Multidisciplinary designer, Nick DuPey, hit a few rough patches growing up in Chattanooga. When his girlfriend’s mom suggested he take an art class, he found a path to fine art, graphic design, and a creative hive. His career led to IDEO, where he added human-centered design to his practice. Now, as Head of Experience Design at co:collective, he cultivates collaborative co-creation informed by purpose.
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Amy Devers: Today I’m talking to Nick DuPey. Nick is a multidisciplinary designer with over 20 years of experience in graphic design, human-centered design, and fine art. He recently joined co:collective, a design and strategy agency, as their Managing Director of Experience Design. Prior to co:collective, Nick spent 9 years at famed global design and innovation company, IDEO. He has worked with a wide range of brands including Ford, Target, City of Boston, and humanitarian aid organization American Refugee Committee, now known as Alight. The hallmark of all of Nick’s work is a deep engagement with the people within an organization – through interviewing and co-creating with people, he helps define who they are as an organization. Nick also has a background in, and deep love for fine art, music, graphic design, and immersing himself in the gritty in-between spaces where creative hives and communities are born out of the necessity to clear new pathways. He thrives on generative connection and critical creative discourse… and I was so engrossed in this conversation that I did not want it to end… Here’s Nick
Nick DuPey: My name is Nick DuPey, I live and work just outside of Boston, but I identify with Boston, Massachusetts as my home base. I am the Managing Director of the Experience Design practice at the design and strategy firm co:collective. I’m drawn to the creative profession. This is a place that I’ve always been interested in. And I do it because I thrive on creative relationships. I’m interested in solving problems and talking about ideas and that’s been a constant through my life. So I’ve been very fortunate working at places that have allowed me to do that.
Amy: (Laughs) Yes, it sounds like a very conscious choice on your part. Can we go back to zero? I would like to hear about young Nick’s formative years? I understand you grew up in Chattanooga, yes?
Nick: Yeah, I grew up in Chattanooga, that would probably have been my formative years. I was born in the Midwest in Des Moines, kind of moved around a little bit and then landed in Chattanooga, Tennessee when I was, I want to say 12 or 13, lived there for about 25 years. And so moving at the age of 13 is a weird time, especially coming from more of a northern place to a southern place. It was a little bit of a culture shock for me, going down south and the tail end of middle school. When I got down there, I had a lot of preconceived notions, do people even wear shoes in the south? (Laughs) And then I got down there and I think I kind of made this conscious choice when I got down there to be like my artistic self, I guess if that makes sense.
Amy: Oh, you took the opportunity to reinvent yourself?
Nick: I don’t know if I did it on purpose (laughter) I was just, like I got there I’m like, I cannot fake this anymore, I got to do me. This is the early 90s, so there was a lot of interesting stuff happening culturally at that time and I got deep into the music and movies and cinema, art, and all that sort of stuff. That became a core for me going into high school.
Amy: So early 90s is post-punk, grunge, what were you into?
Nick: Yeah, before I moved down I was really into hip-hop music and I got down south and grunge music was taken off. MTV was the center of the universe for a tween at that point. I just remember I would stay up late and watch the show called 120 Minutes on MTV, it’s a cultural lifeline on Sunday nights at midnight and I would sit there with my VCR and record music videos so I could keep listening to them. And I think that kind of turned me onto an array of things. A lot of punk rock music, along with things like The Replacements and Minute Man and I got really into Britpop, was a big deal to me at that time.
Amy: Okay, I have a deep, deep love for The Replacements, so I’m happy to hear you say that.
Nick: The best! The best! Still…
Amy: Still, timeless. .
Nick: And the way I found that stuff was, it was kind of through grunge. That single soundtrack came out and then I don’t think people realize this, but it was like, no internet, so you would get that soundtrack and you’d be like, who is Paul Westerberg? And then you would read an article in Spin and be like The Replacements, and then you’d have to go buy a cassette or a CD and it was like, you didn’t know if it was going to be good or bad.
Amy: Right, you were gambling with your tween allowance. It was a whole discovery mission that felt like part detective work, yeah, and it was so exciting to uncover that stuff.
Nick: Yeah and it’s like real and tangible, was the other part of it. It was like you have to go out and make a quest and then find this stuff at the mall. Even just getting to the mall or somewhere was like a challenge. When you got it, it was like okay, now that I know this music, am I cool enough to buy the t-shirt!
Amy: (Laughs) Yeah.
Nick: And it’s like, where the hell do I find this t-shirt? (Laughter) And then you’re like, you’re the guy that dresses this way in school. I still hold onto that, it’s very dear to me. I know everything is so accessible now, but I still like to go on that hunt and look at the world around me as a source of how to create my identity. Maybe this is a really Gen X thing to do, but I have a tendency to resist the Pinterest culture or Instagram cultures as a place to find inspiration because it feels a little too easy, you know?
Amy: it feels like the battle isn’t discovery, it’s battling the algorithm, it’s… do you know what I mean? Which is not nearly as fun as going on a path of discovery. I feel like if the landscape were the same for everyone, like it didn’t shift, based on what you search for, then you could actually go down paths of discovery. But the algorithm just ruins it! (Laughter)
Nick: I have my days with it. I jumped off Instagram for a while because I was just like, I didn’t like the way it was making me feel basically, the social component. I came back to it a few months ago and it felt like the algorithm was reset for me.
Amy: Oh good!
Nick: I started deleting stuff that I thought was noisy, it became much more… because I have kids and a family, so I’m like, it became much more about personal stuff and less about projecting. And it’s funny, I was talking to my wife last night about this. We were talking about our Instagram algorithm and I was like, I’m getting this steady stream of AI imagery that people are creating and it’s kind of intensely beautiful and it’s kind of psychedelic and surreal and she’s like, oh, I haven’t seen any of this, all I get in my algorithm is people complaining about AI, but I don’t see what they’re making or what’s being made. So we ended up just going through some of these accounts and then hopping on [Dolly 0:08:15] and trying to recreate what we were seeing on their accounts. I think my comments to her at that time was just like, this is so cool that it’s really bumming me the hell out. (Laughter) This is really depressing.
Amy: Yes! I know, I don’t know how to feel about it either. It’s both exciting and there is a distinct feeling of it automating creativity in a way that I haven’t wrapped my head around how to find my agency within it yet. So I also haven’t… I can’t really conceive of how it will touch me and resonate with me the same way. But I mean I’m not anti.
Nick: I think a lot of people, they talk about it, it’s a tool, but I haven’t seen people in my daily life using it as a tool yet. I’m very much into… my background is very much in print design and so I’m very… I like to print things out and then I like to scan it in and then I like to print it out again and chop it up. That’s another very 90s thing of like art chantry, in the way you make punk flyers, you scan something in and…
Amy: Do you know that book: Fucked Up + Photocopied?
Nick: Oh yeah, I got it right behind me! It’s the best!
Amy: (Laughs) Yeah.
