As far back as he can remember, Paddy Harrington has been obsessed with making things. As a kid in St. John ’s, Newfoundland, he would spend hours building with Lego, drawing plans and crafting stories to weave it all together.
Harrington’s academic journey included an English Degree from the University of Ottawa and a Masters of Architecture from the University of Toronto, leading to stints in architecture and ad firms. But it was during an internship with Bruce Mau Design (BMD) in Toronto and his exposure to exhibition design, what he calls “the combination of thinking though space and telling stories in the service of a big idea,” that he found his calling.
Over a period of six years with BMD, rising to the position of executive creative director, Harrington, 38, used design-based principles to lead complex transformation projects with multi-national corporations like Unilever, Disney and Coca-Cola.
In January he made the leap from BMD to work full-time on tackling the challenge of transforming Canada’s largest bookstore chain, taking on the newly created titles of senior vice president design innovation and digital creative director with Indigo.
Interestingly, Harrington’s new role sees him reunited with his former employer Bruce Mau, who was recently appointed Indigo’s chief creative officer.
Designedge Canada caught up with Harrington to ask about why he made the switch, what motivates him and what the future holds for Indigo.
At BMD you worked on large-scale projects, what did that experience teach you?
Ultimately, I’m really fascinated in behaviour change, and how do people transform who they are to become something more. So, at BMD we asked, “How do you truly encourage positive change in organizations and in the public at large?” I think that’s an area where design actually has a big role to play. Great design has the ability to get people excited, full of wonder and motivated to do something.
What attracted you to make the leap from BMD to Indigo?
As a consultant you have a client, they have a problem, you solve the problem, and then the client takes your solution and tries to scale it. As my career progressed at BMD, the projects became more complex and intricate but also with higher stakes. But the problem is that as an outside consultant you can’t actually in a day-to-day way drive the transformation.
There was a chain of these projects that I’d worked on and it was just frustrating, because you ultimately walk away, wishing for the best, and hoping that it all works out.
With Indigo, the opportunity came to work inside a company in the midst of a serious transformation. So that’s what’s really most fascinating to me—to work within a company, understand how it works and affect positive change at scale.
Did you develop a design thinking philosophy while at BMD?
Design thinking as a practice is notable in firms like IDEO, or frog or Continuum, and yes, Bruce Mau Design works in that space too. To me, design thinking is really taking the principles of design and applying them to problem solving at large.
As Steve Jobs said, “It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Design is not a beautiful looking object. It’s a beautiful looking object that works beautifully.
How does design innovation lend itself to solving business issues faced by Indigo?
Design is based on holistic thinking. You have to consider all of the parts in order to then make a whole. So by default designers, I believe, are trained to think in a holistic way about their environment.
That’s why I think design is so important for any business, because it starts out by saying, “Okay, what is the big picture? Now let’s talk about how all those pieces go together.” You need people to do really specific things that require a specific focus, but you need someone who can say, “Here’s how it all fits together.”
Bruce Mau himself was involved In the initial launch of Indigo, what’s his role now?
As chief creative officer, Bruce has made a serious commitment to working with Indigo in a deep way as part of this new invention. Just as he was involved with developing the Indigo brand identity at the outset in 1996, he’s now returning to help conceive what the new opportunity is for the company.
Indigo CEO Heather Reisman speaks about becoming the world’s first creatives department store. Explain.
In a world where Instagram goes from zero to 100 million users in three years and Facebook has a billion users, more and more of us are describing ourselves as creative individuals.
Author Dan Pink talks about how pattern makers and right-brainers are where a lot of the action is in this coming century.
Indigo foundationally and fundamentally was always about more than just books—it was even in the tagline: Books, Music and more. Indigo was always about culture, which in some ways is another way of saying it was always about creativity.
If you think about what books represent, it’s every idea that human beings have ever had. And when you think about using books, most of the time you’re using books to better understand or improve some aspect of yourself. Which in most cases involves empowering your creativity.
Ultimately books are less about the atoms, the matter, and more the bits or the information that we’re interested in. So how do you amplify that information and help people accelerate their own desire to become more creative. That’s what we mean by describing Indigo as the Creatives Department Store
It’s an area of huge opportunity and excitement for someone like me who has been really passionate about this kind of thing for 10 years.
Can you address the state of the store redesign?
We have a preliminary concept developed that I think is really exciting. It is about understanding the relationship between books and other things beyond books in a way that is conceived to be flexible.
There is a big opportunity in trying to develop customer experiences, and I think we’re just scratching the surface of what is possible in terms of really meaningful retail experiences that almost transcend retail.
Consider the experience of being in a museum shop, where you feel as though it’s different. That’s an opportunity that you can scale, so the retail visit is less than a purely transactional experience, and it’s one that is more about enriching your life.
Is this design thinking, placingthe customer experience at the centre of the new design?
Design at its best is user-centered design. So it’s not saying, here’s a business need or here’s some quantitative research where we got 1,000 people saying yes or no to a survey. It’s observing people’s actual behaviour. Asking people real questions. It’s really thinking about where you need to get, from an experience point of view, and then figuring out how to get to that experience.
The typical way is to do your research, develop your strategy, build an experience and then roll it out. The problem is you can go off the rails in that process because of cost constraints, or time limitations or the questions you’ve asked lead you in the wrong direction.
But if you start with the desired experience, and visualize that and really bring it to life—and then everyone says, yes this is right—then you have a road map against which you can test your progress. And you can ask at any point, “Are we delivering what we set out to deliver?”
It’s almost like the lighthouse that keeps you focused. It’s just a different methodology all together. I think that’s what real design-driven companies are: those who think user first and design the experience to start and then follow it up with an execution to fulfill that vision.
What are you enjoying about your new role?
What excites me about retail as a subject is that it’s all about impact and scale. So kids in communities like St. John’s [Newfoundland], who may not have access to the opportunities that exist in Toronto but still have a desire to know about those possibilities, can have a portal to learn.
For me, that’s what retail can represent when it’s at it’s best—a window into a world of possibility for a person.
So if I try to think about what Indigo could become, I imagine having that experience in St. John’s when I was a kid, and I’d have a much shorter line to where I wanted to go and a much clearer path to get there.