Over the past 30 years, design has become a key tool in the transformation of companies. In the tenth episode of the Minimum Viable Podcast, Michal Blažej examines how the design segment and the role of designers have changed and developed over the years. He invited Anton Schubert, a British designer and consultant, who years ago taught LB* design thinking to the microphone.

Anton started his career as a car mechanic and has been designing since 1993. For more than a decade he worked for such important companies as IDEO and Futurice, and today he has his own company Good Growth, which is dedicated to sustainable design.

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I mentioned in the introduction that you are a veteran designer. Can you give us a quick run through your job experiences? What formed Anton the designer becoming who he is today?

I have to say that what really made me a designer was the first job I ever had. I left school really early and all I wanted to do was fix cars. So I became a car mechanic. When I look back at that first job I had, I think that was the spark for my interest in all things designed. You know – when you think about fixing things and solving problems and taking things apart... A very physical activity. It relates quite well to what designers do, but in a different way.

And then, long story short, I moved from car mechanics into engineering. I worked at an engineering factory as a machine operator, where I met engineers and designers for the first time. I mean a mechanical engineer here, not a digital engineer. And not really having any kind of education in what design actually was back then, it was these guys from Japan who inspired me what I could do. So I went to study three dimensional design. I ended up being a model maker, we’re talking like 28 years ago. A model maker back then was somebody who used to make prototypes. You make models of designs. And my area was very much on consumer electronics. Back then, we were making works-like-looks-like models of computers, telephones, hairdryers, toothbrushes... Anything that was a physical product. And I got a job at IDEO as a model maker in a London office. If anybody knows IDEO, it works all over the world. We were working with some of the biggest customers in the world.

I was there for twelve years and it was my design school, I learned so much about design. I went from being a model maker to being a client relationship lead and running huge projects with really big international clients. But then, I have a Finnish wife. I was already doing some work with Nokia in Finland. I was teaching as well. And I decided to move to Finland. And from then on, I've had a number of jobs in Finland, which have been building off each other.

The first job, I moved to brand strategy, because I realized that the design work in IDEO was never really thinking about the story of the brand. And it was more about just the thing that we were actually designing. Then I moved to a company called Futurice, which was a technology company. I'd never worked in technology, so it was something I really felt I needed to get on board with, and I became their head of design. That was another good learning curve for me, because we're at that point merging design with technology with business. That was the start of the digitalization revolution, really, and helping our customers to digitalize. And then I got a head of design job in Vincit, a similar kind of digitalization company.

I want to mention, I joined this company called Scope Impact, which is actually quite inspiring because I ended up doing social impact work. I was in Africa for a few months designing health services for adolescent young women and got really keen and interested in this more purposeful design work, something that has more meaning. And also sustainability was a really big passion of mine. Since then, I've been developing sustainability offerings. I've been doing customer work around sustainable transformation, and that's what the Good Growth company is – a company using a design lead methodology that helps customers transform and move towards delivering on their sustainability strategies.

Designers inspire people to do things that they wouldn't normally do through vision, through dreams, through insight, through really beautiful envisioned futures.

When you talk about design, you talk about engineering, you talk about different kinds of problems. What kind of non-digital designs have you been doing in the pre-Futurice era?

We didn't have the Internet or mobile phones, designers weren't designing that stuff. For instance, when I was working at IDEO, we used to do a lot of work for companies like Nestle and Johnson & Johnson. We used to design shampoo bottles, IDEO was designing a dog toothbrush for the American market... So, applying the design approach to understand how you would design a toothbrush for your pet. There's nothing digital about that but it's the same approach as we use now for digitalization, but it's a very physical outcome.

Some of the stuff that we did at IDEO back in the day was, there was a lot of hype and effort around organizational design, and it's still very strong. It's called transformation these days, but we did projects where we would go into companies and coach companies on how to work better together. That's definitely not a physical thing, it's not even a software thing. It's a human interaction thing.

When we look at the design from a more general perspective, do you spot any phases of development of the design industry or how the impact of design has changed over years?

Yeah, there's been some really big ones. If I think about just my career, I think the first big driver for design was user-centeredness. And even now, I still make customers that think this is a new concept. But I think that was one of the big things that IDEO also built their business on, even back in the late 70s when we started to be user-centric and designed for the user. Then, the next biggest influence on how design was done was the emergence of software. I remember Bill Moggridge already promoting this whole idea of interaction design – designing for software as well as hardware. It wasn't just about form and function anymore, it was about user experience. And that was definitely because of the digital revolution.