Nick: It’s so good.
Amy: He’s a friend of mine (laughs).
Nick: Oh really?
Nick: Oh man! That book… that’s one of those books where I bought it for a bunch of people and then I finally was like, I’ve got to get this for myself and I think I got it for Christmas a few years back.
Nick: It’s the best.
Amy: Bryan Turcotte of Beta Petrol, by the way.
Nick: Another thing that is so good that it depresses me. (Laughter) I just look at him and I’m like damn!
Amy: But that’s a collection, right, and that’s a collection that sort of is a synopsis of a movement and an ethos and it does, it makes me so excited to have lived through it because I feel like I got a lot of my scrappiness from that kind of… resourcefulness from living through that time and seeing what you could make of what there was around you, without having to follow anybody’s recipe or anybody’s Pinterest board to get inspiration. It was like, I’m going to take a photo of the pavement and then I’m going to cut out this thing from a magazine and then I’m going to combine it with whatever, it was just such a generative time, I think. Not that it’s not generative now, but it was generative in a way that also felt kind of homegrown, I think.
Nick: Yeah, and I love the way you describe that. You have to have a sensibility as you’re walking around, you have to be in tune with what’s happening. You’re not waiting for something to be projected onto you, but rather having a sensitivity to the world around you. I think to me that’s the place that I want to live and a conversation that I have with a lot of younger designers, it’s like, you can make this shit out of anything.
Nick: Don’t feel like you need this thing because you’re special, you have a sensitivity, you feel things, you see things, your color palette could be what’s on a tree, the texture could be looking up at the sky and seeing the way the leaves overlap. That’s all there, but live in that state because if you do, at least personally, it gets me closer to this flow state that I want to live in, which is probably… just my head being in the cloud all the time. (Laughter)
Amy: That is a great place to be though!
Nick: It’s a good place!
Amy: Yeah, so back to you and back to your teenage years, we sort of skipped your early childhood, is there anything from there that was super formative or… what compelled the move to Chattanooga you took the opportunity to reinvent yourself, but that’s also a kind of displacement. Did your family stay together or was there a rupture in your family?
Nick: My family…yeah, they stay together. I was born in Des Moines, Iowa and lived there until I was about 10 and then we moved to Maryland, outside of Baltimore for about three years. I was kind of moving… my dad was getting new jobs and I started having… siblings came along when I was getting a little bit older. I’m about eight years older than my brother and 13 years older than my sister.
Amy: I see, okay.
Nick: And my sister kind of came along right as we were living in Maryland, down south, I’d just been drawing for ages, I would sit down and as a kid, I was born in 1978, so Star Wars and all of the 80s stuff was a big deal to me. I would sit down and draw Star Wars battles happening, triangles and circles.
Amy: And if your siblings were quite a bit younger than you, it sounds like you had a fair amount of time to occupy yourself.
Nick: Yeah, totally…
Amy: To kind of be in your own imagination, yeah.
Nick: Without a doubt and there wasn’t a lot of television, so I would just sit downstairs and the way I remember it, I would draw a lot and I look at my kids now and I see when they get in that state, that flow state, it makes me feel so good because I’m like, oh yeah, that’s a wonderful place to be. But it was also, there’s a little bit of loneliness there too, right? But I was definitely in my drawings, in my zone, in my feelings, music eventually came along and really became a soundtrack to that moment. Up until today it’s still sort of like that you know?
Amy: Fast forward to Chattanooga and your teenage years. You’ve decided to embrace your artistic side…You kind of described yourself, in the research I did, as a teenage weirdo (laughs) and I’m wondering if you can elaborate on that for me and were you… what kind of weirdo were you, were you the angsty kind or the awkward kind?
Nick: Oh yeah.
Amy: Neither, all of it?
Nick: It was probably the angsty kind. (Laughter) I found The Cure pretty early on and yeah, high school was a struggle. I went to a really rural high school and I think I just got really provocative, I was sick of rednecks, I got in a lot of fights and sort of goth, sort of punk. But when you’re in a small town, there’s just all the weirdos kind of hung out together. My buddies were into Dungeons and Dragons and so… but a very imaginative group of people. And actually when I was 15, I got to a point with my family where things were kind of pretty difficult and I think we weren’t getting along.
I ended up going into a group home when I was around 15. So I lived in a group home from, I want to say 15 to 17, just all boys. I actually moved from my school, I guess my sophomore year, through my junior year to an inner-city school. I went from a really white, rural school to a primarily African American school in Chattanooga. And those guys that I lived with kind of became my brothers really, my family. I didn’t get messed with as much at the school, less rednecky. It was a tough time, just put it that way. Very isolated, wasn’t really sure if I had a future or what it would be. And then I had a really bad accident when I was 17, I had gotten into a fight at the group home and fell off, left, it was November and I just, I was like, I’m done with this. And I walked out and I ended up… I saw these guys who were standing outside of a gas station, I was like, oh no, I didn’t have a shirt on. I fell down into a ditch and ended up cutting my hand really bad. And ended up having to go to the hospital and had to… I lost the use of my right hand, which I’m right handed, for about a year. I had hit an artery and a nerve and all my nerves and tendons and stuff, so it was just like… I kind of had to relearn how to use my right hand after it all. But that was, ironically, a bridge that… like brought me back to my family. And so ended up graduating from the rural high school, I ended up going back to live with my parents and yeah, I look back at that time and it’s… I think it’s where a lot of my independence comes from. Whether it’s me being the older brother, to start off with, or me sort of being in this group home situation, where I kind of felt like I had to fend for myself. I just felt… for a while it felt like me versus the world, right?
Amy: Yeah, I can imagine and I don’t know exactly why your parents put you in a group home, was it a discipline thing or they couldn’t handle you anymore kind of thing?
Nick: I just pressed the rules, normal teenage stuff, like I’m not going to cut my hair, I’m going to dress weird. But I think I was very like, just provocative and would argue with everything. At the same time they were young parents, they had me when they were very young, so I think they were working with a toddler and an eight year old and their marriage was having its own problems. And so when I got back, they ended up separating. It was just like a perfect storm, I think, of teen angst, young marriage, little kids, new place, new jobs and…
Amy: And small town.
Nick: Small town, exactly. And so yeah.I’ve spent a lot of time over the course of years working through all that stuff, but also just trying to understand… it wasn’t anybody specific fault…
Amy: I don’t hear blame in your voice, but I think it’s okay for us to look back on trials and tribulations and sort of understand the factors that led to them. And also honor the trauma it caused, but it sounds like you’ve also mined that experience for resilience and independence and you can see how it forged a kind of spirit within you that is still active today.
Nick: And I think there were probably seeds to that to begin with and it really was a formative thing. It’s funny, I don’t see it as my life, I don’t know any different and in my mind I’m like, everybody goes through shit. And they worked through it in their own way and I still work through it. It informs who I am as a parent and how I want to parent and I try to be optimistic because god knows, I spent a lot of time feeling terrible about it, you know? (Laughter) I got to keep going and I’m still close to my family again and everything is great now.
