Design thinking: why your bank or VC should hire an artist
— “I didn’t want to be a businessman, because all the businessmen I knew I didn’t want to be like.” Steve Jobs
In less than two years Slack Technologies has become one of the most glistening of tech’s ten-digit “unicorn” startups. If you’ve used Slack’s team-based messaging software, you know that one of its catchiest innovations is Slackbot, a helpful little avatar that pops up periodically to provide tips so jaunty that it seems human. Such creativity can’t be programmed. Instead, much of it is minted by one of Slack’s employees, Anna Pickard, the 39-year-old editorial director. She earned a theater degree from Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University before discovering that she hated the constant snubs of auditions that didn’t work out. After winning acclaim for her blogging, videogame writing and cat impersonations, she found her way into tech, where she cooks up zany replies to users who type in “I love you, Slackbot.” It’s her mission, Pickard explains, “to provide users with extra bits of surprise and delight.” The pay is good; the stock options, even better.
What kind of boss hires a thwarted actress for a business-to-business software startup? Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s 43-year-old cofounder and CEO, is the proud holder of an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victoria and a master’s degree from Cambridge in philosophy and the history of science. “Studying philosophy taught me two things,” says Butterfield, sitting in his office in San Francisco’s South of Market district, a neighborhood almost entirely dedicated to the cult of coding. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true — like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces — until they realized that it wasn’t true.”
Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers — and make progress seem pleasant.
In fact, people without a tech degree may already be benefiting the most from tech’s boom. Surprisingly, only 30% of these migrants ended up in engineering, research or information technology. As LinkedIn data show, most of the migrants have created nontechnical career paths in Silicon Valley. Add up the jobs held by people who majored in psychology, history, gender studies and the like, and they quickly surpass the totals for engineering and computer science.
In Austin Suzy Elizondo can see tech’s new power structure every time she looks around the room during customer meetings. She has been working for five years at Phunware, which develops mobile applications for a wide variety of customers, including AT&T, the Houston airport and celebrity astrologers. When she joined the company as a design specialist after earning an advertising degree from UT Austin, she was the odd one out. Most meetings were packed with software engineers. Now nontechnical people from clients and from her own company often occupy at least half the seats. The reason: Software development keeps getting more automated. The rise of content libraries and plug-in modules means that mobile apps can be built much faster, with fewer people. But the nontechnical side — getting everyone to agree on what an app should look like — is more labor-intensive than ever.
Bess Yount epitomizes the nontechie side of Facebook. She earned a Stanford bachelor’s degree in communication and a master’s in sociology. Outside the classroom she rounded herself out as captain of the lacrosse team. “I’ve always had a greater love for words than numbers,” Yount says. That hasn’t been a problem. When she joined Facebook in 2010, the social media company was evolving rapidly beyond its engineer-centric beginnings. Instead of envisioning a day when ads could be booked online without ever talking to a human being, Facebook’s leaders began tapping into the benefits of a personal touch.
In the restaurant industry, Shawna Ramona is the human face of the data revolution. She graduated from San Francisco State in 2002 with a degree in English literature. Now she is an iPad-toting “restaurant relations manager” for OpenTable, the online dinner-booking service. She calls on scores of restaurateurs a year, sharing insights that emerge from her company’s data team. There’s nothing technical in her background, but she knows how to connect with the old guard.
John Maeda is a bellwether for the design industry. His tenure at places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Rhode Island School of Design, and at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers illustrates his prescient understanding of where design is going, and his innate ability to get there first.
Maeda started his career two decades ago at the MIT Media Lab, where his work bridged art and engineering. The Rhode Island School of Design appointed him president in 2007, just as the iPhone spurred the rise of apps and made digital design an essential skill. Then he joined Kleiner Perkins six years later, when companies like Apple and Airbnb were awakening Silicon Valley to the potential of design-led businesses.
Maeda is moving on again [in August 2016], to Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. His title: Global Head, Computational Design and Inclusion. He invented the position, but it essentially places him in charge of improving the user experience in everything Automattic makes. (He will stay on at KPCB as a strategic advisor.) The jump, like all of Maeda’s jumps, suggests the future of design. This time it’s that open source, user-generated sites will grow increasingly important. “My role at Automattic is to interlink designers, business insights, constraints, limitations, and opportunities, to show anyone how to become a more design-oriented company,” Maeda says. “I don’t think that’s any different than coaching any other design leader from the Kleiner Perkins network.”
