Notion’s Rob Giampietro on Mastering Creative Management | Podcast

Notion’s Rob Giampietro on Mastering Creative Management | Podcast

Interview by Vianca MeyerVianca Meyer
Published: July 27, 2023

Who Is Rob Giampietro

Rob Giampietro is a creative director based in New York that currently works as the head of creative at Notion. Before transitioning to Notion, Rob co-founded Insight+Innovation at Google and was the director of design at MoMA. Currently, he focuses on projects that combine design, culture, and technology.

Imagine a creative genius so remarkable that even Google couldn't resist, not once, but twice! 

Meet Rob Giampietro - a game-changer in the creative world.  

From his prestigious tenure at MoMa to co-founding Insights+Innovation at Google, his journey has been a rollercoaster of creative innovation. 

Now, as the head of creative at Notion, Rob brings his unique vision and experience to revolutionize the industry even further. 

In this interview, he takes a deep dive into what it takes to build a career as a creative lead, how design is changing, and the keys to great leadership. Listen to our full discussion here! 

This podcast transcript has been edited for clarity and readability.

Vianca Meyer: You've had an incredible journey thus far as a creative lead in many institutions, from MoMA to Google. Did you always know that this was the career that you wanted to pursue? 

Rob Giampietro: I've been active as a designer since I was 14 years old and was fortunate enough to have grown up in a world where design tools were on the computer. Computing and designing have always been deeply linked for me. I've always thought about design from a digital standpoint. I was trained primarily in print design in college and then transitioned to digital design as the web really became a place for expression and experimentation.  

I was teaching at Parsons at the time and was learning HTML and CSS while teaching book design and typography on the other side. That quickly led to working with a lot of cultural clients in my first agency. A lot of them needed quite scrappy, quick web projects, microsites or project-based websites. It was a great way to get my feet wet in making things digitally. As that became a 10-year practice, I started to get an itch for working at scale, so it was really exciting when Google approached me about joining the Material Design Studio in 2015, because there's no bigger scale than that. 

Was there a package of things that you needed to hone in on to be approached by giants like Google and MoMA, and now Notion? What were the things that set you up to get there? 

Number one is entrepreneurialism and starting a studio at 23. It felt like something easy to do, but I don't think I had any idea how hard it would be. But when you take a leadership position like that and you're responsible for a bunch of people, you come to take that very seriously. I think that part of why Google called was because of my time as a design leader, and leading a team of about the scale and in the location that they needed a team to be led in.  

The other piece was that I've been a teacher for a long time. I taught at Parsons, as I mentioned. I helped establish the branding program at SVA with Debbie Millman and was part of the founding faculty there. I was at RISD in the graduate graphic design program for 13 years where I taught the thesis course. In teaching, you learn a lot about managing, coaching, about different types of creative people, and different ways of unlocking creativity. It was the combination of being entrepreneurial and being an educator that made me successful at Google.  

Notion website display
(Source: Notion)

If you had to name one thing that initially attracted you to Notion, what was it? 

I had seen Marie Poulin, who's one of our amazing Notion creators, show off some databases that she'd made about her garden. It seemed like a beautiful use of Notion. My wife and I were constructing a garden at our home upstate at the time.

We had gotten a long list of possible plants that we could add to the garden and the different qualities of the plants, when they bloomed, what color they were, whether they were shade or sun-seeking plants, and what the care was going to be like. We couldn't make decisions about what to put in our garden, so I just put it all in Notion.  

I mean, Reminders is a great to-do list app or Asana is a great project management experience, but I hadn't had that sense of fun with any of them. They're very much functional, but with Notion, I was having fun. 

On the brand side, it was on our radar while I was at MoMA. We wished we could use it, but it was not quite the right time to implement that tool. But we were inspired by the look of Notion and the beautiful illustrations that Roman Muradov on my team does.

It's hard to realize, that even a couple of years ago, how singular and unusual Notion looked relative to other things in the space. It had this quality of a timeless tool. You know, the way that the New Yorker almost feels like a timeless magazine? Notion had that same quality of timelessness. 

Notion Projects page website display
(Source: Notion)

You've co-founded Insights and Innovation at Google and were the Director of Design at MoMA. How have these experiences played into your current role at Notion? 

The role at MoMA was a huge leadership challenge. You've got a team of lots of different types of creative people on a serious deadline for a major global institution. That was a real test of leadership and I felt like my time at Google had prepared me for that.  

In some ways, the 10 years in the cultural space before that had also prepared me for what it's like to run a studio in a fast-moving way. What Google helped me do was think about brands of global recognition like MoMA, as one of the most iconic museum brands, and how to steward that brand, how to think about it, and how to bring experience to that brand and what it could do in new ways.  

MoMA's not quite the scale of Google, but thinking organizationally, in terms of what do different organizations need to effectively collaborate? How can I as a department head unlock collaboration and creativity across not just my team, but multiple teams that need to work together?

So, when I came back to Google, I came as an individual contributor. I had run a business; I had led teams of growing sizes and steered people's careers. I wanted some time to think about my own practice and craft. Even though I ultimately became chief of staff of Insight and Innovation, working closely with my VP, it was as an individual and in a “leading without authority” kind of project.

You can be a thought partner to executives in a way that helps them unlock what they want to manifest in terms of the organization. This is also true for the extended different players on the team. How can you be a great collaborator for them and help lift them up and make them better? 

Get connected with the right design agency for your project.

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing creative professionals today? 

There's a whole mix of them. From the vantage point of an in-house team, the design. There was a time where you would do the design and then you would show the three options, and people would pick one.

Now, design is a much more multidisciplinary, multi-person, fluid, and constantly evolving process. One of the things that's challenging for young designers in their careers is becoming acclimated to that sense that design is never done. Design is not always theirs.

Being able to see themselves in the output of the team, even if they don't own and author that output, is something that's important at an early stage in your career.  

There's an important point for a lot of designers where they ask themselves if they want to manage a team, which option is going to mean less creative output on their own, or do they want to become exceptional senior contributors?

There should be some fluidity with that. It's not a forever decision, but I certainly think the muscles to lead a great creative team are somewhat distinct from the muscles of being a great senior creative

They're not necessarily the same muscles.

You need to be an amazing kind of coach. You need not always to have your own problems and needs come first when you're working with a team, you need to think about what they need and shape their careers.

There really is a generosity of spirit that comes with choosing to manage.  

Listen to our full interview with Rob Giampietro on YouTube!

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