Episode 52

Design Journey

What drives a design career? Designers from all backgrounds have many different paths to choose, and we invite you to spend this ONEder Podcast with us hearing some of the details from one expansive design journey. Yana Ronin, a designer, strategist, community builder, entrepreneur, world citizen and lifelong learner, details the first half of her career and hints at what else the future may hold. Enjoy the story, her insights and energy are illuminating and infectious.

Featured on the Show
“But when I think about what makes me wake up in the morning and want to show up and how I judge whether or not I had a good day it’s really thinking whether or not I learn something new. So if a day goes by and I learn something new, that's a good day for me.”


CCB: [00:00:07] Welcome to The ONEder podcast. This is your host, CCB and today's conversation is an interesting conversation around a journey, a life journey in design. I'm going to say. We have Yana Ronin with us and I'm going to have her introduce herself. But I want to say my interaction with Yana came about as she has been, her involvement with IIDA, and we'll talk a little bit more about that. But it's always interesting to have a greater knowledge about the person that we're talking to because sometimes we talk to people that we are just collecting information from, and this is, I think, a little bit more rich and I'm happy to share this conversation with you. So, Yana, thank you so much for joining us.

Yana Ronin: [00:00:55] I'm absolutely thrilled and excited to have this conversation with you today. Thank you for having me.

CCB: [00:00:59] Certainly, it's been a long time coming. Okay. So that being said, I would love for you to tell us the story of why you decided on design, how you got involved from an education perspective, and then what path has your design career taken you on.

Yana Ronin: [00:01:19] Sure. So, I'm not one of those very lucky people who at age 4 or five, six, decide that they want to be a designer and an architect and then just move along that path. So, I kind of came to it after I already enrolled in college for an international business degree. And the reasons for that are several. So one is I come from a family of immigrants. The only acceptable professions for my parents were: be a lawyer or be a doctor. Otherwise, it's not worth our pain and suffering. And so, so that was one. But the clues to the fact that I should be a designer have been there all along. I just kind of ignored them and maybe found them. So, the stories are of me, like, you know, rearranging and painting my room when I was little every summer because I needed to have a fresh setup for the new school year. that was a thing. My dad actually managed an, a construction company in Soviet Union. So, I was born in Soviet Union, in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, and my dad was in construction, building all kinds of buildings all over the city. And so that was a clue. And another clue was when they did our high school assessment for the profession you're supposed to have. Mine came back as an artist and I was so, I was like afraid to show it to my parents. I was like, ma I not good enough for anything else? What do you mean? I should be an artist? So. So the clues have been there.

Yana Ronin: [00:02:52] I just kind of actively ignored them and thought that I would go in a completely different trajectory. And, but things played out a little bit differently. And so I enrolled in college. You know, my family migrated from Soviet Union to Israel. I ended up in the United States, came here for three months. It's been almost 23 years now. And none of that was planned. So, I guess my design career was also not something that was planned. So that also goes along with the story. And I enrolled in business in college at Kansas State as a business major, international business. I figured, I know three languages, I could use it. And also, I will have a diploma that, you know, I can still show my parents. And what happened was in the first semester, there was this art building at Kansas State, and it was kind of on my way home, on my walk home from campus, from classes. And I would, I just started walking through the art building. There was something about the art building that drew me in, and I started walking through the art building and looking at all the projects from students posted on the walls and just decided that I had to switch majors and switch careers. And after the first semester being an international business major, I switched to interior design and by luck I ended up in a pretty good program at San Jose State. And that was the beginning of my design career. So that's literally kind of I just stumbled into greatness.

CCB: [00:04:21] You stumble. Well, you know, one might think that listening to you, that it might have been fate and kind of leaning you in a certain direction. Okay. So you study interior design at San Jose State, you graduate, and your first job is.

