We spoke to Sonia Prusaitis, General Manager of argodesign’s Austin studio, about her adventurous streak and how it’s informed her work and world view. Sonia grew up in Austin and moved around throughout her 20s, living in Florida, Sydney, Las Vegas, and Seattle. As General Manager of argo’s Austin studio, she focuses on client partnerships, studio operations, and bridging design delivery with backend operations.
You’ve consistently thrown yourself into challenging situations that developed your skills and prepared you to take an entrepreneurial risk with argo when it was in its infancy. Tell us a little about your path here.
I moved to each new place sight unseen. As in, I packed my bags and bought a one-way ticket without ever having been to the city I was moving to. I was spontaneous verging on impulsive, and optimistic with a dash of naivety. I simply assumed I could enjoy life and find a community anywhere. Worst case, it’d be interesting to experience each place, and I could always move on if it didn’t work out.
In Tallahassee, I was hired by my marketing professor at his market research firm right after graduating. This was my first project management job. I learned so much in that role that I still use today, including basic professionalism, communication, and other soft skills. This is also where my love of Excel was born.
After Florida, I sold most of my things and moved to Sydney. I found this beautiful room in a house two blocks from the beach with German and Dutch roommates. I was happy to land in a great role at an insights, analytics, and strategy company that had an impressive roster of clients. The work opened the window to the world of product design for me. I became more engaged than ever in my professional life. Suddenly it wasn’t ‘just a job’ anymore. Our office was in a repurposed warehouse on a pier in Walsh Bay overlooking Sydney Harbor. I rode the ferry to work. It was a special time.
When I returned to Austin, I was hired in a project management role at frog design. I loved working with designers and technologists in an environment where we were hired to envision possible futures and people were encouraged to bring their unique perspectives to the table. Each project involved immersion in new, uncharted territory that expanded my worldview across industries and cultures I was unfamiliar with.
I joined argo about 5 months after it was founded. I was intrigued by Mark’s vision for a new type of consultancy/incubator, and I wanted to help build a world-class design team.
Your role as General Manager covers a lot of ground. What skill sets or traits do you have that suit you to such a broad role?
When I look back, there are a few things that likely laid the groundwork for me becoming General Manager at argo.
- I learned to be resilient at a young age, which was essential as I changed schools a number of times and tried my hand at myriad extracurriculars. Luckily I was raised by loving and supportive parents, which helped me deal with perceived failures and frustrations. I was always encouraged to try new things and was taught that my personal drive to overcome challenges was more important than being “naturally gifted” at something.
- I had the benefit of working in design consultancies with all different flavors of General Managers. Some were more operationally focused. Some were more involved with business development. Others had a hands-on approach with active clients and accounts. I was able to take aspects of each and really shape the role so I could have the greatest impact using my combination of skills.
- I joined argo when we were still working out of an old used car dealership building. It was early days, so the mostly blank slate meant that I could leverage my experience up to that point to help shape the way we worked at a foundational level. When the team is that small (~7–8 people), everybody wears multiple hats. I worked very hands-on with our design teams and clients envisioning new products. I managed our recruiting efforts for a while (it’s harder than it seems!). I served as a bridge between project delivery and operations. Having an intimate understanding of the inner workings of these sometimes siloed parts of a business helps guide my decisions as a General Manager.
What are some areas you’ve enjoyed exploring as an adult?
I bought a cheap racquet and started hitting tennis balls against the backboard by my house after college. I stuck with it because I really fell in love with the game. I’ve been playing since 2006 and have been in leagues and tournaments since 2010. I even captained a few teams, but now just prefer to play. I’m constantly working on getting better, and I invest time in it because I truly enjoy every aspect of it.
Not every experiment sticks though, so I think it’s important to be comfortable with quitting. I played the violin when I was young, but quit because orchestra was “uncool” to my teenage self. I enjoyed it, but at the end of 2019, I realized I was not making time to practice at home. I was always opting to do something else when I could have practiced for half an hour. Some of us were taught that you never quit, but that seems a little too rigid a life guideline to me. I think it’s okay to give yourself some grace and move on. (I started playing again recently.)
You also tried something pretty significant in the last few years — remodeling a house.
Yep, I bought the littlest, most run-down, uninspired house in a charming, woodsy neighborhood in downtown Austin. There is an ‘old Austin’ vibe here. Hippies. No HOA. Canopy streets, creeks, parks, and wildlife. Lawns adorned with indoor sofas and colorful yard art next to modern masterpieces with new cars in the driveway. Most people would have considered my place a tear-down, but I saw potential. This is my first home. I didn’t set out to gut the house, but that’s what ended up happening as one thing led to another. I futilely attempted to run a tight ship with the remodel, like it was a software design/dev project with a real timeline and an actual budget. But all the disastrous potentialities kept becoming realities and were challenging my hybrid DIY and self-contracting approach. There was a moment when I felt like I was living out the movie “Money Pit.” Reno costs ballooned. My timeline was shot. There were tears on more than one occasion, though less dramatic than Shelley Long’s.
I finally settled into a more organic process that adhered to my financial realities and energy that remained after working all week. I hired a family friend who has a contracting company. He put a small crew at my house and over a two-month period, I would come home and feel like angels had been hard at work on my house all day. They finished everything on New Years Eve 2018. I could see the Austin skyline through the Winter bare trees (barely, but still) and watched the New Years fireworks from my front porch. It was a great way to close out the year and welcome in the new one.
So now that you’ve rebuilt a house and mastered new hobbies, what’s keeping your brain energized?
I’m pretty jazzed about argo’s new studio on South Congress, a bustling, energetic center of Austin. I’m overseeing the design and build-out with Michael Hsu Office of Architecture designing both the shell and interiors.
It should be finished early next year, but I’ve learned to expect the unexpected and assume there will be delays when it comes to construction. I’m really enjoying the process of seeing our new space become a reality. They have made so much progress, which is impressive given the constraints the world has presented recently. Who knows when we’ll all be able to work in the same building again, but knowing that when we do it will be in this inspiring space keeps me optimistic while taking one million Zoom calls from my home office.
Sonia is an accomplished innovation consultant and experienced design leader. She manages argo’s largest studio, working with clients to craft partnerships through which argodesign can deliver high impact design services to meet business objectives as nimbly as possible. When she’s not in the studio, she is playing tennis, skiing, and fussing over her bungalow and Jack Russell Terrier, Georgie Best.
Meet other argonauts
Video Game Design Offers a Fresh Perspective for UX
A creative director’s love for interaction design has an unlikely source
Made by Alexia Cohen: Design as a Conduit for Lived Experience
Born and raised in Venezuela to Belgian parents, Designer Alexia Cohen grew up speaking two languages and threading the…