A Year of Reflection

Last week I spoke at the IxDA conference in San Francisco. A number of people asked for a copy of the talk + slides. It’s not verbatim, but near enough. Based on feedback the running order has changed. Download the slides here.


This past year I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my career, think about the kind of people I’d like to work with, where and how.

The year started with an “unpaid sabbatical” as frog design went through a major change of leadership and refocussed on higher profitability. In April I left to set up a studio to handle incoming requests for projects and over the year devoted time to talking with people from across the design spectrum: from large creative agencies such as IDEO; agencies that were recently sold or looking to be bought (take your pick); in-house design teams; freelancers; students and those working in startups. You might imagine that a year of reflection doesn’t involve much doing, yet it turned out to be surprisingly productive both on a personal level and in what was delivered to clients.

I thought I’d use this talk to share some of what I learned about myself, and about our industry. It is divided into eight parts.

1. Understand Where You are on the Learning Curve

When we run foundational research projects, I prep the clients and the team with this curve. It recognises that there are things the team knows and things that it needs to know, even if they are not yet apparent. As much as you can plan a project, exactly where are you on the curve only comes into focus when you start the project. Most large consultancies sell process: their value proposition is to guarantee to move the client up the curve. However the very act of operating at scale, and the need to sell a known entity provides limited scope from deviating from their initial assumptions around team and process. This is a challenge when the approach that you use further down the curve does not have the same impact higher up and on most (large corporate) projects it results in rapidly diminishing returns for the client, and can quickly turn a high performing team into a demotivated one. To keep learning, the team in field needs to be empowered to change up their approach.

The learning curve can also apply to a domain, such as interaction design.

How many of you can describe what you do for a living? If you have trouble describing your job then you’re probably towards the far left of the curve. Whereas if there are people like you, enough to attend a conference about your domain, it means you’re much further up. If you’re in the seventh year of the conference you’re up here. How far will you push domain learning in this, the eighth year of the Interaction conference?

When I was in my 20's I expected my career learning curve to also look like this, where my depth of knowledge in one domain would rise, but where my ability to learn new things and apply them to interesting challenges would diminish over time. It turned out somewhat differently.

In my four years at frog design I learned more than in the ten preceding years at my former employer, Nokia. In this past year as an independent, setting up a my own studio and launching a new brand, I’ve learned more than the preceding four years at frog. While the shape of the curve seems to hold true for my career, I realise I’m much further down on a much larger curve, over time it is the scale that has changed. I hope that when I die, I’ll be down here, at the base of an exceedingly large curve.

What does your learning curve look like? Where are you on the curve? And where do you want to be?

2: Time versus Relevance

A simple observation: think for a moment about the products and services that have have the biggest impact on your life. How old are the teams and companies that brought them to market?

For any design agency or studio that that is working in the innovation space, how relevant is their work from 40 years ago? 10 years ago? 3 years ago? Last year?

Now answer the same question about individuals.

(What is the agency employee turn over?)

(Understand corporate amnesia.)

3. The gutter between consultant as change agent and corporate sell-out is littered with bonuses and broken dreams.

In a cyclical industry such as design innovation, the reality for larger agencies is that the pressure to meet payroll and take on well-paying work is paramount, they’ll have intense pressure to sell-out the values with which they started. Most, it seems, take the money.

This is probably a good place to talk about so-called “social impact” projects. While commercial projects are mostly confidential, social impact projects are more likely to be public facing. There is a significant difference between what agencies say and do.

For most agencies, the ability to talk about social impact work creates a significantly distorted view of what they do, which is naturally exploited by marketing and communications team who are looking for a feel-good story, and for the organisation that wants to attract talent. It’s natural that any agency likes to talk about their work, but the distortion between what they have done, and what they say have done (especially behind closed doors in client pitches), has reached obscene proportions.

You might argue that doing any “social impact” work is a good thing, it certainly sounds positive. However, give a designer an opportunity to travel somewhere interesting and they’ll always say yes, before they even know the purpose of the travel. The tension inside large agencies is that there is no desire for critical analysis of whether the social impact work could be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Sending highly paid consultants half way around the world to solve a local issue creates many tensions, dependencies and distortions.

