A Conversation with Jon Kolko Partner, Modernist Studio (USA)
“Design Strategy is about creating and presenting an optimistic vision of the future. It’s a north-star: a direction in which to aim.”
Jon you’ve acquired a significant amount of years doing Design Strategy and Design Research, you’re considered an expert in these areas and in areas such as empathy for customers. These terms have recently begun to pervade the business world globally. How would you describe these areas of Design Strategy and Design Research for business leaders, who are just hearing of this term and are very interested?
Design Strategy is about creating and presenting an optimistic vision of the future. It’s a north-star: a direction in which to aim. When I describe Design Strategy to executives, they understand the need for a vision, and it’s often left to them to paint the picture of that vision. But while they may be the most equipped to understand where the business should go, they often need help understanding how that business vision can align with a customer vision. Design Strategy, working in parallel with a business strategy, describes where to go in order to deliver real, emotional and experiential value.
“Design strategy, working in parallel with a business strategy, describes where to go in order to deliver real, emotional and experiential value.”
How about innovation, how would you describe this within the sphere of Design and Business?
I don’t really know what innovation is. For some time, I thought it meant “something new that people need.” Then, I thought it meant “something new that sells.” Now, I think it’s closer to “something new.” A lot of innovation is meaningless. It’s new for newness sake and has no real value for anyone. I would push a business to aim towards “appropriate” and “valuable” rather than “innovative.”
Having taught design over the years, would you say design is something that can easily be adopted by businesses who aren’t familiar with the process or is design as a process only for a certain type of business? And why?
Design (or anything else) can become part of a business context if it’s treated as a first-class citizen. This means providing the discipline with funding and autonomy. But for companies with more conservative and formal business culture, or for companies founded on the backs of technological advancement, there’s more needed than just money and power. A cultural change doesn’t happen through a mandate. It happens slowly and with evidence. Introducing design into a culture means playing a long game, and the bigger the company, the longer that game may be. We’ve seen companies like IBM and GE stand up design studios seemingly overnight, and the results are shaky (one is rumoured to suffer from attrition, while the other has imploded entirely).
“A cultural change doesn’t happen through a mandate. It happens slowly and with evidence.”
What do you think makes this process of design successful? Do certain things have to be in place, is there a specific pattern to follow?
Doing design is about having attention to detail and craft. This is true when drawing things, and it’s true when doing qualitative research, synthesizing data, developing strategy, and any other form of design. For design to thrive, an environment needs to be provided that fosters this craftsmanship. Designers need to be recruited selectively, rather than in mass; they need time and a clear runway to do their job; they need to be well compensated and feel empowered and recognized; and, they need to see the results of their work manifested in real change for the company and for customers.
“For design to thrive, an environment needs to be provided that fosters this craftsmanship.”
You have taught and are still teaching people about design; you have also consulted for global companies who have launched successful products/services. From your experience, how can a big organization of say over 500 staff build a culture of design and innovation from top to bottom?
Slowly, which is typically not the answer most executives want to hear. Like any other cultural change, an autocratic approach doesn’t work, because it disenfranchises as many people as it may empower. A bottom-up approach works, but takes a very long time, and needs to be grounded in small wins. Many of the companies that are successful in introducing design into their company didn’t do it on purpose. It emerged that way based on the types of people that were hired, and how those people were treated.
What #innovationmoment have you experienced in your career so far? (We define an #innovationmoment as something you’ve been a part of or have witnessed that has been incredibly life-changing and impactful to others) Can you share?
I’m not sure that starting a school counts as an “innovation moment,” because it took about two years to get started, and in the last ten years, we’ve reinvented it at least ten times. But I do know that any educational institution can claim impact on people: alumni, students, and the community benefit from any form of quality education. I stay in touch with my alumni, and when I see them in positions of leadership and hear about the great things they do, I realize that the school has had a strong, measurable, and positive impact on their careers.