Tommy Toner: Curiosity & Design in Larger Organisations

On today's show Tommy and I discuss what separates successful designers from the less successful ones, the two viable career choices for creatives, and what he's looking for in a portfolio when he's hiring.

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Head of UX & Brand @ Cuckoo

Tommy Toner

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Website, LinkedIn, Medium, Cuckoo

Full transcript

Christian: Welcome to Design Meets Business, a show that inspires designers to think beyond pixels. I’m your host Christian Vasile, and on this podcast I sit down with creatives to talk about their stories, lessons they’ve learned during their careers, and how you can use Design to make a bigger impact in your organisation.

Today we’re talking to Tommy Toner, former Design Director at Nissan, and currently co-founder of UK’s emerging broadband startup Cuckoo. We’re talking about what separates successful designers from the less successful ones, the two viable career choices for creatives, and what he’s looking for in a portfolio when he’s hiring.

Tommy, thank you so much for joining Design Meets Business. Really, really a pleasure to have you here. I’ve been looking forward to having a chat with you for a while, so it’s awesome to finally have you here. Just to give everyone else a background, everyone else who hasn’t heard about you yet. Can’t be too many of them, but there might be a few.

So you’ve got a very diverse background spanning a lot of freelance roles and the now Head of UX and Brand at an upcoming player on the broadband market. We’re going to talk a bit about that. So we’re going to talk about all your career and maybe your time at Nissan and leading design there, and what you’ve learned from that.

But before we go into all that good stuff, let’s start talking a bit about your background, how you started out as a front-end developer actually, and what made you drop that for a career in Design? 

Tommy: Hi, Christian. Firstly, thank you so much for having me on board. I’ve been — it’s been exciting to join you for this chat today under super relevant topics. Hopefully, we’ll have a good chat today. Yes. So before I go into sort of my more recent professional history, I thought it’d be interesting to mention how it all began. So this is actually a secret that I’ve not told many people that you might find interesting. 

So I don’t know if you’re familiar, but there used to be a game called Command and Conquer Tiberian Sun, which was a PC game. So I’m not a gamer by any means. However, this one game captured my imagination. And I was very involved in the community with a clan and sort of play playing online with friends of age about 14 at this period.

So I got into chatting on the forum, of which I was then inspired to start creating some visual assets for my team or my clans, kind of signatures on the forum. And that was actually how I first learned and taught myself Photoshop — Adobe Photoshop properly CS1 or whatever it was back then. So from then, that was kind of sparked my sort of love of design. I wasn’t actually an art student at the period, so it was all quite new to me, sort of in those early days of sort of the interactive web. It was an exciting time and is where visual design first started playing sort of a big role. 

So, yes. Then I went on to study at the University of Leeds; a degree called New Media. Now, the reason why I wanted to bring that up is because I think people might find it interesting. It was before really user experience was an established academic course, which is much more common now. You can study human-centred design much in a variety of universities across the world, and it’s a much more kind of, I guess, more established and respected profession now.

But when I was doing it, this course was called New Media, which my parents, I think, had – weren’t too keen on and found quite amusing. My dad actually, I think, called it a Mickey Mouse subject, which was basically, it was a hybrid of design meets kind of communication. That was kind of where I learned my trade, and that was a bit of code flown in, and it was actually called Fusion, which unfortunately is no use whatsoever anymore.

So that was kind of where I then, as you say, my first role outside of university was a front-end developer, an agency which I loved. I mean, I found it incredibly frustrating at times because it wasn’t really — I didn’t study Computer Science. I wasn’t necessarily a coder by trade, but I kind of threw myself into it, and in the end, it paid dividends later on. Like, even to this day, when I’m creating user interfaces, that first role as a front-end developer was super important.

After that front-end developer role, I was looking to — I wanted to go back to my sort of creative roots. It was what I’ve really enjoyed, but I didn’t really know where to start or where to look. I popped up a portfolio, and then I ended up getting a role at Sky, BSkyB, which in the UK is a huge corporation, but they have a number of different sub-brands from broadband to sports and television etc.

