Jan 26 Meet Ashley, Our New Sr. Strategist

Ashley Thorfinnson recently joined Rêve from Brightspot, a design strategy firm in New York City, where she created new experiences to delight and deepen engagement for customers and employees of large organizations and Fortune 500 companies, including Google.

Ashley, take us on a journey through your career? What’s your story?

Ever since my senior year of college, when I discovered the power of holistic, human-centered design thinking while at a Cheetah Conservation Center in South Africa, I’ve been in pursuit of using design as a tool to achieve positive impact for people and the planet. After graduating from Dartmouth I journeyed to New York City, and spent time at Rogers Marvel Architects, learning how the thoughtful design of public spaces can enhance how people experience the city and interact with each other.

I wanted to learn the finer points of co-created, community-driven design and design research, so I enrolled in Pratt Institute’s Masters of Industrial Design program. It was then, through my classwork, and work with the Center for Sustainable Design Studies that I knew I wanted to craft a career that would allow me to design solutions that positively impacted lives. Upon graduation I co-founded a company called dh studio which worked with non-profits and companies both large and small – UNESCO, the World Bank, West Elm, and Sanofi-Aventis to name a few – to create products and experiences that made a difference. From there, I honed my skills and expanded my service design practice at a strategy firm called brightspot. At brightspot I helped a range of cultural, academic, and corporate clients develop human-centered services and strategies, while building their internal capabilities to take a user-centered, design thinking approach in future work.

Eventually, the pull of the Midwest got to me, and with a fun-filled cross-country drive I landed back in Minnesota where I was absolutely ecstatic to encounter Rêve.

As you look back on your career so far, what has been your favorite innovation project and why?

As I was wrapping up my Masters at Pratt, I was part of the HelloLab, a group of interdisciplinary designers who worked together to develop a network of low-income dental clinics in and around New York City. I joined the lab, and their parent company, HelloSmile, in its early days, and worked collaboratively to help solidify the service and experience models. Through a wide range of user-centered research— including observations at clinics, and stakeholder interviews with patients, caregivers, staff and dentists—we developed a new approach to pediatric dentistry guided by service design tools, such as experience mapping, personas, and service blueprints.

The model we developed was based on a few key insights: caregivers and patients felt more comfortable engaging with mid-level clinicians they had an established relationship with rather than dentists; visuals were an important part of the learning process—especially in multilingual communities; enticing caregivers to visit the clinic required a multi-pronged strategy that extended beyond the clinic experience; and children enjoyed the experience most when it was fun, thematic, and rewarding. Building on those insights, we created a service model that established the mid-level health care provider as the lead “health coach” to connect patients and caregivers to available staff, who had been recruited because they were trusted community members. We also created an immersive and educational rewards program experience for children that incentivized and enticed families to adopt a preventive approach to oral health.

That project was one of my “innovation favorites” because of the positive impact we were able to make for the communities the HelloSmile clinics were located in—teaching and sharing the value of preventive care and empowering community members to share that message.

Take us through big learning moment that you’ve experienced as a strategist and designer.

While working at brightspot, we would sometimes be helping clients create new spaces to help better deliver a service or improve an experience. It can be challenging to co-create the design for something as large as a space with a group of clients—especially when they each have different perspectives and ideas. To help address this challenge we would often create simple, scaled models of the spaces and their components, which would encourage everyone to gather around the table and explore ideas collaboratively rather than debating suggestions in the abstract. The first time I helped facilitate this activity, I fully learned the power of making things visual and tangible to encourage innovation and collaboration.

How are you keeping up with the service design and human-centered design community at-large, and how do you see the field evolving in the future?

I try to monitor many channels to stay up-to-date on all things service design and human-centered design. Service design can be challenging to track, because it can go by many names. Clients and other organizations, depending on their sector or focus, may be applying some of the methods and thinking while calling it something entirely different. I think it is important to take part in conversations with other service designers (through conferences, or publications like Touchpoint – the service design magazine that Kristin was recently published in!) but I also find it valuable to try to understand and learn about what companies or organizations are doing internally to implement service design principles and human-centered design tactics.

I think the field of service design is constantly evolving and growing as it develops and gains more recognition across sectors. As technology evolves, physical and digital experiences continue to blend, and seamless customer experiences across touchpoints will be a critical and differentiating factor for organizations. More effectively and consistently transitioning service design ideas and concepts into implementable, tangible solutions as well as effectively measuring impact will be key to demonstrating the value of the methodology and practice of service design.

What has excited you most about moving back to Minnesota?

The cold! Just kidding. Aside from being closer to family and friends, I’m eager to adventure around and explore my new neighborhood in Northeast, which seems to be bustling with great food, breweries and lots of creative spirit. And, speaking of cold, I’m planning on trying a few cold weather activities for the first time, including ice fishing and cross-country skiing.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role at Rêve?

I’m extremely excited to learn from and be part of the amazing, talented, and dedicated team at Rêve. There’s an incredible breadth and depth of talent and experience amongst my new colleagues and I can’t wait take on new challenges with them to dream and deploy great ideas!

Rêve Consulting
Rêve Consulting

We are a strategy and service design consultancy that helps people and organizations innovate and grow.