Making Things People Want >
Making People Want Things

john v willshire
Published in
10 min readJun 9, 2015



It is three years, nine months, six days, four hours and forty-seven minutes since I carefully marked out Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things in the visitors book at Clinic in London.

I signed it @willsh. The @ symbol was first used to measure quantity, but is now helps measure quality (or indeed lack of). It tells you who made something, and invites you to connect with them instantly. It is a maker’s mark with a living stream of consciousness.

The tools we use today to create, capture or communicate mean that the things we make are invariably linked to us, their creators, and also to the fixed moment in time when they were brought into being.

When we record the minutes and seconds so accurately, it is perhaps hard to think of anything as ‘timeless’ from now on. The ripples always start somewhere.

The original Instagram photo of the guest book at Clinic, London

In this case, I shared a photo of it on Instagram; the image, date, time and place marked for as long as anyone can find that image file. Then I shared it on twitter, then the blog, then…

Wait, let’s start earlier.

— — — — — — — — —

It is four years, one month, five days, one hour and thirty-two minutes since I resigned as Chief Innovation Officer at PHD in London, a position I’d held for some five years.

Do I recall this with such certainty because I posted a picture of my boss’s reaction to the news on Instagram? No, of course not, what do you take me for? It’s because I decided to resign on May 4th 2011. Star Wars Day. Shortly before lunch.

Reading that back, I’m torn between which of the two is worse.

Why resign? It was a great job, at a great agency. In truth, something bothered me about the world I worked in. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, so instead I left to find out…


It is three years, ten months, and about twenty days since I sat down with some blank playing cards, a black fine point 1.0mm Sharpie, and stumbled upon a phrase that’s changed my life:

Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things.

I can’t even remember why I’d written make, people, want, and things on the cards in the first place. It doesn’t really matter now. Perhaps that’s one of the beguiling things about a good creative process; you discover things you weren’t looking for.

Put separate words on cards. Move them around. An old trick, yes, but the best trick.

Once discovered, once lodged in the conscious, it appears Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things is hard to shake off.

Perhaps, if “the limits of our language are the limits of our world” (Wittgenstein), then by this lingual slight of hand we can find ourselves transported to another world entirely.

This new world is a place where we can explore making things fit for purpose right now, rather than daubing fresh hieroglyphs on the tombs of brand gods people no longer worship. A place where we can discover new abilities, and reclaim old responsibilities.

MTPW > MPWT is a bridge between realms, spanning a chasm against the background of the times we live in. For too long, most companies have been content to simply exploit existing demand, and now find themselves unable to change.

MTPW > MPWT serves as the working ethos for Smithery, helping those companies explore alternative ways to create new demand, being small and nimble enough to dodge between the silos, and shaping experiences and prototypes with clients as we go.

From my experience across the last eight hundred and seventy one days, I’d like to offer some ideas about these four simple words.


i) Make

It is four years and a handful of weeks since I was sitting in a cottage in the Lake District, reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, the premise of which is the assertion that “making is thinking”. Why should such a simple idea be such a big deal?

Well, there was a distinction drawn between thinking and making in wider society during the last century. Perhaps most acutely, in the shift to become a knowledge economy we have held the act of thinking in ever-higher regard, separating the cerebral activities from manual endeavours, in order to justify the increasingly high value we now must place on knowledge.

In truth though, it is much harder to separate the two; as Joseph Brodsky put it, “no honest craftsman or maker knows in the process of working whether he is making or creating”. In all we do, we are likely to be simultaneously creating and perceiving.

Yet in marketing, the agency game is rigged, committed to creating divides and tension. Thinking is a nebulous commodity to be traded up front; the dance of a thousand meetings where people in white-walled meeting rooms out-reckon each other into submission.

The relationship between client and agency is centred around when making might start, not when it can stop. Even when early prototypes are made, they’re only shown in a glass walled room where respondents gorge on potato skins slightly less loaded than the questions.

Yet instead, we can create massive ongoing feedback loops that guide all of a company’s work, much in the same way as a blacksmith might use the sounds, shapes and resistance of metal-on-metal when shaping his work.

Making in today’s world is a much more useful form of thinking. When you keep doing things you’ve never done before, you become better at doing anything for the first time. By learning from failure, and honing our intuition, we can begin to thrive on uncertainty.

Make first, make quickly, make often, make where the world can see it, and you’re more likely to make things well.

ii) Things

It is more than three years since I was at a conference in London where Matt Jones, then of the newly monikered BERG, talked about an idea he’d been exploring…

“I’m proposing that the technologies of rapid fabrication and pervasive networks are allowing the tangible and intangible to switch places and mingle”

A future where products become services, then products again, looping in and out of previously well-defined domains. The same network that makes the @ symbol into our maker’s mark also starts to underpin that which we make, own, rent, or sell.

A hoopy frood used to know where his towel was. Soon the towel will know where it’s at all by itself.

So when I say ‘Things’, it is a purposefully fuzzy description of potential outputs in this strange future. Not products, not services, not brands, not adverts. Things are something that all different parts of an organisation come together to realise. Things are remarkable, in the sense that people bother to pass a remark about them. Things could mean, well, just about anything…

Which is very useful. Because in disruptive times, established companies are often too caught up in the specifics of what they currently do to grasp and utilise the generalities of what they could do.

