Fjord’s Mark Curtis: ‘Design thinking must not become a management fad’

9 Nov 2016

Fjord’s chief client officer and co-founder, Mark Curtis on stage at Inspirefest 2016. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Mark Curtis, co-founder of the Fjord design agency which was acquired by Accenture, is both exhilarated but nervous about how design thinking is permeating the business world.

Curtis cuts to the chase: “Don’t ask me questions about Brexit, it is humiliating to acknowledge the stupidity of what my country has done.”

I decide I like him immediately. I am quite sure a lot of Americans feel this way today (9 November) too.

Curtis is a serial entrepreneur and innovator whose company Fjord was acquired by Accenture three years ago. He spoke at Inspirefest 2016 during the summer.

‘I’ve been reflecting on the rise of design thinking, and what worried me when design thinking made the cover of the Harvard Business Review was that design is in danger of becoming a management fad’

His impact on design and advertising in the last 20 years is immense. He pioneered the use of fixed-frequency low-cost radios as a sampling driver for the Pepsi taste test, brought drive-in movies to the UK for the first time ever for Diet Pepsi, and commissioned and designed the first marketing use of virtual reality in 1993, as a roadshow for a Unilever brand. He helped create the Yell brand for the Yellow Pages and launched the world’s first online traffic news and route-planning service for the RAC.

As CEO of Fjord, he pioneered the freemium model for the mobile-dating industry and published a book about the social effects of new technology entitled Distraction – Being Human in the Digital Age.

Curtis is adamant that the popularity of good design – not only in the tech world, but transcending the overall business world – should not be just a current trend.

“I’ve been reflecting on the rise of design thinking, and what worried me when design thinking made the cover of the Harvard Business Review was that design is in danger of becoming a management fad.

“Everyone will love it for three or four years – then an article will appear three or four years from now and say it is pants, a waste of time and management, and resources will move away.”

For design thinking to work, it must form part of company culture

While currently in vogue, Curtis warned that for design to survive in the business world, it requires more than just thinking.

“Design on its own is not enough. It does work but not on its own.

“It requires thinking, building and above all culture.” And culture, he warned, is the hardest part.

In our interview, Curtis is clear: design thinking is about putting the end user at the centre of the process for thinking about how to make sense of things.

“Design, fundamentally, is about how to make sense of things. That’s what a designer does, whether it’s a new door handle or an online banking service or a mobile data app. Design helps make sense of what is underneath the service.”

Crucially, design thinking is about grappling with problems. “It could be making sense of organisational structures, how employees fit within an organisation and how they interact with it on a daily basis or how a business interacts with partners, government and other stakeholders, for example.

“The rise of design thinking is about taking these tools, putting the user at the centre and it is an inversion of the usual way of thinking about things – which was company first. Now it is about inverting that, and putting the user at the centre of the experience.”

I ask Curtis if design thinking is a revolution in the business world. At first he agrees, but softens his answer. “Most digital designers a few years ago were thinking about users using their designs on a computer screen. Now they are having to think about users using every size of screen, or maybe no screens at all, on voice-enabled devices. All the screens, and then no screens at all.

“The complexity is growing and we have to look at design as a process that is constantly being reinvented. It is not so much a revolution as it is an ongoing change, albeit, one that is going at considerable speed.”

Data is the new design material

In the past, designers worked with physical materials such as metals, wood, paper and whatever else was a physical manifestation of an idea.

But now a new material is on the scene, and Curtis tips his hat to IBM’s Lara Hanlon who said that that the new material designers have to work with is data.

“That is a great way of thinking about it.

“In fact, we’ve used data for a long time. Not many people know this but Florence Nightingale was actually a data designer in her own right, and one of the ways she convinced the powers in the British Army to change the way they ran hospitals was by using data design and information design, to show where people were dying and what they were dying from. It turned out that a lot of the soldiers were dying off the battlefields and in hospitals. She used what you would now describe as a pie chart to show that. And so, we’ve been using data for a long time now.”

‘The aim of the Accenture Innovation Centre is to act as a beacon where we can work not only with clients, but particularly with members of the public, with users, and bring them in and actually create stuff with them’

Curtis said that the shift toward design thinking is not so much about the representation of data, but designers having to think how we are going to use design to generate more data.

“This means thinking through if I can get data, what will it enable? How we can extract that data from what the user is doing and all the power; the ability to change services in real-time around the context of the user? That is immensely powerful.”

Curtis is collaborating with Accenture on the design of its new €25m Accenture Innovation Centre which, will employ more than 200 people in Dublin’s Silicon Docks.

Headed by Julie Spillane, the new building is a multidisciplinary effort involving Accenture employees in Dublin, the company’s CIO team and the company’s emerging tech team, as well as the architect.

The idea for the building is that it will be modular, will involve members of the public in product design, and will embody much of what Curtis described as data being the new design material.

“The aim of the Accenture Innovation Centre is to act as a beacon where we can work not only with clients, but particularly with members of the public, with users, and bring them in and actually create stuff with them.

“What is driving Julie and her team is the creation of spaces where that can happen comfortably.”

Ultimately, he said design thinking is about envisioning services and experiences in a multitude of ways, but all with the same objective.

“We used to pack all that into a PDF or a PowerPoint slideshow. But now, we write and draw it onto walls and not only screens.

“Design work is exploding onto the walls because that is a great way to get the big picture, you need to get the big picture in order to make a mosaic.

“One of the challenges of innovation is it tends to have two sorts of people: those who rapidly see the big picture and those who won’t see the big picture on the mosaic until they can see all the tiles.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years