The following is the introduction to Design Forward: Creative Strategies for Sustainable Change by frog’s founder Hartmut Esslinger. The book will be released on Feburary 16, 2013 and is available for pre-order now.
After a long career with frog — the design agency I founded in 1969 — and as a creative consultant for some of the world’s best and most successful entrepreneurs, executives, and companies, I wrote my first book, A Fine Line — How Design Strategies Are Shaping the Future of Business. In that book, I focused on the corporate side of the business-design alliance and outlined why Strategic Design is most successful when it is an integral part of a company’s innovation and business strategy. Due to both the business focus and the limited space, A Fine Line wasn’t as complete as many would have wished, and I fielded many questions about organization and process in the field of design and in the working relationship between business and design. Because A Fine Line was published in German, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, the feedback was — and still is — global in nature. I used the questions, comments, and criticism that I received about my first book as my motivation for writing Design Forward as well as for structuring the information I offer within it.
When Phil Duncan speaks, whether on stage or in a one-on-one conversation, you can hear the emotion in his voice and read it on his face. You can practically hear him smile.
And he’s not shy about admitting that he cries when he hears moving stories of real-life moms sharing their pride over their children, when they have qualified to compete at the Olympic Games. As the Global Design Officer of Procter & Gamble, Duncan knows that tapping into consumers’ emotions—as well as those of the P&G staff—is an effective way to build not only individual consumer-goods brands, but also a behemoth of a company such as P&G.
He and I met up in New York after he gave a talk at the Design Management Institute’s annual conference this past fall. His presentation had many of the executives and creatives in the audience choked up when he shared videos from the 2012 London Olympics, where P&G hosted a family center for athletes and their kin. The center featured P&G products and, quite honestly, some pretty lovely furniture and décor. Competitors could treat their moms to a salon treatment; there was a man-cave-like environment where it was possible to sit back and watch sports in a relaxed way. There was food; there were diapers. It was a huge production, but it tied beautifully into those inspiring TV ads that ran during the Olympics, claiming that P&G is…the sponsor of moms. (Cue the tears! I admit, I was guilty of crying when I saw the ads, too).
Here’s our lightly edited and condensed chat about what Duncan calls ‘the next chapter in design strategy,’ now that many major corporations have design in the C-suite. Not surprisingly, it centers around tapping into consumer emotions.
Why is it so important for a brand to spur an intense reaction, such as tears?
When you have a deep insight of consumers and are truly empathetic to them, it’s important to hold true to that understanding with every aspect of strategy. For instance, our approach during the Olympics was to show that we are in service to moms and families. We didn’t get distracted with “broad consumer activations.” The idea of communicating how P&G supports families above all else paid off from a company and business standpoint. And from a personal standpoint, too. Honestly, it was a transformative experience internally. I felt that I moved from being a design officer to being in service to moms and the home across the world.
That said, what are some specific and practical tips that you have for drawing people in emotionally, both internally and externally?
I use the saying, “the fruits are in the roots.” What I mean by that is that it can be very helpful to take inspiration from a deep understanding of a brand’s heritage, where it comes from. Then, tap into a new mindset, and new insight, and add an element of creativity to keep that insight fresh. I tell my colleagues that it is the responsibility of brand teams to write the next chapter for the P&G book, not to write a new book. The goal is always to keep the story interesting and moving forward. Keep the characters going. And never stop writing. Otherwise, there is always the temptation of changing everything to follow some sort of trend. Then you risk being disingenuous. At P&G, we always keep in mind the brands people know and love, and then figure out how to make them contemporary by figuring out their relevance in people’s real lives, and then tie that sense back to the company’s heritage.
If you can do so, then you’ll tap the source of truth and inspiration of the brand. But of course it’s really important to then place it into the context of contemporary competition in the marketplace.
“What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power,” novelist Michael Ondaatje writes in The Cat’s Table, and it was a strange coincidence that I came across this enigmatic line on the descent down from Davos, the Swiss ski resort that had just convened some of the world’s most powerful men and women for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum.