Still, examining minutiae to see the big picture should come as familiar to Maeda, who presented his first annual Design in Tech report two years ago at South by Southwest. Modeled after Mary Meeker’s yearly Internet Trends reports, Maeda’s reports compile all kinds of data about the state of design in tech: who is acquiring whom, how big they’ve gotten, and so on. His interdisciplinary approach to design and business should prove useful to Automattic.
He wrote on TechCrunch: “People are often surprised when they hear that I earned my master of business administration degree, or MBA, as a side-hobby while I was a tenured professor at MIT. Even MIT’s human resources department was perplexed that I’d want to apply for the employee benefit to partially support my tuition costs. My motivation to do so was simple: I’d spent most of my life in the research world interacting with corporations during my years at the Media Lab, but I often got lost when the business folks would bandy financial or other business terms around me. So I wanted to defeat my lack of knowledge, by acquiring what most of them seemed to have: an MBA.”
“Fortune 500 companies are beginning to use human-centered design to think about problem solving rather than traditional hypothesis testing, which is why we are seeing more than 10% of Fortune 100 companies place design as an executive priority. Creativity is becoming a strategic lever to create a competitive advantage in the corporate world. That explains why management consulting and strategy services firms are acquiring design agencies at a rapid rate. 42 design firms have been acquired since 2004, half of those in the last year alone.”
“For future entrepreneurs that are graduating from business schools today, I believe their basic understanding in design thinking positions them to more quickly identify this special kind of talent.” “So-called business “best practices” are now being geared towards the users of a company’s products rather than just the more impersonal financial metrics.”
“Business students with design thinking training can bring necessary sensitivity to the designers in the organizations in which they may serve, or when they are a co-founder with a designer.” “The 2015 #DesignInTech Report pointed out that less than half of design leaders in tech have backgrounds in traditional design disciplines, and instead bring engineering and social sciences skills to the unique challenges of design in the tech world. With all top ten U.S. business schools having student-led design organizations, perhaps in the future the largest number of designers in new industries will come from business schools.”
In his wide-lens look at the industry, Maeda doubled down on his original thesis: That big businesses want, need, and will pay for design. Maeda closes on a slide highlighting the “Three Kinds of Design” currently at play. There’s design (“classical design”), business (“design thinking”), and technology (“computational design”). The last two have to do with creating products with empathy for the customer, and keeping pace with current paradigms in technology, respectively. They also tend to have more reach. Where classic design might impact a million active users, design thinking and computational design stand to affect hundreds of millions. What’s more, classic design projects tend to be finite; whether it’s a building or a page layout, once they’re built, they’re done. In business or technology design, the product is always evolving.
Take Bevel, former Foursquare executive Tristan Walker’s haircare and shaving line designed specifically for men with coarse and curly hair. Or Progyny, a digital platform for fertility health and information about IVF treatment and egg-freezing options. These companies aren’t as well-known as, say, Snapchat, but they’re deploying well-designed systems that cater to underserved markets. These companies, Maeda says, are ones that have established trust and spurred “social transformation.”
Maeda spends time applauding Google, for becoming an examplar of computational design philosophy. Speaking of Snapchat, Maeda singles it out when spotlighting the reach and rapid evolution of computational design. Snapchat clearly recognizes its core appeal, and offers it to users quickly and seamlessly; rather than ask you to swipe or push a button to access your phone’s camera, it opens by dropping you right into the app’s hallmark function. At the same time, the company is nimble and relentless in its pursuit of novel features (consider the success of speed overlays, geofilters, and selfie lenses). These invisible, ever-evolving experiences are what make Snapchat work.
When big companies ask for design, these are the kinds of results they’re likely hoping for. Maeda points out that, while corporate interest in design is certainly a good thing, there’s a supply and demand problem. When consulting companies set out to boost their design chops, they’re not necessarily looking for classically trained graphic artists, architects, or industrial designers. More often than not, they’re looking for people who can work on more esoteric tasks, such as designing culture, or designing systems — areas of study that have yet to be incorporated into business school curriculums. But “there’s a gap between what tech needs and what the programs are creating,” Maeda says. “Business schools can’t move as fast, so students are making design clubs in their schools.” Last year’s report celebrated the proliferation of student-led design clubs at MBA programs like Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford; it seemed like a harbinger of more sophisticated design education.
