Design & Innovation with Robert Fabricant, frog design

Innovation Conversation with Robert Fabricant, Frog Design Inc.Founded in 1969, frog’s more than 1,000 designers, strategists, and software engineers work with the world’s leading companies to design, engineer, and launch meaningful new products and services. Central to this is frog’s expertise in delivering connected experiences across a variety of technologies, platforms, and media for a broad spectrum of industries.

Robert Fabricant is Vice President, Creative for frog New York, where he leads multidisciplinary design teams for clients including the BBC, Comcast, GE, MTV, Nextel, and Nissan. Robert has developed user experiences for a number of digital platforms spanning handheld devices, medical devices, retail environments, networked applications, and desktop software. Active in design for social innovation, he recently led Project Masiluleke, harnessing the power of mobile technology to help combat the world’s worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

In 2009, Robert joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York. He’s a faculty member of the Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellowship Program and an adjunct professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. A regular speaker at conferences and events, he’s also a frequent contributor to a variety of publications, including I.D. Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.

Robert, as he’ll gladly tell you, is a talker; one with an informed and fascinating perspective. We had a wide ranging talk as he noted the explosion of interest in the term “innovation”; what it means to him today; the difference between introverts and extroverts and the inherent social aspects in sorting and sharing solutions; and the growing, perhaps fundamental, role of creativity across business broadly.

I met Robert over morning coffee in frog’s Manhattan offices in the SoHo neighborhood at 325 Hudson Street.

Lou Killeffer: Robert, to begin with, what in your view, or Frog’s, is innovation?

Robert Fabricant: I largely leave it to the academics to debate that topic because at this point I think it’s virtually impossible to come up with a useful definition of the word.

LK: Why is that; why impossible?

RF: Because I think innovation’s come to represent a lot of things in our culture; a lot of things that I see as quite positive.  Five or six years ago I felt a certain sense of concern as part of a company that’s taken technological advances and breakthroughs and turned them into meaningful products and services – which could be a workable definition of innovation. I felt that as a company, frog, had a rich equity in what I’ll call new product development and I felt some concern over the wide spread explosion of the term “innovation” because I felt that it risked taking some of the things we were quite good at and dumbing them down. But my perspective’s changed.  Now I see innovation more as a cultural phenomenon that’s come to represent a shift in the way people think about work, about business, and the meaning and value of what they do on a day-to-day basis.

LK: Tell me more.

RK: I believe innovation opens the entire business environment to a more creative perspective on the role of work and the value that we create as we all engage, and build, and collaborate.  I think in that sense it’s quite remarkable because it creates a new license for creativity, collaboration, and communication; if along the way the term innovation itself becomes stretched out of recognition into a signifier, personally, I’m comfortable with that.

LK: Putting aside small-minded people like myself (smiles) trying to get to a singular definition; I find your perspective quite wise. You say this represents a change in your own opinion. What changed your opinion?  What’s happened to mark the change; what was the spark?

RF: Well, it wasn’t a one-time thing. If you’re looking for an inception moment…

LK: There is none.

RF: Right. But I will say, as a designer, when you find yourself in a defensive posture resisting an explosion of interest in the world, you have to ask, “Am I in the right position as a creative person trying defend the territory around innovation?”

Ten to fifteen years from now a more comprehensive theory of innovation may well emerge retroactively, one that’s does a great job of explaining this moment, but that won’t come from me.  I simply found myself resisting this sense of over use. You have to think okay, there’s a huge amount of energy and interest here.  There are more different ways to engage with organizations than before.  There’s a new enthusiasm at a very individual level, not just a company level, as I work with people on initiatives inside and outside the business sector. Just tremendous enthusiasm and interest.  So you have to say okay, how can I shift my own mindset around and get past that defensive posture.

LK: It seems the seed of innovation has expanded through business culturally to society. What a great time to be a designer…

RF: The word you’ll hear me use a lot more than design is creativity.  I grew up as a creative kid. I always hung out with the creative kids. (smiles) For me, creativity is a very fundamental quality of being human and connected to the world.  Design has a strong relationship to creativity as a way of applying it toward a specific result. But as I work more broadly and globally, creativity is the word that I come back to more than design, or design thinking.

