Interview by Christer Windeløv-Lidzelius

Dear Nathan. It is good to have this conversation with you. Could you please share with those in our audience who may not know who are, where you come from what you do?

I’m a designer by both training and temperament. I have an undergraduate degree in Industrial Design (specifically, car design) and an MBA in Sustainable Management. I’ve been a designer all of my life, from information design to interaction and experience design, to design strategy. I’m also a serial entrepreneur and an author of design and business books. These days, I often consult with startups and established companies to help them build more successful services. I’ve also taught for over 20 years, mostly at California College of the Arts, but also at UC Berkeley and Stanford University, as well as Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. I speak at school and conferences internationally as wells run workshops at companies, as well.

Nathan, what was your introduction to Kaospilot and how have the relationship been formed over the years?

I believe I was initially invited to speak by Peter Sims. For 5+ years, I would come to Aarhus once a year to teach workshops on Design Thinking, Sustainability, and Business Strategy. I’ve always been impressed with the students and the culture at Kaospilot. It was only later that I learned about their residency in San Francisco, where I live, several years before. It’s a joy to visit and interact with the students.

You have an interesting trajectory, but it seems to me that design, sustainability, education, technology and startups seems to run through. Whould that be an accurate view? Could you talk to us about what has driven your journey and decision-making?

I fell like the through-line to everything I’ve done is creativity and innovation. Design-led innovation is very different than other ways of solving problems or challenges (such as inductive thinking, integrative thinking, systems thinking, etc.). It’s particularly useful in ambiguous situations (which there are more and more of), when these other ways of looking at challenges fail. In particular, design thinking is usually people-focused (users, customers, citizens, and others), where most other approaches aren’t. Design thinking folds nicely into systems thinking and I’ve developed and corralled tools that help people better innovate where these two approaches overlap and combine.

Technology inherently has an ability to create massive change but it needs to be directed and deployed in humane ways. Startups don’t always see the system they function in (or the effects of their decisions) because they’re so focused on development and survival. Sustainability and systems thinking set a context for work and life that includes not just people and money but also nature (which both rely on anyway). So, all of these fit-together nicely by completing the approaches and perspectives lacking in the others.

The way this all comes together is strategy. Traditional business strategy has always been sloppy and narrow—focused only on money and markets. But, to be successful, so much more needs to be taken into account! Strategy always starts with context (the market environment) so sustainability, systems thinking, and people-centric design thinking simply fill-in the missing context to truly understand customers and markets. All of these things, together, allow us to see the larger context and, therefore, to build more successful strategies that meet many needs, not only those of a company.

The topic of this talk was “design of strategy” and to kick that off – how would you explain strategy and design and how do you view the connection of both?

Strategy is all about understanding the larger, current context and devising a vision for how to better succeed within it. That vision, and its communication, is the essence of leadership so strategy is indivisible from leadership, systems, sustainability, and innovation. They are all woven together. Design is one of the best ways to move through a better strategic process. Charles Eames once said “Design is a Plan for Action” and Henry Mintzberg once said “Strategy is a Plan” (with the implication that the plan was to be used for… action! They are the same thing!

This understanding has led me to develop a new approach to strategy that integrates what has been missing all along but in a way that makes the relationships between the many elements clear. We need easy-to-use tools that help people build better strategies in order to better succeed in our complex world. Businesses have been blind to the best opportunities with the best value, otherwise.

As design is obtaining a more and more prominent role in all the sectors of society, what would be your view on that – how come, why is it valuable and what may be the challenges as you see it?

Design creates a people-focused way of understanding the world. By all means, that’s not the only perspective. Ecologies and economics are also important but, without understanding people in a more complete way—our needs, desires, aspirations, values, etc. and not just our money—we can’t really build better opportunities. Traditionally, business has been blind to these things because the tools have cut them out of the conversation—mostly because business only likes to look at quantitative data. Design understandings and approaches give us the ability to correct this and, as a result, people respond to those solutions that better serve their whole selves. The most visible part of that, of course, is design that looks nice but that’s really just the beginning. The deeper value responds to these other levels of our existence, our emotions, values, and core meanings.

