Episode 15: The “Observer”

Jennifer Clarke discusses how she navigates as a design leader

Joe Pascavage
11 min readFeb 9, 2021

“The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” ~Amelia Earhart

✨ About Jennifer Clarke

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I live in Delaware. I’m the mother of an amazingly creative and hilarious young boy who keeps me entertained and also busy at home. I work for Vanguard as the Head of UX/Design working in our Client Experience and Digital department where we have journey lab teams tackling every aspect of the Vanguard client journey. I love my job and field so much that a day’s work rarely feels like “work.” The people around me energize me intensely and I don’t know what I would have done without my teammates this last year. My primary hobbies include running long distances and creating art. I love to draw and have recently found a passion for painting murals. I would do just about anything for my family and I really enjoy spending most of every summer at the Delaware beaches. My favorite spot is Broadkill Beach, Delaware which is small, quiet and a vibrant little community with lots of wildlife and epic views.

💡 Philosophy

What is unique about your personal philosophy being a head of design?


My personal design philosophy is always evolving as I learn and experience the world. I think one thing that is unique about me is the level of investment that I put into operationalizing design while keeping it human-centered, fresh and inspiring. We as designers have this amazing ability to literally design the way that people experience the world. Lately, building a more accessible world (digital and non-digital) has really driven me… looking for people who have been left behind in our experiences and thinking about ways to show up for them has been on my heart. In my industry this feels incredibly important as I watch investors with very different backgrounds making financial decisions. We have such an amazing opportunity to help close generational wealth gaps, demystify investing, and to make investing more accessible to everyday people. I put a ton of emphasis on hiring the best people and then fully trust them to make design decisions. I feel it’s critical to have a highly engaged team, that knows exactly what vision / mission that they are aligning to so that they can confidently make decisions. I emphasize learning as a core opportunity for my team. We learn through user experience research and analytics. We learn by trying things. We learn through our success and we learn through things that did not go as planned. I’m also someone that really values the relationships that we can build in the design community and how this helps us to grow as designers and lean on each other for support and ideas. I also think it’s really important to create a culture where people feel encouraged to challenge each other through critique and candid feedback.

How does that help motivate you to think forward and inspire others?


I am most motivated when someone I work with latches onto their super-power… sees the unique quality that they bring to the broader team… and is given space to cultivate it. When I get to be a part of that discovery, I am in my best place as a UX leader. We don’t necessarily get to map out exactly how our career is going to go, but when you can identify that little thing that gives you so much joy, you have to listen to it. You have to trust it and you need to follow it. Like many designers, for me this has always been about observing and understanding the human experience behind the interface. It’s always been my absolute favorite part of the design process. Not only do you get to better understand how to improve your design; but also, you get to know humanity better and find your place in it.

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

🎯 Process

What does your process look like when you’re providing design leadership?


I start with humility always. I welcome criticism and questions. I always start with the problem space. What is it that we are trying to solve and why does it matter? What questions do we need to ask? What assumptions are we making? Can we stand on the shoulders of giants — has the question already been answered? I love to explore lots of ideas (quantity over quality) and go through lots of critique until we prioritize a few experiments. From there, my goal is to get the team to try some stuff fast. Don’t overthink it. Get it out there. Try it. See if it works and if it doesn’t, that is okay. It literally pains me to see a designer feel like they can’t make a move. I am so grateful to work on a team that invests so much time to clear the path for experimentation and learning. No matter how long you’ve been doing this, it never gets old when something that you helped to create is out there in the world being used. If that thing doesn’t work, there is nothing better than learning very fast and then getting it out there again. Build. Measure. Learn. Share the credit and celebrate! Man… just saying that reminds me of how much I love what I get to do every day.

👩‍💻 Projects

What kind of projects have you been working on recently?


So many projects!!! There is no shortage of design opportunities, that is for sure. We are currently touching every part of our experience and identifying new spaces and opportunities. I don’t think there is any one project that I could highlight. Every day we are making design decisions intended to ladder up to better client outcomes. I am particularly proud of how we have built and continue to refine our design system as a key enabler to accelerating design. This system has been shaped by many hands and I’m just so proud to be a part of it. Our digital ecosystem is incredibly complex and our client needs are JUST as complex. The work that we are doing to understand client behavior and opportunities is our foundation.

How is your background playing a pivotal role in the success of these projects?


I started my career in operations designing interfaces for internal employees. It was so great to have such easy access to users. I could sit side by side with a user at any moment. I could have them test prototypes and I could ask them a dozen questions. I think my time in operations really set me up to think about a wide range of users (internal and external to the company). It also taught me to think systematically about identifying low value / no value functions to be removed in order to simplify an experience… solving problems using patterns and repeatable processes. My shift from internal system design to web design only further prepared me to understand the unique needs of very different users (archetypes, as we designers may call them). Spending time with people in their context (their home, their office, their car… ) as they used systems that I designed was one of the most important things I ever did as a designer. Eventually I got to lead teams globally and expand this human-centered approach to account for even more unique needs within different cultures. How do you transform an experience globally across multiple channels and platforms? How do you do so in a way that you can adapt, react, flex at a rapid pace? You need a focused vision. You need a system. You need a way to operationalize. So… it all comes full circle… back to my roots. I used to say I was “lucky” to have this path, but through a lot of growth and self-reflection, I know it was never luck… it was pure drive and enthusiasm.

