alexandra bagao

interviews

Kevin Finn | TheSumOf & DESIGNerd

 
kevin.jpg

 

CONTEXT

One of these days I was procrastinating and stumbled upon DESIGNerd where I saw a wide picture of Jessica Walsh. With a few more clicks I realised this guy had interviewed designers that I can only aspire to, that he's been doing, quite successfully, what I too love doing. I can't tell you how that made me feel… I had found my work aspiration. That alone would be good enough, but even better would be to talk to him, drink directly from the font, so I emailed him.

That same day I got a reply. A reply the size of a small blogpost which I rejubilated with. One of the longest emails in my inbox and probably the best one yet. It contained all the points only someone great would take the time to write to a lost stranger like me. It thanked me for reaching out, congratulated me for pursuing my passion, gave (a lot of) advice on monetising/keep pursuing/running/moving forward said passion, reassured me on what I described as weaknesses/fears and at the end agreed to talk to me in a few days.

If you are a designer, if you love design, or if you just want to get to know someone truly uncanny, try and reach out to Kevin Finn. He's one of those people that you meet and makes you want to change your life and the world in an afternoon. You get an overflow of ideas and a very special will to actually go and do it. He gives you a kind of hope, something I hadn't experienced before. Maybe I am biased, because at the time we met I was in a bit of a professional hole, but talking to him made me want to go further, learn and especially DO more. 

So far I have been concentrating on coming out of said professional hole, as you can see from the time it took me to write this up, but honestly… this was borderline life changing for me. Bellow I summarised 40 minutes of what ended up being a 1:30h conversation. The rest of the time Kevin and I talked about my career aspirations, about his own path, advised me on life in general, what worked for him when he started out... at the end I hung up feeling it is ok to be where and what I am. 

Reading what I just wrote feels like I just had a deep therapy session and decided to come here blab about it, but I guarantee, it's all worth reading. 

 

INTERVIEW . NOVEMBER 2017

How would you describe what you do to a 5 yo?

I’ve got a 6-year-old, so it’s a bit easier for me to respond than you might have thought. 

He recently said he wants to be a designer because his dad is a designer, so last week I made him a t-shirt that said “Junior Designer” (laughs). In his eyes he thinks that means drawing stuff, because that’s what he does.

Through the eyes of a 6yo, design is drawing, but if I was to describe to a 5 year old what I do I would probably say I work with words and then turn them into pictures.

In fact when I was back at Saatchi and Saatchi, on the first website we created for Saatchi Design, we literally said “Saatchi Design Words and Pictures”; that was fifteen years ago and I’ve been pretty much saying the same thing to my 6-year-old.

 

I've read already your answers to how Open Manifesto came about (read here), so I don't think I should be asking you that. But I would like to know what Open Manifesto is for you personally.

For me it is a few things. Essentially, it was a research stream that I was missing in my day-to-day work. In our work as designers we have to do research, but the research is done in a very limited, specific way. It is specific to the client’s sector, their business or their product; and I missed the University experience, where you can just explore lots of different things and different areas. 

The second thing is that it was a sort of an escape for me, and by that I mean it was an escape from seeing design through the eyes of a designer. I wanted to understand design through the eyes of a lot more people.

The third thing was the challenge. I’m not a journalist, I’m not a professional writer, I’m not an established publisher or a professional editor; I never was… I had to train myself through doing it: To write, to interview people, to curate a publication, to put a publication together… And back then there was no real easy pathway to independent publishing. I had to get a printer, a distributor, etc, so it was a challenge in that sense, as well. 

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I wanted to understand design through the eyes of a lot more people.

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However, what binds it together is that I always described Open Manifesto as an investment, but an investment in my knowledge. That’s what’s been underpinning this whole adventure. 

 

I assume that when you started Open Manifesto you already had an amount of connections you could draw from, to build the first volume, but to the rest of the nobody's in the world, how do you build credibility and interest in other people to talk to you?

Well… First of all I didn’t have a network (both laugh). Seriously, I knew and had access to some people in the industry here in Australia, and I thought: “they’d be interesting to interview or to ask them to write for me”. I remember two students, in particular, whom I was asked to be an external examiner for their final year projects. One was a young female Aboriginal student and the other a young female Muslim student , and I thought: We’re not hearing enough in our field about Aboriginal culture, how that works with design; We’re not hearing enough of Arabic and Muslim design. This was back in 2004, which was a bit ahead of its time. I also felt we weren’t hearing enough from female designers, so here I had two young designers whom I had to convince to do something for this new publication that I had in mind. They very reluctantly agreed (because they were a little nervous) and so I had the beginnings of a volume, issue #1. Coincidently my wife (girlfriend at the time) reminded me that Vince Frost (Frost*collective) had moved to Australia and that I should go talk to him. I immediately thought: “Oh no no no, he's a very famous designer, I can’t go to him. Who am I?!” She was a bit oblivious to all that and suggested I “just call him, see what happens”. 

