CU Boulder grad is a global leader in human-centered design
Ford Motor Co. has come a long way since Henry Ford’s days, but one thing remains the same: Today’s Ford is thinking in new and innovative ways, and Sandy Fershee (WomSt, Anth’96) is charting that new course within this legacy company.
Fershee’s role as lab director and design executive leading D-Ford Detroit, Ford’s 21st-century “human-centered design” team, evolved from Fershee’s leadership with Ford’s Global User Experience team. But if you ask Fershee, it all goes back to her own background in anthropology.
“It’s ethnography. You have to observe people and deeply engage with them, live with them,” Fershee says. “Where anthropologists might live with people for months on end, we spend days observing how they live their lives, following their behaviors and interactions, and then working to tap into what we could do to make those everyday activities easier and better.”
Over her career, Fershee has worked with the world’s leading organizations—automotive, consumer electronics, technology and media companies, designing everything from operating systems and applications, to education, health care, and entertainment services and experiences.
She has worked on numerous projects inventing the future for companies like Google, Disney, Johnson & Johnson, Motorola, Comcast, Infiniti and Samsung.
Fershee grew up in the hamlet of Charlevoix, Michigan, skiing, swimming, playing sports and violin, reading, and yearning for “life in the big city and travel.” While in high school, she visited family friends in Boulder and immediately knew she wanted to go to the University of Colorado Boulder.
Always intellectually curious, Fershee decided to pursue a double major in women’s studies and anthropology.
Double-majoring in the social sciences offered just the right amount of breadth and depth. But she was also intrigued with emerging technologies and spent time in Norlin Library computer labs exploring digital technology and independently learning to build webpages—“not a very mainstream activity at that time,” she notes.
After graduation, she spent a year traveling around the world, including Australia and New Zealand, Thailand, India, Nepal and both Eastern and Western Europe. Upon returning, she took a job as a user-interface designer, developer and project manager for Wall Street on Demand in Boulder, which created websites for the financial services industry.
“That taught me more about how to design, code, write and research,” she says.
Fershee recognized that she was too interested in people to become a technologist. She received five job offers in one week of interviewing during the dot-com boom and spent the next 17 years working in design for companies in New York and Chicago, including running her own design agency.
Her job was often to identify emerging technologies and anticipate what services would be needed as they became faster and more sophisticated.
“I was one of the first people to be called an information architect and an interaction designer,” she says. “I like to spend a lot of time imagining the future. I draw on history, draw on people in their context and use ‘futuring’ scenarios and creativity to imagine everything possible—then work to get more tangible.”
In 2015, Ford hired Fershee as a design leadership consultant to create a “global experience design team,” establishing human-centered design practices and identifing and running projects to create opportunities for the company. That work led Ford to bring her on as an executive in 2016 to lead what would become D-Ford in early 2019.
For Fershee, D-Ford is “about understanding people in a future context, uncovering unmet or untapped needs, and based on that, starting to prototype possible ideas.”
The lab’s process is fast-moving and highly iterative. Failure is a critical part of the early process.
“We rapidly generate lots of ideas, testing our thinking and tossing out the ones that aren’t working. We fail fast, to push the best ideas forward where the richest opportunities lie,” she says.
My job is to create the conditions for creativity to thrive, drive a shared mission and purpose for teams, and manifest impact in the future of mobility."
For one of its first projects, the team set out to improve Ford’s top-selling F-150 pickup truck. Team members spent thousands of hours with truck owners, including those in Boulder, conducting in-depth research by observing people in their lives.
Their findings showed that the F-150 is a “hub for work and play.” They collaborated with Ford engineers to make it a vastly improved hub. Noting that people used the bed to haul tools, use generators to power tools and other appliances, and conduct work around the bed night and day, they improved exterior lighting to be productive during early mornings on the job or at night when they might be setting up camp.
And they “completely electrified” the bed to provide power to tools and appliances, Fershee says. They also created a workbench by adding small details such as a built-in ruler and places to easily attach clamps and store pencils and tools to make the bed more usable as a mobile workshop.
“Nothing gadget-y, just great technology with a purpose,” she says.
In another recent example, the lab addressed the shortage of personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Face shields were a big need, and Ford stepped in to help.
Researchers swiftly queried health care workers and first responders about their needs, researched open-source designs, created multiple prototypes that they tested with health care workers, and worked with specialists across Ford to tap readily available materials to use in mass production. Within a week, the company managed to distribute 10,000 face shields.
“We played an instrumental role in jump-starting the process,” she says.
At this stage in her career, Fershee is focusing on her role as a design executive, innovator and leader.
“My job is to create the conditions for creativity to thrive, drive a shared mission and purpose for teams, and manifest impact in the future of mobility,” she says. “I love a big challenge and working with diverse teams to find new opportunities and create new solutions.”
Fershee’s role at D-Ford Detroit has made her an increasingly sought-after guest for conferences, podcasts and other media. She was a featured speaker at Austin’s South by Southwest technology, film and arts conference in 2019 and 2020. She was also featured in a recent “Editors Choice” Forbes interview.
“For the last 20 years, I was completely focused on delivering in my career and caring for my marriage and two sons,” says Fershee, whose husband, Sandy Selinger is a fellow CU Boulder graduate (Econ’97) and consultant who connects Israeli startup companies with American clients. “With my evolving role at the corporate level, I’m now able to spend a larger part of my time sharing my knowledge and experience with more people and a wider audience.”
Nearly a quarter-century after graduation, Fershee still credits CU Boulder and the College of Arts and Sciences for paving the way for success in her life and career.
“One of the gifts of a liberal arts education is the ability to explore ideas and systems broadly, think critically and sharpen communication skills—all things that will make one more successful in life in general,” she says.