Amy: It sounds like this terrible accident in a way brought you back together. You graduated from the rural high school and at that point, were you… did you have a vision for your future or were you feeling kind of aimless or what happened after that?
Nick: I was in a band with a friend of mine and at that point I was just singing, now I play guitar and drums and stuff, but no, yeah, I was like, I’m just going to be in a band. My girlfriend at the time, who is actually my wife now, my mom ended up moving back to Iowa, my dad moved away and so I ended up staying in Chattanooga and kind of got adopted by her family, it’s just amazing, right? We’re still together and they’re still my family.
Amy: That’s beautiful.
Nick: Yeah, it was actually her mom, my wife’s mom, Janet, who she also had sort of grown up in a group home and went through her own sort of trials when she was about my age. So she was very sympathetic and nurturing and she convinced me to go to community college. She was like, you should just go take one class and I’m like yeah, but I’m going to play music. And she was like, I’ll pay for it. And so she paid for me to go to Chattanooga State Technical Community College and I took an art history course. I was like, I like this. And I had a really wonderful teacher there named Ken Page. He was like, man, you should try to take my abstract painting class, I think you’d really like it. So over the summer I took that abstract painting class and my mind just got blown. I was hooked. I was back in that flow-like state that I was in when I was little.
Amy: That’s so great.
Nick: You know how it is, you do this stuff and suddenly the world changes.If you take those contour line drawings, blind contour line drawing class, whatever exercise, if you take that seriously, you look up from your drawing, actually you’re not supposed to be looking at your drawing, you look around you and everything turns into lines. And at that point I was like, oh shit, I’m seeing the world differently, this is incredible. It’s like a little scary actually. And I still cherish that feeling, but I think that was kind of what hooked me on that, hey, I’m going to stay in school and pursue art, fine art, painting.
Amy: Three cheers for Janet being that inspirational force (laughter), that’s awesome. I design furniture and I make furniture and after doing that for a little while, you start to see the world in an exploded view. You start to see how everything comes together and all the joints of the built world and then you also learn how to translate that into the invisible systems and you get to see those. It’s a tremendous agency, once you unlock that for yourself. I’m feeling you on finding this place within yourself where you feel like you have this reservoir that’s limitless and also a capacity to develop a real agency with that reservoir.
Nick: That’s 1,000%. In a way it’s like finding your intelligence too. I remember doing art and then I was like, I have to take these liberal arts classes, I have to take maths and science. Like I’m no good at any of this stuff and barely graduated high school and I took algebra and I just remember, because I’d been dealing with abstraction, I was like, oh shit, A means whatever I want it. Oh my god, numbers! They’re not even real (laughter), the mind is blowing. But I was able to do math that way and it’s interesting you talk about furniture because right, that can be a gateway where you begin to start thinking about materials. And where those things come from, how they come to be, it is organic, it’s biological, it’s engineering and…
Amy: You start to ask questions about everything you see around you, like this didn’t just get stamped out in an anonymous factor, like choices were made, who made those choices? And you start to see forks as objects of design and you know? (Laughs)
Nick: Yeah and like that exploration, just continues, has continued through my life. To your original question, that was a big part… that’s a big part of what I seek. It’s like people who see the world in those different ways have that sensitivity and then they blow my mind. I’m always looking for that drawing teacher, Ken Page, that I had. That’s what I mean by creative relationships, right, and I’ve been so fortunate to have so many of them, professionally, socially, I find myself drawn to that type of person.
Amy: I’ve been a part of those scenes too and I’ve felt, in them I’ve felt more seen than I have outside of them, right? Even though we’re all doing our own thing and we’re all expressing ourselves, somehow that lends itself to being seen, accepted and understood for what it is that you’re doing and you’re bringing to the whole creative soup of the world we live in. I’ve also, have also just had this magical sense of… when everybody else is exercising their creative agency too, and you’re a part of it, and there’s this camaraderie, or you get to… like I was part of a music scene too, but I don’t play an instrument and I don’t have that gift.
But going to support your friend’s band, there was like a constant flow of creativity that I was always consuming and participating in and supporting and you get to see the iterations of everything, in the same way that a gardener feels really connected to bulbs as they start to grow and bloom. You feel really connected to everyone else’s projects and work as they start to grow and bloom. And you feel part of an ecosystem, and a necessary part of it, which is way different than being a number or on the other side of an algorithm.
Nick: And especially at a certain age when you’re really trying to find your people, or if you feel like you never really had your people, that becomes vital, that’s vitality to it that to be able to take part, to be able to contribute, to be able to see and understand, to me that’s community and for me now, it’s family, right? I would say that those people are family as well in their own way and it is bound by creativity and shared experience.
Amy: You were part of a vibrant, creative community in Chattanooga? Was Young Monster born from that?
Nick: Absolutely, so I went to school and got my degree in drawing and painting, still liked doing music stuff and playing in bands, so we were just in that scene. [** 0:31:46] is a medium-sized city, it’s not super small, but a lot of the people in the bands would jump around to different bands, it was great. And really great music, legitimately, great music that’s known all over the country because bands are always touring and stuff. So super inspiring scene.
Amy: We haven’t asked about your band and is there a record of it?
Nick: We were called Giant Tiger. There’s some music on Spotify now, we put out one EP, like 10 inch EP…Played a lot in Atlanta and Ashville, North Carolina, did one tour up the East Coast, still love the guys that I was in a band with, still love them, to this day, Gapers, a guitar player in the band, still best friends. Him and I went to art school together, did a lot of collaborations on painting projects and stuff like that. I think in studying fine arts and doing drawing and painting, I got really drawn into the postmodernism of it all and thinking about… similar to how I was describing, how art was an introduction to different schools of mathematics or science or whatever. It was my way into thinking about social issues, politics, and I got really into art theory and philosophy. Some points it was very paralyzing, when you’re thinking about, especially a lot of the artists from the 70s and the earlier post-modern artists who were dealing with simulation, like art type stuff or feminism or racial issues at the time.
It became a lot to process and turn into art, if that makes any sense. But at the same time it’s still, I think, foundational to how I process the world around me. It’s through this sort of art of it all. And that’s how I kind of oftentimes choose to express how I feel about it and process. So again, that education was just so important, playing in bands and studying art. This was 9/11 happened while I was going through this as well, so it’s like how the fuck do I make sense of all that? Apologies for swearing so much. I think I had a little bit of a break and was working in restaurants, with all my friends and I was like, I need to get a job (laughs). I was just so burned out on it all. And so I went back to school to study graphic design, but I told myself if I was going to do that, I need to make sure that I’m studying it with the mindset of what I got from my fine arts degree, in terms of what does design mean…
Amy: You were afraid of just selling out and being a sort of corporate drone?
