How do you incorporate values and culture into your workplace in a more meaningful way than stencilling words on the walls or installing a table tennis table? What do clients really think about pitches? How do you make the business case for design? What would you do if one of your staff members sent you an email portraying you and your business partners as kings and the rest of the staff as children or slaves? How do you ensure that you don’t lose your creative spark while still keeping your clients happy? Are the robots going to take over design jobs?
These are a few of the questions addressed at this year’s Design Leaders Conference when more than 150 people from the Irish Design sector gathered at the Lighthouse Cinema. Attendees had a chance to consider their roles as designer leaders from both a practical and philosophical standpoint.
AI and the future of Design
The conference included presentations on future trends in design and consumption. Charlie Warwick, Senior Strategy Consultant at Kantar Consulting, informed the audience about the third age of consumerism, challenging them to move past innate psychological biases towards short-term thinking and take a much longer-term view. Stop thinking in quarters and start thinking in terms of decades or longer. Millennials and centennials are already changing the consumer landscape, with more emphasis on experiences over products. With insightful examples and case studies Charlie suggested ways in which designers can turn what could be a crisis into an opportunity.
Concerns about the implications of AI and machine intelligence was a thread running through the afternoon. The panel discussion between Gemma Gallagher, Service & Interaction Designer at Fjord, Kevin McCullagh, Founder of Plan and Thierry Brunfaut, Head of Creation and a Partner at Base Design was chaired by Zanya Dahl, MD Artizan Creative. Panel members had differing viewpoints on the perceived threats AI poses to design. Gemma observed that AI can be creative and generative and can create new things. However, she added that it is different to human creativity. Kevin’s view was that because humans deal in meaning, unlike machines, there is reason for optimism, “when a computer beats a chess grandmaster it doesn’t even know that it’s playing chess. Our strengths are making nuanced judgments that are hard to quantify.” Thierry observed that “humans can take risks, machines can’t do that. Yet.”
Values and Culture
The unlikely business marriage of Human Resources and Marketing was shown to make perfect sense by Imogen Pudduck and Carla Cringle of FizzPoPBang. Specialising in brand employee engagement, the two former Red Bull employees are on a mission to have people whistling on their way to work. The business case for happy workers was neatly summed up in a Richard Branson quote “look after your people, they look after your customers who look after your shareholders”. The benefits of happy, engaged employees can be measured in innovation, productivity and profitability. But great cultures don’t build themselves, Imogen and Carla warned, they don’t just happen. People plans need to be built alongside business plans. They suggested two questions that design leaders could consider in relation to staff: would I be sad if that person resigned? And, would I rehire this person if I knew then what I know about them now?
Thierry Brunfaut’s reflections on what happens when culture-building and employee engagement are left to chance offered a provocative counterpoint to FizzPopBang’s presentation. An outwardly highly successful design studio that was chaotic behind the scenes, he realised that Base would no longer be sustainable if it continued as it was going. Changing the culture from one of conflict between creative and management, long working hours and lunches eaten at desks to one with more harmony between staff, shared weekly lunches, goal-setting and reflections took six years to implement. A difficult journey, with bumps along the way, has resulted in a sea change in the way directors view their staff members as leaders rather than assistants. And, yes, they still complete time sheets.
The business case for design
Management consultancy firms are waking up to the value of design and acquiring design studios and advertising agencies. Kwame Nyanning of McKinsey and Company reflected on his reasons for moving from a design studio to working for one of the world’s oldest management consultancy firms. His presentation illustrated how designers’ and management consultants’ thinking may be diametrically opposed. However, designers need to engage in the business conversation and be able to define the values at stake, he said. “Maintain your cool and rely on your craft,” he advised, but remember to have a fact base to defend bold moves and “become part of the solution.”
Jonathan Kirk of Up to the Light offered the audience fascinating information on winning and retaining clients. Jonathan presented the results of 500 interviews with design agency clients. Each interview was at least 30 minutes or longer. His research indicates that pitching is here to stay with 99% of clients believing that a pitch is good business practice for high value projects. Perhaps more surprisingly, 68% of winning pitch presentations went against the brief in some way – suggesting that many clients don’t know what they want until they see it. The Up to the Light report offered very useful client perspectives into why some pitches fall flat so the design leaders at the conference can avoid hearing their least favourite five word sentence: “you came a close second.” Designers need to give their existing clients “more shower time,” according to one client interview. The audience left with copies of the full report containing vital insights into how to win pitches, retain and grow clients by adding value.
The practical need to focus on business and profitability does not mean having to be like everyone else or missing out on having fun. Rhonda Page suggested ways in which design agencies can differentiate themselves either through finding a niche or changing business model. It doesn’t have to be boring either. “What if it could be so much fun that everyone wants to play with you? Money follows joy” she noted. Chiara Aliotta’s presentation complemented Rhonda’s in her reflections on the necessity of fun and idle time for creativity. Not everyone can take their breaks with sea swims off a Greek island like Chiara, but agencies need to give designers time to do nothing. A strong advocate for transparency between designers and clients, she believes in asking clients for more time when needed. “Ideas come when dreaming, when in the shower. When rationality is sleeping the craziest ideas and connections emerge” she said.
For busy design leaders, the decision to take a day out of the office to attend a conference is no small thing. The talks, break out sessions and panel discussion repaid that day away from the desk with challenging ideas, new approaches to problems and plenty of industry insights. The conference was created with the aspiration that attendees would have time to reflect and return to work with renewed focus and energy. For the Design Enterprise Skillnet team the conference is the foundation for training, seminars and events in the coming year. More than just a day away from work, it’s the beginning of new ideas, connections made and leadership skills developed. It also starts the countdown to the Design Leaders Conference 2019.