An Interview with Matt Cooper-Wright, Design Director at IDEO

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What was the moment that you knew you wanted to work in design?

I think I’d always done design. It’s funny, at school I studied information technology and always gravitated much more to the design of the interface, rather than the underlying software and systems – which is really what it’s trying to teach. It was only after leaving, after doing my A-levels, that an art teacher said, “Maybe graphic design is the thing for you.”

I think I always knew that there was a career there, but no one in my family did anything in the design industry, so it was interesting to go through design education and learn about the consultancies that were very prevalent back then and realising that there were a lot of people getting paid.

Also, growing up in Manchester, I was very aware of the shadow of people like Peter Saville, as a graphic contributor to a cultural scene. That was not just a hidden job that was happening while the music was happening, but it was very much shaping of the whole thing.

How did you get to where you are now?

I guess compared to most people, I had a fairly traditional career path. I grew up in the UK and studied GCSEs, then A-levels, then a foundation course, and did a degree in graphic design in Nottingham.

Then after that, I was very lucky to get picked up at one of the degree shows, and almost immediately fell into a job in London, doing information design and wayfinding, which again was not something I was definitely into. It actually came back to some of the systemic thinking that was probably present in the coding, programming and technology stuff I was doing.

I spent about five years there, going from a fresh graduate, to a senior designer leading projects and doing big wayfinding projects. When I jumped to freelance, it was really just as a way to get me away from the one area I’d spent all my time. With this I did branding, digital, some graphic design and a bit of this and that. At one point, I was a sort of jobbing freelancer.

Then, I got the opportunity to come and do a couple days at IDEO; literally just helping them put a proposal together. We won that project and they invited me back to work on it. I didn’t leave after that.

At some point during that project, they were advertising for an interaction designer, and I realised that the job description was exactly what I was doing that day. I was like, “I have to apply for this, because I’d love to stay here. And if I don’t get it, then I should probably leave, because this is a sign that I’m doing this job, but I’m not right for it.” Fortunately they said yes, and yeah I’ve been here since, which is about six and half years now.

Tell us more about information design…

It’s the structuring and visualisation of information of any sort. I think that can either look like infographics or even things like designing time tables for bus companies, which is something I’ve done.

I find a lot of pleasure in the structure of complex information, in a way that makes it very accessible. In that world, the majority of the information design that we were doing, was geographic mapping spatial information. I worked on projects that set the walking map system for London, and did other big multi-mode of transport information systems in various parts of the world.

“It’s interesting, because it’s all about helping people make a journey through a space, digitally or physically, and giving the right information at the right moment. It’s one of those design jobs that takes an incredible amount of thinking beforehand, to look very effortless in the moment.”

I think you have to have a lot of patience, and a desire to think about a system, not just about a single point of experience.

Looking back over your career so far, is there anything that you would do differently?

I don’t think so. I feel very lucky…if you’d asked me coming out of university, “What’s your ideal job?” A design director at somewhere like IDEO, is literally what I would have said.

People at IDEO, have got such a diverse set of journeys that brought them here, and lots of people that have no traditional design training. The teams are all better for it, because it’s not just a group of people that were raised in the same way, in the same country, with the same training trying to solve problems, because there’s no diversity in that.

In a funny way, I’m feeling the fact that I am the most generic person here…I guess I wonder what I could have done to diversify my path, just to make myself a more interesting candidate for this kind of work.

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

I think the hardest and most challenging period for me here is when I transferred to our Palo Alto office, to help set up a joint client IDEO lab.

From day one, we had a lot of support and structure around us, but it was still an incredibly hard thing to be figuring out. A new culture that was inclusive of both sides, but not either one dominating too much. Then trying to tackle new problems that none of us had tackled before.

“I think successful companies are probably ones that have invested a lot of time in this operation, infrastructure and culture, which means you don’t have to reinvent everything, everyday – and you just get straight to the edge of the problem that you need to figure out.”

That definitely called on lots of reserves of patience and energy. I think I’m probably at my best when most of the situation is understood, but there’s something complex to still figure out. We’re not figuring out if we need to order more chairs and tables, the operational stuff is stable.

