Design leader interview series: Deborah Adler
By Lilly Smith
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Design leader interview series: Deborah Adler
By Lilly Smith
Design leader interview series: Deborah Adler
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.

The impact of Deborah Adler’s body of work reverberates across disciplines, to touch those who, in their daily routine, may not even realize how their lives have been changed for the better by it. Adler worked with Target to produce ClearRX, a newly designed prescription pill bottle that is less confusing, and as such, safer. Health and wellness are still central to Adler’s projects, but these days, those projects are run by her own design firm, Adler Design—perhaps her own prescription for new challenges, and for paying her life learnings forward. Adler spoke with AIGA executive director Julie Anixter about the professional relationship that changed her career, the importance of mentorship, and why there’s no best way to solve a problem—but there’s always a better way.

Tell us about what you do.

I currently head a boutique design studio located in the West Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, where we work to design experiences, change behaviors, and improve health outcomes. We focus on innovation in health and wellness, and in every case we start with the person that's at the heart of our work.

How did you get involved in healthcare?

Growing up in a family of doctors and nurses, I always admired and aspired to be like them. I guess designing for the healthcare community is my way of following my role models. I didn’t realize this calling until working towards my MFA in design at the School of Visual Arts, with Steve Heller and Lita Talarico. Looking back, that period was really a defining moment in my life. Whole worlds opened up to me, I was inspired by the phenomenal crew of teachers and mentors, as well as my peers. In this entrepreneurial program, you have to complete a master’s thesis that you plan to effectively bring to market, so I started to think about ways in which I could make a difference.

That was when I turned to the situation that my grandmother was facing. She had accidentally taken my grandfather's medication. When I dug a bit deeper, I quickly realized that she was not alone when it comes to making medication errors, and that as a designer, I could address this issue in ways that doctors and pharmacists could not. So I decided to rethink the prescription pill bottle and label for my thesis, and developed a new system for prescription medicine that made it easier for people to understand. After sharing my idea with the FDA, it became clear that the fastest way into the market was through a national retailer. I chose Target for two reasons: they are loyal to their “guests,” and also committed to excellent design, it was a defining part of their brand. I had a feeling they would be willing to take a risk with this sort of innovation, and I was right! They took me and my idea under their wings and together we developed the ClearRx system.

What do you think is the most challenging thing for women in the design or creative industries?

One of my challenges was finding a female support system that I could turn to, learn from, and be influenced by. Earlier in my career I was mentored by some incredible male designers, which I am forever grateful for—I wouldn't trade it for the world. But I didn't have many female mentors to turn to. I now have a lot of women clients who are leaders in their industry. Whether they are founders of their own companies, like Lilli Gordon at First Aid Beauty, or heads of marketing of larger companies, like Sue MacInnes at Medline Industries, these women informed and influenced me as I started my own business and they are still strong relationships today. I want to provide other women designers with a support network and the connections that will enable them to prosper.

How are you building a support network? What are your aspirations for it?

When I was negotiating ClearRx and trying to get it into the world, I had a lot of support from my mentors. I want to be able offer guidance, experience, and encouragement to young ambitious designers who are looking to get their ideas out into the world, and have their voices heard.

One effective way is through AIGA. Two years ago, I co-founded AIGA Women Lead with Su Mathews Hale, Senior Partner in design at Lippincott. Over 50% of AIGA’s membership is made up of women, yet a very small percentage of those women have leadership positions. We are focusing on ways to celebrate, connect, and cultivate women designers and want to build a powerful network within the organization that empowers women to take on leadership roles. It's only through empathy and understanding of each other and our different perspectives that glimpses of equity can shine through.

How do you create a culture that supports women in your agency?

One of the greatest pleasures in my career is working side by side with my team, watching them grow, thrive, and lead both in and outside of my business. My team happens to be all women, but having a supportive culture that gives designers the space to grow and experiment is essential to developing a stellar team regardless of gender.

Sometimes it’s painful but ultimately a natural and beautiful part of the process. My relationships with my team members are meaningful to me personally, and are crucial to the success of my company. We strive to do good, purposeful work together and that process of discovering a path forward is the most rewarding part.

You’re mentoring them and creating an environment where you want them to grow. You've had some rather extraordinary mentors. What have you learned from them?

I am so fortunate and blessed to have been able to work with Milton Glaser. I worked with him as a designer for six years. It's been the backbone of my entire career and everyday I refer back to my time with him in some way. Whether it was insightful conversations over lunch or remembering his patience as I worked the mouse to get his ideas and designs across, the lessons were endless.

