Co.Design convenes a business and design roundtable with some of the brightest minds at Facebook, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Airbnb, and more.

A few weeks ago, at the Fast Company offices, we convened an all-star panel of designers and design leaders to talk about the problems that they found most vexing in the past year, and what they were trying to do to solve them. The group included:

  • Margaret G Stewart, director of product design at Facebook
  • Karl Heiselman, CEO of Wolff Olins
  • Melody Roberts, senior director, experience design innovation at McDonald’s Corporation
  • Joe Gebbia, CPO and co-founder of Airbnb
  • Erica Eden, founder, Femme Den
  • Mauro Porcini, chief design officer at PepsiCo

To get us started, Roberts laid out a problem that every company faces at some point or another: How do you turn idea generation into successful execution? As she pointed out, it wasn’t generating great ideas that was the problem–it was getting those ideas translated through a massive organization with many moving parts.

Karl Heiselman, had an interesting response:

“One thing that’s worked really well with our clients is to work with prototyping. We prototype the future in a really connected way,” he said. “You wouldn’t build a building without building a protytpe. Why would you build strategy for a company based upon a PowerPoint?”

Wolff Olins pushes this prototyping across the entire company, to be spearheaded, not by one department, but several teams in various departments. It’s with these prototypes that the company can build a narrative for themselves, a story that answers the question “where will we be in 3 to 5 years?” Through prototyping, clients can begin to tell the story of who they want to become.

Getting Outside of the Bubble

A bit later, Margaret Stewart brought up an interesting problem she’d noted in her tenure at YouTube and now Facebook. When you’re working on a product every day, that product becomes your life. She mentioned that this summer, she couldn’t believe how many of her friends were having babies, until she realized that the only thing different from any other summer was that she’d been spending 12 hours on Facebook each day at her new job. She’d found herself influenced by her own bubble, but it’s a problem she’s had to address again and again.

“It’s important to get people involved in a project where they can’t empathize with the user,” Stewart offers. “It’s important because your experience is vastly different from your customers … People forget how contrived their experience is.”

Stewart said her challenge is finding new models to be provocative, discovering different ways to teach designers and engineers to find the challenges that are actually worth solving.

Gebbia offered an elegant hack to solve the same sort of problem: Sitting the engineers next to the customer service reps who would have to deal with what they’d made. “Engineers are just like, ‘Oh my god, this thing I built that I thought was amazing is horrible for users!’” he said.

Reminiscing on the early days at Airbnb, Gebbia talked about how his small team, crammed like sardines in their tiny apartment office, innovated incredibly quickly. He pointed out that the challenge of innovation often simply comes down to a physical challenge: That is, creating a culture where people feel “closely packed”–a living room type scale that fosters useful but serendipitous interactions.

Brands Must Reach Across A Global Spectrum

As the discussion evolved, so too did the core issues behind the bubble: How does a team move their brand beyond the insights of one office or living room? Traditionally, big branding–a sort of universal experience–has been used to bridge the gap across cultures. Stewart, however, points out how this sort of old-school brand experience can be short-sighted for a modern global product.

“If you don’t have a free press, YouTube means something very different to you than if you’re using it for entertainment,” she said. “That’s just the truth.”

Melody Roberts agreed, pointing out that designers have gotten pretty heavy handed with branding, postulating that maybe “big branding has played itself out.” She references her own work at McDonald’s, pointing out the fact that there is no longer one archetypal restaurant shape, and that even the logo’s trademark red background has been swapped out for green in Europe. It’s okay to be imperfect, to embrace Williamsburg, she said.

But it’s not just imperfection, Mauro Porcini from PepsiCo, pointed out. It’s “strategic imperfection” that captures multicultural brand subtleties. “Innovation today is about nuances, changing things in a slightly different way that no one ever thought about,” he said. And honing in on those nuances can’t be done from within a geographical bubble. You have to get global design perspectives, people living within cultures, to offer the honed insights that will generate these tailored design innovations.

Harnessing a bit of her social networking perspective, Stewart maybe best verbalizes this idea of how branding has shifted: “The goal today is that everything is connected, not that everything is the same.” Gebbia calls this goal one of “design familiarity.” Stewart calls it “experience familiarity.”

The Next Age

Towards the end of the conversation, as we volleyed about what the challenges of 2013 would be, Gebbia reframed the question in a broader context. There were, he argued, three stages of the Internet’s rise. Each lasted roughly a decade and was enabled largely by a piece of technology.

The first age was in the ’90s, he said, and it was simply getting on. That was when we all subscribed to AOL and had that modem sound permanently tattooed inside the walls of our ears. The second stage was getting connected, which happened in the 2000s. Now that we were online, we wanted to connect with other humans there. Social networks like Facebook and Instagram came to fill this gap. These new software tools let us build communities, a sort of social mirror of what we had in the analog world.

And as for the 2010s? “This decade is about using the Internet to enable real-world interactions,” he said. It’s leveraging this digital life to make our analog lives more connected. It’s not using Facebook to spy on an old friend, but to meet them in person. It’s not using Spotify to discover new music, but to create a dance party. The technology that will make it all possible is mobile.

“Mobile and local are so important here because they’re both about using tech to solve your real-life problems,” Stewart said, nodding. Gebbia agreed, adding, “Mobile is the bridge into your real life.”


Written by Mark Wilson.
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