At a recent Design Leadership Forum dinner in New York City, the topic of what you wear to work came up when attendees discussed what it takes to give designers a seat at the table. Educating your organization about the importance of design is a common strategy, but could the clothes you wear play an important role in getting design buy-in?
“Clothes make the man,” as Shakespeare wrote, but that line actually comes from a much earlier Greek proverb: “The man is his clothing.” From togas to tights, fashion makes an impression and not just on other people, but on ourselves.
To dive deeper into this conversation, we spoke with several women designers to get a sense of how they use personal style strategically in their work lives, what challenges they face, and how perceptions of workwear differ for corporate designers on the East and West Coasts.
Dress for the job you want
Laura Hahn, Head of Design at Priceline, New York
Laura leads a design team of 10-15 designers, a position that requires a lot of meetings with people across the company—product teams, design teams, content teams, the technology team, development leads on Priceline’s different products, the platform engineering team, finance, VPs and SVPs on the business side, the marketing department, the CMO, CTO, and CEO.
“Soft skills are very important in design. And one of those soft skills is how you dress.”
In addition to that long list, she also regularly meets one-on-one with her own team.
“I’m very mentorship and growth oriented, so I’m making sure my team is learning new skills, hard and soft skills. Soft skills are very important in design.”
One of those soft skills, for Laura, is how you dress.
“I had this conversation with someone on my team earlier this week, someone who’s very creative and expressive in the way she dresses. She’s incredibly talented and her talents are being recognized, so she’s being asked to present her ideas, and by extension, herself, to the C-suite. I told her ‘I want to make sure you’re thinking about the way you want to be perceived by them and what you want to do at this company. And thinking about who’s going to help open doors for you and how you can give yourself the best opportunity to walk through those doors.’
Related: Laura Hahn on building trust, design fidelity, and matchmaking
It’s something to think about. What is your professional persona? What do you want that to look like? What are your goals and how do you want other people to see you?”
It’s a strategic use of style that Laura advocates for herself and her team, and she practices what she preaches.
“I’m optimizing for the relationships within my organization. So I intentionally over-dress for my work environment. Business formal. Because, in the companies I’ve worked for, design has been very service-oriented, thought of as the ‘creative arm’—not perceived as very business-minded. People tend to hand designers any old project that needs to be ‘made pretty,’ rather than the projects that have the greatest impact for the business.
“What is your professional persona? What do you want that to look like? What are your goals and how do you want other people to see you?”
Laura Hahn, Head of Design at Priceline
I try to dress in such a way that I exude more expertise and gravitas. All the end of being taken more seriously than design tends to be in a lot of companies.”
For Laura, it’s “dress for the job you want,” and the job she wants is up the executive ladder.
“I’m positioning myself to be connected to the right people in my organization, and I want them to be able to say ‘not only has she shown effectiveness, but she also looks the part. She’s someone I’d be fine putting in front of clients, vendors, and the public.’ That’s something I’m very aware of.”
She says she’s spoken with other designers at other companies who use their sense of style strategically too—but in an almost opposite way.
“I was talking to someone working in financial services as a designer and they were saying how they were bucking the trend at their company by coming in business-casual to casual attire.
A lot of the business side is suit-and-tie in the financial industry, so these designers were deliberately trying to set themselves apart as the innovation hub of the company, thinking of the customer side of banking and making products more usable and accessible to customers. Part of doing that was breaking down the wall between ‘financial experts’ and customers who trust them with their money.”
Clothing makes a statement, whichever way you use it. But the statement it makes also depends on the context. In conservative corporate environments, taking fashion risks can easily backfire.
Laura says she’s observed first-hand how some of her design colleagues are treated differently depending on what they wear.
“The people who push the envelope with their clothing choices in corporate environments—I’ve seen people engage with them differently. By virtue of being creative, we’re already ‘the other.’ By playing into that, it can make you less approachable. It makes that division more clear. So much of my job is connecting with other people and building relationships across the organization. If I’m more relatable at first blush, I’m going to have a better chance of having those engagements happen more organically.”
In such a creative field, you might wonder if having so many constraints on one’s personal style might inhibit creativity, but for Laura, she says the opposite is true.
“Design for me is very constraints-oriented. It’s what separates design from art. There are restrictions and constraints you operate inside of, and then you push those boundaries, but they’re still there. I like having the formal business attire constraint. It cuts out a lot of mental clutter. If I’m going shopping, I know that 75% of what’s there is not something I’m going to buy, and that’s helpful to me. Then, within those constraints, which are inherently conservative, I can try out more exploratory forms. I skew towards modern, minimalist, with an interesting cut. It’s a nice place to play, while I know I’m not going to go out of bounds and wear something wholly unacceptable for work.”