Yana Ronin: [00:04:37] My first job is: I was determined to get a job in San Francisco. And I basically so my job was with Style Design Group in the city. It's a small firm and that was downtown on Montgomery Street and the reason I got hired there there's another thread through my career that, you know, now looking back at almost 20 years, which is scary to admit to, but and there's a thread of SFO, San Francisco airport that has followed me from my internship. So, when I was still in school, I was interning with a woman who did food and beverage at the airport. So, when I showed up for an interview, it's a design group. They were doing retail at the airport, all the small little shops, and when they saw my portfolio, they saw that I knew what vice was, which is the airport's own building department and have worked with them and knew the people. And you would (DRC was which is the design review committee) all of those things they kind of grabbed me on the spot and that's basically how I got my first job and then my second job with Gensler three years later. Uh, also was I think it was also thanks to my experience because I got hired onto the terminal two projects at SFO and that was 2008 when I started at Gensler, and I was there for nine years and. So. So, yeah.

CCB: [00:06:07] Um. When you think about organizations, there are things that that people bring to the organization and there are things that the organization there are elements that the organization gives to the people that that are working within it. And so it's curious to think about going to the small design firm and bringing in some of the knowledge that you had and getting to work on that type of work and then leveraging that up to the next level at Gensler. And, you know, Gensler is well known as an extremely large and very professional practice that has lots of resources available. So that's a great training ground. And how many alumni are of Gensler are there, you know, across the planet from the design firm? So, so you're you had been working on design and you've, you know, added enormous skills and experience to your portfolio and your and your skill set. And then you made another shift.

Yana Ronin: [00:07:03] It did. So I went to study. I went back to school to finish the business degree that I started and never finished because I was distracted by the art building. So I kind of came to a realization about after about ten years of working that as designers in front of clients, we often speak different languages and what we say and what we advocate for from a design point of view doesn't always connect with the client who is on the other side of it. Because they have completely different set of considerations in terms of what they are responsible for schedules, budgets, business bottom line, people's engagement, productivity, all of these other things, branding and marketing and and, and all the things that we touch as designers. But we are not explicitly trained to talk about or we're not explicitly trained to present our design ideas in the context of those business considerations. So that was kind of the main driving force through, you know, again, working very closely with many different clients globally. And I really realized that just having the design degree was a little bit limiting and I wanted to expand my education. And rather than I was kind of considering getting a master's degree in design or doing something different, and I decided to do something different to again, expand my horizons beyond the design world and try to connect with clients. From their side and from their point of view and see if that would make me a better designer and better equipped to present design ideas to clients. So that's kind of what was the main shift there.

CCB: [00:08:51] The the other aspect that that I feel that I've experienced is the whole nature of being a very strategic thinker. And I think. I think that's another skill that you bring to your conversations with everyone. But particularly about design and understanding how to have both sides of that conversation with the client to understand what their strategy may be and support that through whatever the product is that you're working on and delivering. So you left. The. Total design or pure design practice and an after school. What what happened after the MBA program? What happened next?

Yana Ronin: [00:09:39] So I did the MBA program part time as I continued working at Gensler. So, I didn't leave for school and came back. I stayed employed and and and was able to make the switch from a design studio to the consulting studio within Gensler to, to make better use of my MBA within Gensler. So, Gensler was great and they gave me the opportunity to do that. And that was really kind of my training ground in terms of all the things that I know now and have been developing since in my work. And that became the foundation for the strategy work for change management work, workplace strategy and writing guidelines, playbooks, design standards. Et cetera. So that's kind of propelled me to that a design adjacent I guess, if you will, ine of work. And then also what I think, what was helpful, is the fact that they did come from a pretty intense and technical design experience. So, a new construction. I was one of the four last people out of a team of 30 something for the airport who oversaw construction to the last day. as build campuses for Apple. I worked on the Facebook campus, etcetera. So I had I have over 3,000,000ft² of space that were completed in construction that were part of my projects. So I worked on large scale projects. So, I understood construction, I understood the computation, I understood design. And bringing that to the strategy side of things was actually really helpful because a lot of people who come to strategy, they come sometimes from space planning experience or more facilities experience, or they're trained specifically for strategy, bypassing the design path. So having the design experience was really helpful. So I kind of like to talk about my work that I work really at the intersection of the two, both design and business, and I try to leverage everything that I know for the benefit of the project that's in front of me at the moment. So sometimes it needs a little bit more design, sometimes it needs a little bit more strategy and I kind of try to balance those two things out.

