Interface designer and anthropologist Jan Chipchase (that’s him in the background, taking the picture) has made a name for himself and collected quite a following as a result of his work at Nokia, where he worked in both the research group and the design team (read a 2007 BusinessWeek Q&A with him here.) Having joined the Finnish telecoms company in October, 2000, Chipchase spent nine years in Tokyo and the last at Nokia Design in Los Angeles. Now, however, change is afoot, as Chipchase moves to work at design and innovation consultancy, frog design. As the firm’s new executive creative director of global insights, Chipchase is relocating once more, this time to Shanghai, China. This afternoon, I caught up with him on the phone at home to talk about the new role. An edited transcript of our conversation follows:
In your announcement regarding your move, you wrote that “being based out of Shanghai will take take me back to a continent that better reflects our global future.” Can you elaborate?
If you’ve traveled the world and you’ve seen what goes on in the world, in China and India and in the so-called “emerging markets”, there are things that are going on in those countries that are more representative of how the world will turn out. Partly that’s through weight of numbers. Partly that’s through those billions of people having access to communication tools. Not only can they communicate with us but also amongst themselves. From my time at Nokia, I’ve seen the 99% positive and occasionally negative impact that communication tools can have on people.
China in particular is an absolutely fascinating place to be. Culturally and politically and economically it’s becoming more and more relevant. If you look at how China is perceived in different parts of the world, you can recognize it’s very dynamic. It’s also challenging what it thinks of itself. That makes it… I don’t like to use the word “exciting”, it’s too much of a sugar rush, but fundamentally there’s something very deep and meaningful and interesting about this. If, like me, you’re driven by learning and understanding then it’s a wonderful place to be based. On a micro-level, I really value being somewhere with a strong sense of community. I have a young daughter. Asian cities tend to have a different notion of community, and it’s one I value.
What does your title mean and what will your new role entail?
It’s a global role, so I won’t be restricting myself to Shanghai. Having said that, it’s a growing studio, so I look forward to being part of that story. Within frog, I hope to bring my considerable hands-on experience of going out into the real world and bringing insights and information and inspiration back into the organization. I’ve seen firsthand how that can affect not only what a company decides to make, but how it decides to make or even whether it should make. And by “make”, I mean products and services and applications, even things like how an organization structures itself, how it puts processes in place for innovation. Put it this way, it’s pleasantly messy. No Teutonic, Finnish answer of “this is how it is.” It’s way more interesting than that.
Do you know what clients you’ll be working with?
I do, but I can’t share that right now.
And how do you feel about leaving a corporation and heading to a consultancy?
One thing that’s perhaps not been clear about the work I’ve done within Nokia is that the research and how it’s applied has always been competing with external agencies for attention and resources. Even within a large organization, that organization can come to you or go to an external agency. People assume they’ll just go in-house but frankly you can even be at a disadvantage internally, competitively, both because it’s easy for people to take it for granted that you’re there, and because of the “not invented here” syndrome. People feel if they’re paying for something and can tailor what they’re purchasing then it has bigger weight. If, for example, my former employer hired my soon-to-be employer to do something, it arguably might be easier for me to have a bigger impact.
Interesting… and honestly somewhat surprising.
I think what’s important is that when we’ve done research and tried to make an impact, I’ve always questioned why anyone would ever spend any time with what we do. People have a full in-box. They have limited time. In a very large organization they can buy anything, they can pay for anyone to do anything, pretty much. They can buy all the analysts’ reports and pay people to synthesize them. Why would they ever spend time with what you do? It’s not that I have a low opinion of what we do, but I do like to be brutally honest about the value of what we do. By constantly questioning that value in Nokia, it’s helped us to achieve success. You don’t just do it and sit on your laurels and expect things to come to you. You make it happen.
That’s refreshing. All too often it seems like people expect others to intuit the value of a discipline such as design. That often doesn’t seem to go so well.
If you don’t have the skills to communicate, or the temperament or the breadth of thinking to understand what a client wants then you’re probably not bringing value.
So this is all a long way of saying that whilst I expect things to be different [within a consultancy], the fundamentals are the same. Never take for granted that you know what the client wants. Sometimes they need guidance and leadership, sometimes you take a step back and act as a sounding board. Other times the client has a supreme understanding of the client base and you’re there to implement. The role requires an assessment of whichever situation it is. There isn’t one answer, not even for one client on one project. Bottom line: you have to keep questioning.
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