Creative director and service designer Phil Nutley recently visited the College to give a talk about both his commercial work and community- and culturally-based projects. One group of MDes Service Design Innovation students caught up with Phil afterwards to find out more about doodling, storytelling and when to talk about money.
How did you start off in design? Was it a childhood interest you had?
I wanted to be an architect when I was seven, and soon realised that I wasn’t smart enough at maths. But I was always passionate about problem-solving, I suppose, and went on to study furniture and product design. That pushed me into interiors and environments, exhibitions and experiences.
And then the word “brand” came along, probably 10 or 15 years ago, and so everything had to be branded, it had to have a certain belief or a promise. You then saw the start of digital technology beginning to shift the way we communicate.
Probably about eight years ago, I started to realise the impact design could have on people, and the better products and services you could design with groups of people through the design process.
So as a child were you always doodling, and bubbling with ideas and innovations?
Yeah, if my mum was here she’d say that there was never a blank piece of paper in the house, because I was always drawing, sketching, rethinking something! That’s how it started.
You’re full of ideas, and what was quite evident in your talk was that it’s not specific to one medium, or one brand – you’re working under quite a big umbrella.
Even when I went to headhunting agencies, they always tried to put me in a silo. They always tried to say, “Are you a furniture designer or an interior designer? Are you a product designer?”
They never quite got it, and I really didn’t care – I was interested to collaborate with the illustrator, or the creative coder, or I wanted to go and find the filmmaker that was telling an interesting narrative.
I wanted to do things that were pop-up before real pop-up was happening – and I wasn’t the only person out there, there were many others, I just think I had that energy. Back then, with the way a lot of people were taught, design education was about going into a silo. So if you’re three-dimensional, don’t you dare touch two-dimensional!
How is the life of a service designer? Aren’t you always the hunter, or do people and companies approach you?
You need to be the hunter, to use your word, you need to go out there and find the projects.
I think you’re about to learn a very different way of seeing the world, by using design as a methodology. What it will allow you to do is to harness the right moments and the right groups of people, to bring them together, to ask the right questions, and to then say look, I think this needs to happen, with conviction. And then bring the right partners – service partners, delivery partners – on board to make sure that project is a success.
Do you think that funding is a big and challenging part of the process? To try to find the people and convince them that this has to happen?
Yes exactly, funding’s key, because nothing moves forward unless you have both the energy – and energy involves people and time – and the money.
Money is key to making these projects happen, and the way you tell the story behind the project will give you the opportunity to then convince people that they need to fund your project, and not the billboard or the app that’s not needed. So it’s partly about being a very good facilitator, but also a good storyteller.
We know you’re more into social innovation projects – can you tell us a bit about why you prefer them?
Things need to change, and globally and locally, even in our own backyard, we need to shift the way we think about lots of things. About the way we greet each other as human beings, the way we use technology, the way we use resources and infrastructure, and I think design can play a very big role in shifting that behaviour for the better for humankind.
So I’m still interested in commercial projects but more and more I’m interested in how I can bring an element of social impact to all projects, be they commercial or cultural.
I think the more service design teams, courses and designers go through this process the better. We are seriously going to need it in the next five years, we’re going to have to shift things at a considerable rate across different territories.
What’s your advice for us in keywords?!
Run! More seriously, empathy – I spoke about that earlier and I think that’s key.
In the talk that I gave at the London Service Design Festival I spoke about being cultural conductors, and I think designers need to play more of that role. We need to be seen on boards at a very high level as people who can influence behaviour and shift the way we think.
How do you make a living? And the reason I ask you that is because in your lecture earlier you showed that you went out and hunted and pitched, regardless of the consequences. That’s got a cost attached. How do you know when to take that risk?
There is some experience in that. I don’t want to say it’s key, but experience plays a role in it. It’s knowing who to go to and ask for the opportunity, or to bring that opportunity to life.
It’s a balance, isn’t it? I work on commercial projects as well as community-based or cultural-based projects; I couldn’t afford to at present work solely on community-based projects because it wouldn’t put bread and butter – or rice and beans, as I used to say in Brazil – on the table. It doesn’t feed the family, or cover your overheads. We all have expenses, we all have to eat and drink and be healthy and feel good about ourselves.
It’s a very difficult balance because I think this is a new territory, and you’re beginning to see more and more people willing to put money into this area, but it’s a slow grow.
Remember I’ve been working with brands and big corporations for many years so I know how they think and I know how they work. But also it’s finding the right people within those organisations that are willing to have a little bit of a gamble, or to step over that threshold and go, “You know what, we need to put a little bit of funding into social programmes, and we need to believe that Phil’s going to go off and deliver us something which is going to give us a completely new perspective.”
So it’s tough, and it’s hard to answer it succinctly. The commercial projects pay for your time, basically. Then again, some of the charitable projects that we’re working on have benefactors. But there’s a fair exchange of value – you’re obviously giving them ideas, and improving the services. And it’s also important to work on projects that you feel are going to move you forward as a person.
When I was in Rio I was very conscious, as I mentioned in the lecture, not to talk about money first – they’re just going to shut down. Whereas if you say, “Let’s talk about what the opportunity is”, half the time you’d walk away and you could be ten coffees away from talking about money. But they were then on board to ask, “What do you think this is going to cost us for a city?” They’ve already bought in to that process.
Do you have a team or do you collaborate with other people?
I just collaborate with other people. Currently three of us are working very closely: myself, the ex-head of British Airways design Neal Stone, and Colin Glennie, who’s an integration engineer and ex-Ford.
There tends to be a small group of people – again through Design Council – who’ve known each other for many years, and other designers who are interested in being involved in social impact projects.
I know your backgrounds are very varied – marketing, fashion, architecture, product design, graphic design – and I think you’re starting to get more of this happening, where people are saying, “I don’t really want to be doing another bit of branding, or if I do it’s as part of a bigger picture, because it’s going to change the way people cross the road safely, or how the clothing that we wear is recycled.”
So people are beginning to understand how valid design is, and what it can do.
Interview by: Rujuta Girish Autade, Maria Ignacia Orellana Drago, Rodrigo Maia Goncalves, Yujeong Jo, Stefania Parousi, Lawrence Oliver Richards and Shameem Sangamneheri.