Every design tells a story and every story needs a hero. But being a hero isn't simply a matter of donning a cape and saving the day with a sketch. P&G's Shane Meeker talks journeys, heroes and design.
JULY 2008 - A native of a rural farming community in the middle of Ohio, Shane Meeker first took an interest in ID while attending a special effects exhibit at the Columbus College of Art & Design. Already at The Ohio State University studying for Genetic Engineering, he immediately moved over to their ID program. Following a handful of internships he ended up taking a job at Procter & Gamble in 1997 and is still there today living in Cincinnati with his wife and their three children.
Can you talk about your current position and what you're working on?
Currently I am an Associate Design Fellow in Procter and Gamble’s (P&G) Design Function. P&G is the largest consumer products company in the world and over the last 11 years I have worked in almost all its businesses—Fabric and Home Care, Health Care, Baby Care, Beauty Care and Food & Beverage. Now I am working within the Corporate Design Function where I help develop new and unique innovation tools, methods and processes that are utilized across areas ranging from disruptive innovation, group inspiration, targeted brand initiatives, storytelling, organizational structure and new consumer testing and targeting methods.
What disciplines other than ID (web design, filmmaking, music, photography, graphic design, etc) do you have a background in? How does your experience with those disciplines influence or impact your ID work?
Well, great question, my formal background is in ID where I graduated from The Ohio State University, and over the years I have spent most of my time at P&G managing and leading design across multi-functional teams. Over that time I have had the opportunity to lead design projects in areas ranging from product design, graphic design, holistic strategy development, brand architecture, in-store theater to helping develop innovation pipelines. About three and a half years ago I changed my focus to understanding the principles of creativity, creating group inspirational exercises, environments and projects and how to change the lens that a project team (and management) looks at an idea through.
Of all the areas that I have studied, I have pursued the idea of “storytelling” with the most passion. This includes all its faces, ranging from entertainment, mythology, its use in human learning and lastly, its execution in various mediums. But wait, let me step back for a second and tell a quick story…
I am a huge film fan. Love movies, love fantasy, love great stories. I have since I was a kid! A few years ago, I had a screenplay idea and thought, “Well, I better go out and get some books to help me figure out how to write this thing.” So, I went and bought some and, in particular, I loved the book The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler. But as I was reading it and many others, my screenplay idea started to fade away and I started to see a new type of tool and strategy to be used within design and brands. Not necessarily a new idea, just a new way to approach an existing idea. I immediately started to develop and experiment with unique tools and exercises on how to approach storytelling and for the last three years have been doing just that. So, what started with my interest in how to write a screenplay has led to an understanding and fascination with how story can help inspire everything from a brand, product, environment, experience, brainstorm and even a presentation.
Story is such a great way to get in touch with consumers in a new, authentic and passionate way. The trick to good storytelling is understanding the mythical structure while decorating it with a new set of looks and surprises—essentially mixing old knowledge with new inspiration and methods. Understanding the philosophy and use of story has changed how I approach all aspects of my professional and personal life. Two of my biggest heroes in storytelling are Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler. To me, both are masters in their craft and area of expertise and I would recommend anyone interested in this area to saturate themselves with their books.
As an advocate for the use of storytelling in design, can you briefly explain how the concept of story can become synonymous with the concept of brand? Are there good examples of how this works that you can cite for us?
For me, when you look at the essence of a brand’s idea it all comes down to what story they are telling and if it is inspirational or not. This is especially true if you are trying to be a “lifestyle” brand. In other words, a good story is the true difference between being seen as a commodity or a brand that you really buy because it represents part of who you are or what you want to be. So, a question I always ask brand teams to consider is, “Do consumers truly want to be a part of the journey you are promising?” Remember, a journey usually assumes a certain level of excitement, chaos, danger (figuratively speaking of course), mystery and discovery. Or why else would we be interested in being a part of it? There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “He who goes on the journey never comes back the same.” The Hero (or consumer) must decide if the treasure at the end of the quest is worth going through the obstacles to get there and then, in turn, what will it bring them.
A great brand story helps connect a teller and a listener in a new, engaging way and brings a new level of authenticity and passion to the total experience. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a story has to be pasted everywhere on a brand. It sometimes can just be a backbone or nerve center for internal decisions and planning. There are many execution possibilities, with only one of them being to make a transparent tale for consumers to read.
How would you redesign the ID education infrastructure?
