By Amy Chen – At a time when women in business were few, Sara Little Turnbull (1917 – 2015), design pioneer, corporate influencer, an American original, earned the respect of chief officers from Fortune 100 companies such as Corning Glass, General Mills, Ford, and Procter & Gamble, to name just a few. She influenced and shaped critical decisions in the board room, where it happens. In a unique career that spanned over seven decades, Sara’s contributions continue to guide our lives today. You are familiar with her work, even if you don’t know it yet. Take the N95 medical mask, which has become part of the everyday lexicon in our COVID-19 world.

Who Am I?

In 1958, Sara was hired by 3M as a design consultant. It was the start of a collaboration that would last several decades. She began her work with a new non-woven material called Shapeen. Its only identified uses were in the gift wrap and floral ribbons industries. She expanded their successful line of ribbons and invented prefabricated bows, but Sara saw far beyond shiny trimmings. This document from the Center for Design Institute’s extensive archives is Sara’s pitch to reach the company’s decision-makers. She named it, Who Am I? Sara was a woman who knew who she was, what she could do, and what she was worth.

Sara Little Turnbull Who Am I

It was an effective pitch. She went on to give a comprehensive presentation called Why? to 17 division executives at 3M, all men, of course. She informed them 3M should be in the non-woven business emphasizing, “This is not merely being in the ‘textile business.’ This material is a research and development innovation that will bring profits in new markets to 3M, based on savings and labor, shipping, and handling cost to 3M customers.” She expanded existing products, identified new markets, and detailed 100 opportunities ranging from floor coverings to moldable wall tiles to washable cookbook jackets!

Take the time – bring together unrelated ideas that lead to new connections.

Following the presentation, Sara was assigned to create a moldable bra cup. At the same time, she was working on this project; she was caring for three family members facing serious health challenges. Spending considerable time in clinical environments, she saw the need for a better fitting medical mask than the flat, rectangular, tie-on mask worn at the time. Based on the bra cup, Sara connected the dots, and a new mask shape was born with easy, elastic straps and bendable nose clip. It would serve as the springboard for the pathogen blocking N95 mask that is now so familiar. Until it was proven safe in medical environments, Sara’s design would become 3M’s iconic dust filtering mask. She would live to see her mask worn after the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s and at Ground Zero following 9/11.

My role in a project ranges from coach to player, to statistician, concerned spectator and referee — sometimes all within the same assignment. The win belongs to the team, and sometimes the most valuable player may never be identified.

Framing non-wovens as an R&D innovation was a game-changer. It set the stage for an explosion of non-woven product development that continues to this day. Sara was a woman who would not take sole credit or seek the spotlight. Perhaps that sharing spirit accounts for why she is criminally unknown. But she is very much a woman we should know.

Designers are kind. They care about the user. They are the conscience of a company.

Sara was an alchemist and a path seeker in a corporate world that did not readily embrace such qualities. She was a 4′ 11″ force of nature who communicated warmth and gravitas. She had the rare ability to translate abstract concepts into a compass for business managers. Considered “Corporate America’s Secret Weapon,” Sara’s calling was to set the stage for human values in commerce.

Sara Little Turnbull

Sara mentored generations of designers. “I ask them how they feel about contributing to society, to making life better, being empathetic to others, kind to others, and making life more graceful? I don’t care if they can draw.” She possessed an eye for beauty, the observations of a cultural anthropologist, and the tenacity of an investigative journalist to get to the truth of why people behave the way they do. She used all of that to develop tools for better living. The “stories” she told were manifested as the products she innovated and new markets she charted. It would be our loss if we relegated her contributions to the past. Sara’s philosophy is relevant to where we are at this moment and how we move forward.

Design acknowledges change. Its meaning encompasses change in our times. To design is to ‘create order’ and to function according to a plan. The notion of change and design move along the same path. The point of good design is to humanize.

Sara is a navigator for the here and now.

Please visit us at the Sara Little Turnbull Center for Design Institute in Seattle, Washington, open to the public by appointment. The mission of the Center to enhance the public’s understanding of the value of design, and to contribute to the design education of disadvantaged women.

Amy Chen is a design advocate based in New York City and a board member of the Center for Design Institute.

All images courtesy of and credit to © Center for Design Institute and republished here with the Center’s express permission.