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Nov 24 2015

A designer is as vital as a doctor, technologist or scientist: SapientNitro's John McHale


Recently, John McHale, SapientNitro's executive creative director and global lead - experience design practice was in India for the Kyoorius Designyatra. Brand Equity caught up with him and quizzed him on how he got into experience design, the evolution of the designation and more.




Before you began working at Sapient, you were into book branding and cover design. From there to ECD and global lead of experience design at Sapient - how did you evolve into what you do today?


Book publishing was what I did right after school. When I was growing up, there were those 'Choose your own adventure' books, where you read a chapter and decided which path the characters went on next. I loved that and I saw that as the internet, something I was enamoured with the first time it happened. To me, the internet is a giant 'choose your own adventure' book, where you can just write your own path and do your own thing and explore.


I guess that's probably what experience design is. 'Explore' and 'experience' are two different words but they kind of mean the same thing for me. I taught myself HTML - that's what you had to do as a graphic designer in 1996/97. From there I went to a company called Modem Media which was the world's first digital advertising agency. I worked my way up there and got to work on some great brands and big websites. I think I was employee no. 98. But then I missed the intimacy of a family so I went from Connecticut to a small brand shop in Atlanta, Georgia and got to hone my craft a little bit more in terms of just thinking around a brand. From there I moved to another shop before Sapient happened.


I'd say my journey was like that of the tortoise and the hare - I am the tortoise, I just move along each step of the way, and eventually when it makes sense I make my next move. Nothing was calculated; I never thought I'd have a career in design. I thought I'd be selling books or music in the era of records and CDs. Everything I'm doing now is just the cherry on top of the sundae.


"I never thought I would have a career in design. I thought I would be selling books or music."


For the uninitiated, how would you define experience design? And, what does it mean to you personally?


If you really had to define it, I'd say maybe it is just creating a world for an idea to be effectively communicated down to a consumer. Take Uber for example. I need to find a car so I open up the app. That is such a perfect service, a perfect experience. I push a button, a car comes and gets me. That's experience design.


Personally, right now I'm exploring another dimension of that - the emotional side of things. What is experience design / emotional design? How can we influence somebody's emotions, or how can we put design into their hands at different states, and what are those emotional states? When we start doing that, it actually becomes much more like storytelling.


At Sapient we believe in story and technology, and I'm heavy on the story side. Let's tell stories of our brands or ideas, and really affect the consumer at the emotional side of things. And experience will naturally fall out of that. I'm actually moving emotion first, then story and then experience, and then finally technology. And I think what it does is - if you do it properly - elevate everything. It will elevate design; and it will elevate technology because you have to, a lot of times, create technologies to fulfil the ideas. So for me, emotion is a little up and front. I haven't totally though it out yet, but it's something I've been thinking a lot about.


Do you have any example of this emotional side you are talking about? Uber is not an emotional app, it's just a great service.


But you get great joy out of it, don't you? It's about the thought, "Hey, I got home safely." It removes an emotion - stress. A literal example would be something that we did for Share Happy - a machine that actually turns emotion into currency. Turns a smile - everybody smiles, wherever you are around the world - into a currency.


To answer your question: I don't know if there are examples out there yet that really exemplify what I'm looking for. But things are pulling the right lever in terms of the experiences that are close to that.


What or who are your design influences and what inspires you the most?


David Carson. Back in the day when I started design, I wasn't classically trained. I went school to play soccer and then I got into a band, so music was a heavy influence on me. The Smiths, Ride, Happy Mondays - bands that were coming out of England - really drove me probably more than design in the beginning.


And then I saw what David Carson was doing and I was, "Wow. I could probably do that." He was cutting words together and pasting them up, and newly inspired, I started designing all our flyers for the band and all our posters. So I taught myself poster design first and soon realised that I needed to understand light and space. Naturally, photography classes in school followed. That was the best I could do at that point; I was too far along in my English degree and my parents would have strangled me if I totally changed course.


Then there was a guy named Chip Kidd who was a book designer at the time. He really taught me about typography and constructing a story; because what's interesting in book design is that you have to draw in people from eight feet away (this was when you had store fronts; even those are going away). So the question was how do you design something so effective to bring them in?


And then there was Josef Muller-Brockmann, the Swiss designer. So I started with looking into these three and then tapping into others. For example, I love David Fincher (director) movies - just the way he uses mood. Every shot is a photograph and it just sets the tone. You can almost watch a David Fincher movie without words and know what's going on.


I'm also heavily influenced by music. To be totally truthful, I couldn't tell you a lot about leading edge designers. I'm in a place right now where my design sense is formed and I'm not designing a lot anymore. I'm leading design at Sapient; I want to see what the designers there are doing and then feed off of that, because they've got their fingers on the pulse so much more than I.


I respect RG/A, I respect AKQA, I respect Huge, but I couldn't tell you a lot of what they're doing. If you ask me what designers affect me or affected me, I have to go back 20 years or so to where I was actually being more affected in terms of my craft.


"By not being classically trained, I think I never fell into something structured and I was able to bounce around and pick up little things."


So you've pretty much taught yourself everything you know. You don't have a degree in design?


