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Lara Summers: Manager, Service Experience at the University of Newcastle

Lara Summers joins us to discuss her multifaceted career journey, from finance and government to education, and her current role as manager of the Service Experience team at the University of Newcastle. We explore the university environment, Lara’s collaborative team culture, and how she balances work, family, and personal interests. Lara opens up about how taking time off to care for her children impacted her path, as well as her motivations for continuing education and development. Tune in as Lara shares what inspires her, from design leaders like Bruce Mau to her curiosity about history and culture. Discover how she leverages her background in design and visual culture to focus on user experience and service design across the university’s digital systems.


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Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated and may contain some errors. 

Thanks for joining us for another episode of digitally diverse where we do a deep dive into the careers and journeys of Australia’s design leaders. Today we are joined by Lara Summers from the University of Newcastle. Thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you. Thank you for having me. So I guess I’d like to start with just a bit of an overview on who you are, your journey today.

So what are you up to at the moment? So I work at the university like you mentioned, and I’ve been there for just over a year. And then prior to that I’ve bounced around quite a bit and done a lot of different things in a lot of different industries. I’ve worked in finance, I’ve worked for an agency that specialized with big pharma.

I’ve worked for government departments, not for profit. I’ve worked at another university, museum. A bit of everything.

Yeah, a bit of everything. Love that. And what kind of brought you to the university? I really like working at universities.

Like I said, I’d worked at one before and I really like it because they’re interesting, there’s stuff going on. It’s like its own little microcosm, little world, and you don’t have to scratch down too far to actually find interesting stuff and more. So the previous role I was in was more of like a mark Hom’s role and so we were always looking for those interesting stories.

But I think in the role that I’m in now, we’re solving interesting the. I guess with I find anyway, when I’m speaking with people who work at any kind of university, their job titles are sometimes a little bit out of left field and doesn’t necessarily, aren’t necessarily the same as what someone out of academia might be up to. Can you explain what you do, what your technical title is, but what you get up to day to day? Sure.

So I am the manager. My title is my manager, service experience. And so I manage the service experience team, which is based in digital technology solutions, which until recently was IT services.

So it’s, I guess, originally the IT department, but we’re trying to shift that perception that we just fix broken laptops or when people can’t get access to their email. We actually also do quite a lot of strategic work in terms of how all of the digital systems and platforms that the university uses, from hr to finance to library, we’re involved across that whole spectrum. And I guess, yeah, service experience is an interesting one.

You’re right, it doesn’t necessarily align with industry. And I guess it’s a combination of user experience, service design, and I guess that concept of service delivery that we would do within DTS, which is providing it services and technology consultation services to the university more broadly. So yeah, it is a bit of a catch all.

It’s an interesting one, and it is interesting the shift in perception that we’re trying to achieve as well. To be straight it. Yeah, definitely.

I think it’s a good place for the university to start because there seems like there’s so many different avenues that you can go down technically within any university. So it’s a good starting point, definitely. And are you enjoying it? So do really.

I like working at the university, like I said before, because it’s interesting. I do also really like working at DTS because it’s the most technically led place that I’ve ever worked at and that’s really different and that’s learning a new skill set, which I’m also finding really interesting. And we’re also just trying to lead the maturity from a user perspective and a UX perspective, so also being able to take those more technically minded people on that journey to be considering a user perspective as well, which is interesting.

Yeah. So I do like it. That’s great.

So Lara, what can you tell us about the culture and the team that you work with at the moment? Yeah, so in my direct team, being the service experience team, I manage a team of designers. We have experienced designers, which would be sort of a cross user experience, but also from a research point of view as well, content designers, and also we have in the past had a UI designer, but we don’t have one at the moment. So I really like working with smart, clever, switched on people, which they all are, and they’re all at a particular point in their career, which is really interesting.

And we’re highly collaborative and I think that we’re all on the same page on that, and that’s really good when you can just get people together in a room to nut out problems. That would be a really key thing for our team, my direct team, and also being really curious as well, is a really big thing for us and just always trying to delve that little bit deeper and get that deeper understanding and develop that. So I say for it, that’s our culture in terms of more broadly within dts and the university, the culture, there’s obviously perks for working at a university and they’re a more understanding workplace than some, although I do think that that’s been shifted post Covid.