I started as an acquisition designer, so designing ad banners. I don’t know if you’re familiar with ActionScript 3. And then, after that, I kind of moved into a more product design role, which was my first exposure to user experience and user interface design as a sort of trade. It was something I was fascinated in because I was able to maintain being a creative visual designer, but I was able to fix and solve complex problems which is what I think we hopefully will talk — is kind of where I get a lot of my inspiration from. I enjoy problem-solving. And I think that’s where design is super valuable for business. It’s ultimately fixing complex problems through design.

After Sky, which was up in Leeds in Northern England, I kind of made my move to the big city of London. Very naive, not knowing I made the move to go — decision to go freelance. And I’d never done that before, like in a professional capacity. Obviously, I’d helped out friends and family businesses and sort of smaller companies. So I spent about six years in the London design and advertising agency space, where I was lucky enough to work on some awesome international brands from websites to apps to sort of mixed reality experiences.

And then, more recently, I joined Nissan, the automotive brand where I started off as a designer. And I was sort of the second UX designer actually in the global sort of experience team as it were. There wasn’t really an established user experience practice in Nissan at a global level at that stage. So it was kind of up to us to kind of define what are the processes, how can we add value to the customer experience across all of these different journeys at Nissan. And then, as time went on, we grew the team quite rapidly, and our influence across Nissan in terms of what value we could add was growing.M y role got elevated to Design Director, where I was also the User Experience Manager, managing a team of UX designers, UI designers.

And then that kind of brings me up to current day, which is my briefs — my most recent venture that I want to talk about today is Cuckoo. And for those that don’t know Cuckoo Broadband, it’s a UK-based Internet service provider. And we’ve just launched a couple of months ago. The broadband industry in the UK is somewhat broken in the sense that you look at things like Trustpilot or NPS scores in the UK broadband companies, and they’re outrageously low. It’s quite shocking, actually.

So, in the same way, Monzo and Revolut came in and disrupted the finance sector or Bulb Energy or Octopus, if you’re based in the UK, came and disrupted the energy sector, the idea of Cuckoo Broadband came about that we could apply these similar principles — customer first sort of approach to a design-led approach to our product — and there was scope to disrupt this market. 

Christian: All right. Thanks. That’s a very comprehensive background about yourself. That’s all good, no more questions for there. One thing that I’ve noticed is that you’ve worked across different types of companies in different types of sectors and at different types of levels. So I’m wondering, in your experience, how is design treated and approached and applied in agencies versus how is it applied and approached when you’re in-house?

Tommy: Yes. Great question. I’ll start with the agency world. And again, this is going to depend on whether you’re hired as a freelancer or whether you’re hired as a permanent member of an agency team.

When you’re a freelancer, you’re more of a hired gun, and you might not be exposed to the sort of more strategic side of a project, whereas when you’re in-house in an agency, you’re going to be very much part of the team trying to solve and meet a client’s needs. So how it would typically work is, a client or brands would come with a problem that they can’t solve in-house. And that might be because they don’t have the in-house expertise, like to give you an example, it might be that a lot of in-house brands might not have a motion designer, a motion department. So in order to — if they’re putting off, maybe it’s a campaign for growth, or it might be some kind of interactive experience that they want to launch on their site, that typically might not be something an in-house team could pull off. So that’s where the specialism comes in. 

So what you’ll find with the sort of agency world is you have some incredibly talented people all brought together to solve one problem or a series of problems. And the differences, I think, with in-house, is the ability to not just have your eye on the project at hand, but also to have that eye on the longer-term roadmap. So to be a lot more strategic. You’re not just worried about the campaign that the agency is currently working on, but you’re also looking six months ahead, 12 months ahead. The difference with in-house is that you’re going to be much more business-driven because it’s ultimately on — it falls on you to develop or push this product or brand forward.

So I always try and say “Never design blind.” And what I mean by that is everything can be measured. And obviously, this depends on what you do, whether you’re an illustrator or a user experience designer. But you should always try and start with a project of how you’re going to measure the value rather than trying to retrofit it. So setting up a project with goals in mind and knowing how to measure them, whether that’s brand perception, customer satisfaction, reduce in cost proposition, or just improving engagement. These are the kinds of things that, as an in-house team, you define yourself, and I think that’s a big difference between the agency world.