On blending the arts and technology he mentioned: “Every computer program is a tree. It’s a tree of some form. It’s a binary tree. It’s a symbol tree. Therefore every outcome of the program is on that tree. Every possible permutation is on that tree. The challenge for the artist is to be off the tree. So artists and technology have to work really hard. Because technology is constraining the artist so tightly. We have to celebrate the artist and the technology who break free from that tree. It’s not trivial.” And on the nature of art: “Art is about the enigma. It’s about the paradox. It’s the welcome mystery. So if you don’t get art, it’s working on you, and that makes people feel more uncomfortable. … There’s art everywhere. … I like to hunt for art, specifically in airport bathrooms. I was walking into a men’s room, and I saw this (at right), the most gorgeous kinetic sculpture I’d ever seen. … Art is everywhere. It exists in how you see the world. And the artist can sometimes help cooperate with you to see it more clearly.” Lessons from his time in the VC world: “I can see now that the best startups today can no longer compete with technology. They need the creative part. They need the design part. Billions of dollars are being invested in companies that are led by designers, led by artists, alongside technologists. It’s a great time for the arts.”
When John Maeda landed in Silicon Valley in 2013 to take on a new role as a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, he didn’t have a car — or even a place to stay. But instead of booking a hotel, he decided to navigate Menlo Park via the sharing economy. “People said, ‘Oh, you must be learning so much in Silicon Valley from all the CEOs,’ “ he says. “And I’m like, ‘No, I’m learning through Airbnb hosts and Uber drivers.’”
He’s also serving as the chair of eBay’s Design Advisory Board, which is helping the company better integrate design thinking into its products and work spaces. “Tech companies are learning how to embrace design,” says Maeda. “What I learned in the context of working at a large corporation system like eBay was that you just have to find all the designers and pull them together. There you have community, and that’s how it starts.”
Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University, told: “Let me invoke one of Silicon Valley’s heroes, Steve Jobs, who would show a slide of two “street signs” at an intersection: technology and liberal arts. This was someone who turned to design as the critical differentiator for a technical product. The liberal arts were very much a part of what enabled him to be as innovative and as inventive as he was.” “I was talking to [Google executive chairman] Eric Schmidt about this just a month ago. We don’t know where the world’s going. Technology is disrupting so many traditional assumptions, employment options, economic foundations that we don’t know what kind of jobs students are going to have a decade from now. People need to have the skills and adaptability that will make them flexible enough to be successful in a world that we can’t predict. So what are those kinds of skills? … They said, “We don’t have enough of the humanities and the liberal arts in China. Our students don’t know how to ask questions. They take too much for granted. They don’t know how to use their imaginations to get beyond where we are to where we want to be.” I was astonished.”.
Elena Evgrafova, chief-in-editor of Harvard Business Review Russia, wrote: “A friend of mine once surprised me by telling that when he was a postodoctoral researcher in Harvard, he was giving an elective course named “How to read Faulkner”. Is not it awesome?! And this is not about Faulkner even — one could live without him — and not that one needs special skills of a sort to read his novels. Just, there is something extravagantly beautiful in attending this peculiar course between lectures on marketing and statistics. Something tells me, although, that it is not that pointless. Reading of smart books and discussing them imparts a special quality to the mind. I would call it an ability to see a picture of the world in all its complexity. A talent to identify internal laws and drivers distinguishes smart person from a fool. And, it seems, intelligence depends not so much on innate speed of chemical interactions in brain, but on habit to think outside the box, to consider different approaches, to come to conclusions without reliance upon authority’s opinion. How to develop this skill? One could try to strain his brain in an unusual way. Say, to listen to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and note that style of young Glenn Gould differs from one he played in when he matured. It appears that Steve Jobs had similar view — well, at least he always had two versions of Gould’s variations at hand. Reading of thick, complex books like these of Faulkner helps one to release his brain from pressure of conventional schemes and concepts.”
In 2005, Dax Dasilva founded fintech-startup Lightspeed, a provider of point-of-sale software. Over the next six years, it became one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies. In 2011, Dasilva bought what he calls an “amazing warehouse space” in a hip part of Montreal called Mile-Ex. Previously owned and lived in by a film producer, the space had an outdoor pool theater and a “great vibe” overall. Soon, Lightspeed moved into the space.
It required Dasilva to think about what he wanted for Montreal, and for the world. The more he thought about it, he says, the more he felt that one pressing problem was a kind of separation: a separation of humans from nature. A separation of humans from each other. A separation even of certain types of creative people from other types of creative people. Dasilva thought it was silly, for instance, that visual artists in Montreal had their own set of parties, while music people had their own set of parties, but rarely did the two groups mix.
