Designers Tell All at Fuse 2012

Designers Tell All at Fuse 2012What did Nike, Starbucks, 3M, GE, Kraft, Puma, Pepsi, and Coke have in common last week? Along with too many world-class competitor brands to name, their top brand, design and marketing leaders were divulging intimate stories. “Beautiful, intellectual and evidentiary stories” as Capsule designer Kitty Hart so aptly called them, at FUSE, the brand design conference powered by IIR, and uber-design brains Debbie Millman and Cheryl Swanson. If you wanted the back-story, the behind the scenes, the what it looks and feels like to do the heavy lifting of great design on behalf of big brands, you were in the right place.

Designers Tell All at Fuse 2012

Nike's Tom DeBlasis

Though I only had a day there, I inhaled all the inspiration I could find with the zeal of a Dyson vacuum cleaner, leaving no session, chance meeting, meal or break conversation without a gem. I left fueled for the next round and my guess is that everyone else did too because when you get this many ridiculously talented people telling the stories of their projects and teams, they tend to go for the biggest emotional impact they can make for themselves and their profession. They tend to tell it all. Here are my top seven takeaways.  I’ll call them “design hacks”, acknowledging it’s stuff you can use, starting with the first keynote from Tom DeBlasis from Nike.

1. “We have blood on our hands.”

In sharp contrast to the beauty offered up in so many of the days’ earlier talks, the opening keynote, “These Are Game Changing Days” by Nike Global Design Director (formerly for Soccer, now for the Foundation) DeBlasis, openly admitted that much of what we design and produce ends up in land fills, the oceans, the stomachs of birds and fish. Of course, as smart people, we know this cause and effect situation to be true, and some of of us have seen Chris Jordan’s photographs of said birds, but DeBlasis’ talk about how his team brought well-honed design skills (observe, prototype, create etc.) to the post-earthquake devastation in Haiti was filled with eye popping, heart-rending evidence of what good design can do when applied to honoring and saving lives. Clean water filters, and a simple bucket with a soccer ball for motivation were the deliverable. Saving kids lives and serving them with some game-playing soccer fun were the impacts. This talk set the tone and context for the conference. Corporations, and especially their designers and brands stewards have an awesome responsibility to Life. Or to quote Replenish founder Jason Foster “90% of products are designed for the trash. Let’s innovate for the billions of people living here.”

2Anything worth doing meets with Resistance.  So use it.

It’s never easy. The work of design, by definition is about change and inevitably disrupts the status quo.  Even if DeBlasis avoided initial internal resistance to his Haiti idea by simply charging his first trip to Port-Au-Prince on his Nike corporate credit card, (“I just typed in Seattle, then Port-Au-Prince…”) most of us have to stay put in Minneapolis or Cincinnati and deal. Kevin Gilboe, Design Manager for 3M spoke eloquently about design as a strategic corporate asset, one that the CEO wants to continue to leverage. Despite CEO intention, at one of the worlds’ TRUE innovation companies, resistance rattles on and of course it would. So what do they do? They name it. They honor it. They recognize that uneasiness leads to innovation, so they’re not afraid of it but treat it with respect.

Designers Tell All at Fuse 2012

3M's Kevin Gilboe

3Remembering We Have Bodies or Next Up, Kinesthetic Design!

In Embodied Cognition and the Psychology of Brands,  IDEO Design Directors Michael Hendrix and Neil Stevenson, packaged up recent research on neuroscience and empathy (Yale! USC! Stanford!) and told us what we all know in our own nervous systems but forget to design around, that a hot cup of coffee provokes a different feeling-state then say, an icy-cold one.  The brain, while we cannot see it, may be the last design frontier, especially if we acknowledge once and for all it’s connected to say, the hand, or the tongue.  Or to quote one of the conference participants Glad to hear we’re still human.

4. Artificial Environments Create Artificial Behaviors

According to Ivana Nikolic, Creative Director from DUPUIS , who co-presented with Bill

Ivana Nikolic, Dupuis and Bill Less, Frito Lay

Less, Senior Design Manager from FRITO-LAY, we need to get out of the zoo and into the jungle to reach consumers on their own turf. They gave us a rollicking look at the “Bro-Cepts” they developed for Frito Lay aka the product concepts designed for “the bros” who desire a certain level of visceral snack consumption in their ritualistic game day and night pursuits. The video that brought “the Bro’s” to life and capped off this wonderful presentation had everyone laughing (another late night for the research team!) that ended in an all too familiar post game need state that feels JUST LIKE THIS:  “game over, need to cash it in, NEED FOOD, want something warm, greasy and heavy.

5. And the winner is, “Coffee I Understand” and “Egotistical Agencies Need Not Apply.”

Tess Wicksteed, Pearl and Jeff Barr, VP Global Coffee, Starbucks

In case you’ve been too sleep or caffeine-deprived to notice, Starbucks has just introduced a new set of coffee categories: Blonde, Medium, Dark, and Flavored. One of the insights driving this global redesign was the simple acknowledgement that we consumers are asking to “let me go immediately to what I know I want,” whether it’s expresso beans, shaving cream or shampoo. A boatload of research, collaboration and design netted Starbucks a logo and package that became clearer and purer, and had consumers responding with “it’s clean, simple and easy to identify.” Find the roast you love the most says it all, except for the client, Global Coffee VP Tom Barr’s comment about his working with his agency, Tess Wicksteed, and the team at Pearl: “Egos and expertise often get in the way of collaboration and it just doesn’t work.  This is the way it should be.”

6. Food may be getting slower, but Design is still fast.

Jim Warner, Kaleidescope, wasted no time in laying out for me how joyous he was about his new firm’s approach:

Jim Warner, Kaleidoscope

  • Co-creation – it’s cultural – ‘if you ain’t got that…you ain’t got NOTHING’ in his best Jersey-ese.
  • Second, iterative design thinking, then…
  • Rapid ideation
  • Iterative protoyping, followed by
  • Rapid research
  • After that, the project starts.  So there!

7. Creativity is not about Efficiency.

The professions of brand building and design are built on a powerful foundation – the expression of creativity in response to human need and desire. Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine, was conclusive in his message to the audience.  All this work, all this effort. It ain’t about efficiency. “Creativity is about serendipity. It’s human friction that makes the “sparks.” In keeping with the food theme, design-driven people are a hungry lot. Hungry for inspiration and for sparks. It’s why this voracious audience listened and schmoozed and ate and drank and talked some more for three days straight. Lehrer reminded us that “creativity is just connecting things.” Fuse 2012 was a sea of connections, renewing, provoking and humbling all at once.

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Julie Anixter is Chief Innovation Officer at Maga Design and the executive editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. She worked with Tom Peters for five years on bringing big ideas to big audiences. Now she works with the US Military and other high test innovation cultures that make a difference.

Julie Anixter




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  1. Joan Holman on April 23, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Great article, Julie. Made me feel like I was at the event. Talk about design being a strategic corporate asset, look at Apple.

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