What does a senior design director do?

Dorelle Rabinowitz discusses micro expressions, taking credit for your work, and the excitement and challenge of working on a complex product like Adobe Acrobat

A digital illustration of a white woman, with shoulder length brown hair wearing a black T-shirt, encircled by variously-sized documents in blue, pink, red, black, and green against a mustard yellow background.

Illustration by Gracia Lam

We design and refine the Adobe tools and experiences that millions of creative people use every day. In this series, we introduce the bright and brilliant people behind the products: Meet the members of Adobe Design.

What do you do at Adobe?

I lead the Adobe Acrobat design team. We’re product designers who advocate for our users with the goal of creating great experiences that improve our business results. We set a high bar for craft and design, how our products look and work, for the entirety of the experience. It’s a big team—about 25 people in the US and 18 in India—working across desktop, web, mobile, browser extensions, with multiple teams working on each platform as well as teams that work on horizontal initiatives (like collaboration or generative AI) across platforms.

It’s a broad range of responsibility and I have to rely on the managers and leads for each area, and my ability to delegate responsibility. Most important is determining the highest impact projects for me to get closely involved with. As a leader, I want my teams to feel empowered, so although sometimes I must be directive our atmosphere is very hierarchical, with many stakeholders with many opinions, so my job is to help people interpret feedback, as opposed to just doing what I say.

What’s your team working on?

We're working on everything from how people share, edit, collaborate, and comment in PDFs, to helping people read PDFs better in whatever platform they use. This year we launched updated versions of our native mobile apps, and we’ve also had multiple product-led growth squads focusing on quick tests to understand how Acrobat can help our users get their tasks done.

What essential tool, product, or platform helps you do your best work?

I use Evernote daily and sometimes feel like I couldn’t live without it. I use it to track my to-dos, but I also have individual notes for every person I have regular one-on-ones with so that I can look back at what we talked about and make sure I’ve followed up or they have. It’s especially nice at the end of the year when you’ve forgotten everything that happened at the beginning. I've also started using playing around with Workona, which is like a browser tool to organize all your links and documents—because there are just so many to keep track of.

One final thing, which is not necessarily about making my job easier, because generative AI is such a big conversation right now: I’ve been using ChatGPT. It reminds me of the excitement when we first got smartphones and didn't know exactly how we were going to use them, but we knew their impact would be significant. The emergence of ChatGPT reminds me of that time… We don't yet know how we're going to use it, but we all know that something important is happening.

What skill do you consider a superpower?

For me it's my facial expressions. When I was younger and less experienced, one of my managers told me I had to stop making faces in meetings—in client meetings in particular. She said clients could look at me and figure out what I was thinking based on my micro expressions. It bothered me because I was certain that being such an open book was a real problem and would stop my career growth. For a long time, I tried to stop. And then somebody I admire, a woman who was a mentor, suggested I think about my expressiveness as a strength. That it gives people the opportunity to know what I’m thinking before I say anything. It helped tremendously. And ever since I’ve learned to look at it as my superpower. I always call this out in any bio: I do not have a poker face.

What's on your heads-down, time-to-focus playlist?

I’m stuck in a time warp, so it’s usually ‘70s or ‘80s Pop. I also listen to Rock, ‘60s Soul, and big band-era Jazz, like Ella Fitzgerald, but for concentration I really need an up tempo, lyrics I can sing to and it doesn’t hurt if it’s a bit obscure—like a one-hit-wonder from the ‘70s. I tried for months to listen to Classical, but it just didn’t work at all. (I wake up to music every day and I often tweet song lyrics so other song nerds can guess their origin.)

What's the best professional advice you've ever received?

Early in my career I’d worked with a partner on a multimedia presentation for a large company meeting. During the project he was out of the office for an extended time, so I’d done most of the work on my own. At the end of the meeting, our team leader congratulated my partner, who’d just returned, saying “Thank you, ____ for all the lovely work.” I flipped out because I’d done almost everything and wasn’t even mentioned. I stood up in front of 200 people and said, “What about me?” I'll never forget his response: “When I said _____, I also meant you.” Later that day he apologized. He said he was wrong and that I was right to speak up for myself. He said, “Never think that your work is going to speak for itself, and never let somebody else take credit for your work.”

Part of my job now as a leader is to give the credit away but I’ll never forget his guidance; it’s advice that I pass along often, especially to women because we’re taught to be nice and to not make waves. We walk a fine line in our professional lives where we sometimes feel the need to hide our ambition and self-confidence.

What excites you most about the work you're doing?

When someone I've worked with previously gets a promotion, I feel like I was part of it. As a leader, or a manager, there’s a lot of satisfaction in getting to know people and helping them along in their careers.

Acrobat’s complexity can also be exciting. Not only are we working across all these different platforms with a broad scope, but Acrobat is also an older product. When it was first designed and developed, people used it differently because it was the only way to share files from different software, which means there are a lot of people who are used to using it as it is. It’s a challenge to figure out how we can improve it or make it more modern and support new customers who want or expect more from it, without alienating the people who have loved and used it for years. We’re also working on a few things that are exciting that I really can only talk about in the abstract like how we might incorporate generative AI, and support people who want to use Acrobat to create something new.

What's a dream project you're currently involved with, or you want to take on?

I’m currently writing a young adult novel—end of the world problems for teenagers at summer camp. I was a camp counselor for many summers, so I have a lot of camp stories that I'm weaving in. It's hard to find the time and the mental space to work on it, but It's all outlined, and I've got a few chapters written.

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