Oct 28, 2023
Pip Tompkin is the Chief Design Officer for the ThreeSixty Group. Pip hails from Nottingham, England. After graduating with top honors in Industrial Design from Northumbria University, he earned a Master's from The Royal College of Art. Pip's illustrious career spans Europe, Asia, and the US, collaborating with industry leaders including Microsoft, Dell, HP, Vizio, Polycom, Twitter and Nokia. In 2008, he founded Pip Tompkin Design Studio in Los Angeles, renowned for groundbreaking products and brands. Pip's commitment to sustainable design is exemplified by partnerships like Lettuce Grow, revolutionizing food production. In 2018, both his studio and startup, Mr Pip, were acquired by ThreeSixty Group, propelling Pip's vision for a transformative future.
We caught up with Pip at his Mid-century house in Bel Air, Los Angeles, where he takes time out of his busy schedule to talk about the state of design and business in the age of AI and generative technologies.
Loft: You have led multiple Design organizations and have been a globally recognized Design leader for 3 decades. How have product design experiences evolved while critical technologies are being redefined?
Pip Tompkin: Reflecting on the evolution of technology and its impact on design, I have lived through a fascinating time in Design history. I identify three distinct eras that have profoundly influenced the consumer world. First there was the Apple Era: This era marked a pivotal moment in Design history. Previously, while many might have known the importance of Design, it was during this time that its significance was genuinely realized. Apple showcased how prioritizing User Experience and Design can revolutionize consumer engagement. This approach drastically changed the design industry, highlighting how Design could be leveraged to create superior products. The value of design was suddenly understood by business and taken seriously. It changed the way that we were able to leverage Design to make better products. Many businesses began to implement similar strategies, with real success. Then there was the Startup Era: with technological advancements and the ubiquity of smartphones, there was a surge in startups. We all had computers in our pockets. These companies aimed to harness the potential of technology, particularly the capabilities of modern cell phones, to integrate it further into our daily lives. However, it appears to have sadly petered out over the past few years. And the reason why I think it’s petered out has to do with the third era, which is the Era of the ‘ers’. What I mean by this; it’s a shift towards products which are primarily cheaper and faster. This is a direct result of online shopping triggering a significant shift where consumers now prioritize cost and swift delivery over Design and experience. There is a drive to move away from the Big Idea and towards risk adverse incremental change which includes a range of other brief driving ‘ers’ such as; thinner, bigger, smaller, longer, shorter and nicer. This has truly left an indelible mark on Design and innovation. This change poses a challenge for the Design profession, as the emphasis on innovation seems to have taken a backseat. Consequently, companies have become more operations driven, emphasizing cost-efficiency and speedy market entry. This has exerted immense pressure on the Design process. Amidst these shifts, the technological tools available to designers have also evolved. There's been a strong push for designers to expedite their processes, and the industry has provided us with advanced rendering, CAD, and prototyping tools, helping to meet the business needs of bringing products quicker to market. However, a glaring concern is that, despite these faster tools, designers still need time to contemplate. The rapid pace is compromising innovation, which I feel has decreased compared to earlier in my career.
Loft: Would you agree that Amazon, through services like AWS and its accessible store platform, has democratized delivery and created a level playing field for many, even though this has both positive and negative implications?
Pip: Certainly, the democratization of the product world has its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, it has made manufacturing accessible to many, offering unprecedented opportunities to designers. Today, designers not only craft products but are also at the helm of companies, which wasn't as commonplace at the beginning of my career. However, this democratization presents challenges. There's a palpable hesitation among some companies to invest heavily in design and innovation due to concerns about swift replication, often by the very factories they partner with for manufacturing. This makes it challenging for businesses to see a clear return on investment. Additionally, the industry's emphasis on achieving the highest product review ratings has inadvertently stifled innovation. Companies fear taking risks with novel products or extending functionalities, as any negative feedback can substantially impact sales. I've observed that many products now focus exclusively on a single function, avoiding any additional features that could potentially detract from its core performance and subsequently its reviews. This hyper-focus on maintaining high ratings has led to a cycle of iterations over true innovation. Comparing this to the early days of my career, and the earlier Eras where innovation was sort after and rewarded. However, that drive seems diminished now, overshadowed by the pursuit of perfect 5-star reviews.
Loft: The designers of the world in 2023 are much more brand creators, because a brand ultimately goes beyond the 5-star review. It gives you the longevity of consumer engagement that people yearn for. How important is the visual DNA of a brand, the Visual Brand Language? What's the best way to communicate it to the world and your Design team?
Pip: I think investment in brands is critical. Certainly, in this shifting landscape, brands will play a pivotal role. They'll not only symbolize trust and quality but also align with the broader narrative of sustainability and environmental responsibility. I believe there'll be a resurgence in the value of trusted brands. Consumers will lean towards brands that inspire confidence, ensuring that their purchases are worthwhile. Moreover, there's a growing global consciousness about pressing issues like environmental concerns, climate change, and the increasing frequency of natural disasters. This heightened awareness will likely drive consumers to prefer quality over quantity. The inclination will be towards investing in products that not only serve their purpose efficiently but also last longer, reducing wastage. These are some of the key tenants we are developing here at the ThreeSixty Group, and their associated brands.
Loft: As a designer, you seem to focus not just on a single product but on an entire product line, roadmap, and the essence of the product you create. How do you effectively convey this holistic vision to the public? Specifically, how do you integrate this narrative into aspects like packaging, the unboxing experience, and marketing communications? What's your strategy or unique approach in ensuring this cohesive communication?
