A close-up of a dark-haired young woman in a black blazer smiling. She is the director of design at Fidelity Investments.
Brenda Delaney. Image: Fidelity Investments

Why art and design are essential to the STEM industry

11 Mar 2019

Art and design are integral to the STEM industry and it’s important not to exclude them from the conversation.

When we talk about STEM, we are of course referring to science, technology, engineering and maths. But it’s important not to forget to occasionally extend it to STEAM and remember the importance of art.

While each element of STEM is largely logical, art and design are what help the industry evolve beyond what is simply possible and add some much-needed creativity to user experience (UX) and STEM innovations.

Brenda Delaney is the director of design at Fidelity Investments Ireland. She currently leads a team of UX designers, UX developers, UX researchers and content strategists in the company’s Dublin and North Carolina offices.

Delaney said the team supports Fidelity’s workplace investment business, creating digital experiences for client employers and employees, as well as for internal Fidelity employees.

Her journey to a STEAM career started in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). “When I graduated from NCAD, I started a course in internet systems development at DIT. It was quite a change from NCAD, with students from a diverse range of undergraduate courses,” she said.

“Together, we learned how to create web applications from start to finish, and I discovered that I could couple my interest in design with technology to solve problems. I’ve never looked back.”

Putting the A back in STEAM

Delaney believes that art and design are essential to help STEM move beyond what’s logical and technically feasible, into experiences that are useful, engaging and meaningful. “Good design is about understanding the real problem by identifying our users’ needs and wants,” she said. “When design and technology work together effectively, we can create compelling user experiences that fulfil a real user and commercial need.”

Delaney also makes the point that in recent years, design has become a clear differentiator in the STEM market. “Many successful companies are now recognised as design-led and it’s acknowledged that traditional companies need to be more customer-obsessed to survive.”

Additionally, the rapid changes within the tech industry mean that customer expectations increase and change all the time. But still, the role of design remains the same amid all this change. “It’s about working with others to determine what we can create to add value,” said Delaney.

And yet, Delaney fears that art and design have been excluded from the STEM industry, which shouldn’t be the case. “STEAM should be incorporated in primary and secondary education to connect art and design with technology and business in schools. If we can merge art and design into STEM earlier, our graduates will be more creative, innovative and user-focused,” she said.

“While things are changing, there are many tech companies that primarily associate design with ‘look and feel’. If we pivot the perception that design is only about a palette of colours, then we can leverage artists and designers for the real value they bring to the process, which is shaping great user experiences.”

Want to work in UX design?

As the director of design at Fidelity, Delaney is part of a global team of more than 200 designers who “share a goal to create the best customer experience in the financial industry”.

She said her favourite part of her job is the discovery process. “I enjoy absorbing a request from a partner and then peeling it back to uncover the ‘real’ problem we are trying to solve. I love brainstorming with others, thinking about problems from different angles and coming up with a myriad of solutions. In my job, there is a lot of scope to offer creative solutions,” she said.

When asked what someone needs to know to enter the world of UX design, Delaney said an accessible, digital portfolio is essential. Your portfolio should showcase a range of skills as well as your thought process. She also advised that you ensure it’s not blocked by a firewall.

“You need the ability to communicate a story. When presenting your designs to your partners or clients, you need to be able to explain your decision-making and back up your recommendations with evidence.”

She said a genuine interest in the business and customers you are supporting is critical. You will also need to be open-minded, a team player, and able to give and receive feedback gracefully.

“Take advantage of low-cost opportunities to build up your network, like meet-ups,” she added. “Be patient. Experience counts and you need to work it up. You may not get your dream job straight off, but you will get there. It’s best to get a range of experience from different industries to broaden your experience before specialising.”

Delaney said she wishes she knew early on in her career that it’s not always worth looking for perfection before getting feedback from actual users. “We have a tendency in design to sweat over details but there is no one right answer. It’s often subjective and the way to de-risk it is to put it out there for feedback,” she said.

“Better influencing skills would have been helpful, too! You need to be able to manage the whirl of opinions. That is something that will stand to you.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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