I teach [students] to have courage—that you can be cautious or you can be creative, but you can’t be a cautious creative. Nobody should force you to do a bad piece of work in your whole life—no client, no creative director, nobody. The job isn’t to please the client; the job is to produce something for the client that makes them incredibly successful.
—George Lois, at the Innovation By Design Awards
Even in New York, it’s not often that you get George Lois—sometimes called the original Mad Man, though it’s got to grind on him by now—in a room with J Mays, the chief design mind at Ford. What he said could be engraved in the concrete cornerstone of some new design school. But they are being lived by many of the designers who attended at our Innovation By Design Awards. In the course of the evening, many shared with us their own thoughts about shaping good ideas. Here’s a roundup.
The night started with a ceremony in which some of our 27 judges presented awards to the 11 winners. (You can see that whole list here.) We kept things brief. Thank-you speeches were abridged to 10 seconds. Smiles. Handshakes. Trophies. And then everyone got back to talking again. Margaret Stewart, director of product design at Facebook, gave a popup talk about injuring herself knitting, and snuck in a brief nod to her Pinterest envy. Somewhere, in another corner, Melody Roberts, the senior director of experience design innovation at McDonald’s, snuck in a bit of Facebook envy. (While Stewart can push a button and launch something everywhere, Roberts needs to slowly roll things out across the franchise.)
Wolff Olins CEO and Innovation By Design Awards judge Karl Heiselman offered a counterpoint. "Ten years ago, I was a workaholic, always had to be going, and available on email. But I’ve come to realize how important it is to have work-life balance. Achieving that makes you a better leader. But to get there requires a redefinition of success. Now, to me, success is being a good father, making good money, and doing good work. Boring is the new exciting." A new catchphrase for family life, coming from one of the few people in the world with an access card to unlock a saferoom guarding Microsoft’s next wave of Windows 8 devices.
Meanwhile, Krista Donaldson, one of our Co.Design 50 and the CEO of D-Rev, a nonprofit focused on creating products for people in developing countries, offered congratulations to the team behind Biolite, a highly efficient stove that can produce electricity, which won the consumer product award. She also offered a lesson about how hard such innovations can be to get right. "Once you get out of urban areas, distribution and scalability become the most important factors in reaching people and actually helping them," Donaldson mentions to us later. Understanding the supply chain, and where people are going when they’re looking for products to use, she said, are of paramount importance.
Terris Poole, lead designer and founding member of Playground Sessions, talked about the three-year difficulties creating a seemingly simple piano-learning app. While his company looked for beginners to test the software, all they kept recruiting were excited, competent piano players who just wanted to try it out. They were looking for the wrong customer in the right place. "When you have an original idea, you have this preconception of what you want the end product to look like," he says. "But you have to let the flat data from your users help you in the evolution of that product."
As pizza slices were pulled from hangers (don’t ask), Ben Shaffer, a studio director at Nike, mentions other edibles. "Mustard and peanut butter, that’s probably not a good combination, but peanut butter on a banana, that’s pretty tasty," he says, referring to his evolving, deeper collaborations with engineers. "Sometimes you’re walking into an unknown world, but that’s where the learning comes from."
Eventually, the night wound down. Gift bags were snagged. Cabs were hailed (via Uber, in the case of Joe Gebbia, a founder of Airbnb and another awards judge). Debate tweets were retrospectively scanned. And the dozens of people who are shaping our futures went home. It didn’t feel long enough. So next year, we’re expanding our Innovation By Design Awards to be full-blown Innovation By Design Conference. The conversation is only beginning.
With reporting by Belinda Lanks, Sarah Kessler, Jillian Goodman, Neil Janowitz, and J.J. McCorvey.