Creativity Within an Engineering-Led Company



By Mark Warrick, Chief Design Officer

January, 2018

Within an engineering company the creative function is traditionally relied upon to provide design services - particularly in a business to business (B2B) company. Making this service a by-product and instead using creativity to drive company invention is, in my opinion, one of the hardest types of creative department to craft within the design industry. The reason for the difficulty is simply because in engineering-led organisations the creative arm needs to find a way to show it can be a parallel USP without being a distraction from the core technological product.

At Thought Machine, our core product is Vault. From its inception, I knew that this was a company that I wanted to build a world class creative laboratory within. The challenge of bringing creativity to the world of finance was immediately attractive. I could not point to a single customer facing application within the finance domain which exhibited creative excellence. Without distracting from what money truly is, we all deserve the fundamentals of good design across our digital interactions and not a single experience elicited an emotional response beyond the functional aspect of financial applications. It was this glaring gap that became the mission of the Thought Machine Labs team. It aligned perfectly to the overall strategy of the company and the studio aimed to invent pioneering consumer experiences within the world of finance that showcased the full extent of Vault’s capabilities. Getting this right in our B2B organisation could lead to a significant market advantage in years to come.

Design as a leadership issue

Design at Thought Machine needed full leadership buy in and it is only recently that I have realised how fortunate we were to secure a direct CEO channel to experiment with prototypes and invent new concepts from the first days of Thought Machine Labs being setup. Even the great Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog design, had to expend considerable energy away from designing to convince engineering-led Apple of the importance of a direct line into the CEO:

”I explained that to make design a core element of Apple’s corporate strategy, it would have to be seen as a leadership issue; world-class design can’t work its way up from the bottom, watered down by the motivations and egos of every layer of management it passes through”

In contrast to the strong creative emphasis in many B2C companies, Thought Machine is currently one of only a handful of B2B tech organisations in the world with a tightly knit design team holding influence at the very top of our organisation. I believe that, in it’s own way, this B2B creative recognition is as progressive and seemingly radical as personal computer companies in the early 80’s complementing their technological strengths with design muscle that gradually grew in both company importance and product clout.

Our labs culture has been nurtured for over 3 years and it feels like myself, Travis, Fox, Jon, Kate, Toby and Lucas have got the concoction of studio culture and purpose-driven creativity into a place that is generating momentum. As a B2B company, our inventions are not generally publicly celebrated. Instead they are privately demonstrated to clients looking to utilise Vault in order to witness how they could achieve the same level of consumer excitement if they were to adopt the technology.

For one of our concepts that is available in the public domain, we took children’s finance and invented a physical digital money box for kids called Money Monsters. The problem to solve was to help children understand money in a financial world where transactions are increasingly digital. Our digital money box is completely cashless and each Money Monster has a detachable jetpack for the child’s bank card. The monster, which lives in the bedroom, can be physically shaken to reveal the account’s balance. Using the modern technological achievement of Vault with a kids toy initially seemed crazy to people outside of our labs but it was quickly adopted as a strategic product for our client Santander who saw the importance of such an emotive product in the finance industry. It is worth taking a look at the Santander and Thought Machine product journey over the last year at our instagram account, @moneymonstersjourney, which shows the process from the initial sketch, to alpha prototypes on Vault and beyond. Other inventions include a Vault-powered application called Chipper, which helps you save time and money off your mortgage by chipping away small daily amounts. We are also determined to show the sector that there is a place for mixing RPG-gameplay elements with your disposable income. Thus, The Legend of Spenda game has been developed and is being tested within Thought Machine using our pre-paid card instance of Vault.

A small and effective lab

Time and time again we hear that keeping a team small is important in the creative domain. We have found this to be true. At any one time our team never exceeds 10 people and a permanent team of 6 seems to generate high quality results. I think the main reason for a small team being effective is because of the type of culture that it develops. We are geographically close to each other and it is easy to jump up and battle through design issues or jointly bounce through an exciting new concept without needing to formalise meetings. In order to deliver on some of the finesse needed when a concept matures, we have developed key partnerships with industry experts that we can leverage depending on each project’s requirements which includes an array of talent from industrial designers to unity game engine specialists.