He was the last person that I contacted for the first issue but he was the first person that I really interviewed. I was scared shitless, but he was fantastic, gracious, interested. He didn’t care that I was a nobody, in terms of a publication. I guess I had a bit of credibility with the name Saatchi behind me, but to Vince he was like: “You are a person, you are a designer, I'll talk to you”. So that completed the first volume. And that interview allowed me to keep in touch with Vince and we’ve ended up being really close friends.

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I was scared shitless, and he was fantastic, gracious, interested. He didn’t care that I was a nobody (...)

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After that I thought I’d look for people in my network who might know someone else. At the time, Stefan Sagmeister (Sagmeister&Walsh) had just come to Australia for a series of talks. He was speaking at a school where I knew the Head of Design, so I reached out to him and asked if I could get some time with Stefan in between talks. He agreed and so did Stefan, who became the second person I’d ever interviewed. He was also fantastic, gracious, interested. I remember after that interview, Stefan had just left the room and I was sitting there on my own, just a little bit numb and in shock that I was in this situation. The Head of Design came in:
- I said: I don’t know what I am doing!
- What do you mean? 
- You know… I’m not the right person to do this.
- What are you talking about?
- I don’t have the right to be in here talking to people like Stefan and the likes of him, because I’m not a journalist, I’m not established...
He just looked at me and said: “It doesn’t matter. You’ll do it your way and that’s enough.” 

That made me think: “Yeah, he’s right! … I’ll do it my own way!” So from those two interview experiences I contacted more designers and told them Vince and Stefan had got involved, and they mostly said: “Well if they got involved, I want to get involved”. 

The first person I contacted outside the design field—and way outside my network—was Edward de Bono. I just literally contacted his personal assistant in Australia via email. I got hold of her name, her contact details, and emailed explaining what I was doing and that I’d love if Edward could write something for me. She rang me at work and asked me to tell her a little bit more about the publication. She asked if I was going to be at work the next day and that she’d give me a call. The next day I was working away and then the phone rang…
- Hi again, it’s Julia, are you available to talk? 
- Yes sure.
- Great, here’s Edward. 

Edward got on the phone and I thought: “oh shhhiii”… Edward simply asked me how I was and what I wanted from him. And right there and then I had to pitch Open Manifesto to him on the phone, just like that, on the spot. And he agreed to it (very graciously). The most interesting thing was, he hand wrote his article—and faxed it to me. 

The reason he said “yes” was because he was friends with Bob Isherwood, the World Wide Creative Director of Saatchi and Saatchi at the time, so Edward and I had a mutual reference point. He didn’t know me, but he knew Bob, and he knew Saatchi’s, so he gave me the benefit of the doubt. 

After getting a few names in the publication, people saw some credibility—not necessarily in me, but in the people whom I was talking to and who were interested in being part of this project.

 

In relation to your project, I've read in a previous interview that you do not consider DESIGNerd and Open Manifesto to be a business initiative, they weren't yet monetized and returning on investment. I assume that merging them was part of that journey. Is there anything that you can tell us about the thinking process behind bringing an initiative that is just an initiative, a dream or a passion project to the business life?

It's a good question because a lot of designers have side projects and most of the time they aren’t monetized, they’re just a hobby. I knew with Open Manifesto I didn’t have the PR machine behind me to build readership and profile, I didn’t have resources to have people calling book shops and selling or pitching it, and when we looked at selling Open Manifesto online, again, I didn’t have the resources or the time to really put in the required promotion. So Open Manifesto was, as I’ve mentioned before, just as a research stream. 

However, over the last couple of years, I acknowledged it’s really not fair or respectful to the contributors because they deserve more eyeballs on their contribution. So I owe it to them—and I owe it to the readers—to get more readers, so they can see more of what these people are contributing because it’s incredible. 