And then, there's quite many smaller influences around how design is done, one is design as a methodology. Design at that point started to become a methodology and approach to problem solving rather than just being the thing you did when you designed a product or service. Whether it was for brand strategy, whether it was for transformational, organizational stuff... you could apply the design thinking methodologies. And I think the whole startup world – everybody wanted to be a startup – where design played a huge role in merging all of these things together: user centricity, prototyping, sprints, conceptualization, testing, minimum viable products... That was a very design led approach when you think about innovation, and innovation was all part of that.

But now, in regards to what I do now, it's now very much around sustainability. Design as a problem solving approach to sustainability in all its forms, not just environmental but social sustainability and also business sustainability design. It's a great approach to that size of problem that we are faced with in the next few decades.

In addition to his career as a designer and consultant, Anton Schubert also teaches

I remember when we worked, like, twelve years ago on a website I usually talked to a marketing department. But today we talk to C-level people about design. Clearly, it has changed over years how they perceive design in corporations. Has the impact of design changed and grew bigger?

It has, for sure. But I think it depends on what kind of company you're working with. There's a maturity curve. There are some companies that are design lead from day one. But there's still many companies, big corporate organizations who don't understand the value of design and don't know how to apply it in their business and often see design as a sort of aesthetic layer to products and services.

It's a little bit more mature in the UK and maybe in some parts of the US, but I think it's a people thing. You meet some CEOs and C-level people who really get how to apply it in a business sense. You meet other C-level people who don't understand it. They're very traditional in the way they run their businesses.

But overall, yes, design is being considered a viable approach. It's also being compared to the old way of doing things. When you think about the McKinsey, Accenture and other management consultancies, design is an attractive alternative. It's a desirable approach that brings new things that those other approaches don't bring. And I think some businesses are really looking to do things differently.

When we enter some of the more conservative industries, it seems to me like: Okay, maybe this is just the way they operate and it works for them. Maybe design doesn't have room here. Do you think that the companies actually will evolve into more design-centric and user-centric?

My game plan is yes, they will. If you look at the challenges we have, there are three words I often talk about that designers bring to the table really nicely. They are inspiration, creativity and collaboration.

Inspiring people to do things that they wouldn't normally do through vision, through dreams, through insight, through really beautiful envisioned futures. Designers are pretty good at doing that stuff. And I think we should be even better at that, because that's really what people need at this point. They need a sense of hope, they need a sense that we can have a really great future. And designers are creative people, right? They can do that.

The second word is creativity. So the approach to solving problems, it's not static. Of course, there are many design tools out there. There's co-creation, prototyping, user insight, conceptualization... there's all sorts of tools we can use. But I think designers are really flexible, adaptable people, and they can bring new creative approaches to problem solving and that's really needed now. Creativity is needed to solve against some of these really complex challenges.

And the third word is collaboration. If you look at some of the problems we're solving now, they're very complex and they're systemic. There are multi-stakeholder problems with people across value chains who’ve never worked together before. And especially if we want to solve sustainability challenges with design, we've got to become radical collaborators. We've got to become the people who are able to get all of those different people in a room together, simplify a complex dialogue and help people to make decisions.

Designers are crafts people. Whether it's about strategy or whether it's about a UI, it's a crafted thing.

When we worked together, you had these really great presentation skills, you were able to decide quickly, had a lot of empathy, you were able to generate ideas quickly and interconnect people to collaborate. It seems that part of that you still see as the future skills and attitudes that the designers need to adopt. What skillset the designers used to have and what will they need in the future?

Not everybody has to talk big picture and vision. We need people to create real things as well. So those UX and UI and those detailed designers, those people who visualize beautiful concepts and bring them to life, they are very important. It definitely helps if designers have that core skill, a specialism. I see a lot of designers coming out of universities as generalists, but it's important to develop your craft. And designers are crafts people. Whether it's about strategy or whether it's about a UI, it's a crafted thing.

To be a holistic designer is the thing that we're developing now, designers need to think about the big picture. They need to connect the dots between the detail and the big picture. IDEO taught you to think about desirability, feasibility and viability. Nowadays designers have still got to think about that, but they've also got to think about:

  • Does the customer want it?
  • Does it make money?
  • Does it harm the environment?
  • Is it good not only for the individual, but does it improve the lives of that individual's community, the society that individual lives within?

