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From Professional Musician to Business Designer

January 24, 2020

Livie Casto

Livie Casto studied opera and performed in musicals professionally before stumbling into a start-up where she learned the power of human-centered design. During her time in the Global Executive MS in Strategic Design and Management (GEMS) program, she’s been promoted twice in her role as Business Designer at a leading creative consultancy, and has launched the beginnings of her next endeavor. We chatted with her about her trajectory leading up to her studies, and what the future holds.

You’ve transformed your career multiple times. Tell us a bit about yourself and your professional progression from a musician to a design strategist.

Growing up, my family used to say that I could sing before I could speak. I made my (accidental) semi-professional debut at a large-scale luau in Hawaii when I was just four years old because the host overheard me singing in the bathroom. I love music because it has the power to either amplify or transform your mood and energy. So, I decided to pursue it both in my formal education and in my early professional years. Because I was so in love with the musical part of being a musician singing other people’s music, it wasn’t until college that I really started to dive into all the components that go into telling a compelling story. The most important of these elements is empathizing with and understanding the behaviors and motivations of the character you are portraying. Musical talent is table stakes, but authenticity and the true embodiment of another human’s experience elevates the performance a hundredfold. I still love that part about performing.

A few years after college, I needed a day job, so I found a company called SoulCycle! Though they received a ton of warranted heat this past year, when I joined, they were very much in start-up mode.

I loved the class because it was music-driven. I loved working for the company because it, at the time, put people first. It was my first toe in the water of how human-centered design worked, and all the details, from the check-in process, to the way we were trained to answer the phones, were a part of making sure the experience around the product (the class) was consistently exceptional. I even worked directly with maintenance teams to help ensure they had growth opportunities. When I had an idea I wanted to pitch to corporate, my performing background meant I knew how to show up with confidence. I had all the research I needed from listening and talking to team members.

A few years into my time at SoulCycle, I heard about a company that was leading the way, particularly in the U.S., in helping other companies create similar experiences around their products. Fast forward to three years ago, and I joined Fjord—a creative consultancy that focuses on improving the way people work and live—as a Business Designer and have had the opportunity to not just design those experiences, but help organizations understand the value of the investment.

What is a Business Designer?

It’s not a common title. Basically it’s strategic design, organizational design, and operational design, looking at processes and ways of working. If we consider desirability, feasibility, and viability, a Business Designer is who makes sure the viability factor is there. I’m the person who looks at the business case and makes sure it has a chance to come to life.

How did you find out about this program?

When I got to Fjord, I was learning rapidly and on the job. There were general Service Design trainings, but nothing in the way of Business Design. I was organically blending my business experience developing people and managing SoulCycle studios with an empathy-driven approach, but I didn’t feel like I had the necessary frameworks or tools I needed to take these projects to the next level. I had been searching for behavioral psychology-focused MBA programs and/or design-focused MBA programs with very little success. In most cases, design was a class in the curriculum, not the lens through which the entire program was taught. After many Google searches, I finally found the right fit in the GEMS program.

What was the most inspiring project or experience you’ve had so far through the GEMS program?

There have been so many, so it’s difficult to choose just one. I’d say the most inspiring has been working on my own independent study project because I’ve had a client and partner the entire time. The case study is focused on redefining the way people learn about, speak about, and experience sex, and while it’s still in it’s infancy, we have already received so much great feedback. The program gave me the safe space to take all that I’ve learned over the past decade and apply it to creating something brand new. That’s an indescribable feeling. I’m hoping to work with more purpose-driven clients.

How has this program changed the way you collaborate with different teams at your company?

I use principles from Johann Verheem’s Design Leadership & Innovation and Roger Manix’s class Managing Creative Projects & Teams almost daily. In coaching conversations or facilitating workshops, I really work to ask thoughtful, non-judgmental questions. Many people solidify their ideas by hearing themselves say them out loud! Open-ended questions are a great way to nudge them out of people. And, I can’t tell you how many times I have called a gratitude circle when things are really tense. At first people roll their eyes, but everyone inevitably feels better afterward. The energy recalibrates and we are ready to re-engage the challenge with a positive outlook. In both of the courses I also benefited from the deeply personal and emotional exploration we did.