By fall 2014, Dasilva began to commit considerable time and his own funds into transforming the Mile-Ex space into a cultural nonprofit called Never Apart. He hired an executive director he knew from the art world named Michael Venus (known especially for what Dasilva calls a “larger-than-life drag personality”), and a musical director named Anthony Galati, who had headed a top techno label in Montreal. Dasilva and his colleagues have spent 2015 building Never Apart into Montreal’s new cultural It Space.
When he and his colleagues were planning the space, says Dasilva, they met with similar organizations in New York, like the Norwood Club in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, founded in 2007 as a novel, artsy riff on stuffier social clubs of yore. “We’re in the spirit of Norwood, in that people come to exchange ideas, but we’re less of a social club than Norwood,” says Dasilva. Ultimately, Never Apart shares more DNA with alternative art galleries and music production studios, he says.
“There is rightly a huge focus on turning out STEM graduates,” says Michelle Tullier, Georgia Tech’s executive director of Career Development, “but there’s also a lot of awareness of the importance of the skills and knowledge that comes with a liberal arts degree. Those two things do not have to be in conflict.” “I think the mixed message is coming from many angles,” Tullier says. As the exorbitant costs of a college education keep questions about its value and purpose in the national spotlight, students, their parents, lawmakers, and educational institutions themselves are all rushing to make claims about how and whether a four-year degree pays off. At their heart is the question of what payoff looks like. Is it landing a high-salaried job after graduating, or becoming an informed, critical-thinking member of society? Should the focus be on filling the STEM gap or on education for its own sake? In Tullier’s view, “it doesn’t have to be an either-or.” Today’s market needs aren’t a much better guide for long-term career planning.
“The liberal arts connect with a person’s authentic self,” says Mary Raymond, associate dean of students and director of Career Development at Pomona College. In that view, a liberal arts education is as valuable as it’s ever been, for much the same reasons its advocates have put forward for decades. For students, that means figuring out how their passions connect with other, real-world opportunities. “I wouldn’t say go study classics and religion and read all summer,” Raymond says. “Take a coding class. Take something that challenges the other side of your mind.” The next generation of workers will need to keep exploring, adapting, and broadening their experiences — something a liberal arts degree has always offered great training in.
Sean Monahan explained why organizations are turning to artists when in a brand-identity existential crisis: “Culture is changing faster than ever. If you want to understand what that means, you need more than someone … who can lead you through the cultural shifts in real time and who are actually engaged in the production of culture.” Greg Fong broke down the challenge of using standard marketing research: “Everyone who is using the same market-driven data are coming to the same conclusions, and they realize there isn’t a competitive advantage to using the same information as everyone else, so they turn to outsiders who are thinking outside of the profit margin to show them their blind spots.”
A century ago, the CEO was a fearsome whip-cracker. Fifty years ago, he was motivator dangling corporate incentives. And now, according to the 2015 Wolff Olins Leadership Report, the CEO has evolved into something new: The designer-in-chief of corporate culture, a mentoring figurehead who gets into the trenches with his employees and inspires them to create the next great innovation. How? By instilling them with the qualities that designers have: the ability to recognize problems or opportunities, propose fixes, and iterate those fixes until they’ve found the one right solution.
Mark Zuckerberg recommends “Creativity, Inc.” (available in the Life.SREDA’s corporate library for its employees) — Zuckerberg’s 5th pick for his Year of Books is Ed Catmull’s book. In 2013 ING appointed Ralph Hamers as their new CEO just after banks were about to recover from the financial crisis. At these times consumers and companies had little to no trust in the financial sector and their demands in financial services shifted significantly. The outside world changed too, for example the rise of mobile banking and the rise of fintech companies. Dorothy Hill joined Hamers’ team as the new Director of Corporate Strategy. They both wanted to think outside-in and putting the customer central when it comes to ING’s strategy.
She explains: “Within a time frame of nine months, Ralph visited many countries in which ING is active and he spoke with a variety of stakeholders, including retail customers, corporate clients, unions, regulators, but also other kinds of stakeholders such as the SER and investors.”.
ING gathered all of the data from this research and wrote a bulky 250 page report. In this strategy report they pointed out the bank’s strengths and weaknesses in detail, their position within different markets and the general direction in which ING would like to head. Hill: “the strategic plan is highly detailed and gives us guidance as to how to manage things at different levels, but you can’t expect employees and other stakeholders to read the whole thing. At the same time, our employees are absolutely crucial to our company, because we really wanted to reshape the culture of our company. This reshaping was mandatory to many of the changes we wanted to make.
