Change is scary. We learn this at an early age: the first day in a new school; moving to an unfamiliar town; the birth of a sibling; the death of a grandparent. It suddenly seems as if the locks have been switched and the keys no longer fit. How do we react? Panic, denial, aggression, avoidance—the usual range of human defenses.
Later, as we grow up, change simply grows up with us: new jobs, new relationships, more births, more deaths, breakups, relocation and the expected—yet unexpected—effects of aging.
Now, multiply the natural reaction to change across thousands or even tens of thousands of employees working in a large organization, with as many families to feed and even more shareholders to satisfy. Faced with the onrush of massive change, a corporation can freeze. Creativity? Innovation? Maybe later, say the leaders. Right now we’re just trying to survive.
At Stone Yamashita Partners (SY[P]), a 50-person firm in San Francisco, industry upheaval doesn’t signal danger, but opportunity. Over the last decade they’ve built a thriving business based on change—understanding it, embracing it and, most notably, designing for it. Their business model is so new it doesn’t even have a name. Yet their clients over the years have been companies such as American Express, eBay, Gap Inc., HP, IBM, Levi Strauss, Mercedes-Benz, Nike and PBS.
What attracts these icons of industry to Stone Yamashita Partners? Simple. The hope that massive upheaval can be turned into massive opportunity. The firm’s partners call it “seismic change,” a concept they explain delightfully in a booklet of that title. “Vision is your most sustainable advantage,” it begins.
Founded in 1994, Stone Yamashita Partners began life with few aims beyond those of a traditional design firm. But slowly the firm began to resemble a management consultancy as much as a graphic design firm. In addition to the usual cadre of creatives and production people, there were soon strategists, researchers, sociologists and technology experts.
The nature of their work product began to shift as well. There were brochures, Web sites, identities and other design artifacts, but there were also workshops, summit meetings, jam sessions and what the partners call “vision deliverables”—stories, speeches, scripts, manifestos. In retrospect, their path from design firm to culture-change firm, while initially unplanned, now seems inevitable.
“As a traditional design firm,” says Keith Yamashita, “we realized that one of the things we could do for a company was to design its brand. We soon figured out, however, that to design the brand we first had to understand the strategy of the company— how they make money and with whom they want a good reputation. But to help them build a strategy, we first had to understand the culture of the company. But to understand the culture of the company, we first had to understand their purpose. Our journey has been one of going deeper and deeper into the heart of the organization. Today we help leaders face their challenges by taking the same journey in reverse—starting with the company’s purpose, going out to their culture, then to their strategy and finally to their brand and its various expressions.”
Is this really design, you ask? “Absolutely,” says Robert Stone. “Most of us got into the field because we enjoy making things. But over the years we discovered that the process of designing can be applied to more than just artifacts. It can be applied to an entire range of business activities.”
Yamashita believes that many of their clients think of them as a “design firm nested within a culture firm.” Stone adds, “Design is so integral to the larger picture of what we do that it’s not really a deliverable on its own. To clients, our design is just a given.” What their design is is refreshingly relevant—focused, appropriate and to the point. It involves little wasted effort, either to design it or to read it. It’s Modernist in the best sense of the word. While on the surface it may seem simple, it resonates with meaning at deeper levels.
The proving ground for their concept of “deep design” came in 1997 with IBM. Lou Gerstner had taken over, tasked with a major turnaround. IBM’s Jon Iwata and Allison Johnson (a communications director who had worked with Yamashita at Apple) hired the young firm to help transform IBM’s self-image from a seller of “big iron” to a seller of services. The three tyros led a revolution—revolution is not too strong a word—by developing a concise manifesto called One Voice and dropping it on the desks of 240,000 employees. It had the effect of galvanizing the company. It called for the total realignment of the brand with a new business strategy. Gerstner went on to write a bestselling book about how he did it, titled Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance. Certainly, some of the music for the dance was composed by Iwata, Johnson and SY[P].
