Meet Nivin Al Kuzbari: Société Générale’s head of design thinks you should never stop learning
For Nivin Al Kuzbari, being a warrior is not taking no for an answer. It’s using life lessons, no matter how painful, to make you stronger. It’s making your dreams a reality. And for these reasons, the 36-year-old Head of Design at Société Générale considers herself a warrior. Her story is one of grit, determination, loss, and hope.
Born in Damascus, Syria, Nivin left her country at age 20 to pursue her dream of becoming a designer. She worked and studied in cities around the world—London, Doha, Beirut, Florence, Dubai, and currently Paris—while a civil war raged on in her homeland. When she returned to Syria for the first time, she discovered the place she called home no longer existed.
“It was like going back to visit your best friend who was 20 years old the last time you saw her, and then suddenly she’s 95 years old,” she says. “There were no lights, no electricity. It was cold. People were so sad with faces like empty souls.”
Through all of this, storytelling has been Nivin’s savior: Whether in her artwork (like her “emotional calendar” on Instagram) or her work at Société Générale’s, she’s able to use expression to heal. For our latest interview with the most inspirational leaders around the world, Inside Design‘s Abby Sinnott spoke to Nivin about what it takes to get ahead in the industry and why designers should never stop learning.
On her journey to becoming a design leader:
“I was born in Syria in Damascus in 1984. When I lived in Syria, I used to be a tennis champion. I played the Fed Cup for five years and travelled to Japan, Taiwan, India, and all over Europe. It allowed me to see what was happening outside my world in Damascus.
When I was 20 years old, I moved to Lebanon to study graphic design at the Lebanese American University. After that, I was a professor at a private university in Damascus for one year, and then went to Florence to do my master’s in graphic design. Eventually, I decided to move to Paris because I had lots of dreams.”
On moving to France without speaking any French:
“For the first six years, I was working and studying non-stop, including Saturdays and Sundays. I used to leave my house at six o’clock in the morning and come back at one o’clock in the morning.
At the beginning, it was very difficult living in Paris because I knew no French at all. I realized that, in order to get a job, I needed more skills than just graphic design. I think that when you come to a new country, it’s easy to not be seen by people. You end up needing to evaluate yourself more than you would if you stayed in your home country. I ended up taking French classes at the Sorbonne. Still, I decided I had to study more, so I enrolled in international and luxury marketing at the American Business School.
All the while, I was working in a money exchange place to pay for my studies and stay in France. Then I became an Art Director at a company based in London, Qatar, and Turkey. As I worked with them, I realized I still needed to study more. So I took a digital marketing course at We Are Squared powered by Google, and that’s how I got introduced to UX design.
I joined Société Générale in June 2018 as a senior UX designer. The lead of design left a month after I joined, so I was named the new team lead. In October 2019, I was named Head of Design. Our team has grown from three to 18 designers in the time since I began.”
On studying morphopsychology:
“My father always used to say, ‘We all go to the same class, but only the people who work and read more will have a brighter future.’
I think this idea stayed in my mind and it’s what I’m trying to do today by working on my certification from the Organization of Morphopsychology (I’ll graduate in June 2020). I’m adding a third dimension to my role as head of design.
Morphopsychology was founded in the 1930s by a French psychologist. It studies the characteristics of a person’s face, such as the receptors, eyes, nose, and frame to better understand their character. Having this skill of “reading faces” allows me to have a better relationship with the people in front of me. This is especially useful when leading a design team because I understand how to deal with each person individually in order to create a harmonious team.”
On how growing up in Syria has influenced her work as a designer:
“I was eager to leave Syria. I knew that design was the only thing that would give me the life that I wanted, and it pushed me to become better.
It also influenced me to work with a message. Every visual has a message, like you can see in my artwork on Instagram. Every line has a message. Every little circle has a message. Every color has a message. If it’s not for the client, it’s for me. Artwork and design are stories you write, and I create the character.
Sometimes it’s hard to communicate, so design has become a place where I can bring everything that is inside—every pain, every sadness, or every happiness. I found home in design. I found things I couldn’t find in my life in France. Because of it, I met people I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to meet.”
On leading a design team:
“Designers are free spirits. When you bring them into a bank that is very regulated, the fun part is finding the middle: Making sure their work fulfills their creative needs and the needs of the business. I always tell my team we either go up or down together. We need to communicate and collaborate. Nothing is easy, but at the same time, nothing is impossible.”
On using InVision prototypes:
“I first used InVision prototypes when I was working in Qatar in 2016. I heard about the tool and told my team, ‘Listen, we need to use this tool. It’s an amazing thing today in the design world.’
Now at Société Générale, we use prototyping for every project. When we finalize our design or want to test a wireframe, we prototype it through InVision and then we test it with our users. It’s very easy to use and it facilitates the way you work with your own designs and team, and with your clients and users.”
On books to read:
“When you are a person living amongst war, there’s a greater urge to express yourself. The war in Syria started as a revolution, so you had lots of artists and designers who expressed themselves against the government and created some amazing work. I helped design a book that showcased this art called Colours in the Time of Revolution.
I also recommend Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois P. Frankel. I think every woman should read this book. It has a lot of coaching tips that helped me get to where I am today.”
On the story she’s telling through design:
“Life might not be easy, but there’s always hope. It depends on us and our minds. If there’s a will, there’s a way. Nothing is impossible.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.