I guess I’ve been lucky so far in my career, that I’ve been places where someone else has either already thought of the problem, or someone else is actively working on it, and it’s not my thing. Whereas spending six months having to do more of that stuff, I definitely had to pull back my aspiration about how far we could get with the work, but to set good foundations for lots more work to happen.

Have you applied design to any other areas of your life?

I feel like it’s hard to be a designer without constantly being in a mode of awareness of problems. For example, I’m in the middle of renovating a house at the moment, and there’s some very practical things about designing and building the space I’m living.

But, have I really designed my morning routine? I definitely know a lot of people doing that, but it’s not something I’ve actively done. Maybe subconsciously there’s things that I do differently, because I spend my days designing things. It’s not something I’m actively ever conscious of.

What makes a day a good day for you, at work?

“Increasingly, my position is as much about making sure that everyone else is having a good day, as much as me personally.”

I can’t remember where this clicked with me recently, but in your role as a leader of a design team, you have to stop doing all the things yourself. You probably got that position, because you’re very good at doing your job, but then there’s an important shift to make of using your position of visibility and influence to not be doing more of the same, but to shine a light on people that are doing good things.

On the flip side to that, my roots as a graphic designer have not left me and if I can find an excuse to write code or design something – that’s where I go. I can noodle away for hours, and recharge myself. A day writing a bit of code is a familiar day as well.

What frustrates you the most about your current design process and how are you trying to change it?

I think the big challenge that we are tackling at the moment at IDEO, and probably true everywhere really is, the speed in which things emerge, become successful, decline and be disrupted. The time in which we have to do design work is getting shorter, and so it’s really important for us to be efficient and do as much as we can in less time.

We need to immediately think of the next phase and ask questions like: How’s it going to launch, how’s it going to get out into the world and how’s it going to grow its audience? We have to have a very entrepreneurial start up mindset to growth. The worst that can happen, is that we just try and cram our process into less time, and burn people out.

The best that can happen? We’re very good at IDEO at bringing a diverse mix of people together. That means that we can start thinking about business models sooner. We can start thinking about who the team is that will launch the product on the client’s side sooner. We can start designing the organisation alongside experience and design the business model alongside the experience.

There’s a sort of certain peak speed I think you can change a culture in, and break things together without everyone feeling a bit confused. That venture designed approach, is definitely something we’re talking about. I’d love it to be reflected more in our community mix. We should theoretically have fewer of the traditional design disciplines in terms of industrial design, product design and graphic design, and more of these new organisational designers and business designers, because that routine is going to be that mix sooner or later. It’s a path we’re on. I don’t know if we’re ahead, behind or just where we need to be.

How do you go about communicating the future of the brand to your team?

In the last couple of years, we’ve been implementing a strategic approach, rather than trying to just react and iterate, that way we’re justifying our current modes as something for the future. We ask more questions like, “Where is the market going, what do our client’s need and what are our competitors doing?”

We have a quite rigorous story about what the strategy of IDEO is, certainly on the studio level. Then communicating it is done through the actions that leadership take, not that there’s a leadership group somewhere that’s doing all of this big thinking, and then a team that executes it somewhere else. We’re very transparent.

We have a Monday morning meeting every week, with the whole office; where we talk about as much about project work, as where the studio’s going. We’re building new capabilities we think we should be all getting on board with, along with financial positioning and all kinds of stuff.

I don’t think anyone ever feels like there are decisions being made, that they’re not part of. One thing that we can probably do more of, is help people when they’re setting objectives for what they want to do in the next year and talk about how can they line their objectives up with where the studio and the business thinks it needs to go. That way we can build this really harmonious thing; where people can pursue what they’re interested in for the benefit of themselves and for the business.

What’s your creative sign off process like?

At IDEO, design is everything we do. This doesn’t mean all of our operations people are every bit the same, and there’s probably different versions of what sign off looks like. But to give a simple answer around a project, our structure is a three, four maybe five person team dedicated to one project, to one client at a time. The project lead is there to get the best out of them rather than to show them what to do or tell them what to do. More to help them get unstuck if they’re stuck on things.

