alexandra bagao

interviews

Marty Neumeier | Liquid Agency

 
image © flux business

image © flux business

CONTEXT

First thing I need to say is that Marty Neumeier was pivotal in my dissertation research. Unknowingly, he gave what I needed to move forward in the right direction.

So let’s start from the beginning…

There I was, beginning of August (dissertation due in the beginning of September) half lost, with zero interviews done, reading books at an impossible rate, and loving every piece of information I got, so much I started wanting to speak to the authors themselves.

In my little world, I had no clue how to start speaking to people, how to find them even (!), but I thought I had to start somewhere. So why not start with the (theoretically) unachievable? I just wanted a bit of advice… Anything they could offer me would be good enough.

That day I messaged on Linkedin (I agree, not the best option in the world… but the only one I had at the time) Marty Neumeier and Thomas Lockwood, because I have been submersed in their thoughts for months and had a soul eating curiosity to pick their brains.

Marty replied two weeks later and to this day I have spoke to him twice… This goes to show how keen and available he is to share his knowledge with younger people that show interest in his experience, and that overachieving people (in my perspective) like himself can still take the time to be real, connected people.

For those of you who don’t know who he is, he’s one of the pioneers in design strategy. One of the first people to feel the need for design to evolve from the traditional practices to a more holistic field, that can be embedded within businesses to help these deal and adapt to disruptive change.

He wrote ‘The Brand Gap’, ‘The Brand Flip’, ‘Zag’, ‘The Designful Company’ (amongst others), and was the founder of ‘Critique’, an amazing magazine that I wish I was old enough to have collected. He is also doing my dream job at a company called ‘Liquid Agency’.

Achievements aside, I am here to share my latest interview and some of the first insights he shared last year on the linkedin message he sent me.

 

FIRST CONVERSATION

Marty Neumeier gave one of the most challenging perspectives while researching for my thesis. Stating that he finds it is easier to bring business people to design than it is to bring designers to business and that’s up to the designers to lead the way by connecting their work to business results, adding that business people are waiting for us.

My initial assumption was that businesses had a barrier up that disabled collaboration, that they would think of us as ‘fluffy creatives’ and that we have nothing to offer but embellishing products. Despite my assumption I also agreed that designers have to better know how to connect with businesses by presenting themselves in their language, explaining what can they in fact provide in terms of growth and profitability. In sum, designers must understand the real value of design.

What Marty showed me that day was that the space for design and the pace of that change can be even closer and faster to achieve than I initially predicted. And this gave me a whole new motivation to pursue my personal aspirations.

 

SECOND INTERVIEW

Last month I realised I could try to have another shot at speaking to him, and feed on more interesting insights he might had to share. This time I am slightly more resourceful, and found his email without great effort. After that I emailed him and, again, he replied agreeing to skype soon.

 

First thing I asked was why, of all places in the world, he chose to work for Liquid Agency?

Lightly, he answered that he did so because Liquid acquired his company, called Neutron. Yet he had already developed an appreciation for the company. Liquid had gotten very good at aligning strategy with design/execution, which is still not common.

“Brand-design companies are either very good at strategy, but not very good at execution, or very good at execution, and not so good at the strategy. Liquid excels at both. I had partnered with them on a few projects, and when I decided to sell my company, I went to them in the first round of meetings. They said, ‘Great, done!’ It was that easy.”

 

On the relationship between design and strategy...

You ran Critique from 96 to 01, and in a previous interview you said that the idea was to help designers understand how to apply their work more closely to the real needs of culture and the real needs of business and that you found it difficult because designers don’t always want to think about what they’re doing. After 5 years of trying you stopped. Do you think that things have changed in the 10+ years that have passed and that maybe now there would be space for it or things are still frozen in time in regards to the role of design within business?

“Designers are getting better at strategy, but there’s still a long way to go. Until we stop teaching design in art schools, we’re going to end up with the same kind of people—those who want to be artists, not designers. They’ll tend to fall short in solving business problems because that’s not really what they signed up for. Unless we can teach them that the real art of design lies in solving a business problem they’re going to keep thinking design is purely visual, or experiential, and never learn to make the connection between design and a specific business outcome. That’s the frustration I’ve had as a designer. I think it’s getting better—I’ve been working really hard on this! (laughs). But I’ve found more success teaching business people how to use design than teaching designers how to think strategically. I want business leaders to embrace great design, to leave space for it, and not simply tell designers what they want. You know, the classic “I need a logo” syndrome. Maybe you don’t need a logo!

