Speaker interviews

Get to know the industry leaders who will be speaking at the “Gain” conference this fall.

Erica Eden

Senior industrial designer, Smart Design, and co-founder, Femme Den

Please tell us a little bit about your job title and what you do.
Erica Eden
: My job is to make consumers fall in love with product experiences.

How do you interpret the conference theme, “Design (Re)Invents”?
EE
: Design is a continually evolving profession. We may not notice the changes in our industry from one year to the next, but looking back at a design yearbook it becomes clear how things are drastically different today.

How is the concept of reinvention reflected in your work?
EE
: As an industrial designer, working in a cross-discipline environment creates a new level of expertise. Jack of all trades, master of one.

Opportunities and obstacles both can lead to the need to refresh business practices. Could you share an example of how you have reinvented yourself professionally? Or reinvented a client’s business?
EE
: The Femme Den questions the methodologies and standard working practices in design to create a more natural and productive working environment for everyone.

What innovative approaches or trends do you think are changing the way people do business right now?
EE
: Companies are going after the women’s market aggressively and often unsuccessfully. Clients are hungry for the answer on how to please this elusive market. 
 
What’s one rule (in design or otherwise) that was made to be broken?
EE
: Follow the leader.

Karin Fong

Partner/Director, Imaginary Forces

What do you do?
KF
: I direct and design for film, broadcast and environments. This can mean anything from creating title sequences for feature films, to directing commercials, to making specialized segments of a video game. Other projects involve integrating film with immersive spaces that range from Las Vegas to Lincoln Center.

How do you interpret “Design (Re)Invents”?
KF
: Design isn’t fixed in its definition… to be a designer is to wear many hats and to be expanding the role constantly. You have to be a bit of a chameleon—perhaps one day working within a filmmaker’s model, and another within an architectural one.

How is the concept of reinvention reflected in your work?
KF
: I’m always dealing with how stories are told and retold in different formats and for various venues and audiences. Whether reinterpreting a myth, reintroducing a well-known character, or adapting a narrative into a physical space, there’s the twist of taking what is known and familiar and making it surprising and new.

What was the first piece of design that had an impact on you?
KF: Sesame Street. The use of visuals and music—not to mention Muppets—communicated an idea of letters and numbers in a way that still sticks with me decades later.

What’s one rule (in design or otherwise) that was made to be broken?
KF: The original is always better than the sequel.

Jonathan Harris

Artist, computer scientist, designer and founder of number27

What do you do?

Jonathan Harris: I make (mostly) online projects that reimagine how we relate to our machines and to each other. I use computer science, statistics, storytelling and visual art as tools. I believe in technology, but I think we need to make it more human. I believe that the internet is becoming a planetary meta-organism, but that it is up to us to guide its evolution, and to shape it into a space we actually want to inhabit—one that can understand and honor both the individual human and the human collective, just like real life does. This is what I work to do.

How do you interpret the conference theme, “Design (Re)Invents”?

JH: If you are dissatisfied with aspects of your world, then design better alternatives. Don’t wait for companies to change their behavior to improve your world, because they won’t. Refuse to participate in worlds you don’t admire, and design new and better alternatives instead.

How is the concept of reinvention reflected in your work?

JH: Benjamin Franklin said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” When you stop changing, you become a bad cliché of yourself, even as others, through unimaginative imitation, also become bad clichés of yourself.

What innovative approaches or trends do you think are changing the way people do business right now?

JH: As people become smarter and bolder, businesses will have to remember why businesses began in the first place. In the first place, businesses were founded to solve social problems and answer communal needs. The market economy was a framework for solving these needs, but originally it was about the needs, not the money. Many businesses have become self-serving machines that exist only to make money. This will change once people start to call bullshit, refuse to be called consumers and ask to be called people again.

What influence does design have on business (or does business have on design)?

JH: Design should lead every business, because design is about solving problems and answering needs with intelligence and empathy.

The recession has encouraged new and resourceful ways of thinking. What methods or solutions have you devised to move forward with your work/client’s work?

