Designing for People as Part of an Ecosystem at Fjord - Q&A with Olof Schybergson

Designing for People as Part of an Ecosystem at Fjord: Q&A with Olof Schybergson

by Isil Oygur Ilhan

Once, for the design world, it was mostly about star designers; then came the design studios. As we enter 2020, we can say that it has been the era for design and innovation consultancies.

Fjord, Design and Innovation from Accenture Interactive, is one of the leaders in this service sector. They have been providing design strategies and solutions for clients from a wide range of sectors for almost 20 years. In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, Fjord team tries to find ways to unite digital and physical.

We had the pleasure to ask questions to the co-founder and CEO of Fjord, Olof Schybergson, about the processes and practices at Fjord as well as his perspective on design and innovation. Olof shared insights into their designerly ways of overcoming "risk of blandness and too much conformity" with the contemporary design solutions.

They say we are living in a digital economy. However, with your merger with Accenture, Fjord made a switch from "digital" to "design and innovation" as the main focus of the agency. Why did you need such a change in the claim?

When we launched Fjord nearly two decades ago, digital was still an exciting new frontier to be explored. Today, we live in a post-digital economy where digital is a given instead of a differentiator. No longer a separate focus for businesses, or indeed people, digital touches every aspect of our daily lives.

While the digital medium has always been native to us at Fjord, moving beyond the categorization of "digital" alone has helped us to reach new industries, tackle increasingly diverse challenges, and attract cross-sector innovators like never before. In fact, we've never positioned Fjord as digital only.

You have been leading Fjord for almost 20 years. What are the major changes in how you do work at Fjord from its early days to today?

At the core of the business, on an individual project and designer level, there are a lot of similarities between how we worked when we first founded Fjord and how we work today.

The biggest difference is in how we structure our project teams, and just how cross-functional we have become. Today, our designers work hand-in-hand with data scientists, technologists, and business analysts to provide multi-faceted and interdisciplinary solutions to client challenges.

We've also seen a massive expansion in the number of sectors Fjord is operating in, from healthcare to entertainment, and a corresponding growth in the markets we have a presence in. Overall, this has led to an exciting diversity in our portfolio and a greater scope of impact.

You must have worked on hundreds of projects so far. Looking into the past, which project had the greatest impact on your career and you? How?

Picking just one would be daunting, but there are three which stand out to me as significant highlights - not the least because they incorporate design elements which have stood the test of time.

In 2003, we launched Nokia Lifeblog, which presented all of the user's media - from photos to videos and messages - in a continuous timeline. While it may seem intuitive now, in the era of Facebook, back then the notion of a visual timeline was an entirely new interaction paradigm. Our client's willingness to push boundaries was both refreshing and inspiring, and eventually he joined us at Fjord.

A few years later, we had the privilege of working with the BBC to conceptualize and design the first iteration of iPlayer, their iconic streaming media service. Again, it may seem like a natural solution today, but iPlayer was one of the first hugely popular streaming services and, really, a definitive example of what media consumption should look like. At Fjord we had designed mobile experiences since 2001, and in 2008 the BBC also turned to us to create a mobile version of the iPlayer. Back then, no one had come up with a service compelling enough to make watching TV on a mobile device worthwhile and so we needed to figure out how they could make the BBC experience on-the-go both high quality and engaging for viewers. Our experience of designing innovative services for major brands like the BBC became a calling card for Fjord, helping us expand into new sectors and geographies.

More recently, we've done a lot of work with Marriott to help them move beyond simply providing hotel rooms, to becoming a travel experience company. As part of the collaboration, we ran a Travel Experience Incubator, an initiative that involved the CEOs of both Marriott and Accenture. Together with start-up incubator 1776, we created a unique program to help Marriott tap into a network of start-ups to discover new technologies that could identify new opportunities and reinvent its guest experience. It's been fascinating for me to apply design skills to innovate and transform at the scale of Marriott.

At Fjord, you give importance to grounding your design solutions with research. From your perspective, what is the most valuable research method/tool for the design and innovation industry? And, why?

There is no substitute for in-person design research. Not only does it provide "deep data" on the human aspect of any design challenge which cannot be replicated in a spreadsheet, but it also fosters empathy. This is crucial for any designer trying to create a long-term solution to a problem.

In terms of actual tools out there, I'm a big fan of DScout, a qualitative research platform. Coincidentally, the tool's co-founder Martha Cotton leads our Design Research department in North America - but I promise I'm not biased!

While design increasingly depends on research, we still see the significance given to style and the signature of famous designers, brands and design consultancies. How do you balance these two in your work at Fjord? In other words, how do you balance data and intuition in solving design problems?