Nick: I didn’t have much respect for the design students (laughs), which is probably like a pretty normal art school hierarchy, where the painters… have no respect for the graphic designers. That was my bad, that was me being an idiot, but I just thought it was selling out, you know? And so I told myself that I was going to go back, I need to make sure that I don’t let go of my value system and that I learn sort of… we were studying art theory and it was fun because I sort of had that formal education at that point. I knew how to make a good picture.
I got really turned on, again, by things like typography and equating design movements to some of the broader art movements, whether it’s fluxus or whatever, seeing this beauty in the design in those movements. Being like, oh, I can do that. There’s a place for this.
Amy: There’s a certain kind of sensibility too that allows you to… when you’re learning another modality on top of something that you already consider to be your forte and your fuel, your nourishment, you can approach that new modality, not from necessarily a beginners perspective, but from a, how do I learn the rules so I can break them kind of perspective.
Nick: (Laughs) Yeah, for sure, and that was the hardest part for me was because I was like a total luddite at that point. This was probably mid-aughts, right, and I had no idea how to use computers and was like proud of it and then I was like… that was my school, it was a big part of my schooling, was like, how do I export a PDF? (Laughs)
Nick: I was a true boomer at that age. (Laughter) That was also mind-blowing because I think it opened my eyes to the possibilities of technology, which is still a really fascinating thing to me. It got me into thinking about hypertext, which is cute, now that I think about it. Technology became sort of a really interesting expression of my ongoing debate about whether modernism has a use in the world. (Laughter) I had a healthy distaste for modernist, which I think has probably softened as I’ve gotten older and been able to buy nice furniture. (Laughter) I’m like, ah, I see what they’re talking about.
Amy: Okay, so graphic design skills, computer skills, what’s your professional, your early professional life like and how do you get to IDEO because you spent nine plus years at IDEO, which sounds to me like it was foundational for who you are as a professional today. So I really want to hear all about, I guess the personal trajectory of growth that you went on while you were there and what kinds of work you did and how you formed your philosophies for how you work now?
Nick: I worked really hard on my second degree and I had a couple of jobs, I had an internship at the same time as going to school and I got an internship at this, what was called a ‘sustainable’ design firm, called Tricycle, that worked with the interiors industry to come up with ecological solutions to interior design, architecture, stuff like that. I was a graphic designer there, an intern, and then I got the job when I got out of school, so I was really lucky to land in a job that I enjoyed.
The chief brand officer, the founder, this guy named Michael Hendricks, he was also my professor, and so he ended up leaving tricycle and going to IDEO and we remain friends. He also… he’s incredible, like next level and till a friend/mentor. I think he has an affinity for people who poke at things (laughs), so he ended up going up there. I ended up staying at Tricycle and writing a grant with a friend of mine to start a print making company and that’s sort of how Young Monsters started. I ended up reaching out to some friends, to some people that I admire, this guy Zach Hobbs, who is just an amazing designer.
And we sort of started this little art collective where we just made posters and I ended up getting so busy with that, screen printing and designing, that I couldn’t do it with my job. So I was like, I’m just going to see if this will be a thing. And so got a space and started doing that, was super broke, made no money, nothing, like less than 10 grand a year. It was like a crash course in design and I was constantly making things, and my music. But I got to a point after a few years where I was getting burned out and my girlfriend, now wife, we talked about it and we were just like, we need to get out of Tennessee, it’s just a tough beat here, politics… we just needed a change. And so we had some friends in Seattle and we were like, well let’s just move there and keep doing what we’re doing up there. And then I hit up Michael, who was up in Boston at IDEO and I was like, I’m so fed up with Tennessee, I’ve got to get out of here.
And he was like, you should play at IDEO. And I was like, I don’t want to work at your big corporation (laughter). And he was like, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. (Laughter) So I applied, for a junior communication designer role and flew up there with an actual physical portfolio of posters and interviewed in a room full of…
Amy: Like a giant file that doesn’t even fit on the airplane?
Nick: Yeah, right, exactly! Exactly! (Laughs) I was like, how do I get this in. They put me up in a fancy hotel, I’m in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I’m like holy shit. And went up into this nice office and there was like 10 designer looking people in there. I didn’t know how to interview for jobs. I had no idea. And so I just came in with this stuff and I threw it on the table and I was like, what do you all want to talk about? It was funny, I spent probably five hours interviewing with different people. Flew back home and I was working at a place called The Pickle Barrel, like a dive bar.
And they were like, you got the job? And I’m like, fuck if I know. And then they hit me back up and they were like, hey, can you show us a little bit more work that is a little more buttoned up? And I was like, oh, you want to see the boring stuff? (Laughter) I was like yeah, I could show you the boring stuff. So I got the job. We came up here and I’ve been up here for 12 years now and IDEO just was a whole other creative journey where I think I learned about human centered design as a reconnect with Michael again, which was amazing, and a ton of other people, including Jane Fulton Sphery Suri who constantly blows my mind. She’s one of the people that was crucial to the foundation of human centered design and ethnography and design. I think what I loved was not the graphic designers, but every other type of person who identified as a designer, were the people that kept me going, you know?
Nick: And that’s why I say, I’ve been so fortunate with those relationships, yeah.
Amy: I can see that you’ve been fortunate, and even though you don’t seem like you’ve cultivated it, because you’re like, I don’t want to work for your corporation (laughter), what do you guys want to talk about? Oh, you mean the boring work (laughs). It does seem like you can’t not be bringing something to the table, or else these relationships would fall apart, right? It sounds to me like when you get there and you get into this discourse where you’re learning from them and you’re appreciating how your world is being broadened, that that becomes a really reciprocal, generative kind of space for you, and for the others too, that’s reciprocal, that’s the nature of mutuality. Even though it would seem that you’re reluctant (laughs), clearly you are cultivating these situations for yourself that do keep you immersed in a really fertile playground for a creative.
Nick: They do, yeah.
Amy: In the research that I did on you, it says one of the projects you did at IDEO that you were most proud of was the work you did with Alight, which was formally the American Refugee Committee. Can you talk about that real fast, I mean that’s a project, I think, that has a lot of parts, but also a lot of humanity, so I want to hear…
Nick: I love being on a team. I like… I’m actually a big sports fan too, I just like teams, whether it’s being in a band or… I love that sort of collaborative aspect of it. I’m that type of person that likes bands where the songs are written by the whole band, they don’t credit one person. And so yes, I’ve been fortunate, I think I bring something to those, but there’s this alchemy that happens where it’s like 1+1=3, you know…
Amy: Alchemy is a great word for it, yeah.
Nick: It’s like, it’s the best and 1+1= blue, that’s even better, right, and you can be divergent at IDEO, the projects were always like that. You were teamed with two/three other people, you work on a problem for three months, you get to do the research, you get to travel, you come up with the insights, you prototype, we could do the same project with different people and it would never come out the same. And so I was a part of that, I would bring the visual side or I’d bring some divergent thinking. It was always a pleasure to overlap with business designers or design researchers who had a different point of view on the world.