The biggest change design schools can make is to teach designers how to communicate with business. You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you can’t get them across to the business, they will not be accepted. Part of what needs to happen is business must be educated on design, but more importantly, designers must understand business. Some design schools, like Stanford and IIT, are already doing this.
What is the biggest challenge that every designer (corporate, consultant, educator) needs to overcome today?
To me the biggest obstacle is one I saw when I was in school and I still see it in the professional world today. That is, creating an understanding of what Design can do and the many levels of strategy and innovation we can help foster and lead. The profession of Design needs to continue to develop new and helpful ways to educate and inspire other functions within the larger business community. In essence, sharing in an intuitive way, what we do, how we think, what we learn and the processes we go about. Students also need to understand that when they come out of school they will become teachers as much as designers, always teaching the idea of Design and what it involves—that is never ending and critical to spreading the word of our discipline, so be ready for it.
What are your own personal design aspirations?
My goal is really to try to understand and develop a new way to approach the creative process. How can untapped human imagination potential be unlocked and what are some of the secret keys? I am a firm believer in the old saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” To that end, one of my favorite activities is to look for unexpected connections between things—that is where I believe a lot of innovation hides and where most companies fail to search. For example, looking for a new product idea by examining metaphors and stories contained within a museum’s mythical beast exhibit and then refining it by examining a gourmet chocolatier’s business model just may unlock the key to finding a cool new idea in the toothbrush category. (Yes, I know that was a mouthful and sounds weird but I have seen it to be true in many projects, many times.)
Really ask yourself, “Where is your competition looking for inspiration for a particular product?” Most of the time, you can predict where they would look, the same way they can predict where you may. So, then look somewhere else, someplace surprising! Inspiration is a catalytic activity and in many cases is about your brain connecting non-related concepts. Make sure you are feeding it the right food to do that.
Who/what are your sources of design inspiration?
Related to the above, I would say the unexpected. In the business I’m in—consumable products—I very seldom go to grocery stores to look for new ways to think of things. Really, if its there, then its already way out! I instead look to areas like fashion, niche boutiques, movies, nature, comic books, my kids and video games. Really, nothing gets me more inspired than say, going on a trip with my peers to a place like Walt Disney World and observing and understanding new ways of creating experiences and then coming home and figuring out the overlying principles we learned and how those can apply to our types of products and categories—very cool stuff!! So, I guess what I am saying is to go to unusual places and look for how whatever is there can be re-applied to what you do, even if at first it couldn’t seem more distant or totally unrelated. I promise you can find the associations and it will really get you (and your teams) inspired and motivated!
We understand you've recently met one of your design heroes. Can you talk about that experience?
Well, I was recently asked to put together and lead a group inspiration session at P&G with the objective of creating a recipe book of sorts on what some of the ingredients of inspiration may be and, of course, what it takes to cook them. Anyway, I wanted to bring in a couple speakers and had a few in my mind. With an event planner friend of mine we convinced Christopher Vogler (author of The Writers Journey) to come in and talk to us about inspiration through stories. As I mentioned earlier, his book is one of the foundations of a lot of my thinking models and I am a huge fan. So, we hung out for a couple days in the session and I really got a chance to talk over subjects with him like Mythic Structure, the Hero’s Journey and the film creative process. We even got a chance to go to a movie, Iron Man (which rocks btw)! It was such a pleasure to talk through my thoughts and ideas and how I have applied his work to things like product innovation and brand development and in turn get his inputs and builds. One of the great pleasures in life is to meet and talk to other people who have different passions, ideas, jobs and backgrounds. There is so much knowledge out there that is only a simple conversation away.
What are your favorite design books or web site distractions?
I love books about new ways of thinking. Some of my favorites are The Writers Journey 3rd Edition by Christopher Vogler, Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, Superman on the Couch by Danny Fingeroth, Chasing Cool by Noah Kerner and Gene Pressman, Inside the Magic Kingdom by Tom Connellan and The Starbucks Experience by Joseph Michelli. I also love all “The Art of...” books from movies (e.g. The Art of Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney Editions). Websites, what a great research tool, check out ign.com, thecoolhunter.net and beautifulstranger.tv!
Can you talk a little about your IDSA experience?
I recently attended and spoke at the IDSA Mideast District Conference 2008 and thought the list and variety of presenters was excellent along with the time and opportunity to make connections. It still amazes me how truly small the Design world is and that people that I haven’t seen in years were there and we got to catch up! It was great! Creating a place of “connection and sharing” is a needed and valuable benefit for all designers that the IDSA provides.
If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to email Shane at firstname.lastname@example.org.