CCB: [00:12:04] So how, how do you find your clients these days?

Yana Ronin: [00:12:09] It's. it has been, I've been very lucky to be part of a very supportive and small community here in San Francisco and a little bit beyond. And it's really just word of mouth. And I have some repeat relationships of clients who come back and then yeah, and I have people who reach out. I also have some friends from business school with whom I've been doing projects that are more purely business strategy and management consulting projects that actually have nothing to do with design and architecture. So that has been also a kind of a nice outlet to expand even more, kind of that area of expertise. So, I'm working right now with a company locally, with a team of collaborators on a strategic plan for $1 billion company that's here in the Bay Area. And that has nothing to do with design and architecture. And again, for me, you know, when we talk about passion and what we're really passionate about, like my bio says that I'm really passionate about understanding the impact of design and business and culture and the local context and the human experience within the built environment, which is 100% true.

Yana Ronin: [00:13:21] I am. But when I think about what makes me wake up in the morning and want to show up and how I judge whether or not I had a good day is really thinking whether or not I learn something new. So if a day goes by and I learn something new, that's a good day for me. And I think that was kind of instilled in me, I think, by my strict immigrant parents. And my dad used to say that there's a saying in Russian that roughly translates to “knowledge is light and lack of knowledge is darkness”. So, I grew up with that and kind of, you know, being, having gone to UC Berkeley for my MBA “Students Always” as one of the four principles. So, I really believe strongly in that, and I think kind of continuing to learn and continuing to expand and picking up things as you go and is really kind of what fulfills me personally. That's, that's where I find meaning in the work that I do.

CCB: [00:14:17] Thank you very much for sharing that. I also I'm I am taken by the fact that that you build communities. That's part of that's my experience with you that if it's the community of design or if it's the community of strategy folks, you know and the the UC Berkeley graduate school community and the San Jose State, you know, design school community, you're really good and you, I can see the thriving here in the Bay area which is a very community-focused part of the world in many ways. So would speak to that a little bit. Why, you know what drives you.

Yana Ronin: [00:15:00] Community. Uh, I think it's, you know, well, obviously the easy answer is people, right? And I think having been. Like I said, I'm part of this community and have been a part of this community for 20 years now since I was a student at San Jose State, it has been a major presence in my professional life, and especially starting out for the first ten years of my career. And I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to be in the position that I'm in right now and give back and and create some of the opportunities for younger designers that I feel were created for me when I was in the same spot. So, and there are people that I've now known for 20 years, and those are really deep relationships. And I think that's also part of why I'm in business is it's really the relationships and the people that keep me going for the last six years. And so I think communities and is something that in American society and is something that's moved have been moving to the background over the last decades. Right. We're kind of becoming more individualistic, less community reliant. And for the last three, four years, I've been volunteering with a nonprofit that operates in Malawi.

Yana Ronin: [00:16:23] And we go there, and you observe the kind of poverty that you can’t really understand and imagine until you see it with your own eyes. But all the things that there are that are missing in materialistic terms in in materiality and possessions and comforts, all of that is made up for in community because they really have to rely on each other for survival. Really. There's no way an individualistic person can survive in Malawi. You have to have the village behind you, who's going to support you and and help you get through life. So, I think about that often, how important it is. And I think that that's also reflecting on that, having grown up in a way that's that's a little bit different. I mean, having grown up in Soviet Union in a community of Jewish people who were persecuted by Soviet Union, right? There was a sense of community there and togetherness when everybody left in ‘91. It was not a rational decision to leave. It was you left because your community left and everybody else around you got up and left. And growing up in Israel, it's also still it's very similar to American culture and everything is very closely related.