We badly need better strategic tools and processes if we want to continue to build value and succeed in what was always a complex world, now increasingly so

Strategy is one of those topics that seems ingrained into organisational life, with various results naturally. From your perspectives what are trends or considerations and not the least what is needed to become better at strategy and the design of strategy?

To start with, it’s no longer acceptable to focus only on the economic portion of a business. And, most of these other issues need to be addressed in ways other than quantitative data. That’s really difficult for many people in business because “the numbers” provide them a powerful but lacking view on the world. Business tools have really only evolved over the last 75 years in terms of number-handling. They’ve ignored the more important types of value. They’ve always been only barely adequate for innovation, which is why some innovations seem to come “out of the blue.” We badly need better strategic tools and processes if we want to continue to build value and succeed in what was always a complex world, now increasingly so.

We also need to readdress the assumptions inherent in traditional approaches to business. Economics, for example, has been a horrendous approach to defining people and how markets work. If it weren’t responsible for such damage to society and our planet over the last century (or more), it would be laughable how traditional, neoclassical economics asked us to view the world. Recently, economic fields like environmental and behavioral economics have been re-asserted and this is important because they not only challenge the inadequate philosophies of past economic dogma, they highlight ways to correct these and build new tools that address them. This falls into movements that demand business be done more humanely and more consciously to people and Nature.

What would you say are the bigger challenges for designer and indeed design to succeed in business contexts and for businesses to utilise designers and design?

The single biggest challenge designers have in working with other professions is the need to understand that many people in the world are quantitatively-driven and only see and care about numbers. By the way, this is the single biggest challenge that societies and Nature, itself, have as well. Both quantitative and qualitative ways of seeing and building value are important. Design allows both to be integrated but too many people, especially in companies, only see and care about the first. So, designers need to find ways to communicate the importance and value of the other. What’s strange is that most businesspeople, when they go home, can understand qualitative value and desire it in their lives. They buy things that offer value in more than utility, they associate with others who provide them more than just economic value, etc. But, when they go to work, they shut all of that off because the premise for business has been focused only on money (and utility). They live a dissonant life because of the easily disproven things they’ve been taught business is.

Many designers have the answer to this dissonance if they can understand how to better communicate to those who don’t—in the language that makes it clear. This is why communication and collaboration skills are so critical to design and strategy. Yet, too many design programs deemphasize teaching these skills. One of the most effective things you learn in business school is simply the language that businesspeople use and there’s not reason why someone needs to go to business school simply for this.

Designers belong in business leadership roles as much as anyone else—perhaps, more if they can balance and act on both the quantitative and the qualitative. Understanding strategy is critical to designing truly better things and design-led strategy is a truly better way to build more successful organizations. It’s crazy to me why the two fields haven’t been closer for so long.

…as Einstein revealed, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” There. It’s so clear and obvious. What are we waiting for?

Given your experience and innovative approach to education; when we consider education and how to educate in terms of design, strategy and sustainability what would you point to being of importance and perhaps areas that until now has been given sufficient prominece? I know you are working on a new startup, could you please talk to us about what it is about, where the idea come from and why you consider this to be valuable?

Most of these topics have been taught in isolation with each other when they actually inform and illuminate each other. Education is often so compartmentalized that the best of each field gets undermined in the quest to standardize and separate. It’s critical to teach new things and in new ways because, as Einstein revealed, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” There. It’s so clear and obvious. What are we waiting for?

What’s more, we know how to do this. We have a host of new tools (I’ve highlighted the best of what I’ve found or built on my homepage), we know how to teach in ways that work for more kinds of people (visual and spatial learnings, etc. and not merely textual or number learners), and we know about the blind spots that have been built into our current tools and ways of teaching. We already have everything we need to build and teach better. We just need to get them out to more and more people.

That is what I’m doing with my startup—building better strategy tools that are easier to use but are actually more powerful ways of working. Education is one solution and tools are another. For example, we’ve been talking about integrated bottom line (or triple bottom line) accounting for decades. But, if one CEO decides to do something about it, to actually implement it in their company, how can they? There is not a single tool available for them to use! SASB is working on some but they’re likely a decade away from releasing a viable tool and several decades from it becoming a standard, let alone a requirement. We don’t have that long to wait.

So, I’m starting in on the strategy tools. After that is successful and stable, we can start looking at many more.


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