Ted Kilian, Group Director at Fjord, has taken on many avatars in life -as an academic, as an entrepreneur and in the corporate sector. Along the way, he's lived and worked in Prague, London, Hong Kong and most recently, Singapore, where he is based currently. He speaks to Ayesha Kohli, Editor of Creative Sparq about his specialisation in the "Geography of Cyberspace" leading him to the field of User Experience Design, his belief that "creativity combined with problem solving" defines good designers and his mantra that "if you love the people you are designing for, you want to craft great things for them".
What do you do currently ?
As Group Director at Fjord, a design and innovation consultancy firm, part of Accenture Interactive. I lead a team of designers, researchers and strategists to help clients innovate their products and services, especially (but not only) related to unlocking the power of digital technology.
How has your educational background [B.A and M.A, History, Geography and Urban Planning and a Ph.D in Geography], influenced your career path in User Experience Design?
I have a long interest in how power relationships play out in places and for my PhD research I was fortunate to win a Fulbright fellowship that allowed me to spend time in the Czech Republic looking at how Public Space had been transformed during and after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism.
This research was taking place in 1998, just as the dot.com boom was taking off so everyone was talking about the internet and “cyberspace.” Naturally my research led me to looking at how cyberspace was becoming the new public space. When I completed my Ph.D. and began teaching I focused on qualitative social research methods and the “Geography of Cyberspace.”
A couple of years in, I started to see how my skills could be valuable to businesses who were trying to make sense of the internet and emerging behaviours and embarked on a new career – using ethnographic research to understand the contexts, behaviours, wants and needs surrounding digital and translating that into design.
I began in research, but quickly began turning my hand to User Experience Design as well. This was a time when many web designers were self-taught and UX was not yet a formal discipline.
I had taught myself just enough HTML and CSS to be able to create working interfaces, and have learned from the many excellent designers I have worked with about the nuances of type, colour and layout. I still don’t feel like a “real” designer – more an experience strategist who can guide design to the right outcome.
What does creativity mean to you?
That can range from producing a tangible thing like a painting or a poem, to connecting ideas in novel ways. I think we describe as creative, people who are comfortable with ambiguity and are open to see beyond things as they are.
According to “The Future of Jobs” report by the World Economic Forum, Creativity will be the 3rd most required skill by 2020, following complex problem solving and critical thinking. Having been an entrepreneur, worked in the corporate sector and in academia, did the different experiences influence your creative and design thinking journey?
I don’t like separating people in to creative and not. There are definitely people who tend toward creative pursuits versus those who tend toward analytical pursuits.
People who do creative work day to day become more creative because they have developed the facility for entering that creative mode more quickly and deeply.
It’s interesting that the complex problem solving is ranked first considering how much creativity is required within that skill.
Design thinking – a term I have never liked – is just a problem solving methodology, but I think the biggest difference it has from other problem solving methods is how much it is about questioning the problem itself.
I feel very fortunate to be able to work in a creative environment every day.
That has been a thread throughout my career.
As an academic, there was a rigour and discipline and process, but I chose disciplines that were deeply connected to storytelling. Writing academic papers and theses is a creative act, but one that requires grounding in analytical insight and defensible outputs that relies on a different kind of thinking.
Being an entrepreneur allows you more leeway to apply creativity to things like operations since there is no one there to tell you how to do it.
I have brought some of that spirit back into the corporate context as well. I enjoy the creative aspects of budget forecasts and business models.
The Fjord 2018 Trends report highlights seven trends around a key theme of “tension”. The tension between “digital versus physical, human versus machine, centralized versus decentralized, speed versus craft, automation versus control and traceability versus anonymity.” Based on your work with your clients, what are the 3 most important requirements that an organisation needs to deal with these tensions and how are companies faring in Asia?
1. Customer/ People obsession: Being interested, fascinated and focussed on customers to start with, but also on all the people in the business equation. Stakeholders, partners, the people around them are what it’s all about.
2. Openness: Established assumptions, categories, processes are all necessary to run a business, but save some percentage of your attention for being open to challenge everything and see beyond. Run the business you are in, but also leave room for start-up mode; seeking the business you will be in next.
3. Craft: Expectations of quality of service, design, attention to detail are all higher than ever and those who successfully deliver that quality continue to win out.
Craft is really the ability to produce things that do their job very well and delight the people who use them, so in effect it goes back to the first point about customer obsession.
As for Asia, it is unfair and almost impossible to generalise about something as diverse as Asia. There are some generalisations about hierarchy and formality in education that hold true to an extent, but these days there are probably as many exceptions as adherents to the rule. I can easily say that it is hard to get good creative talent here and that many organisations are too caught up in rigid structures to be open to change, but some of the most creative people I know are here and hierarchy and rigidity exist in Europe and North America as well.
