Meet Julianna Miller: Design Director

Design Director

Smart Design is a strategic design company that helps people live better and work smarter. Everything we do starts with understanding human behavior—not just what people want and need but also how entire systems work and interact with users. Our industrial designers use insights gathered by the customer research team to create products as well as services and experiences that connect with people, for both the digital and physical worlds. When designing a product or service, we dig deep to identify the aha moments and bring together industrial design, UX, and UI to ultimately shape successful, scalable design that gets to market faster and stands the test of time in the real world.

We sat down with Julianna Miller, Design Director, to learn about new directions in industrial design, including material innovation and fashion influences, why leadership is about enabling teams to do their very best, and how being trained as an artist keeps her rooted in design.

Tell us about a time you solved an intimidating design challenge.

Recently we took on a sustainability initiative in the healthcare sector, which was particularly challenging because sustainability isn’t always a big motivator for consumers in this area. They have a lot of ingrained habits and behaviors from when they first started using the product or brand, and there’s also skepticism and confusion in general about sustainability claims—another reason for users to stick with what they know. We adjusted our research approach to include more teens and young adults who were still building their habits and looked at possible solutions that would compel them to adopt more sustainable practices from the start. In the end, we learned that while sustainability claims alone weren’t going to lead them to change, we could make an impact among even the most hard-to-convince consumers by adding additional benefits. This led us to focus on material innovation and the afterlife of the product, such as a simpler disposal process that is also more eco-friendly.

What are the new frontiers of your discipline?

Material innovation is fascinating. I can’t wait for the world of design to be freed from plastic and metal. Soft goods and the evolution of advanced manufacturing in textiles is really changing how it can be used in product design. You see this a lot in the footwear industry and fashion which inspire such passion and afford so much creative expression that I’d like to see a future in which they fully merge with product design. Both Apple and Google have embraced textiles in their products and are pushing the needle forward. There are also so many advances in sustainable materials, those derived from renewable resources—or even material waste. These new materials have such warmth compared with plastic. We’re seeing it more and more in consumer packaged goods, and I hope it continues into more durable products and really challenges the conventions of product design. These new materials and rapid manufacturing technologies could really open new doors for design expression and personalization. On the technology side, visualization software has made new skills more accessible to so many people. So we are starting to see a democratization of product design like what happened in graphic design with photoshop. Where it will get fascinating is when AI evolves to include the fabrication and engineering side of design.

So what is industrial design anyway?

Industrial design has evolved so much since I entered the field. It’s become much more dynamic as physical product design extends into adjacent areas. This means I use the same creativity and problem-solving mindset to design services, brands, and experiences that users interact with at multiple touchpoints. For example, an e-commerce model built on customization has a product component and a digital experience component all driven by algorithms and complex packing logistics. It’s all part of an interconnected web that works together and feels personalized and authentic. As an industrial designer today, you need to understand engineering, manufacturing, research, and marketing, among other disciplines, to bring products or services to life.

What types of problems get you excited?

I’m a fan of the “fall in love with problems—not solutions” approach because solving a problem is what makes a project interesting. The most exciting problems I’ve worked on have been new product initiatives for brands or startups that require design solutions that are entirely different than what came before. This involves considerable exploration and iteration early on to identify a solution and then figuring out how to express that through form and brand to make sure it resonates with consumers. When the solution is not a given, there’s so much more room for surprise and delight.

What do you like about the culture at Smart?

We’re a consultancy that can get scrappy behind the scenes. By that I mean there are so many talented people at Smart from different backgrounds who like to work together in a creative space. They are thoughtful, passionate, and driven to create the best experiences for our clients. Each team is awesome in its own right, but it’s the cross-disciplinary nature of the teams that makes them so innovative: there’s a lot of respect and curiosity about each others’ work and specialties. It can be open and playful yet we take our work seriously—because we want to create the best solutions for clients and users and we have the talent to do that.

What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership for me is always evolving. Mostly it’s about balancing, listening, and constantly absorbing information but also having a distinctive point of view to clearly articulate a vision. It’s about enabling the team to take on more responsibility and own the agenda, and do their very best work. But it’s also the ability to step back and view the progress we’re making objectively and try to see other possible opportunities. Product development is usually more of a marathon than a sprint. An idea or proof of concept can see a lot of revision and problem-solving cycles and it takes constant communication and alignment to getting that product out into the world as intended.

What are adjacent spaces that inspire your design work?

Art, furniture, and fashion. Being a designer means thinking beyond the now or what other brands are doing and speaking to customers in a unique and authentic voice—which art and fashion do well. I have my favorites. But mostly I like to go to museums and hotels, or simply travel to discover what else is out there. While working on a new beauty brand I realized that the space is so saturated, it’s hard to come up with something truly different. I ended up finding the fresh inspiration I needed from vintage glass work on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whereas the brand inspiration came from photography from the 1960s and 1970s.

What are you currently learning, reading, or building?

I’m interested in the intersection of social science and the realities of human interaction- I recently read Think Again by Adam Grant. A lot of it is to not get stuck in your own thought patterns and opinions, which is always a good reminder. And I’ve delved back into design history, revisiting subjects I hadn’t thought about since leaving art school. I used to be an artist, and the appreciation of form and brand is what keeps me rooted in design, especially as design becomes more expressive. I’m also getting back into crafting, mostly with textiles. I’m working on a few leather bags and have also started embroidering, something I’ve not revisited since my Grandma taught me as a child!

About Julianna Miller, Design Director

Julianna Miller has a passion for working between ID, UX, brand, and strategy to bring new products to market. She has more than 15 years of experience in sectors ranging from healthcare and fitness to beauty and consumer package goods industries. Julianna has helped design products for clients including Gatorade, CVS, and Plano. Her work with Hydrow and Guide Beauty has received recognition from Fast Company and If Design Awards.

Let’s design a smarter world together