Inspired by ever-changing trends seen on TikTok and other digital platforms, the new generation of content creators has set high standards for the design industry. We met with the Head of Design for Webex Suite at Cisco, who has been working in design since the 2000s, to unpack the unique characteristics of designers of the ‘new wave’ and the struggles they have to face. In the end, he shares a secret on how to be relevant in any situation if you are already an accomplished designer.
Travis Isaacs leads a global team of designers, writers and researchers for Webex, a leading real-time collaboration platform. Throughout his career of over 20 years, he’s designed for in-house teams, agencies and consulting firms and took the right turns as a co-founder and product manager at Microsoft. Outside of work, Travis loves spending time in Seattle with his wife Kristi, two tweens Audrey and Camill and two dogs Trudy and Penny. He says that he lives the Pacific Northwest Dream — a steady diet of mountains, ocean and evergreen forests.
TRAVIS, PLEASE TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND IN DESIGN, AND HOW IT ALL STARTED
My start in design was totally accidental. I went to a broadcasting school in college but I really wanted to be a professional musician. One of the bands in my circle needed someone to make a DVD, and they asked me. After that, they also asked for a website and I agreed to do it, despite having no experience.
I stumbled through it and spent the next four or five years learning everything I could about design on my own. I read books, watched tutorials, got an internship and took on a lot of unpaid work to practice. My first job out of college was as a webmaster for an eyeglasses retailer — I was retouching their product photos and updating their eCommerce catalog. The rest is, as they say, history.
WITH YOUR 20+ YEARS IN THE INDUSTRY, WHO, IN YOUR OPINION, ARE THESE 'NEW DESIGNERS' AND WHAT DEFINES THEM?
The ‘new designers’ are defined by their desire to connect their work to a purpose — to use their skills to make a difference, and not just make an income.
WHICH TRADITIONAL BELIEFS HAVE BECOME MORE CRITICAL TO THE NEXT-GEN OF DESIGNERS, AND WHICH OF THEM HAVE LESS VALUE?
In terms of work-related traditional beliefs, I think that these three have become significantly more critical:
At the same time, financial compensation is important and even critical, given the nature of the industry. In my experience, however, it isn’t the greatest motivator — and it’s seldom a reason why designers stick around when work goes against their values or future looks uncertain.
WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU THINK DESIGNERS OF THE ‘NEW WAVE’ HAVE TO FACE?
On one hand, I think it’s never been a better time to get into design as a profession. The career is well-defined, the industry is mature and the quality of education has improved. The ‘new wave’ is flourishing and the workforce is more diverse than ever.
On the other hand, the ‘new wave’ is facing challenges that people of my age did not have to deal with:
YOU MENTIONED THAT HAVING AN IMPACT IS CRITICAL FOR THESE NEW DESIGNERS. DO YOU THINK QUESTIONS AROUND ACCESSIBILITY AND INCLUSIVITY ARE A PART OF THIS NEW MOVEMENT OR THEY WERE ALWAYS THERE, BUT WE DIDN’T TALK ABOUT THEM ENOUGH?
They have always been there, but what’s happening with the shift to remote and hybrid work emphasizes how important inclusivity is. This shift has opened the door to people who were shut out of the workforce before due to location, time zone or abilities.
There are a billion new people who can join the workforce — designers must make sure we give them the opportunity to do so.
DO YOU THINK ACCESSIBLE DESIGN HAS A POTENTIAL TO BE ONE OF DEFINING TOPICS FOR A NEW GENERATION OF DESIGNERS? WHY?
I do, for two reasons: Awareness and Authenticity.
Authenticity is incredibly important to the new generation — they expect authenticity from themselves and from others. It’s incredibly important to feel seen and see others. It’s ingrained in their work. They’re motivated to allow all people to be their authentic selves, no matter their abilities, identity or work style.
WHAT OTHER TOPICS HAVE YOU NOTICED BEING HIGHLIGHTED BY 'NEW DESIGNERS'?
