February 7, 2022

Always Try to Be a Half-Step Ahead — An Interview with Matt Cooper-Wright

Guy Reading

Matt Cooper-Wright has learnt that you need to be curious and collaborative in the modern world — you’re not going to be doing the same thing in five years time. His work as Senior Design Lead at IDEO combines his expertise in graphic and interaction design with leadership and project management. The ways that we learn and the reasons why we learn have clearly changed. Your ability to stay half a step ahead and always look for what’s new will define how well you navigate those changes.Key Takeaways:

  • You have to be flexible. You have to be able to pick up and drop tools and skills without being sentimental as times change.
  • Sharing what you know benefits yourself and others. You’re making yourself more open to learning new things when you give away your knowledge.
  • Make yourself indispensable. Find out what problems a company has and solve them. Doing this will not only make yourself indispensable, it will make everyone around you more successful.
  • Making something, however bad, can be a source of motivation to learn. When learning a new skill, you can motivate yourself with the gap between what you’ve made and how refined you want that to be.

What does IDEO do?IDEO is a design company. We take on design challenges and tend to work around a project engagement that usually runs for two or three months. I’m a project lead at IDEO. My role is somewhere between project management, leadership and being a designer — being a bit of everything.What has been your career journey?I graduated with a Graphic Design BA from the University of Nottingham around ten years ago. After that, I was lucky to get a job in London with Applied Wayfinding, who do a lot of information design. I went straight into designing city-wide pointing systems.

“Designing city wayfinding systems forced me to think very tangibly about the needs of a really broad range of people who might have learning or physical disabilities, or who might be tourists or locals.”

That experience made me confident about about building something by engaging in a conversation with people.Before I formally learnt any design I built websites in the 1990s. Coding has taught me a lot about design — this engagement with the digital world is what has taken me furthest in my career.How did you move to IDEO?After five years, I wanted a break to see how other parts of the design sector operated, so I worked freelance for just under two years.I landed a two-day job as a graphic designer here at IDEO to produce a pitch document. I helped win that job and was invited back as a freelancer. An opening appeared on the website for an interaction designer. The job description was basically everything that I’d done that day at IDEO, so I thought that if I didn’t get the job then I shouldn’t hang around much longer. Luckily, I did get the job.How did you learn to code?I’m completely self-taught. I usually know what I want to achieve, and I crash into the problems involved over and over again. I really enjoy the feeling of something being broken for a very long time and then slowly starting to fix it. It’s like sculpting — you chisel away for hours and hours.

“My parents grew up in a period where you learnt all you had to and then you went out into the world and applied that. But I think that nowadays that process is flipped — everyone has to learn all the time.”

When I teach, I tell students that what you should get good at is not only learning how to use tools, but also to drop them as soon as you realise the world has moved on. It’s vital to get used to the fact that you won’t be doing whatever you’re doing today in five years time. Your success will be defined by how quickly you can adapt.Are there any other skills that have helped you at IDEO?I’ve always been generous with my knowledge — I want to share. If you try very seriously to hold onto that knowledge, then you use energy holding on rather than learning something new.

“It’s best to have the mindset that ‘I’d better give everything I’ve got away today because that will force me to do something different tomorrow.’ You only need to be half a step ahead of everyone else.”

You may only know a little bit more that everyone else about what the next big thing is going to be, but you’re able to set yourself up as the person who is always leaning toward the future.

“It doesn’t matter what your core design skill is or where the world is going — being collaborative and curious will serve you very well.”

As a result, I’ve been doing more teaching with Hyper Island in Manchester. Their approach is very much about getting people ready for industry — it’s more vocational than even my graphic design course. Design doesn’t live in a vacuum. It’s paid for, it involves risks, and it’s run by a team of people, so you need to learn a lot about how your work is related to the larger structure.Who are your heroes in the industry?Malcolm Garrett is the person who I’ve learnt the most from. He was Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry, and he did designs for the Buzzcocks in the 1970s. He’s someone who’s been on the forefront of digital work for the last forty years. He’s shared and taught and took the time to explain things. The way he acts has shaped a lot of my thoughts about how you behave and learn.

“Malcolm Garrett is somebody who is more interested in learning for tomorrow rather than celebrating today.”

Do you do any public speaking?I occasionally speak at conferences that are away from design — I spoke at Strata+Hadoop almost two years ago. It’s run by O’Reilly Media and has become the main big data conference. It was fascinating to go there as a designer who was also interested in data. Designers should become involved and interesting in other kinds of industries, rather than telling each other how to do design — it gives you a new perspective.What’s your best learning experience been?An early project in which I had a leadership role at Applied Wayfinding involved designing all the bus mapping and time table information for Dublin. The primary piece of software I used was Gmail.

“Writing, and writing emails in particular, isn’t a core design skill, but it’s the most important professional skill. If you can’t communicate what you’re thinking, it doesn’t matter how good that thinking is.”

In my personal experience, the best learning technique is to set yourself a challenge, get started, and do a bad job for a while. It will work in some form quite quickly, but it won’t be as refined as you want it to be. That is a source of motivation for me — the gap between how refined you want your thing to be and how refined it actually is.

What inspires you?I’m really inspired by the story of Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment. He put computers in a slum in Delhi, setting them at a certain height so that only children under five could use them. He showed that within about two weeks the kids had not only learnt how to use the english-language computers, but they’d also set up a system of who got to use it. That’s a post-industrial style of learning — setting children open questions and challenges and letting them prove it for themselves.

What’s on your Learning Playlist?I’m a fan of Kottke.org and Brain Pickings, which are both brilliant curation blogs about creative and intriguing things. There are two great online magazines that I follow: Core77 covers industrial design, and Smashing Magazine deals with web development and design. Product Hunt is a great way to discover new things, while StackShare is really helpful for finding useful software. Fast Company is a really creative and innovative physical and online magazine about business. The New Aesthetic is famously strange, but it’s always unusual and often fascinating.There are two email newsletters I read that are somewhat niche but really fascinating: Data Machina is a weekly newsletter about Data Science, while Future of Transportation is about the way that Transport is changing. I listen to the A16Z podcast, which is a discussion of technological and cultural trends from Andreessen Horowitz, and I think that 99% Invisible is rightly as well known as it is. I’d love to do meet-ups, but I have a young family, so I don’t have time after work to spend two hours in a pub — I wish there were other ways to get the benefit from those communities.

What advice would you give to somebody looking to get into the industry?I give that exact talk to students: Seven Ways to Make Yourself Indispensable. My wife once said to me, ‘get in and make yourself indispensable’. If you figure out what problems a firm has and how to solve those problems, you’ll always have a job. It may sound a bit selfish, but actually all the behaviours that lead from it are unselfish — you’ll make senior people and your clients more successful.

“If your main aim is how you make yourself successful — well, the first component of that is that everyone else needs to be successful around you.”

In shortThe world has clearly changed in the how and the why of learning. We’re required to learn new skills much more frequently and increasingly more people off-load knowledge to Google. It’s essential that in a fast-paced world designers and other workers stay up to date. As Matt Cooper-Wright points out, the best way to do this is to be generous with your knowledge. When you stop spending energy on trying to cling onto what you already know, it frees you up to focus on what you have to learn. It’s also a great example of a selfish impulse — to stay on the cutting edge — which forces you to unselfishly help everyone around you.

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