But yeah, Alight was a huge project and I think that project came at a point where I started being in more of a leadership role. I think it’s easier to say, I’m interested in growing people, but the older I got, it’s actually hard to find that joy as you identify with, I am the things that I make, stuff that I make, to I am defined by the success of other people and their growth. And it’s easier to say it, but having that feeling, it’s addictive. Where you’re just like, man, I’m so proud of somebody and that’s where I was with my career when Alight came along and it was a project with IDEO.org and they had been working with them for years. And they finally got to a point where they were like, we need to… we want to rebrand because we’ve been practicing a version of human centered design, our approach to humanitarian aid is based in the abundance of the people we’re helping. We should co-create with them, and we need to rename ourselves, we need to express this better.
And so I was a Managing Director of the Cambridge studio and it was one of those projects where it was like, it didn’t pay a lot, but it was we couldn’t afford not to do it because it was so meaningful. At that point Zach Hobbs, who was my colleague, who was one of my collaborators at Young Monster, I got him to come to work at IDEO.
Amy: Whoa, that’s awesome!
Amy: Getting the band back together!
Nick: (Laughter) Exactly! And it was actually like the first project where we worked together. We would come up with our own stuff all the time, there was influence, but we never were on a project together, so it was like me and him and a couple of people from IDEO.org, a guy named Sebastian Park and a woman named Aya. We ended up going to do some research in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo to go and see, for a week. And we’re like, how are we going to come up with insights? How do we come up with a brand identity and a new name?
And we just went with stacks of colored construction paper, some glue sticks and we were just like, everybody that we work with, make a flag for what this organization means to you. And afterwards we had this tapestry of, like a quilt of these vibrant, beautiful colors. Lots of great conversations, heavy conversations with people about optimism and the face for abundance and the face of brutal scarcity.
Amy: And this was with actual refugees?
Nick: Yeah, displaced people, people who worked for Alight who were in the field, so we went to Nakia Valley, which is an encampment. It just had a profound impact on me and not in a sort of like… yes, there’s a component of me feeling, how lucky I feel and all of this stuff, but also just some of the most creative, awesome, bad-ass people I’ve ever met. And the conversations we were having were about creative, awesome bad-ass stuff. It was that same connection that we’ve been describing this whole time. I have a bit of a fraught relationship with this whole process that I’m describing, like human centered design, it feels a little extracted, to say, oh, I went and hung around a bunch of people and then I turned it into art.
Amy: Right, and now I’ve absorbed their perspective and I can design for them to save them from themselves.
Nick: Exactly, and so I think with that project, it was a conversation we had a lot through that. I think one of the things we talked about with our projects, let’s try to design this in a way that when we’re done it can evolve into what it really, truly should be, right? So we tried to create this system and this toolkit, but the real work, I think, was when it was like, okay, how do we launch this to the different spaces where Alight is in, so that everybody can take these tools, colors, lines, shapes, give folks paint and have them make their expression. And they called it the Europe Becoming Alight and we launched their values books, and all this sort of stuff.
And there were some, I think to me that was the magic and that’s what the brand is now, which is like, they just took paint to these places and said, paint our whole headquarters these colors, do whatever you want. Like Rwanda, oh my god, their headquarters was… it was the most Alight building I had ever seen. And it was all the employees, every background was coming together to make it. To me that’s the pride that I see, but the biggest one was… I’m still on, this WhatsApp channel where we opened up a WhatsApp channel and I think WhatsApp, their channels cap out at a thousand people.
So I’m in one group called Changemakers. And every day I was seeing 50 plus images coming through this channel of people doing stuff with the brand. There’s like 600 things in here which I have to download them. But people are still putting expressions of the brand in this Changemakers channel. This is three years later.
Amy: That’s really amazing because at that point, that’s when you’ve transferred the authorship to them, so they can not only exercise and develop their own creative agency, but they can feel the sense of pride that comes from a very… the very tangible accomplishment of changing the world, literally, aesthetically, by painting something, right? There’s a very tangible measure there. That was that way one moment and now I did something to it and it’s different. And that impacts people in a way that I don’t think we give enough credit to.
Nick: To sitting down and making these collages with people was like, we might be in a group of like 15 people. That was the brand (laughter). That moment was us, that was us expressing, to see that now expands globally, to see that people are continuing to do this and it’s a rolling stone, I don’t care what it looks like. I don’t care… the fact that people are continuing to express and continuing to connect in that way is really like vital, that’s all I care about in the world. Right?
Amy: You fostered a living thing.
Nick: Exactly, exactly! It’s that sort of energy and momentum in the face of tough situations, that’s what Alight is all about, that’s what they care about. That’s the core of who they are, which is…when you compare it to some of the other humanitarian aid organizations that deal in scarcity, for just the price of a cup of a coffee a day, they prey on you in that way, what they’re saying is, there’s joy, there is dignity and there’s power in every person, we just need to come together and find that, within each other and we’ll thrive. It makes me so happy to see… I can participate in that.
Amy: That’s beautiful. And it must add some meaning to the work that you’re doing, you can sort of go to sleep at night thinking, yeah, today was a well spent today. (Laughs)
Nick: For sure! Like I say, I continue to work with them and I remember, I was on a call, doing some research, I helped with their search for their next CEO and worked with their board to formulate what is a transparent way to seek people with an organization, I always start with the CEO. And I was doing research for that and I was talking to a lot of people globally and I was on the call with somebody from Uganda, just doing an interview, and on January the 6th the day of the insurrection. And we’re talking and I’m looking at my television, I’m like, holy shit, something is going down. And we continued that conversation and then we got on a call the next day and Uganda was in the middle of pretty fraught elections at that time. And I just remember, she was like, “How are you doing? I can’t imagine.” She’s talking to me, asking how I’m doing and I just, I felt so lucky at that moment, we had each other, we were in completely different contexts, completely other side of the world, that’s selfishly one of the beautiful parts of my profession and what I get to do. It’s like I get to connect with people. That’s kind of core to how I create and in moments when bad shit is going on, I’m fortunate to meet people who are… especially at Alight, their whole thing is they put caring for other people first.
Nick: That’s the type of person, I was like, oh man. So yeah, I went to sleep that night and it was like, the world is falling apart, oh my god, we had each other.
Amy: Yeah, this is like a weird thing that I just feel compelled to say based on that story. You just casually said that it was selfish of you to enjoy that, but that’s not selfish. Right? We all say that, it’s a figure of speech, but don’t you think that needs to be rebranded? Because if we think of it as selfish to enjoy that kind of human connection it’s not a vice though, and it’s not greed, I know what they’re getting at, it just means I’m enjoying this too much for it to be just, but it still doesn’t feel right to call it ‘selfish.’
Nick: Part of that is probably some deep seated Catholic…
Amy: Yeah, probably I’m sure… (laughs)
Nick: That I don’t deserve this.
