Skip to content
Olga McConnell

Olga McConnell, Project Specialist and Executive Assistant to the Director of The Design Lab

Olga McConnell, Project Specialist and Executive Assistant to the Director of The Design Lab

Olga McConnell, Project Specialist and Executive Assistant to the Director of The Design Lab

As the Executive Assistant to the Director of The Design Lab, a project manager for the Lab’s special projects and annual events, and a lifelong learner who holds a M.A. in English Linguistics and Translation, and a M.B.A. in Business Administration and Management, Olga McConnell’s zest for knowledge is palpable. She is currently on track to complete a Project Management Certification at UC San Diego Extension at the end of 2021, and she is planning on obtaining her Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification after that. “I’m kind of addicted to getting degrees,” jokes McConnell. “I even thought the other day, maybe I’ll go to law school. And then I was like, no, enough, enough.” 

For nearly five years, McConnell was Executive Assistant to Don Norman, the Founding Director Emeritus of The Design Lab. She is now the Executive Assistant to the new Director of The Design Lab, Mai Thi Nguyen. It is Nguyen’s vision of human-technology-community interactions, along with her JEDI (justice, diversity, equity and inclusion) approach that has McConnell excited about this new chapter in the Lab’s legacy, saying, “I see how great she is as an efficient leader, so I’m really looking forward to working with her, supporting her administratively, as well as taking charge of certain projects that she has in mind.”

While McConnell is excited about the transition, she says Norman continues to be a pivotal source of encouragement and inspiration in her career. “It was very exciting to work with him. […] Don never had me working in the background. He would always have me working at the forefront and would always introduce me to people.” McConnell says that as a natural introvert, working with Norman pushed her outside that comfort zone. “Even my job itself suggests that I will be working in the background without having to face many people. When I started at the design lab, I was so scared of public speaking.” Now, McConnell says she speaks to large audiences at public events with ease. “This has been a huge transition because I never realized that I would be able to speak in front of so many people. I was afraid of being judged, especially given that English is not my first language.”

McConnell is originally from Russia. She came to the United States when she was just 20 years old with only $200 in her pocket. “I kick started my journey working odd jobs in a pizza place and worked as a waitress, but then I started working for different companies as an executive assistant.” McConnell says this is what started her nearly decade-long executive assistant career, during which time she obtained her M.B.A. “I didn’t always feel like I belonged to Russia,” she explains about her decision to immigrate to the U.S. “I kind of always knew from my childhood that I would move to a different country with more progressive views. After the USSR collapsed, Russia was just in chaos, so my childhood was pretty chaotic,” explains McConnell. “It all just showed me how unfair that governmental system was. My mom was a full-time teacher, but not paid nearly enough to even sometimes put food on the table. […] I actually consider America, my home now. Here, if you have ambition, intelligence, if you work really hard, you can achieve things in life.”

This ambition is what has propelled McConnell to be what she calls a “never-ending student,” which makes the Lab a perfect fit for her. “As a person who enjoys learning new things all the time, this position for me is great, because I learn something new every day.” Prior to the pandemic, McConnell’s passion for community organization had her working as the Lab’s Project Manager on events, including collaborating on the annual event with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the SANDAG Consortium, and the 2021 Design Lab Showcase. “I am a culture person, and a work hard, play hard person. […] So I’m really hoping that we can go back to organizing events soon because that is a very fun part of my job. I like when we’re all connected together.”

In addition to the Lab’s events, McConnell has also managed some of the Lab’s special projects, including an initiative that Norman co-founded and is sponsored by The Design Lab, The Future of Design Education. “This program is dedicated to creating a completely innovative breakthrough in design education for the 21st-century student. […] It’s a massive undertaking,” explains McConnell. She says it is exciting to be a part of a project that is continuing Norman’s legacy. “I was actually invited to be among the four people on the Executive Committee of this initiative, which is extremely rewarding. The amount of experience I’m getting working with all those senior people is incredible, as is the trust that they put in me and in my opinions. I’m definitely contributing, but I’m also learning a lot in return.”

