Command the high ground

Commanding view

Strategy, from the Greek stratēgos, describes the “commander’s field of view.”

Strategy requires designers to seek the high ground. Survey the terrain. Study the topography. Find the blind spots.

Obstacles always surround your goal. The best strategy pinpoints and anticipates them.

sipsd course goals

Students in SVA’s Interaction Design masters program encounter strategy as the critical front-end to more effective design. This goes well beyond designing a product. Too often the best product is not the best solution. “Strategic Innovation in Product & Service Design” (SIPSD) seeks to avert that common flaw.

Strategic Innovation In Product & Service Design

SVA’s IxD faculty draws exclusively from New York’s busy working professionals. It’s a demanding crowd, with little time to waste.

A 15-week syllabus of 3-hour sessions introduced the class of 2015 to strategic innovation with a summer prework assignment.

sipsd syllabusI was fortunate to inherit the program from a brilliant (I use the term sparingly) strategist, technologist and entrepreneur, John Zapolski. His Fonderie 47 serves as an inspiration for this course.

As an instructional designer early in my career I saw a different angle of approach, and redesigned the course with Jared Richardson, the exceptional (I toss that one around a bit more flagrantly) head of design – then for The Velo Group, and now his own studio.

(Please note that for the past several years I have taught this course with  Criswell Lappin, creative chief at Scrollmotion, while Jared explores the sleepless joys of first-round parenting.)

genesis roger jaredJared and I share an intertwining trajectory through the field of design and innovation. We like to think we represent the commercial and creative yin and yang required to bring new products, services, brands and businesses to life.

Jared studied and became an award-winning designer in his native New Zealand. I don’t want to underplay this accomplishment, but on arrival in London he discovered how much was left to master. Beneficent sadists from the Royal College of Art honed Jared’s design chops and hardened his resolve.

He swapped London for New York to specialize in design for both brand and innovation, leading two of New York’s première studios in each genre before launching the Velo Group with his former partner Odine Bonthrone. Jared also brings war stories and well-licked wounds as a co-founder of  gliider, an online travel intermediary. Three words. Timing. Is. Everything.

Jared rocca

Jared demonstrates the end game by walking through a simple but effective innovation strategy, the Rocca for Illy. During his tenure as studio chief for Fahrenheit 212, Jared led the design for this concept.

Rocca Idea

Consumer Need: Customers expect the same deep, lustrous coffee in hot weather that they know from illy’s gourmet hot coffees year-round.
Technical Problem: Ice dilutes coffee, watering down the customer experience.
Commercial Opportunity: Ice coffee produces outsized margins at 40% higher than hot coffee alternatives.

Rocca promotes new growth for the famous but stagnant Italian coffee equipment manufacturer, by reconfiguring existing assets to serve unmet demand.

Rocca solution

The Solution: the Rocca dispenses rich cubes of frozen coffee, serving the consumer need while capturing the commercial opportunity. It mines growth from existing assets with accretive margins. This innovation proved to private equity investors the latent  brand and asset potential laying dormant within in the legacy business.

And The Students Become the Masters

Jared’s preview then shifts to the students. We allot them each 5 minutes to stand and deliver their prework assignment. It’s one thing to stand behind your design. It’s another to stand in front of your strategy.

SIPSD Prework

Air New Zealand’s Sky Couch, an economical breakthrough in long distance air travel.

sipsd students 1 sipsd students 2 sipsd students 3

Students selected and deconstructed the underlying strategy for a sample product or service they admire. This year’s popular “products” were more often services, with multiple citations for Airbnb and Uber.

Jeff treadmill

Jeffrey Gochman braved the waters as our first volunteer, presenting a rough first cut at his passion to reduce childhood obesity by influencing early lifestyles.

Jeff’s initial idea: a programmable treadmill. In the weeks ahead, Jeff pushed beyond simple product innovation.

His final innovation strategy presented a beautifully realized method to recruit concerned parents to motivate and mobilize lethargic children.

Leroy Tellez may have cried a little.

Melody Quintana professes her love for Uber.

Melody Quintana professes her love for Uber.

SamW skycouch

(Conspicuous by their absence, Sam made no mention of traveling companions.)

Appropriately surnamed globetrotter Sam Wander described the joys of Air New Zealand’s wondrous Sky Couch, the mile high double bed depicted above.

Amy Wu, our tireless teaching assistant, described the strategy behind Soccket, a Kickstarter-funded soccer ball for the developing world. Its internal gyroscopic turbine generates electricity through play. When children retire from the field for the night, their own kinetic energy powers a light source to enable them to read and study.

Amy Wu Soccket

Guest lecturers punctuated the syllabus with the tough trade-offs they confront daily in their careers.

jojo slinkySVA Alum JoJo Glick shared some of the challenges of her research for Johnson & Johnson in India.

listerine timelineJoJo also took us on a tour across the century of innovations that transformed Listerine from a topical antiseptic to the bane of halitosis.

LKK challenge

godiva beijingLori Kien Kotcher described her imperatives as Chief Marketing Officer of one of the world’s preeminent chocolatiers. She illustrated the goals and method behind the renovation of Godiva’s retail strategy and in-store experience.

megan fath

Megan Fath described Conifer’s immersive user-centered approach to ethnographic research. (Megan has since become an important member of the SVA faculty in a related MFA Design program, and she leads design research for Doblin’s New York practice.).

