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How to Lead UX and Creative Strategy: A Conversation With Nana Marin
How to Lead UX and Creative Strategy: A Conversation With Nana Marin
by The Luupe
We speak with The College Board’s Director of Creative Strategy and UX Design about her career - from working as a retoucher to using data to lead design strategy.
In 2010, Adriana (Nana) Marín-Roberts moved from her Miami hometown to NYC to pursue a career in design. She had worked as a designer and retoucher for brands like Black and Decker and wanted a new opportunity to learn and grow.
She landed a job as a graphic designer at Shutterstock, initially working on print ads and other marketing collateral, and quickly grew to lead a larger brand strategy, mentor a team of designers, and think more holistically about the relationship between data and design thinking.
In 2018, Marin applied this knowledge and experience in her role as product design lead for The New York Times, most notably the redesign of the purchase experience. For the past few years, Marin has been directing Creative and UX Strategy for The College Board, looking deeply at how data and product research can guide creative decisions.
We caught up with Marin to learn more about how she carved her path from expert product illustrator and Photoshopper to multidisciplinary creative leader and how her love for punk rock, salsa, and hip hop influence her constant drive.
▲ Meet Nana Marin
The Luupe: It's interesting to look at your career path and trajectory. You have a background in illustration and got your start as a retoucher for Black and Decker before fully immersing yourself in graphic design and then UX. Can you talk a bit about your journey for us?
Adriana Marin: I tend to be incredibly curious and am eager to learn so working as an illustrator, photo retoucher, designer, and then moving into UX and strategy seemed like a logical evolution. Additionally, as a POC/Latinx in the field of Design, I have always felt the need to be overly prepared which in turn helped to feed my curious nature and gain access to work on interesting products.
▲ Early work for Black and Decker
The Luupe: You've worked at a wide set of companies/ teams - from tool manufacturers to two stock photo agencies, then into editorial at The NY Times, and now The College Board. How has your thinking changed from place to place?
Marin: While the products may change, the “design thinking” concept stays the same, prioritizing a user-centered approach. Gaining empathy and understanding for users and investigating the “problems you’re solving for” help guide your approach.
▲ "Design of Food Culturist's mobile app that provides personalized recipe recommendations, impromptu recipe ideas based on 'what's in your fridge', step-by-step recipe instructions, teaches tips and tricks from experienced chefs, and a shopping list that is tied to Amazon Prime."
The Luupe: At what point did data start playing into your design thinking? And how has working with data shifted how you think about creative vision, UX, etc?
Marin: Data actually pushed me towards studying UX Design. I started to get interested in strategy and UX because at the time I was working with a junior marketing team that frankly did not understand multi-variant testing best practices, data reporting, and whose user approach was short-sighted. (The company shall remain nameless…) It was all about getting users to the site but there wasn’t much strategy for the entire customer journey.
Later, after a few years working in UX, I took a role at The New York Times and worked on the Conversion team within the Growth mission. The team I was on was singularly focused on the subscription flow and it was a heavy test-and-learn environment. I loved my role! Being able to run small and large tests and really dig into testing plans and results was very exciting.
▲ "The New York Times' previous landing page overloaded potential customers with information and a variety of decision points. With a landing page redesign test, we aimed to simplify the amount of information, focus attention on one main subscription product, and use color and imagery to create an impactful moment that stood out."
The Luupe: Building on that, at what point did you move into strategy? Going from doing the work to doing & leading the work....?
Marin: I started working in strategy when I was hired at a stock media start-up. I had previously worked with the creative director and at that time the company was going through a complete rebrand he wanted to partner with me to create and lead the strategy for redesigning the brand, and the site, implementing product design processes within an Agile environment and hiring a team. It was a great learning experience.
The Luupe: In your current role, what does your day-to-day look like? And how did it shift when you went from creative direction to creative direction + UX strategy?
Marin: Lots of meetings! I was hired by the College Board as Director of Creative Strategy. For about two years I focused on products that Higher Ed institutions use to provide updated information about their organizations and tools used for admission purposes. I was very hands-on leading design and research for specific products. In my new role, my focus is broader and I oversee the UX Designers across all College Board products.
The Luupe: Getting into your specific work, any favorite projects throughout your career that you care to discuss?
Marin: At the College Board, we are currently working on complete redesigns of several Higher Ed-facing products and it is really exciting to get to know complex legacy systems, gain an understanding of user goals/needs, and then recreate something new that will hopefully enhance users’ experience.
We are redesigning tools that users have been using for over a decade so we can not disrupt their work. In partnership with Product and Engineering, we had to translate business goals and user needs into a product plan that would allow us time to research, test, and learn before our first public release.
▲ Mobile website design for Up South Cookbook to promote the launch of the Up South Cookbook by Nicole A. Taylor, the Food Culturist.
The Luupe: Did you receive any creative advice early on that's really helped your career/ that you hold with you to this day?
Marin: The best advice I’ve ever gotten was to be myself. I’m originally from Miami, Florida and when I first moved to NY I felt like I had to change the way I spoke, dressed, and carried myself in order to “fit in”. And all that did was leave me incredibly unhappy, self-conscious, and timid.
Throughout my design career in NY, I have often been the only Latina and/or woman in the room and I have learned that my perspective is valuable. Being able to bring my authentic self to work did not come naturally at first but since I have been open to it, it has made me better and in turn, made the work better.
The Luupe: You’re also teaching at The New School! What advice do you give to your students?
When you’re young in design, you're told you have to “pay dues” and that’s fine, I guess, but you have to see your value, respect your boundaries, and don’t let others tell you what you’re worth. But at the same time take your ego out of your design work.
Never take spec work!!! If a client says they can’t pay you but you’ll gain experience and exposure, stop talking to them immediately. It is not worth it.
▲ Cover art for the Almost Studios mixtape series.
The Luupe: That’s great. A little off-topic, but we know that music is a big part of your identity. Does it play into your creative thinking/ work etc
Marin: Punk Rock, Hip Hop, and Salsa all became popular in the 1970s. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that such different genres gained wider popularity in a similar time period because at their core all three were led by people feeling an overwhelming urgency to express themselves, where they came from, and find community.
I am incredibly inspired by those three genres of music. As a first-gen Colombian American my love for those three genres really speaks to what it was like growing up in a multilingual, multicultural home and feeling like I belonged to two very different countries. (And it helped to have really cool parents with an eclectic taste for music.) I hope I can bring a similar passion and community to design.
The Luupe: Are you still finding time for freelance and personal projects?
Marin: Yes, I do like to freelance with my husband’s company Almost Studios. It helps to work on something very different from your day job. It feels like exercising different muscles.
I need to get better at also working on more personal projects. I occasionally still draw but I want to do more of it.
The Luupe: Thanks so much for your time. In closing, what excites you most about UX + visual culture right now?
Marin: I’m really interested in Ai and how we can potentially use it as a tool. Additionally, I am excited that accessible design has become the standard and I look forward to pushing it even further and seeing how design can become more ethical and equitable.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Luupe is a one-stop production company that is raising the bar for professional brand imagery on a global scale. With a highly curated and diverse network of professional women and non-binary photo and video creators across 65+ countries around the world, we are reinventing how brands produce original, local, and authentic visual stories that connect with a global audience. Our mission is to champion and amplify diverse perspectives from around the world — in front of and behind the lens.