Design driven at the United Nations

George Molina
Product Manager
Read Time
5 min read
Published On
July 14, 2016

Design Driven hosted their 19th event at the United Nations HQ and attracted almost a thousand attendees. It was a fitting venue for some stellar speakers who also raised some noteworthy attention:

A fireside chat with Jeffrey Zeldman and Jen Simmons rounded off the wonderful event and we’re thankful to FirstMark for hosting it.


Amber Cartwright kicked it off with a talk on ‘Co-Designing with Machines’. Amber is a Design Manager at Airbnb where she oversees several teams evolving the company’s two-sided marketplace experiences. She has been a designer for over fifteen years, working across several mediums including interactive exhibit design, design agency consulting and video editing in New York, Portland and San Francisco. She has created designs and user experience strategies for companies like Loblaws, Google, Target, American Express and GE Capital. Her passion in product design are finding what inspires and motivates people, then reflecting that back into products that have meaningful impact on their lives.

Amber  discussed the overarching relationship between machinery and design. Both entities in this day and age are constantly changing, and figuring out the dynamics towards integrating them both is something every designer struggles with. However, while Design and Machine work couldn’t contrast more, it’s their unique relationship that brings about great products. She talked about mathematical algorithms and described how everything, not just machinery, requires it.

Her presentation consisted of multiple modern ways design and machinery have learned to coexist including Machine Learning, Augmented Reality (AR), Quality Assurance (QA), The Design/Data Language System (DLS). She spoke about their application to Airbnb as she provided many physical examples and explained some of Airbnb’s machinery in the background such as SmartPrice, an intelligent solution that allows users to set prices based on demand.


​The next speaker was Verena Haller from Equinox Hotels. Verena has long been a major player in the interior design world. She previously had strong interests in architecture and product design but decided to take an interior design role at SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP) as her first career move in New York. Since then, Haller has influenced the hotel design community with her innovative and fresh ideas. Her experience includes a variety of projects at companies like SOM, Ian Schrager Company, and Morgans Hotel Group, and currently is the Senior Vice President of Design at Equinox Hotels. An architectural and interior design background is not the most common among the digital UX/ UI crowd, so her talk brought some fresh perspectives.

Verena explained how design concepts and process are integrated in every type of design. She first covered the overarching history of hotel design and how heightened consideration towards this is something novel and the tracks have yet to be laid out. She discussed her inspirations, something every designer has and drives her particularly, and she tied them with a specific analogy to skiing. As an avid skier, she described her passion for design as an adrenaline rush, flowing and relentless. After coming down the ski slope, this exhilaration quickly turns into disappointment, as you want nothing more than to go down it again.

This analogy is a key example of the type of experience Haller seeks for her clients; the urge to come back for more. It was exciting to see how her inspiration has propagated through to her work, and manifests itself in her hotel designs.

Verena also discussed how many hotels today are found to be overwhelming in terms of design, so she bases a large portion of her design on creating a space where visitors can embrace and prosper in a minimalist and comfortable environment.


The next speaker was Braden Kowitz,  a designer, storyteller, and self-proclaimed product development geek. He is a Design Partner at Google Ventures where he founded the team's Design Studio. He also advises startups on UX Design and Product Development. Before joining Google Ventures, Braden led design for several Google Products, including Gmail, Google Buzz, Google Apps for Business, Google Spreadsheets, OpenSocial, and Google Trends.

Braden’s talk revolved around Design Culture and what’s it’s like to start and be in one. He divided his talk into three main cultural values:

  1. Faith in Quality
  2. Hold Design Accountable
  3. Everyone’s Responsible

Surrounding these three values, he talked about what exactly was required to create good and meaningful design. He emphasized the importance of creating a balanced environment for measurable and unmeasurable design. He provided insights on some aspects all designers could work on such as not to focus on legacy/old habits and to constantly critique their own work since it’s integral to the design process. He also provided a rundown of a the three parts of a designer’s “life span”.

  1. Surface Value- Graphics everyone loves
  2. User Value- Under/ dirty framework
  3. Business Value- Enables surviving start-ups

It was invaluable for the audience to get advice directly from a UX pioneer of his stature.


​The event itself was commendable: Design Driven has provided the NYC Design community with incredible networking opportunities and inspiring speakers. We were grateful for the opportunity to visit  the UN and now feel like true ambassadors of the design arts.