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5 Mins With… Scott Compton, Warren And Mahoney

Using references from the much-lauded film The Usual Suspects and award-winning TV series Mad Men to unpack this subject for his readers, Scott argues that the best lead designers are those who can use an ‘invisible hand’ to guide their teams. We spoke to Scott about his thoughts on the design process and the importance of the ‘invisible hand’.

5 Mins With… Scott Compton, Warren And Mahoney

(L) Scott Compton. (R) Award-winning TVNZ Head Quarters in Auckland, by Warren and Mahoney.

Scott Compton of trans-national architecture studio Warren and Mahoney recently penned a thought-leadership piece on the importance of facilitating other team members’ ideas throughout the design process to achieve the best outcome. Using references from the much-lauded film The Usual Suspects and award-winning TV series Mad Men to unpack this subject for his readers, Scott argues that the best lead designers are those who can use an ‘invisible hand’ to guide their teams.


You note that “The biggest problem with this focus on ideas is the belief that your first idea is always your best. Sometimes your first idea is lumpen and awkward. So, on the contrary, it’s important to have the ability to collectively explore as many ideas as possible so that no stone is left unturned.” How can a designer effectively leave no stone unturned when given a deadline?

Scott: The key here is knowing when to move on from an idea, something that is laboured will always require more mental application and take more time to resolve, so arguably it is flawed from the beginning. An appropriate idea which is reached through quick initial ideation and basic testing against the brief will become easier to develop in the long run.

Ultimately with deadlines it lies entirely with the design team leading the process, understanding the scale of a project and the milestones.


Is there an effective discovery process that allows for productive exploration whilst still being time efficient?

Scott: I think this specifically speaks to the importance of ideation at the beginning of the process. I’ve heard the term ‘design sprints’ used a lot and that is quite apt. Short, sharp and open dialogue before pen hits paper can be insightful. The ability to mediate discussion and collate valuable input from a wider client or design team is paramount – allowing ideas to flow fearlessly is often underestimated. The advertising community realised this years ago, hence my reference to Mad Men.
The greatest lead designers are those that facilitate the creativity and ideas of their team through an unperceivable influence – to be the ‘invisible hand’.” Why is the concept of the ‘invisible hand’ so important?

Scott: The ‘invisible hand’ is about being influential but not imposing. It is an inherent confidence in your subject expertise and assurance in quality control.

I say this because it is important for us as designers/creative professionals to realise that it is not our project or design to own. We are a service and we are about people and processes. Everything we produce belongs to our clients and we should commend their willingness to view themselves through our microscope.

A successful design is one that a client loves and ultimately feels responsible for, so it endures through pride of preservation and evolves naturally. I always say with a project that If we are called back in to review or solve something, then we have failed to meet the brief somewhere along the line.


What does it achieve that a design, with an obvious influence, may lack? How does a designer successfully achieve an unperveivable influence whilst still staying true to their design ethics and style?

Scott: To my mind the world seeks two types of creatives: the ‘starchitect’ model of artistry and singular mindset where you pay for the product of a designer, be it Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry, Karim Rashid or Kelly Hoppen. You are paying for their product to excel yours.

The alternative creative model is to be empathetic and integrate, literally embed yourself in the mentality of your client… then it truly becomes about the client. Once we are able to see what they see then we can exercise our design influence, which imparts ethics and style by osmosis. Under the integrated model the influence becomes more relevant, meaningful and less subjective. There is more variety in outcomes too, representative of the client not the ‘house’ style.
You reference a scene in season four of Mad Men that explores the conflict of collaborative workplaces and business ownership. When Peggy Olsen comes to find an original idea of hers transformed and coined by company director Don Draper it becomes obvious that an idea in this kind of workplace is never truly ‘owned’. Draper argues that it was the collaborative effort that truly shaped the idea, not that of the origin. Do you agree with Draper? What holds more importance, the origin of the idea or the resolution of one?

Scott: I do agree with Draper. Anyone can do ideas, but we specialise resolution and realisation of ideas. Nobody gets anywhere with just an idea. Look at Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook, it wasn’t his Idea but he made into something tangible and changed the cultural landscape forever. Ultimately, we are experts employed to bring dreams to life and that is why we are engaged. Once we are engaged to work with a client it is no longer a competition of ideas, it’s about honing something into reality. This is where design education is letting us down a bit. Design education teaches us to compete against each other and come up with the best scheme, proposal or idea. It nurtures a ‘me’ culture which takes years to dissolve in the professional world.

In following with the previous question, you note that the final design should always clearly express the identity of the company and people which is central to the organisation’s continual evolution. Do you believe this can in turn hinder or help the designer’s process? Do you see this as a constraint or an opportunity to expand one’s design process?

Scott: Constraints and opportunities are the life blood of a good design and identity is the true differentiator of all businesses in a super competitive economy. And I’m not referring to the quality of the fitout as a benchmark for this. Employee engagement, wellbeing and social incentives bring true meaning to an organisation. By all accounts Expedia in the UK nailed it, the employee offer is fabulous (two years running the winner of the glass door best place to work) as they excel with employee incentives, emotional support, health, wellbeing and a cracking social scene all catered for under one roof…the workplace design isn’t bad either (I led the design team at EDGE A&D).


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