Jon Kolko is the author of Creative Clarity, Partner at Modernist Studio, and the Founder of Austin Center for Design. Previously the Vice President of Design at Blackboard, he has worked extensively with both startups and Fortune 500 companies. He has been a Professor of Interaction and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and has taught at the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for Design Studies of Monterrey, Mexico, and Malmö University, Sweden.
How did you get into the industry?
I’m a practicing interaction designer and design strategist, and I went to school for this in the late 1990s. It was the beginning of the commercial internet, and I found a job in Austin, Texas working for a large software company that was beginning to embrace user-centered design. I was working on large, complex projects (dynamic pricing, supply chain management), and I started to really realize the benefits of design to the strategy of the company itself.
Like anything, I think there was a mix of skill and serendipity in my career trajectory. I started messing around with computers when I was seven years old, on an old 286/12 that my dad brought home. I set up a bulletin board system (a predecessor to the internet as we know it), and I now see how these experiences shaped my abilities with computing. That experience and skill was mixed with luck – being in the right place, in the right moment in time, and meeting the right people – and that helped set the path for my career.
Any emerging industry trends?
Right now, designers are struggling with understanding how design can play a more strategic and less tactical role in companies. Design thinking is a way of applying design to large, amorphous problems. It’s great, in that it spreads design across a variety of contexts where it was previously ignored. But it’s becoming a real problem, because as it’s practiced, it’s very vapid: it lacks the substance of real form giving because people doing this form of design don’t have real design training.
On a more technical level, companies are enamored with machine learning, virtual reality, and chatbots. These are trends, reminiscent of the “local/social/mobile” trend of five years ago, and they’ll pass. But the development that seems consistent over the last century (and probably earlier) is that technology continues to completely overhaul how was view the world around us. It shapes behavior, and the world appears increasingly strange to older generations – while new generations view it as a norm, and consider our traditional experiences as dated and silly.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
At Modernist Studio, we’re seeing a large demand for a “combination” partnership – where we offer strategy services, tactical design services, and training, all at once. Large companies are trying to bring creativity inhouse in order to better manage the creative process. This means understanding how it can apply to their direction-setting (what should we build?), to their tactical product and service execution (what will it look like?), and to their processes (how will we ship it?) We’re in a place to offer all of those services at once, and this resonates with our clients, who are looking for mentorship and guidance on real projects.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
My partners and I developed Modernist Studio to build on our previous experiences, and to realize the benefits of such a diverse background. We’ve worked in consultancies, educational institutions, startups, and – through acquisition – large corporations. In each of these contexts, we’ve seen the power of design, and the challenges companies have embracing these unique skills. These problems are fundamentally about a lack of creative clarity. Creative clarity is about adopting the processes of creativity, growing a creative team, and really leveraging the benefits of a somewhat messy process. Through our experiences, we understand how to help companies gain that clarity.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
Like most service providers, our reputation is everything, and we’ve managed to build a strong network of supporters. These have been our best clients. But at some point, that network’s been tapped, and we need to understand a better pipeline for attracting companies who can benefit from our services, which aren’t cheap. The value of working with us needs to be crystal clear. We’ve recently tried a variety of strategies for building those relationships and broadcasting that value. For example, I’ve been aggressively blogging at http://www.moderniststudio.com/blog and purposefully picking provocative topics. I’ve watched our reach increase steadily, and we’ve received inbound leads as a direct result of this effort.
Additionally, I do a great deal of public speaking, in support of my writing. I’ve published a variety of books, mostly as a way of better understanding my own experiences. I find writing cathartic. It turns out that other people are thinking about the same ideas. My speaking has been a great way of illustrating how Modernist Studio can be helpful: the content illustrates our thought-leadership, showing that we’re not simply hired hands.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
When my partners and I started Modernist Studio, we assumed we would have a great working relationship, because we’d worked together for over ten years. It turns out that, no matter how long your relationship, emotions are still real. In a pressure cooker like a new company, these bubble to the surface.
We’ve worked through these issues through an obvious-in-retrospect method. We talked to each other, honestly. Instead of harboring resentment about something, we say it, right away. If work isn’t at a high quality, we call it out, immediately. If there’s a perception of inequitable work ethic or contribution, we talk about it.
It’s been hard to embrace this, because it often forces confrontation. But it’s been tremendously effective in helping us operate smoothly, so we can best deliver value to our customers.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
How do you motivate others?
My speaking engagements are typically actionable, but also motivational. I try to communicate how important and valuable design has been to me, and that seems to resonate with audiences; they are often looking for a recharge, but one based on rich and meaningful content, not just cheerleading.
On a smaller scale, I do a lot of teaching. Motivating students is a little different. I’ve found that a very direct, honest, and often critical approach is very effective motivation for students. They aren’t in class to get accolades, they are there to learn. Direct and sometimes harsh criticism is an effective tool for growth and personal development, assuming it comes from a place of mutual trust.
Career advice to those in your industry?
The best advice I give people, both those entering design and those looking to grow their career, is: learn to love hard work. There are no shortcuts. If it’s worth doing, it’s probably hard. And in hard work comes experience, skill, and growth. This, in turn, shapes identity and helps us find our value to the world and to ourselves.
What are some resources people might find useful?
I give away a lot of my work. You can read two books I’ve written, for free, here: