Mark Curtis | Fjord
Mark is one of Fjord co-founders and as such I had a growing curiosity about his views on the environment I myself was inserted in for the biggest part of this year.
It took me a while to approach him, but once I did he responded positively straight away and we agreed on a time to meet.
If I can say anything about him is that it is a delight to hear him talk. He’s an historian and that comes across strongly while answering my questions, in the way he gives examples and metaphors. Like never before, I had to research historical references while writing this interview, and despite my poor relationship with History classes in the past, it was lovely to learn what I did this time. It went way above business and design and I couldn't be more pleased.
With no more details I will leave you to read Mark’s thoughts, the interview might be long, but worth your while.
THE INTERVIEW . AUGUST 2017
Tell us a little bit about your background, what you do and how everything (Fjord) started…
It´s actually a little hard to define and I sometimes wonder myself what it is exactly I do (chuckles). I am serious though… it's not a problem at all, I don´t have angst over it and I don´t wake up in the middle of the night worrying about it but it's not entirely clear to me at all times.
I think largely what I am interested in is the way in which people interact with technology and the way in which that changes our lives, and the opportunities that are opened up by that.
Looking back over my career I began to get interested in that quite early on and I think that's probably been the thing that has driven me since then. What are the opportunities to explore and what technology can do. I think of myself as being an ideas person, who then probably puts a lot of energy trying to make those ideas real.
I think of myself as being an ideas person, who then probably puts a lot of energy trying to make those ideas real.
Quite early on I began to grasp the implications of what was happening with digital technology, which was in the mid 90’s. Starting out in marketing and I used to say: “this isn’t what I am going to do when I grow up”, then digital came along and I knew this was it. I haven’t really looked back ever since. From then on it was about building things, making stuff happen which was pushing the boundaries of what clients could do.
Back in the mid 90´s I was working with a guy called Mike Beeston (we set up our first company in 93), and at the time we were really focussing on what affect this technology would have on marketing. Certainly for you, at your age, it will seem almost amazing that someone would think about this that hard; but we were trying to understand what was the difference about this new technology, this interactive technology. In Mike´s view, and he´s very good at this, the difference was that, at last, consumers could speak back to and manipulate the medium. That was an enormous step forward in regards to technology, and we spent a lot of time persuading clients that this was size make, that this was really, really different.
A little later on, probably in 96/97, we realised a couple of other things. One of them was that despite people like Bill Gates going around saying that content is king, everything we were doing suggested to us that when we made communities happen they were the thing. People wanted to connect with each other over the Internet, the importance given to content wasn’t misguided but it wasn’t the only gain. If you like, content is king but connectivity is queen. And when I say connectivity I mean between people and ideas.
The second thing that became clear was that contrary to our initial thinking it wasn´t all about marketing. We rapidly realised it was much bigger than that, and it would change the entire way in which companies do things. These were very powerful conclusions at the time, and as such we never looked back.
Now, getting back to your question… The dotcom crash happened in the mid 00´s, and everything that we had built became extremely shaky. There were a number of reasons for that which would be boring to get into now but we sold the company to Razorfish in 98.
When the dotcom crash happened demand, literally, went in a week. It was astonishing... At one moment we were getting so much demand we could barely deal with it; people were saying that Razorfish was arrogant because we wouldn´t take their work, but we really didn´t have a choice, we couldn’t grow that quickly. The next week there was no demand at all, we were scratching around! At that point I spent quite a good amount of time in London and globally laying people off, which was very unhappy making.
However, we never lost sight of the fact that this was still going to be the biggest thing and it was a huge revolution. All in the middle of a lot of people going around saying, “Hurray, hurray, it’s all over.” I can still remember one article in a magazine where you could read “All those stupid kids with skateboards will bugger off now, and we can go back to wearing suits and being serious men”… It was an interesting time.
Mike, Olof and I left Razorfish roughly in February 2001, and started to talk. Fjord was set up about four months later. The reason we set it up… Well, I would love to say we had this fantastic and clear vision that it was going to be service design and that was the future, but if I am being honest, that would be just bullshit. In many ways, it was more foolish than that. We were just driven by a belief, and that was that the Internet and digital was not over and it was going to become the most dominant business driver of the next few decades. We were absolutely certain of that.
I would love to say we had this fantastic and clear vision that it was going to be service design and that was the future, but if I am being honest, that would be just bullshit (...) We were just driven by a belief.
At the same time we could see a number of things happening, or a number of ideas beginning to emerge. Particularly, the power of networks, and to some extent the fact that digital was going to spread across more media than just pc based internet. We could see that mobile was going to get big.