So, there isn’t really a moment when someone hands over the design and says, “Can we sign this off?” Rather, it’s the whole team contributing to the final thing, and different people will step up and lead on different elements of it, according to their craft and their discipline.

The best situation is where a person on that team is the client. We always push for our clients to become part of our team, so sign off is as much for them to think about, as well. It’s probably worth saying that a lot of the work we do is about suggesting something totally new. The word innovation is maybe not quite right because that can often sound a bit loaded. The briefers figure out the future of something or help the company do something that it can’t do by itself, it’s more about sharing work and getting people to buy in to where it came from and buy into the idea.

It avoids conversations like, “Here, we’ve got the idea for your new website. It’s this colour and this size and this font. Do you like it, yes/no?”. And instead, it’s more like suggesting a strategy for where a business might go, and so sign off happens in the kickoff, the midpoint and the final presentation.

If anything, we push for group critique of design throughout what we do and bring other design leaders into teams to help them get the best out of what they’re doing. But again, it’s much more like guiding people towards something, rather than verifying it or saying, “This is good”, or, “This is bad.”

What’s your biggest learning from managing design teams?

I always say that the best thing is often just getting out of the way of people. Your job, as the leader of the design team, is to get them to a place where they can move as quickly as they possibly can. I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by incredibly good designers and people that are really, really good at what they do. So, just getting out of the way is an easy thing to say, because everyone else will immediately step up and deliver in that situation.

The game for IDEO is to get people up and running, then giving them the space to do it themselves, and we’ll then move on to the next interesting challenge. What that means is a lot more time spent working with people that are either newer to design. Leading those teams is about surfacing anxieties and making space to get people to say, “I don’t understand”.

“An important trait of a designer is optimism and comfort with ambiguity. So, sometimes the instinct can be a thought pattern like, “‘This is complicated, I don’t really get this, but everyone else seems to be okay so I’ll keep quiet.'”

It’s that classic thing that all teachers say, “if you have a problem, say something because everyone else is probably thinking the same thing”. I think your job as a leader of a design team is to sometimes actually just stop and ask the question on their behalf. It’s possible to tune into what people are feeling that and not saying. It happens so often and it can happen so early in the process, and just be this kernel of doubt that grows and grows. Sometimes, I think loading the blame onto yourself is an easier way for people to critique you.

What would you say is the best advice that you’ve ever been given?

I was reminded of it by one of the people I worked with originally, who was the chief of the Royal Designers for Industry, Malcolm Garrett an incredibly well-respected designer, he worked on The Buzzcocks and with Brian Eno in the early days of the internet.

I met with him recently, and he was said he’d used some advice I gave him, to my surprise! The advice, which was actually something given to me, I think, by my wife, was:

“Wherever you go, whatever team you join, just make yourself indispensable, as soon as possible.”

It’s very hard for people to question why you’re there, if you’re doing something that is really, really important. It’s an obvious thing to say but it’s an interesting way to push yourself. It can be a dangerous thing, because you fear that you’re going to do it and no one will notice, but that’s not my experience. As leader of a team, it’s always noticed it and always appreciated.

If you think about how indispensable are you to the team you’re on and there’s any doubt in your mind about it, then it’s probably a sign that you could be more proactive in certain things. We don’t all need to kill ourselves and burn ourselves out, but just thinking, “What’s the next thing I’m going to do for the team that they’ve not asked me to do that I know they will benefit from?”

“It’s a healthy bias to have. So, if you find yourself leaning into stuff and then you find yourself being offered more opportunity, then you find yourself being rewarded, and ultimately the team is a success.”

And the worst?

I often think bad advice is just someone’s advice to themselves which doesn’t have full empathy for the situation you’re in. I don’t think there is bad advice, I think it’s just advice that’s misdirected.

It might tell you something about their motivations or the anxiety that they’re feeling about something. I think you can receive bad advice and become very defensive and let it put up barriers, but stopping and thinking, “There’s something there; there’s some reason that this person has given that advice to me, and even if I don’t agree with it, I should think more about why they’ve said it and not what they’ve said”. I find that’s the way to kind of just avoid confrontation with people, which is never really worth the time.