Pip: Throughout my experience, I've come to realize the importance of flexibility when establishing a brand's DNA. It's essential not to define it so rigidly that there's no room for evolution. Given the unpredictable nature of our world, it's paramount to design brands and their core essence in a way that is adaptable and future-proof. In response to the question, my approach is straightforward. I believe the essence of brands and their DNA emerges from collective discussions and a shared vision among a team. Instead of visual elements, I perceive a brand's DNA as a guiding philosophy. This philosophy serves as the foundational idea or direction we aim for. When you trace back to the origins of influential brands, you'll often find it rooted in someone's vision that has grown and evolved over time. By viewing DNA as a philosophy rather than just visual elements, it provides the flexibility for the brand to evolve and adapt with changing times. This perspective, which I've adopted after some hard lessons, ensures that the brand remains relevant and resilient in an ever-changing landscape.
Loft: Great insights! How do you define the idea that will become the nucleus for a brand?
Pip: When it comes to crafting a brand's DNA, I've frequently been approached with specific requests or questions about the visual attributes, like the color, shape, or design elements. However, I believe that defining a brand in this way is not the correct starting point. These attributes are merely the end manifestation of a brand's core essence and philosophy. It's essential to ensure that a brand remains flexible and adaptable, allowing for potential evolution or even significant changes in direction. This adaptability is crucial, especially when responding to significant shifts or trends in the world. Several companies that failed to grasp this concept and remained rigid in their branding have often faced challenges in remaining relevant and resonant with their target audience.
Loft: After years of promoting designers into the C-suite, corporate boardrooms have shed the power of Design in recent years. Fancy language and esoteric methodologies have sometimes obscured the fact that a new design strategy would never scale, or design objectives could not align with the company's strategic goals. Can you talk about the best examples of how to empower Design in large organizations?
Pip: Certainly, Design deserves a significant place in the C-suite of a forward-thinking organization. Losing Design leadership in higher positions in organizations is linked to the Era of the ‘ers’. Companies emphasize operations and short-term sales, often resulting in an undervaluation of Design leadership. This approach can be detrimental, as it may sideline genuine innovation and long-term vision. Design leadership offers a unique vantage point. Not only can we ensure that we don't get too inward-focused, but we can also champion broader considerations such as environmental sustainability and global trends. Furthermore, having Design representation in leadership can act as a valuable counterpoint, fostering robust debates and ensuring diverse perspectives. In essence, integrating Design into the C-suite is not just beneficial but might be imperative for the sustained growth and relevance of organizations. Designers, inherently, are strategic thinkers. They aren't just concerned about the immediate product but also focus on the organizations brand and future trajectory. This includes understanding the underlying philosophy and its manifestation, not just in the present but also in the context of 5 or 10 years ahead. Such long-term planning shouldn't be limited to sales figures but should encompass a broader vision of where the organization wants and should be.
Loft: Speaking of Design leaders: Jony Ives famously just partnered up with Open AI and SoftBank to build the “iPhone of the AI age.” What is the role of the designer not only to leverage but also shape the narrative around generative AI and other evolving technologies?
Pip: The true implications of AI remain uncertain for many. While some envision the worst-case scenarios, I believe AI will carve out its own niche and prove invaluable across multiple fields, including Design. My perception is that AI has the potential to automate certain repetitive or tedious aspects of the Design process. This could, in turn, provide designers with more time for thoughtful deliberation, something particularly vital given the often-tight developmental cycles we face today. However, one area where AI might find challenges, and where design excels, is in the ability to ask the "what if" question and create true paradigm shifts. Designers are naturally predisposed to challenge the status quo and explore alternative directions. This kind of imaginative and divergent thinking might be a hurdle for AI to emulate fully. Still, in many ways, AI has already become an instrumental part of our toolkit, aiding in refining ideas and serving as a sort of additional team member that can provide insights swiftly and with depth. Its potential applications, from designing safer infrastructure to developing advanced medicines, hint at a brighter future. Embracing the opportunities AI offers is essential, and while some may harbor reservations about technology, I've always viewed it as a beacon of opportunity and advancement. I see a strong longer-term vision in Augmented Reality (AR) to replace the current smartphone age. Unlike the confines of the traditional phone's form factor, AR breaks the physical limitations, enabling users to have expansive digital interfaces that coexist seamlessly with their surroundings. This potential has attracted significant investments, with many believing AR could revolutionize the way technology influences our daily lives, much like mobile apps did in the era of smartphones. However, the AR interface presents its unique set of challenges. Designing intuitive, immersive experiences in a fully virtual space isn't straightforward. Despite this, I believe rapid advancements in this domain will make AR experiences increasingly seamless and intuitive. An interesting aspect of AR's potential is its capacity to reintegrate technology into our immediate environment. While smartphones have undeniably made distant communication easier, they've also inadvertently distanced us from our immediate surroundings and communities. AR, existing at the intersection of the digital and the physical, offers a promise of restoring some of this lost balance by blending our online interactions with our tangible world.
To conclude: I believe we are not far from the next Era, an Era that will involve AR. The future benefits of AI and AR will allow us to pivot many products and services into the digital realm. This will satisfy the new thirst for cheaper and faster. A download will always be quicker than a delivery and digital is always cheaper than tooling. Replacing physical with digital where possible will help us reduce our dependance on material needs to help us create a more sustainable future. I also predict that in this next Era, there will be a resurgence in usability, innovation, and design as we embrace the added dimension and complexity Augmented reality brings.
It’s exciting times ahead for design. As a profession we constantly tell businesses they need to reinvent themselves. However, we must ask ourselves, how are we reinvent ourselves for what the next Era brings?
Loft: Thanks for your incredible candid insights and perspectives! Looking forward to your next designs.
Oct 28, 2023