Interview with Devin Liddell
Devin is with teague and he is in charge of the strategic effort there and has been for quite a while now. That's right? Yeah. Uh he's been around for a long time. Yeah, in fact, I have a slight about that. Yeah, we do it. We do a lot of this stuff from industrial design to interaction design we have a long relationship boeing there's never been a boeing aircraft that did not feature a teague interior. Actually, the first contract with boeing was for fifty years, which is a nice feet of negotiation in its own right? Yes, and fifty fifty year contract. Yeah, and that is a really great point. I don't like the relationship between boeing and teague has to be one of the oldest design firm the longest running design client relationships in since the industrial revolution. Absolutely. And it started in twenty in the forties uh when bowing, I knew that they were going to get into commercial aircraft and they, uh teague had been designing interiors and uniforms and logos for, uh, pan american ...
airways and pan american ares wave was the first really focused on flying regular folks around airline and they learned early on they need to make people feel comfortable and so they hired teak tou designed the interiors of the airplanes and then the uniforms and the logo and everything and boeing was in the midst of world war two you know, making things for war but knew that their future was going to be a community commercial aircraft and so they made a deal with bowing in the forties I think the war was still going on and with with teague and that has lasted and still lasts and in fact one of the photos here the one on the right is in terror interior for one of the current airplanes actually yeah they have the dreamliner being one of the most recent efforts and those air long I mean everything about that partnership fifty years seems like a long time for a first contract but but a typical commercial aircraft takes about ten years to design so the dream I was in the works for ten, ten years which also contributes to our low profile because we have a lot of stuff we work on we are not a lot of talk about for ten, ten years at a time, right? So yeah it's a fantastic relationship and it's in some ways I mean, your pointed it actually sort of transcends any sort of any sort of typical designer client relationship it's a true partnership we actually have a studio that's embedded inside going so there's you wouldn't know it if you were if you were masked and taken inside the studio it appear as if it was a design studio inside there are off the streets of san francisco or new york or chicago. It would only be when you exited the studio that you noticed that oh, there goes a wing, there goes, there goes an engine. Yeah, and they're actually about one hundred eighty people who are devoted to just working on projects because takes a big it's a big business, exactly for design business. It's a very big way have four different cities, as we have a studio in munich. That is a lot of consumer electronics, particularly asia. I'm in seattle, I spend my time actually spread around the world, so I've racked up a lot of fun of wire miles on boeing aircraft fell fun, exactly it's all fun, and, uh, one of the things that we're talking about today is context, and and I know that you've recently been giving a few talks yourself, and in fact, when we had coffee, you're so excited about the context, thoughts you had for this upcoming talks, right? And I thought it, I thought it would be fun if you shared that the idea and why why you decided that you would you would use this context change for this audience, so I've been known to delve into some pretty bizarre topics, and this is the latest installation of this so I I recently gave a talk at high which was held here in seattle, so if anyone attended it but it was a conference is focused on the intersection of design and technology and I gave an address there and the focus of my address was really about how corporate cultures should emulate organized crime when it comes to culture creation. So you repeat that again, yeah, my my whole my whole point was that hey, if your if you are in charge of a culture whether that's in any category you really should be looking to organized crime as your model for how to create culture and so we're talking about the mafia we're looking in the mafia we're talking about the japanese yakuza we're talking about the hell's angels were talking about the chinese triads on dive dive, you know, given informal versions of this tio executives before and one of the reasons I go on this topic is that on this gets their attention is if you notice crimes and it gets don't go out of business thie chinese triads have been around for hundreds of years the hell's angels have been around for decades they've been around since the sixties all by the way, despite billions of dollars spent on around money of our money, I mean the japanese because of the same thing all of these all of these different crime organizations have had have suffered but not suffered actually in some ways we've spent billions of dollars trying to eradicate them and they don't go away but circuit city goes away, blockbuster goes away, atari goes away so what is it about these organizations that make them so long lasting and have guns? They have guns not actually not all of them strange enough not all of them have guns but but actually, you know not to spin off into too much of a rant about it but what they are really fantastic at is they're