Have you gotten any feedback from your employer since you enrolled in the program? What about your colleagues/teams?

I haven’t received any direct feedback from my employer, but I have been promoted twice in the past 12 months. I feel more confident in the value I’m adding, and I think that’s reflected in the way I’ve been advancing.

What specific tactical skills do you have now that you didn’t before? How were you able to use these skills immediately to support your own professional growth and your company’s growth?

Fairly immediately, I’d say within in the first two classes, I had an arsenal of frameworks for analyzing research that I didn’t have before. About midway through, studying systems thinking was crucial to the success of some of the projects I led and supported at Fjord. Most recently, studying futures thinking and learning how to create possibility stories inspired the creation of a comic book our team used to help pitch a multi-million dollar engagement.

What is it like applying service design and design thinking to the government initiatives you’ve worked on?

Actually easier than you’d think. The people in government agencies understand that they are not meeting the needs of their constituents and are eager for a change of pace. There’s a lot of education work that needs to be done, but once that groundwork is laid, it’s not much different than working in major corporations. There’s a lot of bureaucracy and red tape, but the scale and quality of the problems are so large and so complex and so impactful that it’s worth the fight to make the solutions real.

You’ve been a part of some amazing experiences from leading a panel of GEMS at The New School Centennial event in NYC to using design thinking to help the team in charge of the Sustainable Development Goals at the UN. Can you tell us about these experiences?

Leading a panel of GEMS at the Centennial event in New York was wonderful. For those of us that are fortunate to both work in and study design strategy, it’s easy to forget how foreign it is to people outside of the industry. The panel brought together a wonderfully engaging group of GEMS students and audience members. We had an incredibly honest dialogue. I was just as inspired by the guests on the panel as I was by the people in the audience.

The UN experience was a powerful one. The team there is doing such impactful and challenging work, so I hope we were able to lend a fresh perspective and help them improve the way they actualize their mission. It made me realize that people now crave action and they want to know what’s the first step collectively. We need to stop simply talking about problems, and we need more doing.

Why is a globally focused design driven program important today?

For many reasons. Navigating multiple time zones and this much travel is not without its difficulties, but I’d say the biggest reason why it’s important is that it’s a way to combat the rise of nationalism we’re seeing in so many countries, particularly the United States. We cannot leave it up to our governments to tell us the truth about other parts of the world. We have to live and breathe it. We have to find common ground with people who we are taught to be in opposition with. Empathy, and by extension, human-centered design, is an incredible tool to do just that. The second reason is that the biggest, meatiest, messiest problems the world is facing are, many times, not unique to the individual country or community you live in. There are global and systemic root causes for some of these things, so how else do we have a chance in hell at solving them if not by bringing diverse minds together?

What is a challenge your industry faces today, how does this program give you the tools to solve these design problems?

This is a challenging question to answer, because I don’t identify with a particular industry. I’ve positioned myself to be able to work in almost any industry, but because of that, one of the greatest skills I’ve taken away from this program is the ability to quickly scan multiple industries to get a high-level sense of what’s happening in them and then identify cross-industry patterns more quickly. This is particularly important because customer expectations are influenced by more than just your direct competitors. They are influenced by everything around them. Design helps businesses understand those perceptions and get smart in how other people are shaping and meeting customers’ needs, as well as creates meaningful and impactful paths forward.

What advice would you share for anyone considering the program?

I was good at being present during the program, but it was hard at times. Know it will be a lot but when it does get to be the point of being too much, you have to communicate it—to your teams, cohort, and professors. It can be isolating, but in the program there’s a unique intimacy and family-like bond (complete with a little bit of dysfunction). Everyone is juggling a lot. Know sometimes you can’t, so give yourself permission to prioritize. Just communicate it to the outside.

What’s next for you after graduating from the program?

Lots of rest! And then, I plan to continue to test out my side hustle’s business model and put together a business plan before deciding if I actually want to make this my full-time thing.I have a few potential clients (and employees) lined up, so that’s a good sign...fingers crossed!

You can find more of Livie’s work at liviecasto.com.

Written by Anne Ditmeyer.

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