Amy: Ingrained in our society over generations and generations, for sure.
Nick: I think there’s another part of it too though, and I’ve thought about this a lot in the past couple of years, especially since leaving IDEO, is my work isn’t me. I’ve said it this whole time, creativity is me, I’m fortunate to be able to work in the business of creativity, but I’ve really tried hard, since leaving IDEO to make sure that… I’m not going to call my colleagues my family. And it’s a slim divide, but I think it’s really important for people to understand, the creative relationship is, even though it feels like a family and there’s a transference of emotion and support, it’s really wonderful and special, it’s different than family.
And it’s important to recognize that because capitalism, right, it will run all over your boundaries if given the chance. And so I think that’s part of, along with guilt, is saying, we needed each other in that moment, but I was also working. And so that line I have to be aware of at times. And I just want to laugh at it because this job can be pretty stupid sometimes. (Laughter) It’s kind of ridiculous. I’ve been asked to solve really dumb problems for a lot of money and you just have to sit back and be like, what? That’s ridiculous.
Amy: Like make a logo with your stuff…
Nick: I try not to make sure that… yeah, like the falling asleep at night thing, it’s too important… work shouldn’t be that important, at least to me. I’m still grappling with all that.
Amy: Yeah, I can hear you grappling with it and I am too because this podcast is my work, but it’s also my creation and I also made it because I want to have these conversations, this is my vehicle for having these conversations with people like you, which I totally get high on. But it’s still work and I need to also find a healthy balance between this and other things. And I’m grappling with it… actually I’m failing miserably! (Laughter)
Nick: It’s not going to be solved, it’s not something you ever get to and you’re like, oh, I fixed this… you’re always going to be working through it. But I find myself these days, what’s that line, like take your passion and make it happen… you know? It’s always at odds with passion is a fashion. Focusing in on art and my career, I did it for 10 years at the expense maybe of cultivating a different type of relationship. And kids made me think about that a lot, but also there was a lot of loss. When I moved to Boston, within four years I had lost six or seven friends down in Tennessee to either suicide or drugs. And it felt like this mental health epidemic sort of thing and to me it just spoke to loneliness and they were searching for something and I was like, oh, I found it, at this job. And then I’m like, nah, they were important, these were my friends, these were my family.
And so yeah, I guess it’s just honestly reminding yourself, at least for me it was reminding myself of what’s important and the happiness that’s at the center of those things and the core of those things and making sure that you find real joy in them. I get really hippy on this stuff.
Amy: Maybe you can help me with that. How do you find real joy on the regular…I think it takes more practice and effort than we ever though, right? I think children grow up with easy access to joy and little responsibility. There’s all this talk about how we forget it or it gets trained out of us and I think that’s true too. But somewhere at the center of our being is the ability to feel joy, like a child, and we can probably bring that up to the surface and exercise it and practice it regularly, if we give ourselves permission to. But I don’t really know how.
Nick: To me it’s like got to be rooted in mindfulness. I don’t know if I’m that good at mindfulness because there’s a lot going on, but as you were saying that I was like, where have I found it the most recently? I would say the other day my son was… he went to basketball practice and then came home and he was really upset in the car because he was like, they didn’t pass it to me. He’s brand new to playing basketball, he’s eight, I was like buddy, you had some good plays, it’s not about shooting, there’s other facets to this. But it’s like the first time, you’re going to get back, you’re going to practice, you’re getting better.
And he just sat outside shooting hoops… it’s cold right, it’s Boston, and he’s outside shooting hoops for an hour and a half when we got home, he was locked in, he was having a blast, by himself. And I just stood there looking out the window, like so proud and so happy for him because he was enjoying it, you know what I mean? I remember thinking to myself, this is why old people go to the park to watch kids.
Amy: (Laughs) Yea! Yeah!
Nick: I could just sit and watch my kids play when they’re really in it. I think the difference is, we have such easy… we have so many synthetic joys in our lives, whether it’s, for me it’s, I struggle with drinking or smoking or god damn technology, just constant. And then you see something, it’s easy to just gloss over your kid playing because I’m like, oh, I’m going to look at some AI bullshit on my phone. (Laughter) That being said, I probably look at more AI bullshit… there’s a little bit of guilt there. That’s the mindfulness part of it, is slowing down and I think you just… personally, am I always going to be pursuing that slow down and that awareness, because my mind seems to always be moving at a million miles per hour. Fortunately the older I get, I seem to… my body is just slowing down…
Amy: Yeah, it’s kind of forcing it on you! (Laughter)
Nick: Yeah, I can’t remember things, but I get real itchy when people talk about dopamine hits, they’re like, oh, this will give you a dopamine hit if you do this thing, just the feeling you get when somebody likes your photo on Instagram, it’s just like, it makes you feel good for second. I’m like wow, that’s grim. (Laughs)
Amy: That’s really grim, yeah.
Nick: That’s a design thing.
Amy: I know! I know, it’s evil.
Nick: Silicon Valley needs to fuck off, and I was part of that type of design for 10 years, still am. But it’s my responsibility to talk to the client’s beyond dopamine hits and be like, can we talk about a higher order or need and utility? Because surprise and delight is not a valuable insight, surprise and delight is like a gateway to excuses for how you’re going to ruin people’s life and make them feel terrible. Your design needs to serve a higher order for people and help them in a deeper way.
Amy: Do you say that to your clients?
Nick: I said it yesterday!
Amy: Awesome, that’s amazing (laughter). We need more punk-rockers in design.
Nick: This is like to a major tech client…
Amy: That’s awesome.
Nick: The funny thing is, individually everybody agrees with that, collectively it’s harder because they’re like… when it comes down to your job, you’re like yeah, I make money, you can make an excuse.
Amy: It’s a combination of capitalism pulling against your very need for survival and it creates this tension, yeah, that almost requires somebody with a punk ethos to go in there and rip it up and reconfigure it.
Nick: I don’t think there’s any hope for old people like me. I think it’s the younger people who are most excited about… I think that’s why you do the Lord’s work…you grow people, your job is to grow people and you’re shaping minds… I heard some stat I don’t know if it’s true, but somebody told me once, there’s only 20% of population, which how would you know that, that are compelled as a part of their identity to be creative. And as they get older, they find their purpose and creativity. I think it’s a minority right, it’s bred out of people pretty early, of like… so you capture these people who want to be creative. They have, by virtue of their age oftentimes, they have that sort of desire to want to change the world and tear down the system. And to me, in my job, I’m like when those people come around, I’m like, please, I’m going to be a vampire and feed off of your energy because this is what we need.
Amy: I feel more like an arms dealer, I’m like, I’m going to give you all the ammo and all the…
Nick: Right, right, yeah, exactly, exactly! (Laughter) To me that’s the most important part. I do what I can, but I’m just so impressed by these Gen Z’ers.
