The Questions | Brian Matt, IDSA | Altitude

As founder and CEO of Altitude, an IDSA Patron and innovation firm located in the Boston area, Brian Matt, IDSA leads a company that works in design strategy, design innovation, product realization and brand communications for a client roster that includes Black & Decker, Under Armour, Briggs & Stratton, Timex, Microsoft, Motorola, Nike, Bose, Rubbermaid, Sony, Toyota and Thermo Scientific

Matt is famous for asking thoughtful questions and listening intently. He has been known to ask complete strangers, “What keeps you up at night?” In part one of our Q&A with him, we turned the tables on him to learn about how Altitude works and what he sees as some of the best opportunities for designers and the design community to impact business and culture.

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Do you view your work more in terms of creating culture or creating value for business?

We absolutely embrace the strategy of solving business problems and allow the culture to be adjusted around THAT. Altitude is a collective of creative thinkers united in a common purpose: to bring our clients business success. We believe that true innovation arises when talent and spirited intellectual engagement meet business acumen and a deep understanding of consumer needs and desires. We help clients clearly define their goals, differentiate themselves from competitors, lessen their impact on the environment and offer solutions that are wholly relevant.

How do you translate the design process and its value for any audience that is unfamiliar with design?

Most of our clients have no need or desire to understand the design process. A successful outcome is much more important to them. A successful outcome is much more important than the process to get there. Both parties measure success by results (for example, growth, profit, percentage of revenue from new products, etc.). It is in vogue to promote the application of design processes to client organizations, but unless it is given years to work out and has the entire company dedicated or supporting it, it is bound to disappoint. Most of our clients know what their strengths are and what we excel in. Together we create a symbiotic relationship built on trust. That said, we do strive to create the best process for each client and continuously evolve our strengths. We also make no secret of our process because clients very much need to interact with it to be successful. It is just that we do not dwell on teaching them the process or even get disappointed when they don’t have an A+ understanding of design.

What percentage of Altitude’s work is product design? What percentage is strategic design?

Everyone will agree that ALL design is strategic. We just have to understand that it is a continuum with a range from picking an effective color to curing cancer.

Who do you view as your primary competition: other design firms? Management consultants? Branding firms? Ad agencies?

We compete with everyone and everything. Answers are everywhere. It’s our job to explain the difference between a high caliber idea and something just plain interesting.

What makes Altitude different from the rest of the industry?

This answer is hard to provide without seeming corny. Look, we all pull from the same gene pool. I think the magic happens with making the most out of what you have and creating an environment that supports your goals. Every firm has that original DNA that comes from the owner and leaders. Describing that DNA to differentiate yourself is very difficult. All firms tell clients that their people are friendly, diligent and creative. I think it’s more about the glue that holds it all together. Our sweet spot lies in how well we integrate our four primary disciplines into a cohesive team that can solve the toughest of problems. It’s hard and it takes regular adjustments, but the payback is immense.

After you’ve secured a new client, what is the most important thing you do to maintain their business?

Relationship. That’s it. Anyone can lower their prices or add a capability, but few firms worry about what keeps their clients up at night. If the client is worrying, then we’re worrying. It is a given that the client already recognizes the creativity and work quality or the relationship is doomed to fail anyway. There are three aspects you must continually learn about the client:  company, customers and competition. Stay on top of these and feed that information back to them in meaningful ways and you will be a trusted advisor and treated as they treat themselves.

What business constraint do you find to be most challenging?

The business constraint that is most challenging is budget. Clients spend in greater percentages on business consulting, and just end up with a thick report. I am not saying that this effort is bad. In fact, in many cases, it is necessary and often brilliant. The whole financial model is different in the design world. We are expected to do more with less. I think this is mostly because we can (and almost always do). Currently, I just consider this one of the constraints that better shapes the process.

What emerging design trend are you most excited about?

Well, it certainly is NOT crowd sourcing. That’s mostly a ridiculous and disrespectful way to do business. The trend that stirs me the most is integrating design and business in a more optimal way.

What consumer (or human) problem offers the greatest opportunities for designers to demonstrate our discipline’s value?

I think that the next great design challenge is in the health care field. We need to reduce costs while improving outcomes to treat a larger population of seniors at the level (or better) that we’ve come to expect. It would be hard enough to handle a change in one of those dimensions while holding the other constant. Improving both at once is an enormous obstacle. The only approach that can work for a challenge like this is a combination of a creative design approach with an analytical strategic approach. The design approach is necessary because we absolutely must experiment like crazy to find solutions that work. We need entrepreneurs trying new businesses, large companies launching new models and government funding new programs. Shake it out and see what works. At the same time, we need to be rigorously comparing results and approaches to manage incentive structures. That requires a more analytical strategic bent. I am convinced that this is the challenge that will occupy designers in the US for the next two decades. Traditional means of care will and must change, and I think we’ll be leading the charge.

Brian answered a few additional questions that will be posted soon. If you’d like more insights from Brian and/or the Altitude team, check out the Altimeter blog.