EP 012 - The Importance of Ethical Design (w/ Jon Sandruck)

My guest this week on the XD Podcast is Jon Sandruck; a Design Director at USAA that has won so many design awards... I can't even begin to list them out. So you can check out his Linked in or website for all those goodies.

What I found most intriguing about Jon is his passion for ethical design, and how we must (as designers) shape the future for good. We are the torch bearers, and it is up to us--even in the face of adversity--to follow a principled approach to design as our North Star.


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Tony: Howdy friends--Welcome to the XD podcast, a show that explores how design shapes the way we experience brands, products, services, and our everyday lives. As usual, I'm your host Tony Daussat. Whether you're joining me for the first time or have come back for more, I want to take a moment to thank you for tuning in and if you find value in this show, I would be honored if you took a moment to share this episode, hit that subscribe button wherever you're listening or left a review. It's always greatly appreciated.

And with that, what do you say? We just jumped right into the interview.

Okay. Here we are with John Sandruck, first of all, thank you so much for being here. Thank you for having me. Um, before we get started and sort of diving into topics here, can you give me a little background about you, where you come from, all the good stuff that got you here?

John: Yeah sure--I was born outside of Baltimore actually. I was born in Baltimore. I grew up outside of Baltimore, kind of between Baltimore and the Pennsylvania line. I went to art school at a tiny public, uh, college at the time. It's now a university called the shepherd university in the panhandle of West Virginia. Um, out there in the foothills. It was pretty great. Pretty scenic. And then I lived there and established a freelance design practice. After school. I went into business with one of my professors and we had a little design business for about a year. And then he left and I kept going and then started dating the woman who's now my wife. We moved here in 2003 to be closer to her parents. Um, and then I established a business here and I did that for like eight years. And then I got a job after we, well while we were pregnant with our second kid.

Tony: Oh Wow.

John: Yeah. So I avoided it for a nice long time. Having a real job.

Tony: Was, was the move to get like sort of the more traditional paycheck because of the kids?

John: It's the health insurance man. Health insurance when you are self employed and like a member of multiple, like high risk groups is like really expensive. Um, so it was a lot like getting a regular job and really relieves the burden. Um, I don't know if you know Jimmy Ball?

Tony: Uh, I don't think so.

John: He was, he was the president of the AIGA Dallas for a little while and that's how I knew him. And He, um, he was working for a mobile design studio at the time and they approached me to design a, um, an options trading a app for the iPhone and what was supposed to be like a four month contract turned into a full time gig and benefits and all that fun stuff.

So, you know, it was one of those things where I decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and just take the health insurance.

Tony: When were you at Sabre? I think we were there different times.

John: I was there from two January of 2013 until June of 2017.

Tony: What department were you in there?

So I worked for TN, the travel network. That's the part of the company that runs the global, the global distribution system. And the, um, our big product is the Sabre red workspace. It's the point of sale interface for travel agencies.

Tony: Yeah.

John: Um, I worked on the IPAD version of that point of sale I worked on. We had an internal community thing, like a Facebook for travel agents, sort of self help community, um, work on that. And I worked on get there for a little while, my big things where Dev studio, their developer portal.

So I was like the design leader for that and actually did most of the front end coding, which is kind of wild.

Tony: Oh Wow.

John: Yeah. Like I have a really surprising amount of code in production for a designer. Um, especially given like a big it shop like that.

Tony: Are you self taught for Code?

John: Yeah. Yeah. I, so I started building websites in the mid nineties, actually, kind of the early nineties. I remember Netscape, like I remember him as at mosaic. I wasn't designing websites then Netscape version two was the version where you could put background images on things. Oh, we had, and that was, that was the flood gates right there. So my friend Wes and I would, would design and build websites for the-

Tony: Angelfire?

John: Uh, no, I did Geocities.

Tony: This is, OG stuff.

John: Yes. Yeah. Um, and then I would like take breaks from it and come back. So it's like learning many other things. You kind of get better at it if you take a break and come back to it. And um, yeah, it's like the, the most recent thing that I did any serious coding on was Dev studio and I really had to learn javascript really well. We didn't, the system we were using for the content management system, it didn't allow for, um, like proper page templating. And so what we did instead was they gave us a line where they let us put Java script of our own in the content management system and we just used that as a backdoor to like reformat the page entirely and build the experience entirely by like rebuilding the dom on the fly. Which one of our developers wanted to do. They were just like, that's crazy. We're not going to do that. So, so I did it.

