Managing Director, IDEO San Francisco
I lead a community of multidisciplinary designers in creating positive change through design. My work focuses on creating opportunities for everyone to learn across their lifetime in order to thrive today and in the future.
What you won’t learn from my bio:
I’m a Detroit native, which explains my obsession with complex systems design, urban planning, and cities as models of learning and change.
Heather Emerson is a Managing Director at global design and innovation firm IDEO, where she leads the Learning & Education practice. Heather guides a team of 30 multidisciplinary designers to create impact at scale through design. Heather and her team partner with purpose-led organizations across public and private sectors to design innovative learning opportunities that lead to social mobility for individuals and communities.
Heather believes learning is one of the most relevant skills of the digital era. Individuals, organizations, and societies’ ability to navigate this time of unprecedented change will be determined by their capacity to learn. She is an advocate for design as the most powerful lever to reimagine formal and informal opportunities for everyone—from children to adults—to learn across their lifetime.
Since joining IDEO in 2005, Heather and her team have tackled numerous challenges: creating a scalable and affordable school model for Peru’s middle class, developing an app to support first-generation college students, redesigning for-profit career colleges into models for student success, designing digital classroom tools that meet teachers’ needs and personalize student learning, and founding a professional community that activates teachers’ creativity to solve the biggest challenges in education.
Prior to IDEO, Heather worked as a brand and service designer. She holds a patent for a financial service experience she created with Chase that puts people in control of their money, won Business Week’s Idea Award for her work with Best Western designing a service tailored to today’s DIY traveler’s’ needs, and helped shape the iconic brand stories and experiences for Ford Motor Company’s 5 brands. This work taught Heather the importance of designing for both the front and back-end, a design philosophy that is especially relevant in Education. This means creating beautiful products and services that improve people’s experience, while simultaneously addressing the complex systems that enable new offerings to succeed.
Today, Heather is inspired by design’s potential to resolve the tension between the supply (schools and institutions) and demand (businesses and employers) sides of Education. By designing for this two-sided marketplace and the learners at the center of it, she believes we can evolve the current system to meet the needs of a new era. Heather and her team work closely with CoLab, IDEO’s platform for collaborative impact, to bring stakeholders across this marketplace together to create opportunities for everyone to learn and engage in meaningful work, during a time when the nature of work is fundamentally changing.
Heather holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from Art Center College and a sociology degree from the University of Michigan. She is a Detroit native and first-generation college graduate. This experience and her hometown’s evolution inspire Heather to help people, companies, and communities thrive through learning. She believes design is seeing the world’s challenges through a lens of opportunity, and using one’s agency to create change.