R/GA, Publicis, Apple, Accenture Song: We talked to designer Nick Law about his impressive career, why he joined a consultancy firm and what the future holds for creatives.
You could say Nick Law has seen it all: design, advertising, digital media. His career spans 30 years, four continents and multiple creative disciplines. He worked at R/GA for 17 years and contributed to evolving it from a web design agency to a holistic product and service design, advertising and consulting company. After that, he joined Publicis as Chief Creative Officer to drive a unified creative vision across the group’s creative brands. From there he went on to Apple as VP Marcom Integration where he co-lead the global design and marketing group.
In February 2022 Accenture Song lured him away from Apple and appointed him Global Lead for Design and Creative Technology. We talked to him about creative leadership, his role at Accenture Song and – of course – the metaverse.
You’re Global Lead for Design and Creative Technology at Accenture Song – what does that mean?
For one, it means that I head up the whole suite of design capabilities at Accenture Song. The spirit behind »Creative Tech« is that I believe creative people should become practitioners of new technologies as soon as possible. Typically it’s technicians who explore new technologies first and it takes a bit of time before creatives become involved and create a new grammar.
There are a bunch of historical examples for this. Photography is my favorite: In the beginning of that medium you had to be chemist in order to be a photographer. It wasn’t until that process became easier that photography became an art form, because artists created a new grammar around it. Before this, technicians used the old grammar of portrait and landscape painting. I think every time a new technology comes along, it’s creatives who take it a step further.
In the early internet all the metaphors were print: pages, documents, indexes. Then we went through a fertile period where people tried lots of things. The grammar evolved and today we have a whole new set of interfaces. The metaverse is a current example: It’s using the grammar of gaming because that’s what the technicians are familiar with. But this is not the only direction spatial computing is going to go. The creatives need to get in and explore.
Creativity and Technology
You have a very hands-on definition of creativity. Can you elaborate on that and its relationship to technology?
By definition being creative means creating something. And to create something you need a medium. Creative people get very invested in the medium they master – so much so that they tend to forget that it’s actually a technology. Basically, every medium you use to express an idea is a technology – and it has an impact on what you create.
When I come up with an idea while I’m at the beach and I want to draw it in the sand, I calculate the medium, its potential and its limitations. I’m not going to stick my finger in the sand and expect to make a very detailed drawing. The dilemma of creatives is that it’s difficult to keep expressing yourself in new mediums. It takes time to master a medium – the proverbial 10.000 hours.
So, should creatives concentrate on mastering one medium – or try to be okay at as many as possible?
You have to combine a vertical mastering of a medium and a horizontal literacy across mediums. We talk about the T-shaped person all the time. The truth is, if you want to execute well, you need people who have a deep-down stroke. The way to get a breadth across, is like a string of paper dolls: You join a group of people together. I’m a big believer in teams, especially leadership teams.
What do you mean by leadership teams?
When I was at R/GA I built a leadership team of what I called Stories and Systems (you could replace »Systems« with »Design«, but I like the alliteration). This meant that we combined narrative thinkers and design thinkers. Together they had a broad enough literacy so that they could curate a team to solve any problem. As opposed to traditional ad agency teams of art director and copywriter, they also had a design competency. To me, it’s really important to keep the depth of craft and combine it with collaboration to get a breadth of possibilities.
What exactly is the difference between a Story and System thinker – and how do you know which one you are?
A narrative thinker solves problems temporally, one moment at a time. A designer solves problems all at once because he or she is looking at composition. These mental models are hard to change. You tend to be either a temporal or a spatial creative. Usually, people just know. Some need to be reminded or nudged into the right direction. Finding your deep skill is very important in a world with so many opportunities in which you can get lost easily.
Strategy and Execution
Creative technology has become much more democratic. What does that mean for professional creatives and agencies?
What’s changed with these new technologies is not just that they became more democratic. It’s also that the space between you having an idea and that idea being realized has collapsed. I remember when I first used Photoshop in the late 80s. I thought it was magical! Up until then you could only execute very few ideas, because you had to think and sketch a lot and then send out for typesetting and transfers and other kinds of hand labor. It took you two weeks to express two ideas. When Photoshop came along you could suddenly express five ideas in a week! The first version didn’t have layers or an »undo« function. In retrospect, it seems very laborious, but back then the software was magical.
Since then, the timespan to get an idea from your head out into the world has become a lot shorter. Today, you can type an idea into Dall-E and it appears instantly. But the fact that you can do something quickly doesn’t mean that you can do it well. It still takes mastery. I’ve seen the difference between people playing around with Dall-E and people who have really explored it and figured out how to teach it. In some ways, AI and other new technologies free creatives from having to master the technical part. But what they still have to master is the conceptual part. And that’s not an easy thing to do.
