Thinker, Maker, Hacker, Faker: DNA as Destiny

Design capability emerges from our origin stories. What’s yours?

Organizations increasingly seek to enhance their destinies by employing the methods of design and innovation. But what do they mean by “design”?

Design covers a broad spectrum of intentions and methods, especially when applied to the equally amorphous term of innovation. Consider the origin stories of the practitioners to better understand their perspectives and capabilities. Biases from birth can last a lifetime.

thinker maker

At risk of oversimplifying, design shops and innovation professionals come in four flavors: Thinkers, Makers, Hackers and Fakers. You can plot them according to their inputs (inferred from secondary data, or driven by primary and fact-based sources), and their outputs (abstractions to provide direction, or tangible outputs to address a specific need).

None of these should be considered necessarily better or worse. Just horses for courses. Assess them according to their methods and outcomes. Select them based on their fit for your needs.

Thinkers formulate strategy

Thinkers infer need from the available data. The more specific the challenge, the more likely the data sources are to be sparse, unreliable or only tangentially related. But the growing pool of big data, and analytic tools both inside and beyond parent companies, make it easier than ever to spot valuable trends.

trend analysis cubeDo as Thinkers do. Find two or more trends. Intersect them. Postulate new needs to emerge at the junction. Ponder innovations to serve those needs.

Try a thought experiment. (1) You know that the developed world is growing older, on average. (2) You know that the already dangerous wealth gap between haves and have-nots continues to widen. And (3) you know that climate change threatens to shift weather patterns, putting strained ecosystems in harm’s way. What happens at the intersection of any pair of these trends? What happens when all three converge?

Consider a simple commercial example. You are the CEO of MouseEx Ltd. Your board demands growth. So you need to find new places and ways to sell more mouse traps.

Thinkers might plot surging population densities from mass-urbanization and cross it with technical advances in sanitation. The intersection reveals likely markets where big infestations will occur in the future, and where economics and social mores will demand more and better mousetraps. Shanghai today; next quarter, Mexico City; next year Mumbai. And if you let your Thinkers unleash their industrial designers, they may even offer some visions for innovative new solutions.


Doblin, now an innovation strategy boutique within Monitor/Deloitte, originated in the late 1970s as the commercial brainchild of the mid-century New York industrial design leader, Jay Doblin. Doblin’s methods still serve as the foundation for the curriculum at Chicago’s Institute of Design. His consulting practice led the development of “design strategy” as it was then called – applying design methods to identify emerging demand, and then prototype new offerings to win those markets.

Twenty years ago with Jay’s passing, his Doblin Group partner Larry Keeley recognized that “design” was perceived in the C-suite as tradecraft; the aftermath of their work – building tangible prototypes – was undervalued and so carried a lower price tag. Even into the early 1990s the commercial press had not yet recognized design as a distinct innovation competence.

&draftsmen 1955There were islands of design. Architects had always been celebrated for their combined craft, design as the creative corollary to science of engineering. Design distinguished a small and now iconic cluster of mid-century product manufacturers like Steelcase, Olivetti, Whirlpool, and Ford. But the appreciation for design ended there. If the company didn’t house rows of apprentices scratching away at drafting tables, they did not practice design. In almost every other industry sector, particularly those without a tangible product—services like banking, noncompetitive sectors like utilities and government, and the pre-internet IT providers—essential design principles wouldn’t be acknowledged for another decade.

And of course, design still eludes most companies. But you know that. And you’re reminded every time you crumple indecipherable instructions, or struggle to press the right button, pull a door that demands a push, or can’t navigate arcane screens.

In short, the market was not yet ready for design. Keeley moved Doblin’s team away from “making” designed solutions in favor of providing strategic direction, and drove up the value and rates for Doblin services. Over time they evolved sophisticated methods and metrics to enhance their offering, fairly characterized today as “innovation strategy”.

Strategos, Global Business Network and numerous other firms offer alternate ways to gain insight and direct strategy from trend analysis. The major strategy firms – McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Bain and Booz Allen all experimented with design and innovation offerings through the late 20th century, and their surviving practices largely inhabit the Thinker quadrant.

Makers build solutions

Frog Design and IDEO propelled public awareness of design with the emergence of consumer technologies from “Silicon Valley 1.0 – The Hardware Era”. At the same time, Xerox PARC crafted the graphical user interface that made a pointer – AKA “mouse” – essential. These came together in the markets and in our collective consciousness thanks to the Apple Macintosh and continues in the Bay area, not just with Jonny Ive’s work at Apple, but specialty agencies like fuseproject.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, Continuum in Boston was designing new medical implements, Smart Design in New York brought OXO to our kitchens, and Gravity Tank and MNML in Chicago made real everything from early Motorola phones to recent Kickstarter-funded wearables. This category also includes architecture firms who have delved into the innovation space. Eight and OMA, for example, extend beyond designing spaces to designing experiences.

Product Design 4 Samples

These are the makers – the industrial designers at their vocation. If you can hold it today, it was conceived and prototyped yesterday by a product designer at places like these. Engineers and Architects – when designing from a blank page – employ the same method.

Industrial design sits at the heart of all disciplined innovation. You will find it practiced – in some form, however bastardized – in all four design quadrants.