Technology and tools are helping to improve the output of designers, and design patterns created by some of the digital leaders are setting universal standards for design. However, inherent in this trend is also a risk of blandness and too much conformity.

At Fjord, we don't want to drown in a sea of sameness. Instead, we want to create experiences that are magical, memorable and fun - and there is a huge need for individual creativity in this.

Nevertheless, we can't just rely on the signature flair of individual designers. Instead, we should celebrate and lift up the teams around these talented individuals. Truly bold, breakthrough thinking cannot happen in isolation, it takes iteration and a team effort to create truly remarkable design.

Being a leader in a design organization that has studios all around the world must be a tough job. Do you see any differences in how the work is done at your different locations? Do you think culture plays a role in the design and innovation processes and outcomes?

Far from being a tough job, it's a privilege to lead such an incredible team of designers around the world. I find the cultural and geographical diversity hugely energizing and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work in many studios around the world.

At Fjord, we operate as one global team, with the same vision, offering and skills in all our mature studio locations. Having said that, we do optimize for what's relevant and expected in each market, ensuring that we cater to that specific audience. Attributes like simplicity and beauty have very different connotations in Brazil, Germany and Japan, for example.

It's also undeniable that culture plays a huge role in design, and we take strength from the great diversity of Fjord. If we truly want to avoid the sea of sameness, it's important that we don't arbitrarily impose a homogenous Western culture of design across the company, but celebrate what makes us, and the markets in which we operate, unique.

Design problems have increasingly become complex. It is not only about giving form to physical or digital experiences. You need to address social problems and sustainability concerns as well. How do you and the employees at Fjord tackle with such big and complex problems?

This tension is right at the heart of the current evolution of the design industry. When I first began practicing my craft, design meant something fairly tangible, with a controllable outcome.

Today, designers are turning their attention to systems, services, cultures and conversations - and with this widening scope comes new and often unfamiliar abstraction.

This can feel disconcerting to someone who is used to control. At Fjord, we aim to get to grips with this discomfort by talking about it, learning to use new tools to manage it and constantly iterate towards new solutions.

In fact, this shift towards life-centered design - beyond an individual user or designer - is something we discuss in the latest edition of our 13th annual trends report. In Fjord Trends 2020, we suggest that we begin designing for people as part of an ecosystem, rather than people at the center of everything. Transitioning to this way of thinking may feel counterintuitive to a designer who has been taught to focus on the user alone, but we feel there's an incredible opportunity to be found in flipping our perspective from user-centered to life-centered design.

What are your strategies to keep employees motivated and inspired?

First and foremost, great designers want to work alongside and learn from other great designers. It may sound simple, but over the years I've found that what really retains the best people is actually the best people.

At Fjord, we aim to create an environment where you're constantly inspired by your colleagues and are able to learn from people who come from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Beyond that, great designers want to be challenged and it's the employer's responsibility to ensure their curiosity is satisfied with complex design challenges and a rewarding professional experience.

By being part of the world's leading design consultancy, our employees have the opportunity to learn from colleagues, and tackle challenges, from across the globe. Because design never stops, neither should learning. This richness of experience is something we aim to provide every single day for Fjordians.

What is the next challenge that you want to address as a design and innovation expert?

When there's a new challenge you want to tackle each day, it's impossible to pick just one.

Thankfully, with every problem that I and the team want to solve, there's usually a route to starting that conversation - which means we can be proactive. As a result, I find myself working on what feels like a new systematic challenge every week, with a variety I could only have dreamed off when I co-founded Fjord in 2001. We've used design to solve challenges ranging from community sustainability to understanding and handling your money better.

For the last decade, we have seen a rapid change in job titles for the design and innovation industry. Design strategists, design researchers, service designers, digital designers are more common lately. As the founder of Fjord, what is your suggestion for the people who want to pursue a career in design and innovation? What job titles do you think will become common in the near future?

Don't try and create a job title for yourself - or others - that is too niche or obscure. One of the wonderful evolutions of the design craft in the last two decades is the increasing readiness with which it is applied to diverse problems, across markets and industries. The resulting temptation is to convey deep specialism. Don't - your craft has to stay simple and understandable to a greater number of people than ever before. To this day, I still simply introduce myself as a designer.

Innovation and value are often found in adjacencies - in the overlaps between traditionally separate disciplines. If you do want to build on your design job title, look to the adjacent skillsets for inspiration first. This approach has given us such titles as data designer, system designer and business designer, to name a few.

Photos: Courtesy of Fjord