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You call yourself a “second-generation creative director.” What did your family teach you about design or creativity? Design is in my DNA, as my father was a creative director at an advertising agency in Pittsburgh, and my mother was a soft sculpture artist who made toys like puppets and clowns for children. Having an upbringing with creative parents helped me see that even the newest technology isn’t much different from a pencil. If you have nothing to say and nothing to communicate, it’s not going create anything that affects people.

My parents also taught me that it’s the hard work that goes into those ideas that matters. Growing up in Pittsburgh, a city full of blue-collar people, was also a large part of this. I came to understand that even creativity needs a strong work ethic to be successful.

What have you learned about branding from your years working in large corporations like Citi and Starwood Hotels? I’ve learned to build brands that people hate—and I know this answer will get a lot of really confused looks. You need to build a brand that is strong enough and well-defined enough that people will be drawn to it and identify with it. But this also means that some people will not identify with the brand.

I see a lot of old-guard brands that want to appeal to everyone. I think that’s a trap. You need to understand what you are—and also what you’re not. The clearer you are and the stronger your brand is, the more people will gravitate toward it.

Even the newest technology isn’t much different from a pencil.”

You were recently named the head of design transformation at InVision. Why did you want to join the team of a digital product design platform? We are working in a time when creatives have the opportunity to affect business, which we haven’t seen since the Industrial Revolution. That is a huge opportunity. But it also presents a huge challenge, as many creatives don’t have the leaders and mentors they need to be able to take advantage of these opportunities.

When I was looking around, the only place that made sense to join was InVision. It has a vision and purpose that is bigger than just building software. InVision’s Design Transformation team is working on ways to evaluate, teach and empower design teams inside different companies. There aren’t going to be any one-size-fits-all answers because no two companies are the same, but we feel like we can make a much-needed impact on the industry.

When you think about the sweep of brands you’ve worked with, like American Airlines, Apple and Google, what common or recurring issues did you see them struggling with, and how did you help them? The inherent problem with design is that it is highly debatable—there are a lot of things that could be left up to opinion. But the work is not debatable if you base it on what consumers want and need.

This is compounded by the fact that consumer opinions change, societies change and businesses change. It’s a constantly evolving target. You have to find a balance between something that consumers want, something that will make money for your client and something that can be built. When you find that balance, then you find innovative ideas.

We have also seen the rise of data and research as a part of the creative process. These are part of the balancing act because data can be extremely valuable in ensuring that your ideas are solving real consumer problems. But at the same time, you can go “data blind” where you lose confidence in your team and their thinking by only doing exactly what consumers ask for in the research. It can be a much easier route when leadership feels like you are giving consumers what they want—but this can’t come at the cost of innovation.

Would you recommend working in-house to a designer who’s just starting out? There’s no magic bullet. You need to understand what you want to do. If you want variety and the ability to work on different brands, agencies are a great place to start. If you want depth, a commitment to a product and an understanding of the entire lifecycle, then in-house is a great place to be.

What trends in digital design are you most interested in? Design moving closer to biology. When you look at the success of products like Pinterest and Instagram, they are highly visual. Successful products like Alexa and Siri are purely voice driven. We’re seeing a rise in enterprises that are getting back to the basic points of biology in terms of sight and sound.

I think we’re going to continue to see the trend of simplification of visual interfaces as more products move to voice and conversational user interfaces. And we’ll see a trend in wearables as we start to move technology onto our bodies and closer to our biology. Lots of these things require looking at what design means when there’s less of it.

How do you stay inspired? It’s very easy to learn a few things, get good at them and hold onto them—and before you know it, you are stuck. For me, inspiration is giving away pretty much everything I learn through speaking engagements, my podcast and the work that I’m doing at InVision. It drives me forward and keeps me looking for new ideas and insights. It’s really about the trend line rather than the headlines. It’s looking past the obvious flash in the pan to find the things that are deeper and more significant.

Stephen Gates has 20-plus years of experience strategizing, conceptualizing and designing for award-winning integrated global advertising campaigns for Fortune 100 brands. Past clients include Acura, Disney, ExxonMobil, Nationwide Insurance and W Hotels. Now at InVision, Gates is helping companies weave together the best methodologies, practices and tools into a customized strategy that shows the business impact of design inside that company. Gates has won more than 150 international design awards and has been asked to work as a partner with brands like Adobe, Apple, 53, Google and IBM. He’s spoken everywhere, from smaller groups at Apple, General Electric and L’Oréal to international keynotes. His Crazy One podcast is one of the top ten most popular design podcasts on iTunes, and his blog was named one of the top ten blogs for designers by HOW magazine.


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