In September, branding giant Wolff Olins hired its first North American president in its 50-year history. A veteran of IBM, Adobe, Amazon, and R/GA—where his work with Nike earned him every advertising and digital award imaginable—Tim Allen is a veteran of experience and product design.
But he's not a branding guy. And since Allen's arrival, Wolff Olins has attracted plenty of controversy, notably for redesigning the logo and brand identity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (one critic likened to a "typographic bus crash").
For Allen, whether designing performance apps for Nike sneakers, directing leadership strategy for an international bank, or overseeing a branding project, the approach is largely the same. "I’m trying to make things for people and then realize those people aren’t me," he says.
That human-centered design philosophy has taken shape over many years and professional endeavors. Allen started his career at a game design company in North Carolina called Interactive Magic, where he learned to create immersive experiences that combined sound design, interactive design, and storytelling. That visceral approach to design was later tempered by a stint at IBM, where what he calls "very pragmatic" problem-solving reigned supreme.
It wasn't until he worked at R/GA—where he led the award-winning design team behind Nike+ and Nike Training Club, the company's first iOS app—that he was able to combine the emotional and the practical aspects of his experience. "To me, that was when it all came together," he says, noting that at R/GA, "function and emotion and pragmatic solution-based approaches is the bread and butter." We sat down with Allen late last year to talk about Nike design, mishaps at Amazon—where he was executive creative director before the launch of Echo and Dash—and life at a traditional branding agency.
Co.Design: You come from a background of interactive and product design. Why did you decide to move to a traditional branding agency?
I think mainly because it’s not so traditional. The segment that [Wolff Olins is] placed in is branding, consulting, so forth, but their approach is fairly unconventional and that’s what drove me here the most. I’m really obsessed with the dichotomy between what branding says it's going to do and how and if it delivers on that. And then the combination of those two things affecting people’s lives in some profound way—whether it be functionally or emotionally.
So when I started to talk to Ije [Nwokorie], our CEO, about what they are doing now and what they want to do in the future, it struck a cord with me. What people call a brand—which is sort of the purpose of an enterprise, why something or a business exists, what you want to achieve in the world—is really interesting to me. Especially at this point in my career. The level that you need to define that is extremely high in terms of leadership and stakeholders and so forth. And then the trust that you build in deciding that or at least defining that well allows you to deliver on the promise in a very unique way.
What does that kind of philosophy mean from a design process standpoint. Are you starting from an overall strategy and then moving into more visual assets, or do you work on both in conjunction?
There are a couple of things that happen in parallel. What’s special about that organization? Whether it's a historical company or a startup, what do they think is special about them? And then overlaying that with what the particular group of people that they're focusing on need. And then where those two things overlap is the start of some truth. I think it’s a blend of that enterprise’s purpose, and then usually we’re starting with some human truth around that, too. So whether it be a truth like people hate speaking in front of large crowds, and then: What’s special about a certain enterprise is tempering that fear or removing that fear? A purpose would be attached to that truth.
From there, you have two parallel tracks. One is narrative and the other is functional. The narrative is what most people think of brand agencies providing. Smart copy, visual assets, identity, and so forth which can be holistic and has to be holistic. But what we’re focusing on is how you can functionally deliver on this new promise at the same time. And those start to feed on each other.
How do you integrate technology into that process?
In the industrial age when you were trying to sell a wrench or something all your could do was talk about it, put out print ads, etc. You couldn’t touch the wrench. Now, even if it is a wrench—which would actually be an interesting design project—you can impact the thing. So with Nike+—Nike sells shoes. Can we affect the shoes? Why not? We can provide more value by augmenting the experience of actually wearing the shoe with technology. So technology has opened up so many doors, and you can’t ignore that when developing a brand.
Talk to me about your time at Nike. I know that you developed Nike+ and then the first Nike iOS platform, among other things. What did you learn while working there?
That to me is when it all came together. Hindsight is 20/20 in terms of my career, but I had always oscillated between this visceral approach to design—one that was very emotional. Coming out of school I worked in game design at Interactive Magic and was dealing with first person shooters and flight simulators so it was a very emotional, visceral way to design something. Then I went to IBM and that’s a very pragmatic way of approaching problems.