You do need to have a more holistic, big picture view on things. It's going to be really important because the problems are becoming more complex. The solutions will naturally become more complex. But you'll have to look at more things to find a good solution.

That's exactly the journey that we took over the last couple of years. We first thought about us all being designers and being really T-shaped because that was something that we believed would bring us a more holistic point of view on the problems. But one thing is being really good at something and having the craft and the other thing is actually having a more general view on the problems, being able to connect the dots. So that's where we are today, we have started specializing our people, but still equipping them with the skill of interconnecting the dots and having a more business and general point of view on the problems.

I think that's why those three words I mentioned are important because the customer often needs that a lot more than just the craft itself, because that's going to help them do something that they wouldn't normally do. Now we're having to help people do things they would never have normally done in the past.

Anton during a lecture at the Dash Hack design event

Your first agency job was probably IDEO which you joined in ‘99, and the agency definitely had to evolve over that time. Do you see how evolution has gone and how the agencies have changed?

If you call yourself a consultancy, a consultant is somebody that you trust to give you advice or support on something that you don't know much about – like your doctor. It's like the metaphor of a kitchen: The chefs and the cooks are making the food in the kitchen and sending it to the customers. And there's the delivery guy outside delivering the ingredients. I think that has been the biggest journey for the agencies, especially the digital agencies to not only deliver the great ingredients, but also to get in the kitchen with the cooks. And even if possible, start serving the food to the customers.

It's a weird metaphor but that's the kind of journey that they've been on. Especially the digital companies, a lot of them have come from this very easy business model of “let's sell our developers to companies who need developers”. But as digitalization has matured, a lot of customers have already hired their own designers, their own tech people. They already know how to do agile, design or be user-centric. Design agencies always have to reinvent themselves to be seen as the consultant, to bring something to the customer that the customer cannot do themselves. So design companies have gone from craft, from “let's design something”, to coaching or transformation.

I've recently watched a keynote from Jacob Nielsen from their energy conference, and he basically predicted an exponential growth of the design industry. Today we have tens of thousands of designers, but in the future, we'll have millions. And with the future, he meant a few years ahead. Where do you think the industry is headed? And is his prediction something that you feel is true or not?

Well, I haven't seen anything to suggest otherwise. There was one point, maybe a decade ago, when I lost a little bit of hope in the impact of design and the power of designers to change things. But then I see companies like Futurice go from 16 designers to 150 designers all over Europe, and I think that wouldn't happen unless there was a need there.But I've also seen another trend, a sort of attitude. These days designers want to work on customer projects that are really meaningful and deliver impact. They want to work with sustainability, they want to work with inclusivity. And I think that's great, it goes all the way back down to this basic user insight work.

If you're the person that connects the customer to the business, that's a really important need. And I think the designers are quite good evangelists that they can actually make a change in the companies where they are present. As I said earlier, design is really good for envisioning the future because that's becoming harder and harder for companies to do. Even now, companies have a three to five year strategy, but in this climate it doesn't make any sense. You can't invest your company's strategy in a three to five year plan. You've got to continuously create the future step by step. And that's where designers have unique skills, much more than the management consultants, because they can bring futures to life, pilot different experiments and co-create futures with customers and networks.

Design agencies always have to reinvent themselves to be seen as the consultant, to bring something to the customer that the customer cannot do themselves.

Is there something that's your design challenge, something you'd like to address in the future?

Yes, it's obvious for me there's one design challenge – climate change, environmental sustainability. That's the biggest challenge we face now. And that's happening now. And within this decade, we're talking about eight years, we need to address some huge existential questions for humanity. And if designers aren't active in answering those challenges, then I don't know what's the point. You don't have to read very much to understand that the next big transformation is going to be the sustainability transformation. And we're already 40 years too late. Companies are going to have to deliver on their sustainability targets according to law. How are they going to do that? They're going to do that because they're going to have to get a shit load of help from companies like us, people like us, designers, developers, business people, consultants. They're going to have to get help to deliver on those targets. That's what I hope that design can play a really big role in.

Listen to the full interview with Anton Schubert:

The Mimimum Viable Podcast is brought to you every two months by the design studio Lighting Beetle*, which focuses on creating an exceptional customer experience.

Design is all around us. The Minimum Viable Podcast explores design with a small “d” – the one that looks for solutions to people's problems. In it, together with our guests, we address topics that are related to design, but which we do not normally associate with it. Thanks the Zeldeo production studio for the cooperation.

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