I want to come back to the question you had before because you were looking for an example.  One that’s kind of interesting is the work we did for the Nike Foundation, which is devoting its resources to something called the Girl Effect, which is essentially reaching out and removing the sense of isolation that girls have as adolescents.  Increasing their sense of opportunity. There are great studies that show if you look at society and measure opportunity for girls, particularly their ability to increase their economic effectiveness, it translates into huge results from a development perspective.

We were hired to help them think through how you breakdown barriers to getting girls engaged, sharing experiences, learning from each other and building skills as leaders in their communities. And then how do you do it on a larger scale, not just through the kind of hands on community groups that they already fund but as a kind of network of girls.

We ran workshops at a few different places. Our team, I wasn’t there, ran a workshop in Bangladesh with a group of adolescent girls, twelve to fifteen-year-old girls, taking them through a three-week process, and developing a methodology that we call the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT). It’s girls getting together, sharing experience, coming up with ideas for things they want to learn about their community, feeling empowered through the design process.

That’s where design and creativity play kind of nicely together. Feeling empowered to ask questions. Having permission to act differently in the community because they were part of a design process. We gave them badges and they had some credentials and then went out into the community and interviewed people that they admired. Something they could have done any day of the week but never felt they had the license to do before. They came back with this knowledge and we wanted to share that knowledge and see if we could generate ideas together.

So when we think about design and design thinking, I think one of the most meaningful things is when you find yourself in situations where you can peel back the layer from design thinking to the basics of creativity and collaboration, how to connect people, how to share ideas to create shared value. That’s the real promise of all of this enthusiasm around innovation. How do you take that kind of an approach and engage a much broader, global community? That for me is far more interesting than trying to defend the high ground of what innovation is.

LK: It’s interesting. The Internet and globalization and the continued  “shrinking” of the planet all indicate greater openness across the board. Everyone I’ve spoken with says being open is the only way to innovate. Today from a cultural standpoint that’s clearly one of the most powerful, or certainly most desired dynamics, isn’t it? I think it speaks well for the future. You’ve mentioned kids a couple of times. Can creativity be taught? Can innovation be taught?

RF: I think creativity has a lot to do with what happens between people and that we’re all extremely social creatures. I don’t think we started painting on cave walls or making fires because an individual sat down alone and thought, “I want to tell my own story”. I think these things all came out of creative, collective moods and moments. Even when they happen in isolation. There’s been a lot written recently about Bell Labs and the need for people to work individually to continue to drive breakthrough thinking. I believe that, I do. But I still believe it’s a social response. It comes out of a meeting you had two weeks ago knowing that you’re going to be back talking with your colleagues, whether it’s in the lunch room or the board room. There’s always a social dynamic at play even when we’re working and thinking things through on our own.

LK: That’s a fascinating point. The lone artist as hero has been revered from Michelangelo to Steve Jobs. Why shouldn’t we assume that for the genius pushing against the universe – in meeting, after meeting, after meeting – there were moments in the iterative process where his or her individual ideas were strengthened or improved?

RF: I’ll take it a further step back. Let’s say that in those meetings, not a single thing that anyone said directly made the idea better. My guess is when he’s thinking it through on his own – I’m not going to put myself in Steve Jobs’ mind but whoever it is at their desk – it’s still shaping how they think and the meaning they see in what they’re doing. I think that’s true for everyone except the most technically minded people.

One of the things that I find fascinating as a designer is the first moment you put your idea in front of someone else. Coming back to the point you just made, there are two memes out there. One is that genius is isolated and comes up with its own idea. The other is that the minute I put it in front of you, you and I will start a dialogue, and out of that dialogue, a better idea will emerge. I want to focus right in the middle. At the moment I put it in front of you, I see it completely differently. It may have nothing to do with what you say. You may contribute zero value.

LK: Yes, of course, but at the moment of sharing, everything, by definition, just changed.

RF: It just changed. (smiles) That moment, as every designer knows, is an exquisite one where time stops or slows down. In that split second they’re thinking, “Oh let’s stop this, I know exactly what I need to know.” and they want to go back and redo that session two days later. Because of that awareness or recognition, that empathy of seeing through someone else’s eyes. I think, coming back to your question about creativity, that ability to make connections between different observations and experiences is critical. I think that is fundamental to people, all of us, inherently.