The answer to this question is: use a compelling story. “Nobody feels inspired by abstract stuff such as ‘creating shareholder value’. People need a purpose in their work, they look for meaning. This aligns perfectly with ‘placing our customers first’. The real question was, how do we put this into words in a way that excites our employees and which they can use in their day to day work?
Hill assembled a team of ten members from different departments, including HR, investor relations and internal and external communications. They locked themselves up in a room for a day and applied the Context Canvas, Cover Story Vision Canvas and the 5 Bold Steps Vision Canvas. The team was guided along the way by strategy designers of Business Models Inc. It was a very inspiring session.
Special attention was paid to employees who generally don’t have direct contact with clients. “We developed a ‘Closer to the customer’-program for head office staff. As part of the program they were asked to shadow colleagues who communicate with customers on a daily basis like customer service agents or account managers.”
Now that the organization applies design thinking, ING will be able to actually meet the customer’s demands now and in the future. “This is because design thinking forces you to constantly check if a change you are considering really fulfills the customer’s needs”, says Hill. “For instance, we observe trends like blockchain, artificial intelligence and robotics. How do these technological developments influence our business? To answer this question, we have developed a tool kit which we use for our own organization, but also to help our clients. After all, many of those developments influence other markets and industries as well. It feels amazing to help other companies with a tool which we initially created for ourselves.”
Billionaire investor Mark Cuban offered a perhaps bleak prediction on the future of jobs in an interview: “No finance. That’s the easiest thing — you just take the data have it spit out whatever you need. I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker.” Cuban highlighted English, philosophy, and foreign language majors as just some of the majors that will do well in the future job market.
What the landscape of design will look like in 2020, according to the most innovative designers.
THE WALLS OF DESIGN WILL CRUMBLE
As everything becomes a connected device over the next five years, you’ll see a crumbling of the wall between graphic designers, technologists, interfaces designers, and so on. To design the cross-platform experiences of the future, everyone’s brains will meld together. I see Jony Ive taking over software design at Apple as the way things will continue to happen in the future; the distinction between industrial design, digital design, and system design will continue to blur. — Mike Treff, Managing Partner, Product Design Group at Code and Theory
THE RISE OF THE SELF-EDUCATED DESIGNER
Self-learning options for designers in tech will outpace offerings from universities and colleges. Because the knowledge required to design in the medium of technology continues to expand and evolve, real-time learning will be more important than what a college course can teach in a perfected, hermetically sealed form within the span of a semester or quarter. Options to keep with the pace of learning will expand through Starter League, Codecademy, and General Assembly. — John Maeda, Design Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
More and more, individuals trained in design will hold leadership positions. But not all will be qualified. It will always take a broad understanding of a business and the vision and strength to take it somewhere. But strong business skills combined with design training and talent will become a potent combination. Not all will be successful, but a few will kick ass. — Robert Brunner, Founder, Ammunition Group
THE OBJECT WILL BE LESS IMPORTANT THAN EVER
The object will be less important than ever. As products become increasingly more complex and in many ways act as portals to much broader functionality or capability, the object that delivers this will become even more important, especially as a means to attract and drive participation in an ecosystem. But the object being well designed will not alone be enough for success. The entire ecosystem and all its interaction points must be as well designed as the object itself in order for sustained adoption to occur. — Robert Brunner, Founder, Ammunition Group
OFFICES WILL BECOME OUR CATHEDRALS AND RECORDING STUDIOS
Work has become like singing, you can do it anywhere now. That’s why offices will need to become more like cathedrals and recording studios. Cathedrals because singing in that setting (atmosphere, reverb, etc.) alters the character of even a single human voice and inspires a greater performance. Recording studios because they are specifically designed to help create and capture the highest-quality experience of singing — capture that and reproduce it. When we can work anywhere, people should want to come to an office because it gives them a heightened experience of work that can be had nowhere else. — Ben Watson, Executive Creative Director, Herman Miller
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DESIGN AND DATA SCIENCE WILL GROW TIGHTER
As we build more connected smart things that observe and measure us and our world, the relationship that design, functionality, and experience have with real-time data analytics will grow. So designers will need to know how to play with data scientists, and work together to build new definitions of everyday objects as we make them smarter and more effective. — Robert Brunner, Founder, Ammunition Group