Ruby Steel – Designing for change

Ruby puts the people and their stories at the core. She is a Senior design strategist at Smart Design and her ethos is design with meaning”.

Let’s dive right in, shall we? Do you know from the very beginning that once when you’ll grow up” you’ll be a designer? Or it was completely different?

I’d say no I didn’t know I’d be a designer because I didn’t really know what design was until I was much older. I associated designers with fashion designers and interior designers and architects. So I didn’t see myself doing that but I loved Art and being creative and understanding people’s stories. I started out at art school where I did an art and design foundation at Kingston University. I specialized in graphic design and then moved on. When I graduated from the graphic design course that I wasn’t following the typical route of other original designers.

I’ve read on your page that one event at age 17 had changed your perspective a lot. Can you share why it was so moving for you?

That was when I was at school a woman called Emma came to talk to us. She told us of how, at University, she contracted the virus HIV from her boyfriend. He didn’t tell her that he had HIV. They dated for quite some months and then one day the condom broke and whereas she was worried about pregnancy, he revealed he had HIV.
It was very difficult for her after that, she was only 22. She found out that she had contacted it and told her mum, who said you must have had sex with everyone’ it was awful and she felt very isolated. She managed to go on and lead a good life and made it her mission to educate people about HIV. The boyfriend that originally gave it to her eventually died but she is still well today. I think for me the impact was how much you don’t know about people until you try to get to know them. I didn’t really know that this meant I should be a designer but it influenced me later on. I did a project in Art School where I made a film to tell Emma’s story I got girls to tell her story first hand as if it was their story. To show that it could be anyone the film had a big impact and that was inspiring. I still know Emma, she came to my final show at The Royal College of Art.
You can learn more about her movement here:

That brought you to design work you’re doing today?

Yes. I started doing more design work and doing more creative work. I realized that I wanted to make experiences for people like her and anyone that has a tougher day to day life than most people. I wanted to be able to create better experiences for them. So, this is why I started as a visual designer but then I moved into product service and digital design because that was where I was able to change peoples’ experiences of life for the better.
But a path to that vision wasn’t clear to me at all. All of my peers went off into advertising, fashion, photography all sorts of different things but I didn’t want to do any of that. I wanted to go into a product and digital and service design, so I had to find my own way.
I did loads of design volunteering. I worked in a psychiatric hospital. I volunteered because I was passionate about the healthcare sector and what experiences were like for in-patients in hospitals. I was always setting myself my own brief to come up with hypothetical new things for people.

How have helping at hospitals helped you?

Well, I think, by doing all of this, like setting my own brief and doing these slightly unusual activities, I built up a portfolio that was beginning to move away from my route as a visual designer. I was becoming more of a product designer. I was fascinated by design research and what it meant to go out and talk to people, to watch people and understand their lives and their stories and convert that into new design vision.

Can you tell us something more about your college years? How has it influenced you and your next career?

Those two years I spent at the Royal College of Art was a massive turning point for me because it meant that not only did I start to really choose my craft, but I also started to understand all the different kinds of technology that was available. I didn’t learn to be an engineer exactly. It is more that I learned how to work with engineers or how to work with different kinds of designers. The course is all about mixing people with different skillsets. Because it was a Masters and it was quite self-directed you do what projects you choose.
All my projects were essentially looking at a person or a group of people who were struggling for one reason or another. One of my biggest projects was on diabetes living with diabetes, and how services/products might be able to make living with diabetes easier. The second project was looking at the aging population and how to combat social isolation in older people.

After listening to these experiences with Emma, your college works, etc. is your appearance at The Big life fix not that much surprising.Thanks to that you’ve been also selected as an honoree at British Interactive Media Association list of Top 100 influential people. What do you think influenced you the most?

I think that early experience definitely influenced me…but it was not a direct link to Big Life Fix. I was chosen for Big Life Fix because all the work I’d ever done at The Royal College of Art and before was all aimed at improving lives through design innovation it showed me to be very people focused.
Emma made me think differently about people so it’s been an inspiration for everything I’ve done.
I was selected for the BIMA 100 directly because of my involvement in Big Life Fix and being put on a public stage. BIMA 100 is peer to peer so I was nominated by people I’ve worked with or met to be selected because they saw the show.
Ruby and the Big Life Fix team.

Right, so please can you share something more about the show?

The Big Life Fix is a BBC2 design documentary that sees a team of designers of which I am one called the Fixers” presented with challenges across the UK where individuals are struggling for one reason or another. The show is currently shooting a second series and its called Children in Need special.
The team is the same as it was last time, including myself. We were selected to be a good range of design disciplines so are made up of product designers, coders, engineers and material specialists.We all consult together on every fix but are all assigned 2 to 3 fixes each to lead.
In the Series 1, I was assigned to Graham and Shamreen. We had to conduct research, come up with ideas, test them, experiment and produce a final prototype but we had people supporting us as well.

I’ve seen Graham’s story and I have to say that I was really impressed. Creating impact and helping people in their real life struggles… I think we need more of that. Which one of the dilemmas you were solving with your team was the biggest challenge for you and why?

It was a really amazing experience to do that most of the time in design we have to do more corporate, less rewarding work. The biggest challenge with Graham was trying to understand what he really wanted. Because he couldn’t speak to tell us so we had to find ways of communicating with him as part of the design process so that he could tell us, we used this method:
You can see here there are three sections:

‘Must have’
‘Nice to have’
‘Lower priority’
We wrote statements to work out what he needed such as the solution must be really fats’ and then he could prioritize them by nodding his head slightly. 

If you have to choose one project you’re the most proud of which one would it be? Whether as a part of Smart design or elsewhere.

That would have to be Graham’s project it was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done I was amazed it worked out so well! The moment in which we heard his voice is something I will never forget. Now the pressure is on for more projects for the next series!


What’s your usual day look like as a designer at Smart Design?

I do a lot of travel because I do design research a lot. Usually, I’m at home of someone asking them about a topic or product. Or watching people in a shop to learn.
In the studio, I will be surrounded by post its. I will be having brainstorms with my teammates to come up with ideas. Or going through my fieldwork to see insight.

What’s the final thought you’d like to share with other designers and people out there?

Keep doing what you’re doing because the world is a better place with designers in it. Always talk to a real person that you are designing for face to face. Even if it’s just one person. And use tech for good. Tech is such a powerful driver for getting people more interested in making things better.  Our whole world is made up of experiences that have been designed or engineered by someone and having the opportunity to do something good for someone and make something better for someone means the reward is so high. It is very compelling and motivating.


Thank you
Rubys’ book recommendations
Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life
Would you like to contribute? Do you know about someone who does similar things? Please let me know at

To complete this interview I used great article by Womanthology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Up Next:

Curated Notes vol.1

Curated Notes vol.1