Christian: So I love what you just said about being much more business-driven when you’re in-house versus in the agency world. I’d like to stay on that topic for a bit and talk about measuring, because design inherently or historically is something that couldn’t be measured, because we’ve often likened this too much to art. Art doesn’t solve a problem. Art just exists.

Design is moving more and more towards that area of business where it has to be measured, but as designers, we’re struggling a lot with measuring. We don’t really have a way of measuring design. We don’t have a way of measuring the experience. I know we have the NPS, debatable how valuable it is. I know we have the SUS or SUS or whatever it’s called. Again, that’s something created in the ’80s. I’m not sure that’s up to standards anymore. In your experience, how do you measure design the best way possible in, what, 2020? 

Tommy: Yes. It’s a really great question. And you find yourself quite often asking yourself that question. How do you measure value or the impact of your work in an organisation? I think first and foremost; it depends what you’re doing. And that sounds obvious, but going back to my point I’ve just made earlier, is there’s a time when sometimes when I was sort of more junior working in-house, that I would almost ask — wouldn’t ask questions. So I would — you’d be given a brief, maybe it’s to redesign a homepage. Now I would ask questions — what, why? Be curious as to like, why am I being asked of this task? And as you say, there are many formal metrics, whether that’s NPS. For anyone that’s not aware, that’s just Net Promoter Score, which is the simple question, “Would you recommend brand X to a friend or family on a scale?” 

And yes, it depends on what you’re doing, and I think it, for example, Cuckoo, we use for brand perception we do use NPS, and we use it at different moments in the different journeys, so we can measure the NPS of those different journeys, and then we bring them together. There’s a view of it. 

One thing that we’ve seen a transition towards is being reactionary to success or measuring the success of a project; is equally as important to us as the customer. Before, we’d use different metrics, whether it was KPIs, whether it — are people generating leads? Are people dropping off into the funnel? What is our cost per acquisition? Those sort of literal KPIs and metrics. However, what we tried to do at Cuckoo is – yes, we obviously measure our success with those, but we’ve also been looking at sort of a big emphasis on customer research. Yeah. The research. So just as simple as Trustpilot is a huge one for us. And if we release a new product feature, and then we start getting positive or negative responses based on that change, that to me is a measure of how well or something is or isn’t doing. And it’s something that we can be very reactionary to. 

I always remember the famous story of the BBC. BBC did a redesign of the BBC Sport, and the second it went live, it got barrage of negative comments, rightly or wrongly. I think I remember at the time I thought it was great. And they obviously then reacted to it and brought back in the features that people wanted. And I think that’s just a shift that we’re going to see.

In terms of measuring UX, I’ve always been an advocate of user testing and getting everything in front of the user as much as possible. And I know it’s not always possible, particularly if you’re an independent designer, or maybe you work in a small studio where the budget’s just not there. There are easy ways you can get around it. There’s guerrilla testing, there’s friends and family, there’s always someone you can ask your opinions off, who might be less subjective than your own opinion. There’s a million ways to skin the cat as well.

Christian: Yes. I think it also depends a lot on what type of company it is and what type of work you’re doing, because I remember when we used to work for — when I used to work for British Gas, we actually did use the NPS score, but we didn’t use the score itself. What we did use was the raw data, so the raw comments of the customers. 

So we took a sample, we categorised all the raw comments, and then a year and a half later, after we launched our project, the new, improved part of the website, we took a sample of the NPS score again or not the score, but the data behind it, and we tracked whether the comments that we wanted to get rid of have disappeared or not. That was a very easy way for us to track whether we’ve actually solved the problem we set out to solve.

So I think there are ways of figuring out the value of design, but I think, unlike in many other industries, it requires us to think what those metrics are. While in other industries, if you have sales, there’s how much you sell. If you have, I don’t know, marketing it’s, “Well, what’s your conversion rate?” or whatever marketing people use. But in design, it just feels like as an industry, we don’t have a metric that we need to figure that on our own, which is not necessarily a problem, but when you’re a bit more junior at the beginning of your career, I think that’s a bit more difficult to. Because you don’t have the experience to know, “Well, how do I track this?” And I guess that’s the next question. When you are a bit towards the beginning of your career, how do you tackle measuring design, if you will, without having the experience of having done it 10, 15, 20 times before?

