David L. Stallsmith recently joined us here in Chicago’s Critical Mass outpost. David most recently comes from digital shop Avenue A | Razorfish but has also been a co-owner of a small design consultancy and he’s a product of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design where he earned his Master of Design in Strategic Design Planning (Patrick Whitney’s program). David and I had a chance to catch up and thought it would be fun to do a Q+A here.
DA: Your background is in Strategic Design Planning. How would you describe what this is?
DLS: The short answer is that strategic design planning tries to answer a basic question that every business asks: what should we make? In contrast, traditional design practice goes after a different question: how should we make it? -- with the "it" already having been defined. Design planning takes on challenges that are systemic and organizational in scale. Traditional design is about creating artifacts.
Another way to think about design planning is to look at how design has changed over the last 50 or so years. Historically, designers focused only on making things, and for most of the 20th century, gave form to products dreamed up by marketers or engineers. Designers relied on marketing folks for information they needed to create new things. This method worked until about the mid-1970s, when companies began offering customers more specialized, more technically complex goods. Companies learned they could be successful offering customers endless product choices and upgrades. But as designers tried to keep up using only marketing-based data, they found they kept missing the mark. Success in this new paradigm required a different type of input -- data that revealed customers' behaviors and motivations, not just opinions. So a few pioneering designers began turning to ethnography and other novel methods for understanding customers. These methods proved so powerful at uncovering customer needs that they gave rise to a new discipline -- design planning -- for systematically turning behavior-based insights into strategic business opportunities.
DA: You’ve worked at some interesting places like Doblin, VSA Partners, Avenue A | Razorfish and were co-owner of your own firm called Method Engine. What’s one significant skill or learning you picked up from each experience?
DLS: At Doblin, I saw how Larry Keeley introduced design planning concepts to clients. He's a master at bringing planning to life and showing how powerful it can be. At VSA, I had a chance to work with some of the world's best brands just as they were figuring out what the Web was all about. Starting Method Engine taught me many things, mostly humility and patience. And Avenue A | Razorfish was the place where I fine-tuned many things I'd learned earlier.
DA: What do you think is the role of the designer in the broader fields of marketing and business in general?
DLS: In most engagements, the designer serves as a proxy for the user. Good designers can empathize with customers -- understanding their problems and pains -- while holding a vision of how things could be made better. In this way, the designer serves as a liason between the capabilities the business has to offer and the opportunities represented by its customers' needs.
DA: What about innovation? Where do you see innovation coming from these days? Where do you think there needs to be more of it?
DLS: So many people are talking about the flattening of the world. For the most part, they're referring to the effects of outsourcing on the U.S. economy. When it comes to innovation, the U.S. has held the title for generations. Today, innovation capabilities are emerging in every part of the world. This is bringing changes to the way we work -- breaking down barriers but also speeding up the pace of innovation.
DA: Do you think there is a common challenge that marketers, designers, and to a broader extent, businesspeople have in common? If so—what would you say that is?
DLS: It's getting harder and harder to draw a distinction between those roles. As the rate of competition and innovation continues to quicken, people who can move between those worlds become more valued. I think having a clear understanding of customers' wants and needs is a invaluable trait in all three of those domains.
DA: What’s your favorite animal and why?
DLS: I think ants are pretty fascinating. What better metaphor for working together to create the future? And I like cats too.
DA: What’s been the biggest success in your career so far?
DLS: The one that comes to mind first is when I transitioned from working as a graphic designer. After grad school I suddenly found myself in completely different types of design conversations -- not about fonts and colors, but about innovation and change on a much larger scale.
DA: What would you consider to have been a "failure"? What did you learn from it?
DLS: I can't think of any outright failures. Plenty of things didn't go as planned, but if you can learn from a bad situation, you've found a way to succeed.
DA: What’s your favorite thing about living in Chicago?
DLS: I love how people here have turned architecture into a spectator sport. There are these three supertall skyscrapers going up right now within a few blocks of each other. It's great to have a front-row seat to watch it happen. That, and Lake Michigan beaches in summer are pretty hard to beat.
DA: Tell us one thing about yourself we might not have guessed.
DLS: A friend of mine and I ran a DJ business in high school.
DA: If you had to give up all your digital devices but one—what would it be?
DLS: It's a toss-up between my Panasonic plasma and my Mac. Losing either would be very, very bad.
DA: What advice would you give to aspiring planners?
DLS: Try to experience design in multiple contexts, like marketing, branding, product development and research. Good planners think about the whole of user experience, since customers come to know about the stuff we make through a whole variety of channels and touchpoints. Those of us who can quickly shift contexts are better positioned to solve the tough planning and design problems. I think it's a great time to consider a planning career. Conferences like The Overlap are being organized just for those "misfits" who think about their careers as extending across traditional design and business boundaries. And schools like IIT's Institute of Design and Stanford's D-School are offering planning degrees that really mirror these trends.