Hackers code tools

Simultaneous with hardware makers, designers at Xerox PARC launched the next generation of human:computer interface. The GUI (graphical computer interface) demanded the formulation of emergent sciences of UX (user experience) and gave way to fields such as IxD (interaction design) as taught at SVA (School of Visual Arts in Manhattan) among other institutions.

As you can tell here, the coders’ credo involves lots of acronyms. It was as true at IBM and the US Department of Defense historically as it is in today’s digital design agencies.

GUI UX 1981

Many of the surviving Hacker firms were born in the maelstrom of the first dotcom bubble – scrambling to build websites and e-businesses as retailers became e-tailers and publishers e-published or perished. The move from bricks to clicks became its own behemoth category of innovation – AKA digital innovation. These agencies arose to fill that void; some brilliantly, many more less so. Kettle serves as an example of one success story.

ux map - betterbox

Accenture’s acquisition of Fjord offered some credibility for the legacy big systems integrator in this contemporary and more nimble, user-centered domain. TCS Innovation Labs represent Tata Consulting’s answer in this arena. Dig around any of the big systems integrators. If you find appealing sites, user-friendly screens or cool apps, rest assured there’s a shiny new design lab somewhere in their midst.

Fakers tell stories

At first blush, “faker” might seem pejorative – until you come to appreciate the valuable market position it holds. Fakers are the storytellers. They spin yarns about how the future might work. And in so doing, when equipped with smart, dedicated teams, they can often help to bring about that future.

This unique class of innovators owe their origins to late 20th century advertising agencies. They are the surviving in-house legacy groups or the spin-outs and cast-aways from the sinking ships of the media meltdown in the 1990s. As traditional publishing moved to digital platforms, the vast ad agencies – many who had grown fat and complacent on their lucrative media buying cartel – stood by helplessly as their cash cow wandered into the internet slaughterhouse. They scrambled to produce new, relevant offerings, often in the name of innovation.

For agencies who failed to catch the shift, their top talent moved across the street to set up shop. They recast their creative skills as “strategic innovators”. Most were neither strategic nor innovative. But a few set the stage for a new kind of agency.

IPG formed their Media Lab in this space. Omnicom launched Sparks & Honey. Fahrenheit 212 spun out of Saatchi & Saatchi. Toronto’s Idea Couture similarly mixes the creative team with marketing and tech competencies (although polymath founder Idris Mootee styles his firm as more strategic, he also serves as Chief Marketing Officer for HTC.) London’s Bow & Arrow came together from the creative legacy of ad agency BBH.

Like their ad agency forebears, Fakers cultivate the essential talents of storytelling. The shared DNA shows up everywhere. Both types of agency rely on compelling narrative. Both employ PR to elevate their caché, placing a premium on their reputation for “cool”. They often attract talent with playful work spaces (with an unfortunately high kitsch-tolerance). What If?! refit a 19th century German immigrant dispensary in New York’s East Village, and a dairy barn/recording studio in North London.


In fact if you scour the alleys of Islington, or the mews anywhere within stumbling radius of Shoreditch House, you’ll find that East Central London serves as a hotbed in this quadrant, partly because sexy 80s ad agencies wooed top talent from UK schools. Today’s same graduates opt for the tech and finance sectors.

These firms trade in the creative interpretation of possibility. Working from hypotheses, they encourage teams to “fake it ’til you make it.” Their narrow focus on the well-understood and over-served consumer sector allows them to offer highly reliable adjacent innovations. The next flavor of sugar water, a novel packaging solution, a clever service bundle, a branding exercise – all can be drawn from secondary research and validated by focus group – the methods and means of advertisers.

Madman blood pulses through Faker veins. These innovators just shifted the game – from telling consumers a compelling story about today’s product – to tell clients a compelling story about their next product.

In the right context, these agencies offer a winning blend of creative and commercial talents, and open their clients’ eyes to new possibilities.

Crossing Borders

This simple characterization unfairly stereotypes each of the firms represented above. A more accurate depiction would plot agencies in irregular ellipses across this 2×2 framework.

thinker maker sample logos

McKinsey’s acquisition of Lunar, for example, extends them from extreme top-left to allow them to play at bottom right – a thinker/maker hybrid. R/GA started as an ad agency but moved into the early web, successfully inhabiting the faker/hacker digital storyteller axis.

The Big 4 Accounting consultancies hope to cross categories. Deloitte’s colocation of Doblin with Deloitte Digital moves them across the top two quadrants: thinker/hacker. You’ll find parallels at PwC, EY and KPMG.

M&A is risky in any sector. Consulting presents a particularly sensitive business model. Cultures matter more in machines made of meat.

Grafting foreign DNA onto a host may produce a successful hybrid. It may also provoke rejection or worse – a dysfunctional Frankenfirm that plods along as its limbs slough off. It takes a very special kind of host to adapt to their new members.

The prospect of a successful acquisition always appears tempting. Expect continuing merger announcements. Many will flounder, but surprising new chimeras will emerge and a few will flourish.

So while oversimplification can mislead, it helps to understand origins. Only when you begin working with a design firm – as a colleague or a client – can you appreciate the subtle distinctions in focus and approach.

Caveat emptor: when you’re in the business of making hammers, all problems start to look like nails. More importantly, everyone looks like an ill-equipped carpenter.

Choose your partners wisely. Learn their origin stories.

Make Better

Please leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s