Chicago designer, leading conference speaker’s latest book addresses design’s relationship to healthy company culture

CHICAGO – Design is in Justin Dauer’s DNA. Calling on his more than 25 years in the industry, Dauer – who started designing in and is now a go-to speaker for national AIGA and UXPA conferences – highlights how design impacts company culture in his upcoming book, “In Fulfillment: The Designer’s Journey.”

“In Fulfillment: The Designer’s Journey”

Justin Dauer | June 27, 2023 | Leadhand Books | Design 

Justin Dauer is an internationally renowned design leader, author, and speaker from Chicago. You’ll find him often engaging with the AIGA’s speaking events, interviewed in Forbes magazine and Medium’s “Forge” publication, and penning articles for Aquent, CEO World Magazine, and A List Apart. He speaks internationally on culture and design, including keynotes at the UXPA International conference, Midwest UX, and St. Louis Design Week. Justin is also the writer of the celebrated book “Creative Culture,” founder of design leadership consultancy Anomali, and a former VP of Design at CVS Health. Find out more about him at

Follow Justin Dauer on social media:

Twitter: @pseudoroom | Instagram: @pseudoroom 

In an interview, Justin Dauer can discuss:

  • Design’s impact on company culture
  • How to leverage a platform called Make Meaningful Work to identify the practices where we thrive in our day-to-day environments, ensuring we’re always most connected to what we’re creating, and those we’re creating with
  • How to identify and follow your “North Star” and use it to guide the way to your best work
  • The importance of evolution in design and career paths and why “thought leader” branding can be problematic in the design industry
  • Leveraging humility as a core value to ensure we’re always students of our craft, making ourselves available to grow and evolve
  • How the concepts in his books informed the development of his new company, Anomali
  • His 25+ years of experience in the industry – from era designer to now – and how those experience influenced his perspectives shared in this book 

An Interview with

Justin Dauer

How do you define fulfillment when it comes to your own professional experience and career, and why is this important?

When we’re distinctly aware of where our fulfillment is derived from, we’ve taken a grand leap toward making meaningful work — work that connects to us as designers (nay, human beings), and to those who will ultimately engage with it. In a field of work largely comprised of impermanence (digital), the contrast is that our decisions can have lasting impact.

Fulfillment means connection: connection with ourselves, connection with our environment, our work, and one another. Our personal fulfillment is essential for us, but also far bigger than us.

What questions can designers ask themselves to discover what gives them fulfillment at work?

When our sense of connection is at its strongest, our personal values are also at their most fulfilled. That bond is no coincidence: recognizing how powerfully that value system drives our fulfillment throughout our career.

An introspective look at the scenarios in your life that have yielded the most fulfillment will provide a direct window into your most cherished values.

When looking for a best-fit role for us and our work, it’s essential to be crystal clear on our most important values. As such, being able to prioritize them is vital. This allows us to have a clear sense of the “must-haves” for the respective design work itself and the given role, the given organization, and the process by which they create. Sometimes, the work will satisfy some values more than others, making it even more imperative that you weigh what you need against what you could potentially function without (or with a diminished capacity). 

How have your own experiences in the design industry influenced your new book? 

100%. This book is largely personal narrative driven, leveraging 25 years worth of a career — and a fascination with design from high school through leading a design organization within a Fortune 5 business — to connect with readers humbly and candidly.

What are some red flags that indicate you aren’t being fulfilled at work?

Recognizing when we’re feeling disconnected from our work — e.g., going through the motions, sleepwalking — can be the first sign the bond between our personal and professional spheres of existence is waning. That imperative connection with our work and those who engage with it: potentially severed.

What role does humility play in the design field?

Agnostic of accolades, the tools we’re using, or devoid of rushed procedure, the humble connection with those on the receiving end of what we’re producing, and with those doing the producing, is imperative toward quality and evolution.

Humility drives our evolution, as we’re making ourselves available to evolve. It contextualizes how we deliver objective feedback as well as how we receive it.

What are the signs of an effective leader?

There can be a difference between a manager and a leader; they’re not always synonyms. “Manager” is a job title, a parking spot or a business card payoff. Show me an unsupported team, and I’ll show you a manager who defines themself by their LinkedIn heading over their service.

Anyone can be a leader, regardless of position on an org chart, experience, title, or tenure. Demonstrative respect, initiative, care, compassion, and support are some of the hallmarks of someone who excels in that capacity. When an organization is headed by business card titles — or a team managed by a LinkedIn heading — there are foundational cracks in the culture from the top down created by that leadership void.

An effective leader has a “from me to we” mindset, and recognizes the support and evolution of their team — in concert with the quality of their work — is their paramount responsibility.

What does people-first workplace culture look like, and why does this matter?

The same values in the DNA of a healthy culture — compassion, humility, inclusion, and respect among them — must also be intrinsic in the organization’s design process. For us to be most fulfilled in what we create, the culture around us must drive the same connection in how we create. Else, the disconnection between incongruous values in action makes for disconnection in totality: us to ourselves, us to our work, our teams, and on and on.

A culture of fulfillment is a planned, living, and nourished ecosystem of support and engagement that facilitates success. It doesn’t exist by chance and isn’t simply sustained by the light of its own virtue. A healthy culture is designed to be that way. It strives to connect us to one another — and to our collaborative work — agnostic of a remote or in-person seat. And its values are harmonious with our own, fueling an ethical symbiosis devoid of internal conflict.

The concept of care and feeding given to a piece of work we produce, from sketch to release to iteration and beyond, is imperative for sustaining a healthy culture. To find a culture of fulfillment is to find a healthy environment that’s championed and supported from the top down — either in an executive-level role specifically dedicated to this purpose or through empowered managers who embody and champion the business’ values.