The biggest things he taught me were that:

  • The opportunity to learn never disappears.
  • Some of a designer's most valuable moments are the ones when you haven't figured out the problem. Embrace ambiguity.
  • Be generous and teach often. Milton taught me how to be a mentor in many ways. Passing it forward and giving back is always the right thing to do.

Ann Willoughby has also been an incredible mentor to me. She was able to help me get my prototypes in front of the right people at Target and was a huge support as I navigated my way through those initial meetings. At that time, I was a young graduate having to deal with some high-level interactions.

How did that relationship come about?

I met Ann through Milton. On one of the first days at work we were discussing my school project, and he said to me in a taxi, “You know, I really want to see this happen in my lifetime.” I instantly knew it was going to happen, because he believed in me. I think it’s so important for a young person to have someone who believes in them. That taxi ride was transformational. Milton told Ann about my thesis. At that time, Ann was planning the AIGA Gain Conference in New York City and had asked Minda Gralnek, the creative director at Target, to speak. It just so happened that Minda was looking for new ways to innovate in pharmacy, so all the stars aligned beautifully. I look back on that and I'm just so incredibly grateful for everyone's role in that process.

It really speaks to the power of community, and not being afraid to treat relationships as something that's very valuable. You left a job because you wanted to work for a specific person. Sometimes, the question is, who do you want to learn from?

Oh yeah, it was like going back to school. The salary didn't matter to me, it was nothing other than the chance to be able to work under Milton and learn from him. It was priceless.

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

Well, my daughter will be turning ten next month, so I must have been doing something right! I wish I had been more comfortable in that uneasy state when I hadn’t quite solved a problem. I’ve learned that it’s in those moments, when the pieces of the puzzle aren’t quite fitting, that I am actually most fruitful.

I wish I was more confident in that zone because discovery and exploration is where magical ideas can be uncovered. Rushing to find answers because I feel anxious has not proven successful for me.

What advice do you have for companies that want to have more women in leadership roles?

Companies are still uncovering ways to celebrate, nurture, and learn from the unique qualities women bring to leadership roles. By connecting with co-workers in meaningful ways, teams will gain a deeper understanding of each other’s perspectives. Fostering this type of empathy with one another is the first step in identifying the underlying gender biases that are persistent in many corporate cultures. Now is the time for women to own our approaches to leadership, and to trust that our skills are essential to creating more dynamic, and equitable organizations.

Question from the Gender Equity Toolkit

During Women’s history month, AIGA is launching the Gender Equity Toolkit, a cardgame and tool to address gender biases and encourage empathy in the workplace. In the “Empathy Building” section of the kit, participants are presented with a card that has one word on it, and asked whether it triggers “male,” “female,” or “neutral” images. Here’s how Adler played that section of the kit, which helps participants overcome stereotypes by gaining understanding and insight through word association:

    • Clean: Female. When I think clean, I think organized and also freshly cleaned, which I associate with women.
    • Challenge: Female. I think of all the challenges women are currently facing, so I picked female.
    • War: Male. I think of a male soldier because they are typically associated with war.
    • Apple: Neutral. I think of trying to eat healthy which reminds me of both sexes.
    • Dinosaur: Male. Prehistoric creatures I associate with males.

About Deborah Adler

Deborah Adler headshotDeborah Adler is a designer, an inventor, and a mother of two. Her work is guided by the belief that meaningful innovation requires a deep understanding of the people who will use what she creates and the changing world that surrounds them. Prior to launching her firm, Adler partnered with Target to develop the ClearRx prescription packaging system, which now makes it easier for millions of patients to take their medication. Since then, she’s taken on challenges that range from tackling the leading cause of hospital-acquired infections to re-imagining baby bottles as playful objects that connect with children. Always at the core of her work is the understanding that design can make a positive difference in people’s lives. She believes that empathy is the most important ingredient in great design and that a change in behavior is the most important outcome.

Adler worked closely with Milton Glaser for five years as his senior designer. Her work is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and has been shown at the Cooper Hewitt as part of the National Design Triennial. She recently served on the AIGA National Board of Directors and now serves on the steering committee of AIGA’s Women Lead Initiative.

One of the hardest parts of being a mentor is being invested in what’s best for the mentee regardless of what benefits me as business owner. It’s important to be able to let go and let them fly on their own.
There's really no best way to solve a problem, and there is always a better way. The trick is to stay in there, in the moment, and be present.