Tommy: Yes, it’s an interesting one. I think it’s one that all designers for — when you’re first starting out, it’s really hard to not be emotionally attached to the work you do. And it doesn’t matter whether that’s an illustration or even if it’s UX design, or designing a new component or a product or a feature or something. You’ve put your love and your energy and your time into creating something. And obviously you — most people will be proud of that thing that you’ve done. And when you necessarily get feedback, it can be disheartening, and it’s — and I think the most important thing when you’re potentially getting feedback early on is to not be emotionally attached to the work you’re doing. 

It was interesting what you just said that I think it’s funny that in terms of design in other industries. Design is subjective, yes, but it’s also a science. And I think I do believe that there’s elements of design which are a science and you can — and it is measurable.

And I think when you’re starting out, I think the biggest thing you can do is ask for help, expose yourself. Don’t be afraid to put yourself on the line and expose yourself to your sort of your lead designers, your senior designer. And if you’re working for yourself, if you’re maybe be an independent designer, and you don’t have that network, there is tools out there. There’s things like the obvious ones like Dribbble and Behance, where you can maybe validate some of your designs. Yes, it might be — It’s probably more aimed at sort of visual designers, but even UX and UI designers, I think there’s different platforms out there, which you can look to to seek feedback.

And again, just coming back to my earlier point around sort of setting design sort of KPIs, I think whenever you set out on a new project no matter whether you’re a junior or whether you’re a director, it doesn’t matter, you’ve got to understand, ”Why am I doing this? What am I trying to achieve? What is the purpose, or what am I trying to solve?” And I think if you truly understand that before you set up, then it’s much easier to look back and measure and go, “Hey, I did a good job here.”

Christian: I think this is key to something else as well. Let’s segway a bit into hiring and portfolios, and you’ve hired teams in your career. And the reason I want to talk about this now is because you just said something that is key to what I believe should be part of a portfolio design, and that is why you’re doing what you’re doing.

And I’m not talking about why are you a designer, but why have you made the decisions you’ve made in this project? Why have you started this project? What was the point of it? Because nobody wakes up in the morning saying, “I want a new website.” There’s a problem that someone wants to be solved and they think that the website can solve it. So when we’re talking portfolios and how designers can talk about their work, I believe is super important to keep reiterating why they’re doing stuff, because that shows whoever’s looking at that portfolio that there’s a reason behind everything. So other than that, you’ve probably looked at many portfolios in your career. What other things are important to you when you’re trying to hire someone? 

Tommy: Yes. Hiring is really interesting. It doesn’t matter what stage in your career you are, but when you’re applying for a role, I think there’s a few things that I personally look for. One is passion, and that goes without saying, sometimes can’t tell that from a portfolio or a CV, but if you can get across that your passion or your genuine, sincere kind of interest in the industry, then it does go a really long way.

One thing that I’ve — this is quite funny. I mean, I remember I was working with an agency. I was hiring, looking for a role when I was at Nissan, and we were looking for what I would call it a hybrid. So for example, we were looking for someone who is a user experience designer, but that was super passionate about UI design and because of the nature of the kind of role that was the two sorts of two skills that we were looking for. So we went to the agency, “This is the kind of designer working for.” And they came back and told me, “That person doesn’t exist.” They said that that’s a unicorn. 

So one thing I’ve always tried to tell people as well, “Just be more unicorn.” I think it’s super important. Particularly in the last few years, design and particularly in digital design, has — it’s split into these quite siloed factions. You have a user interface designer, then you have a user experience designer, then you have a UX researcher, etc. And before you know it, you’ve got a team of five specialisms within one team, which I think makes sense to some extent. However, I think it’s important to not silo yourself just in that role and explicitly say, “Do you know what? I don’t touch anything else.” One of the best UI designers I’ve ever worked with was also one of the world’s leading authors on kirigami, the Japanese — which is the Japanese art form of folding paper, and then when you open it, it creates 3D objects. 