There’s a lot of places that are catching up and I think that there’s just that idea that we’re here for more than just bums on seats or revenue. There’s actual things that the university stands for, and learning and education is a big part of that. So that’s a big cultural thing that I like about working at uni.

Yeah, that feel good factor is probably a good one. Good thing about working at the uni. And I guess you’ve had a bit of a blend of experience between government and education roles and also, like, industry.

What was the biggest difference between those roles, do you think? I actually don’t think there is that much difference. I think that there’s way too much emphasis placed on that. And I think that especially so I’ve only worked in an agency once, and I remember it was really quite hard to crack into that.

And I remember them going, oh, if you don’t have agency experience, you’ll never get to work at an agency. And then when I got there, I was just like, I think you guys really underestimate your clients. You work so hard at agency and the hours are so long, and this.

And I was like, it’s not that different, to be quite honest. Just bringing the facts. It’s really not.

And, yeah, I don’t think it’s that different. What I do like, though, about being client side is that you just have that deeper insight and deeper understanding and deeper idea of strategically how what you’re doing fits into a bigger strategic picture. Whereas I find when you are working with an agency that it is just more.

We’ll throw something on the wall and see if it sticks. You can try as hard as you can to get that right brief from the client, but you still don’t have that intricate understanding of how this will fit into a bigger picture or the precedents that have already been set at an organization, and something might have already been tried before or not, or the CEO just might really hate that. And you don’t know.

Yeah, you don’t have that context, so to speak. But I guess that sometimes is a blessing and a curse, right? Yeah, exactly. I think for some designers, they absolutely love that, getting into the nitty gritty of things, where for some others, perhaps it would be like, there’s too much information.

I don’t know what to do with all of this, so I just don’t function very well in that. So, yeah, it’s, you know, you got to find your preference and where you fit and. Yeah, sounds like you like to get stuck in.

Yeah, I remember it was quite a long time ago. And I was even interview for a job, I think, and I was at an agency and I was like, oh, actually, I really like brand guidelines. I really like being able to duck and weave and work out how far you can push them and what you can do with them.

Not all designers like them. No, they don’t like restrictions, necessarily. No, I totally agree.

Sometimes the best rule breakers are the people who know the rules very, very well and know where to push them. So, yeah, that makes sense. Well, I guess now that you work in a university, I’m curious, did you go to university yourself? I did, yeah.

Tell me about what your degrees or your qualifications are. So I did a bachelor of design at UNSW in Sydney, and that’s a very generalist design degree, which is why I chose it, because I didn’t know what I wanted my specialization to be. I also have a master’s in visual culture, which is essentially a very inclusive art history degree that takes in like film and architecture and advertising and that kind of stuff in terms of analyzing visual imagery.

Yeah. So with you having such a generalist tertiary background anyway, how did that. And now you’re in, I’d say, like a very tech heavy role, how did you get from that into where you’re at at the moment? So I think something, especially from my undergraduate degree that I really learned was initially I really struggled at uni because I had just come from high school where it was all rote learning.

You spit out the right thing, you get good marks. That’s kind of it. And uni really taught me how to think critically and how to analyze.

And I think in a lot of ways it was just a happy accident that I ended up doing design because it’s something that really worked well for me. But I think ultimately that I’m a problem solver and that’s where I like to be solving problems. It’s one of the things that I really like about my skill set is that it is transferable to different industries, but it’s also transferable to different settings, whether it would be in tech or in another area.

So, yeah, I just go where the problems take me. Yeah, no, that’s think, you know, especially myself included, did quite a generalist design degree as well at the University of Newcastle. And I think when you have that really solid foundation of not only the practical stuff, but more of theory as well, it is very applicable to different avenues.

But was there like a catalyst for you to go down the more tech route or anything that you can remember? Well, I was working more in like I said, like, more Markom’s graphic design space. And I guess it was just really getting, and this was probably about 15 years ago now, but it was getting to a point. It’s like, long term, there’s really no future in print, and it’s not really worth me continuing to keep those skills up to date.

And so that’s when I made the conscious decision to be like, no, I’m going to focus on digital. And I’d already started. I was content managing a website when I was at UNSW, when I was working there, and doing other kind of email marketing and that kind of stuff.

So I did the user experience design training from general assembly. Yeah, I think when I left that role, the job that I wanted didn’t exist yet, which was content designer. And so I went down sort of the more catch all route and became a digital producer, which can kind of COVID a host of things, which.