Yana Ronin: [00:17:39] But but there is more of the community there as well. And and so I think community has always been an important part of life and always reflected on what we kind of lose when we move away too far from community. I mean, I fully believe in, you know, individuality and all of that great stuff. But at the same time, I think as humans, we do better when we have our group of people around us. So over the years, it's just, you know, you kind of develop your tribe and the people who live life with you and, and, and our design community in San Francisco, I think is such that the tribe has been large because we are so closely related and have known each other for so long. And and whether we're competing or working for different firms or, you know, competing for projects like I show up for interviews with one team aligned with one large design firm, and then the other large design firm shows up and we all hug it out before the interview. And that's really the spirit. And to me, that's really heartwarming and important. And I see that with IIDA and I see that outside of that as well.

CCB: [00:18:51] So that's, that's fantastic. The so you're now, you've talked about IIDA, you know, referenced it a number of times. What you talked about the give back, the wanting to return on the investment that was made in you, but what you took on and what every president of IIDA, chapter president, takes on is an enormous amount of work. So how do you add that to everything else that you do?

Yana Ronin: [00:19:24] Well, I think it helps that they have that. I am an independent consultant, so I have some control of my schedule. Not a lot, but I do have some. So it gives me the flexibility to fit it in. And so I think in that respect, I think timing wise and where I am in life and in my work is actually a I think I have a pretty good setup to be able to take that on. And and then, I carve out time for it. I think it takes time. It's not something that you can ignore. And I learned that actually when I was when I just started my MBA the first semester and I continued working at Gensler at like full speed the way I was working before. And I was in my first semester in school. I was trying to pretend that school was only happening evenings this weekend and, and then I could continue doing whatever I was doing before. But very quickly, within that first semester, I realized that that was not the case. That school was a thing that I needed to dedicate time to and could not work the same amount of hours. So it had to be, you know, constrained in some way. And I feel it's kind of the same with a commitment that I not trying to pretend like it doesn't exist but realizing that it is my commitment and I create time for it and I carve out time for it and prioritize it. And because I have a flexible schedule, it works. So I can't say that it's. You know, insignificant in any way. But at the same time, I also feel like by now I have a pretty good routine.

CCB: [00:20:58] Manageable. Um, so before we started this recording, we kind of talked about culture a little bit and how interesting that is. And it made me stop and think about the culture of the, the intimate culture of IIDA as, as leaders cycle through. And I think that's, um, having been involved for a number of years, I've watched any number of leadership shifts go on. And it really is, um, it's a, it's, it speaks to the organic nature and what, what individuals bring to community. Every contribution that we're, you know, that every individual has their own contribution. And I wonder how you are looking at it now in your, you know, as your waning responsibility. Yeah.

Yana Ronin: [00:21:46] So um, I think I think it's actually we have had some continue even though different people step into the leadership role every year at the chapter president level. And because we are there for three years together as a group of leadership. So there's, you know, a past president, current president and president elect, the three of us work closely together. And even though every one of us has a slightly different agenda or slightly different emphasis or focus or something that they really care about and want to drive, we're still aligned pretty well. And and we do try to create a sense of continuity. So it's not so abrupt that one person pulls it in one direction, then another person comes and pulls it in a different direction. I think the selection of the people who have been put in these positions has been such that we alternate between people who do have experience and those who don't. And I think those who do not bring something else from the outside and those who do you know, kind of bring some institutional knowledge and other ways, think of other ways to improve what's going on. So, I think because we all together strive to do the best that we can as volunteers and as, you know, public social organizers, I guess whatever you want to call us, we do hold ourselves responsible to the audience that we hold so the community and the people.

Yana Ronin: [00:23:19] I think that's kind of what sets the standard. And in San Francisco, we have very high standard setting audience and we're acutely aware of that so that we cannot disappoint them. So, I think that that also kind of helps all of us to pull together in a somewhat similar direction. So, everyone has their own angle. But I think there is a sense of continuity. So like from Verda and her activism, climate action and kind of mantra to, you know, I really wanted to focus on building bridges and expanding the conversation about design beyond our community. We do really great telling each other how wonderful design is, but we don't put the same effort into telling that story to the outside world. And then with Katie coming in and saying, you know, we need to reconnect and see and do a health check on ourselves where we are. And yes, they're all different, slightly different agendas, but they all also do tie together into the same hole. So.