Amy: I am too, every day, every day they blow me away, so smart, but they also know how to care for each other better than my generation and so accepting of each other, of fluidity, of the diversity of the world and they’re mad at us about the planet and have every right to be, but there’s a kind of… I don’t know, it gives me real hope because there’s a kind of fertility, because I feel like they’re really helping each other grow in a way that feels way more fertile than a competitive social system that we grew up in.
Nick: Honestly, I just think that they’re cool too!
Amy: Yeah (laughs).
Nick: They’re like cool operators, nothing… oh yeah, shit just rolls of their shoulders. This is such a generalization, but I’m like tip of the iceberg Gen Z’ish and there’s nothing goofier than talking about generations of people, but definitely don’t necessarily identify with a millennial world, which is where the world that I designed in mostly in my career, but I just get so much energy from just the way this younger generation behaves. Their fluidity, their support, to me it sounds big… it’s like, oh, you’re so brave to say you need a mental health break. And to them they’re like, yeah, what are you talking about? It’s my brain.
Amy: Right, I’m not giving it to you and I’m not going to sacrifice it for what, some arbitrary rule, like where did that get you, it didn’t get you very far.
Nick: Right, right, and they’ve weathered so much shit, they were born into instability… I’m impressed with them… I hope I connect with them and that group of people. I get excited about, to me they’re the ones that are going to be extra brave and there’s a lot of them. (Laughs) There’s a lot of them! I think as much as we can say something to these tech companies and what design means, I think they’re actually going to be living in that world and changing it, which is good stuff.
Amy: Yeah, and I’m excited to see it all unfold.
Nick: We can sit back and watch them play.
Amy: The part of my life that is in education is extremely joyful. It’s not the admin side, obviously, but it’s the watching the light bulbs go off and fostering the relationships and feeling so proud of them and knowing that it’s their own, it’s not really anything I did. I just am adjacent to it in some way. And they’re flourishing and that’s just awesome to see. (Laughs) I don’t want to let you go if we haven’t covered your story and I feel like we didn’t even get to the latest chapter of your life, in terms of work. You’re now the Head of Experience Design at co:collective and I know that we’ve talked a lot about boundaries and that you’re not your work, but at the same time maybe you can tell me a little bit about what you hope to accomplish in that role?
Nick: The way I got into this role, I was doing a freelance, independent contractor thing for a couple of years and a recruiter reached out to me and was like, hey, there’s this position open and then I was introduced to one of the founders, Ty Montague. We had really good conversations, talked with the managing director of Experience Design and I was like, it’s like I don’t really want a job again, I don’t want to work at your big corporation. (Laughs) I don’t really want a job right now, but I’m happy to help you define what Experience Design is at co.
And so I kind of worked as a contractor with them. And worked with really great people during that project and they’re like, hey, we’re doing a project with a client, would you like to freelance on that? I was like, yeah, sure. And yeah, it was my relationship with those folks, I was like, I miss this, like I really miss this. And so after three-quarters of a year of probably playing hard to get, I was like, is that job still on? And they were like yeah.
So I started in earnest probably around Labor Day of 2022 and so there’s my explicit role and then there’s what I really want to do. My explicit role is to build a business and a practice around Experience Design, which is basically taking co’s vision for creating purpose filled companies and endeavors in the world and making those strategically a reality. The Experience Design is like, how do we take that purpose centered mindset and use it to launch new products, services, experiences etc.
So it’s a little bit like human centered design and what I was doing at IDEO, but I think our goal is really just to… I see it as helping organizations find their heart and then acting upon it in a way that makes sense. My covert job…and it’s maybe a little bit self-serving, is like, I just want to do what we’re doing right here. I just want to have creative conversations with people and make creative shit and build a creative culture, which actually it is sort of a part of my job, is like an explicit mandate. But take us from feeling like a studio, or feeling like an office to feeling like a studio, that feeling of collaborations, seamless, back and forth and so that’s my… that’s what I’m really going for. I think that’s what’s… that means something in the world. People are fucking pure when they play that way and work that way. I want to do that inside of Co and then I want to extend that, that feeling to clients, that people can be real with each other and find that sort of joy and collaboration.
It’s a lot of work though, I’m also a manager and so I have to build a business and the economy is what the economy is right now and I find myself thinking about what is next and in design. We’ve been living in a world of digital design that is about acquiring users… ‘users,’ weird word. Acquiring people, but not having them pay for anything and now these businesses are saying, oh, it’s time to pay up. Like Twitter is the best shitshow example of that right now. But I think a lot of people are coming for a return on their investment. And I’m like, what does that mean for design? I think design is going to have to really think about its utility and the value of its utility. You can argue this, is Twitter valuable? I don’t know what it’s done for society (laughs).
Amy: Well, I can tell you one thing it’s done for me, I’m not an active tweeter, I use it to promote my podcast and stuff, but for years I followed Black Twitter, just because I could, eavesdropping and I love Black Twitter, I love it! I learned so much and I feel like it taught me a lot and so I was really grateful for that kind of a cultural education, that I felt like I could get without burdening anybody. Because I was just eavesdropping on public conversations and kind of doing a bit of discovery about who to follow and who the thought leaders were and who the people were, that I thought were really interesting. And it was a fascinating cultural rabbit hole that I could access without making them feel like I was the white person in the room, That was one thing I enjoyed.
Nick: It connects, and I think that’s sort of, my mind is like this funny distillation of the freeness of the internet and it has very specific parameters and the way it works and everything. But is an example of, is an avatar of what the internet is. It’s a really perfect case study, also in the way that it sort of refuses to be monetized. Elon Musk is not going to make that a wealthy place because what business model do you apply to it, unless there’s some sort of business model that I’ve never heard of, that will monetize conversation.
His whole thing about, oh, it’s the town hall, blah-blah-blah, but he’s got to make money with this and he’s very clear about this is going to shut down, he’s going to manage it into the ground. But if I look at that and I think with my designer hat on, and I think about, like there’s this human value that you’re describing of connection with people, communication. My IDEO in me is asking the ‘how might we’ question. But it’s a challenging one now because when I think about the future, how might we design systems to connect with people and then business is going to say, that isn’t free. (Laughs)
And I’m like, oh shit, designers, what are you going to do with that’s the brief? That’s a bad brief. I don’t know if it’s a bad brief, but it’s a new type of brief. I think a lot of companies, a lot of the companies are going to be in this world now where it’s like, people are going to demand that their thing can’t be free anymore.
Amy: I’ve been immersed in the value of design, like lately I’ve been thinking about the value of design as it applies to policy. And social design and those are aspects and frameworks that deploy design in a way that don’t necessarily have… they have participants, but they don’t necessarily have a monetary winner and it’s not extractive, it’s more generative. And I think if we can think in terms of generativeness and ecosystems where there’s a balance and it naturally wants to grow, that’s where we can… whatever that is, what that looks like, however you can apply that, that’s where the value of design is. Is creating generative ecosystems.
Nick: That’s good!
Amy: You like that?
