Growing By Design


It was a critical turning point for Katja Forbes.

Folding her rapidly growing strategic design business into the global Designit network would give her the international profile and depth of resources she wanted. It took twelve months of challenging negotiation to achieve, but fortunately Katja had some pretty experienced mentors in her corner.

"The deal would not have got done without my Syndicate colleagues advising me throughout the entire process," says Katja, who values her membership at The CEO Institute highly. "I couldn't have done it without them."

As MD of Designit Australia & New Zealand, Katja has already added a Melbourne studio to the Sydney operation and is now working hard to establish a presence across the ditch.

Katja has been working in digital agencies for over twenty years now, with brief client side stints with Yahoo and Thomson Reuters. The early two thousands saw her working out of London, consulting as far abroad as Japan, China and India.

And when the time came to head home ten years later, Katja found her experience in these mature design and digital markets gave her a critical edge back in Australia. A large project for a major Australian bank in 2014 gave her the opportunity to start her own business, syfte, which grew quickly from three to as many as 18 people before becoming the seventeenth Designit studio in 2018.

Along the way Katja has built a formidable profile as a keynote speaker, university educator and International Director of the International Design Association. She was recognised as one of the Top 10 Australian Women Entrepreneurs in 2018 and one of AFR / Westpac's 100 Women of Influence.

The word 'design' these days covers an ever-broadening range of activities, often coupled with qualifying terms like experience, strategic, interaction, CX, UX, thinking and more.  

Katja specialises in research and experience design, applying human-centred design thinking to solve her clients' problems. The business operates in three broad areas - product and experience design, new ventures and business constructs, and design education, teaching organisations to apply relevant design tools and techniques for themselves.

Katja quotes examples of how this might look in practice.

When a major airline asked Designit to design and articulate their business rewards program for small businesses, they set about identifying and profiling the target audience, understanding their human needs, tailoring the business proposition to meet those needs and designing the various digital channels to enable the airline and their rewards customers to interact together.

When one of the big 4 banks wanted to know if and how staff were using their CRM systems, Designit undertook 107 observations through 18 different departments involving 150 different systems and tools that were being using throughout the company. The process generated a list of actionable insights ranging from simple tweaks, training deficiencies and significant breakdowns that required major attention and resources.

When the same bank moved from push button to touch screen ATMs, Designit used a combination of longitudinal diary studies and over 200 live interviews with people making ATM transactions (dressed in uniform so as not to frighten them) to inform their conceptual designs. Subjecting those ideas to live testing was critical but tricky given the prohibitive cost of building a real prototype, so Katja's team built their own out of a cardboard fridge box! With an iPad for a screen and someone inside the box to take the card and push the money out, they tested the concept in a number of branches to make sure it did what the customers needed it to.

One of the great privileges of Katja's position on the Board of the International Design Association is the chance to participate in major conferences around the world, right at the forefront of emerging design and technology trends.

She is excited by AI, provided we approach it with the right values and ask the right questions about risks and societal impacts. What could go wrong? Are we transparent about what we're doing? Who may be disadvantaged? What are the potential biases of facial recognition?

"People have got to know the right questions to ask and be brave enough to ask them," says Katja. "It's a difficult thing to do to really explore the worst case scenario of whatever you're trying to design or build, especially if you're excited about it!"

As long as CEOs approach these emerging technologies with a sense of good social purpose, of inclusion and societal benefit, Katja is confident we can be machine enhanced rather than machine replaced.

Given her many commitments and a hectic travel schedule, Katja works hard on maintaining a healthy life balance. Making sufficient space for family and personal interests is a must, with sport near the top of the list!

"Sport is so important to me," says Katja, "so important! If I don't have a physical outlet, I go nuts."

In her case that means ice hockey, a fast and furious contest that gives her mind no time to be distracted by work. 

The other thing that keeps Katja sane is her relationship with her Syndicate group. She loves her chair Anne Massey, the even gender balance and the openness and friendliness of the group. It has given her the confidence to realise that her own experience and expertise is as important to her fellow members as theirs is to her. 

Katja would and does recommend membership to any business leader.

"If you can get seven or eight other outside perspectives to your problems that has to be of immeasurable value."

"I'd have to be on the breadline to leave my Syndicate," says Katja. "It's just too good."

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