fantastic at two things one creating culture I could talk about the second and the other thing is they're fantastic designers they're fantastic at design and design innovation so as an example, if you think about the hells angels they actually own eighteen different trademarks and they protect trademarks vigorously but those trademarks are part and parcel to their culture so that the patches all of the myriad patches and the cuts and so forth the logo's those are arguably some of the most famous marks in the world and they they belong to a crime syndicate that that mainly, you know, deals and methamphetamine in the distribution of stolen motorcycles but but back teo also now we have a group of executives of a quote unquote legitimate business exactly okay and you're talking to them about the idea of organized crime as something too perhaps emulate in some particular ways exactly and I I consider that a major context change how did they react to that context? They're startled I mean and this is this is obviously a technique I've used in other subjects as well, but they're typically startled, but but the net effect is that what happens is that when you go through the material like that I that I lead them through, I can tell you the three big points is that they recognize that they actually already knew this stuff they knew they knew these things, they just didn't really know them in a way that made sense to them. So it's a good example of this is if you go into any barnes noble, there are myriad books about culture creation and management, right? They're all extraordinarily boring, and what I do is just bring it to them in a context that isn't boring. And so one of the things I talk to him about when it comes to organized crime and why organized crime is a perfect model for culture creation is the organized crime really does a couple things that executives already know they should be doing. They should be focusing on small but big teams and what I mean by small but big teams is groups of ten to twelve people inside big organizations so whether you're a microsoft or your, uh hells angel chapter you really should be thinking about teams of ten to twelve that's what it is, but pulling from big global resource is the other thing is that teams, those teams should be inside belief driven cultures. And what I mean by belief driven cultures is that most corporate cultures have no sensibility. And I might be a little bit of an overstatement but have very little sensibly as toe why they exist. Why do we exist as a company? Whereas the hells angels that yakuza the chinese triads on and on, they know exactly why they exist. The bandidos motorcycle gang, by the way, their tagline is, we are the people are parents, warned us about. They know why they exist, right? And I like in this too very successful brands like apple, like nike, like zappa, was actually like nordstrom, all of these brands, all the brands that we actually harold as sort of the pinnacle of what we think of in terms of that's, a fantastic brand. They all have one thing in common, and that is credo. They have absolute credo. They have belief driven culture, and everyone trades in the stories of that that credo inside that culture and the last part, last part the three things is the third is continues innovation, never stopping the innovation process ever and actually the mafia is a perfect example of this and I was given this talking at hive someone said well what happened to the italian mafia and what happened the italian mafia is they had two out of the three of those things they didn't have continues innovation they did not have that last point and that's why they've faltered whereas all those other organizations I mentioned they continuously innovate whether it's digging tunnels underneath borders or launching things with a catapult I mean they never stop improvising whereas the circuit cities of the world looked on and said she's looking what's happening with netflix which we do apparently we should die that was that was sort of their reaction and they did not continuously innovate so it's a very straightforward blueprint but changing the context helps people wake up to it so you so the idea so so when you're in a situation with a client or you're planning to be in a situation where you're discussing with a client what you might do for them one of the things you need to look for is how to get them to think about it differently how to think how to get them to think about it differently do you remember the think different campaign from apple that was a classic example off getting people to think about this idea from a different perspective and and the different perspective then builds you into the relationship with the client and that and that's the fundamental values of changing the contacts exactly. Yeah, one of the other stories that sometimes using I've always been very intrigued by the nineteen sixties civil rights move. And another example I often use with with executives is that if you think about culture creation as an ongoing negotiation with large groups of people in the nineteen sixties, there was a very important negotiation happening on happening around civil rights. And to be very honest, when martin luther king first came on the scene, there was big swaths of people who said what he's telling me is very, very scary that's, right? And they were resistant to it. And then michael next started talking, and they said, actually go with the other guy, I mean, and that's that's kind of a cynical point