I don’t think we sat down and made any extraordinary predictions in that first year, but I think we had a pretty good sense of where things were going. But in all honesty, it was cloudy and we were just based on this slightly stupid, heroic belief that the stuff was going to come back. So, it took about three years. And those first three years were hideously difficult… There was no pay for a while, it was just very difficult and we didn’t really articulate what we were doing very well. Then, finally, the stuff with mobile began to click. I think mobile was a huge turning point for us; particularly once we did business with Nokia.
Nokia told us we had to set up in Helsinki and so we did, but then things didn´t pan out as expected and we barely had any work for a year, which was pretty difficult, but then we made it work. After that things really began to expand and we went to Madrid and Berlin, and eventually we raised money from an investor and went to New York. At about that time we began to really clarify that service design was at the core of what we do and that was mid 00´s. At that stage, service design was still comparatively new as an idea, which added some difficulty when persuading even some of our own staff that service design was the future.
The first three years were hideously difficult… There was no pay for a while, it was just very difficult and we didn’t really articulate what we were doing very well.
We spent some time discussing if we were going to be a mobile only company, or cross platform, and Mike argued, very coherently, that we had to look at the bigger picture and aim for the cross platform. At the time, the mobile idea was very seductive because it was easier for people to understand, much easier to get out to the market with a proposition that says we do mobile design. Plenty of people did that. Most of those I think have done ok; a lot of them stalled in mid air when it became clear it wasn’t just mobile. Also, once it became clear mobile was important everyone was doing it. So I think we made a good choice on that. However, the cross platform service was equally much harder to communicate so, in a way, by making it harder for yourself to explain what you do you are making it better on the long term and that bet did pay off.
How would you describe your organisation’s culture?
I don’t think Olof or Mike would have a different view on this, but I don´t think we´ve ever sat down and decided what culture we were going to have. I just don’t remember having a conversation where we created a document, where we spelt it out or anything like that. I think that tends to be something that large organisations do, when they feel the need to do it. That might be because they have become dull and anonymous places, or because they are being pressured by their employees or they are failing to recruit in the market… There are a number of reasons why a company would say or feel the need to define their culture. But I believe the best culture happens organically.
I am sure there are people out there who´d say they sat down and decided that the company would have X, Y, Z culture from day one; that isn’t what Mike, Olof and I did. I think we just did it. I hope it doesn’t sound pompous but I think Fjord does cross reflect the culture of who we are, what we like and what we find interesting. If you think about some of the things that we did or looked for you might understand what I mean…
Our first place was hideous but that was just a temporary thing to get us up and running; when we finally landed somewhere we got a very nice and cool place in Soho. We shared it with a company who were one of the biggest producers of vinyl records in the UK, which in itself was a fun place to be. That focus on getting the right place in turn reflected who we were. Then, the combination of the founders and the people we hired in the early days, people like Celia, for example, made a big difference. It is almost a cliché to talk about clothes, but just the fact that we were relaxed about clothes, the fact that all three of us were fairly obsessive over music, Mike in particular, and we would have music on at the studio… I think it´s all of those things, the space you inhabit and the way you project the people you hire, particularly those early hires make a huge difference. These are much a reflection of your cultural priorities.
I think it´s all of those things, the space you inhabit and the way you project the people you hire, particularly those early hires make a huge difference. These are much a reflection of your cultural priorities.
After a while something began to emerge, which we didn´t realise at the time, but became iconic, like equinox. The first equinox we did was on Mike´s farm; there were 9 or 10 of us there. We camped because Mike didn’t have enough room in his building, and a lot of our meetings were held outdoors as it was pretty sunny. It was in Devon, and it was lovely! That set up a pattern for what we then did. A couple a years later we were much bigger and we were holding equinox in an old prison on an island off Cannes, it was really basic. I mean, now I believe there´s a lot of people at Fjord who would find it way too basic and would be quite upset to be taken to this island, where the food wasn’t very good, it was very dusty and there were no shops. It was very unusual but boy did it set a standard that we actually were ok to put ourselves out there. After that we started Fjord journeys, once you´ve been in the company for two years we select some people every year to go to an area where there are fjords. They go kayaking, climbing and all sorts of stuff. And I think that too, if you think about it, reflects the three of us. Mike, Olof and I all love the outdoors and love that sort of thing, so we projected ourselves onto what we thought would be great for everyone to have. Fjord journeys is a small thing, but it´s relatively iconic, and so far that´s something we´ve gone on doing.
I believe it is the sum of all the parts that add up to a good culture.
Considering the recent acquisition, and the fact that Fjord is growing so rapidly, what are the biggest challenges you currently face?