Nick: It’s true, I love it!
Amy: Yeah, I absolutely think it is true.
Nick: Yeah, it’s basically like law or politics, which is just law and bullshit, law, social structures… super valuable. And like the facilitation and conversation and the act of being together and all that stuff, design can live there in a really powerful way. I love that. It’s where I see organizational design, work design becoming this really super exciting space for design right now.
Amy: Yeah and I think of your role, in charge of culture at co, and if you can build this generative ecosystem culture within the organization, then it naturally sort of… it impregnates everything you do with your clients because that’s where you’re coming from, that’s the basis you’re operating from. And I think that could be a really powerful way to utilize your skills, your tools in the world, is to be the change… it just sounds (laughs) so trite, in this moment.
But I do think it does start with a very sort of hyper local cultivation sensibility and that hyper local doesn’t necessarily mean geographically local, it means my sphere of influence, which I’m talking to you in Boston over the internet, so that can be whoever is listening to this, right? But cultivate from that place, expand it out, bring people in, operate with an attitude of invitation to participate and then let it kind of become its own thing, the same way with Alight. It’s not within your control, it’s seeds that got spread in the wind, you know?
Nick: It’s an energy. I took this course, my first go round at college, it was like a summer course in London called The Cross Atlantic Call and Response and it was about the effects of English music on American music…And there’s a name for Call and Response, this idea of when you say ‘amen’ and then everybody else says ‘amen,’ right? We started from spirituals and English folk songs, all the way up to Bruce Springsteen and hip-hop. I think that Call and Response, it’s something I always go back to, is like if you can say ‘amen’ and then you ask everybody else to say ‘amen,’ with you,, you’re glued together. It happens. Music is such a good way of… it’s so good at doing that, like the way you were describing… so I didn’t play in the bands, but I was part of it, that’s like yeah.
And I think design done well, actually I think IDEO was amazing at it, and I hope they don’t lose their way as an organization because they’re, in my mind, like this big dome of that. They bring the clients along and they command a price and it’s really, really important. And I see it in pockets. I think we can do it at Co, I see it in pockets with some of my former colleagues who have gone on to work in the public sector.
Amy: And I think it’s really powerful you brought up the concept of Call and Response because baked into that is a kind of active listening that has to happen. And the response isn’t typically just a regurgitation of what you just heard, but it’s a response to it. It’s a reaction to it, it’s through a different lens, through a different filter. And then the active listening that happens on the other side throws it back and that is a generative ecosystem. But the key thing to me there is the active listening.
Because it’s a yes and way of being, right? I’m not trying to beat you or trounce you, be better than you, even though there might be a little spirited sort of elevating the game. It’s more like I’m trying to listen carefully, interpret it, embody it and figure out what my response to that would be and then offer that up to the collective response. And the active listening piece isn’t, did I hear it accurately, it’s did I get the intention, did I hear truly where this was coming from? And that I think is something we move too fast in this society to really do well every day..
Nick: And it’s like when you’re in that situation, you actively listen and you hear it, you listen and then does it stick to you when you go home? Am I still thinking about it? As it’s found a place in my consciousness and my belief system, that’s impact, right? We always think about impact, of like impact at scale, that’s just code for more money. But impact is scale and a human being, it’s like that’s infinite. I spent a lot of time writing belief statements for organizations. And I was working on a project for a biotech start-up here in Boston called Arcaea, they’re a start-up in residence for Ginkgo Bioworks, really incredible organization that looks at the power biology and says, we can grow things, right? And I was working with a woman named Elyse Lohanan who was formerly brand CPO of Goop and her and I were kind of collaborating on how do we build this brand for this biotech cosmetic startup? And she’s so much fun to collaborate with because her brain is just like… it’s like this conversation, it’s just like going in all sorts of different areas. Actually she has her own podcast as well, but we had a great conversation around, do we write belief statements or do we talk about faith? And what is the difference between faith and belief as you’re designing a brand and an organization? And I think maybe it was a little, just like to be provocative, but we were like, let’s write statements of faith. What do they have faith in as scientists? (Laughs) And scientists are like, what do you mean by faith?
Nick: And we landed in this space about expressive biology, biology and express, they totally believe that it can express everything. The world is biology, it’s a really powerful thought. But faith speaks more to the imagination, this leap of faith and it’s kin to believe, but it’s different.
Amy: It’s different and is it faith that the universe will continue to morph and expand to preserve itself? Is it faith that my fellow humans will deploy these tools in an ethical way? Is it faith that us monkeying with biology in this way is actually going to serve humanity and the planet? Or is it going to harm one of them? It’s like… because those things aren’t scientifically proven yet, or even measurable. But you’d have to have faith in order to engage all your energy and effort in that, to move it forward.
Nick: It’s wisdom. It’s like I am wise enough to not know, you know, about certain things, even though my entire career and purpose in life is to experiment and prove through the scientific method and logic. And yet…
Amy: It’s faith in an outcome that is unpredicted.
Nick: Exactly, because you don’t know.
Amy: You don’t know.
Nick: I just adore working with Alyse because it’s like… that was at the heart of our conversations, it’s got to be something more than just we’re scientists and we believe something and we know everything. It’s like… it’s not because they’re rooted in imagination, they’re rooted in things we don’t know, let’s see. And then the possibilities are something that we can’t even fathom because that’s fucking biology, you know what I mean? We can grow human hearts, like what? (Laughter)
Nick: That’s creation, oh my god. Personally I’m like, I have to be careful and aware, using words like that, but it is speaking to that idea of just the hippiness of energy coming together, listening, believing and yeah, you’re right. I think the future of design lives in a social sphere of connectivity that feels less superficial. It’s why biology is so interesting to me because it’s like, let’s just stop talking about technology for a minute. Why is technology our basis for… I mean I just said it talking about twitter, why is that our basis for design? Because it makes a lot of money, but there’s so many other things to design. So many more interesting mediums that I’m curious about.
Amy: Well, I can’t wait to see all of the experiments that come from you, (laughs) moving forward. This has been a really nutritious conversation for me and I thank you so much for spending so much time with me.
Nick: Thank you, thank you, it’s been great, I really appreciate it.
Amy: Hey, thanks so much for listening for a transcript of this episode, and more about Nick, including images of his work, and a bonus Q&A – head to cleverpodcast.com. If you can think of 3 people who would inspired by Clever – please tell them! It really helps us be out when you share Clever with your friends. You can listen to Clever on any of the podcast apps – please do hit the Follow or subscribe button in your app of choice so our new episodes will turn up in your feed.We love to hear from you on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter – you can find us @cleverpodcast and you can find me @amydevers. Please stay tuned for upcoming announcements and bonus content. You can subscribe to our newsletter at cleverpodcast.com to make sure you don’t miss anything. Clever is hosted AND produced by me, Amy Devers with editing by Rich Stroffolino, production assistance from Ilana Nevins and Anouchka Stephan and music by El Ten Eleven.