of view on it in some ways, but that that happens in any category and in any landscape where this negotiation happens and it's to me, it's a lesson about uncompromising, and it goes back to what we were talking about earlier about being exactly who you are. If you were exactly who you are, you you change the landscape no matter what you're doing, but he also had a higher purpose exactly is really important. And that's something else. We're talking about three days, so when we're someone we're talking about context change, we're not doing just to manipulate the situation, we're doing it for the benefit of the client and and we can characterize that benefit as a higher purpose. So it's a bigger, more important idea than just the fundamental of whatever that little assignment iss and when you think about it, the larger implications from what you're doing that's when you have, then you could really help the client, and you help yourself because you're differentiate yourself from others who would never think to do that, which is mostly the case. Mostly people do not think about how can I? How can I make this into something that really helps people in a larger sense? Then then what is seems to be described by this assignment? So context change for the purpose of a higher purpose is where we're going here exactly. I think the other thing just added quickly about context and not to stop me, because aiken geek out about contacts all along, but the world the other way to look at this is that the world is just one interconnected collection of stories and context is a big part about how those stories are connected to one another, right? There is text and I talked to this about with the teams I work with text is your company your brand right context is the world in which you operate right and those have implications and then the big the other one is inter text actually how do you relate to back and forth back and forth how do you relate to the rest of the world? And unless you have a grass of all all three of those circles you're a little bit in the dark, right? Right? Because I don't know what you need to know and most creative people do not have that larger perspective that's really normal are really normal so they contain themselves in the box of the assignment as described by the client that's what we do that's the mistake that we make. So how do you break out of that box? Where is it that you go for inspiration for context to toe bring your work outside of just the initial like, okay, this is what we want. What do you do? Do you? Is it traveling? Is it a blank white board and just locking yourself in a room? Is it lots and lots of coffee like right what's your inspiration? Well, I think one of these I think that all create share in common and it sounds like there was a discussion about this I think one of things that creative's all share in common is pattern recognition I think that that's part of our part of our dna it is yeah, it is ten points yeah, ok good and then and so when it comes to pattern recognition, the examples you brought up are all part of how doe I inform bye pattern recognition capabilities and I think one of the biggest gifts actually that that strategists and designers and copywriters and so forth can bring to their clients is just encapsulate in the world in a way that clients don't see themselves and there are really you know, these are big brushstrokes typically like I a good example is sixty one percent of the fortune one hundred has a blue logo that doesn't make any sense makes perfect sense well, it makes sense that's perfect sense why way know why that how know what happened? Yes, but if we want to make sure that doesn't happen and I'm not sort of investing against blue but but if I want to help a client stand apart earlier conversation, if I want to have helped them set apart, I need to show them that what they're considering won't won't do that right that if you have another blue logo which we know why that happens, then you will not send a part right and you just need to agree that that's not going to be what you're after, but I think pattern recognition if I did if I still down to a couple words is the big one and I think that that no matter what craft you're in, whether you're an industrial designer, whether your photographer, whatever your craft is, you have some major skill when it comes to pattern recognition and showing people how the world really is and this this is a little bit of an inside outside equation when you're inside something, you can't see it when you're outside, you can and that's the big gift I think creators bring to the equation right exactly exactly by the way pattern recognition is the is the title of one of my favorite books by william gibson is right and the protagonist is a young woman and her skill set she's a creative she works just she works right now, actually she's it's set in the present, although he's generally thought of as a science fiction writer and her her skill set is that she's hired by advertising agencies and design firms to detect whether logo's air going to be successful because she has a violent emotional allergic reaction to logos. So she uses her emotional skills with with this reaction to determine whether or not the logo will be successful it's a very interesting book I highly recommend it is get a hell of a way all love william gibson so how did you get started? Let's, go back to the beginning. Let's let's talk about devon liddell obviously a creative guy. Well, one of my earliest memories