McConnell says this inclusive, mutual collaboration is a fundamental principle of operations at the Lab. “From the undergraduate students and ending with the tenured professors or directors, we all have that space. We all can be heard,” says McConnell, adding, “If you are an undergraduate student, and you want to give your opinion, it is appreciated. In The Design Lab, we are all about inclusion and hearing different opinions from everyone.”

It is this feeling of being able to contribute that McConnell says motivates her, along with the infectious nature of the mission of the Lab. “I think our people are just top-notch. Everyone is very kind. Everyone is extremely intelligent. You get exposure to so many people from so many different backgrounds from so many different cultures and countries,” says McConnell. “Everybody who works in The Design Lab or is affiliated with the Lab is excited about design. I mean, even if you started having zero clue of what the ‘design’ actually is and what our designers do, […] just being with so many passionate people, you just start getting excited about it.” 

As for what’s next for McConnell, she says she is still trying to figure out who she wants to be when she grows up. “I don’t think it’s ever too late to change careers or to shift gears,” says McConnell. “The Design Lab family has been really helpful and supportive of all my undertakings. […] I was so lucky that Don wanted to elevate me and my skills and give me even more experience. I’m very grateful for him for that,” she says. “I do see myself staying at UCSD,  for a few more years; or even forever. We’ll see.”

As the Executive Assistant to the Director of The Design Lab, a project manager for the Lab’s special projects and annual events, and a lifelong learner who holds a M.A. in English Linguistics and Translation, and a M.B.A. in Business Administration and Management, Olga McConnell’s zest for knowledge is palpable. She is currently on track to complete a Project Management Certification at UC San Diego Extension at the end of 2021, and she is planning on obtaining her Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification after that. “I’m kind of addicted to getting degrees,” jokes McConnell. “I even thought the other day, maybe I’ll go to law school. And then I was like, no, enough, enough.” 

For nearly five years, McConnell was Executive Assistant to Don Norman, the Founding Director Emeritus of The Design Lab. She is now the Executive Assistant to the new Director of The Design Lab, Mai Thi Nguyen. It is Nguyen’s vision of human-technology-community interactions, along with her JEDI (justice, diversity, equity and inclusion) approach that has McConnell excited about this new chapter in the Lab’s legacy, saying, “I see how great she is as an efficient leader, so I’m really looking forward to working with her, supporting her administratively, as well as taking charge of certain projects that she has in mind.”

While McConnell is excited about the transition, she says Norman continues to be a pivotal source of encouragement and inspiration in her career. “It was very exciting to work with him. […] Don never had me working in the background. He would always have me working at the forefront and would always introduce me to people.” McConnell says that as a natural introvert, working with Norman pushed her outside that comfort zone. “Even my job itself suggests that I will be working in the background without having to face many people. When I started at the design lab, I was so scared of public speaking.” Now, McConnell says she speaks to large audiences at public events with ease. “This has been a huge transition because I never realized that I would be able to speak in front of so many people. I was afraid of being judged, especially given that English is not my first language.”

McConnell is originally from Russia. She came to the United States when she was just 20 years old with only $200 in her pocket. “I kick started my journey working odd jobs in a pizza place and worked as a waitress, but then I started working for different companies as an executive assistant.” McConnell says this is what started her nearly decade-long executive assistant career, during which time she obtained her M.B.A. “I didn’t always feel like I belonged to Russia,” she explains about her decision to immigrate to the U.S. “I kind of always knew from my childhood that I would move to a different country with more progressive views. After the USSR collapsed, Russia was just in chaos, so my childhood was pretty chaotic,” explains McConnell. “It all just showed me how unfair that governmental system was. My mom was a full-time teacher, but not paid nearly enough to even sometimes put food on the table. […] I actually consider America, my home now. Here, if you have ambition, intelligence, if you work really hard, you can achieve things in life.”