“Designers who are really into strategy should work for companies like Wolff Olins. Companies like Pentagram are truly great at aesthetics, but they don’t necessarily treat strategy as an equal partner. In Pentagram’s defence, however, I have to say they’re so good at design that they solve a lot of strategic problems intuitively. Yet I don’t consider Pentagram a model for design firms going forward. The future, to me, looks more like an integration of strategy and design, where one blends into the other.

“The worst situation is when you have a strategy team and a design team, and the strategy team does their work first, then hands it off to the design team to execute the strategy. That’s old school. At that point there’s nothing much the design team can bring to the table. Yet the strategy people don’t want to the designers to go first because they believe, often rightly, that the work will be off-target.

“The way to solve this problem, really, is to get everyone working together from the start. It’s a more interesting, messy, and ultimately creative process. It’s the one we use at Liquid. We get strategists, designers, writers, researchers, and clients together in a room for a week. We work on everything at once. It’s like having one big brain instead of a lot of smaller brains linked together in a sequence. With all these different points of view clashing and blending in real time, we get a much different outcome. More exciting. but also more chaotic. This all-at-once process can be hard on people who aren’t used to the messiness of creative work.”

 

On terminology, design and design thinking...

Marty then discussed design thinking. He explained that it was about resisting easy answers while imagining new possibilities. He finds it a struggle to define a common language for abstract concepts such as design thinking, brand strategy, and aesthetics. So much so that he has written a dictionary to begin to establish a foundation for communication between various parties: “Brand A-Z”. He says “it’s a basic toolkit of a thousand terms that allows specialists from different disciplines to work together in a larger community of practice.”

“It makes it easier if we’re all talking about the same thing. I’m sure someone else would write a slightly different dictionary with slightly different definitions. But at least it’s a start. Terminology evolves. The important thing is to find common ground across disciplines. Not everyone will relate to all the terms, but we need to understand that all these ideas are connected. They’re all part of branding in a larger sense—strategy, design, marketing, advertising, management, research, and so on. The more you use the dictionary, the better your picture of how everything fits together.”

I knew from previous research that Marty is fond of Herbert Simon’s definition of design, to the extent of adapting it for the dictionary...

            “Design: The discipline or process of changing an existing situation to a preferred one.”

In this definition anyone can be a designer, because he sees design as a way of thinking. Some other examples...

            “Design thinking: The process of working through a complex challenge using a succession of prototypes; thinking by making.”

            “Brand: A customer’s perception of a product, service, or company; a commercial reputation.”

            “Acceptance threshold: The point at which a person or group is willing to embrace an innovative idea”

            “Core purpose: The reason a company exists beyond making a profit.”

 

What’s the thing you think will change the world?

“Metaskills. I wrote a book about it. The five talents we’ll need in the robotic age. When the book came out, four or five years ago, few people were talking about robots taking our jobs, or the acceleration of technology. It was probably a bit ahead of its time. It’s 300 pages of research-driven text, with a lot of diagrams and illustrations, and 30 pages of notes (laughs). It was a big project that contains the theory behind design thinking. It says if you want to succeed in an age of artificial intelligence, when machines and algorithms will take over a lot of routine jobs, we’ll need to develop uniquely human skills. I outlined five “metaskils” that I’ll think we’ll need.

“Metaskills are skills that allow us to create other skills. We’ll have to be learning continously in a time of great change. The metaskills that will allow us to do that are feeling, seeing, making, dreaming, and learning. Learning how to learn, learning how to learn faster and deeper. Metaskills help us learn the skills we’ll need to be always moving to the next thing, whatever it may be. Traditional schools teach us how to do things by rote—we memorize, we obey, we follow existing pathways. Until schools start emphasizing metaskills over traditional subjects, I’m afraid we won’t be in a good position to evolve.”

 

On education...

“It doesn’t work. It’s too expensive, and it’s not flexible. Flexible, personalized learning is really what we need now, and thanks to online learning tools we’ll be able to do that. Teachers may become more like mentors in the near future, people who guide us to the right materials and suggest the right projects, but don’t teach us through direct instruction. Instead, they’ll monitor how we’re doing and make sure we’re learning what we need to learn. This could be a cool new role for teachers, because they won’t have to know everything about everything. Instead, they’ll have to know a lot about learning and teaching, and how to really pay attention to the needs of individual students. Each student needs something different to fulfill his or her destiny. I think that’s where schooling needs to go.”

Thank you Marty for all your time and availability. I never cease to be amazed by people who share just by the sake of sharing, regardless of the reward. 

Finding Marty

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