Ziba is the largest design consultancy I've visited on my road trip so far, but I honestly knew little about the firm beyond some of the gorgeous work they've done for TDK. Design directors Paul Backett (ID), Mick Glenn (Environment Design), Chris Butler (Research), and Aura Aragon-Ball (Communications Design). The office is located in a futuristic building of metal and reclaimed wood nestled in the contemporary mixed-use architecture of the Pearl District in Portland, OR. The design directors decided that the best way for me to understand Ziba would for me to take a firsthand look at Ziba's intensive process.
Ziba's Aura Aragon-Ball, Mick Glenn, Paul Backett, and Chris Butler
Ziba's office is divided into four "neighborhoods" of design disciplines with three "buildings" of project rooms in between. Backett mentioned that designers spend only minimal amounts of time at their desk; the project rooms become their home in the long-run. Now, I've seen my fair share of project rooms over the years, but Ziba's project rooms put all the rest to shame. The walls are absolutely covered in sketches and concepts. One room I visited showed the results of a 50-hour, fast-paced brainstorming session; another showed hundreds of logo designs in search of a handful of potential best ideas. Designers from different disciplines will contribute sketches and ideas in what Backett terms "cross-pollenation."
The most surprising part of the tour through Ziba's process was when we visited the department of Research Director Chris Butler. Although his department produces the classic style of research through contextual interviews and the like, Butler described how the goal is to "deliver authentic and meaningful experiences" by uncovering the intersection in values of both the consumer and the brand. In order to get to this very specific level and to "keep relevant," Butler's team starts out with the macro trends developing the world over. "We try to determine how what's happening in design reflects what's happening in politics, in the news, in culture," said Butler. "We're tracing these trends back to the core root."
A huge wall running the length of the research department is the "living document" of all of these trends. Screengrabs of web pages, photos from news stories, and clips from magazines line the wall with sticky notes scattered throughout and general trend titles pasted in the center of groupings. When I commented that the display looks like the conspiracy theory diagrams from "A Beautiful Mind," Butler responded that this is "what everyone's brain looks like" at Ziba. Instead of merely doing research into, say, trends in healthcare when a healthcare project comes along, Ziba designers can consult the wall to see how these trends might influence any project they are tasked with. Butler's team also sends out daily emails aggregating important news stories from around the world to keep Ziba designers up-to-date. "The most important thing is that we are sharing all this information internally at Ziba," said Butler. Ultimately the goal is to be able to tell complete stories and design products in the context of the world around them as opposed to being created in isolation.
Given Ziba's grasp on identifying trends, I was very interested in their take on the use of storytelling in design since I had heard the word "story" numerous times in each of my department visits at Ziba. "Story is something we do to try and connect with consumers," said Glenn. "It's the power to connect with people through metaphor or iconic cues." In the case of Glenn's environmental design department, storytelling is about creating a narrative for a location that carries visitors on a experiential journey so that "we don't just create spaces—we create places." These stories can then inform a visitor's behavior in the places; in the case of a project to redesign a banking service, Ziba used storytelling to shift the behavior from transaction-centric to interaction-centric. Yet storytelling is not a discipline new to Ziba; the designers maintained that the skill has been a core competency at the design firm since its inception and is only now gaining prominence in the larger design industry.
The design directors also described the "changing type of designer" now entering the industry. "They have an attitude of fearlessness," said Backett, in terms of the confidence both to take on projects themselves and to learn a diverse skill set. The desire to master a specific design discipline has been replaced with a 'generalist' mindset. "At one point, industrial designers and architects were looked at as craftsmen," said Glenn. "But now young designers don't see the necessity of being narrow. They see it as a strange thing to be so grounded in one discipline."
Ziba is trying to adapt to this new norm of a diversified, 'jack-of-all-trades, master of none' skillset. "We like [new hires] to have a core discipline," said Backett. "We then ask them to develop something like a major and minor at Ziba." They're essentially asking designers both to be competent in their stated role but also be flexible enough to contribute to other disciplines. However, "hybrid designers" who can bridge two design disciplines could have an important role in the future of the firm. Many industrial designers at Ziba have skills in designing UX, while Ziba also has designers who can do both ID and communications or both environmental and service design. "It's a natural transition for what's happening in design," said Aragon-Ball.