The paradox of Davos is that it is both highly public and highly secretive. Relationships and business transactions are on show, as much as they are taking place in back room meetings and private encounters on the peripheries, far away from the glitz and glamour and where the buzzing doesn’t need buzzwords. Davos is the great equalizer and the great divider at the same time. The hierarchies are both formal and explicit (manifest by the color of your badge), as well as situational and subtle, with small smart mobs forming around the most sought-after, both on- and offsite (“one minute you’re in, the next you’re out”), in emotional roller coaster, funicular, and shuttle rides between recognition and rejection, belonging and alienation.
The SCAD graduate students split up into teams and gathered around their copies of the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT), considering their homework assignment for their next class period. Their task: To pilot the first activity they would use with local high school students as their first introduction to working together in a group. In two days, they’d have to do a dry run with their classmates. As they looked over the toolkit’s action map, they began to where they should they begin? By having a “Knowledge Fest” or a “Skill Share?” By helping their group identify a goal right away, or by having fun and getting to know each other?
The CAT has been out for almost two months, and from the emails and conversations we’ve received since releasing the CAT, situations such as the above are happening more and more. The toolkit is being deployed far more broadly than expected, such as in our new Chinese language edition. People are finding new uses for it, from local education to entrepreneurship in global organizations. And we’ve embarked on our first educational pilot, working with SCAD’s Design for Sustainability program.
How did this happen? And in what ways can you use the CAT that you may not have considered?
This past September, I spoke at AIGA Seattle's Into the Woods, a multidisciplinary retreat whose theme was "Survive and Thrive." Five speakers were asked to speak on that theme through the particular lens of their practice, on topics as varied as sustainability (Scott Boylston) to inspiration (Jeanette Abbink) to creativity (Howard Lichter) to business (Seth Johnson and Karen Kurycki). The topic I was asked to speak on was design and education.
In business today, “user experience” (or UX) has come to represent all of the qualities of a product or service that make it relevant or meaningful to an end-user -- everything from its look and feel design to how it responds when users interact with it, to the way it fits into people’s daily lives. You even people talking about UX as the way in which a consumer connects to a business -- all the touch-points from marketing to product development to distribution channels.
It’s the “new black,” to borrow from a fashion phrase—as well as a reference to its influence on profitability.
The value of UX as a corporate asset is no longer in question. Just look at the $1 billion price tag paid by Facebook for Instagram, whose primary asset is not technology, but the best photo sharing UX in the business (and some of the best UX talent as well). Look at the recent Apple vs. Samsung judgment: 93% of the damages were related to design patents that define the iOS user experience. The growing appreciation of the value of UX is not restricted to consumer-facing tech companies, like Google with their new focus on unified design or Microsoft Windows 8 with its sleek new “Metro” design language. At frog, we hear the same things from executives in financial services, healthcare, and infrastructure. Companies like GE and Bloomberg are recruiting leading designers to build UX capabilities at a corporate level. We even hear it from our clients in the international market, such as regional telecommunications companies, who see a “unified user experience strategy” like Apple’s as a sign of status.
The recognition of UX’s importance seems to be slowly sinking into corporate culture the way "brand" did a decade ago. Today, it is not uncommon to hear an executive talk about managing a $30 billion brand. But that was a foreign idea not so long ago. As brand thinking has been institutionalized, management has figured out ways to assign value to this "asset." So, if you are an enlightened executive in the post-Steve Jobs era, how do you grow and manage this emerging corporate asset? Some companies believe that outsourcing to design firms is becoming less attractive as the value of UX as a core business asset increases. frog and our peers in the design consulting world have become more adept in recent years at helping companies build this capacity internally. But even as big business looks to bring UX and design talent in-house, few companies are willing to embed designers on every product development team (and, frankly, there is not enough talent to go around even if they wanted to). So in-house UX groups generally focus on a few high-impact product releases a year, leaving much of the business – and most of your offering – untouched. So what is management to do? How can large organizations deploy this capability on an enterprise scale?
