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Influx interview-designer series- steve portigal- design thinker

February 4, 2008

Steve Portigal runs Portigal Consulting, a company that helps clients develop smarter thinking by bringing together user research, design and business strategy. I spent some time talking to Steve about his overlapping world of strategy and design.

Steve’s client list includes the likes of Nestle, eBay, Palm, Berringer, General Electric and many others.

His other claim to fame is his creation of one of the first online communities (Undercover,
a Rolling Stones fan group) in 1992, nurturing it from a time when the
Internet was an underground academic technology through to today, as
part of a global info-infrastructure.

1. Can you tell us briefly about your background and what you are up to these days?

I studied Computer Science because I liked the idea of making something- software- that had new functionality. But I soon realized that academically, Computer Science was extremely abstract and theoretical. Then I discovered Human-Computer Interaction, the part of Computer Science that dealt with people. After graduate school, I felt that the professional work of designing interfaces was too concerned with the details for my temperament. But that pointed the way to where my passion lies: starting with people, organizational behavior and culture, and asking the big-picture questions. For the past six years I’ve run Portigal Consulting, a boutique firm that’s just outside of San Francisco. We like to say that we help organizations to discover and act on new insights about their customers and themselves.
2. What do you believe are the greatest challenges involved in inspiring great design?

Well, what makes something a great design? If I think about design as a total package- “an experience that addresses some functional and emotional need that also meets the business goals of the organization that created it (i.e., it’s profitable, it’s right for their brand, it helps them grow a category, etc.)- then to inspire the creators means we need to help them tell a new story. That takes facts, but it also takes emotion. The creators who we want to inspire are designers, but also marketers, managers, technologists, engineers, and every other part of the organization. Our challenge is often getting access to all those people and, once we have access, figuring out the best way to communicate to them so that they are engaged, and ultimately inspired.
3. What is it that makes a great design strategist?

A great design strategist may not see themselves as a design strategist. They’re  probably someone who has had a few different professional identities and gets excited by the spaces where disciplines, schools of thought, and methods overlap. They are curious and easily intrigued: they like to observe what’s going on around them and they’re good at listening to people. And they know how to use all this data to synthesize new patterns and communicate them clearly to a range of audiences. Charlie Stross, in the sci-fi book Accelerando, describes the profession of a “meme broker” and the intense amount of content they have to assimilate every day in order to do this. Bruce Sterling calls this activity “scanning“ looking at all the sources one can and constantly asking what does this mean for my clients. Being able to work through all those data sources and pull out the implications is crucial for design strategy.
4. As we become more cultural attuned to good design, does designing become easier?
I have an interaction designer friend who worked for Apple in the between-Jobs era (long before iMacs and iPods), and he used to tell me how challenging it was to be in his role at a company that had such a strong design culture, because everyone thought they were naturally a UI designer. It was a lot more challenging for him to get buy-in. If we generalize from that, more awareness of design may not make it easier.
Taking it one step further, the stuff designers are being asked to design is sometimes deep in uncharted waters. What kind of information designer figures out the dozen layers of text and graphics that get layered on top of Taiwanese television? Where do user interface designers pull from to create virtual world e-commerce? How does an 80-year old check their email on a mobile device? The shifts in what technology affords and what behaviors people are seeking that are definitely not making design any easier.
5. Do you believe research can play a role in helping designers, if so, what does the best research look like?
Absolutely. How else are you going to design for real people?
The best research brings to life the imperfect and messy stories of real people and presents generative frameworks that lead the way forward for new designs, products, services, features, communications, or whatever is needed.
6. Who are today’s “thinkers”  who are challenging designers to push boundaries?
I suspect that many designers are more influenced by the doers than the thinkers. That said, you’ve got some visionary people out there who do come up often in design circles: Bruce Sterling, John Thackara, Sir Ken Robinson, Roger Martin, Malcolm Gladwell, Edward Burtynsky, and John Maeda. 

Posted by Ed Cotton

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