Tony: You're at USAA now?

John: Yeah.

Tony: What do you got going on there?

John: Oh, man. So many things. Um, you know, USAA is huge. They've made a massive investment in design over the last few years. They hired a chief design officer, um, and have built a like office of the chief design officer, the organization that we call CDO. Um, they've staffed up in Austin and in Plano, uh, and of course in San Antonio where they're based, um, for a little over a year I guess I was one of the design directors working on auto experience, which is there if a car buying service. Um, and then there they were also building a like sort of maintenance portal. Like if you think of your car as a financial asset, how do you manage it and kind of optimize the money that you put into it.

Um, and then my team shifted into some backend stuff for PNC, for the insurance organization, right. So USAA is an insurance company and a bank and a financial services group. Um, and auto experience was sort of this weird like in between between the bank and the insurance company had benefited most part, both parts of the company and they sort of joint funded it. Um, so we, we got peeled off to work on this thing that I kinda can't talk about in the insurance space. Um, it's, it's interesting work. A lot of it is, uh, you know what would really be classified as service design. So it's a little bit of a stretch. Like when you're hiring a designers, it's, there's a lot more graphic designers, a lot more UI designers. Then there are service designers and like, like kind of classically typified UX designers out there in the market.

Um, so it's been an interesting transition for some of the people on my team to kind of flex their, their skills are like people who were like, I have a member of my team who came straight out of college with a BFA in graphic design just like me. Um, and, but she's like, they don't, they don't teach you service design when you're getting.

Tony: There's going to be a lot more that isn't there?

John: There has to be, especially how technology's evolving. Well, and you know, it's funny cause it's like everything old is new again. Right? Like, if you look back at, um, like what design meant in the 60s, you had guys like Buckminster Fuller working on like design science stuff. Um, and so design was not as much about aesthetics at that point. Then it was figuring out the problem, like finding, identifying problems and then coming up with novel solutions for them. Um, which I feel like design is becoming that again.

Tony: Yeah.

John: But in the meantime, there was this period where like, and I feel like there's been multiple waves of this where it's gone from like, oh, design is a problem solving discipline to, well, design is really about the production that a specific technology allows. Uh, and said like, there's been this massive shift towards what we kind of call it UX design. I used finger quotes there for everybody. Everybody who can't see me. Um, after the advent of the iPhone, right? Like smartphones got good. All of a sudden software needed to be pretty massive influx of UX designers. But before that it had really been dictated by desktop, desktop publishing. Um, and so there was like on, when I went through school, we were learning how to do page layout for print even though the web was becoming a thing. And I was actually already working on the web, like nobody was teaching it to designers. They were teaching it in computer science. But that was about it.

Tony: When I first started in design--I thought dribbble was really great and uh, I might get a lot of slack for this, but I think it's a detriment.

John: Yeah.

Tony: I'm going to probably going to get hate for this, but I really do. And I, and I look and I see how many like, favorites and likes and stuff that, um, a lot of the designs get. And I will leave a comment like, I think dribbble should be like a real, a place for constructive criticism and thinking about like who's the user? Like, can you tell me anything about any problem you're solving? But the thing is it looks gorgeous and it has like these gradients and like these all these like tricks and stuff, but it means nothing.

John: Yeah, no, I'm right there with you. And I do like, I get shade from, especially younger designers, I feel like, um, we, like we had somebody in the studio and uh, I've been playing out who was like really obsessed with getting obsessed, but it was really irritated that USAA wouldn't allow us to have like a studio dribble and like all contribute to it. Um, but USAA is a fairly conservative organization in that regard. Right? Like we, we protect our IP, but um, yeah, he was like really disappointed when I was like, yeah, no, I don't think that's important like at all. Um, and part of that is fueled by like what you're saying, right? We have no idea what the expectations are. If this fits the user's purpose. Like it doesn't, it's not designed in a problem solving sense most of the time. There are certainly exceptions to that, but it's this weird popularity contest. It's like, oh, it's like Instagram for design where it's like, we just want to show the best prettiest version of the thing and just not a whole lot of depth there. And I don't have much patience for that, like at all.