Five years ago, frog launched Project Masiluleke, an attempt to tackle the HIV epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, with a mobile-technology solution (in this case, a simple text message that encouraged people to reach out for information on HIV testing and treatment). It was our first meaningful social impact collaboration, and the beginning of frog’s mandate to create a series of initiatives that deploy mobile services in a humanitarian context and build support for scalable solutions that can have a positive social and economic impact.
Back in 2007, we had zero funding for Project Masiluleke and no idea how we might make any sort of dent in the AIDS crisis in South Africa. All we had was the fairly tenuous belief that we could be a catalyst for the role of design and technology in the social sector—that we could help bring together a diverse group of cross-sector partners and address one of the most challenging public health problems in the world. One way or another we felt fairly sure that this endeavor would teach us new things about the role of design and renew our appreciation regarding the privilege of being a designer.
In the last 12 months we have seen our commitment to deep learning through social-sector collaboration reach a new scale both within frog and across a broad ecosystem of industries and fields, from health to energy, finance, gender empowerment, and disaster response. We have engaged teams from almost every frog studio, from Shanghai to Kiev to Austin, Texas, in this work. And we have seen deep partnerships with organizations such as UNICEF reach substantial scale. We are working on a variety of solutions that include, but expand beyond, mobile technology. We have also been able to attract a much more diverse set of funding from corporate foundations (Nike Foundation, GE Foundation, Johnson & Johnson) to philanthropic organizations (Robert Woods Johnson) to NGOs (World Health Organization and UNICEF).
Andy Warhol knew it all along: “Good business is the best art.” And lately, a number of business thinkers and leaders have begun to embrace the arts, not as an escapist notion, a parallel world after office hours, or a creative asset, but as an integral part of the human enterprise that ought to be woven into the fabric of every business—from the management team to operations to customer service.
John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and author of the book Redesigning Leadership, predicts that artists will emerge as the new business leaders and cites RISD graduates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, co-founders of Airbnb, as prominent examples. The author William Deresiewicz heralds reading as the most important task of any leader. John Coleman makes a compelling case for the role of poetry in business. Intel named pop musician will.i.am as director of creative innovation. And the World Economic Forum has been inviting arts and cultural leaders to its events for several years and this year added the ‘Role of the Arts’ to its Network of Global Agenda Councils.
Indeed, the “art” of business becomes ever more important as the “science” gets ever more ubiquitous. Against the backdrop of our hyper-connected economies and as Big Data and sophisticated analytical tools allow us to maximize process efficiencies and standardize best innovation practices worldwide, intuition and creativity remain as the only differentiating factors that enable truly game-changing innovations. Like any “soft asset,” they cannot be exploited, only explored. And like artists, innovators must develop a mindset and cultivate creative habits in order to see the world afresh and create something new.
Two months after the New York City region was hit by Superstorm Sandy, the devastating scope of its damage is becoming even clearer. Consolidated Edison, for example, recently estimated that the cost to repair its electric grid in the New York area will reach $450 million. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, power was lost at many homes and businesses, affecting millions of people. This meant no heat, no way to store food safely, and no way to charge mobile phones for basic emergency communication. As of today, many residences, offices, and stores are still reeling from business lost and lives upturned by losing electricity. Hearing these stories (and because many of us at frog experienced power loss ourselves at home and at work), we wondered what simple-to-use emergency power-generating solutions could prove effective as a disaster relief tools.
Across sectors, from communication technology to retail to emergency response and education, frog has explored, analyzed, and brought to market concepts with the goal of improving how we experience and share our worlds as human beings. We’ve curated some of the most daring, and widely recognized, thoughts from frog in 2012.
Download our collection of frog's most thought-provoking essays, timely interviews, and recognized projects here or browse the digital version below.