Huge chief design officer Fura Johannesdottir on brand behaviour and the links between psychology and design
LBB > You joined Huge earlier this year from Sapient - what drew you to the company and what do you think led to Huge being named one of the top places for creative work this year?
Fura Johannesdottir > What really drew me to Huge was the people that I met throughout my interviewing process; they were open, smart, empathetic, driven and extremely talented. I simply loved every single one of them. This is probably the single most important thing when you take on a new role.
I also realised quickly that Huge had a really diverse group of talent that represented different capabilities such as brand, digital product, physical product, experiential, commerce, integrated, business thinking and product innovation – to me that was a powerhouse. Imagine what you can do with that.
But it’s the culture at Huge that makes it really stand out. It’s truly unique and people really like to be a part of it. They truly love what they do, are super passionate about the work and are very driven.
I think that passion comes through in the work - people simply care. They care about the work, they care about their colleagues, and they care about their clients and what they are trying to accomplish. I think this is why it was named as one of the top places for creatives to work this year. Huge is a company that puts creativity front and centre, which makes it a great place for creatives.
LBB > You mentioned that Huge is an agency geared for the future of our industry. What does that future look like and how is Huge set up to navigate it?
Fura > People’s demands of brands are changing drastically. It’s not only about what products or services you sell, it’s about who you are, how you behave and what your values are. Knowing who you are is more important than ever but you also have to take actions based on that, put it in practice.
This means that agencies must take a holistic view on companies and understand how all the pieces come together, everything from brand strategy to digital ecosystems, business strategy and communications. This is what we at Huge call unified brand experiences – knowing how to define and execute a brand consistently though all customer touch-points while staying true to the values and hopefully driving towards the greater good for all. That’s why I think a place that could set the standards for what the agency of the future looks like.
LBB > How did you end up in this world in the first place? Was it part of a plan or more of a happy accident?
Fura > My career path has been a sequence of totally random things that somehow landed me where I am. My plan was to study architecture. I was living in Copenhagen at the time, having way too much fun and I totally forgot to apply to the art school. That’s when I randomly decided to study psychology at the University of Iceland. I was about halfway through the program when I started to realise this was just not for me but decided to finish what I started.
After my BA, I applied to a publishing department at an ad agency in Iceland. During the interview the owner asked me why I was interested in the job – I told him I had no interest in publishing, but I had loads of interest in design. Long story short – I did not get the job. But strangely enough the agency owned a sister agency – The Icelandic Web Agency. They decided to hire me as a project manager and an information architect at that shop – we can say that’s where the whole thing started.
I was there for three years, working with various clients but Iceland was getting too small for me; I wanted to spread my wings and try to live in a bigger world. New York had always been in my dreams, so it was a logical destination. I ended up going to Parsons School of Design and got a MA in Design & Technology. That’s where I started to play with the intersection of the digital and the physical on a whole different level.
After Parsons, I was at a bit of a crossroads, having produced a short film for my friend over the summer, which I really enjoyed (we got into Sundance, it was EPIC). I had to decide if I wanted to do that or go back to the digital world. That’s when I joined R/GA as an interaction designer for NikeWomen. It was an amazing place to be back then. I felt like we were actually inventing the Internet and all things digital, always pushing boundaries and creating the 'first of'. Nike was an amazing client with big ambitions and always up for experimentation. R/GA is the company that shaped me and made me the designer I am today.
LBB > And did your studies in psychology help shape the way in which you work at all?
Fura > The irony is that studying psychology has been super beneficial throughout my career. Design is really about human understanding, understanding needs, beliefs and what drives people, finding intersection between people and brands. That has always been my approach and it comes naturally. Managing people has been a big part of my job as well, inspiring them, coaching them, understanding their strengths and weaknesses and helping them work with that. That’s when the psychology becomes quite handy.
LBB > You say you learned your craft and worked with top talent during your time at R/GA. What was it like working there and who were your biggest influences?
Fura > I started at R/GA in 2005, and it was a super dynamic place. Lots of young talent that were just trying to figure it out. Interaction Design, Experience Design and all things digital were quite new. We obsessed about the future - we wanted to write it, make it. Bob Greenberg and the leadership team had a really clear vision that we all believed in, and were on this journey together. The talent was outstanding and we worked really hard, but we didn’t mind. We loved it.
So many people influenced me within R/GA, but I’m going to mention three people.
Richard Ting: he was the man who hired me in, had faith in me. No one would hire someone with the portfolio I had today – but he saw something. He was my manager for a long time when he was heading up the Nike account. Richard taught me to obsess about the future, be on top of what technologies were around the corner and how it would shape how people behave. He was always pulling out things that were up and coming and playing with it.
Chloe Gottlieb: she was my manager for many years when she was leading the XD team at R/GA. She is a very empathetic leader and cares deeply, but is still able to speak with honesty. She guided me when I needed it the most, was always around to help me navigate and showed me how to run a team. She is a truly amazing leader, a powerful woman and a great role model for all the young women out there.
Nick Law: he is such an inspirational leader. He leads with a vision and sets high standards for his teams, has passion for the craft. He showed me that you need to carefully curate your teams, make sure that you bring in the best talent and believe in and celebrate the unicorns on your team. He showed me what happens when you empower your talent to take ownership. He really taught me the importance of 'business design' – that it’s our jobs as designers to work with the rest of the leadership to define the value proposition, the differentiator, and take it out to the world. Help design the company.
And I can’t mention R/GA without mentioning Bob Greenberg. It was just a privilege to work with him for all of those years.
LBB > What is it about the digital world that really fascinates you?
