Sara Little Turnbull

Sara Little Turnbull was born in 1917 and grew up in Brooklyn as the youngest of a Russian immigrant family of very sparse means. This early experience shaped the rest of her life and career. She attended Parsons School of design on a full scholarship. Using her insatiable curiosity allied with a multi-dimensional approach, Sara developed a keen sense for design with a small “d” because she didn’t think design was to be practiced by an elite few tucked away in some remote studio. She was a pioneer of engaging the end-user in context, in their homes, out in the world (she was an avid collector, and a detailed archiver). Her goal was to demystify design. She established long-lasting relationships with Fortune 100 corporations such as Corning Glass, General Mills, Ford, Coca-Cola, NASA, Procter and Gamble, and 3M, where she was hired as a design consultant in 1958, a relationship that lasted several decades.

Her legacy is thankfully revitalized (including the history of her impact on the infamous N95 medical mask) by the Center for Design Institute. They are the custodians of Sara Little Turnbull’s vast collection and archive. In a conversation with its President, Larry Eisenbach, he described how Sara “is a prototype of the way design should be influencing corporations. She used design strategically while helping people to see and teach them to ask why and to uncover the underlying influences and facts. People might have felt uncomfortable because she wasn’t a discipline specialist; she was a generalist.”

There was a moment in time where Sara addressed the 3M decision-makers with a pitch entitled “Who am I,” and clearly stated what she could do for 3M, what she had accomplished for others, and ended with an enigmatic “what will it cost 3M.” This is used as a great example of Sara knowing very well who she was and addressing decision-makers in a language that they could embrace. As an example of Sara’s effectiveness, Amy Chen, a Center for design Board Director anecdotally recalled another company’s senior VP writing to Sara on her retirement and observing, “Others may not have a clue what you did, but they understood the fact that you added several billion dollars to our sales and profits.”

Sara was a 4’11” woman in a world of men, but that did not seem to intimidate her, on the contrary, she navigated the Board and engaged with CEO’s one on one, using her ability to translate abstract and innovative concepts into a compass for business managers. As described by Amy Chen, “The CEO would tell a division manager that they needed to include Sara in an important meeting. The manager knew that Sara was a designer and thought, ‘I don’t have to talk to her, she’s in design.’ In addition to being very astute in many product areas and manufacturing practices, Sara was a great listener, and she would ask questions to get to the essence of WHY? Her job was to teach them how to see and how to think like a designer. On leaving the meeting, they would have a whole different perspective on what they were trying to do.”

Her Title: The secret weapon

A phrase to remember: “The job of designers is to establish order out of chaos, essentially out of all the different variables, all the different possibilities, a designer’s job is to create order.”

Three qualities: Generalist, Humanist, Navigator