“So much of my job is connecting with other people and building relationships across the organization. If I’m more relatable at first blush, I’m going to have a better chance of having those engagements happen more organically.”
She’s not all work—but her personal life is kept strictly separate, which she says is “protective in a way.”
“My not-at-work self is a different person than my work self, and I’m trying to find this happy medium where my work persona is professional and guards some portion of my non-work self, but still feels authentic. That’s a difficult balance to strike and it takes effort to find—where it doesn’t feel like I’m denying my non-work self, but carving out a little bit to preserve it.”
Related: 6 of the most influential women in UX today
It’s an interesting conundrum many professionals face, and the more strict the work environment, the more Jekyll and Hyde it can feel. But is this something all, or most, corporate designers face?
East is east and west is west—we asked West Coast designers for their experiences
Our conversation with Laura made us wonder: Do corporate design positions on the East Coast have a stricter dress code, or perhaps a different sense of corporate culture, than design positions on the West coast?
Short answer: Yes.
We asked several corporate West Coast designers, all women, to weigh in with their experiences with bringing personal style to work.
Lauren, UX designer “at a tech giant based in the Pacific Northwest”
“Where I work, the dress code is whatever you want it to be. Being relatively new to tech, I see what people around me are wearing when deciding what is appropriate to wear to work. I definitely feel comfortable wearing clothes that fit my style—classic Ts, basic button-downs, or soft sweaters paired with comfortable jeans. I don’t feel the need to deviate from my style, or to dress in a more professional manner, even when meeting with superiors or stakeholders. This casual style is modeled for me by my managers and company leadership.”
“I’ve noticed that when I’m confident in what I wear, I present my design work with greater authority.”
Lauren, UX designer
Okay, but button-downs and sweaters are fairly conservative. What about everybody else?
“My design peers present themselves with styles ranging from funky Anime chic to mini dresses paired with stilettos. I see these women being treated with authority and respect, and I believe it’s because of the confidence with which they present themselves. I feel fortunate to work in an industry where I can be myself. I’ve noticed that when I’m confident in what I wear, I present my design work with greater authority.”
Elise, corporate and contract designer, Seattle
“I was born and raised in Seattle and have been working in the design industry for about seven years. I’ve had both permanent and contract positions and have been able to explore different company cultures, so I can say that overall, Seattle is definitely more relaxed with their dress code. The first company I worked at was very casual, to where a male designer wore shorts and sandals year-round, and you could wear graphic T-shirts and jeans and no one would be bothered. Moving on from there, it’s been a healthy mix of both casual-professional and relaxed. The only time I’ve busted out proper slacks and a jacket have been for interviewing, meeting clients or conducting user research.
I’ve noticed that other women’s attire has varied as much as the company cultures I have seen: everyone has their own style and approach to attire. One colleague comes to mind, Hiroko—she was the most put-together vibrant dresser and it was amazing! She wore brightly colored dresses and skirts that complemented her outgoing and upbeat personality. In the sea of dark grey and black outfits worn by the other Amazon designers, it was quite a refreshing sight.
When talking with others who wore more of a muted palette, the phrase ‘it’s just easier’ always comes up. This is both inspired by the capsule wardrobe craze and the fact that, if you’re putting all your creativity into work, it’s easier to just pick a bottom and top at random rather than to plan out your clothes every morning.
In general, there is no rule that you must dress up or ‘dress for the job you want’ here in Seattle.
I’ve seen female managers and directors wearing casual clothing and it never affected their received respect from peers. I typically wear jeans and a nice top with either sneakers, sandals, or flats. Since the weather tends to be overcast and rainy, the approach to attire in the workplace is more lenient than I would assume the East Coast is. I never wear sweatshirts or sweatpants to work as that is absolutely too casual, but I’m sure that some places would give me an odd look if I were to show up in a suit every day.”
We don’t have all of the answers, but we’d love to hear yours
We’ve only scratched the surface of this ongoing conversation about the intersections of women in the workplace, creativity in corporate environments, and personal versus professional style. And we’re wondering: What is “appropriate” workwear in your office? Do creatives have more freedom, or perhaps less? And do you use your wardrobe as part of a larger strategy to move up the corporate ladder or change how you’re perceived?
Share your thoughts with us on Twitter: @InVisionApp.
This post was inspired by a discussion at a recent Design Leadership Forum dinner. Do you know someone you’d like to nominate for the Design Leadership Forum? We’d love to know about them.
Nichole is an early-stage SaaS consultant and she also helps SaaS founders launch, engage, and build communities around their products. She is the co-founder of Purpose Beyond Product, in which she runs masterminds for the SaaS community. (Check it out, there might be one you can apply to right now!) She's also got a book: The Playbook to Grow Your SaaS With your Customers.