Financial targets impact creativity

One of the toughest commercial aspects of our labs is adopting the same approach that Robert Brunner successfully implemented in the early days of Apple’s industrial design studio. The challenges we face in the battle between engineering and creative are the same exact challenges Brunner faced:

”The different engineering groups gave their products in development to Brunner’s group, who were expected to merely ‘skin’ them.”

“He started thinking strategically. His off-line ‘parallel design investigations’ were a key part of his strategy.”

“For every skin job Brunner did for engineering, he’d launch up to 10 different parallel design investigations. When one of those designs was selected it became that designer’s baby all the way ’til completion.”

As mentioned at the start of this post, the creative function is typically seen as a design service and engineering-centric Apple saw it no differently in its early years. A ‘skin’ job at Apple was directly tied to revenue generation. The same scenario existed at Thought Machine where the early studio was often asked to ‘skin’ bank instances of Vault as a client rebranding exercise. Robert Brunner took a large financial risk spending years on parallel design investigations that have now become the foundations for the Apple products we know today. At Thought Machine, I wanted to take heed to Brunner’s insight and attempt its adoption from day one. As a result, it was agreed by our CEO and Chairman that the Thought Machine Labs did not need a client mandate to invent. Subsequently our team has spent months and even years on ideas without direct financial return. Over the last 3 years, and with numerous moments of self doubt, both the company and our clients agree that the prototypes, visions and early concepts demonstrate pioneering capability unseen in the core-banking industry. Money Monsters has proven to be a breakthrough product and it has been the belief that we are following a similar structure to the one that Robert Brunner setup that has dispelled the dark moments of disbelief:

“In hindsight, Brunner’s choices - the studio’s separation from the engineering groups, its loose structure, the collaborative workflow and consultancy mindset - turned out to be fortuitous. One of the reasons Apple’s design team has remained so effective is that it retains Brunner’s original structure. It’s a tight, cohesive group of extremely talented designers who all work on design challenges together. The model worked.”

The adoption of an engineering-led mindset

Over the years, I have found that the tight coupling of creative with engineering is not trivial. The two disciplines can easily be perceived to be orthogonal to one another. However, engineering is ultimately about designing for the real world and real world constraints are faced by agency creatives every day. Therefore, adopting an engineering-led mindset at a high level is not that much of a leap. The hardest part for our labs was to take the step to become makers and recognise that the core company product, Vault, did not constrain our design but instead expanded it. Designing for the real world off of Vault requires an intuitive understanding of the technology. A common assumption is that the engineering knowledge helps to understand how to constrain your thinking. With Vault the opposite is true. If you understand the engineering behind how Vault works - you are able to expand your inventions to the next level. In order to expand our inventions, we needed to prototype off of the Vault APIs without disrupting the Thought Machine engineering function.

Labs Engineers

A recent expansion of our team to bridge the gap between creative and engineering has been the creation of a new Labs Engineer role. The skillset has enabled us to invent and build off the Vault APIs quickly. It started around a year ago with Money Monsters where, with a little help, I was able to build a complete prototype of the digital money box on top of Vault with some Python code on a Raspberry Pi. On a separate project, we were able to leverage a Vault mortgage smart contract to build out the entirety of our Chipper concept within 8 weeks using React. The beauty of our Labs Engineer role is that we are now designing and building concepts in parallel without taking any resources away from the core engineering function. Yet having us as “in-house clients” using the APIs provides the Vault team with a very direct feedback loop, which helps road test and evolve the APIs in useful ways.

In conclusion, my experience at Thought Machine has so far shown that an experimental creative function within an engineering-focused company is primarily about ensuring that our work is aligned to the overall mission of the company and having full leadership buy-in is an absolute must. Over the years, I have come to understand that the team must be small enough to encourage a tight inventive culture and should have a mix of humble, highly skilled designers and engineers throughout. I also believe that fully embracing an engineering-led mentality within the Thought Mahchine Labs rather than fighting against it leads to better overall product design that is enhanced by the underlying technology instead of being hampered by it.

References: Leander Kahney and Hartmut Esslinger.