An Interview with Darrel Rhea of Rhea Insight

With over 30 years coaching executive management of Fortune 1000 companies on how to use customer-led innovation and design to build platforms for organic growth, Darrel Rhea, founder and CEO of Rhea Insight, has made significant contributions to the fields of Design, Market Research, Design Research and Branding. He has helped many global organizations build internal design, research and user experience departments and has participated and led scores of major innovation initiatives.

A frequent keynote speaker at major events, he recently spoke at this year's HIVE Conference; I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions...

You were a keynote speaker at this year's HIVE conference with your talk, Catalysts For Change: The New Expectations For Design Leadership. Designers now have the opportunity to step up and make big contributions that go way beyond just problem solving; the chance, as you would say, to sit at the table. Why do you feel it is important for them to come around to this way of thinking?

DR - Business leaders are facing an enormous challenge today. In order to survive within the rapidly changing environment, they have to constantly reinvent how they provide value to their customers and their many stakeholders. Yes, they have to optimize and scale up their current offering to be competitive, but if they aren’t also redefining themselves constantly, they know that their well-oiled machine can cease to be relevant in a heartbeat. They know they can be displaced by the next new and better thing. Typically, these business leaders and the organizational cultures they operate within are not prepared to do both things at the same time.

So, organizations of all types are trying to to figure out how to be truly sustainable and survive. If you work within an organization, or if you offer services to organizations, the highest value you can provide is making meaningful contributions to its survival. I’m not saying you have to view your participation in this way, but today, you can if you choose. Designers I talk to are always saying they want to be relevant, to have the opportunity to have a bigger impact, to be more acknowledged and rewarded for their contributions. As a community of designers, we want the full potential of our field to be realized.

But, if you want to build social capital, or the power to make a significant difference, then we should be helping organizations become resilient and deal successfully with the forces of change that can threaten their existence. That is what executive leadership, and even boards of directors increasingly care about.

Business leaders are already looking for help, and many are seeing that the skill sets and disposition of designers are critical for them. Analytic decision making isn't enough. They are (slowly) coming to realize that what has made them so strong in the past is preventing them from being aware of what is changing, generating creative alternative solutions, and then implementing them with excellence. They need creative leadership and they know it. They are asking the business school for it, and their management consulting firms for it. Designers don’t necessarily see how they can apply their skills in this domain, and some are even resistant to it because it challenges their identities as traditional graphic, UX, service, industrial designers.

My point is this — this shift in the context for design is a huge opportunity for the discipline of design and an even bigger opportunity for us as designers. Either we step up and demonstrate thought leadership and inspire people to leverage design’s potential, or others will fill the need. I am already seeing non-designers with some minimal exposure to design thinking stepping into leadership roles that many designers are much more skilled at. Maybe that’s ok, I am not saying designers are entitled to a design leadership role. I’m saying its a career choice, one that designers have never had, one that is only possible because other designers have taken risks and done great work and paved the way for us.

As a design researcher, your job is to find out what is meaningful to a customer; your focus is less on the product. What type of questions do you ask to get to that underlying cause?

DR - There are a couple of places to "look from” for the big insights. First, look at the context for the product or service you are helping design or communicate about. I guarantee you, that context is very different than a few years ago, it is shifting and will continue to shift. You need to look at the product not as just as an object or an experience, but as a phenomena with cultural meaning that is changing. If you can understand how that meaning is changing, or how it could change in a way to be more relevant, then you have some insights that can drive innovative design. You won’t get there by asking a few clever questions of customers, you need to rigorously deconstruct the history of the product space and look for influences that will create opportunities for change.

Second, I’d say in addition to looking at the context from the 30,000 foot level that I just described, you need to look at the same thing but from the perspective of the individual customer. Not what the product is, but what the product does for them, how it creates value, what kinds of value it creates, why that is meaningful to them as human beings within their culture. This is deep, nuanced understanding that doesn't come from asking direct questions. It is best revealed by listening to people’s stories and observing people in their environment. This takes skill and some training, and designers have to work at defeating their tendency to "listen as problem solvers” who are in a hurry to define a solution. This is about being reflective and redefining the problem space.

I will be graduating from my graphic design program this summer. What advice would you give, that you wished someone gave you, when you first started out as a graphic designer?

DR - Wow, there is a lot since I didn't get any useful advice when I graduated as a graphic designer. I’ll pick one thing; whatever training and skills you have acquired in school won’t be enough. If you are lucky, your education has provided some base-line, foundational price-of-entry stuff that can make you minimally productive in a commercial context. But design will change dramatically every couple of years in ways that you are not prepared for, and none of your teachers can anticipate. They literally don’t know what to teach you. Because we will have new tools, new technologies, new practices, and new expectations about the role of a designer. And it will keep on changing, relentlessly.

So don’t be in a hurry to focus on applying exactly what you learned. Be thoughtful about the principles you have learned, about your disposition as a designer. Focus on being a learner. Put yourself in situations where you have to acquire new skills. Seek out risk. YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE!

Look for for the emerging edge of the design practice and run towards it, the crazier the better. Be willing to fail.

And to be a learner (and to become more than minimally competent and benefit from failure), you need a coach or mentor. Find the best mentor you can, reach out (even if it seems absurd to do so), demonstrate your sincerity and commitment, drop your arrogance and opinions — and do what they say. Look for someone that will push you past your comfort zone and tell you the truth so you actually grow, not someone that provide supportive acknowledgement and occasional advice.

If you wanted to be a gymnast, you could go to the local gym and mess around, and ask for pointers from a local coach. If you want to be an Olympic gymnast, you finding a world champion gymnast coach, submit to their program, accept them pushing you way beyond what you are capable of or comfortable with. To be a successful professional designer, you need a version of this. Find a mentor. You can’t do it by yourself, you idiot! I farted around for a decade before I found a couple of designers who quickly changed my life in ways I am forever indebted for. And at 62, I still have mentors. And if you are an accomplished designer already, pass it on!

I'm always curious about how people problem-solve so I love to ask everyone that I interview, if you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring 1 item and 1 meal, what would they be? DR - I’m a boater and like dessert more than desert, so the obvious answer for me is that I would bring my trawler yacht with a freezer full of ice cream.

Thank you Mr. Rhea for your time and is always encouraging to hear that even after years of experience, you are still growing and learning!


By Dawn Smith
Published August 14, 2014