No. It was something I was actually ashamed of for a long time because I thought you had to have a degree to be legitimate in a field. Now I'm getting more and more comfortable with the fact that I'm not. I feel like I'm more of a child, a product of the things that I've experienced. I'm an experience designer probably because I'm a product of those things.


By not being classically trained, I think I never fell into something structured and I was able to bounce around and pick up little things. Almost like a sound wave - just picking up things wherever I moved. I'm kind of a free thinker in picking things up.


India hasn't fully risen to the potential of experience design, especially in digital agencies which are coming up in a big way. How important or not is it for agencies to consider an experience designer? India is so diverse, so the experiences are also diverse; there's no one size fits all. Where do you think an experience designer would fit into all that?


I think there is tremendous potential because when I was starting out, technology was changing rapidly and it was blinding in the beginning. It was always, "Oh my god, what is this? Okay woah, now we've got touchscreen. Now we have the thing that you can stand on and it moves you around." I think maybe now, young designers that are coming up have seen that, so they're starting out with a better baseline that we did. They're used to that kind of pace. They're born into technology.


If a totally new experience comes around that we don't know about, like Google Glass or something, they are conditioned to be more responsive than I think my generation was. They are able to recognise a new experience and its potential - I think much quicker than we could. Things like the iPhone and its potential with health and really being in the backing of people's lives and providing a lot of value - I think they understand that much faster.


I think that India has a leg up compared to the rest of the world because they're starting with that whole wealth of knowledge and are more accustomed to things changing.


I would be really excited to be here. The outlook is, "A lot of stuff has been written for me already, now what can I do next?"


"Design is not science, it is not technology; it is actually art, a craft."


Do you have a 'you' in SapientNitro's India offices?


Do I have a 'me'? Yeah, Sachin [Patil]. The way he looks at experience is different. He walked through Nepal or some place for two months just to figure out what space meant. I don't want to paraphrase him because I was so blown away by what he was saying, but he said that everything was within 15 feet of him and he wanted to get out of that.


When you talk design in India, let's begin with just whatever you see around you on roads, malls, airports. What did you think?


I'll tell you about when I was getting off the plane. I was just following random red arrows with nothing else. All the time I was thinking, "I hope I'm going in the right direction." Figuring out user experience in terms of getting around places needs to be priority.


If you look at Swiss design (and yes, that affected my career too), in Amsterdam or Switzerland, the signage design is so elegant. The Tube in London, streets signs on highways, etc. are so clean. The type is chosen specifically so that it's easy to understand and read. That's where I think you need to start and then build on it; start with infrastructure. But I can't comment on that, you guys have much more experience.


In terms of generalities, the potential here is amazing.


"A designer is as important as a doctor, a technologist or a scientist. Be proud of it, embrace it."


In a marketplace like India where we're waking up to the possibility of a designation such as yours existing, what would you say would be the typical qualifications of a person who's looking to be one?


Design is so new that I hope it's not discouraged as a practice, not frowned upon. Somebody said to me that finally India is culturally accepting that.


It's not science, not technology, it's actually art; it's a craft. And people have to recognise that - it's actually a very important thing and it's amazing the impact it has on people's lives. Take the iPhone for example and look what it's doing for people, what it's done for the world. It could be said the device has actually changed the world.


I think that, whoever they may be, the people of this country need to understand that a designer is as important as a doctor, a technologist or a scientist. When I got married I had to tell my father-in-law, "I'm going to be a designer. I'm not going to be a lawyer, I'm not going to be a doctor; I'm going to be designer."


I think that people have to be brave. Embrace it and be proud of it as a craft. A certain pride needs to manifest itself in your ability to speak up and say, "I want to learn and take risks." And if you're trying to push design, don't be afraid to be criticised.


You have to be proud of who you are and be okay to make mistakes and to learn. These are traits that I look for in people - their willingness to take positive criticism and work with that. I think when you have the right leaders, it's amazing what you can do with someone who's willing to learn. Somebody who is not as talented compared to others, but their willingness to learn is better, will surpass inherent talent.


"When I used to hire people, I looked at typographical skills. I didn't care if they knew Photoshop."


In a typical resume that comes to you, what are the qualifications you look at?


When I used to hire people, I looked at typography - we want typographical skills. I didn't care if they knew Photoshop. I went for people who understood type, space, colour theory - like what went together - and when you put that all together, how the composition comes together. It may not ever come together in, say, something like Photoshop. I couldn't care less what programs you know, I really don't. It's about how your work looks and if you understand what you're doing. Some of that can be taught, but not all.


Back in the day when the internet was really getting started, people were designing so many things in Photoshop. They were using Photoshop as the craft, and then it became a crutch for people and they forgot actually what to do. I used to call them Photoshop designers; they weren't graphic designers, and I would not hire them.


Originally published on economictimes.indiatimes.com

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About Sapient

Sapient, part of Publicis.Sapient, is a global services company that helps clients transform in the areas of business, marketing, and technology. The company operates three divisions that enable clients to gain a competitive advantage and succeed in an increasingly digital world. SapientNitro, Sapient Global Markets, and Sapient Government Services fuse insight, creativity, and technology to drive innovation and to help clients navigate complex business problems. Our approach is the subject of case studies used by MBA programs at Harvard and Yale. The company has operations in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. For more information, visit http://www.sapient.com.