I think it’s having this breadth of skills or at least an interest in other skills that is what we look for. And just to give another example, I think when, when we’re creating digital products, whether that’s an app or a website and we’re joining a product team, one thing I think that’s quite undervalued quite often is the development side or the awareness of how things work. 

Now, I’m not — I’ve never expected a UI designer to also be fluent in JavaScript and Sass and everything. But I think it’s having a genuine curiosity into how things work. What are the limitations of the React UI framework, or what are the capabilities of webGL? Because if you don’t know what you don’t know, but at the same time, I think it can really add value to a team when you’ve got a cross-pollinated team. So you might have a developer who actually came from a creative background, or you might have a designer who on the side, likes dabbling with equations or whatever. And it creates a really rich team, and that’s something that we look for when we’re hiring. 

Christian: I think the last point is really, really important. I’ve worked in product teams before with what they’re called UI engineers. So there’s this hybrid between someone who’s a front-end developer, but also has an interest in general — just the basics of intuitiveness and user-friendliness, generally usability principles. 

And I could tell you how many times or I actually can’t tell because there’s been so many times when I’ve been out-designed by an engineer. Because when they kind of overlap a bit with yours and I have some background in coding, so I will never tell them how to code, but by understanding the limitations, as you said, I can design something that they won’t spend five weeks developing. It’ll only take them three.

But also the other way around when developers understand design, it just creates this highly productive team. There’s this myth that developers don’t really care about the users, they just care about the technology, and that couldn’t be further away from the truth. 

Most developers I’ve ever worked with actually truly care, and some of them can bring some brilliant ideas as well. So I think I only said design as a team sport and being able to understand the other side of the story — development — is just as valuable as developers being able to understand design and working together much closer. So I really love that you’ve mentioned, and I guess your background in coding helps a little bit with doing that right now?

Tommy: Yes. Slightly, slightly biased.

Christian: Slightly biased?

Tommy: It’s certainly, yes. 

Christian: I don’t think people should code, honestly. I’ve I wrote articles about this. I talk about this. I think design is a full-time job, and designers should design. But I also do believe that designers should understand the limitations of the technology their productive team is working in, so they can become better designers. Just like designers also need to understand research and all that other stuff that’s part of their job. Just like designers need to understand the business and how they’re getting paid at the end of the month. 

For example, to understand the churn and why the churn is important to the business and try to figure out how they can do anything about the churn in a SaaS company, etc etc. I think that as designers, we need evolve more towards a general, a wider audience standing of the business than just pushing pixels.

To move on to next question. You are — you said earlier, actually didn’t know this, that you were the second UX designer at Nissan globally. I can just imagine how many challenges that came up with; just having to set up all those processes, having to just create a team, again, at a global scale. Talk a bit about those couple of years you spent there.

Tommy: Yes, sure. I was actually reluctant when I was approached about the role. I was a little bit reluctant mainly because I’d never worked — I hadn’t worked in a really corporate environment in quite a long time, and I was very much used to the creative agency world, which has a different — very much a different vibe. And I didn’t know — I didn’t really understand what I would be able to achieve versus what I wouldn’t and how creative it would be. So I ended up taking the role, and it’s such a fascinating place. And I look back with a lot of fondness.

So Nissan is actually one of AEM’s biggest clients in the sense that they have — sorry, Adobe’s biggest clients for their AEM product, because there’s about 200 market websites across the world, across three different brands: Nissan, Datsun, and Infinity. It was a super exciting place to work in the sense that any changes or sort of design strategy that we would apply would then be rolled out across four or five continents in 200 markets, which is super exciting. And that’s just on the responsive website.

And then on the sort of product sort of native app side, there was– I think at the time there was up to about 50 apps worldwide, all of varying degrees of ‘good’, which all needed sort of governance to be put in place and a sort of a unified design strategy. 