Any thoughts on the future of design tools?

One of the big things that I’m part of here at IDEO, is what role intelligent software, artificial intelligence, machine learning… what role is that going to have for the jobs that we do?

That probably is jobs to society, as much as jobs for the design industry; but the stance we’ve got is not artificial intelligence but augmented intelligence.

How do we use this new power to add more to what people are, rather then just replace them?

We’re certainly talking to our clients a lot about this, and trying to find projects which can bring a human-centered view to the enormity of what AI could do, to industries and societies everywhere. There’s interesting stuff that Adobe is doing in terms of voice synthesis and some amazing work around making videos of people talking. It’s basically already at a point where it’s hard to detect if it’s the mapping of someone else’s impression onto a still photo. AI has made it look like a real video, and when you pair it with voice synthesis, it’s like you can totally simulate someone and have them say anything you want…which is a slightly scary thing in the sort of political climate that we live in.

The problem I see, is that it’s breathlessly delivered at Adobe Summit, that it’s going to make the life of the video editor much easier because now rerecording voice-overs is irrelevant – we can just synthesise the voice that we need. Whilst that is absolutely true but the possibilities are endless, and I don’t know if designers are really aware of what parts of their jobs are going to be affected.

At the same time, there’s other ends of the community building tools to solve the problems they’re experiencing, which will inevitably end up doing different jobs. There’s no way of stopping what it will end up being used for.

I think it’s as much a kind of philosophical and moral question as much as it is a business and societal question. Designers are in a really powerful position as someone that stands between user need, behaviour and experience, and business need and technology’s drive. So, I hope that designers continue to have influence over all three of those things, or could be the voice of humanity in the mix of all of that. The inevitable force of technology and the kind of power of commerce could really squash the human part of that, if we’re not careful.

However, I do think design has a role to play in mediating technology, business and people. So, we have some power to make things different and there’s a responsibility that we have. Maybe we didn’t ask for it, but I think we’ve been given it.

Is there anything that you’re reading or listening to or watching right now that you’d like to recommend to anyone?

I found a really interesting podcast recently that I’ve been listening to a lot in the context of the work I’m doing called something like Killer Innovations. The opening credit music is this really over the top American rock music, and you think, “Oh, god, this is going to be horrible, but there’s a couple of interesting references where he’s talking about the infrastructure for innovation.

It goes back to that point of designers can come up with new stuff all day; having good ideas is not the hard part. The hard part is getting the rest of the organisation to buy into it, and then having teams be able to deliver it to people. His insight into how you get a whole company to care about doing a new thing was really interesting, because they were very tactical, about making sure people actually have an incentive.

For example, does the marketing team have the same incentive about launching new products that the innovation team has? And if they don’t, then why shouldn’t they? They’re inevitably not going to want to work together, or have their incentives pull them apart.

It can be nowhere near something you’re responsible for, but if you’re not kind of at least stepping up and thinking about things like a common incentive, it’s hard to see anyone else doing it for you. You may not always be in a situation where you have the right to go and say, “Marketing team, I need you to change your incentives,” but I think we should be kind of looking beyond the bounds of our responsibilities.

This way, you go out, and you end up having conversations all over the place, and potentially really significantly change the way the whole company works. Design is in a place now where it has a seat at the table. We’re not necessarily taught or trained in any of the stuff that the other people in those rooms are good at, and I think we do need to be a little bit more versatile in how we communicate. And ask, “How do we care about the things that the other people at the top of the company care about, that we’ve never really had to think about that much?”

If design is going to take root in an organisation, we sometimes need to change more than just the design itself.

If design is going to take root in an organisation, we sometimes need to change more than just the design itself. And this isn’t true for every designer, not everyone is in a position where they need to go and knock on the CEO’s door to get something changed. I think just having the confidence to go and open up that conversation. The financial people aren’t suddenly becoming design thinkers, but I think a design thinker could become financially savvy enough to carry themselves in such a discussion. Not to become an expert, but enough to have empathy for what they care about, and then build your story with them in mind.

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Writing for Marvel. Writing for fun. Eating everywhere, all the time.

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