Anthropologist Dr. Linda Aïnouche, PhD described highlights of her field studies into the influence of Indian expatriates on the beliefs, values and hair preferences of Jamaica.

Linda convenes with subjects of her study: the influence of Indian expatriates on the beliefs, values and hairstyles of Jamaica.

Anthropologist Dr. Linda Aïnouche, PhD described the field research she performed into Jamaica’s cultural mash-up that informed her documentary, Dreadlocks Story. She also elaborated on a case study of her research to improve health care for at-risk teens in Montreal.

cliff VAS

Cliff Dank shared the VAS model employed by tech recruiters Elm Talent and Goldsmith Group. He turns the conventional recruiting equation on its head. Cliff taught us to optimize for Values first — difficult to change and disruptive when misaligned. Then assess Abilities — the capacity to learn and evolve new talents. Last and surprisingly least, test for skills — the fungible commodities that resumés typically highlight.

Trent Thompson regaled Matt Brigante and Leroy Tellez with his minimalist response to the design challenge to “bring nature indoors”. He opened a window and coaxed in a neighboring tree branch.

Trent Thompson regaled Matt Brigante and Leroy Tellez with his minimalist response to the design challenge to “bring nature indoors”. He opened a window and coaxed in a neighboring tree branch.

The program concludes with students’ opus presentations. Each must convey a thorough strategy to solve a design problem that matters to them personally.

The class critiqued each presentation in real time. Students judged one another’s effectiveness in addressing 10 questions – from profiling the user to specifying the need, from the design of a multi-faceted solution, to the brand, channel, and business strategies.

sipsd scores

Based on her colleagues’ scoring, the bronze medal went to Michie Cao.

sipsd michie roomr cover

Michie introduced Roomr, “an organizational app for shared spaces.”

Sipsd michie clarasipsd michie vanessa

Michie profiled several users who shared the problem of distributing responsibilities among living companions – from college roommates divvying up the dishes, to moms making sure that unruly kids make their beds.

sipsd michie attributes

She compared Roomr’s market positioning to the diagnosed need and competing alternatives. She mapped them against the attributes framework first introduced by INSEAD Professors W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne, authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, in their pivotal Harvard Business Review article “Creating New Market Space.”

sipsd michie UI

Roomr exhibits IxD best practices with a clean, intuitive interface and clear communications rubric.

sipsd michie 10 types

It also activates six of Larry Keeley’s Ten Types of InnovationTM, building a level of sophistication that makes it hard for competitors to copy.

First runner up Sam Wander, a remarkable thinker and designer, sought nothing less ambitious than the social reinvention of the insurance industry.

sipsd samw goalSam acted on Clayton Christensen’s observation that disruptive innovations typically enter at the cheap end of the market, where sparse competition allows room to rapidly evolve below the market’s radar. (This approach aligns with the lessons of “invasive species” according to polymath Henry King.)

Sam’s solution promises a community-based insurance pool to protect against the loss or damage to smart phones.

SIPSD SamW 5E.jpg

Sam cleverly defined the 5 Es of the user experience, describing how to entice new entrants into the insurance market, impress them upon entry, engage them with his solution, and design an exit that encourages them to extend their relationship into a subscription business model.

If any of the solutions has a chance to fundamentally disrupt and transform a market, it would be Sam’s. He missed the gold only because the ambition and complexity of the challenge kept him from envisioning a complete and branded solution.

sipsd samc upstandSam Carmichael took the gold. He earned the top-rated innovation strategy with the most fully-realized concept.

Sam served a user he knows well – himself. A tall man with an ambition to design standing up, Sam crafted, prototyped and demonstrated The UpStand, a flat-packed standing desk accessory priced affordably in range of his fellow design students. Sam already has plans to fund the balance of his education with the proceeds from UpStand sales.

As venture capitalists know, the more tangible the concept, the easier to gauge, and the lower the risk adjustment. More Tangible = More Predictable = More Valuable.

Sam received the first of two awards — the magnum of champagne with which he toasts his colleagues below right.

(Note that Sam teamed with classmate Mikey Chen in the next semester to bring the Upstand to life on Kickstarter. You can purchase your own at I’m standing at mine even now, and love it.)  

sipsd samc cheers

Competition winner Sam Carmichael stands tall, beaming beardedly at right.


Sneha received a crystal skull of Canadian vodka inspired by her hard-headed assessments.

The second and in some ways more important award went to Sneha Pai. Sneha’s strategy was well received, no more than by her mother, whose painfully compressed feet have spent decades trodding San Francisco’s hills in fruitless search for a wider pair of shoes. But Sneha’s award recognized her braver contribution, as the student who posted the hardest scores of her fellows. It’s not easy to offer a harsh critique. Applied objectively and wisely, it’s a generous gift.

Well done Sneha. It’s cruel to be kind.

The class of 2015 broke new ground. Jared and I learned as much from 19 exceptional students as we could hope to teach. Their experience informs the redesign of SIPSD for next fall’s incoming class.

Thanks to the class of 2015. Take the high ground.

sipsd thank youAnd finally, a special shout out to Mikey Chen‘s father, whose daring international bicycling misadventures inspired his son to conceive a safer bicycle signaling system – and an àpropos bon voyage to a very promising crew of interaction designers.

Keep an eye out for them.

Make Better.

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