Should agencies and creatives concentrate on strategy and consultancy instead of creative execution?
I think the need to execute ideas is bigger than ever. To have those ideas well informed is a consulting task. The difference between traditional creative agencies and companies with a consulting heritage, like Accenture Song, is that we’re further upstream. We have a direct line to the consultants who solve business problems and don’t only get involved when it comes to marketing and design. Leaving ideas in a PowerPoint deck is not how any of us should be working. If there’s no direct line from thinking to making, then clients are wasting a lot of money.
Complexity and Simplicity
At this year’s NEXT conference, you talked about reducing complexity. How simple is too simple?
I differentiate between superficial and deep simplicity. In order to achieve deep simplicity you have to understand the complexity of a problem first. I like to visualize this as a »complexity curve«: You start at a point of ignorant bliss and work your way up to a point where you have a pretty good understanding of a problem. Then you decide what to give weight to. A lot of technical people make the mistake of transferring the complexity at the top of the curve onto the finished product. But you need to narrow it down in a simple and human way – and pull the curve back down. If you don’t explore the complexity first, you get a very shallow bell curve – that’s superficial simplicity. It’s not well-informed and probably won’t get you where you want to go.
This brings us back to Stories and Systems. For the first bit you need systemic thinkers, people who see the relation between things. The people who add value towards the end are usually storytellers. Because a story makes things simpler by telling one thing after the other.
So, nobody can do all of it alone.
Exactly. That’s something that burdens traditional ad agencies. It wasn’t that long ago that if I was a chief creative officer at an ad agency, I could conceptualize and execute almost anything – be it a radio spot, a print ad or a TV spot. When new technologies appeared, agencies hired young people who mastered them, but they didn’t change the leadership. So, young experience designers were told what to do by art directors and copywriters who had no idea what experience design is. They did not see themselves represented in the leadership. At some point they think: I should just go to Spotify! Get more respect, be more involved and earn more money. It’s no surprise that you can’t produce modern work when you don’t have a modern structure.
Past and Future
Let’s talk about new technologies. What do you think will the metaverse bring once creatives have found a new grammar?
It reminds me of an archival article of the New York Times from the early 20th century. There was a leak on a new technology they were working on at Menlo Park. It was called the gramophone. In the article, they speculate what this device could be used for: recordings of sermons or people’s last words – a whole list of things and nowhere did it say music. And in the end, this was what it was almost exclusively used for!
My point is: We make a lot of assumptions about the metaverse right now, but we haven’t been able to experiment with it enough, especially from a creative perspective. It’s important that creatives get into the tech now. There’s no reason the metaverse should look like Roblox. Right now, I see more potential in AR technology. It’s not as immersive as the metaverse, but the technology is more accessible and more portable.
Now let’s get on a more personal level. You’ve had a pretty amazing career. What mistakes have you made – and what have you learned from them?
Learning from failure is a very American thing – and it’s true. You have to give people the opportunity to fail – but also to correct themselves. The flipside is: You also need to be cautious of success. It can make you very complacent. You can’t live off a certain success forever – things change. In my early career I might have been a bit too confident that my work proved I was »right«. That’s not how it works. You do work that gives you the possibility to evolve and do something else after.
Your work took you to Accenture Song. Why?
I believe in creative leadership and I was very encouraged when David Droga was appointed CEO and creative chairman of Accenture Song. My ambitions are very aligned with his. Our goal is basically to make Accenture Song the best creative company in the world. Also, I like feeling like I’m back in a learning environment.
Especially from a design perspective there’s a lot of prejudice concerning consulting companies. Is it really a culture clash?
People tend to find comfort in what they know and gravitate towards that. It’s something I’ve witnessed throughout my career. So, it’s not surprising that designers are suspicious of consultants. But the magic usually lies in leveraging different ways of thinking. Innovation is about combining existent ideas to make a whole new one. Being critical of a culture you don’t know or understand, limits your ability to innovate. No company is perfect, each has its challenges. I like being in this structure with different capabilities and connecting them to create something new. I’m not one of these designers that feels most comfortable in a pure design shop. I’d get bored.
Do you have any advice for creatives who are now starting their career?
They have to master something that is going to be important for long enough to build a career on. And I believe that thing is not a single medium anymore, but a way of thinking. Because when it comes to making, technology is going to be shifting a lot. So, look out for new mediums that create new possibilities, become a brave amateur at the new stuff – and be mindful of partnering with the right people to make your ideas come to life.