Luis Arnal, Global Co-lead at Fjord
A design veteran with an apprentice mindset
Luis Arnal (MDes 1998) has been working at the intersection of business, design, and social sciences for the past twenty years. After ID, he worked at Doblin and E-Lab in Chicago. He co-founded his own global consulting firm, INSITUM, in 2002. Luis focuses on embodying and promoting a human-centered innovation culture and still considers himself as an apprentice in the field of innovation consulting and design leadership.
In this interview, Luis talks with ID students Jocelyn Jia (MDes + MBA 2022) and Joanna Veleris (MDes + MBA 2022) about his journey to ID, design leadership at Fjord/Accenture, and his advice for designers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Disclaimer: This talk only reflects Luis’s personal views and does not necessarily represent the views of Fjord/Accenture.
What led you to ID?
When I planned to conduct graduate studies, I searched for different schools worldwide. At the time, I think it was 1994, schools were renewing their programs. The school that caught my attention the most was ID, just because it really combined business, technology, social sciences, and design. And this mix that now everybody is using all over was literally born at ID and that was the core base of the program.
We were doing the real “design thinking” before the design thinking term even became well known.
It was a really breakthrough program.
My background is in product design; I studied industrial design in Mexico. But I wasn’t a really gifted visualizer — I’m not a very good sketcher. So when I saw a more intellectually-stimulating program, I thought to myself, Oh, this doesn’t require drawing skills, right? It requires intellect. And I can deal with that.
What motivated you to found INSITUM?
I had worked in Chicago and in Barcelona before I started INSITUM. I worked at Doblin group, which I loved, and worked with Larry Keeley who is such a captivating person and a great teacher. And after the Doblin group, since I loved that so much, I worked at a similar company called E-Lab which was founded by two ex-Doblin consultants, John Cain and Rick Robinson. There I was exposed to the culture and challenges of a small, original, design startup—an inspiration for INSITUM later on.
After four years in Chicago, I was offered a position at Elisava, an innovative design school in Barcelona, so I became a design professor. But the academic life was too slow for me, so I got a part-time job at IconMediaLab, an internet consultancy, and later a full time job at a more traditional consulting firm called Cluster Consulting. It was a very hardcore MBA, type-A, analytical crowd and I was the only senior designer. Needless to say, I failed in my efforts to create a user-centered design practice. So I decided to leave the firm and the country to start on my own.
Coming back to Mexico allowed me to start a family and turned myself into an entrepreneur — a bold feat. I thought, you know, I am going to take what I love about Doblin, E-Lab, and Cluster and combine all these attributes into my own design consulting firm. At the time, only IDEO, Frog, Continuum, and Fjord were successfully scaling design consulting — and none of them were in Latin America. So I had to go with my gut (and not having a plan B) to succeed.
Well, more often, there were moments of, Shoot, I don’t really understand what I am doing here? I’d better figure it out before others do. And those were more valuable than the ‘aha’ moments. Because your first two years at ID can be quite shocking.
I remember there was one class taught by an excessively smart professor, “Decision Support Systems.” Halfway through the semester I still could not describe to others what ‘decision support systems’ meant. The level of discussion and narrative was so elevated, I felt like an idiot the whole semester. And I think this is precisely what ID allows you to do: expose yourself to difficult situations, high level discussions. This pressures you to increase your intellectual capacity and develop a ‘growth mindset.’ And that’s what I love about ID. That they raise the bar and make you uncomfortable. If you were comfortable in all the classes and you were like, I know this stuff or I understand it without studying, or I’m not suffering while reading the three or four papers every day, then you’re doing something wrong. You’re either not getting it or you’re not getting the challenge that you need. It was (and I hope it still is) a very demanding environment.
Larry Keeley epitomizes this high pressure environment in his classes. The work you do there requires strategic thinking, innovation, collaboration, high stress, storytelling and the desire to impress him — all the skills you need in a real world environment.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I was when I was at ID. That really builds skills, builds your character, builds your resilience to face any challenge that you encounter later on in life.
How do you demonstrate the value of design and innovation? Do you find that it’s widely accepted?
My job is mostly focused on promoting the value of design to clients, collaborators and the world at large. Design needs a lot of work to be widely known and demanded. Sometimes companies think that hiring designers is not a prerequisite to impact, but the curious thing is that in retrospect it is. Take any successful product, service or company and you will discover that in most of those cases design played a big role in its success.