Myriad of things, which is now splintered into the more specialist design roles that you see today, that interaction designer, service designer, content designer, UX designer. It’s now those roles do exist that didn’t before. So, yeah, it was definitely a conscious decision to move into digital just because I didn’t see a long term future in print.

Yeah, I think that, for me, anyway, one of the main reasons why I loved the design aspect of things so much and why I wanted to pursue it was there was such a breadth of choice. Like, you could go into so many different things. And I think I look back when I was a kid and I’m like, I’d love to be editorial and be part of the magazine industry or publishing.

And now I look at how much that world has changed and everything is just online now. That’s where all the work is. That’s where all of the innovation is happening.

Yeah, definitely. Like I say, and that’s where the interesting problems are. Exactly.

And the really powerful solutions. Yeah. So I guess with you having done a university degree, two university degrees, I apologize.

And also a general assembly boot camp, what kind of advice would you give to students who are thinking about going down a similar route to you? I probably shouldn’t say this, but you don’t have to go to uni. And I think that I know lots of really good designers who didn’t go to uni. And I’m thinking most recently of the boss that I had in my last job, he actually would actively seek out people who hadn’t been to uni because he hadn’t.

So I think it is really dependent on where you want to end up. I think you learn a lot more on the job a lot quicker than you would at uni. And I think, like I said earlier, what uni gave to me was being able to critically think and analyze things, but the actual skills that I’ve developed on the job are a lot more powerful than I have since then.

And I also think it’s about keeping your skills up to date as well, and it will constantly change. And I recently completed the design leadership course through echos, and it was amazing and I loved it. Yeah, I think just always just keeping things up to date and constantly learning and learning.

Like when I was saying, like my team, we’re highly collaborative, learning from each other, learning from your colleagues. Everyone does things a little bit differently, and it’s always interesting to see how they kind of approach things. And also from a user experience point of view, you learn stuff from users as well, 100%.

So just being open to that. And I think, like any career, it’s about getting that first foot in the door on your first job and then really is kind of what you make it. Yeah, I think that there’s a lot to be said about work experience and just utilizing your network, and there’s so many different ways of doing that now with LinkedIn and boot camps and online communities that you can get involved with.

So, yeah, it’s interesting that you’ve tried a bit of everything and there’s value in everything. There’s no right or wrong answer. Also, I’d love to know, is there anything that you do day to day, like, for your productivity and your motivation to kind of keep you sane? I probably should.

I think given what I was saying earlier, in terms of the team that I manage is quite new and we’re trying to embed our ways of working that I’m really trying to support our team to be able to achieve these things, and that’s my focus and that will always come first, to be able to support them to do really good work and that I find really rewarding to see them pull together amazing projects and take things places that I didn’t even necessarily think would go there in terms of what I should be doing on a day to day basis. I feel like I’m trying to get better at identifying when I’ve reached my peak load and I need to just take some time out and recalibrate and start again instead of just pushing through. Yeah, don’t we all? There should be like a little bit of a warning bell that just goes off behind your ear and it’s like start to wind back.

I feel like I do have a warning bell now. Taken a while for me to hear it, but, yeah. And what are some of the things that you try to implement when that starts to go off? Just step away.

And I think, I’m not saying I don’t do it, but instead of just being like, oh, I’m really bad at turning my computer off at the end of the day because I’m like, oh, I might jump back on and do stuff and just being honest with myself and going, you’re not going to. Just don’t. It can wait till tomorrow.

Yeah, it can wait till tomorrow. And normally, actually, it’s probably a better outcome if you wait till tomorrow. Well, with that being said, how did you navigate the last few years where the lines between work and not working are so that I think, like most people, we just made it up as we went along.

And if it wasn’t working, change tact. My job before I started at the university was the department of customer service, and it was a Sydney based job. And I loved it.

I really loved it and I really loved the work and I really loved the team that I was in, but I really struggled working remotely 100% of the time. I was always supposed to be going down about once a month, but it just didn’t happen because of all of the lockdowns. And so when this job came up at the university, I was just like, yeah, I’d love to get back into the office and see people and speak to people.

And I found it so much easier starting this way and being able to orientate myself and understand how the teams and everything fit together. Yeah. So I think that’s something that there was always this, I can definitely remember, and I have been thinking a bit about it recently that, gosh, having to ask permission to go and work from home because you’ve got a tradie coming, like, you would never do that now.

