December 12, 2017

Design Leadership with Instrument and Work & Co

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SoDA is thrilled to welcome JD Hooge and Joe Stewart as faculty leaders for the Design & Design Thinking Track at the 2018 SoDA Academy. JD is a Founding Partner and the Chief Creative Officer at Instrument in Portland. Joe is Co-founder and a Design Partner at Work & Co, which has offices in Brooklyn, Portland and Rio de Janeiro. Both Instrument and Work & Co were ranked last week by Working Not Working as one of the Top 50 Companies Creatives Would Kill To Work For Full-Time.

I recently spoke with Joe and JD about their views on digital design --their experiences in the business, how it’s evolving and what keeps them stoked about the industry. 

You guys are running two of the most envied digital design studios in the country right now. And while your early days in the business might seem like a distant memory, I’m curious to know how you got your start and what sticks with you, to this day, about your first design gigs?


When I was in design school in Milwaukee we did real client projects for a couple of semesters. A handful of students competed against each other and we worked on projects like a logo and identity system for a local TV station. I remember it being both thrilling and stressful to be working for a real client. The funny thing is, I just completed an identity project for one of our biggest clients here at Instrument, and it's still exactly the same. It's still really stressful, really scary, super fun, and as thrilling as it was back then.

The first time I was paid for design was a summer job in 1998 working for an internet service provider. Remember when ISPs were a thing? I was still in school and told them I could make websites, but I really didn't know what I was doing at all.  Their model was to open up the Yellow Pages, start randomly calling companies and try to talk them into buying a website. I would be sitting next to the people making the phones calls designing in Fireworks and coding in Dream Weaver, or Flash… cranking out websites for a car battery company or a real estate agent.

It wasn’t a glamorous gig but I learned that there are no rules in business at all, and nobody really knows what they're doing. Throwing myself into an uncomfortable situation is the best way for me to learn. I took a lot out of that experience.  


I have a big parallel to JD's story --and am a big believer in the power of just throwing yourself into the deep-end of the pool.

When I went to college in the late 90's, I studied graphic design, before digital design was really being taught. One day I heard about an internship opening at a web design agency, and thought it sounded pretty cool. I went for an interview and it didn’t quite go as I’d envisioned. They didn’t spend time talking through portfolio. Instead, they said, "Okay, if you want the internship take this --handing me Flash3 in a box-- and then design our website. You have three days."

I'd never even seen Flash, let alone know how to use it. So, I talked to my dad, who was a developer. I remember telling him: “I don't know what to do. I want this role, but I need to do this crazy test and turn it around in three days. And I can't go to school at the same time."

He said I should skip school, because this experience would be a worth it. So for the next 72 hours, I just hammered on Flash, learning this ridiculously prehistoric scripting language, and frame-based animation. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing but it was pretty exhilarating trying to wrap my brain around it. I went in with a demo of what their website could be… and I got the internship.

That’s a lesson that sticks fresh in my mind to this day: the best way to learn is via experience. Anything academic is never going to be as valuable as something self-taught. Usually, it comes down to just jumping in and being forced to do something new. 


We see the impact of digital design everywhere and, increasingly, it’s not just visual. As the creation of two-dimensional, screen-based interactions gives way to more complex, multi-modal experiences (virtual reality, voice interfaces, gesture controls, connected objects and experiential spaces/places), it seems like design processes and the core capabilities of a designer needs to expand. How are you adapting your teams, capabilities and processes to successfully design for these emerging modes of interaction?


There are two forces driving the evolution of design. One of them is constant and that’s trying to understand the root of the problem and figure out a smart solution to it. For me, that is always the core of all great design and the nature of this fundamental challenge never changes.

Then there’s the other: the tool set. And that’s always changing. The technology and the medium of expression is iterating at an insane pace. It’s not even every year --every three months there's a new medium you have to design for, or a new form factor you have to think about, or a new development language you have to use. That kind of change is rapid and ongoing and, honestly, is the easier part to deal with.