However, there are many forces that are helping design become more prevalent — the fact that every company is now a technology company, the trend towards stakeholder capitalism, or the social and environmental challenges that we face as humanity—these are all forces that increase the awareness and the opportunities for design to make a positive impact. Just take a look at the job engagement metrics prevalent in the world, this is likely the biggest problem for most organizations nowadays. This is a consequence of poorly designed organizational systems (such as onboarding, rewarding, collaboration) and a lack of human-centered leadership which has failed to create workplaces with happy and productive people.
The positive side of all this is that designers will always have something to do. This world is full of complex, ambiguous, interconnected and human problems and we have been trained with the skills to deal with these wicked problems.
Our skills, methods, processes and mindset is precisely what the world needs today — not only to give hope (by imagining a future that does not yet exist) but also to make this future a reality.
But if we were to do this, we would need to think beyond “human” centered design and instead think about “life” centered design, a type of design that not only aims to improve the individual experience (often called “the user”) but instead considers the broader implications (environmental, social, political, etc.) and aims to improve these as well. This of course means we will need to broaden our domain to include things beyond products and services to include systems, organizations, policies and such.
I would say this is my main job today: promoting the different ways that design can add value to the world. It is about impact, not size.
At Fjord we are probably the largest design organization in the world — we are an eclectic group of 2000 designers, strategists, social scientists, technologists working all over the world . But our aim is not to be big—it’s to be impactful and influential. We are working in an organization that is unlike others in so many different ways: the diversity of the work, the different design specialties we have, the variety of client problems we tackle.
The amount of knowledge we produce every day is massive, so the least we can do is to continuously invent the future of design and find ways to have outsized impact in the world.
What are some challenges that you are facing at Fjord and how are you addressing them?
I think talent is a real scarcity right now. The demand for design talent is very high. Every company in the world wants to incorporate design skills in their organization.
Attracting and retaining talent is the name of the game, and the way we do this is by creating conditions where people thrive by doing work they feel proud of; by fostering a culture of design (empathetic, creative, explorative, collaborative); by promoting a learning organization — an environment where we expect you to learn and teach others constantly; and more importantly a place where you can work in meaningful and impactful projects.
There are lots of places where design only ends up as an idea — but not here.
You consider yourself an apprentice. Why?
You never reach the pinnacle of wisdom, right? But this should not discourage you from trying.
I am old enough to recognize how much I still have to learn, plus it feels good to experience growth and be relevant to the world. Learning is something that keeps me motivated and fulfilled. The people from whom I learn the most are the same people I get to work with everyday. This is the main reason I work here—the sheer number of learning experiences I have every day, and I think many people will agree with me on this.
I think it’s part of the design mindset that you always have to feel like an apprentice.
What are skills students should be building to prepare themselves for a future in the field?
Let me clarify, for me, skills go beyond the technical skills, like using a specific software, running workshops, or crafting grand strategies. Those skills are always a prerequisite for the particular type of design you want to start with.
If you are looking for lifelong skills that cut across disciplines, one that is under-appreciated is storytelling. Design leaders need to be great storytellers who can convey a concept in a compelling and empathetic way to others.
Another important skill for this new era of ‘life-centered design’ is systems thinking.
Being able to understand the first, the second, and third order effects of a decision is crucial for design leaders.
This applies not only to a design solution but on the effects of your own life decisions. Especially the former because a lot of times people make decisions as if there was no tomorrow, without understanding the long term implications of such decisions. For example, in people relationships. A lot of young people don’t apply long-term thinking to the way they interact with others — social media provides an ideal platform to establish shallow relationships. So I see behaviors that disregard long term consequences — such as posting a flaming idea which could eventually harm your reputation. And that’s not a very sustainable way of professionally developing yourself.
You need to always keep and maintain good relationships, be prudent and understand the systemic consequences of your actions.
This leads me to another skill that I think is important to master, and this has to do with ‘time’ as a design element. Not many people understand that time is probably the most powerful material available for designers to do magic. It is not easy to use and it is intangible, but when you become conscious of the power of time, it can be a very effective asset to design experiences.
How do you think students should strategically plan their education?
Advances in technology have always shaped design—at least this has been for 10,000 years—so what we are seeing now is that new technologies are having an enormous impact in the design profession.
The technologies that are emerging now are creating a new playground for design.
How can design help blockchain be better? How design can help cloud making technologies become better? I think designers nowadays need to be much more engaged and knowledgeable about new technologies. And anybody who wants to create an impact will have to be engaged in some way or another with the technologies that are changing the world for the better. All new technologies—even the most obscure ones—need design.
Originally published at Medium.com.