This ambition is what has propelled McConnell to be what she calls a “never-ending student,” which makes the Lab a perfect fit for her. “As a person who enjoys learning new things all the time, this position for me is great, because I learn something new every day.” Prior to the pandemic, McConnell’s passion for community organization had her working as the Lab’s Project Manager on events, including collaborating on the annual event with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the SANDAG Consortium, and the 2021 Design Lab Showcase. “I am a culture person, and a work hard, play hard person. […] So I’m really hoping that we can go back to organizing events soon because that is a very fun part of my job. I like when we’re all connected together.”

In addition to the Lab’s events, McConnell has also managed some of the Lab’s special projects, including an initiative that Norman co-founded and is sponsored by The Design Lab, The Future of Design Education. “This program is dedicated to creating a completely innovative breakthrough in design education for the 21st-century student. […] It’s a massive undertaking,” explains McConnell. She says it is exciting to be a part of a project that is continuing Norman’s legacy. “I was actually invited to be among the four people on the Executive Committee of this initiative, which is extremely rewarding. The amount of experience I’m getting working with all those senior people is incredible, as is the trust that they put in me and in my opinions. I’m definitely contributing, but I’m also learning a lot in return.”

McConnell says this inclusive, mutual collaboration is a fundamental principle of operations at the Lab. “From the undergraduate students and ending with the tenured professors or directors, we all have that space. We all can be heard,” says McConnell, adding, “If you are an undergraduate student, and you want to give your opinion, it is appreciated. In The Design Lab, we are all about inclusion and hearing different opinions from everyone.”

It is this feeling of being able to contribute that McConnell says motivates her, along with the infectious nature of the mission of the Lab. “I think our people are just top-notch. Everyone is very kind. Everyone is extremely intelligent. You get exposure to so many people from so many different backgrounds from so many different cultures and countries,” says McConnell. “Everybody who works in The Design Lab or is affiliated with the Lab is excited about design. I mean, even if you started having zero clue of what the ‘design’ actually is and what our designers do, […] just being with so many passionate people, you just start getting excited about it.” 

As for what’s next for McConnell, she says she is still trying to figure out who she wants to be when she grows up. “I don’t think it’s ever too late to change careers or to shift gears,” says McConnell. “The Design Lab family has been really helpful and supportive of all my undertakings. […] I was so lucky that Don wanted to elevate me and my skills and give me even more experience. I’m very grateful for him for that,” she says. “I do see myself staying at UCSD,  for a few more years; or even forever. We’ll see.”

As the Executive Assistant to the Director of The Design Lab, a project manager for the Lab’s special projects and annual events, and a lifelong learner who holds a M.A. in English Linguistics and Translation, and a M.B.A. in Business Administration and Management, Olga McConnell’s zest for knowledge is palpable. She is currently on track to complete a Project Management Certification at UC San Diego Extension at the end of 2021, and she is planning on obtaining her Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification after that. “I’m kind of addicted to getting degrees,” jokes McConnell. “I even thought the other day, maybe I’ll go to law school. And then I was like, no, enough, enough.” 

For nearly five years, McConnell was Executive Assistant to Don Norman, the Founding Director Emeritus of The Design Lab. She is now the Executive Assistant to the new Director of The Design Lab, Mai Thi Nguyen. It is Nguyen’s vision of human-technology-community interactions, along with her JEDI (justice, diversity, equity and inclusion) approach that has McConnell excited about this new chapter in the Lab’s legacy, saying, “I see how great she is as an efficient leader, so I’m really looking forward to working with her, supporting her administratively, as well as taking charge of certain projects that she has in mind.”

While McConnell is excited about the transition, she says Norman continues to be a pivotal source of encouragement and inspiration in her career. “It was very exciting to work with him. […] Don never had me working in the background. He would always have me working at the forefront and would always introduce me to people.” McConnell says that as a natural introvert, working with Norman pushed her outside that comfort zone. “Even my job itself suggests that I will be working in the background without having to face many people. When I started at the design lab, I was so scared of public speaking.” Now, McConnell says she speaks to large audiences at public events with ease. “This has been a huge transition because I never realized that I would be able to speak in front of so many people. I was afraid of being judged, especially given that English is not my first language.”