Scaling. We´ve literally just gone pass 1000 people, which is a hell of a marker, and definitely if you´d told to me six years ago “You´re going to get to 1000 people”, I would say “Not sure that´s even possible in the design world”. I´d find it difficult to believe… So it is amazing, but it´s not the only important measurement, that´s for sure. I should say this because the quality, variety and interest level of the work we are doing matters much more than the fact that we´ve come past 1000 people. However, a thousand people is a headline and it´s easy to get your head around that. I can talk about quality of work, but I have to show lots of work to prove that point, a thousand is a simple thing to understand. And the reason why that is important is because it means a great deal of complexity. We´ve got 26 studios and the biggest challenge for us now is growing our structure so that we offer really amazing career opportunities for people within Fjord, and grow the culture at the same time. People are arriving and bringing with them new ideas and ways of being, and we should let that happen and let it morph, but we should also keep it strong, vibrant, and differentiated. I think that´s very important. The thing I worry about the most at the moment is structure. Do we have the right structure in place to really, elegantly grow and manage a company of 1000+ people in 26 locations?
Which are, in your opinion, the three aspects an organisation should prioritise to achieve a competitive advantage?
Clear, distinct culture is one. I think it is wrong to say there´s a winning culture, it´s like saying there is a winning human being and they are all in a particular quadrant of personality types. There are plenty of very successful and happy people in the world who are both introvert and extrovert and I think it´s the same with companies. You shouldn’t box companies into saying there´s one culture and that´s the best culture, it´s completely non-sense and there´s no evidence that suggests that´s the case.
However, I still consider that having a strong, clear and differentiated culture is, these days, probably the most important thing of all. The second thing I´d say is agility. This would not necessarily been an answer most people would have given thirty or sixty years ago, but the ability to shift rapidly around customers and changes in the marketplace is a critical skill for organisations. The third one is probably discipline and focus. Extreme flexibility becomes defocused, and you can be peddling very hard and trying to go into a number of directions but actually not getting anywhere; so I think focus and a degree of discipline is important. Some of the people I´ve worked with who´ve I´ve admired the most leadership wise are the ones who´ve effectively said “Don’t do that, do this”, and being crystal clear about it. I mean part of that has to do with the business culture. It is very important to have that absolute clarity. If you look at what Pierre is doing at Accenture at the moment… He´s banging on about innovation, it is all he talks about. He is just repeating the message again, again and again. Which is great, it´s very strong leadership.
Having a strong, clear and differentiated culture is, these days, probably the most important thing of all. The second thing I´d say is agility. The third one is probably discipline and focus.
What is design for you?
I think design is about simplicity and beauty. I think it´s about simplifying, about making tasks easier but also about aesthetics. If all was about making tasks easier, it would be a good thing, but closer to supply management…
To illustrate my point, I was on holiday in Spain and we went to Seville, to the Alcazar. The Alcazar is not just Moorish, it´s actually a Christian palace originally built by the Moors and their tile work is absolutely beautiful. The eight-pointed star motif appears all over Andalusia, and in my view it this detailed patterned work is design as well. Is it simplifying? Not in practical usage terms but it´s beautiful and it has an effect in major Spanish cities. Another example is in the city of Ronda, where you can visit the Arab baths, which are a masterpiece of design. The baths are approximately 800 years old, I mean they are not in use anymore and but the design is just exquisite. This was where people would go and wash themselves after a dusty journey before entering the city of Ronda, and again you can see the eight-pointed star in the roof. However the intention here is more than purely decorative, it´s functionality is to let light into the bathing area but not too much rain. It is just stunning, beautiful. That for me is design… very smart solutions. The motifs in stone here relate to the tiles I mentioned before, the same pattern is used forming the very commonly known Arabic aesthetics.
It was about 40 degrees when we were there and it was cool inside. They basically heated up the water at one end of the building using wood, and then the water passed through three sets of rooms. The first was a steam room, the second was a mid warm room and the last one was a cool area… They very intelligently made the water cool down naturally as it passed through the sets of rooms, each one with its own purpose. If you want, I think this is a piece of service design; Islam asks the faithful to be clean, and from a practical point of view you´ve travelled a long way, under an unbelievably hot weather in a mule, wanting to clean up before you went to what was probably a very civilized city. In my opinion this is an example of a well-designed service.
What’s your opinion on design thinking? Do you believe in a common language between design and other fields?
You talked about design thinking becoming pants, and I have a very close opinion about the subject which is that design thinking as a term is not helping design; as a practice it is very important, but is not self explanatory, it´s commonly used, everyone can put it in their website and then people don’t actually understand what design thinking does until they do it and there´s a lot of people that do design thinking without realise it. What is your opinion?