So one of the most interesting things I think that I — I got out of it, I was working in a diverse team across different time zones and cultures. I’d have — we’d have early morning calls with Japan, and we’d have afternoon calls with the United States and India.

And we’re trying — our team ultimately became responsible for setting the experience strategy across all of the customers’ journeys. So, and by customer journey in automotive, you’re looking at kind of that presale is when you’re discovering what car you might want and if that car brand is right for you through like money your driving experience, something goes wrong and you need to service. And then it’s like kind of after-sales, so buying accessories and other things. 

So it’s a really challenging sector in itself. There’s a really clear complex set of user journeys, and what we would do is we introduced this concept of journey teams. Now, previously, we were like one team was looking at all the customer journeys at one time, and it became a — it was a challenge because they almost needed full-time attention and almost people to become SMEs, like subject matter experts in very specific things. It was a big task for someone as a UX designer to be knowledgeable in the whole spectrum of things because it’s impossible. 

So we introduced these journey teams, and it worked really well. So you’d have — one person would be an expert in just test drives, and then you’d have one person who would be an expert in just matching, finding the right car for you. And it was — and it worked really well. Those teams would have SMEs from the product team, from the data analytics team from technology. so it was almost like a representative from each function working as one, and it worked really well. 

Christian: What were some of the challenges of doing that because you said already — you said a lot of entities, like 200 websites, 50 apps at different levels. That’s probably one, the scale of it. Time zone, working with people remotely, probably another one. Anything else worth mentioning there that was really challenging for you? 

Tommy: Yes. So the big anyone will sympathise to me if they’ve worked in big corporations, and I’m sure you can sympathise with this as well. But the stakeholder management was a big chunk of sort of our role. And this was the first time I actually experienced designers being involved in stakeholder management in this kind of capacity. Normally, even thinking about the time at Sky, you’d have product teams would almost be a little bit separate to the business. But because of the way that we were set up at Nissan, we were responsible for selling in our vision or selling our proposals to quite a high level to sort of the Exec level.

And that comes with its own challenges because you’ve got, like you say, it’s not just all those complexities of time zones or different cultures. It’s also then you’ve got an extremely complex stakeholder map, which you’ve got to navigate. And for a designer, that’s not always — we don’t often have experience in that. And in terms of like, working through that, I think we came up with different processes, which we realised worked for us.

So just to give an example that maybe some other people can resonate with — we introduced very early, like the idea of basically bringing stakeholders on from a very early phase, whether that’s doing things like the Google crazy eights process or these very, kind of, to a corporate environment, quite abstract concepts of flashing out what the design requirements are, what the user needs are. Moving away from a very kind of, I don’t want to say archaic, but kind of very old school corporate way of thinking to kind of much more new sort of product and technology-driven way of thinking.

Christian: Would you say that being able to do stakeholder management is one of the most important skills for a designer? At least as they climb the career ladder, it becomes more and more important. Would you agree with that?

Tommy: 100% Absolutely. And you know, the more senior you get, there’ll come a point in people’s careers as a designer when maybe you get to sort of a senior designer level, and you have to ask yourself, “Do I want to stay doing the craft and be involved in the granular execution of a design?” Because some of the best user interface designers I know have no interest in managing people or being involved in the sort of product roadmaps. They’d rather just be given a brief or a complex challenge and solving that challenge through design, but they don’t want to be involved any wider than that. Which I totally respect, and that’s their choice.

But then you might get another person who might get to the phase where they are actually — I want some move away from spending hours a day in Sketch or Adobe or whatever it is. And actually, I’d like to maybe get into more on the people’s side, whether that’s the operational or delivery side of things. And what we’re seeing is a shift, I think, that designers won’t necessarily always be designers. I think the way that the industry is moving, you need — you’re going to have people that need to manage these big in-house design teams, but they can’t just be a manager. To be a good design manager, I believe you need to have come from a design background, just in the way that if you were going to be a head of technology, some way you’d need that technological background.

Christian: Yes, good. Then we agree on that. It’s super important — it’s fascinating to learn to do that because I haven’t done stakeholder management at a very high level until I worked for British Gas. And then I was — then I felt like I got thrown into a pool with very deep water, because as a designer, you never have to do stuff like that, and suddenly you have to know how to swim. 

