Nancye Green is admirable not just because of her impressive body of creative work—but also because of her ever-morphing career path. From an influential partnership with Michael Donovan in their New York City firm Donovan/Green, to seats at the C-suite table, to her engagement in important health initiatives, Green looks at the world from a Big-D Design perspective. She’s worked across large organizations and small start-ups, corporations and nonprofits, helping them deal with the challenges of communicating complex ideas in simple and meaningful ways.
She re-created her partnership with Donovan in 2008 for a version 2.0 of their design agency; today, the firm invests in some of the ventures it serves as a communication and design partner, including The Medicines Company, a fast-growing hospital medicine organization. And Green holds leadership roles with several large clients and nonprofits, including the EcoHealth Alliance.
Nancye Green on “A Designed Life” at HOW Leadership Conference
We recently asked this former president of AIGA and the Aspen International Design Conference about the latest and most memorable iterations of her career.
You’ve been involved in key communication and branding projects for clients like Sony, P&G, Exxon and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. What projects stand out in your career?
I have had a few relationships that compete for the top of my list and each resulted in work, which broke new ground for me personally, and in some cases for the client/partner as well. Certainly creating the concept for designing the prototype American Girl Place with Pleasant Rowland, the founder of American Girl, is right up there. She was one of those innovators who really understood her customer and how to lead … how to give them exactly what they wanted before they knew what they wanted. And she loves design! She is a visionary who gets the big idea and is fanatically detail oriented. I have learned that this is what distinguishes many of the great innovators. They see the big picture, but also understand that the details matter.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have a current relationship with a company—and its brilliant and creative CEO—that is also allowing us to do things we’ve never done before. In this case, we’re partners in the transformation of a company which requires the most profound kind of re-thinking of many aspects of how they communicate and shape a new destiny. It’s a hospital medicine company dedicated to critical and intensive care, so the problems we’re invited to apply ourselves to run the gamut from branding many new products and the company as a whole, to rethinking how they engage their customers, to understanding the deep knowledge they possess about critical care solutions. It’s challenging and an opportunity to learn every day.
You’ve had a notable path that’s taken you from small agencies to big companies and back again. How have those opportunities shaped your career and your work?
Not surprisingly, opportunities that happened early on in my career had a multiplier effect on the many years that followed. Working with Michael early on and learning from him and the Vignellis, his mentors, shaped my view of what “great” could be. Massimo’s modernist and rational approach to design, his systems approach, appealed to my own sense of order. Michael was squarely in that world when I met him. Early on, we were retained to create a science and technology symposium for Exxon around the world. Creating narratives about science and R&D, creating systems of animated graphic depictions that made science understandable—that set the bar for what I would seek to do the rest of my career. Using design to simplify and communicate complex ideas has been the subtext of my career.
Then selling Donovan & Green in the mid 1990’s was a major scary and extremely important step in my personal development. I’ve always loved being a designer. Stepping out of the formal role as a professional, taking on different kinds of roles—from becoming the chief brand officer at a leading multinational company, then becoming the CEO of a small luxury company, starting several of my own businesses, then bringing all of that back to being a designer again (which I always was!) has changed my relationship to what I think designers can and should be doing.
What are you working on now that excites you?
I’m working intensely for a hospital medicine company that is undergoing an exciting and dramatic transformation into being the powerhouse globally in critical care medicine. I’m functioning in a senior position there, working closely with its brilliant CEO and talented senior leadership team to do an impossible amount of work and invent all sorts of new ways to do everything. It is intellectually and even physically challenging—and I love it. The company is purpose-driven—to save lives and deliver higher quality care more affordably—and, in order to fulfill its purpose, must find creative solutions to every aspect of its business. I enjoy being part of this kind of invention for a cause I can also can be passionate about.
What advice or information are you most excited to share during your presentation with Michael at the HOW Leadership Conference?
I look forward to sharing our own vision that design thinking, or thinking like a designer, is fundamental to accomplishing many kinds of outcomes, from starting a business, to helping partner/entrepreneurs, to advancing causes that will shape the future of humanity. We need to step up and seek opportunities to grow and have experiences that stretch us. These might be scary, and while there isn’t a straight line to having a fulfilling contributing life as a designer, we have the mind set and discipline to take what we learn and make it deeply personal and purposeful.