Well… There are several things to say about it. The first is that my concern over design thinking, which is exactly yours, is the overuse of the terminology and the use of the terminology in a very lightweight way. So people think they´ve grasped it after a day´s course or exposure to a couple of videos but actually they haven’t culturally embedded it, they haven’t really got the message about being user focused, and I do see that fairly frequently. People not actually being user focused, but instead being really focused on the commercial needs of the business…
People think they´ve grasped it after a day´s course or exposure to a couple of videos but actually they haven’t culturally embedded it, they haven’t really got the message about being user focused, and I do see that fairly frequently.
To that extent I prefer the terminology of service design. I believe it suggests a stronger set of practices that you can’t just pick up over night. The risk however is that if you start going too far down this route you end up sounding protective and snotty, it´s a bit like teachers saying you have to do a three year course to be a teacher, even if you think you can teach due to experience and expertise, you can´t. There is some truth in that, but there´s also a degree of protectiveness, I think as designers we need to be very careful about that. The solution is for people to understand that, and I´ve said this very clearly in public, it isn’t just about design thinking, it is about design doing and design culture. That means that yes you can do the design thinking, but you need strong, explicit linkage between the thinking and the delivery of the designs themselves, and then you need a strong link between that and a culture that encourages and permits those things to happen and radiates them.
The solution is for people to understand that it isn’t just about design thinking, it is about design doing and design culture.
(trying to think about a good example of that) If I go back to history… (I am an historian so…) I think it´s noticeable if you look at two of the most remarkable places in Europe, Sicily and Andalusia. The reason they are both remarkable is because there were, at certain stages, incredibly high degrees of tolerance for diversity in ethnicity and religion. In Andalusia, during it´s golden age, there were Jews, Arabs, North Africans, and the original Visigothic-Spanish, all mixing together in the same culture. The same thing happened in the court of Frederick II, in Sicily around 1250, which was known to be the most fabulous court in Europe. He was a highly educated monarch who was very accepting of a number of different cultures. And I think that the beauty of the designs that you can still see in Sicily and Andalusia are still there because there was an acceptance of that design culture.
What happened in southern Spain was that the Christians came in but they basically encouraged the converted Moors to stay and exercise their art. The more enlightened catholic monarchs saw this; unfortunately they lost touch with that in 1492 and threw them all out within a century, which was a disaster and a stupid idea. But going back, we now have beautiful art like in the Alcazar, which was created by Islamic workers working for Christian kings who accepted and realised that their art was profoundly powerful and beautiful.
What is the thing you think will change the world?
I am afraid a more serious and pessimistic answer right now is that if North Korea and America start throwing nuclear arms at each other. But on a more optimistic note I think that, and this is not a revolutionary thought, the technologies that are being developed at the moment, particularly around machine learning and nanotechnology will revolutionise pretty much everything, including our health. I am actually much more optimistic about health care because I think that AI is going to eventually create much better and cost efficient healthcare systems. At the moment, we are still heading to a place where health care systems are unaffordable; we are getting older, fatter and pretty much unstoppable demographically.
The technology is appearing which allows us to do certain things with cancer and heart disease that we have access to, but they are not necessarily affordable at the scale and volume that we´d like to have them. We have to hope that some of the things happening with AI will help us diagnose and prevent this stuff much, much earlier. The shifting emphasis to early diagnosis using systems which are just better than doctors can possibly be, I believe might predicate a huge shift in healthcare.
However that is just one area that can be positively affected by these emerging technologies.
Who are the people, alive, you look up to in regards to life or running a business?
Hmmm… It is hard not to be pretty drawn to Elon Musk, due to his sheer tenaciousness and vision. About 10 years ago a friend of mine made a film called “Who killed the electric car?”, it was about the way in which the creation of electric cars had been more or less killed off by the combination of governments and the automotive industry; how they were going nowhere and yet they were obviously a good idea… That film is now completely redundant. I bet no one watches it, why would they watch it? Musk has proved, almost single-handedly, that electric cars are a great idea and that you can get them to the mass market. You just have to admire him, he´s inspirational… I don’t know how he´s like, I´ve never met him, I haven’t read much about him, I don’t know if he´s an asshole… But his tenaciousness is definitely something to look up to.
The only other person is, unfortunately he died a year ago, David Bowie. Bowie´s talent to reinvent what he was doing and his own level of internal artistic challenge were just extraordinary and I very much admire those people, in arts in particular; Who´ve challenged themselves when they could have gone on for years and years making the same thing and being successful. Picasso is another favourite of mine because he just kept on reinventing what he was doing. I mean, eventually he slowed down, but I think that´s understandable, you lose that burning urge when you are probably middle aged, but Bowie didn’t. The last album was quite an incredible artistic statement of forthcoming death, an incredible piece of work. I admire that so much.