Also, for various reasons I put a lot of things on hold for a while, both Open Manifesto and DESIGNerd, and that gave me the headspace to look at it again but with some perspective. I run a busy studio, I do a publication which is 300 pages per issue, and which is published every year and a half, maybe two years, which is way too slow. And I have DESIGNerd, which was sort of an idea I had a number of years ago. I naïvely thought it might be a quicker idea to monetize, but that wasn’t the case at all. There was too much going on, so I stopped DESIGNerd and I focussed on finishing the next issue of Open Manifesto because I realised I was stretching myself thin. DESIGNerd felt like a one-trick-pony at that time, but I knew there's something bigger in it and I needed to develop it further. So it eventually occurred to me… Why not put everything under one name? 

That means I can centralize all of the content. And because it’s digital it can reach audiences within weeks instead of years. And if I get some resources and a team behind it then it can be published on a weekly basis or even on a daily basis. So DESIGNerd—in its current form—emerged from that thinking.

However, I am just about to embark on another journey with a business coach. I have ideas about how these things could be monetized, but everything I’ve learnt has been learned from doing. There have been wrong turns, dead ends, mistakes, pulling myself back up again—more time, more resources, not enough knowledge… So I figured that a business coach can look at it all and offer advice and guidance. If they can help me to realize my ideas, or if they can direct me, or even just tell me this isn’t something I can monetize, I will be happy with it. That won’t stop me doing it as a hobby, though, because what I’m getting from it is far greater than money. 

The reason I want to monetize it is because the more revenue I generate the more I can invest in DESIGNerd. The more I can invest the more time I can spend doing it. And the more time I can spend doing it, the more value I can give readers and the DESIGNerd community. So while I enjoy working with clients, the dream would be to only have one client: DESIGNerd—to just work on DESIGNerd, doing events, developing content, workshops, a whole bunch of stuff.

We all need help. But here’s the thing: We tend to do it all ourselves, and we tend to think that asking for help is akin to failure. A funny thing I've observed… Most designers will help anyone who asks, but most designers won’t ask for help themselves. But I think that the more we learn from other people the quicker we get to an end result, so I’m now a big fan of asking for help.

 

What is design for you?

I think it has changed over the years. When I first started out it was a really, really scary thing. I had absolute doubt—deep seeded doubt—that I could ever come up with an original idea. And by original I don’t mean absolutely brand new, I mean an idea that formed in my head independently and which I could see through to a finished piece of design. That scared the absolute life out of me. So I got my qualifications, I got out in the world of design—terrified and full of doubt. So design was really exciting but the reality of it also scared the hell out of me.

Then it moved into a passion, an obsession. Something that I really felt comfortable with, I really hit my groove and was really into it.

Now I would say it has moved closer to education. By that I mean most of the client work I do now, and pretty much all of the work with DESIGNerd, is primarily around strategy, understanding, researching, figuring stuff out. For me now, that’s the exciting bit because I feel like I’m really learning. Designing the visualisation of the strategy happens towards the end—and at the moment it’s the least interesting part for me, even though I really enjoy it. The more exciting part is the fact that my mind is being filled with all this knowledge, through learning and researching client projects and businesses. That means understanding the client, but also their customers, their clients, and their suppliers, which leads me to talk to people, interview people—and that’s a really interesting space for me.

 

About the term design thinking… What's your opinion on the terminology and its connection to a theoretical common language between design and business… Does it help, does it not…

I think Design Thinking is an unfortunate title because it sort of separates Design and Design Thinking as individual pursuits. As a result Design is left in this kind of aesthetic/cosmetic superficial basket, and Design Thinking is seen as being more serious, where you start getting into really deep thinking. The thing is, any designer will tell you they are thinking while they are designing. They are constantly joining the dots, assessing and synthesizing context, content, parameters and a whole range of things, and putting them into what they are creating. So I think that design thinking as a label is unfortunate. 

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I think Design Thinking is an unfortunate title. 

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However, in the business world it makes sense to call it this because when we talk about the craft of design, for a great part of business owners it feels like a subjective conversation because it revolves around colours, typefaces and artefacts; Design Thinking pulls it up to a strategic level and talks about processes and systems which business people can understand, something they are more comfortable with. Because of Design Thinking businesses are now starting to realise that design can, for example, create a system where people can be more productive—and that system might never include a logo, or a brochure or a website.

The other side of this is Design Thinking has given designers a credible and respectable seat at the table of executives in the C-suite, something they hadn’t really had access to before. Some had, but not many... 

The issue now is there’s an expectation that designers are well versed in Design Thinking, but that isn’t necessarily always the case. In the design world there’s a feeling that Design Thinking, as a skill, is absolutely required. Many designers feel they need to be doing it to be successful, but I know peers who have no interest in Design Thinking or strategy, but they are absolutely amazing craft designers… They simply blow me away with their talent. And there’s plenty of people like them; so designers shouldn’t feel they’re not good designers if they don’t practice Design Thinking, nor should they be expected to. There is enough room for everyone. Although, overall I do believe Design Thinking is a great bridge for design and businesses to talk to each other.