Tony: Um, I don't think that's what design is about. It trivializes the industry in my opinion.

John: Yeah. It trivializes to me the most valuable part of the industry, which is the problem solving discipline.

Tony: On your linkedin….Cause I do stock people.

John: Yeah.

Tony: You have a quote that says “we are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” What does that mean to you?

John: Uh, so I initially put that up. Uh, it's a quote from Buckminster Fuller who's like one of my favorite design dude's of the past. He's just called wild, interesting Weirdo. Um, and I put, I put it up because I think that especially as designers, like we have a responsibility to shape the future and it's something that benefits us like to benefits us as a whole. Um, and not just let it happen to us, which would be very, very easy to do. Like it would be very easy to just kind of like take it as it comes and not really be deliberate about the way that we move into the future.

Um, what's interesting about that is that as I was doing research about that quote, I found the rest of it and the rest of it, which I do not remember verbatim basically says it's our responsibility as designers to plan for the people who can't participate in the design process. Like it's our, it's our responsibility as architects of the future to take into account the people who can't participate, but people whose voices we'll go on heard and like to me, I think especially like right now what we've got, it's become a very, very, you know, is it the forefront of everybody's mind, the topic of diversity and inclusion, um, you know, we, we do have a responsibility as well as architects of the future. Like many of us have, have either chosen to be or have been chosen by the establishment to be the architects of the future.

Like it's our responsibility to take care of the people that we're designing for, which I think represents a really interesting ethical challenge till much of the design industry. Most of us are focused on making our customers happy and not necessarily doing what's best for everybody. It's a shame. It's a shame how often we end up having conversations with our customers. Our internal stakeholders are, um, even the technologist to help us build stuff like every, everybody involved in the process that are really like, okay, I can accomplish, I can design a button, they'll make this happen. Like I can, I can design a form or a controller and interaction that will like push the user to do this thing. I can be in complete control of the, like, I know the cognitive biases that are to come into play. I know the logical fallacies that are going to, that they're going to be mired in and I can manipulate that to make people do whatever I want as a designer. That's my gig. But should I?

Tony: Yeah, it's a tough question you have to ask yourself. And especially when a lot of organizations, I mean take for example, the idea of the all, all the times that you hear a ding or a buzz on your phone and it's a like, you know, it's, it's it, it's creating sort of this, um, addiction.

John: Yeah. The dopamine loop.

Tony: Yeah. And I'm not that when it first was created, designers had any idea that that would be the case. But it is apparent now.

John: Yeah.

Tony: And I've, I've actually been thinking a lot about this, about the burden of is it, is it going to be on the designer or is it on the individual? And I think a lot, I mean, so talk about, you know, for example, like alcohol, obviously there's an age limit used to be 21 right. Because it's highly addictive.

John: Well, the truth, the same thing is true with cigarettes too.

Tony: Right.

John: And that's why like, you know, like Camel-- I don't know how they're doing financially. I don't really follow cigarettes, but they got, they got sued right in the nineties or whatever for deliberately marketing to children essentially.

Tony: I don't think designs that far behind. Is it?

John: No. And actually, uh, Mike Monteiro gave a really, really good talk about Facebook's firearm sales policy, which is basically you can't sell firearms on Facebook. However they do like nothing to support and to actually enforce that. And it was actively gamed by users and people. And then, you know, the well Mike's case was that people inside of Facebook were actually actively subverting the community that was trying to police it for them. Like they created a system whereby the community would police it for them and then when the community policed it for them, they actually chose to do nothing about it because they didn't really want to enforce the policy.

And I think Mike had a really, really good point, which is that regardless of whether we intended it or not, the system works the way that it was designed to work. And so if the system is unfair or if it's not working, like it's incumbent upon us as designers to tackle that problem. If we know that we've created something that people get addicted to and it's bad for them, we need to address that. We can't continue to follow the metrics. We can't say like, well, you know, we get paid based on platform engagement. And so as long as those platform engagement numbers are going up, we're doing our job.

Tony: How do you tell that to someone who's running the company who, who, you know, their, yeah, their goal is we want like, you know, they say sticky, we gotta make this thing sticky. Right? You know, we've got to keep them in the app, keep him opening it, all this stuff. How do you combat that?

