Hot Spotlight: What NASA Taught Holly Hagen About Company Culture
Senior Brand Experience Designer Holly Hagen has worn many hats. Including one from NASA, which apparently makes her Hot Studio colleagues believe she can do anything. “I'd tell people here that my job was to do the space shuttle countdown. And they believed me!” she says, astonished.
Back in 2005, the 23-year-old Holly signed a contract to work for NASA’s Ames Research Center. An exuberant and ambitious Hawaiian native, with BFA degrees in graphic design from the University of San Francisco and California College of the Arts, she jumped into the role without knowing what to expect. Lured by NASA’s offer to train a print designer for the digital age, she was excited to begin what was then considered a catch-all position: Multimedia Designer.
“I worked for a group that took care of web services for the agency. Hosting, setting up domains, user management… weird stuff,” she says with her usual mix of modesty and humor. At NASA, Holly contributed to print design, digital design, information architecture, frontend development, content strategy, and content management. Today, these capabilities would fall under six separate disciplines.
By her second year with NASA, Holly worried that she’d taken the wrong job. “NASA’s culture is so different from the agencies where my designer friends were working,” she says, “so I wondered if I’d made a bad decision. For instance, because NASA is a government agency, there were strict protocols for what you could and couldn’t see or do. Whereas at Hot, everything is pretty transparent.”
She eventually realized, though, that her space-age stint yielded unique insights that directly inform her current work. “Working there helped me deal more effectively with bigger clients, like eBay and Cisco,” she says. “I now understand large organizations, their political struggles, and their disjointed teams. And I understand the agency’s role in large projects: we're there to manage and facilitate collaboration that keeps moving toward results.”
From the NASA years until now, Holly has seen her role in the design field expand, contract, and, recently, expand again. In 2011 Hot’s Visual Design discipline became known as Brand Experience Design. Holly supports the shifting definition because experience has made her believe that design is crucial not just to the page or screen, but also to how people communicate with each other. “I didn’t expect that such a big portion of my job would be getting people to work together,” she says. “Seeing ourselves as designing experiences, rather than simply pictures or figures, really clarifies the role, and I think taking that view is better for us and our clients, in terms of the process and the outcomes.”
These various facets of the designer’s role are particularly evident when Holly discusses what it’s like to facilitate design workshops. Designing brand interactions for people in the marketplace starts with designing creative interactions for people within the partner organization. “I learn a lot by simply introducing basic expectations for what the exercise is and then observing how people ‘fight it out.’ They might wind up disagreeing about the word ‘clean,’ for example,” she says. “Someone will say, ‘No, that sounds too sterile!’ My job at that point is to see where they’re getting stuck and help them move forward, together, in a right direction.”
Holly also welcomes this broadening of her job because, despite her deep understanding of space-age digital interfaces, she prefers working face-to-face. “Working in person is very important. I get a lot of information from expressions, how people compose themselves. Personalities might not come out right away through email but, in person, they’re a lot more clear. And ultimately, the better we understand people and their personalities and expectations, the more effective our final design work will be.”
Holly’s overall perspective on her work is rooted in compassion. “A lot of designers like to react to the negative,” she shares. Holly embraces the organization’s perspective as well, saying, “Workshops are good for clients because they get to hear what they agree on. You have to have them talk to each other about what’s good. People who don’t usually talk about visuals or ‘look and feel’ are suddenly having conversations that only designers used to have, which helps them make better-informed decisions about their brand. I like being there to help them reach that point, and then create visuals that reflect our deep understanding of the client, their business, and their audience.”
This is the first post in a series of articles spotlighting unique Hot characters—real people I’m working with that have some interesting stories to tell!