How I Became… Vice President of Product Design at Allbirds

Allbirds Vice President of Product Design Ashley Comeaux studied industrial product design in Detroit at the College for Creative Studies before landing internships at Reebok, Converse and 4sight Inc. Her first full-time position was at Nike as a shoe designer, where she rose through the ranks to director of shoe design during her 10 years with the company.

“Tenacity goes a long way. Do what you want, believe in yourself and defend yourself [has] helped me along my journey,” she said in a LinkedIn Live broadcast last week. “Being my own cheerleader and sharing what I have to offer and how I can add value to every opportunity I have.”

In 2021, Comeaux joined Allbirds, the certified B Corp footwear and apparel brand, as senior director of footwear design and lifestyle. Today, she is vice president of product design for the company.

Now, BoF Careers shares insights and actionable tips from last week’s event, Building a career in fashion with Ashley Comeaux.

What inspired you to pursue a career in fashion, specifically product design?

THAT : My affinity for art and creativity was ultimately the catalyst for entering the fashion space and connecting that passion with my innate ability to solve problems – and my desire to make things better led me into the product design.

Shoes came into my life very early in my high school career, and [I wanted] using shoes as a vehicle for problem solving, while also wrapping them up expressively and aesthetically.

Do you think formal training is necessary to work in product design?

THAT : I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. A lot has changed over the last decade, with platforms like YouTube or TikTok, [as well as] learning platforms like Skillshare, lowering the barrier to entry for education in a highly technical space like product design.

So while there is great value in formal training, versus honing your craft in a competitive environment with other hungry people, I think times have moved on. [and] you don’t necessarily have to go that route. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of education, but I think there’s a more diverse way to get educated in a field like product design today.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?

THAT : The job itself is a big talk, so make sure you’re really honing your skills. Then, once the door is crossed, it is [about] be able to articulate what makes your work unique.

Tenacity [also] go far. Do what you want, believe in yourself and defend yourself [has] helped me throughout my journey. Be my own cheerleader and share what I have to offer and how I can bring value to every opportunity I have.

[…] If you come from a different industry, understand what skill sets you have that are transferable. There are different things you can learn in a different industry that can translate into design – maybe you have graphic design skills that allow you to create beautiful compositions, [or how] you present some ideas. […] It’s about taking what you know and presenting your point of view in a different way.

What role or relevance do internships have today for future designers?

THAT : Internships are great for finding out if you want to stay in that industry or that path. This is great for understanding how a business works or how a particular discipline works within a process in a given business, [and] it’s a wonderful way to meet people and learn from different experiences. So there are a lot of pros [in] internships.

The job itself is a big talk, so make sure you’re really honing your skills.

However, the landscape is different today – I’ve seen individuals land jobs outside of social media, so I think it’s more about finding all the ways to hone your skills and gain experience, whether formal or informal.

What skills have you developed during your tenure at Nike that have helped advance your career?

THAT : I like to break it down into people, products and processes.

Compared to people, the fashion industry is quite small and [so it’s important] to manage your reputation and precede it in a positive way. Your peers today may be your bosses tomorrow, so take care of your work, how you connect with others, and make sure you create a good group of advocates for you on your journey.

When it comes to the product, it’s important to have a unique vision and perspective to really exert influence. Conception is an 18-24 month process and along the way many factors come into play that can dilute your vision. Your ability to influence, to bring people [on board with] this vision and to see it until reality intact is a beautiful art and a beautiful science.

Finally, regarding the process, as a designer you are a very important part of the process – but you are also only part of [it]. It’s important to consider other features that help bring your vision to life.

How are you and your team members improving your skills?

THAT : By remaining a student. I’m VP now and I still design alongside my team. This allows me to stay close to the product design and creation processes. I learn as much from my team as I hope they learn from me. It’s about taking notes and absorbing different people’s processes to get an answer, seek new inspiration, and stay curious.

How would you suggest aspiring designers incorporate sustainability into their process?

THAT : Getting out of your primary design goal is key to understanding the whole process involved in getting your creation to market. It’s easy to stay in your lane, but understanding the downstream effects of the decisions you make can impact how you approach design.

Diligence around the choice of materials and their assembly, diligence [over methods of] getting your designs delivered – ocean shipping versus air freight – getting to the heart of the matter can help make you a stronger, environmental designer.

What are the soft skills required in the work of a product designer?

THAT : to be able to glean [consumer and market] knowledge. Asking the right questions is key to uncovering this information. On my team, we come together around market research and understanding what’s going on – not just around us, but in the world, to understand why a product needs to exist in the first place.

Have the ability to translate a brief into a design. A brief brings together the request of a designer who understands what technology is [available]what problem you are solving, what is the market landscape, what is the inspiration you want to drive through the product, and the basic understanding of materials – how materials take on color, the function of those materials, and how they support the design you have in mind.

Your peers today may be your bosses tomorrow, so take care of your work, how you connect with others.

Amid this, navigating relationships with functions such as product development and marketing, ensuring everyone is working together to [deliver the best product]. As a young designer coming out of school, you tend to have a strong connection to your work, taking it personally if criticized.

Once you enter a business [role], the work you do is to serve a customer who may not be you. This is a very important skill to learn, develop and know early in your career. Take [your] battles.

What makes a candidate stand out today?

THAT : A candidate who can articulate their design process and who brings a unique point of view to the table, who has interesting points of reference and the ability to express their creative design solutions while integrating them with the company’s design ethic. ‘A brand. It’s one thing to have a signature as a designer, but the ability to take that signature and marry it with a design philosophy is a unique skill set.

And then a candidate who has a team spirit, who is hungry and thirsty to learn, who is coachable and curious. I appreciate a highly collaborative candidate who understands the value of bouncing ideas from their team, thereby truly strengthening their team.

If you’re reaching out to someone, make it clear what you want from the interaction. If you are looking for time, ask [no more than] 15 minutes – anyone can donate 15 minutes – and have pointed questions about what you are looking to learn in that time.

[Taking the initiative] requires courage and self-confidence. The design world can be very competitive and therefore [your] unique point of view and [how] you present it is important. [Consider] what story you have to tell and how you can bring value to a particular company.

Discover available pattern roles on BoF Careers:

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Senior Director of Accessory Design, Calvin Klein — New York, United States

Assistant Product Development Manager, Chico’s —Fort Myers, USA

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