You’d just be like, I’m work from home today. I’ve got a tradie coming. Whereas used to be such a big deal, especially with some managers, and I think that that shift thinking prior to that, oh, it’d be so good if I could work from home all the time.

But now knowing, having had to do that, it’s not as good as you think. And it’s good having that mix and that blend and being able to do it when you need to, but not necessarily always all the time. Yeah.

Something that I find when I’m speaking with designers or anyone, really, that can work from home whenever they want is they don’t necessarily want to be left alone and to work 100% of the time remotely. It’s like they want that flexibility to be able to wake up in the morning and choose right then and there. I’m going to stay home today or I’m going to go into the office today.

It’s not like a Monday, Wednesday, Friday thing that you’ve got to do. It’s like, no, I want to be in choice about it and be independent with what I’m doing. So, yeah, that’s great that it’s right at itself back into the middle.

Like, it’s not 100% remote anymore. Thank goodness. Yeah.

And I can definitely see the benefits as well that it has for people. But I think, like I was saying, ellie, it’s just that flip side of, like, because I can take my laptop everywhere with me, I might just jump back on, or I’ll just look at this, or I’ll just respond to that quickly. I think maybe the boundaries could definitely, for me, at least be a little bit tightened up a little bit.

Yeah. Switch off time. But I guess with that being said, I think that’s a challenge that everyone’s faced, me included.

Has there been any other speed bumps that you’ve had throughout your career? I wouldn’t want to call it speed bumps, but definitely big life events that have affected my career, my children, and taking time out to look after them has definitely shaped my capacity and my availability to be able to be able to focus on work. And I think very different each time. When I had my son, I was very much like, I can only do part time.

This is all I’m capable of. I’m not going to push myself. And so I didn’t also love my job at the time either.

And so part time job, and then a couple of years later, I was pregnant with twins. Must be real busy. Yeah.

And so then after I had them, I was kind of like, I can do that. I’m invincible. I’m going back to work.

And a job was advertised for a dream organization that I’d wanted to work for since I was at uni came up, and I was like, yeah, I’m going back to work. So it just changes your perspectives on things. But I think there is a lot of flexibility around for people now when they want to take parental leave when they have children.

And I think it’s definitely improved, but it’s still a juggle and it’s still a balance and it still does affect your career and you need to be thinking about how that will work. And I think that where I’m at now, I think I’ve managed really well to keep my career ticking along whilst I have taken that time out. But it has been a conscious decision of how I can make sure that I’m making those choices, to make sure that it’s still progressing.

Yeah. And if you had to give a tidbit of advice, what would be, like, the biggest driver of that, do you think? Well, I think that when people have children and they’re talking about, like, daycare is so expensive and it’s not even worth me going back to work, but it is worth it because it’s keeping your career ticking along. It’s keeping your skills up to date, it’s paying money into your super.

All those considerations that I think don’t get factored into. And I have definitely seen it with friends and acquaintances that they have taken that time out and they have gotten left behind. And for some people, that’s fine.

That’s what they want to do. And for some people, it’s not. So I guess it’s just being really clear on what it is you do want into the future so that you can plan around it.

Yeah, I think that’s so true that I’ve done the sums, and sometimes it’s like, I wonder what it would be like or how much it would impact if only we all had a crystal ball. And that’s the thing, you don’t. You can only make the decisions you can make at the time with the information that you have, and it might not be necessarily the right choice.

You might not have necessarily made that one. But if you couldn’t have made any other choice, there’s no point beating yourself up about. Exactly.

Exactly. So, Laura, what do you like to do in your spare time? Is there anything that you get up to on the weekends? I’m pretty busy with kids’activities and stuff, but, yeah, I think I mentioned earlier that you sew, and I sew. Love that.

Yeah. So I like to sew, and that’s something that I got back into during COVID because I was just sick of watching television. Do something with your hands, right? Yeah.

And I really like the problem solving part of it and using my brain for something that is not related to work, but just trying to fix how something will fit together and work. It’s like a 3d puzzle. Yeah, exactly.

So I really enjoy that. And that is probably my podcast time, when I’m listening to podcasts while I’m doing that. But, yeah, it’s just time.

And I only make stuff for me. I haven’t made stuff for anybody else, so it’s quite a selfish activity. Yeah, it’s part of your self care regimen is like kidding yourself out.