McConnell is originally from Russia. She came to the United States when she was just 20 years old with only $200 in her pocket. “I kick started my journey working odd jobs in a pizza place and worked as a waitress, but then I started working for different companies as an executive assistant.” McConnell says this is what started her nearly decade-long executive assistant career, during which time she obtained her M.B.A. “I didn’t always feel like I belonged to Russia,” she explains about her decision to immigrate to the U.S. “I kind of always knew from my childhood that I would move to a different country with more progressive views. After the USSR collapsed, Russia was just in chaos, so my childhood was pretty chaotic,” explains McConnell. “It all just showed me how unfair that governmental system was. My mom was a full-time teacher, but not paid nearly enough to even sometimes put food on the table. […] I actually consider America, my home now. Here, if you have ambition, intelligence, if you work really hard, you can achieve things in life.”

This ambition is what has propelled McConnell to be what she calls a “never-ending student,” which makes the Lab a perfect fit for her. “As a person who enjoys learning new things all the time, this position for me is great, because I learn something new every day.” Prior to the pandemic, McConnell’s passion for community organization had her working as the Lab’s Project Manager on events, including collaborating on the annual event with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the SANDAG Consortium, and the 2021 Design Lab Showcase. “I am a culture person, and a work hard, play hard person. […] So I’m really hoping that we can go back to organizing events soon because that is a very fun part of my job. I like when we’re all connected together.”

In addition to the Lab’s events, McConnell has also managed some of the Lab’s special projects, including an initiative that Norman co-founded and is sponsored by The Design Lab, The Future of Design Education. “This program is dedicated to creating a completely innovative breakthrough in design education for the 21st-century student. […] It’s a massive undertaking,” explains McConnell. She says it is exciting to be a part of a project that is continuing Norman’s legacy. “I was actually invited to be among the four people on the Executive Committee of this initiative, which is extremely rewarding. The amount of experience I’m getting working with all those senior people is incredible, as is the trust that they put in me and in my opinions. I’m definitely contributing, but I’m also learning a lot in return.”

McConnell says this inclusive, mutual collaboration is a fundamental principle of operations at the Lab. “From the undergraduate students and ending with the tenured professors or directors, we all have that space. We all can be heard,” says McConnell, adding, “If you are an undergraduate student, and you want to give your opinion, it is appreciated. In The Design Lab, we are all about inclusion and hearing different opinions from everyone.”

It is this feeling of being able to contribute that McConnell says motivates her, along with the infectious nature of the mission of the Lab. “I think our people are just top-notch. Everyone is very kind. Everyone is extremely intelligent. You get exposure to so many people from so many different backgrounds from so many different cultures and countries,” says McConnell. “Everybody who works in The Design Lab or is affiliated with the Lab is excited about design. I mean, even if you started having zero clue of what the ‘design’ actually is and what our designers do, […] just being with so many passionate people, you just start getting excited about it.” 

As for what’s next for McConnell, she says she is still trying to figure out who she wants to be when she grows up. “I don’t think it’s ever too late to change careers or to shift gears,” says McConnell. “The Design Lab family has been really helpful and supportive of all my undertakings. […] I was so lucky that Don wanted to elevate me and my skills and give me even more experience. I’m very grateful for him for that,” she says. “I do see myself staying at UCSD,  for a few more years; or even forever. We’ll see.”

Read Next

Design and Innovation Building Grand Opening: UCSD’s front door to community collaborations

In November of 2021, the UC San Diego Design Lab unveiled their long-awaited new home in the recently constructed Design and Innovation Building, or as it is affectionately referred to, the DIB. The DIB will serve as a hub for academia, industry and community innovators to participate in design events, lectures, and other working partnerships within the design community that aim to create human-centered solutions to the complex problems facing our region and beyond. The grand opening of the DIB showcased the potential for such gatherings, boasting the presence of organizations like the UCSD Design Co., Girls Who Code, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, to name a few. Such groups showcased current and past projects to the students, professors, and industry leaders in attendance. 