Tommy: And some people hate it, you know? 

Christian: They do. 

Tommy: Some people just not for them.

Christian: And you know what? That’s also fair. That’s why there are different paths for different designers, as you just said. You can just stay and do the creative part, or you can actually go the other direction.

And so it’s interesting that you had the same — you’ve learned that after you ended up in a corporation. So you’ve managed a lot of designers in your career, and I’m wondering, have you noticed any pattern? Have you seen – what’s something that successful designers do all the time versus designers who are maybe less successful?

Tommy: Yes, I believe there is. There is trends you can see. And I think this comes back to a point we were chatting about earlier in our conversation that curiosity is, I think, is a word that I probably overuse, but it’s about being curious. Some of the most successful designers or the best designers I’ve ever worked with kind of — they’re curious. 

Your design career is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We’re in an industry that there is no finish line, and because of that, we’re constantly evolving, constantly growing. I think it’s a blessing and a curse sometimes as a designer; you can never rest on your laurels. You can never kind of chill out, because there’s always a new technology or a new trend or experience that comes up. But I think that’s equally what makes it such an exciting place to work in. It’s never a dull day as a designer.

And I think in order to be curious, you’ve got to be passionate. It’s not one of those industries where you can’t just turn up. I think it’s certainly not that. I think if you’re truly passionate and you really do care about the products you’re working on or the brands that you’re helping grow, then they tend to be more successful. And the more exposure you can give yourself in a variety of different spheres or sectors within your company, then the better. 

So just to give an example, designers tends to stay in their lanes or their silos, but there’s no reason why that should be. Like if there’s no reason why you couldn’t reach out to your operations team and understands how they work or go for a coffee or a pint with the data analytics guys. And I think it’s all about breaking down those silos and designers that expose themselves and put themselves out there tend to be the ones that I think the most successful. 

Christian: Great. I think that actually answers a question that I just wanted to ask, but let me ask you anyway. Maybe you have a different answer to it. So there’s this understanding right now that design leaders and designers, in general, should strive to become more like business leaders or more like business people, but that transition can’t happen from one day to another. There have to be some steps in between starting your career to getting to that point where you understand what the business is all about, where you understand how design can help the business, where you understand all these things that are required of you to be able to be a business person. So if you would start again in your career today, how would you get from that point of knowing nothing to becoming a business person? 

Tommy: Yes, it’s an interesting one. And like we said, some people simply wants to be a designer, but then there will be others that — I don’t think you can… design and business are part of the same thing. You should always care about business. If you don’t understand the business, then you can’t design anymore. There’s always going to be a goal to the business or an aim that’s business-led, even if they say it’s customer-led. So I think I would — if I was going to go back, I’d expose myself to more strategic and operational sides of the business much earlier on.

So I decided to be a freelancer for six years. And so you do limit yourself a little bit to expose yourself to those areas of the business, if you’re in freelance, but there are ways you can do it. I mean, may I suggest dating someone who works in the business side, which is actually how I met my — that’s how I met my girlfriend, but that’s a story for another day.

I learned a lot from sort of friends who were either business analysts or product owners. And I was, again, come to curiosity, understanding how say procurement works or resourcing. And yes, you’re not by default going to get exposure to that kind of thing, but it’s up to you to put yourself forward. Maybe it’s a case of grabbing 30 minutes with X, Y, and Z team. Make sure you’re in luck, as it were. 

Christian: So it’s about seeking help from others and not expecting it to come to you?

Tommy: Yes, yes. 100% And I think if you’re in a position where you’re not in a big corporate environment or maybe you’re just working in a — if you say you’re an independent designer and you’re worried that you’re not going to get this business experience, one thing I would potentially recommend would be to reach out to some smaller agencies, maybe some independent studios. They might not get you involved in things like finances, but what they could get you on is areas outside of your comfort zone, outside of design. I think, how I would see it, smaller agencies and teams tend to get their designers involved in a lot more than some of the larger ones. 