Squint at a product, look obliquely at a service. What is it really doing? What else could do that? How would you build a subscription model, a freemium version, a paper prototype, a hand-cranked experience?

(I always defer to using ‘hand-cranked’ to mean a ‘people-powered’ version of something… don’t automate it until you know what’s going on when people react to a hand-cranked version)

Working in this oblique way allows us to experiment in ways that are both relevant to a company’s purpose, yet sufficiently removed enough from ‘business as usual’ to be of great value. It is an exploratory, creative form of innovation, and it unites different silos of a business together in new ways.

What’s more, it helps generate authentic stories for a business; advertising isn’t the thing you do, it’s the story of the things you’ve done. And the more interesting the things are, the more you’ve pushed at these fuzzy boundaries, the more interested people will be.

iii) People

It must be a little over fifty-seven years since John McKitterick, a senior marketing manager at General Electric, wrote a piece for a marketing textbook.

“The principal task of the marketing function”, he stated, “is not so much to be skilful in making the customer do what suits the interests of the business as to be skilled in conceiving and then making the business do what suits the interests of the customer”.

Being ‘user-centric’ has always been the marketer’s job. Unfortunately, the tools used by marketers and their agencies have been largely made redundant by a fragmenting media landscape.

The consumer was considered as homogenous as the products a factory produced. The occupation of the industry was to design brands and advertising for average people, because the research we had told us that everyone was average. Yet the demographic profiles previous relied upon look like the thinnest of ciphers now.

There is no average anymore. Everyone, without exception, goes to an extreme here or there. Some people learn inordinate amounts about the craft beers they drink, or the artisan coffees they buy. Some people spend hours on forums working out the best couponing strategies. Some people make a living from shooting videos of toy unboxings.

People is a collective word describing an otherwise dissimilar group. Because people are weird. Brilliantly, loveably, diversely weird in a way that you’ll never see if you think of them as mere ‘consumers’.

Stop focussing too much on how to influence the individual (and by inference, everyone else just like them), and instead make the most of how we’re a social species, much more likely to just copy each other, as Mark Earls explains so beautifully elsewhere in this book. It is the things between people that they use to make connections with each other that matter most.

To understand what these are, you have to build up a picture of diversity by talking to as many people as you can. This seems obvious, but it’s remarkable how far away from actual people marketers and their agencies tend to be. And rather than boil research down into ‘one key insight’, find the things that make people different, highlight them, celebrate them.

Then, look for the connections between people, the strands that draw them together, their conversations, their shared activities. Look between people, not at them in isolation. That way, you’ll stand a much better chance of making what they want.

iv) Want

It is nearly three quarters of a century since Maslow first published his “Hierarchy of Needs”. When people tend to talk about “consumer needs”, I have a simple principle; it’s not a need unless Maslow says it is. Everything else is just a want. As suits my belief, I’ve morphed Peter Doyle’s needs framework into three types of wants.

Firstly, there are Existing Wants, where the market already exists (butter, current accounts). Secondly, there are Latent Wants, things which don’t exist just yet, but they are pretty easy to spot by anyone (Dell IdeaStorm, My Starbucks Idea). Thirdly, there are Incipient Wants, the things that nobody really saw coming, but ‘couldn’t live without’ now they’re here (Walkman, iPhone).

Existing companies tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time working on something that serves an Existing Wants, and fixating on the six other things exactly like it. There’s a reason for this. Theodore Levitt (1960) highlighted the story of the US railroads who’d assumed themselves to be in in the railroad business, not the transportation business. They let in a new generation of companies, the airlines, who have come to dominate the nation’s transport infrastructure.

Failings of this type, pointed Levitt, always lies with the incumbent businesses; “To survive, they themselves will have to plot the obsolescence of what now produces their livelihood”. They’re often too busy looking locally at the competition, rather than at the wider landscape. You must look for the businesses that will make you obsolete.

Because right now, the start-up capitals of the world are filled with the brightest talent looking for a way to create new forms of business, as Ana Andjelic rightly highlights in her contribution to this book. If there’s any established business in the world that doesn’t believe they’re being targeted in this way, they’re not looking hard enough.

It is a highly useful discipline to identify whether you’re working on an Existing, Latent or Incipient Want by drawing out a physical map. You can start to fill in the spaces where other people are doing things. Are there any start-ups who’ve spotted this easy, latent idea, and are trying to realise it in a new way?

Mapping things out

Any groups of potential customers making their own version? Or if it’s truly an incipient want, what’s stopped people getting to it before? What makes this special? Who’s tried and failed?

Maps like these can be your best guide to discovering what people want, not just what you and your closest rivals want to sell to them.


This expresssion, Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things, has given me a useful degree of clarity in the work that I do now, just by following four simple principles:

i) use making as thinking
ii) be purposefully fuzzy with things
iii) remember that there are no average people
iv) make a map to discover an incipient want

And whilst it is only fifteen minutes since you began reading this exploration of Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things, I hope these principles prove to be just as useful for you.

The ripples always start somewhere.



john v willshire

Runs Smithery. Makes Artefact Cards. Said 'Make Things People Want' > 'Make People Want Things'.