LK: When you speak path to market that suggests application in the real world and how to take an idea and make it tangible and successful as a business proposition. Is that in fact what frog does?

RF: That’s not all we do.

It’s certainly the tradition we come out of, doing that kind of idea to market work, and it’s still our greatest sources of pride, when an idea not just reaches market but successfully changes people’s sense of value and possibility. But we also drive change in areas where there is no established market or the marketplace is not the kind of environment in which you’re trying to create value.

We do a lot of work in the social sector, initiatives where a lot of what you’re trying to do is shift the sense of empowerment, the sense of possibility and the welfare and livelihood of people in different sectors. Like our Nike Foundation example.  And in these other areas the credibility we have is significant. When I go to talk to UNICEF about how to shift the way they think about programs they fund, about how to engage communities, provide greater feedback and understanding about who they’re reaching and what value they’re creating. The fact that we come from the discipline of taking products to market is huge. One of the challenges we face in those moments of defensiveness is that some of the people talking innovation simply don’t have that discipline. They don’t do so well held to that standard. But having that discipline is something that helps keep you honest.

LK: Keeps you grounded.  Gives you credibility.

RF: It keeps you grounded and continues to help you develop the skills you need.

Today some of the most valuable new businesses being created see their key asset as the user experience, and the design and way the business engages with people. For that reason, we find ourselves doing more than design “thinking”. The start-up market is very disciplined and really shows how quickly people can create, test and collaborate on ideas. The big, established businesses are extremely jealous of that.  Extremely jealous.

There’s a generation of business leaders that are going to migrate into more senior roles and larger scale companies who’ll come out of start-ups as their training ground. They’re coming out of Harvard Business School now and deciding, “Do I want to go to work for McKinsey or Goldman or do I want to do a start up?” Those things aren’t even on the same level right now. And there’s no question, most of these people would rather do the right start-up. Eventually they’re going to be the CEOs of divisions at General Electric or P&G or whatever. And you know what, their experience and the way they want to do business will be different as a result.

Again, being part of a forty year old company, looking at frog ten, fifteen, twenty years from now, that’s the leadership we want to work with. We want to be a company they feel embodies the process that can help them work in a direct, lean, market-driven way.

LK: What a remarkable portfolio: traditional new product design, the start-up sector, the cultural change being driven by enlightened corporations, like the Nike Foundation,   and the NGO arena exemplified by UNICEF. How does the business or your portfolio divide between those things?

RF: I’m fascinated by the way that social impact initiatives energize our design community. Those situations are full or urgency. Right now one of the things we’re doing a lot is trying to bring our corporate clients into those partnerships. Because we can work together in an environment where there’s a drive for more openness based on achieving a broad societal goal as opposed to a competitive business position. I think it’s very important to bring that experience to corporations, collaborating with non-traditional partners. It’s a great place for us to learn. I can’t tell you if that kind of work is 20% of our business  based on the revenue from those customers. But if you look at its overall value to our business, I think it’s significant in the way we think about how you approach some of the broader problems that our traditional customers are coming to us with.

LK: What sort of people work at frog? What skills do they need to have?

RF: It’s not a one size fits all but nonetheless there are a couple of skills you have to be interested in building in a place like frog. One of those skills is storytelling. It’s critical. The other is a kind of empathy and engaging openly with teams, clients, partners, customers, and communities. You really have to have that curiosity and interest. And some people who have that are very introverted. Sometimes we gloss over the notion of introverts. I work with a lot of introverts. Many of them are quite perceptive and they appreciate and learn a lot from being in situations that are highly collaborative. They just don’t want to be the one at the front of the room facilitating the collaboration.

LK: They have something to offer.

RF: They don’t have to be extroverts. Very often the most meaningful moments are when you sit down with them and three days later you see what they’re doing or they take ten minutes to express something that is important in their life. That level of openness and willingness to make connections is critical. The ability to throw out your work and not get too precious about it. This isn’t a good place for people who feel too dedicated to the idea or design that they came up with one day. It’s about the willingness to experiment. These all sound very obvious but it takes time to create an environment where people feel comfortable doing that. It’s not just the stuff that happens in between the work, it is the work.