of doing anything in this realm was ah, friend of mine who grew up on the street we usedto go in his basement and actually right average pacing jingles on dh that's sick and mail them and in all seriousness, mail them off to the companies themselves and way never sadly, ever heard back from them. But but this was back in the day when I met you, I was probably seven run seven or eight. Yeah, and s o we wouldn't you know it, right? Right these jingles and rehearse them and and everyone thought we throwing on ad concept. I've never worked in advertising, so I've lost calling there, but but jingles was a big deal for us, and that was actually one of the first experiences I remember it, and to be serious about what it was about actually was the power of language and also and also to be really transparent. The thrill of craft like it was just fun to create these things, right? And there was a hopefulness. Even though we never heard back there was a hopefulness in mailing these things off like somebody might we might actually write the next jingle for folders yet write that completely hopeless right but at seven and what there was a hopefulness there and I think actually I think that that that still is kind of inside my heart when it comes to what I'm doing now like there was always a hopefulness that what I could do could create a new and better world right? And and I'm I'm serious about that like that there is there is a hopefulness there yeah exactly yeah so seven years old writing advertising jingles and and then what was kind of what we do how would you describe the next steps towards your career? I think by the big I mean there's a little bit of a gap there probably but writing was a big part of my has been a big big part of my journey and was very interested in writing and I have work I've worked as a copywriter for many, many years so I'm I'm a little bit of a hybrid I workers of strategist but I still have ah significant portion of my time is what it is a build copywriter and and so writing has always been really important to me and I think when I got to college I majored in literature and that was an ah ha moment not from a job standpoint yet at that point but really in terms of like how dowe I understand the world how do I understand how things are connected and you know, to me like one of the ones that was I use these in classes I teach too, like moby dick, you know, like, which I never finished, you know, like over there's an irony there that I could never get my way through it, but understanding actually, the connection between moby dick is a piece of literature and actually starbucks, right? Starbucks is genesis story is from moby dick original name of the starbucks coffee company was p quad coffee and it was it was deemed unpronounceable. Yes. And so starbuck starbuck was a character in a movie critic and that's where you come from, right? If you're a music fan and you have a have a moby disc's swimming around in the discography, he draws his name from over dick because he is actually a descendant of herman melville. So yes, or he gets it's cool. So anyway, understand how the world is connected toe to each other through this story. It's through this narrative right through narratives, actually, and narrative is a is a big deal and narrative tio tio kind of poet that a little bit is that narrative is how humans transfer information that's right we are wired to do this, we weak, we transfer information through story and to ignore that it's something else I tell executives to ignore that is to ignore brain science this is how we are wired we are wired to understand the world through story so you know cramming you know with that horrible textbook you know never worked right? But when someone told you a story it did right and so that's it exactly so you know in some ways I've had to change my title I just changed the storyteller like that's what I that's what I mainly compelled to do yep yep and it works on the next connections to people and so when you're with a client and you're in the process of negotiating the opportunity the most powerful tool you can use in the moment is storytelling around how you helped others in the past not in the form of case study but in the term in the technique of story you know what it did, why I did it why was exciting how people felt about it what resulted in a very human way not any just a factual way but in a human way wait the way people felt before and after before you touch them with your imagery after you touch them with the imaging so that's the story is the key to that always has been I was thinking of the heart of every great story is is what I would call like an impossible tension to forces that cannot seemingly be resolved right? And one of the reasons I've always loved design is that that's what design was for design is for resolving impossible tensions so anything about impossible tension in aviation is between passenger comfort and operator profit you know so that those things are opposed to one another tension tension and design is what tells that narrative yes so like going on the stories going to like the photographer's perspective the one thing I think is like humans of new york like why humans of new york is so successful is because it tells the story of that person in the photo you know right that's why people I think connect to it so well like absolutely there's a story behind this person it's actually why one ad succeeds over another ad I mean you know growing up going back to the jingles that I that I