In your book, you discuss identifying your North Star – what is this? How did you find your North Star? What would you recommend to others looking for their guiding light?

In this case, it all comes down to our values. Values are anything you deem important to you, as they apply to the way you live and your design. They’re your North Star in determining your sense of fulfillment, informing your life’s priorities, and ultimately driving your contentment.

The beautiful thing is that your prioritized values can then be leveraged in so many ways: 

  • Informing which questions you ask during your next job interview
  • Serving as an objective gut check when you feel the connection to your work waning.
  • Determining if the business you’re employed by is operating in unison with what’s most important to you. 

What sparked your interest in design?

My interest in design began as a sophomore in high school, when I saw something that changed my life: the album cover designs the “Graphic Design 1” class had made, now on display in the back of my study hall. My mom was a trained fine artist whose paintings and illustrations had marveled me since childhood, but these album covers had something else going on that drew me in.

I approached the study hall faculty member and asked about the pieces; she said it was her class’ work. I had only taken fine art classes to that point, but those covers resonated with me: it was art but visually communicating.

Inspired by what I had seen and now heard, I asked if I could take her class. She made the point that this wasn’t fine art, but set my expectations on what they did do in design:

“We’re visually problem-solving.”

Rather than dissuade me, that response made me hungrier to learn. 

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

The designer’s legacy isn’t built upon their choice of tools. The designer’s legacy is built upon the choices they make—as macro and micro as that implies. Legacy transcends “us.” This is a mindset that takes us from “me” to “we” as we consider the bigger picture. There is a privilege and responsibility that are inherent in the craft. In communicating. In connecting with people through design.

Privilege and responsibility. Those notions are so vital (and evergreen) to our craft, and how we connect with other human beings. Formative, yet intrinsic to what we do. Every decision carries weight, and is bigger than us. We simply cannot foresee under what conditions people will be engaging with what we create. They need to be equitably understood, advocated for, and included along the way. 

How do you best indulge in and develop your own creativity?

I’m a huge advocate of “pausing with intent” — slowing down for purpose and meaning — in both cultural interactions at work as well as for myself personally. There’s a difference between a distraction and an outlet—the latter being something you’re engaging with purpose.

Making a cup of coffee slows me down — enjoying it slows me down even more. A good cup coupled with a personal design project, or writing, or working with my hands…that’s my sweet spot.

You’ve been in the industry for more than 25 years beginning in the dot-com era. How has the design industry and its impact on company culture evolved? 

I believe designers are settling for far less, now — we know our worth, we know the environments where we can do our best work, and we’re settling less and less for cultures that treat us as names in a spreadsheet-exclusively.  

Explain the importance of evolution in design and career paths — and why you resist the “thought leader” brand.

We’re in a field where we simply cannot stagnate — in mindset, in practice, in process. I believe that, even if we’re only considering our own personal craft, we have to continually challenge our approach — for quality and for connection.

As soon as we close our minds via an inner monologue of “knowing it all”, or branding ourselves a “#thoughtleader” on social media, the designer we are is our final form. The designer we can be, will never exist.

Experience does not equal “expert.” If we’re always students of our craft, we are also always making ourselves available to evolve.

What missteps did you make in your own career, and how did they impact your path? What would you recommend to others navigating their own missteps?

I’ve lingered far too long in environments that were entirely unhealthy — psychologically abusive, devoid of work / life-balance, and “leadership” in business card title-only. It came at the expense of my quality of work and life because I felt I “owed” them. In part, I wrote my first book, “Creative Culture,” around lessons learned from such environments — sometimes it takes seeing how it’s not done to begin to discover environments where you know you’ll thrive. 

I also let my ego take over early on in my career via some quick notoriety and large exposure from my design work. My evolution, work, and quality all suffered and stagnated. Realigning myself to my values and sense of ever being a student of my craft allowed me to grow, and course correct, for the rest of my career.

How did the material in the book inform how you built your own company, Anomali?

Recently, while working as a Principal Consultant within a consulting firm, I received a call from a former boss, a person I massively respect, trust, and consider a friend. He made me a tantalizing offer: to become the VP of Design within the company he was now a part of, building the design practice and team from the ground up. The associated offer package was impressive, to boot.

Upon reflection and looking at the bigger picture of where I’m at in my career — and in what felt like an affront to the design gods — I turned the offer down. I wasn’t fully connected to the prospect of “doing it all over again,” so to speak, within a large tech organization and potentially navigating similar political hurdles. I left that world the last time due to my disconnection from the environment—and tech in general.

In fact, the last time I felt fully connected to a company’s values and culture was when I was the Design Director at a Swedish design agency. They employed rituals and practices unlike I’d ever seen in the U.S. market. This was my chance to feel that connection once again, and design the environment in which I’d thrive best. To that end — with a mix of fear, exhilaration, and determination — I started my own design consultancy and advisory practice. Across design leadership, healthy culture advocacy, and working with internal design teams on craft, I’d infuse the Swedish cultural sensibilities of egalitarianism, slowing down + pausing with intent, and human connection into the consultancy’s DNA. 

Anomali as a business was designed adopting my values, offering services to clients where I know I do my best work, existing in an environment I’ve cultivated to allow me to thrive and evolve. For the first time in my career, I’d hit that sweet spot trifecta:

  • Values-alignment
  • Work / work process-alignment
  • Environment-alignment

These three pillars equate to what informs my personal fulfillment. Leveraging implicit practices where I know I prosper — ”proactivity,” “big picture thinking,” and “a need to build connection,” among them — I’m operating in harmony with my personal, authentic narrative.

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