On a brisk sunny day last December, management consultants, students, and designers gathered in a modern airy glass building near Manhattan's Hudson Yards Project. The nearly two dozen R/GA University attendees, who had traveled from as far as Austria, were about to get a rapid-fire education in a subject increasingly critical in business: design.  

Design is often thought of as a practice confined to fields like architecture and fashion. But technology has spawned a design revolution: Viewers, readers, gamers, and shoppers have unconsciously come to expect complex design systems that make their daily interactions easier, whether it's via a mobile device, a check-out counter or even a refrigerator. The world is moving fast with design at the helm, and the New York-based digital powerhouse, R/GA, now has an offering for those who want to become active participants in this shift.

The Interpublic-owned digital agency that now has offices in 17 countries was first hatched over 30 years ago as a motion graphics studio. Remember the title sequence for Alien? Or the Ghostbusters and The Goonies logos? That was the work of R/GA co-founders (and brothers), Bob and Richard Greenberg, who first made their mark doing motion graphics for film and commercials before the technology even existed (they created their own). Bob, who's long been the company's CEO, reinvented the firm as a design-driven digital marketing shop that's since attracted A-list clients including Samsung, Google, Verizon, Unilever, and Nike.

R/GA University began as the company's own internal professional development bootcamp. Eventually, the agency realized there was a growing hunger for this type of education--designers, agency folks, or anyone who wants to understand how design and technology can lead to stronger bottom line results. During the $1,800, three-day crash course, attendees are immersed in everything from design research and user journeys to designing with data and prototyping. (R/GA is also planning to expand its locations outside NYC, and offer courses in VR, AR, AI and data.). "It is our hope that participants take away tools, ideas, and methods to enhance their own work and careers," says David Kerr, executive director of R/GA University.

The inaugural R/GA University session kicked off by dividing the group into teams, and giving them an identical client brief. The client, we learned, was New York City, with a brief to "Create a digital product or service that helps consumers understand their energy consumption habits, and ways they can improve their usage. NYC will offer this service/product to all individuals."

The design challenge: Creating one product or service to fit the complex demographics of a massive metropolis, without inherently burdening residents with an additional everyday "task" seemed insurmountable. At any given time, those 8.5 million people are consuming energy at multiple locations, on multiple devices, and from multiple sources. The end goal was to design a system that would create enough emotional responsibility so that each and every person would play a role in reducing consumption of something they can't see or explain (what exactly is a kilowatt, anyway?)--but something they can't live without.

Each team set out to accomplish in 72 hours what R/GA can spend months working on for its clients. Led by their creative director of experience design and creative director of UX and UI, they quickly schooled us in everything from "brand thinking" to user testing. We even got a deep dive into naming, which we learned can be a ruthless exercise (it's not uncommon for R/GA to cycle through more than 2,000 names before launching a brand). After each one of these tracks, teams regrouped, applying what was just learned to building out their products.

On the final day, we pitched to a panel of R/GA's top creatives. My team focused on a phenomenon called ghost, or vampire, energy--the energy your appliances use when they are plugged in, but turned off. Our design solution: EmPower is a small device that can be placed between a socket and anything plugged into it that would completely break the circuit when you were away. In theory, city dwellers would unconsciously create a personal power grid that would completely power itself down (or up) when you left your home using app-based geolocation data. Our pitch line: "New Yorkers are ambitious and bold. We move fast and think big. We like excess, but not waste."

After each group presented, the panel provided feedback. Over the course of the discussion on EmPower, we happened to reveal our last-minute name change. We had originally named the campaign "ZeroGhost," a tie-in to the already established waste reduction campaign of New York City.

"Whoa! What is that? There's a "ghost" in my house?" the group responded. " What is it? Where is it? Can I stop it?  Can I save money?" Clearly our discarded name had struck more of a nerve than the one we tried to sell them.

"That's what you should have gone with," Chris Colborn, R/GA's EVP Global Chief Innovation Officer, later told me over beers. "Always go with your gut."  

For those of us professionally tasked as creative problem solvers in a sea of metrics, it's an important lesson to be reminded of. At first glance, R/GA University may appear to be geared toward the creatives in your company, but those who stand to benefit the most from the experience might just be those on the edges.

Published on: Mar 2, 2018