Running on Empty

So a couple of years back, in the old days, when we were still allowed to mix with other human beings, I had the somewhat unsettling experience of sitting in a giant former gas cylinder, repurposed as a public stage and events venue in Amsterdam. In this case, turned over to a mixed crowd of chattering, waffling, challenging, grandstanding, innovating, obfuscating, sometimes amusing, occasionally boring, digital thought leaders, so-called disruptors and opportunists, gathered together, en masse, for a large European Digital Design & Innovation conference. 

All the big players were there, some of the little ones. All, in their own way, pitching something incredible and important to a mostly native, willing audience; there to learn in some cases, sure, or to invest or find partnership opportunities or even a new job. But, regardless, the messages all seemed painfully familiar and well-trodden: we’re the biggest, we’re the fastest, the smallest, the smartest, the most indispensable, the most used, most liked, most innovative, referenced, licensed, copied, smelled… You know the drill. Everyone’s great. Every one of these people are amazing, working for amazing companies, doing amazing things. But despite the free oat lattes and the, frankly, super impressive, light show that kicked off the event, I just wasn’t really feeling it. Something was missing.

I’d like to say it was the poor air conditioning. Or that I’d just slept badly. Or that it was the all-you-can-eat Sushi, that me and my colleague, Peter, had tested to the limit the night before (our own limit, it turned out). But in reality, I was having one of those existential moments we all hit from time to time – you know, the ones where you wonder what you’re really doing, why you’re doing it (food/rent/mortgage payments/children/totally failing to buy a wedge of Apple stock in 1997 aside) and whether it even means anything. One of those moments that William Borroughs referred to in the title of his book ‘The Naked Lunch’ – when right in the middle of shovelling food in your face, you pause and actually see, as if for the first time, what’s on the end of your fork. It isn’t always pretty. And it may be, in those moments, when you’ve grown immune to the all the virtual wasabi you been piling on, or whatever special sauce you’ve been using to disguise the flavour, that it’s time to stop and rethink: is there some real value in all this? And what can I do about that?

Unfortunately, the slide down my seat continued. Past the Google ventures guy trying to insist that they really cared about the ‘little guy’ (and who, he insisted, made a point of finding ‘little guys’ specifically to invest in… even if that now sounds more than a little troubling), the sparky entrepreneur selling us on the best smart sex app we didn’t know we needed (Yes, that’s smart sex app – rather than, presumably, the regular dumb ones the rest of us had been using and that were now apparently “… destroying the future of relationships” Who knew?) and finally to the CTO from Snap Chat who leapt up on stage to tell us some incredibly mind-blowing statistics about the kind of global reach they’d achieved in (then) just 6 short years. Active daily users? 166 million (that’s a 166 million people!) creating how many snaps per day?… 3 BILLION (what!!?). Yeah, he had a bunch of stuff to say about their new innovative ‘smart content’ (which just turned out to be, basically, microsites and content feeds… yawn) but I couldn’t get past those figures. The sheer volume… of interaction, of engagement, of snaps. And for what – bunny ears and funny teeth? I already have those.

It was at this point, just as I was struggling to reconcile the somewhat withered artisanal designer part of me who still wanted to craft, to create, to design meaningful, useful, beautiful things that people wanted – even needed – in their lives, with what the world seemed to have become: noisy, shiny, sparkly, super digital and connected… but perhaps a little empty, when on walked two more speakers. 

First up, Luis von Ahn. If you don’t know him (I didn’t), he developed reCAPTCHA – the wordplay interaction we’ve all used to validate that we are actually human beings when signing up to new transactions, social platforms or mail logins and DuoLingo the language-learning mobile app. He started to talk about his journey through the development of these two very different applications and it began to pull me back up in my chair.

reCAPTCHA didn’t have security in mind at all in its creation but was simply a mass collaboration tool for deciphering degraded or hard to read words in old digitised manuscripts. Add this super simple tool to 100 million logins every day (which, by the way, is 100 million brilliant, literate human brains, precisely optimised for pattern recognition) and suddenly you have something incredibly simple, powerful and valuable: valuable to business, to ensure they aren’t being spoofed by robots, valuable to customers as it provides a layer of security in a super simple, non-invasive way that ensures they aren’t being impersonated by robots, and lastly, valuable to our global community in terms of preserving and cataloguing old documentation and cultural works that might otherwise be lost to time (for the curious, look up Project Gutenberg). This was a brilliant intersection of business, technology and human need – mediated by the thoughtful application of design – to create value in service of a wider purpose. But waitaminute… that’s what we do, right? And the metaphorical lights started to come back on the room.