CCB: [00:24:20] Um, what what are you most proud of for the work that you've done at IIDA? First I'm going to say the work at IIDA, and then I'm going to say, What are you most proud of in everything you've done?

Yana Ronin: [00:24:30] Oh, gosh, those are hard questions. So I think with IIDA, um, it's actually interesting. So, I feel like my time has gone really fast, gone by really fast. And when you first step into the role and you're like, Oh, you know, I have three years to do all of these wonderful things, and then two years in you're like, Oh wow, I only have one year left and I'm only like maybe 30% into what I wanted to accomplish. So and so I'm excited for the for another year that they have on board. And I am excited to be in a position where we can, um, finish up the playbook that I started when I was president elect. So, I think that that will be a good milestone. And also have in place things, all the things that they wanted to do during my presidency are actually probably going to happen next year. But they have been lined up. So, we're talking to media partners, we're talking to about relaunching Windows or some form of that next year. And so there are things lined up that I think will kind of carry that through. So maybe by the end of third year, I will actually feel a good sense of accomplishment that I did do what I wanted to do.

CCB: [00:25:47] So one of the things that I, I very much appreciate is the organizational capabilities that you have as it not only is it strategic, but it's logical and it's and it's organized. And sometimes with a group of creatives that's a little bit trickier to keep people kind of moving in the in a similar direction. They all have great ideas, but are we focusing our energies in the same place? And I'm going to give you high kudos for that because there's there clearly is, there are results. And the playbook that you so lightly reference is a playbook of all of the the job responsibilities and the general practices of the Chapter. And it's a large functioning organization, as you say, comprised of 99.9% volunteers, along with our fabulous chapter administrator who should be paid more. Okay. But but it is it is it's it's laudable the amount of of organization that has come out of it. And it's always happy. It's it's I don't know what the right word is it it's rewarding, I think to look at that and and recognize that the next team coming in, you know, has so much more to reference than they don't have to, you know, find out where the pencil drawer is because it's all been you know, it's all been outlined. Okay. So you've done a good job there. Um, you. Yeah. What, what? So if you think about all the work that you've done, is there, is there a part of the work that you've done that you really are most proud of, or is that too hard to say?

Yana Ronin: [00:27:33] There's a lot of things. So. So it's hard when you switch to strategy. Work becomes less tangible. And when I help a company prepare to move to their new headquarters and they move, and it goes well and it's smooth and it's because of the process that I helped facilitate. I'm very proud of it, but I can't really point to it as something, right? So, I think in the design world, we like to show like a shiny picture. Here's my beautiful photography of the project that they finished as a tangible outcome. So, there's a lot of things that I'm proud of. But guess from the design world and from my design work and again, just because I still have a soft spot in my heart for SFO, I'm going to have to choose. Terminal Two is probably my favorite project also because not just because it was a really great project in and of itself, and the team work that went into it, the collaboration, the fact that it was not done by exclusively by an Aviation Studio, specialists, people who do airports all the time. It was you know, we started the project in 2008 just as the meltdown was happening. And so, it was just kind of a bunch of people who were released from their other projects and could jump onto this project.

Yana Ronin: [00:28:59] So there were people from hospitality, from workplace, from retail, from all kinds of walks of life, of design who ended up on this aviation project. And the result was really kind of setting the bar for what the airport experience has become since. So, there's a lot of pride in that. But also, because it's a public project that many people can experience. A lot of the work that I have done, particularly around workplace, is not, is not public. And I can't really, you know, whatever great job we did for Facebook or whoever it was and not a lot of people get to enjoy it with the airport. There are millions of people going through the terminal. So, the impact of that design work and the positive benefit and the value add of that level of experience and the traveler, the average traveler who is not part of that special class of people who get to work in really great campuses and is so much more meaningful to me. So I think that those would be the reasons why we choose terminal two. So even though it was finished in 2011, it was a long time ago.