JH: I don’t really have clients, but in order to move my own work forward, I decided to leave New York City and move to the forest of Oregon, where I spent three months living in a small log cabin. When you live in a city, you are constantly being poked and prodded by new ideas. This constant stimulation means you are constantly reacting, and most of the creativity that happens in cities is reactionary thinking—incremental steps forward, riffs on the status quo, etc. City ideas are often smart, sexy, frantic, and nervous—like people who live in cities. Natural (non-city) ideas have greater potential for transformational change, because they emerge from nature, solitude and contemplation, and not from what everyone else is doing. City ideas have to do with trends. Natural ideas have to do with truth.

Larry Keeley

Co-founder and president, Doblin, and partner at Monitor

What do you do?
LK: I am president of Doblin, Inc., now a unit of Monitor, where I am also a partner and “thought leader” in the Innovation practice. My work is a blend of client work and teaching—at the Institute of Design in Chicago and Kellogg Graduate School of Management—plus theory and research in innovation effectiveness.

How you have reinvented yourself professionally or reinvented a client’s business?
LK: I have fundamentally reinvented Doblin four times during my tenure as its leader. Each time was wrenching, and some were driven by crises in the firm or the market. One occurred during the dot-com era, when Doblin proved to be a happy hunting ground for headhunters, and senior people were coming to see me about once a week to say they needed massively higher salaries or they would go to a start-up. As a firm we used a great outside professional to learn to be better communicators with one another—lessons that were hardest for me, personally, to have to learn—so the sessions were mostly about me being beaten up by everyone else.

It was a life gift. The firm survived—although eight senior members (out of a total firm of about 50) did go off to start-up firms. After the bust, seven asked for their jobs back. During the same timeframe, a close personal friend running a competing innovation firm, also with about 50 employees, did not do anything to reinvent his firm; it collapsed down to only three employees, one of whom was his wife.
 
What innovative approaches or trends do you think are changing the way people do business right now?
LK: Open innovation and a whole host of related advanced innovation methods. Many of these are highly counterintuitive, so they can take a while to fully embrace. Innovation is in its most fertile period of methodological reinvention ever right now. I believe it is giving up its secrets for the first time in the history of our species. 
 
What influence does design have on business (or does business have on design)?
LK: Since nearly all markets are now heavily contested (the average cereal aisle has more than 140 cereals to choose from), design plays a crucial role in getting things to stand out. But this is the trivial role of design, helping firms get their unfair share of attention. The transformational role is to help us do more with less, to be healthier, happier (in a deep and sustainable way), or wiser. Interestingly, these most valuable design challenges often transcend business, though it is always great when clients ask us for help with the big problems of our time. Increasingly, I am excited about a coming era of post-client design, an interesting and urgent future for our field. 

What’s one rule (in design or otherwise) that was made to be broken?
LK: That it is fundamentally about creativity. Discipline is the real key.

John Maeda

Artist, author, computer scientist and president of the Rhode Island School of Design

Please tell us a little bit about what you do.

John Maeda: As the president of Rhode Island School of Design, I’m working to build a justifiable case for creativity in the world, to share with industry and policymakers (and anyone who will listen) the critical role that artists and designers play in driving innovation.

How do you interpret the conference theme, “Design (Re)Invents”?

JM: Design is all about problem solving. With the current economy, climate change and the healthcare crisis, artists and designers are finding ways to do more with less and applying design to developing solutions to the daunting problems that others don’t even know how to begin thinking about. It’s about asking the right questions and critical thinking.

How is the concept of reinvention reflected in your work?

JM: I have always thought of myself as a “hybrid”: someone who looked to combine art and technology, design and engineering. After I got my MS at MIT, I went to Japan and got a PhD in art. Later on in my career as a professor I was seeking new things to hybridize. I realized there was this whole world of management out there that I didn’t know about, so I got an MBA. Curiosity and learning keep the mind healthy and challenged. Passion drives artists to explore and cross boundaries. Much of my work reflects those interests: art, design and technology.

What innovative approaches or trends do you think are changing the way people do business right now?

JM: Right now, I see a world that is obsessively focused on STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—to drive innovation. I believe we need to add art to give STEM some STEAM. After being steeped in STEM at MIT, growing up with that mode of thinking, at RISD I’ve arrived at another extreme: an extreme of humanity.

What influence does design have on business (or does business have on design)?

JM: We exist in a society where achieving “measurable results” has become the end all, be all. What’s missing is the notion that artists and designers are among the most passionate people about what they do, and the world needs more of that passion. There’s too much systematic thinking and logic, too many soulless business processes. Humanity is about doing wonderfully impossible things. 