Christian: Awesome. Tommy, we’re nearing the end. I have a couple more questions. I ask everyone on the show these, so the first one is, what’s one thing you wish more designers would know?

Tommy: I think it’s important that designers understand that you do have the ability to diversify and cross-pollinate your skills. If you’ve left school and you’re a graphic designer, for example, there’s no reason why you can’t grow into being a user experience designer or a UX researcher, or whatever that might be. I think people sometimes feel like they’ve been siloed or that they’ve been put down a path that they’re not comfortable with or that they maybe have, not regrets, but there may be more to move out of.

And I think it’s just super important to know that nothing is forever, think things evolve and change as does the industry. And there’s always room to grow and shape your own career into something that’s right for you. As I’ve explained, I came — I started off as a front-end developer into a creative designer, visual designer, then into product design and then sort of manager. So there’s nothing further is my takeaway on that.

And I think you become a more rounded a designer by having more strings to your bow. Designers are fixers and essentially creative problem solvers. You can solve more problems if you understand the wider variety of concepts, and teams recognise that. So coming back to my original point, I think it’s be more unicorn.

Christian: Be more unicorn.

Tommy: Yes.

Christian: You should put that on your Twitter bio or in the LinkedIn header. Tommy, last one: how do you reckon the future of designers and industry looks like?

Tommy: Oh, good question. So for me, I think what I’m anticipating is that designers — design will be seated at the top level of business in a way that it kind of hasn’t before. At the moment, design can still feel like a grassroots movement, where we have to sometimes fight for our pitch or place at the table. But I think those days of being sort of second-class citizens are over. You only have to look at some of the big tech companies. Two of the obvious examples, Apple and Google, where you’ve got roles such as chief design officers, chief experience officers, which were roles that didn’t really exist a number of years ago.

And I think that’s going to be a trend that we see more and more, where CEOs, investors, sort of boards are going to — are now realising the importance of brand and user experience, product design. Brand and UX are the two sides of the same and coin. And I think people are seeing that in terms of business and meeting business needs, these roles are just absolutely paramount just in the same way that an operations person or an operations department, as well as the finance team. 

So I think what we’re seeing as well, over the last sort of five years, is a shift to these companies building in-house teams, for example, with Cuckoo, we’ve rather than outsource everything, we’re looking to build an in-house team and grow that team which you can. So we’re going to see all kinds of new types of strategic leadership, of how those in-house teams are run. And I think it comes down to if companies don’t prioritise design and elevate it to the same prominence as things like operations, product, they just simply won’t succeed.

And then lastly, I think the secondly, I think we’re essentially shifted to something more dynamic in the future. So there’s these buzz words such as customer experience transformation, and digital transformation that you see everywhere. I think companies that aren’t able to react quickly to changing customer needs will fall behind. So I think we’ll see a shift to brands listening to customers in new ways.

So just to use as an example, we’ve grown a community forum at Cuckoo, and any feedback customers have or ideas customers have, we then inform almost all product roadmap which is a kind of people who have been doing it, but it seems to becoming more popular where direct feedback from customers is then instantly almost impacting the roadmap.

Christian: Tommy, this has been an hour that went past really fast. Last thing I want to ask you is, where can people find you? Where can they get in touch with you? And also, feel free to add Cuckoo’s website and everything else in here as well. 

Tommy: Sure. Yes, it has flown by; it’s been a fast hour. So as I’ve sort of alluded to, my latest venture is Cuckoo, which you can reach cookoo.co. So, yes, if you’re in the UK and you need broadband, you should check us out. And yes, you can reach me at tommytoner.com if anyone would like to reach out and contact me. 

Christian: Awesome. We’ll add all of these in the show notes as always, so people can easily find you. Tommy, it has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time, and we’ll catch up soon. 

Tommy: Thanks very much, Christian.

Christian: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for listening to the show. Since you’ve made it this far, I hope you found this useful, and if you did, you should know there’s much more content just like this on the way. So if you want to learn more about how designers can impact businesses, please consider subscribing and maybe sharing the episode with others. And before I say goodbye, remember that you can find show notes and links for this episode and others on our website, designmeetsbusiness.co. Catch you in the next one.