John: So I think the only way to have a business argument or the only way to have an argument with a business person has to have a business argument with that person. Um, we have to eventually be able to build a case that it's actually more like bad for their business over time. Um, and sometimes that's easier than others, right? Like I've, I've been successful in arguing with business owners that like, traffic is not the best metric. Or really what you have to do is say, okay, then I understand you want to improve this metric. But like is that really the metric that matters to you? That's the really tough thing. Right? And then you have to figure out like what do you measure instead at USAA, I'm actually pretty lucky. The metrics that we measure tend not to be like the easy financial stuff, but we measure NPS, overall satisfaction, member satisfaction and those are, those are all pretty useful thing. Although, although I would argue that NPS is like really like if you're trying to grow, that's a good thing to measure. But otherwise it's maybe a bad proxy for something else.

Tony: I have one more tangential thing and then I ended the question I ask everybody. Will you tell me what is Batman a day?

John: Uh, so a Batman a day. It's started because I was, um, so I, I live like 28 miles from my office. If I commute during the wrong part of the day, it is horrible.

Tony: Oh yeah.

John: If I can be in the right department part of the day, it's like 35 minutes, no big deal. Listen to a podcast. So I usually hang out at my office for about an hour and like do AIGA stuff. And then I go home one day during a meeting I started doodling Batman because that's what I do. Like, uh, I actually went to art school thinking that I would become a comic book artist and then like found design and, Oh, let me get a different direction. Like weirdly related to our previous bit of conversation, I, I found that design had tremendous power to shape people's understanding and was like, oh, this is, this was cool. Like this is, this is something that you have to be responsible to wield. Um, and I was good at it. So I went into design. It's comics is like wildly competitive and you don't make very much money unless you're like Jim Lee, right? So yeah, I, I can draw Batman in about five minutes, like with a marker on a white board or 10 seconds with a, with a sharpie on a post it or whatever. So I figured like, Hey, this is something I can just do. And I did it like every day for a while. And I had gotten up to about 20 or 30 of them before I started posting them online. Like I was just taking pictures of them and like sending the people in snapchat like, hey, look at my band for the day. Um, and then my wife was like, you should put those on the Internet. So I started putting them on the Internet. Um, and it's really, it's a thing where it became a thing where, um, I've always been a doodler I pay better attention when I'm doodling. I don't mess with my phone, but I've been a doodler since I was a kid. And so then I started like getting hit. I started doodling in meetings and then I started getting a more and more elaborate drawing kit that I carried with me everywhere. And I would go into a meeting, um, pull out my drawing kit, which was a variety of black markers and brush pens and little rulers and protractors and like drawings got more and more elaborate.

Tony: You know, it, it might be because I have an older brother, but I was always, uh, Robin fan.

John: Yeah, I can see that. Like my six year old is in love with Luigi, not Mario.

Tony: Oh yeah.

John: He loves it. He's a little brother. Uh, and that he's taller than Mario because Ben, my six year old would probably end up being taller than my nine year old. Like he's just, he's just huge. Um, yeah. He was like, yeah, nope, I'm that guy. I'm not, I'm not Mario. I'm Luigi.

Tony: I always liked the, uh, the under dog. Me and Ben have that in common. And what's next for you? What do you, what are you thinking about right now?

John: Oh Man. Right now I have, so I finished my term as president of AIGA DFW last year, taking on a role as treasurer. I've been kind of enjoying a, still being involved with the chapter, but like kind of tailing down the, uh, like day to day, like all of the things involvement. Um, I spend a lot more energy on my kids in the last couple of years. Um, there was a period of time where when I was at Sabre, when I was working on very, very large projects that required that I traveled for research. And you know all that stuff. And so like I'm kind of enjoying the respite that comes with not being involved in the travel industry and like, and it's, it's this new phase where like my kids are big enough to do my nerd stuff with me. That's a cool feel. It's so awesome. It's so great.

Tony: Well let me jump into my final question and it might be influenced by what you've been talking about. I ask everybody the same thing. It's… what nondigital thing that you own has had the most impact in your life or means the most to you? Non Digital thing. It's a head scratch.

John: It really is like, cause I actually really have an affinity for like um, mechanical designs. Like okay, so this is not my answer but I carried this thing with me everywhere.