This was followed by an American guy, Chase Jarvis, who I didn’t know either, nor what he was there to sell as it was just him. No software sponsorship or corporate affiliation. Just a beardy American with a good story. A guy who dropped out of medical school to pursue a successful photography career in the mid-late 90s and who was just starting to make a name for himself when digital photography showed up in everyone’s pocket and started eroding all his business. In the face of this acute competition, he felt he had a choice to either hold up his hands, cry foul and maybe disappear into the background or redefine – transform – who he was, how he worked and, most crucially, his attitude and approach to creativity. In turn, he used precisely this experience to become a champion and thought leader for creativity and how you respond to change by, as he put it, defining your own purpose (and, by purpose, that doesn’t mean something that has to be ‘right’ forever or can’t change along the way) and understanding that, fundamentally, creativity is a habitnot a skill. A phrase that has really stuck with me, and that I’ve tried to put into action at work and at home (oh, my poor kids). So, what does a person, or a business do, when faced with a world that literally falls out from underneath them? How does anyone face into the challenge of unexpected competition, technology shift, behaviour change and position themselves for success? But wait… 

As I sat down to think about this piece, the more latter-day business-y part of me that meets with clients to talk about the challenges they face – customer acquisition and retention, failure demand, cost reduction, increasing competition, eroded trust, technology change and how to create more connected services, meaningful experiences, personalised engagement and effective support for colleagues and customers – I was reminded of my experience above. I was reminded that these conversations we have mean something: that as clever a bunch of hairless monkeys as we have been with our Google ventures, internets, smartphones, social platforms, CRMs, connected mobile experiences and, yes, even our smart sex apps, something in the world (still) isn’t working right. We sometimes forget that all this crazy, jargon-infused, technology enabled noise aside, the world is still just full of people trying their best to get by and do the right thing – for themselves, their colleagues, their families and their communities. And as designers, it’s our job to help them.

It also means understanding that while these aren’t (usually) the shiny or superficial platforms and promises to be found headlining at a digital conference, they’re real-world nutty problems to be solved: often unheroic, or even invisible, they are the kinds of everyday human challenges we all face in navigating a complex and increasingly uncertain world. 

I thought about the guy from SnapChat and his Super Stats and whether any of it mattered. 166 million active daily users (probably more now). It’s incredible, yes, and while many of our clients would literally turn themselves inside out for just 5% that number, it’s not really the point. Size and volume can be exciting but aren’t always a meaningful measure of success or value. It’s one thing to consume petabytes of data with funny images of big-toothed, bunny-eared, fairy people (and of course there’s a much-needed place for that in this world) but it also consumes attention, time, power and the finite resources of a planet facing climate change. 

What it doesn’t do is help young people manage their debts or save for a home. Nor put simple, effective healthcare solutions into the hands of doctors and patients that need them. It doesn’t support busy families struggling to make ends meet, understand and pay their bills and save for the future. It doesn’t enable businesses to change their ways of working, to get closer to their customers and serve them better or help them protect the jobs of their employees. Bunny ears won’t help a couple heading into retirement with poor health and diminished income to contend with. But as a thoughtful, interdependent, multidisciplinary group insight-driven and strategic designers – we can.

Finally, when I consider what our own journey at EY Seren has been this year (and man, has the world changed) – as a country, as a business, and a bunch of people, with friends and families who have been profoundly affected by the impact of Covid 19, and by the ongoing repercussions of George Floyd and #MeToo – I have reflected on how positively we, as individuals, as a team and as a business, have responded to these events and, as such, what has kept us bound together and plugging away (food/rent/mortgage payments… aside). As ever, it’s the people. 

Irrespective of jobs, skills and roles… it turns out we’re an invested, curious bunch of people who, despite (or maybe because of) the challenges we face, have continued to ask ourselves: what can we do about this? How can we help? How can we support each other, and our clients, to make the world a little better than we found it? There’s value in that. And meaning. And there’s also purpose, even if we haven’t quite found the right magic words to express it.

Business. Technology. Behaviour change. Human needs and a rapidly changing world. This is the currency we get to work with every day. And if Strategic, Consultative, Design is the engine we use to figure out what, how and where best to spend it, then purpose is the fuel.

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