CCB: [00:30:07] Do you always choose to fly out of Terminal Two?

Yana Ronin: [00:30:10] Well, I used to fly out of Virgin and I do have a bit but then Virgin folded and. And now I'm a United Terminal Three. Terminal Three.

CCB: [00:30:21] Yeah.

Yana Ronin: [00:30:22] Customer So and, but yeah, I mean, there's a part of Terminal Three that has been upgraded and it's great as well. And so yeah, that's, yeah, yeah.

CCB: [00:30:34] Okay. So, we're coming up to the end of the conversation, which has just been delightful. So, I want to know, is there something that you would like to share that we haven't talked about?

Yana Ronin: [00:30:44] And I think, you know, there's a question that you sent me when we first started talking about doing this, about the future of design and the direction that it goes in. So, I just wanted to share a couple of thoughts in terms of the importance of design to what we do. And I think we're still a pretty young profession, but we have seen design evolve over time and grow in scope. So, you know, if you look a few decades back started with, you know, we started separating interior design from architecture, right? First it was grouped together. Once it's separated, it was more about decorating than it became about space planning. Then it became about and, you know. Problem solving, essentially. Right. And problem solving has been expanding in scope over the last, I think, 20 years. So, problem solving started with, okay, how do we utilize the space that we have, build it to budgets and build it to schedules, which is kind of the table stakes now. But, and now we are asking designers to solve for the human condition. We are asked to solve for mental health. We're asked to solve for productivity and engagement. We're asked to solve for business and concerns and business strategy and for culture and for all of these other things that I think the future of design is really exciting to me because I think that scope will continue to increase as people realize the true value of design.

Yana Ronin: [00:32:20] And, and for anybody who is concerned about AI and all of those things taking over, I'm personally not yet concerned. Maybe I will be in a couple of years. But from where I'm sitting right now, I've actually been playing with Dall-E trying to get some images out of it for presentation. And literally if you type in the future workplace, it has no idea. It will give you images of something that looks like a man in a suit with a briefcase and with a computer for a head. So that's kind of my, from my anecdotal research of that tool. But obviously we know that that's not the case. So, I think the future of design is bright. I don't think we'll get pushed out and I think we'll get better tools to use to augment what we do anyways. And I think we'll get a much broader set of. Problems to work with and solve for, which I think will keep it interesting and exciting for years to come.

CCB: [00:33:25] I couldn't agree with you more. And the every every educational and inspirational event program that we host at Northern California is amazing. And the scope of design and the the the parts of the world and the parts of society that are being touched by design are spectacular. And so all encompassing, to your point that I think the students of today have so much more to look forward to. You just think about tools and resources and oh my gosh, it is amazing.

Yana Ronin: [00:34:11] Yeah. And they’re so much more prepared and better equipped to deal with those things because what they're learning in school now is not what we've learned 20 years ago or even before that. Right? So, and every time I go back to IIDA's portfolio reviews and look at student portfolios coming out, I'm really impressed every time because a lot of them look like a really well thought out professional-level, high level professional work. And you kind of have to remind yourself when you look at that, that, you know, this is a student that hasn't graduated yet. And so, I'm very excited for the students that we have coming up from schools and from the programs and locally. And yeah, so I don't know. I'm really excited for our profession. I think the only way is up and we'll see it.

CCB: [00:35:05] And you will, you know, you will be here to see it. You still have more time. Way more time to to, you know. Oh, I know. Yeah. This this amazing career. So I want to say thank you very much for spending time with us for for anyone who's interested in any of the topics that we touched on. The One Workplace podcast, ONEder podcast page, Yana Ronin will have her own page and there'll be links to her business and to Yana herself. If you have questions, you're more than welcome to be in touch with her. And thank you so much for listening in on The ONEder podcast. It's available on all your streaming services. Join us again. Thank you. Bye bye.