Design offers hope.

It also creates beauty, evokes 'it-ness,' and reinvents economies.

IfThen’s Executive Creative Director Stefán Kjartansson recently sat down to discuss, among other topics, design-industry buzz phrases like “human-centric design,” as well as the importance of creating “feeling” to go with “form” and “function,” and IfThen’s approach to design.

Stefán Kjartansson, Ricky Tse and Mariel HardingStefán Kjartansson, Ricky Tse and Mariel Harding

Interviewer: In this time of great social, political, and cultural upheaval, in what ways is your approach to design being affected? How are you addressing that in your work, or in what ways is it coming through?

Stefán Kjartansson: What’s the role of design in a world turned topsy-turvy? A massive one! Design’s non-linear process can help businesses be more adaptive to chaos. I can offer a couple of examples:

After the disruption of WWII, Denmark, a country of no natural resources invested heavily in human ingenuity. The result was a socioeconomic rebirth that raised the bar in design and has given the world Arne Jacobsen, LEGO, and BIG Architecture.

Another example is a company that we’ve been rebranding. They design and make metal printing systems — pretty straightforward. But there’s a bigger story — they aren’t simply manufacturing 3D printers; they’re giving industry a new and powerful technology to weather current supply chain disruptions, ultimately enabling them to reinvent manufacturing as a whole. Think of how electricity propelled the second Industrial Revolution. That’s the real story of the power of design and ingenuity.

And finally, interesting research conducted by Ortus Economic Research for Atlanta Design Festival found that design contributes 10 percent of Atlanta’s total GDP. That’s a lot!

Design’s contribution to Atlanta’s GDP

Design’s contribution to Atlanta’s GDP

But, most importantly, these are anxious social times for most of us, and design offers hope. Design is how we share stories and communicate. Humans are wired for stories and creative people are storytellers.

Interviewer: I’m interested to hear your thoughts on terms like “human-centric design,” or “human-centered design.”

SK: Well, it’s an interesting combination of words; almost redundant. Of the two, I’m more interested in design. A designer is a relatively recent job title. Before industrialization, we were simply craftspeople. If you needed a sign for your barbershop, you had a sign maker; you got your shirt from a tailor. Then came modernism, the Bauhaus, and the whole paradigm changed. Today some even argue that the term “design” is all-encompassing for any and all human creativity, including art and architecture — there’s a terrific book on the subject called Design by Accident.

Interviewer: You've been doing this for a while now. In the ‘90s and the early 2000s, were there other words and phrases that people were using?

SK: There's always a word of the day. In my first web job at CNN, they called us Digital Artists, then Information Architects. Remember “Information Superhighway”? the Eiffel Tower really that important?

Interviewer: I do.

SK: A recent one is “Design Thinking.” Harvard Business Review wrote a piece about it, and it got a lot of my colleagues excited. It’s essentially saying, “If you apply this ‘Design Thinking’ to your organization — you're going to get great innovation” And it doesn't happen that way. You know why?

Interviewer: Tell me.

SK: Because as sparkling as it sounds, it bundles the process into a commodity — and ignores the talent factor. And talent is everything!

The most progressive designers thrive in the agency world, not inside the companies. Michelangelo wasn’t a church employee. And that’s the beauty of it all … smart brands hire great designers to infuse their organization with fresh ideas.

Back to words and phrases — I recommend picking up Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit.

Interviewer: There are people that will say that design isn't important, or it's not that important. That it's just colors and images. How do you explain the importance of design to someone like that?

SK: Can I see your phone real quick? You have a beautiful iPhone. Why do you choose that over a more affordable Android?

Interviewer: Androids are incredibly ugly to me.

SK: There you go. I think art is a barometer of the health of a civilization.


Feeling, Form, Function

But, I use a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs approach for this line of questioning. Let’s go with a building metaphor: You need the foundation — wiring, plumbing, etc. I call that the function. The next consideration is the form — the perfectly planned, ergonomic space. The third is the hardest to capture — the feeling. This is the space I love. It deals with extracting or magnifying that certain it-ness.

What is it about the Eiffel Tower that captures people's imagination? And to address your question ... is the Eiffel Tower really that important?

The inventor of the skyscraper architecture, Louis Sullivan, coined the ever-so-useful mantra “Form follows function.” But ironically, when you inspect his work — like the Carson, Pirie, Scott building in Chicago — the functional structure is adorned by a beautiful wrought-iron façade.

Designers Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh are currently doing excellent research on beauty and how it’s all but vanished from our lexicon.

Interviewer: From the client’s perspective, how do you approach design? From the time they walk in the door and meet you, to the end product, what's the overview?

SK: Sure, let’s use a website example. It's roughly a four-step process: The first one is the Discovery. We need to study the business, people, customers. I love that many times we're learning about a new industry, so there's a steep curve. We interview key stakeholders, lay the foundation for a great working relationship — it’s critical to have a shared vision out of the gate.

The second step is Synthesizing. We unite the business and creative elements and solidify into a meaningful whole. This is the fun phase, and we love involving clients as much as possible.

Now we arrive at the Concept phase. Depending on the nature of the client, we develop anywhere from one to three concepts. Everything is now coming to life. Once a direction is selected, we work through all variables. This generates the building blocks — components and layouts for the whole system.

The final phase is the build phase or the Production phase. That's where we put our hardhats on and produce all elements — build and launch the website.

Those are the main rituals, but every agency has some variation of this process.

Interviewer: Because other agencies have similar processes, the way you differentiate yourself is through the people that make up the process, the people on your team, right? What does IfThen have that other agencies don’t? What makes IfThen unique?

SK: Sure, the process is a means to an end. It’s important, but my focus is always on the final product.

When IfThen acquired my agency, Armchair, and the first thing I observed is how exceptionally well run and efficient this company is. The average staff meeting doesn’t exceed 10 minutes. I love how we have a diverse mix of brains — I learn something new every day. As a result, clients get the best of both worlds — creativity balanced with stability — which is not always the case with many creative shops.

Interviewer: Finish this sentence: The best kind of client will ___________?

SK: I’m only as good as the client, and the great ones are patrons.

Brand governing system

Brand governing system

A large client of mine has what they call the 70/20/10 formula — the brand is composed of 70% tradition, 20% innovation, and 10% experimentation. This is a brilliant brand governing system. I bring a variation of that model into every new project. And, of course, the best kind of client operates in that 30%, “innovation-experimentation” space.