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GPJ's Makers: James Christian

The “Makers” series is our semi-regular look at brands, marketing, design and technology through the eyes of the game changing people on the GPJ team who are focused on transforming our clients’ brands through experience design – online, on devices and in the physical world. In this Makers episode, we’re speaking with James Christian, Executive Creative Director in our San Carlos, CA office.

So first things first: what do you do?

I am responsible for creative direction and management of awesomely talented and seasoned team of creative directors, experiential designers, graphic designers, writers, architects and production staff. My other responsibilities include heading up creative on new business development out of San Francisco and surrounding areas. I am also very lucky to be the GPJ creative lead on Dreamforce 2013, the 60,000 person+ cloud computing event created by Salesforce.

What role does design have to play in bringing a brand to life?

The term Design is so ambiguous these days because in our agency it goes far beyond experiential, graphic, or digital. I agree with Alice Rawsthorn when she wrote for the New York Times that "just about any form of planned change can be described as having been designed."

For GPJ, design is the foundation for everything we create, and it ties all of the moments of the consumer journey together. Design is our tool for creating brand experiences that tell a cohesive brand story, involve all five senses, are share-able, and most importantly generate value for our clients.

How would you frame design as a crucial business practice?

For a brand to be successful, it must understand and use design to create systems that solve business challenges and create competitive advantages. Consumers expect good design and they are challenging brands to refresh and reinvent their products so they keep coming back. The same also goes for B2B companies and I think more and more they are starting to realize that design is crucial to their success.

Roger Martin sums it up in his book "The Design of Business" by writing "In a global economy, elegant design is becoming a critical competitive advantage. Trouble is, most business folks don't think like designers.

"For any company that chooses to innovate, the foremost challenge is this," Martin says. "Are you willing to step back and ask, 'What's the problem we're trying to solve?' Well, that's what designers do: They take on a mystery, some abstract challenge, and they try to create a solution."

Where do you find creative inspiration?

I like to be surrounded by really talented individuals who I can learn from and be challenged by. However the best way to be inspired is to leave the office. It is so important to get away from the internet and actually get out in the world of design. Every designer should regularly go to conferences, participate in workshops and be pushed outside their comfort level. Every designer should try and teach, because in many ways it is the best way to learn and be inspired.

What's the best thing about leading your creative studio at GPJ?

It is the work we get to do by far. We work on some really amazing "brand to people experiences" that push the boundaries of large scale experience design. We also have a standing agreement on my team that I will charge over any hill for them first as long as they have my back as well. So if they want me to fight for a creative idea I will do so—as long as it solves a strategic business challenge.

What experiential trends are you following?

My team mainly concentrates on large multi experience conferences and experiences. Two of the most compelling ideas we are exploring is to design spaces based on a business or sales process. So we are now designing physical spaces that reduce sales cycles and deepen the relationship between brands and consumers. The other is the idea of using experience design to manifest the culture of the brands we are bringing to life. In 2012 Jim Hackett said that companies need to explore culture as a part of workplace design. We are taking that idea into consumer experiences, by designing "settings to accommodate focused, collaborative and social work in both open and enclosed environments –in other words, a palette of place."

What's the best advice you've given to a client recently?

"Don't try and over-complicate the experience by trying it to be all things to all people, or by showcasing too many different offerings in one space." I think the biggest mistake brands make is to try and use experience design to promote every product at once, or appeal to all segments of an audience at once. If we try and do that as designers we will just dilute the brand message and we won't ever be able to design a simple emotionally engaging experience that consumers will REMEMBER and WANT TO SHARE.

What technology trends are you watching?

The most exciting trend we are exploring is the delivery of content in ways that satisfy the different needs and wants of consumers, on an individual one-to-one basis. We are now integrating into our experience design the idea of "digital landscaping" and "second screen content" through mobile delivery. These two ideas blur the boundaries between physical design and digital content delivery. So for larger experiences, we are pushing content out to consumers based on where they are in the space and on what they want to get out of the experience. So imaging using digital content to give a physical space a voice and personality that responds directly to consumers. One of my goals is to create a physical space that responds directly to individuals and actually starts to "miss them" when they are not present.

What do great clients ask of creatively-led agencies?

I think great clients should always ask their agencies to push the level of experience design, technology, and ways of thinking through the customer journey. Great clients have high expectations and at the same time have a balance of what is realistic for the particular assignment.

What skills will the designer of the future need?

I sincerely hope the designer of the future will know two things: 1) Processes on HOW to think and ideate through a business problem, and 2) How to DRAW. More and more I see portfolios that have absolutely no sketching, and no sense of design exploration. If you want to be competitive in this business, you need to know how to remove yourself from the technology of the 3D environment and THINK by SKETCHING.

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