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Design Thinking has given designers a credible and respectable seat at the table of executives in the C-suite, something they hadn’t really had access to before.

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Lastly I’ll say there’s a lot of jargon, which designers throw around when talking about Design Thinking, which is really annoying because they’re trying to make it sound academic and trying to make it sound (maybe) more professional than it may otherwise be perceived. And I don’t think we need to do that… I think we actually need to keep it really simple. Up until recently a lot of the business world has been drinking the kool-aid. I’ve been called into meetings with senior partners of significant businesses talking about innovation labs. But it’s so obvious they have no idea what they are talking about. The worst is they are often doing this because they think they have to do it, not because they understand its purpose or value. Some seem to think: “If we have a room full of post-it notes and Innovation Lab written on the door then it will happen”. But they miss the fact that it’s cultural, that it’s a transition from traditional ways of doing things. But that’s a scary step, it hurts and it takes courage and investment.

 

What role do you think design can have in helping organisations deal with change?

Hmm… I think that if you look at most traditional business training, business schools and the way most businesses operate (especially traditional businesses), they tend to review and assess the past. They use case studies, they look at data of what happened, they look at what ‘was’ and what is ‘now’. In contrast, designers naturally tend to think about ‘what if?’, what could be... So where traditional business thinking is in the past and the present, designers are always looking ahead and that’s something that we naturally do. When we are talking about businesses that need to go through transformation, those that need to change and to adapt, I believe—Design Thinking aside—designers are far more comfortable being uncomfortable, and businesses generally aren’t. There are no guarantees when you’re looking to design the future. So if you surround yourself with people who are more comfortable in a space that you aren’t, you feel reassured. With designers you feel can reassured and more relaxed while having to deal with these changes, and start to have safe conversations about possible ways forward.

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Where traditional business thinking is in the past and the present, designers are always looking ahead and that's something that we naturally do (…) designers are far more comfortable being uncomfortable, and businesses generally aren't. 

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The second thing with Design Thinking is, as mentioned earlier, there are processes, methodologies and frameworks involved, something the business world really feels comfortable with. So when they are exploring new territory, when they are exploring the unknown, when they are in an uncomfortable position, they can use frameworks to help them navigate that, at least some of the way, and that’s like scaffolding. A designer is usually comfortable in the unknown, comfortable with the frameworks and processes, so I think that’s where designers can help businesses transform and deal with change. 

Last thing I’ll say is designers are generally inquisitive people, we regularly ask simple questions like “why?” and “prove it” and “where does that show up?” and “how does that work?” We come at it from the view of the customer’s mindset and we tend to say: “Well, if we don’t understand it then it’s likely there are others who won’t understand it either…so you [the business person] need to articulate it to me, because I don’t know anything about your business, what you do and why it’s important, or not. Until I understand it I can’t start helping you identify gaps and opportunities and then help you manage through that change”. 

 

What is the thing you think will change the world?

That’s a scary, scary thought. Right now, I think it’s Donald Trump. I’m laughing, but it’s not funny, it’s very scary. And I don’t mean him as a person necessarily, though that is a big problem… But it’s what he has given a voice to. That’s what’s gonna change the world. We’re seeing it right across Europe now, Germany is going through it at the moment, Brexit is kind of half on its knees, but still... We’re seeing a lot of people are calling it Nationalism and Racism. I call it intentional division. I’m seeing a lot of division in the world right now, I am seeing it being popularized, ratified, and recognised through people like Donald Trump—who has zero interest in anyone other than himself. He’s at this point in time where traditional politics has failed most people, but populism, nationalism and isolationism are not the way to go. Yet Trump is in the middle of it putting a big light on this kind of politics. It’s like he’s saying: “Democracy is gone; you traditional politicians are starting to slip up because all these people are angry and they are willing to follow me”. 

That’s what I think is changing the world. We’re at a point where if we get through this it might  change the world for the better (I’m an optimist), and if we can’t get through this it’s gonna change the world for the worst. Whether it brings us all together more, or if it divides us more is yet to be seen… But, to coin a phrase from Jessica Walsh who said this to me once: “Design won’t change the world, people and ideas will”. I think at the moment, people and ideas can make that difference. And I am hopeful.

Finding Kevin

Check DESIGNerd website
Check TheSumOf . Branding . Design. Communications website
Follow him on Twitter