Facebook's design chief on empathy, complexity, leadership, and her new book.
FORTUNE — Facebook’s FB director of product design, Maria Giudice, believes executives can benefit by applying principles of good design to business. In Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design, Giudice, along with co-author and designer Christopher Ireland, offers up a workbook for the modern manager. Fortune recently caught up with Giudice for a download on design, entrepreneurship, and working at the world’s largest social network.
Fortune: How would you define design?
Giudice: I think historically design has always been thought of as an expense on a balance sheet, not an investment. I want to change that. I define design widely. Typically designers are thought of as makers of artifacts.
The word “design” needs a redesign. Designers need to be thinking not about the medium that they’re serving but more about the process to get to something that is tangibly made to serve people’s needs. It’s about facilitation. It’s about collaboration. It’s not done in a vacuum. It’s about working in a multidisciplinary team in collaboration to create something greater.
What makes a good designer?
The characteristics that I think designers posses — I call them superpowers. The first thing is empathy. When you go to art or design school you learn how to be empathetic, and that serves you well in business.
Another one is being a systems thinker. And our world is so heavily complex because technology has been a great equalizer. The systems are so complex that you can’t design for a discreet problem without looking at the whole thing. Designers learn about systems.
It seems that that complexity is the fundamental challenge for the 21st century in the same way that information and access to it was for the 20th century.
Yes. So designers like to make that complexity simple. Through pattern recognition, they can take complexity and learn to simplify it. So, systems thinkers need to be at the CEO level. You’re going to need somebody who can think that way.
Another [superpower] is being a risk taker, but a smart risk taker. Traditionally CEOs are slaves to the P&L. It’s hard to move forward. But the world is not waiting for you. You have to move fast and the only way you can do that is by understanding how to take risks in a smart way.
There are certain CEOs that do take risks. You know, Mark Zuckerberg is taking risks. Another example: Autodesk ADSK was a software company, but it’s transcending being a software company to rethink what its product does for the world. That’s smart risk.
So you are calling for a DEO?
Yes, a designer CEO.
This is really about unlocking these soft skills earlier. CEOs are going to have to get them whether they like it or not.
When I talk about being a DEO, I don’t mean going to design school to become a DEO. It’s leveraging these characteristics that we inherently learn in design school, but in theory can be taught in much younger age to people rather than focusing on just math and English. What happens with creativity is that we’re all going along at the same curve, and then at fourth grade there’s a drop-off. We start worrying about testing and just focus on math and English. For those people who don’t define themselves as creative, it’s beaten out of them by the fourth grade.
When businesses realize this is something they want to integrate more directly, how do they learn to do this?
A lot of traits creative people have don’t translate well into the business environment. On the one hand, we’re saying we need creativity. On the other hand, they’re compartmentalizing it or creating stereotypes about people. So how do you incite creativity? It comes down to hiring people — creative people — at all levels of the organization.
How did you become a designer?
Here’s my career map. I grew up in Staten Island, started painting, and became an entrepreneur at age 15. My mom taught cooking classes in the basement in Staten Island, and my paintings were hung up on the wood paneling. Her students started asking if I’d paint portraits of their dogs. I started making money at 15 painting, so that connection between doing what you love and monetizing it came really early.
I never thought of myself as a business person. I went to work for the designer Richard Wurman. When I went freelance, I was getting busier and busier, and I’d ask people to work for me because I was getting busier. I had a partnership for five years. That ended. I started the company HOT in 1997. I built it to be 75 people.
HOT was independent. We weren’t in debt. We were cash positive. HOT went up and down, survived some busts and booms, and opened a New York office six years ago. Over the years, it becomes increasingly harder to stay independent, and we started thinking about an exit strategy.
Is that how you came to work at Facebook?
This is a back to the future moment for design studios. They’re hot. In October of last year, a colleague of mine at Facebook who I’d known a long time before asked if I could send some designers. Facebook is one of the few technology companies that always believed in great design. They treat designers equally to engineering, and people who are business-oriented. They appreciate and respect core competencies and strengths in people. They were very understaffed on the design side. When we started working there, everyone was happy. We were an agency that could work inside a product company, which is rare. In early December, I went down for a client interview. Over tater tots, [the Facebook contact] says, Well I wanted to ask you what your appetite is for acquisition. It wasn’t even on my radar.
A week later, I get an email saying, “Sheryl Sandberg would like to have a coffee with you.” I go down there. I get shuttled into a conference room with Mark [Zuckerberg] and Sheryl. They asked me a zillion questions. If you were told you were going to meet Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, you’d probably prepare for that moment. It doesn’t work that way at Facebook. They’re like, I’m going to ask you questions and speak to you really honestly. Intuition kicked in. It was like, this could really work.
Twenty minutes later I walk out. That was middle of December. We started talking in earnest in January and announced to the world in March.
What’s it like to work at Facebook?
They’re not big on titles at Facebook, another thing I love. My title is director of product design. Basically I work on a group called “Platform,” which has to do with all the experiences that connect into Facebook.
My goal is this: I want to build Facebook’s design to be the best model — help build the team across the company so designers and engineers can work a lot more collaboratively.