Fjord CEO: Good Design Takes Away, Bad Design Adds

August 23, 2017, 3:29 PM UTC
Olof Schybergson of Fjord, a global design consultancy backed by Accenture
Olof Schybergson of Fjord, a global design consultancy backed by Accenture

Fjord’s chief executive Olof Schybergson is obsessed – with a wrench. He keeps one prominently displayed on his office table in New York, and is known to carry it into client meetings.

But it is not just any wrench. The CEO of Fjord, an Accenture-owned global design consultancy, has adopted the GearWrench X-Beam as his personal mascot. Designed by a U.S. mechanic, the X-Beam features a subtle but clever 90-degree twist along its handle, so users can exert a far greater force without having the tool dig into their hands.

For Schybergson, who manages over 900 designers in 24 studios around the world, it’s a physical reminder of the “elegant simplicity” mantra he regularly preaches at work. “The lesson is: do not take anything for granted,” he explains. “Everything can be improved, and with a targeted twist you might be able to elegantly simplify what had been taken for granted by millions.”

“At Fjord likewise, our goal is always beauty and minimal effort in use for maximum return,” he says. It’s a philosophy he tries to put front and center not just within the company he co-founded in 2001, but also at Accenture Interactive, which acquired Fjord in 2013, and the external clients that both companies work with.

“We’ve applied user-centered design to shape Fjord’s strategy, our value system, and our employee value proposition. And we’re using similar techniques to evolve Accenture’s approach to many key aspects of the business, from talent development to workplace design.”

Within Fjord, a dedicated business unit called Fjord Evolution coaches leading companies on how to elevate the importance of design in their organizations. Accenture, meanwhile, has formed its own Design Thinking community as a result of Fjord’s integration, and has ramped up investment in training management and technology consultants to incorporate design thinking into the account work they do.

Accenture is among many large companies that have recognized the importance of design thinking in recent years. Schybergson argues “companies that embrace design are rewarded by much higher returns on shareholder investment.” The Design Value Index, which tracks a portfolio of 16 publicly traded design-led public-listed companies, would seem to support that claim. The DVI portfolio has consistently outperformed the overall S&P Index over for more than a decade.

It goes beyond scale. Schybergson says companies of any size can reap benefits. “Of course, a lot of people have learned from the example of Apple, but also at the tech–driven start-up end of the market, we see companies with a commitment to design, such as Uber, Airbnb and Netflix, win and disrupt.”

And good design begets better design. “We are all consumers of design artefacts. We have learned to contrast and compare not only between say Apple Maps and Google Maps, or between Samsung and LG phones, but between banks and airlines, and increasingly we have liquid expectations of experiences that flow across industry boundaries. If your car dealer gives you a stand-out experience, you start — often consciously – to ask why can’t my grocery shop, or energy provider do this as well?”

XBeam GearWrench
The GearWrench X-Beam that Olof Schybergson, the CEO of Fjord has adopted as his personal mascot.GearWrench

Schybergson credits this unyielding belief in the transformative power of digital to change business and society for keeping Fjord ahead of other design consultancies.

Schybergson, a native of Finland, co-founded Fjord in London in 2001 together with British media entrepreneurs Mike Beeston and Mark Curtis. All three had been colleagues at design agency Razorfish. They launched their new venture just as the dot-com bubble turned to bust and most companies were hastily abandoning digital initiatives. But Fjord stayed true to its digital focus. “We’ve always been inventors and creators, so we started Fjord as a design and innovation consultancy with digital as its native medium,” says Schybergson. “We were very early to practice service design, and to focus on mobile and human networks in digital, which became known as ‘social media’ much later.”

Numerous projects with leading mobile carriers and phone maker Nokia, and a collaboration with the British Broadcasting Corporation on the creation of the BBC iPlayer helped to cement this early focus. Schybergson and his partners were asked to create a broad range of services for use on the move that would also be engaging and enjoyable for users, and in the process acquired a deep knowledge of mobile. That expertise became an important differentiator for Fjord when mobile became a priority for large brands after 2006 and “has been paying dividends for us and our clients ever since,” says Schybergson.

Schybergson predicts the future of digital services will be fueled by data, and to capitalize on that opportunity, he has created a dedicated Data and Design practice at Fjord. “Data is created or captured by technology but you often need design to make sense of it, determine which data is worth capturing, and – increasingly importantly – to change the service or product in real time,” he says.

The extension of technology beyond the smartphone—from smart homes to connected cars—is rife with opportunity for ever more innovative digital service designs, particularly in the areas of mixed realities or voice-controlled applications. ” We’ve already developed thinking, research, and design studies inside Fjord about how to design for voice which we have documented in depth and are already applying to client projects.”

For all that effort, sometimes the best designs go completely unappreciated by users. That doesn’t bother Schybergson. In fact, he says, that is the whole point. “Good design takes away; bad design adds – either visual clutter, or processes and interactions that are not required.”

He’s lived for extended spells in London, where he found “an infectious culture” and a great sense of humor, and New York, which is charged with energy and ambition. But it is his Helsinki upbringing that drives his passion for simplicity, clarity and nature.

He elaborates: “Great design creates mental models that allow us to process the world around us as easily as possible, even if the model is not always a detailed reflection of reality – because users don’t have the time or inclination to try to grasp how something works under the hood.”

In the United Kingdom, for instance, Fjord worked with a bank to reduce by half the number of actions a customer has to take to get a mortgage approval, and the benefits were profound, despite being invisible to the naked eye, says Schybergson. “The bank benefits through less time-consuming process steps. And we have given back time to the user – surely, the 21st century’s most precious commodity.”

“We are not so naïve as to believe that design can solve all problems, but we do think it can make a significant contribution to making lives just a little bit better,” he says.