The ‘new designers’ have set an incredibly high bar for products — how accessible and easy to acquire they are. It’s challenged all of our assumptions — ‘Why can’t this be as easy as TikTok to start using?’
In my industry, we closely watch for new trends in how people and communities are finding new ways to connect and collaborate with each other. Many of the rituals around meetings and collaboration are undergoing changes, and not all of them are coming from the business field.
WHICH OF THESE TRENDS ARE BEING TRANSLATED IN CISCO DESIGN PROJECTS?
With millions of workers switching to remote or hybrid work over the last 18 months, we focused on removing as many barriers to entry as possible. Our products have to be something you can pick up and start using right away, no matter your experience level.
My mom uses TikTok — how do we make Webex just as easy to use?
Bias noted—but I couldn’t do my job without it. It’s the center of my productivity universe for chat, meetings, and calling
Almost every idea or feature starts out in Miro. The infinite canvas is a great medium for discovery and idea.
The rubber meets the road for us in Figma. We use it for content, interaction design, visual design, design systems tooling, and engineering handoff
THE SCHOOL YEAR IS STARTING VERY SOON, BUT NEXT-GEN DESIGNERS TEND TO LEARN ABOUT TRENDS OUTSIDE OF COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. HOW DO YOU THINK THE LEARNING PROCESS FOR YOUNG DESIGNERS IS DIFFERENT FROM WHAT IT WAS FOR YOU?
The tools and technology for the most part have caught up and are ready for remote and hybrid work/learning. That’s not to say there isn’t more to do — but having a virtual huddle around a Figma document or a Miro board is easier than ever.
The challenges they will face come from establishing relationships, building trust and fitting into a culture that existed IRL before you joined work, etc. When problems come up with remote work, they take longer to solve, as every interaction you have is over chat or a meeting.
LOTS OF YOUNG PROFESSIONALS REPORTED FEELING ‘BURNT OUT’ IN THE LAST TWO YEARS. WHY DO YOU THINK BURNOUT IS SO COMMON AMONG THEM?
Pressure to break into the industry and the glorification of ‘hustle culture’ on social media. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you’ll shoot to stardom if you can just outwork everyone else.
In my experience, that a) seldom happens and b) if it does, isn’t worth the tradeoff.
WITH THAT BEING SAID, HOW DO YOU MANAGE YOUNG DESIGNERS EFFICIENTLY?
Build relationships based on candor and authenticity. Spend the time understanding the kind of impact each designer wants to have and what motivates them. When possible, connect the dots between feedback and their motivations and higher purpose.
Be on the lookout when designers’ ambitions get ahead of their readiness to take the next step. This is what causes burnout.
Managing Humans by Michael Lopp and Radical Candor by Kim Scott are two mentorship/management books that I recommend the most
WE ARE APPROACHING THE END OF OUR INTERVIEW. CAN YOU JUMP ON THE ‘NEW WAVE’ TRAIN IF YOU ARE ALREADY AN EXPERIENCED DESIGNER?
Here’s my advice to any practitioner who wants to stay relevant and adapt to changes in the industry, whether it’s design or something else: Find a mentor, and be a mentor.
You always have something to learn and something to give. It’s a win-win. Connecting with younger designers is a great way to learn first-hand from the next generation.
HOW DO YOU THINK THE DESIGN INDUSTRY WILL EVOLVE IN THE NEXT 10 YEARS?
Designers in my generation spent a lot of time debating whether or not designers should learn to code — by the way, the answer is yes. Design systems and AI have made experience design more programmatic. Designers need to understand how these systems work or they will be at a disadvantage.
I also think we’ll see more and more designers becoming product managers and vice versa.
FINALLY, ANY ADVICE FOR YOUNG DESIGNERS WHO WANT TO MAKE A CAREER IN THE DESIGN INDUSTRY?
Don’t wait for permission — start designing. Find a mentor. Learn as much as you can from other disciplines. Play the long game.