failed to write successfully the you know one of the famous jingles was was for folders and they changed the story is the same didi but they changed the story inside of you know so it's like you got a big track meet today you know whatever it was you know it always change the context but it is the same narrative arc and one of the ones that was that was very famous was peter returning home from from college during the holidays and if you talk about that ad people still remember it right I mean makes your heart yeah exactly how you feel it yeah touches people yeah yeah and uh so it's interesting that a large design firm builds its way through the world by storytelling in effect that's what's happening here absolutely yeah yeah in fact one of the tools that we use is is basically a context what we call a context conflict resolution and that is the narrative arc of any story right? Some there's an introduction to something then there's something that kind of goes sideways and then we're going to resolve it somehow and how are we have resolve it and design obviously plays a big role in typically and how that's resolved the other reason I think were so invested in storytelling is that we know after having been at this for so long that actually one of the truths of design is not about design but about how the story of design has told inside an organization right? And if you can't tell an effective story you can't you can't make design happen right? Well that's actually a perfect point elwood's it's spoken up and asked if you could suggest how do people learn to tell better stories? She says she's really bad at telling stories specifically I tell boring stories that no one's interested in right? So the question is how do you develop that storytelling ability in order to better convince people that's a good idea? Yeah that's a great question I my my answer would be that is through practice right that that that's that through everything is through practice but I think thinking about things through the frameworks of context conflict resolution and a good example of this is everyone's but I had experience of someone telling them uh about a dream they had and and one of the reasons that that is such a tedious experience is that it makes no linear or narrative sense it just keeps going and going and going and going there's no actual ark to the story right just like that then I then I ran to my fifth grade teacher and then I was when I was a dog and then I was on mars I mean, it just keeps going and going and there's no there's, no structure to it so practicing around beginning middle end practicing around context conflict resolution practicing these things and putting them into into tidy narratives that I think is the boy to do that so I would I would advise her to take those stories that she thinks are boring probably not actually by the way and to re tell them in a different a different framework and you can also uh you can also buy yourself a book of great short stories that you like and then read the story and then go back and analyze okay what was the intro? What went sideways? How did the character resolve it? And then what was the result so going so literally go back you read the story, enjoy the story for being the story and then go back and put your analytical hat on and and actually analyzed his story that's a very powerful way to learn how to do stories that was fantastic. We have more than one more just like you guys were touched a little bit earlier on three circles text context and inter text. Yes, and people were wondering if you could elaborate a little bit more on those kind of ideas, especially the inter text ideas so way rhonda grew said let's see, text is your brand context is the environment around your brand and their text is competitive landscapes and consumer landscapes so brands don't exist in a vacuum that's she's totally spot on in terms of brand is the text context is that is a landscape but inter texas how that how those forces into her into relate two other consumers, other competitors the world at large and this is uh this is where it gets so fascinating, I think because that is the that is the always changing part of the equation. But yes, it is exactly the inter relationship between all three sorts lt's so then you're looking to use your earlier example sixty one percent of logos or blue is an example of that inter text where there relating to each other and people see, oh, everyone else's blue, I need to stand out, so I'm gonna go read or I need to speak fit in. So I'm going to go blue as well and a quick story on that front aisle and it's a perfect example that I worked with a bank one time when ted and I were working together, and at one at one point that we're meeting with the leadership. And, uh and it was a little uncomfortable, because we realize that actually the bank and its competitors had the same tag line and when away when I said, hey, did you know that you're using the same tag line? Is your competitors? They said, no, we're not, and we actually literally had to get up and walk out of the boardroom and walk downstairs was a main street kind of scenario, and we looked at the other bank. Is that there it is, and but that is inter text. Your text is fine it's a fine tagline it's not so great from an intra tech standpoint because that someone else is using it. Yeah, yeah, that's a great example, and in fact, that client is going to be a guest soaked through a video later to a nice he's a great client thank you, devon, that was fantastic