“It was pivotal,” says Stone. “We were suddenly playing on the big stage.”
Johnson then moved to Hewlett-Packard and later brought in Stone Yamashita. Still on the big stage, but this time with the halo of visible success, they were able to apply their learnings to a wholly different challenge. CEO Carly Fiorina took the helm and called for a merger with Compaq, and the group was fully engaged. SY[P]’s forte—the designing of change—became issue number one for HP. During the next four-year period that most people would characterize as a downturn, Stone Yamashita grew from 16 employees to 35.
The experiences with IBM and HP paved the way for further engagements with companies such as Disney, Mercedes-Benz, Nike, PBS and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and later with eBay, Gap Inc. and JPMorganChase—some of the world’s premiere brands—pushing the firm to its current size of 50 team members.
As the writer of this article, I might find this a good place to end it, except that I believe SY[P] represents something beyond a simple success story.
To me, what’s even more exciting than the firm’s rise to stardom is the new conceptual territory that they’ve opened up for the brand industry—design firms, advertising agencies, research firms and management consultants. It’s as if they’ve broken through the ceiling and discovered a whole new floor that no one knew about. What’s up there? The possibility of a new type of business in which design and strategy co-mingle to do what neither can do separately—help CEOs do what Peter Drucker has called Job One, finding the future of the organization.
The partners hold that the engine for this new type of business is “designing,” a word they distinguish from “design.” While design is a discipline, they contend, designing is a process. Their official definition of designing, which now resides in AIGA’s Dictionary of Brand, is “bringing together strategic and creative processes to achieve a shared goal.” Designing can be applied to any number of ends, not just the fashioning of artifacts, such as products, messages, environments, Web sites and other physical deliverables, but vision, culture, understanding, experience, debate, leadership, social good—even the process of designing itself. Moreover, the people working in these areas can, and should, come from a variety of disciplines, and they should work together.
Stone is quick to point out that this business model isn’t for everyone. But for firms looking to accelerate out of a slump, reinvent themselves, or simply get ahead of the curve, the ability to meld strategy and design to help revolutionize corporate culture is a set of skills worth acquiring.
The combination of skills that defines SY[P] comes more from the partners following their bliss than from following the money. “We don’t emulate any particular firm,” says Yamashita. “I like to think that when we’re at our best we bring together the intelligence of a management consultancy, the customer focus of an innovations firm, the emotional quotient of a change management firm and the creativity of a great design firm. We try to combine these elements in a way that creates a different kind of partner for CEOs.
“At the same time,” he says, “I’m not naïve enough to think we’re charting new territory. When I look back at what Charles and Ray Eames were doing in the 1940s, I can see that what we’re doing is not entirely different than what they accomplished over half a century ago.”
If an Eamesian workplace appeals to you, you may be interested in knowing what the firm looks for in new employees. “The first trait is curiosity,” says Yamashita. “If you’re not curious about the world, you probably won’t do well here. The second trait is ambition—ambition, that is, without competitiveness, since teamwork is part of our DNA. We interview about 150 candidates in a year, and only four or five will surface as people who are this odd combination.”
The firm recently moved into a 17,000-square-foot office in San Francisco’s SOMA area (south of Market Street), complete with a 3,000-square-foot lab space for hosting workshops and off-site client experiences. “The way we work with our clients is highly collaborative and consultative,” says Stone. “We designed our new space to foster co-creativity.”
Hmmm. Co-creativity. Lab space. Shared goals. Deep design. Vision deliverables. Very interesting concepts. What can you do with them? That may depend on where you’re currently working, and how ample your supply of curiosity and ambition is. For traditional design firms, it may suggest a way to earn a seat at the business table; for advertising agencies, a chance to expand services beyond campaign-making; for research firms, a way to make customer insights more vivid; for management consultancies, a better method of igniting change; for CEOs, the means to unleash the full potential of the organization.
Change is scary. Massive change is more scary. Yet if you’re able to take inspiration from Stone Yamashita, you may find there’s a future in it. ca