As more companies and brands start adopting AI, deep learning techniques, natural language understanding to analyse the data they create, in order to be faster to market, enhance the consumer personalization experience, optimize the supply chain etc, what do you think will happen to the ability of humans to be creative and learn from failure, if computers start thinking faster and better than us?
Computers can do many things faster while other kinds of thinking are still well beyond their capabilities. We have been working alongside technology and dealing with the threats it presents for thousands of years – AI is only the latest chapter.
You can argue that the scale and control is at a new level, but we have been working alongside technology that can wipe out the planet for many years – that will never change.
If pushed, I also fall back on a bigger picture – a geological timescale. The environmentalist in me thinks that if we do manage to take ourselves out, that would not be unheard of. Civilisations come and go and perhaps the whole planet could use a CTRL +ALT+DEL moment.
If you were facing a room full of high schoolers getting ready to take on university courses, what kind of career advice would you give them?
Two answers for two types of people at this stage.
If you are clear eyed and sure about what you want to do, go for it, but save a bit of space for trying some random things way outside of that. University is an amazing time to explore so don’t waste it only on vocational training.
If you are completely lost about what you want to do. Enjoy it! Live the questions as Rilke advised and tell everyone to get off your back for a while. Try everything, but dive into all of it and work hard even at the things you don’t naturally enjoy.
I think everyone should go into some sort of business -even if it is volunteer. There is no better way to learn how the world works. Negotiating, hiring, budgets, marketing, sales, management, etc no matter what you do, these will be part of it.
Spend as much time working on yourself as a human as working on your career (actually, spend more time on you as a person). Regardless of what your direction is, take this moment to immerse yourself in the humanities. Take in art, literature, music, poetry. The foundations and habits of mind you build now will stay with you for life.
With technological change evolving at an unprecedented pace, there will be large swathes of populations [those with low levels of education, less opportunity to reskill or adapt] who are likely to be at a disadvantage. What should governments and policy makers be doing to start bridging this gap as quickly as possible?
Every technology is double edged with the potential to do both harm and good. My view is that capitalism depends on inequality by its nature and is a more powerfully entrenched influence than any other, especially in the age of the dominance of finance. Government should be about countering the influence of capital with a different set of values, but I am not sure that is even possible any more. Focussing specifically on the technology gap is only one small slice of this larger challenge. I am not sure that policies targeted specifically at that challenge can make any real impact.
How do you think people from the traditional creative industries [fine arts, performing arts, writers, etc.] can participate in this new era of technological transformation? What skills do they bring to the table that can be leveraged for solving problems, designing new experiences?
Not everything needs to be leveraged :)
I use what I have gained from art, literature, music, philosophy, etc. every day. But I think it is a mistake to think of those things as resources to be mined. They have value in and of themselves.
If you had to suggest a government policy intervention involving the “creative industries” that could make a positive impact on society in your view, what might that be?
It has given companies the courage to do things they might not have done otherwise and made design part of the conversation in all areas of business and government. Encouraging design thinking in government departments and businesses is not a panacea, but if it shifts people to think in more human and experiential terms – rather than simply functional- about what they do, it can only improve the lives of the people these services touch.
Who or what inspires you?
I always find this sort of question difficult. I draw on so many different influences – there is nothing that really stands out consistently. If I named any specific thing, it would give the impression that that was a dominant influence, but the reality is I take bits of inspiration from dozens of things all the time.
Finally, what do you do to refuel your creative energy?
My son is my best source of energy and inspiration. He is my "improve" partner and the guy who keeps from taking the wrong things seriously and keeps me focussed on the right ones. He and my wife give me perspective and purpose.
I listen to a wide range of music – either my own insanely eclectic collection or through things like FIP internet radio. I read as much as I can. I watch TV and listen to audiobooks and podcasts while commuting and while doing rote tasks, which makes those things more interesting and provides lots of creative fodder.
My team is a great source of inspiration and creative fuel. If you are working with a great team and environment, creativity refuels itself.
Get in touch with Ted via email [firstname.lastname@example.org] or LinkedIn.
About The Interviewer : Ayesha Kohli
A brand storyteller, Ayesha Kohli is the founder of communications consultancy, Sparq Communications and the Editor of Creative Sparq. She launched the site in 2017 to showcase different perspectives on creativity and creative thinking. Passionate about people, culture, education, leadership, technology and trends, she loves championing emerging talents and new businesses.