Interview: Tim Allen

Tim Allen has been at Wolff Olins for just over three weeks, as its North American president. Raakhi Chotai caught up with him to talk experience design, context and finding the balance between function and emotion.

You’re a product development guy, moving into a traditional branding agency. Why did you decide to make that move?
What drew me to Wolff Olins was the way that people think here and the way the people partner with clients here. That attitude can be applied to experience design, product design, service design, culture design in much the same way that it’s being applied right now to mainly communication-led artefacts –brand identity and so forth. We will still do a lot of culture, and leadership stuff, that is important. But I think that the lens is shifting from basically passive communication to active participation. It’s thinking about the other end of whatever service I am creating. We’re not designing for passive audiences any more, we’re designing for participants.

Is that a mind-set you picked up at Amazon?
Actually, that’s an attitude that I picked up right out of school. I worked on first person shooters and flight simulators for a small game design company in North Carolina called Interactive Magic. We were blowing up shit all day, which was great. But we were also putting you into a visceral experience through sound design, interaction design, game mechanics, and story levels. It’s what [branding] has to do now emotionally, but actually add value to your life as well. The balance is in function versus emotion, oscillating between both of those. In game design, it’s all about emotion, this guttural feeling of violence, whether you agree with that or not, it’s entertaining for a lot of people.

Then I worked at IBM, which is all about function. That was a company that was desperately craving some emotion to go with that function. I came along there trying to blend game mechanics with enterprise software — polar opposites.

Working at Amazon there are three levels: price, convenience and choice. At Amazon they will tear down an entire segment to make that true, but if someone else does that just a little better, you will go somewhere else because it’s all about function, it’s not about love. There are people there who do realise that and understand that. And there’s no danger of anyone doing something in terms of speed, convenience and choice better than Amazon right now, but if it happened, they would be exposed. So they need to figure out emotionally what they can do to keep you there as well.

You’ve spoken in the past about the challenges of fitting into a user’s context. Why do you think that’s so important?
It’s like the holy grail of relevance. You used to be able to just be relevant, because people were glued to consuming information on television. Now it’s not that easy. You have to understand someone’s life and how you’re going to integrate into it, or you will be discarded.

A lot of brand experiences can feel quite contrived. How do you go about making them feel organic?
I basically start with the person. Over 20 years of designing experiences has given me two main rules. The first one is ‘Design things for people.’ The second one is ‘Those people aren’t you.’ That’s the difference between a good or a great product. So if I give my team a brief, you go to the target person. That could be an internal employee, or it could be an external customer. One of the motivations is the context of that brand experience. How can you empower that person? How can you make a person feel like they’re a hero? First, empower them. Then celebrate what you are empowering them to do.

You talk about empowering people. What do you mean by that?
There can be ambiguity around interaction design, experience design and exactly what it is. I think it’s just all about human behaviour, motivation, goals. Human behaviour is just as much about accomplishing things as it is about having emotions. Whether those are tragic emotions or fulfilling emotions, it’s just about accounting for them while you are creating something that is functional.

What do technology led-products offer consumers and brands?
I don’t think about ‘applying technology’ because it’s so ubiquitous. Technology is everything so it’s nothing. Really it’s thinking about services and what you can provide in the context. If the best way to empower someone is via their phone, maybe an app as a way to go, maybe Bluetooth, maybe beacons. If one of those services is a boardroom, how can you empower that person in that context? Technology will play a major role but I don’t limit technology to a website or an app.

Do you think that all brands have a remit to empower people?
The companies I want to work for do.

What about the others?
Of course not. You don’t have to be altruistic in order to empower someone. You can empower someone to spend all their money and feel really great about it, but then there’s consequences to that. You can abuse it. But it’s still power nonetheless, and if the intention is to make money off of that, that’s okay.

(This article was originally published on, 12/10/15).