a personal slam. Most people who have not been classically trained as designers don't know how to give proper design feedback.

Over time, I learned to really dive deep into the meaning of the feedback and make positive changes to the work. One of the most successful transformations for a project was one that I was dearly in love with but was killed by an SVP. It pivoted a simple idea into the most innovative and groundbreaking work I had produced up until that point in my career. I rallied and within a couple of days came up with an amazing idea. It taught me a lot.

What advice do you have for companies that want to promote and to encourage women leaders?

Be willing to take the time and energy to find a great female leader for your company. I can attest to it taking a very long time, but it's well worth it: the gain in diversity, thought leadership, and perspective, which ultimately translates to our customers and our products.

Be open to change and diversify not only your leadership, but the workforce within your organization. The products that you deliver may change, how they're produced may change, your customer base may also change—so embracing chance and championing a different way of thinking and working could revitalize your company and open up a base to a whole new audience.

I also hear that you're somebody who really cares about your team.

I do care a lot about my team. You want to care about how you're perceived with those people, because those are the people that are going to make you shine as a leader. You're not going to shine on your own. There's no way. You need a strong group of people working with you, for you, believing in you, to build the best possible products. What we're doing right now is building the best possible products for our customers. And we have a great team working on it.

About Amy Armock

Amy Armock headshotAmy Armock is the Studio Director for Amazon’s Device and Services Design team. Her focus is driving design operations and research that encompasses UX design for Fire Tablets, FireTV, Alexa, and next generation product design. Beyond running operations and research, she drives the design culture and recruiting efforts for the Studio and runs the Amazon Design Leadership program across the broader Amazon Design community. Prior to joining Amazon, Amy led design teams at Microsoft focused on brand, advertising, and product design for Xbox, Zune, Windows Phone as well as several product incubation programs. She’s also held design leadership positions at Yahoo! and TiVo. Outside of work, she owns and operates a 10-acre lavender farm with her husband on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State.

I finally understood what I needed to do was to promote myself—as these men did. They rose in their careers and they did it with self-promotion, regardless of their capabilities. I learned how important my own personal brand was, and that I needed to promote my own brand to get promoted in my career.
I always want to make sure that my team knows that I have their back and that I will go to the matt to support them if need be.
Without risks you have nothing—there are no real rewards without risk.
As far as being a leader goes, I would say the most important thing is to not care what people think. Don’t worry so much about how you're perceived. Instead let your actions pave the way to success and be confident about all that you do, leading by example.