Lastly, I realized that I had not heard two words I thought would be endlessly thrown around during my visit: design thinking. "We use some of the tools from design thinking, but not in a core way," said Butler. "We prefer to focus on experiences, storytelling, and narratives." But Backett summed it up the best. "It's all about thinking and making," said Backett. "You need to think to make and make to think. One is useless without the other."
Ziba's fantastic headquarters office
When I met up with D'Wayne Edwards, founder of the Pensole Footwear Design Academy, he was in the middle of running his own version of Project Runway. Up-and-coming footwear designers from around the world, narrowed down from close to 1,000 to twenty lucky ones, were busy developing their entries into Edwards' "Future of Footwear" competition. "Footwear is always tucked up under something else for industry awards," said Edwards, "but footwear is a rare product that exists in both soft and hard goods." The goal of the competition is to highlight aspiring designers and provide industry mentorship that is unavailable at most design schools. After three weeks of guidance under Edwards at Pensole, the designers will post their finished products in five categories online for voting and on display at the MAGIC Marketplace in Las Vegas—the apparel industry's biggest show.
Pensole's founder D'Wayne Edwards
Edwards' passion for footwear goes back to his childhood, long before footwear was included as a course in some design schools. "Now you can wake up and say, 'I want to be a footwear designer,'" said Edwards. "Before, it was just something you fell into." Edwards soon became the youngest footwear designer in the industry and eventually settled in as Footwear Design Director at Brand Jordan for a decade, designing some of the most iconic sneakers in the brand's history. Yet Edwards began to wonder how the next generation of footwear designers would be educated.
It made sense that Portland would serve as the perfect place to start a footwear design institution, since Rose City is "a little bit of a footwear mecca." Edwards leveraged his working relationships with both companies and top design schools to found Pensole. In the last two years, Edwards has taught a range of classes on footwear design, including one sponsored by Adidas. "The idea manifested itself into how companies can benefit from finding new talent," said Edwards, "and then hiring that talent." Pensole could thus serve as a pipeline for taking young designers, giving them the tools they need to succeed in the footwear industry, and then placing them with companies to help design the future.
Given Edwards' long history of industry experience, each Pensole class focuses on "learning by doing" and less on theory. I expected to see rows of Wacom tablets in the studio, yet Edwards is quite determined to teach the foundations of design skill, not just rendering skills, to the point where computers are only allowed for research—every sneaker design is done in pencil and clay. "As a hiring manager, I'd see 200–300 portfolios for a year," said Edwards. "They would have great rendering skills, but not design skills. Schools are teaching computer skills, but not what to do with those computer skills." The goal of forcing students to use only pencil is to "get back to thinking and to the emotional connection" and to "use the original computer: your brain."
Moreover, students are not allowed to use color in their designs either. "Color is a visual distraction," said Edwards. "Drawing in grayscale forces you to look at every detail for critically." Edwards described a design exercise he used to do at Brand Jordan that asked designers to design footwear for a store that only sold white sneakers. All of these limitations on students are meant to develop them into adept creatives, not just designers who "splash color" on a boring product to make it more attractive.
The footwear industry, in Edwards' opinion, suffers from too many buzzwords, like "design thinking" or "storytelling." While each of these skills are necessary to create compelling and innovative footwear designs, the industry is "distracted by an overabundance of storytelling" that distracts consumers from the actual product. Edwards gave the example of Reebok's Kool Aid sneaker from a few years ago that is a horrid mish-mash of the Kool Aid logo and color scheme with a decent shoe. An uninspired "story" somehow relates wearing sneakers with drinking Kool-Aid, but is really a poorly disguised product placement of the beverage variety. "The art of storytelling is getting lost," said Edwards. "People would rather be romanticized with words and pictures. Where it gets dangerous is where everything has to have a story."