What is the most interesting or exciting project you’ve worked on?


Many years ago I worked on a project that completely changed a company’s business model. It was after a merger / acquisition where two very different models presented a clear opportunity. It was fascinating. One company had a client type that was a much better fit for the solutions and services provided by the other company. I led an effort to design a process to get the client to the right place based on their unique needs. This included mapping out the end-to-end experience and redesigning / reimagining all of the entry points for the client. In the end we got the client to the right channel, the right company and the right experience for their unique need. This was my first entrance into service design and personalizing an experience based on user needs and the unique value proposition of a company.

👋 People

What are some common misconceptions you’ve noticed people have towards design?


I think it’s a common misconception that Design is not about business problems, and that it’s purely making things look great. Visual design is incredibly important… it’s critical. It’s a skill so rare and special. We know that humans have a visceral reaction to things that are beautiful and will often give far more grace and patience to something when it looks great. Visual design is so emotional! It’s also not the only thing that designers concern themselves with. Designers are also great businesspeople because they focus on the problems to solve and they ground themselves in evidence with humans in the center. Design is about understanding human behaviors, prioritizing assumptions about those behaviors and then validating these assumptions in order to deliver something that matters. This requires science, content strategy, research, and business acumen. One of my favorite design books is “Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company.” I can boil it down to one really impactful question… If your company went away tomorrow, would anyone care? How would the world be impacted? What would be different? … You see, those are “Design Thinking” questions and this is what Design is all about. Beyond the visual representation of the solution (again… very important) but ensuring that the things we create in a business… matter.

Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash

How do you see design evolving over the next decade?


I believe that automation and smarter tools will free designers even more to focus their creative powers on problem solving. I was in a class the other day that did a demo of an AI tool that predicted the layout of an experience based on one or two creative elements and then adapted it to 4 screen sizes and multiple orientations. I think that we’ve already seen how tools have made us so much more efficient in everything from design system management, visual design, research, journey mapping… it’s amazing how fast we can create something, test it and change it (build / measure / learn). I think that our tools will get better and make us far more efficient. This means that our capacity as designers will be freed up to think critically about the problems that we are solving. Designers will sit in influential positions throughout companies applying design thinking to business strategy, development and so much more. We will likely shift to focusing on ethics in design — data privacy, recognizing bias, creating accessible experiences, ensuring that we are inclusive. We will play a critical role in studying and researching interfaces that are learning — and it will be so important for us to help “parent” this technology and teach it to serve the needs of humans safely and ethically.

What advice would you give to someone starting a career in this field?


First, congratulations! You can change the world. No really… you can. The industry that you are in was likely designed for a specific type of human and you can make it more accessible to all humans. You can do so in a personal / relevant way. To get started — be curious and observe everything. Be speculative. You must meet your users eye-to-eye and get to know them. Pay attention to the moments where you are completely lost in what you are doing, and you had no idea that three hours have passed (flow). Whatever you were doing during this time, is likely the thing that will make you feel like you’ve never worked a day in your life. Tap into that — it might be your superpower. Try to surround yourself with people who are very different from you so that you can picture these humans in your design and research scenarios. This is part of creating a more inclusive world. Be yourself! When I started in design, I remember feeling like I had to dye my hair purple to be taken seriously… I never did… I stayed me. Be yourself because you don’t want to work anywhere, in any role, where you can’t be exactly who you are.

What drives you the most about your career?


My teammates… hands down! My peers are amazing. My leaders are amazing. My team is phenomenal! They are all models of integrity and inspiration. I work in a department with the most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work alongside. When we get into a problem that needs to be solved, I get completely energized and excited. We challenge ourselves to be brutally honest about the barriers that we need to take down to accomplish our goals. We hold each other accountable. We work hard and smart to get stuff done. When I am noodling on a really complicated problem (something that may even seem impossible), I get so much peace and assurance when I look around and recognize the talent that we have to get it done… and suddenly, nothing is impossible. Creativity is all about problem solving. The way that so many people from very different functions creatively challenge each other totally drives me every day to learn more and to bring my best to the team.

👏 Thank you for reading!

Such great advice, Jenn! You have a terrific perspective on how to better approach design in a more accessible manner for all in this world. I can’t wait to see what you and your team accomplish next. Keep on being you and steering the ship forward! Cheers 🙌

This interview with Jennifer Clarke is part of a blog series by

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