The Power of Storytelling: Designing With Words

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Jenn Maer ‘93

Writer & Design Director at IDEO

Jenn Mear ‘93 has had quite the varied career path and she’ll be the first to tell you that she had no idea what she was doing when she graduated! “I didn’t really pop out of school having any idea what I wanted to do,” she says. From her start in retail jobs, Jenn became a legal assistant, then got a job with a radio station, where she discovered a love of copywriting. She then used that love to land a job with an advertising agency, finally landing at IDEO doing work in a creative and innovative space, with a heavy focus on narrative and storytelling. Jenn credits her Smith education in teaching her how to think, rather than giving her an incredibly specific career path. Looking back now, she says it is easy to see how the route she went on was circuitous and took her to the places it did, but still laughs when she looks back, “at the time, on my way, I had no clue.”

At IDEO her title is Design Director, though this is one that Jenn finds sort of funny because she doesn’t fit the typical mold of designer of things, she’s a writer. More precisely, Jenn is a designer “whose medium is words and narrative.” The things that Jenn and her team work on are much more abstract than, say a widget or a concrete thing, because they need to be able to describe an interest state and to create connections so that people get excited and motivated to participate. That is where Jenn thinks her skills of imagining something and then describing it work best. 

When asked more about how she uses words as her medium, Jenn is clear not to separate design and storytelling, suggesting instead that “storytelling is design.”

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This is an idea that has changed drastically over the last twenty years — Jenn was the company’s sole writer when she was hired at IDEO. No one knew how to utilize her skill set then. The notion that design helps stories was there, but unformed. Now, with six writers in her office in San Francisco and a strong idea of the kind of storytelling needed for design, the notion is a lot more concrete that a story is design.

Jenn’s day-to-day varies wildly because of how frequently she travels for IDEO. Animatedly, she recounts stories of human connections she’s made along the way, whether that was developing a better way to reduce unplanned pregnancies, hearing from (and crying with) a man who was recreating a model of his dead dog, to holding Brazilian footballer Cafu’s world cup trophy. For Jenn, this is the best part of human-centered design, the act of having deep and empathetic conversations, of understanding what the lives of others are like.

When designing the products that come out of these connections, the question then becomes “what does this particular man need,” not, “what do men aged fifty-four to seventy need.” In this way, she feels really genuinely able to form deep connections to people while she travels, instead of just “sitting on the outside of what it is to be a person there.” 

Jenn’s philosophy on the intersection of design thinking and entrepreneurship is that “design thinking is the way to practice entrepreneurship right.” This is what she feels IDEO does well about human-centered design, to enter from a perspective of what the people need, rather than what they can just do as an organization. 

When asked for advice she has for students who want to work in design thinking, Jenn says, “it’s not for them to say that they are an innovator or a design-thinker, but to instead, have a specific craft.” For Jenn, that’s writing, but she names a number of others including graphic design and industrial design. What is essential, though, is to be a t-shaped person, which she describes as “a deep vein of expertise and craft that is the down stroke of the T, and then the top of the T is then a broad interest and ability.” Jenn’s philosophy is that after undergrad, a person has a great sense of how to learn, they then need a sense of what the craft is that they can bring to the table. 

Lastly, we asked Jenn about the musical that she proudly mentions in her LinkedIn bio. Funnily enough, it is a product for a client she’d mentioned earlier — the one seeking ways to reduce unplanned pregnancies, called Bedsider. The network wanted to add to their Fact or Fiction series on birth control to debunk myths, and Jenn was certain that it had to be a musical. The end product features her voice singing about dancing IUDs and “everything you could ever want!” This is exactly the kind of storytelling that achieves her goal of putting humans at the center of what she designs. 


 
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Jenn Maer ‘93

Jenn graduated from Smith in 1993 as Women’s Studies major and has just recently completed a program at the Yale School of Management in Business Perspectives for Creative Leaders and Executive Education. Jenn has had a long and storied employment history and is now currently functioning as the Design Director at IDEO, a place she’s been at for a combined total of over twelve years. She’s particularly passionate about storytelling through a more personal lens, and as Design director has gotten to be involved in a huge range of projects.

Connect with Jenn on LinkedIn

Katy RosenComment