LK: That’s consistent with what I’ve heard from others, though you’re the first person to mention storytelling as critical. I see storytelling as the net sum of curiosity, empathy, and engagement. What’s so critical about storytelling? Is it engaging with another person; taking them from point A to point B?

RF: There are a couple of interesting things about storytelling.

A lot of the experiences that we’re trying to create with our customers in their communities and the marketplace happen over time. Where design is getting more sophisticated is not just looking at individual products and services but how do they relate to each other over time. What are the key points of connection or alignment? That idea is hard to hold in your fucking head. It’s really hard to hold in your head. Very often the exact design space that we’re trying to solve for is an experience over time. It’s a story. There’s no better way to express it. And companies can solve in product or service touch points across that narrative and still completely miss the opportunity. So that’s the first place storytelling is critical.

The second place is when you take designers, and again this is just talking about what I do at frog, who are brilliant at what they do and you say, “Okay, you’ve a great idea for this product, don’t just show it to me, tell it to me in a story.” It’s great training for designers. It forces them to think about it from another perspective, because it’s hard to tell a story to yourself. In a sense as you were saying, it becomes a Trojan horse for empathy and putting all those pieces in connection with all those other pieces. So that’s another place for storytelling. It’s really valuable and it’s going to help you communicate your ideas better to your customer, to the members of the team. It’s going to help you see what’s most valuable in your ideas.

Storytelling is big and I’m not here to tell you we’ve some scientific approach to it. But when you look at filmmaking, for example, you see the way to build narrative. We’re radically ramping up our use of video in all we do. These things are becoming very necessary creative skills. And of course stories travel really easily online.

LK: And very quickly.

RF: And very quickly. (smiles)

LK: You know design firms seem to be all about managing change; facing change and dealing with it, embracing it.

RF: And sparking it.

LK: Right, as opposed to being whipped around by it.

RF: Yes, although at the same time I see a much stronger appreciation of the role of product design and creativity as fundamental skills in new start-up companies. Not just design as some add-on once you have the business model. That’s fantastic. My hope is designers will become more mature in their ability to think as entrepreneurs; building and sustaining organizations and cultures to drive change and the products and services that will drive that change.

When you really consider where the design community is today, it needs to grow up.

I think this is the right moment for that change to happen and there are a lot of positive signs that it is. If we could see ten years from now, let’s say two important things happen. That new generation of start up leaders who’ve migrated now have more influence in business. So you get that generation of leaders in place. You also get designers who’ve put more of their own money and credibility at stake in the market. They’ve gone through the pain and understand the difference in not just having an idea but developing it all the way to production, with the responsibility of running and building a business around it.

I think these two dynamics will converge. It’s not a short-term proposition but why wouldn’t they converge in the next ten to fifteen years? That’s the moment when a frog will sit at the same table with McKinsey. We talk about it today. But I think that’s when you’ll see the true potential of business, consulting, and creative skills developed.

LK: I agree with you and I think it’s already underway. You’ve spoken about the application of innovation to social issues. Is there a problem you or frog would particularly like to address?

RF: Well we’ve touched on one in passing here which is the role of creativity in education. I think that’s huge…

We’re fortunate in that we have a lot of meaningful partnerships that allow us to play a role, even if just a contributing role, in helping organizations address some big social issues. Whether it’s health or economic development or gender discrimination. These are big topics. One of the challenges with them is they become very, very serious to people. And one of the key things designers can bring to these topics is helping people get that monkey off their back a little bit. You can only think about these as such serious and heavy topics for so long.

LK: We’re all human here.

RF: We’re all human here. And the truth is, we’re very committed to trying to be a useful ingredient in how people develop broader solutions to these topics.

LK: Robert, I think frog, and the rest of the world by extension, are lucky you can’t pick just one.  Thanks for your time and a wonderful conversation.

RF: Sure, Lou. You’re welcome.

copyright Lou Killeffer November 2012 All rights reserved. Five Mile River Marketing.

image credit: poptech.org
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How Companies Pursue GreatnessLou Killeffer is a Principal with Five Mile River Marketing. A versatile marketing strategist, Lou’s passion for communications and innovation has made him a trusted advisor to some of the world’s most enduring businesses and brands, from AT&T to UPS, where he helps enterprises embrace change, look ahead, and focus on sustaining success.

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