Fura > The digital world is redefining and reshaping the real world, that’s what I love about it. It’s an opportunity to rethink how we live, the role of businesses in the world and what type of world we want to create for the future, hopefully to create a positive change for people around the world.
LBB > Can you tell us a bit about your role - how do you define Chief Design Officer and what does your day-to-day look like?
Fura > As a chief design officer, I’m responsible for the overall quality of the work coming out of Huge. That means that I need to have a clear strategy and vision for what great work looks like. I need to make sure that the teams are set up for success and that we bring in the best talent to help us get there. But a big part of the job is also to help define what type of company Huge is, what our mission and vision are and how we differentiate ourselves in the marketplace. What’s our value proposition and how do we take it to market? It is in many ways about designing the business with the leadership team. A big part of the job as well is to drive growth, both organically and through new business opportunities.
My day-to-day has many different layers. I spend a lot of time with my teams, do bi-weekly one-on-ones with my global leadership teams, bi-weekly work reviews across the globe, working with leadership on defining our offerings, etc. I also partake in pitches, go in where I’m needed and help drive them. I participate in client work and collaborate with teams. In many ways I do see my role as someone who is there to make sure everybody else is set up to do the best work of their lives.
LBB > The word 'design' itself is incredibly broad in 2020 - thinking digitally and the space that you work in, what is good design? And how can it feed into good business for clients?
Fura > I honestly fear that the world 'design' might have become too broad in the last few years, specifically in the digital space. It amazes me how much bad design lives in the digital space and I can’t understand how this has happened. I feel like both the overall idea of a differentiating 'value proposition' and the design craft itself has suffered a lot.
For example, why do all the banking apps look similar and do the same things? Why have we not tried to challenge old, broken design patterns and tried to make them better? What’s truly the role of a bank in our lives? What makes us think it’s only transactional? What if it was something different? What’s holding us back? This drives me mad.
A good design to me is something that has been created to bring new value to businesses – something that enables them to connect better with people through a unique value proposition. A good design brings people back, is beautifully crafted and represents the brand in a unique way. A great design creates utility for users, connects with them emotionally and brings new revenue to businesses. It’s that unique value exchange where both people and companies benefit from the relationship.
LBB > Internally you are looking at things like ethics and sustainability, both for your clients and Huge as a business - can you speak more about that, the work that you're doing and why it's so important in 2020?
Fura > Generally speaking, I think people expect more of brands today than only being a transaction, a thing I get, a place that I go to, or a service that I buy. People are expecting companies to hold specific standards, have values and take a stand in the world. This has been going on for a long time (Patagonia being one of the best examples out there) but somehow Covid and Black Lives Matter have accelerated this change. It’s really about buying into their values and having empathy built into the core.
Huge has been human centric since the beginning, empathy is in the DNA which is why I think Huge is uniquely positioned to work with companies on navigating this space. A lot of the work we have been doing is around how we amplify this in our brand and sharpening our POV on those matters. We partner with our clients on how to act in this world that has drastically changed in the last few months, what to say and what to do.
LBB > You have had opportunities to work all over the world from the Nordics to the US, Middle East to the UK. What has this global experience taught you about culture, technology and connection? And how does it contribute to the work that you do today?
Fura > Working across the globe has given me a very wide perspective of the world. I understand cultural nuances and how to empathise with different cultures and learn from their world views.
New York and the US showed me that anything is possible and that you can dream big. I was in NYC for 11 years, so it really defined me. When I moved to NYC in 2003 I felt like the people in the USA were behind (people were not sending SMSs) but it gradually got ahead of the curve. My job was all about being ahead of the curve and to make what’s next – using technology as a driver to always be the first.
Sweden reminded me that a work-life balance is needed to live a healthy life in order to do great work. Stockholm is a start-up centre for Europe, lots of great companies are born out of there like Spotify and Klarna. Swedish people are very thoughtful in terms of what they do and how they do it. They might not say much but their actions speak volumes.
Turkey showed me resilience on a whole different level. Whatever comes your way, you can stand up again and keep going. Clients in Turkey are super ambitious and willing to take more risk than many US and UK clients. They use technology to redefine and rethink their businesses.
Much like New York, the Middle East is about realising your dreams. Technology is at the epicentre of everything they do. They are very big on the 'show' and want people to take notice. There are lots of opportunities for experiential work. Dubai’s ambition was to be the most connected city in the world by 2020.
The UK taught me to love the details that set us apart. There are so many small details that make London so special - it’s like many small, unique towns put together in one city. I think there are a lot of interesting things happening in London, specifically around financial services and technology. A lot of innovation is being driven out of there. It’s also a great pool for international talent and the level of craft in design is high.
LBB > You have judged and served as jury president at numerous award shows. What sort of work really grabs your attention and what sort of work do you expect to see winning awards within the next year?
Fura > Work that sends signals for what’s next. I like work that challenges the norm, tries something new and redefines standards. Above all, it must be well executed and have excellent craft.
LBB > How do you see the digital world and technology expanding over the next few years? And what advice would you give those that are a bit fearful of change?
Fura > The boundaries between the physical and the digital worlds are blurring – they are truly becoming one. I hope with that change that the digital displays as we know them are going to become less and less important – allowing us to be more present and in the moment.
The recent months have accelerated a lot of the change that we have been predicting for a while. We are, for example, connecting more than ever via video conferences, e-commerce is on the rise, and small businesses are starting to figure out how to thrive in the digital world. I think this allows us to rethink in many ways how we live and how we travel.
I would say to people that you need to embrace this change and use this as an opportunity to live the life you always wanted to. The world is full of opportunities: take a bit of risk and explore what the new digital world has to offer. It might change your life for the better.