Nadia Surtees: "Growing up, I could see that San Francisco created an amazing network of people from all over the world"
Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance.
IDEO is one of the most well-known design companies in the world with a reputation for attracting unparalleled talent. Sydney-native Nadia Surtees landed herself in San Francisco following a Parsons education in New York, with the intention of securing a Design Researcher position at IDEO HQ.
She did exactly that.
Nadia aims to create a positive impact through design by working at the intersection of object, interaction and systems design. Fascinated by people and behaviour change, she strives to create products that delight and enhance human life.
Nadia shared with Advance her fascinating insights as to why Design Research is important, her experiences studying abroad, and why San Francisco has the stronghold on her industry.
What are the origins of your relationship with San Francisco?
I was born in Sydney and moved to Palo Alto when I was two, where my dad completed his Masters of Management at Stanford University Graduate Business School. Even though I was very young, it was impactful on my sense of future possibilities in terms of my own career.
Growing up, I could see that San Francisco created a network of people from all over the world, who all shared the idea of flocking to California to tap into the opportunity and optimism here. My dad said, “if you're looking for opportunities it’s helpful to change the context.” For him going to the US redefined what was possible.
Dad also returned to work as the VP of eCommerce at Yahoo! In San Francisco during the dot-com boom days in 1999 and lived in a building right opposite IDEO San Francisco. So, in many ways, it feels as if I’ve come full circle.
How long have you been living in the US?
I’ve been in San Francisco for about a year and a half now and came by way of New York where I was doing an exchange at Parsons New School in Product Design as part of my Masters in Design at the University of New South Wales. I never really felt that Australia was the ultimate destination and I craved going abroad in order to grow personally and professionally.
What challenges did you face moving to San Francisco?
I think for anyone, moving to a new place it can feel lonely and it takes time to establish a network and to make new friends. When I first moved here, I went to lots of meetups in order to meet as many people as possible. San Francisco is really great in that respect, people are so warm and happy to help. Ensuring that you say ‘yes’ to any moment is key!
What was your experience like studying at Parsons?
It was an amazing experience to live and study in the heart of New York and it was incredible to get access to artists and designers who could show us around the city. Parsons was also made up of a very diverse cohort of students from places ranging from Latin America to Korea, I felt that in Sydney I probably wouldn’t be exposed to that level of diversity.
Could you do what you’re in San Francisco anywhere else in the world, with as much promise and potential?
At the moment, no. I’ve been fortunate enough to land my dream job as a Design Researcher at IDEO at their San Francisco head office. IDEO has a three-decade strong history in California and has worked on some major design breakthroughs from the first Apple mouse to designing a new school system from the ground up in Peru.
Companies from around the world seek out IDEO’s socially impactful design work and our design thinking process pioneered by visionary designers like Jane Fulton Suri who have made human-centred design and innovation accessible. I was also really attracted to IDEO’s openness and their willingness to share their process which they do through IDEO U courses and toolkits such as our method cards.
What do you love most about this job and why is it important?
I love Design Research because I can combine the principles of psychology with the practicality of design. I particularly love working in Design Research at IDEO because I’m surrounded by hundreds of open-minded, zany, talented designers who are genuinely optimistic about the impact their work can have on the world.
I believe my role is really important as we’re accountable for ensuring the designs we’re creating are ethical and contributing to a life and world that we’re excited to be part of. For example, IDEO, together with the UAE Government, recently founded Palmwood, a creative organisation dedicated to improving the lives of people in the UAE by developing their creative capabilities.
We take our work seriously but are lighthearted and playful in the process.
What is the typical lifespan of a project?
Anywhere from three weeks to about a year, it just depends on the project.
What are the IDEO offices like?
The IDEO offices are filled with project spaces, where teams of interdisciplinary designers work together to create a product. For example, a business designer with a traditional business background could be working with an industrial designer to help envision the form factor of a product or could be working with an interaction designer who traditionally focuses on UI, the list goes on. It ends up being a mix and match of a whole lot of different collaborative skill sets. We also have very fluid, open spaces, which are designed for us to have random encounters with designers working on other projects
Is your industry as matured in Australia?
Australia as a nation is definitely developing interest and skills in innovation. I’m excited to see universities like UTS offer great programs in entrepreneurship, as well as technical schools like General Assembly, take off. Also, success stories such as Atlassian and Canva are giving Australians the confidence to build and create for the world, not just Australia.
What's your advice for other Australians looking to make the move to San Francisco?
Ensure you have enough financial runway to get yourself comfortable, find a generous and accommodating employer who will support you in getting your E3 visa and tap into existing networks such as the Aussie Founders Network and Advance.
With the expansion and acceleration of many startups in the Bay Area, do you think the growth of the city is sustainable?
I’d like to see the big players like Uber, Google and Apple etc. investing more into infrastructure such as CalTrain, Muni, and BART which would make more areas in the Bay accessible and ecologically sustainable in the long term.
How is San Francisco unique compared to other cities in America?
I don’t think there is anywhere quite like San Francisco! The weather is mild and lovely, the city is surrounded by nature in every direction from Marin to Carmel and it’s not overcrowded like New York or LA.
Where to from San Francisco?
Maybe London or New York! But for now, I certainly feel settled for the moment in this great city. San Francisco definitely feels like home.