The opening of the DIB marks a momentous occasion in the history of the Design Lab, as the building itself, which is a multi-use environment bringing together multiple disciplines under one roof, represents the journey and philosophy at the heart of the Design Lab’s mission–making UC San Diego a world center for design research and education that fosters a new way of thinking, which addresses the core issues with a systems point of view, and emphasizing the role of people in the complex systems of the modern world.
Grace Rieger

Grace Rieger on Designing for Healthcare | Design Chats


How might we use design to improve the efficiency of hospital operating rooms? Hear from Grace Rieger, Designer-in-Residence, as she talks us through one of her projects.

Design Chats is a video series where we sit down with design practitioners to answer questions about how they utilize human-centered design.

View our Design Chats playlist on the Design Lab YouTube Channel

Frontier Design Prize Announces Winners at World Design Cities Conference

Shanghai, September 15, 2022 | The Frontier Design Prize announced the winners of its inaugural edition during the opening ceremony of the World Design Cities Conference (WDCC).  Mr. QU Xing, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, Mr. GONG Zheng, Mayor of Shanghai, Ms. XU Xiaolan, Vice Minister of Industry and Information Technology (China), along with leading designers, scholars and industry leaders, attended the award ceremony. The Frontier Design Prize (FDP) is a visionary, innovative, world-class design award established with the aims of encouraging design innovation, enhancing the impact of design in driving industrial transformation, and promoting the role of design in shaping a better world. A central program of WDCC, it is undertaken by Design Innovation Institute Shanghai (DIIS) with guidance from the Shanghai Municipal Government. 
San Diego -- Tijuana

Can San Diego — Tijuana region be World Design Capital?

Read the San Diego Union Tribune article by columnist Diane Bell about the World Design Capital bid.

San Diego, together with Tijuana, has placed a bid to be designated the 2024 World Design Capital , a selection that will be finalized this October.

A San Diego nonprofit called the Design Forward Alliance was created with the help of numerous community and design groups to coordinate with Tijuana representatives and prepare the bid package.

Michèle Morris, associate director of the UCSD Design Lab and president of the Design Forward Alliance, is very optimistic about this region’s chances for success.

“We do feel confident that we will make the short list,” she says. Morris also is associate director of the Design Lab at UC San Diego, which helped launch the alliance in 2016 following an inaugural Design Forward Summit in downtown San Diego.

Win or lose, Morris notes that the bidding process has strengthened ties and fostered new creative ideas for our region.

Be on your best behavior: San Diego is being judged this week

By Phillip Molnar, San Diego Union Tribune

San Diego and Tijuana are throwing a party for just one man this week, and you’ve probably never heard his name.

Montreal native Bertrand Derome, managing director of the World Design Organization, is getting the red carpet treatment across two nations as the cities vie for the title of World Design Capital.

The award means a global spotlight on the region and lots of free advertising. Selected every two years, the Montreal-based World Design Organization picks a different city as its “capital.” Some previous winners have been Seoul, Helsinki, Cape Town and Mexico City. San Diego and Tijuana decided to apply together as a binational region.

The festivities started Sunday night with a jazz concert, light show and chic party for Derome at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. There were only about 200 people at the event for a venue that can hold 3,500. The $85 million shell on the San Diego Bay opened in August.

“It’s a great city and an amazing venue. I have to say I’m pretty impressed by the design communities that came together,” Derome said at the event.
UCSD Trolley Station

UCSD to create grand entrance to manage crushing growth, and welcome the public

"To see eyes looking at you matters. One pair of those eyes may give you a job offer, or help finance your startup, or help buy your first product off Kickstarter, or convince you what you’re doing isn’t solving real problems." — Scott Klemmer, Design Lab

In one of the biggest physical and social changes in school history, UC San Diego will create its first “front door,” a grand entrance meant to appeal as much to the public as students and ease crowding on a campus where enrollment could hit 40,000 this fall.
Plans are being drafted for a gateway that will blend art, culture, entertainment, dining, education and research — the same mix that helps funnel people from Westwood Village to UCLA.
Back To Top