Tony: Oh, what is that?

John: It is the best design objects that I own. It's a knife. It's also a money clip, but it's just, oh it's like a little bucks. This cutter, it takes an interchangeable blade. It's a, it's a cross blade lock. Like it's a little pocket knife thing and it folds down into a completely smooth stainless steel rectangle. And I, it's one of those things where like, I never carried a knife because carrying a knife is like, I dunno, it just seems a little bit weird. I was a boy scout and I used to carry a pocket knife all the time. But this thing is like so profoundly well designed, it's functional as utilitarian is pragmatic. Like it's, it's weirdly beautiful in its own way. And then also has this interchangeable totally disposable box knife blade instead of having it being integrated into the knife in a way that I'm like, that's fantastic. Like this is, isn't that something? Yeah, I love stuff like this. I love like tea kettles, bicycles, like anything. It's like, oh yeah, like this, it seems some iteration and some refinement, but the mechanisms are basically the same as they were a hundred years ago. I love that crap.

Tony: Way back in the day when I was about oh seven or eight years old, um, I was in Beeville, Texas, very small town. And visiting my grandfather went to his church. It, uh, I got this envelope in Sunday school. We were little kids and I was trying to open it and I was getting outside the church and the pastor comes up to me and he says, oh, you need some help there? And I said, “Oh yeah, I can't open this.” And he takes out a pocket knife. He opens it and then he looks at me right in the eyes, and says—"Son, every good man carries a pocket knife” and I've carried one ever since.

John: Yeah, that's like--I remember. So I, um, I remember when I got my first pocket knife, it was a big deal. It's one of those things where like, cause I was in the cub scouts and you had to like earn a badge and you're like, get your little, you got a card. And every time somebody caught you doing something like irresponsible with a knife, they would cut the corner off the card. And if you lost all four corners, he put the knife away from you. Um, my dad gave me, and I still have, is this little Vic. It's, uh, it's unfortunately been discontinued.

It's the called the Victoria Knox Tinker. I promptly put it in my pocket and took it out into the woods to go like widdle sticks and throw it a things, something irresponsible. And I lost it. And I went back into my house and I was so, so super upset. I was on verge of tears and my parents were finally, what is wrong with you? And I told them like, you gave me this thing and it was a huge responsibility and I lost it the very first day and I'm like devastated. So my dad, like, he's like, okay, we're going to go look for it. So we get at our flashlights because of course the sun has gone down. We walk through our backyard into the woods and search for like an hour in the dark in the woods for this knife. And I'm like beside myself, just crying, I'm a hot mess. And then we get back inside and I'm like, I'm sorry. And my dad's like, it's okay. Like, like no one that can get you another one, but, but it's okay. Like, it's not the end of the world. We gave you this responsibility and you kind of failed. But, and then as he's like trying to console me, he hands me the knife because he found it the moment we stepped outside our back door, put it in his pocket and then made me tramped around the woods for an hour.

Tony: Oh, that's good.

John: So I don't really carry them around. I don't want to lose them, but um, but this one is like 10 bucks and it's beautiful. I've actually given them as gifts because they just think they're so profoundly beautiful and in how well they are designed and how simple they are.

Tony: There's a Quaker quote, it's something, I'm going to butcher it along the lines of don't make anything unless it's useful. But if it is useful, make it beautiful.

John: That's akin to my favorite design quote. Then our, it's a Buckminster fuller quote. Uh, when I'm solving a problem, I never think of beauty, but when I'm done, if it's not beautiful, I know it's wrong.

Tony: Boom, Shaka Laka! I think that's a good place to end it.

John: I agree.

Tony: I want to thank you so much for taking time out again and uh, let's chat again sometime.

John: Yeah, man, thanks for having me. It was just fun.

Tony: And with that, we will call it a week. I hope you enjoyed this episode and if you did, be sure to share it with your friends, family, or coworkers. As always, you can find the show notes and full transcript at xdpodcast.com or stalk me on Instagram @xdpodcast. I can't wait to have you back next week, but until then, friends, stay curious.

The XD Podcasts is part of XD Media LLC and is produced and edited by me, Tony Daussat. Hosting and publication of a podcast is through Buzzsprout.