Yesterday it was a mobile screen. Today it’s voice activation. And in another 20 years, who knows, it will be a pill that you swallow. The more challenging and deeper pursuit of design is answering fundamental, human questions: What's the issue I'm trying to solve? What's a good way to do it? And as a bonus, how can I do it in a way that's delightful? These questions have always been the same but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to answer. I think designers need to look at considered problem-solving as a lifelong pursuit. The way in which our ideas are executed and learning new modes of expression is always easier and the fun part for me. 


How about you JD? How do you see the digital design discipline changing and how has it impacted the way you work together and structure your teams at Instrument? 


I very much agree with Joe. I went to school for traditional graphic design but immediately jumped into interactive design because it was multidimensional and dynamic in so many new and different ways. In my career, emerging technology has always been a factor and it's always a challenge for designers to consider. It's not a fixed medium and that’s what makes it interesting.

In terms of our approach at Instrument, we're really fluid when it comes to tools, methods and processes. Our designers use every imaginable design and prototyping tool. Our strategists are constantly tapping new sources of data or trying new ways to test ideas.

From a personal perspective, we can all feel technology changing our own lives every day and we have a real understanding of why we need to think differently about all of these new user scenarios. It feels very natural, and it feels very relevant and important to us because much of the work we’re doing is an extension of our everyday lives.

It always comes back to design as problem solving. It's that core practice that we're really interested in… regardless of the technology. 


From a design perspective, what are the trends you’re following most closely? What excites you? Does anything terrify you?


Something I find myself endlessly thinking about --I’m actually locked in a long-running discussion about it with another design partner here at Work & Co, Felipe Memoria-- is the rise of modernism in digital. As people are trying to figure out what works and doesn’t work in this new medium, we’re discovering the answer might actually lie in the past.

One measure I use to judge whether or not we are succeeding at great design is if the products we launch have staying power. Think of it this way: If an app or a website or an in-store experience needs to be overhauled in 18 months, it’s wasn’t the right solution. I think collectively, agencies should be working on unwinding the idea that brands should just accept these cycles as commonplace. Digital can be built to last too. It can be responsible.

Timeless design is about modern, minimal, functional choices. This approach worked for the masters of the modernist movement. And it’s seen current adoption in other types of design, especially industrial design and architecture. I wish it was taking hold more in the world of digital design.

So much of digital design today is fleeting and trendy. It’s old before it even launches. Simplicity is forever. There are numerous examples of this people are familiar with, from Google’s homepage to Apple’s iOS. It’s about functioning simply and well, with user needs defining forms.

What’s becoming interesting is seeing that it’s not just us --our clients are becoming more open to these ideas. Often, simplicity has been mistaken for under-design, and people think they’re not getting what they paid for, or they’re not going to impress their boss. But these ideas are starting to retire, since the results speak for themselves.

Slowly, slowly, I predict this will become the way of the world – but it's an uphill battle. And as I said, it’s difficult to do well. But we are seeing more and more young designers reading Vignelli books as opposed to looking at Dribbble, and that is a canary in the coal mine of good things to come.  


I've been following the conversations around digital transformation and what that means for creative agencies and our newfound competition with management consultancies moving into this space. I know “digital transformation” is a buzzword, and for some people, that’s a reason to shy away from talking about it. But for me, I think there's a reason why everyone's talking about digital transformation… it’s important to our industry and to the economy as a whole.  We know that many traditional companies are going to die if they don't embrace digital, transition their core business and develop new revenue opportunities. Management consultancies are all over that, and they're trying to reposition themselves as the ones to help traditional companies become digital. They're moving into the territory of creative agencies because they realize they can't just deliver strategies without being able to execute on their own advice.

But as a creative agency, we're also moving towards the management consultancies. We're building a really strong strategic practice at Instrument… one that's integrated into all of our other disciplines and able to connect the dots across strategic thinking and digital execution. And for us, this isn’t a new thing that we're tacking on to our way of working. We’re natively digital and it’s in our DNA.


Peer-to-peer learning is a core part of the ethos at The SoDA Academy and I’m curious what role peer learning and mentorship has played in your personal growth and development as designer and leaders?