Designers from the Sandbox: War and Wireframes with Hector F. Hernandez, Shane Strassberg, and James Vanié

For some, the creative sandbox means getting your own room as a teenager with a custom-built computer. For others, the sandbox signifies a military tour in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Kuwait. Dreams of financial independence, of making it big as a musician, of sating the rush of an adrenaline junkie leading to memorabilia from years of service: skin marked with testaments of loyalty — Semper Fidelis, always faithful — and bags empty of objects and mementos but filled with memories.

Veterans-turned-UX designers Hector F. Hernandez, Shane Strassberg, and James Z. B. Vanié, speak about their time in service and how they’ve translated what they experienced into insights about humanity and behavioral change.

LEFT: Hector F. Hernandez is a 7-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, where he was a hospital corpsman. Here he is with a Navy truck. MIDDLE: Shane Strassberg served in the Marine Corps from 2003 to 2007 and did two tours in Iraq. Here he is with an amphibious combat vehicle. RIGHT: James Z. Vanié served 4 years in the Army’s Signal Corps, where he maintained satellites. Here he is getting ready to jump from a plane as part of his activities in the 82nd Airborne Division.

How have you learnt to unlearn habits from the military?

Saying ‘Yes and’ instead of ‘Yes Sir’

For James, strategist and UX designer, his interest in organizations originated from the military’s strict enforcement of morale. Coming out of service, he studied business in order to better understand how to create and frame socially impactful experiences.

James‘ SVA MFA thesis project Kumii is a system and product that helps employees consolidate and resolve interpersonal conflicts and increase empathy in the workplace.

He attributes much of this process to what he learned through improv comedy and storytelling classes at the Magnet Theater, and connects them to his work in the field of design ethics. “Thinking about ethics can’t be forced. Those values need to be brought out through facilitation and the fostering of connectivity within a diverse set of people. To be a good designer, you need to be a good conversationalist. You have to foster co-creation.”

Building up humanity

“You had to unlearn what you take for granted as being human. You had to let go of that in order to survive in that kind of environment.” — Shane Strassberg
Shane’s SVA MFA Thesis, Decibel, asks: How can we encourage action from men towards gender equality?

Shane received two masters — one in anthropology and the other in interaction design. His fascination with the augmentation of the human body and impact on society through machines and technology led him to pursue, similarly to Hector and James, General Assembly’s User Experience Design class. “Getting these degrees is me trying to build up my humanity again and trying to connect with people on a very deep and intimate level.” He describes the process in more depth on his blog.

Collaboration and communication

Hector is a UX designer interested in sustainability and human behavior. One of the challenges he faced entering the design field was adapting to a prerequisite skill of the industry: open and frequent communication.

Hector received a degree in Sustainability Management from Columbia University, and routinely volunteers at the Queen’s Botanical Garden.

“I was used to such one-way communication. One of the insecurities I face in the field is that designers who went to school for it — they’re very eloquent. Designers are all about collaboration and it’s great, but I’m not used to that. In the military, there’s rank and hierarchies, and communication is funneled downwards. You just have to do as you’re told.” He also describes how veterans often opt for more technical fields when they get out.

“There’s no exposure to the design field as a veteran. It’s a misunderstood profession.” —Hector F. Hernandez

There are certain advantages to serving in the military: large amounts of financial support through the GI Bill for furthering education, home-ownership, and hopefully a continued inverse relationship to the debt that plagues many civilians. I ask my guests at what costs those advantages come by.

“I’m not a veteran,”

James whispers conspiratorially when he talks about how sometimes he rejects self-stereotyping — a process of disassociating himself with his past and with what others think veterans represent.

“We were deployed in Iraq but no one really knew much about the politics of why were were there. It took me until undergrad to even ask myself those questions around the politics of why the U.S. had invaded Iraq.
As designers, we think about everything we were told not to think about.” — James Vanié

In his work, he aims to bring people together with their necessarily different perspectives, and engage in dialogue while still preserving values around psychological safety. He underlines this passion with anecdotes from service — you learn to form companionships with just about anyone because your team’s survival depends on it.

What sort of advice would you give to kids considering the military today?

“I don’t sugarcoat it at all. A couple of years ago, I had a cousin who was considering joining the military. He asked me about my experiences, and basically I said to him: are you prepared to take another life? Because that’s what you have to do.” — Shane Strassberg

Shane comments on the lack of media focus — whether due to shorter attention spans or news fatigue — on the fact that there are still U.S. troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, and that we collectively are in a constant state of forgetting how far the tentacles of the War on Terror have reached.

How can we get more people into the design field, and less into battle field?

“There are opportunities into the design world for non-affluent,” Shane says, mentioning Not Impossible by Mick Ebeling — an entrepreneur and philanthropist who became wildly successful after founding one of the first studios to ever use After Effects, who in 2013 set up a 3D printing prosthetic lab in Sudan — where he details how entrepreneurs can make a significant amount of money and spend that money back to invest in their neighborhood. “I think that’s something all three of us could could look forward to doing in the future. We can start something like that or find something that already exists to open up, or lessening barriers for people.”

For James, networking and identifying role models was the most effective thing he did to figure out how to enter the industry. Veterans make up a very small percentage of the design field but he has been able to connect with them through events, and just sending out email invitations to meet up for coffee. He mentions Ayni Brigade as one such organization, whose team “combines advertising pros with military veterans.”

The conversation inevitably takes a darker turn. Before we fall down a rabbit hole of morbid topics — drones and the automation of the battlefront*—Shane brings us back out with a rallying call:

“I think that the design field has an opportunity to make immense change but it requires systemic change in and of itself. We have to question everything about the systems that are already in place, and how are they designed.”— Shane Strassberg

In User Experience Design, the catchphrase “fight for the user” means to advocate for your customers’ or stakeholders’ desires over the profit-driven motivations of your employer and the company. These veterans no longer fight on the battlefield, but we can all learn from their disciplined dedication to the cause of creating a better world with design.


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*On drones and the automation of the battlefront, Shane says that “we haven’t given them the permission yet to make the choice to take the life of another human without the consent of an actual human being. But it could happen. It exists. That technology exists. You have a lot more educated people working in roles with artificial intelligence and drones. These aren’t like people who didn’t go to high school. So you have like more intelligent people that are thinking about systematically oppressing a country or systematically killing people. Maybe humanity as a whole is more likely to be desensitized to killing people if they’re disconnected from that experience. It’s terrifying.”