So I had done that, but I hadn’t really put that all together until I got to R/GA, where that way of thinking—of function and emotion and pragmatic solution-based approaches was the bread and butter there. I went over there and led the Nike + team. I took it from a chip in shoe to a mobile app, which was a really interesting progression. Nike thinking that they had a real strategic advantage by embedding a chip in their shoe—so only people who bough Nike shoes or footwear could experience this beautiful Nike+ thing—to an environment where brand circumvented or transcended the actual product. So you could be wearing Asics or Saucony or whatever and in effect Nike owned your run.
From R/GA you went to Amazon, where you were head of Amazon's Product Design Studios. That seems like a major shift from what you were working on with Nike.
Huge shift, huge shift. It wasn’t just that. I mean, I wanted a shift. I started to understand this oscillation between emotion and function. Around the same time that Amazon approached me, we were doing a lot of new business pitches and advising clients. Amazon would come up every day. At that time, in one case study or another, it came up every day, and some times multiple times a day. So maybe subconsciously I had developed an affinity toward them and all the disruption they were causing.
I started talking to them and it was a pretty powerful, expansive position they were talking about and for some pretty cool stuff. It was highly secretive and the interview was shrouded in secrecy because they couldn’t tell me what they were working on, which turned out to be the Echo and the Fire Phone. Which was a disaster but was something Amazon definitely learned from.
I think different people attributed [Fire Phone's flop] to different things. But for me, it was that the price point was ridiculous. It didn’t really stick to the bread and butter of what Amazon was all about. It was sort of like a solution in search of a problem and they were hanging their hat on 3-D, a new interface that was sort of this faux 3-D experience design that was integrated through the entire framework. And people were just asking why. That was the big thing. It wasn’t built on some of the things we were talking about earlier. It wasn’t built on a truth: why should people want this product? Why should I bring it into my life? And the million dollar question: How is it better than what I have now? And the answer to those questions didn’t really lead anywhere.
I was coming in while that was shipping and sort of failing at the same time. And it didn’t affect day to day business at all. It was an experiment still.
Did it impact Amazon's thinking about human-centered design?
Definitely. And the thing about their business—without revealing anything confidential—Amazon has a lot of "what." Here’s what we’re going to do. They fancy themselves the world’s most costumer-centric company that’s ever existed. That’s their purpose, and we talked about purpose earlier. But in order to answer that purpose there are a lot of "whats." So the "why" and "how" they exist, you know, I don’t know. Now they’re starting to think more about that. And a big part of my role was helping them to figure out that "why."
So that’s when you were truly starting to develop the design philosophy you have now, and the one you brought to Wolff Olins.
Yeah, because there was so much need. The way Amazon—the way they beautifully approached the market in general was just by doing. They’re so brutally efficient that that’s actually an emotional trigger in their brand. Until recently, there hasn’t been that much marketing or storytelling or narrative about what Amazon is. It just was. And because it was so damn efficient and so valuable, that was their connection. And now they’re starting to cash in on that.
We were talking about brand promise and delivery. They put like 80% of their weight on delivery. They would just deliver like you would not believe and in a way that no one could even possibly do. And then build brand—or brands, like Echo or Dash or whatever—around that. And then tell stories around that.
That’s very, very interesting, too. I think that’s where you could approach brand promise and delivery at the same time or you could lean on one, you could lean on narrative—I don’t think that’s as effective but, you could do that.
How does an engineer approach branding?
I wouldn’t characterize myself as an engineer. But how I approach branding is through human truth. I say this all the time but I’m trying to make things for people and then realize those people aren’t me. It’s just stepping outside of ourselves and into other people’s shoes. And that’s where you start. Because people aren’t going to read what you write, they’re going to read what they read, because there’s an interpretation—their paths, their culture, their way of life, and so forth. They aren’t going to see what we design, they’re going to see what they see. So the brand is how people interpret it. If you’re not looking outside yourself or your enterprise or your business, then you’re lost from the beginning.
I think that’s a result of my product design background, which is based on ergonomics. Those are the basics of the industrial design where in order to make something as simple as a toothbrush work, they have to fit into your hand, they have to fit with the human form. Humans have to be first.