A conversation with Nick Gould:
Culture, leadership, and the world of design consulting
Last November, Nick Gould was appointed President and COO of Cooper, the renowned design consultancy and training center founded by luminary Alan Cooper. Nick joined Cooper when his company, Catalyst Group, was acquired by Cooper in 2015. Nick also served on the Board of Directors of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) from 2010–2016 and as IxDA President from 2014–2016.
Ruth Tupe visited Nick at Cooper’s New York studio, where they discussed culture, leadership, and the world of design consulting.
Q: Cooper merged with Catalyst in 2015. What was the transition like?
A: It’s been really interesting to combine two companies with different cultures. The San Francisco and New York studios each have their own histories, traditions, work styles, and brilliant yet strong-willed people. Despite being in the same profession, there were slightly different approaches to things like project scoping, staffing, and some other cultural nuances that we had to respect. I feel that we combined the best aspects of both studios, and and it’s been great for everyone involved.
Q: How did you manage to blend these two cultures in the transition?
A:. It was a team effort. We taught each other new skills and best practices, we defined and reinforced our shared values, and ultimately developed new traditions together. The culmination was our first all-company event, which was held at Alan and Sue’s ranch in Petaluma — the “Monkey Ranch.” It was two days of collaboration and fun (and partying) in which we collectively imagined a future for Cooper that everyone could get behind.
People drive culture. As a leader, it’s critical to help your team to bring their best selves to work. It’s also important to invest in people who want to champion your culture because they naturally instill those values in others. You’ll find others mirroring their tone, voice, and energy.
Design Leadership’s Unique Approach
Q: You’ve been managing designers for a long time. What advice do you have for emerging design leaders?
A: Designers are naturally independent and curious and they’re trained to challenge assumptions. When you give a good designer a directive, they usually ask “why?”and “how do we know?” which can sometimes be frustrating. The best way to manage them is to focus on collaborating with them and getting their input. Even when you’re under pressure as a leader to deliver, you need to take pushback in stride and be prepared with evidence and research to proactively address questions about the project. The goal is to empower your designers rather than tell them what to do.
Q: How did your time as IxDA President impact you? What are your proudest achievements?
A: IxDA introduced me to a professional tribe of amazing people all around the world — this includes dedicated IxDA volunteers and my fellow board members and officers, as well as the thousands of people who attended the Interaction conferences, globally.
My goal as President was to clarify and align our structure and purpose. For example, IxDA established itself as a nonprofit during my tenure because this status reflected the true mission of the organization — to elevate the practice of interaction design on a global scale in the service of improving the human condition. Other professional associations might simply provide training and networking, but IxDA brings leaders together in a way that empowers designers to effect positive social change.
The state of design
Q: What is the current state of design agencies? How does Cooper fit into this?
A: The trend towards organizations building their own in-house teams is growing. Agencies like Cooper are now working with these teams to instill cutting-edge design practices to reinvent, reinvigorate, and reorient how they operate.
It’s important to acknowledge how design has impacted the business landscape. We’ve brought whole new concepts, ideas, and terminologies into the workplace. Fortunately for all of us, there’s still a lot of work to do.
As far as large enterprises are concerned, design went “mainstream” in a shockingly short amount of time. Nobody was using the term “design thinking” a decade ago, but now it regularly appears in Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg, the New York Times, etc.
Design is also being applied more broadly and more holistically than it was in the past. Consultancies like Cooper now design for a lot more than just screens. Our current design practice has more to do with how people interact, how they tell stories, how they feel, how they accomplish goals, and how they deploy products and services. Our biggest task right now is explaining how we can do all of this to our clients in a plain and clear manner, and then delivering on that promise.
Fun Fact about Nick
Q: What’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
A: I was never trained as a designer! I was an attorney, and also worked in product strategy and business development for a few large companies. When I joined Catalyst Group (17 years ago), it was my first introduction to design. I never expected to be here twenty years later, but I wouldn’t change a day. You never know where you’re going to end up or where your curiosity and passion will take you.
This interview is a first in a series of profiles from the IxDA community. If there is someone you would like to see featured, let us know by getting in touch at email@example.com