If there’s a silver lining to this, it is that many of the people that these agencies are “serving” are rapidly coming online. It’s harder to exaggerate (essentially lie) about social impact when the people you are impacting have a voice and a platform to share and talk about their own experiences.

While there are commercial projects that are aligned with company values, recognise that there are two other categories of project, especially within large consultancies where no-one individual can know everything that is going on.

  • The first are projects that don’t align to the stated company values. You can easily tell these in a large consultancy by the number of “WTF moments” walking past project rooms, as in “WTF is our agency doing taking on this work?”
  • The second category are those projects that, by most metrics, are considered to be against the greater good of society. If as an industry we are comfortable talking about social impact projects, then logically at the other end of the spectrum there are anti-social impact projects. What characterises an anti-social impact project for you? Given the negative impact on morale within the company, why would an agency take them on? Who do you think works on them?

Based on speaking to people across the industry, the rule of thumb is: For every social impact project that a consultancy loves to talk about, there are two projects that it will want to hide.

(If you’re thinking of joining a large agency, which do you think you’ll have the opportunity to work on?)

(I’ve worked extensively in the social impact space, I would argue that my commercial work has had a far greater positive societal and social impact than the so-called social impact work.)

(Is it better to shut down an agency? Or take on less well-intentioned work?)

(My dream is very much alive.)

4. The Money You Turn Down, Defines You As Much as the Work You Take On

It is easy to read this as a negative, but its not.

Ultimately this is about knowing what you stand for, being prudent about what you take on. It’s about retaining that fire in your belly, that gleam in your eye, that spring in your step. It’s about asking difficult questions every step of the way, and keeping an open mind as to the impact of the answers.

5: Walk/Talk Ratio for Social Impact.

The walk/talk ratio is the amount of time that an organisation spends talking about the good things it might be doing e.g. social impact work, versus what it actually did on the ground.

6: Design the Design Experience

For people who put such a lot of effort into design, I’m constantly surprised at how little effort is put into designing the design experience. For the past fifteen years I’ve been experimenting with a process, and only recently felt confident enough to clearly articulate what it is, and understand how it is distinct from what else is out there.

Lauren Serota, Myanmar.

A Popup Studio is a live/work space where an international and local team can come together to work on a shared challenge. Anyone can rent a house and put people in it, but what does it take to consistently achieve personal and group flow, to bring out the best in a team? It a process that has taken many collaborations, and working on many projects across the globe to figure out. A Popup Studio can be as little as two people, the largest I’ve run had a crew of 22.

Last year the studio I founded, Studio D ran 19 Popup Studios around the globe, lasting from a few days to two months.

7. Creative consultancies are inherently risk averse

Every creatively driven organisation extolls its teams to take greater risks, to celebrate failure. Creative consultancies are particularly adept at talking about risk using their client’s money (which is both smart and in the context of risk, hypocritical). Changes to the agency business model is often discussed and put to one side by executives, but the mantra is rarely challenged in the project room.

Why is risk important to the people in this auditorium? Because for many of you, taking risks, putting something of meaning on the line enables a very pure form of creativity.

How does creative risk play out in different types of agency? The appetite for risk is significantly smaller the moment you formalise the work as a legal entity. The larger the organisation the more it has to protect, the more risk averse it becomes. The desire for replicability also reduces risk. I haven’t plotted whether teams are in-house or external, but my feeling is that internal teams often have a mandate for taking significant risks, but hold back, in part because of their desire to protect what they have “earned”, including salary and status in that organisation. A design studio that is looking to be sold has the most to protect, is the most risk averse.

To put risk into perspective I’d like to share the story of someone I met last year in Myanmar, lets call her Shwe. She’s an economic migrant that moved from her village in Myanmar’s dry zone and arrived in a small town of Lashio with little more than the clothes on her back. Separated from her family, servicing a family debt from medical costs she devoted herself seven days a week to building a small business. She, and millions of people like her have literally put everything on the line to build a better life. Whenever I think I’m pushing my own boundaries, or hear this industry inflate its own appetite for risk, it is Shwe and millions of people like her that put it into perspective.