Yeah, I’m the same here. I do make the occasional thing for friends, but there’s so many people who like, oh, you should sell it. You should make an etsy store.

And I’m like, no, I don’t want to make money off it. I just want it to be like, no, I don’t need to sell it. That’s fine.

It is what it is. It’s good. I get the value that I need out of it.

Exactly. Love that. Cool.

Well, what kind of podcasts do you like to listen to when you’re doing your sewing? Generally not work stuff, like, at all. I really like listening to, I guess, like deep dives into sort of history kind of things. I really like Dakota ring.

That’s one of Slate’s podcasts. I haven’t heard of that. It’s really good.

Their history of moshing was excellent. Their history of the mullet was also excellent. Perfect.

I also like, I’ve started listening to Slate’s other podcast called iCYMI, which is just really interesting, I guess work adjacent, like Internet culture analysis, which is quite interesting. I recently watched or listened to, it was like a six part history of preppy dressing in America and where it came from and as a subculture and how it’s evolved and stuff. I think I’m going to need a list of all something that’s completely different than I would normally kind of think about or read about or be involved with at work.

Very different. Yeah. Like pop culture, educational vibes I’m getting.

I recently did a huge deep dive into half assed history. It’s been an australian guy and he just makes the most. Like, I like history, but I’m not a huge history buff, mostly because I find it quite dry, but he makes it really funny.

So, yeah, I listened to about 50 of those last week, and I think I binged too hard and now I need to call it off, period. But no, that was really good. But yeah, I like the sound of the mullet history, one.

That will be fun. Spoiler alert, it’s australian. Anyway, yeah.

Okay. I’m not surprised by that. Is there any mentors or business leaders that you follow yourself or over your career had been involved with? Like I said earlier, I did their design leadership training recently for echos, and they had Bruce Mel come and speak and he was amazing.

Cool. And so I guess that’s someone that I’ve kind of been aware know since undergraduate days in all my career. But actually listening to him speak and having direct access to him, to speak to him as well was really, man, I really want to remember the quote that he said.

I’m paraphrasing, but it’s along the lines of, designers see opportunities where most other people see restriction. And I was just like, yeah, that’s it. That kind of works.

And I’m going to have to send it to you, the actual quote, because it’s really good. But also during that training, there was another design leader that spoke, Stephen Gates, and he was really interesting as well. And some of the things that I took away from what he said was, know, when you do get resistance to design, because people don’t really understand what it is or they think it’s know the making things pretty, it’s not that structurally actually making something usable.

Don’t call it design. Just do it anyway. And don’t call it design.

And people won’t realize that that’s what’s happening. And another one from him that he’s said is like, I’m crazy, but I’m not stupid. And so being that pragmatic approach to actually getting innovative design ideas through about how you can pragmatically do that, yeah, I think that’s so spot on now.

I think even more so than any other time. Designers are so important in not only making something look pretty, but also going under the hood and being involved with that process as well. I ultimately think that good design, you actually shouldn’t see it.

Yes. You shouldn’t think about it. It should work.

And you just think, wow, that was really cool. Like, I did what I needed to do. Awesome.

I think a lot of the times people are aware of design because it’s bad, and they’re like, oh, man, this is stopping me doing what I want to do. Why can’t I just do this? There’s too many steps in this process. I’m out.

I think people are very aware of bad design, but I think good design fly, that supplies under the radar, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Yeah, exactly. A thankless job when done well.

Yes. Well, I like to finish off the podcast with one of my favorite questions, which is if you could give your younger self some career advice, what would that be? There’s time and to not be in such a rush. And there’s time and it’ll all work out and just take your time and follow the things that you need to follow to get you to where you need to be.

And I think where I am right now, I can see how all the pieces that I’ve done fit together to get me to where I am now. And sometimes I kind of think it’s a bit of like a slum dog millionaire situation. Like I’m like oh, I know how to do this because this happened to me before or I know how this situation is going to play out because of this experience here.

So I think sometimes we’re in such a hurry to get where we want to be that we don’t slow down and actually take time to think about how we can actually consciously construct where we want to be. Light bulb moments. Thank you so, so much for joining me.

Yeah, I learned so much and yeah, can’t wait to see what you guys get up to at the University of Newcastle. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Been good to chat.

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