As the world continues to struggle with monumental challenges—challenges that require our most creative thinkers to find inspired solutions—it is essential to push the notion of artists-as-entrepreneurs one step further. Artists, designers and other creative types need to become leaders. Our best “art-repreneurs” also have the ability to lead and inspire others. They deal in “artonomics”; that is, mixing the authentic expression of artistic practice with innovative economic models. 

What was the first piece of design that had an impact on you, and why?

JM: Paul Rand’s logo work, as well as the simple wisdom of his remark: “You cannot play if you cannot earn.”

What’s one rule (in design or otherwise) that was made to be broken?

JM: The process is just as, if not more, important than the result.

Su Matthews

Senior partner, Lippincott

What do you do?

Su Matthews: My background is in identity, brand and experience design. I help companies translate their business strategy, vision and mission into tangible expressions of the brand. These can include everything from logos and websites to packaging, environments and more.

How do you interpret the conference theme, “Design (Re)invents”?

SM: My interpretation is that design can be a crucial part of signaling change and reinvention. Anyone can talk about being different, but if the look, feel and experience are not different, it gets lost in the shuffle.

How is the concept of reinvention reflected in your work?

SM: Reinvention can be a scary thing for most people. There are expectations that reinvention means you have to end at a totally different place from where you started, even if it doesn’t necessarily make good business sense. I believe reinvention should be about thinking differently to inspire positive and meaningful change. I try to attack every problem from this angle, making sure that not only am I thinking about how a company should move forward, but also how have past decisions influenced where the company is today, and what change will have the most impact. Most importantly, reinvention doesn't necessarily mean starting over.

What influence does design have on business—or does business have on design?

SM: I believe that business and design should really go hand in hand. The most successful brands address both, and the brands that do it the most consistently, across multiple touch points, have the most success.

What’s one rule (in design or otherwise) that was made to be broken?

SM: I believe there should be no rules in design. There are good design practices or guiding principals that have proven success, and I do believe there is good and bad design. But if you start off with too many rules, you quite often miss out on what rules and process prevent you from uncovering, which is a little bit of “magic.”

Doug Powell

Founder, designer and business strategist, Schwartz Powell

What do you do?

Doug Powell: I’m a designer, business strategist and entrepreneur. For most of my career I have been a partner in a graphic design business called Schwartz Powell. In 2004 my wife, Lisa, and I co-founded a business called HealthSimple, to bring design to the experience of managing chronic illness. Now I work to bring patient-focused design to businesses and organizations in the health and nutrition space. I also write and curate Merge, a blog about design and entrepreneurship.

How do you interpret the conference theme, “Design (Re)invents”?

DP: Designers have become locked into a very narrow way of working—the client service or work-for-hire model. With economic turmoil, fierce competition, advancing technology and other factors, it is getting more and more difficult to build a viable business solely on this model. So, the next generation of designers will have to find other ways to work, provide value and generate revenue.

How is the concept of reinvention reflected in your work?

DP: With the launch of HealthSimple in 2004, we transformed our traditional design business by bringing products directly to market. The inspiration/motivation for this business came after our daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of 7. Our experience with this diagnosis demonstrated to us the desperate need for empowering, inspiring, kid-friendly, visually oriented educational tools in this area.

What influence does design have on business?

DP: Not enough. In my opinion design has not yet penetrated the business process at a significant level (with a few notable exceptions). I think the real sea change will happen when more designers have had success with start-up ventures on a significant scale. When this happens, we will see designers in influential leadership positions in large companies, and then we will see truly design-driven businesses.

The past two years since the last Gain conference have been especially challenging for business. How has your work been affected?

DP: My business has been very stable through this period. But it has clearly had a profound impact on the industry. I have scaled back my consulting business so that I am very lean. I build my capabilities by collaborating with other specialists and small groups. Clients seem to be very comfortable with this approach.

Have you come across anything lately that you think does an excellent job of addressing a business/brand/social challenge through design?

DP: It’s not a conventional design solution, but I’m a big fan of the peer-to-peer funding site Kickstarter, which certainly appeals to designers and creative people.

What’s one rule (in design or otherwise) that was made to be broken?

DP: The client is always right.