8. Don’t Believe the Hype. Least of All Your Own.

I’ve done a fair amount of media facing work over the years. While I take the role as organisational spokesperson seriously, it is easy to become infected by media attention.

The thing to remember is that the media is overwhelmingly positive, their future access to people and organisations depends on it. The larger the organisation the more is at stake (including the article writer’s salary and bonus). They always inflate individuals over teams, whereas we all know that good service design is inherently a team activity. Almost everything that appears in the design media is a highly uncritical world view. My personal mantra is: avoid the design media (especially avoid looking at anything the media writes about you, and don’t buy into any “top 100 …” list), be your own harshest critic, and deflate hype wherever you see it.

Hype is at its most dangerous in organisations. Like individuals organisations face the challenge of balancing their public and their private selves. Unlike most individuals they employ professionals whose role it is to project out their best public face. A good communications team finds the voice of the organisation and presents it publicly, however the metrics of their success inevitably leads to hyping content. The hype is compounded in any organisation that is suffering significant talent loss, because extolling social impact work is the easiest feel-good fix. The problems really start when employees cannot distinguish between externally hyped communication and the reality. Over the past year I heard multiple times from staff who worked for an agency, and then shortly afterwards switched to working for their client and thus had a ring side view of the impact of the agency’s work. They provided examples of client projects that were lauded as great success stories inside an agency, but were considered both overpriced, creatively mediocre and with no discernible impact (both sides of the story can be true if the agency cares more about profit than about the client’s welfare).

Hype also operates at the level of the industry. It may seem like a blunt tool, but from my experience Google Trends “interestingness” maps well to a number of metrics by which creative consultancies measure their brand value, and consequently their perceived premium to clients. Even though its comparing apples to oranges, I’ve also added “design thinking” and “data science” to put the trend lines of two well known agencies into perspective. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.

“Google Trends Interestingness” for “IDEO”, “frog design”, “design thinking” and “data science”.

This seems like a good place to talk about two other people who have left a lasting impression on the way I see the world.

How many of you have heard of Doreen Lorenzo? Until recently she was the president of frog design. In her 16 years at that company she helped grow it from 60 people to 600, with revenue around $10 million dollars to over $100 million. She’d be the first person to talk to it being a team effort. However to me her main achievement was not financial but cultural, to instil a culture that supported very diverse creativity, at scale, while maintaining the desire to take risks.

The second person is Cara Silver who is working at Google X. Cara joined myself and Mark Rolston on a project exploring risk-mitigation strategies of consumers in Afghanistan. She threw herself in at the deep end, where many people would have not even walked to the edge of the pool. Cara has the best walk / talk ratio of anyone I know and puts the bravado of many of her males colleagues to shame.

I am fortunate to have been able to work with them both.

I mentioned at the beginning of this talk that last year I started a studio.

We’re a tight knit group that enjoys working together. We have no full time employees, no permanent workspace, and pull together a crew depending on project needs. Last year we hired 40 staff onto projects, running 19 Popup Studios in 13 countries, from edge-of-grid Myanmar, dense urban Japan to Saudi Arabia (read our end-of-year report to understand the metrics that are important to us). 80% of our clients are founders or c-suite in Fortune 500 companies. It would be too self serving to talk about the impact of our more socially driven work after only one year.

I didn’t set out to start a studio, but rather to create the minimum viable process and infrastructure to be able to take on challenging projects that can have significant impact, and do good work. The surprise has been how easy it has been to attract just the right talent, and the scale and quality of what we’ve been able to achieve as a team. The time for reflection, having months where I didn’t work on client projects (or need to work), earn a comfortable standard of living (for my family and the team when they are on staff) and still get a lot done, has been possible because of this process.

My parting questions for this audience are these: Where do you want to work? Who do you want to work with? And what is the minimal viable infrastructure that is required to make it happen?


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