Fjord's new MD Abbie Walsh: 'design has power and we should be using it for good'

Fresh from the Accenture Interactive-acquisition, the new MD discusses what design means, sustainability, women in design and iOS7.

Abbie Walsh has taken over running digital design agency Fjord as the company has been acquired by Accenture Interactive, the digital part of the big management consultancy. We took the opportunity to sit down with her and discuss a broad range of subjects around what Fjord does – and those dear to her heart – such as where design needs to sit in the process of running a business, how design firms can help make clients more sustainable, why often male-dominated client companies can put some women off rising up the ranks in the creative industries and why Apple's iOS7 will become the new normal.

Previous to the acquisition, Abbie was service design director at Fjord – essentially the design director as the agency specialises in service design – and before that she was at the BBC. Fjord has had a long relationship with the BBC, being involved with the design of the iPlayer service since its very beginnings – and she feels that this has given the firm the chance to acquire skills, approaches and methodologies that they have then been able to roll out into other industries.

"We don't realise how lucky we are to have them in this country, she says. "They allow us to do stuff that then shows the way to other industries."

Fjord does much more than just interface design: it crafts an overarching sense of a brand that permeates throughout how people interact with a its services, whether on their site, on social media or in-store – a relatively new but growing area for Fjord. As a project that encapsulates a lot of what the firm does, Abbie mentions Fjord's work for Spanish bank BBVA – where redesigning their online banking service was performed alongside refocussing their in-branch services.

"Because the industry itself has been changed by digital, there have been projects in retail [we could get involved in. We get to ask:] what does a retail space mean when online traffic is starting to overtake the retail experience? What is the place of retail? What does that mean from a service design perspective?"

Abbie believes that her team will get to ask these kind of questions – and work on the projects where they get to ask them – more frequently as part of Accenture Interactive (and as Accenture as a whole), as their services are offered next to data analysis and technology consultancy.

"We're a small company. There are only 200 of us," she says. "There's only so many doors we can open at the same time, whereas with Accenture Interactive there are thousands of interesting clients."

Design makes a difference

Fjord created an app for 3 in Sweden aims to make phone bills comprehensable and useful.

Asked what the concept of design means to her when Fjord works within such broad parameters, Abbie reveals a clearly defined principle that she uses as a starting point.

"Design makes thing better," she says. "There are lots of different ways [that can be applied, such as] taking complexity and making it accessible. It's a set of skills that translate something into something that's more valuable, more useful, more able to touch and make a difference.

"That goes from being able to take business requirements and sketching them into wireframes or make them tangible, to making interfaces that are easily understandable and affordances that work. It's also being able to use lateral thinking and creative techniques to open up a problem and get to a better solution than if you'd approached it in a linear way."

One area where Abbie feels that the design industry can push its remit – and its thinking – further into organisations is in helping companies product more sustainable products, and be more sustainable internally too.

"If we think that design has as much power as this – which is it can be applied to everything – then we should be using it for good," she says, though she admits that "it's not something we do to win business, it's because we should be applying that to do things that are good for the world.

"A lot of our clients have to be thinking about that now and we should be helping them with it – and maybe pushing it further."

Abbie also admits that some clients may be interested in sustainability only to fit in with some government-mandated restrictions or accreditation, but says that "beyond that we can create something for them that has user benefit and benefit for the world. Sustainability and service design fit really nicely together."

What Abbie means by this is that digital services are by their very nature usually more sustainable than older ways of doing business – online paperless banking being a often-quoted example. More conceptually, the iterative development of digital services mean that there are fewer times when a brand needs to go through the wasteful process of ditching everything and starting again.

Fjord recently teamed up with Forum for the Future, Ecover and Virgin Active to bring together service design and sustainability.

Design needs women

Another area where Abbie sees an opportunity to make change for better is more focussed on the creative industries rather than clients – and more personal to her, though it will affect Fjord too. Abbie wants to help more women's career progression so that the upper echelons of the design industry – which is still largely male-dominated.

"I look back and I see that women have been strong mentors for me," says Abbie. "[They have] really helped me moved forward and I owe them a lot for that. I look up to people like Julia WhitneyHead of User Experience & Design Group at the BBC, She's been incredibly supportive of me and she's a great role model."

To achieve this, Abbie believes that companies need to realise that having women in board-level positions isn't just right – it's a good commercial decision too.

"It's proven that having a mix of gender leads to better business," she says. "I don't see that many design directors that are women. I need to give it a bit of thought as to what I can do about that."

She wonders if one issue is putting off women from applying for higher positions in the creative industries – that the majority of clients are men. While the days of deals being agreed late-night at strip clubs are (largely) behind us, situations such as presenting to an all-male group can be more intimidating for women than for men.

Abbie believes – and she's right – that its up to those currently in higher positions, both men and women, need to help women to be able to pitch well in those situations as a part of developing their overall presentational skills.

"If people have fears about presentations and clients, [we need to help them develop that] as that's a crucial skill of being a leader," she says.

Design affects everyone

This summer, you can't interview the head of a agency that designs interfaces without the subject coming up of Apple's recently announced overhaul of its iPhone platform that's due in autumn, iOS 7. It's a mix of flatter, lighter colours and thin typography that has been described as being more youthful feeling than iOS 6.

The subject has lead to a few feisty debates between members of Fjord's team – whose backgrounds span interface, product and experiential designer – as to the quality and usefulness of of iOS7's aesthetics and user experience. It's a divisive issue, but there is one thing they all agree on – iOS7 will be the new normal of mobile user experience design and beyond. It's conventions – inter-phonemaker court clashes notwithstanding – will set how users expect phones, tablets and even TVs and kiosks to work.

"One of the principles I lay down for the team is about working smarter," says Abbie. "There are patterns out there that have been created and have evolved and now have become the accepted norm. People don't even question them anymore – it just is and they just work.

"Forcing people to relearn should only be done for some kind of measurable improvement in their lives – not just for the sake of making it look better. [I tell my team to] come up with new ideas that enhance [people's lives]. Don't just change what works for the sake of it."

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