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Interview with David Lai, CEO and Creative Director at Hello Design

By:   Date posted: May 15, 2013

david-laiWelcome to The Agency Post. Tell us about yourself.

I co-founded Hello almost 15 years ago with another designer, Hiro Niwa. I’m the CEO and creative director, which means I’m responsible for both the strategic thinking and detailed execution behind our work. I was born in Kansas and then moved to the East Coast to attend high school and college. After working for a bit in San Francisco, I ended up here in Los Angeles and decided to call this place home. I was never formally trained as a designer and have always learned by doing whether I succeeded or failed. I’m still learning every day, and that’s what keeps me going. I also really like to ride my bike.

Tell us more about Hello Design. What differentiates it from other agencies?

Hello is a digital creative agency. We create intelligent, living systems for people to experience and believe in building systems that are useful, usable and desirable. Our founding principle was based on a simple idea of “do good work, and everything else happens.” I think this is what sets us apart from other agencies, as we haven’t wavered from that belief since we started. We are constantly striving to do better work, and in that process, it’s allowed us to grow. We also believe in working with diverse clients in diverse industries which has allowed us to work with some amazing clients such as Herman Miller, Tillamook, Speedo, Sony and Nike.

Tell us about some of your favorite campaigns that you’ve worked on (no more than three)*. What was the strategy behind these?

Why Design
We recently created a series of short films for Herman Miller called “Why Design.” Our team interviewed a diverse set of designers from all over the world and asked them what they were passionate about. From surfing to the ballet to making sculptures out of paper, we got a glimpse into the minds of some truly inspiring designers who work with Herman Miller. Our strategy was to tell stories worth sharing to give people a better understanding of the thinking and the people behind great products.

Tillamook Kitchen

For Tillamook, we realized that the key was quality over quantity when it came to recipes. More importantly, we felt that we needed to find chefs who really believe in the product and choose to use Tillamook because it tastes better. Our goal was to reveal what was already there and do that by being authentic with our content. We created “Tillamook Kitchen” where we share best-selling recipes that people often wait in line for along with documentary-style chef profiles to establish credibility.

Design for You

“Design for You” is a campaign we created for Herman Miller to build brand awareness. We collaborated with five artists to paint five Eames Rocker chairs and gave people a chance to win these one-of-a-kind works of art. The unique tiered contest engaged group participation where users had to get others to enter to unlock prizes.

How are technology trends shaping the future of design? Is design becoming the differentiating factor when the technology has advanced this far?

Technology is constantly evolving. At Hello, we believe strongly that we need to combine strategy, design and technology to create innovative work. I think technology can certainly impact design, though. For example, a few years ago, Flash was all the rage as a technology, and today it’s pretty much dead. HTML5 has risen to replace it, and that has impacted how we design today based on what it can and can’t do. The rise of tablets and smartphones has certainly played a role in this as well as a driving factor for this evolution. This drives design in the way we need to think about these different platforms as a system, and at the same time, it requires us to think about the context in which these devices will be used. Design can differentiate a good experience from a bad one even if the technology is the same. Since everything is connected, the key is to think about how they can best work together to deliver an engaging experience.

Why is risk important in design? How can designers collaborate with clients to help them understand why risk and innovation is important in design?

Risk in design means trying new things with no guarantees that they will work. Like all things, there’s an upside to this in that if it does work, it tends to work really well.

Innovation requires experimentation, and risk comes with that process. It’s about building on the things that came before and making things better. In order to do that, you have to try new things, and that can be scary to clients. If you create a product that is just as good as the next guy, at best you are still status quo — or worse, below it. On the other hand, if you are willing to innovate and disrupt that status quo, you can leapfrog everyone and really stand above all of it. In our eyes, there’s more risk by not innovating.

More and more designer led companies, such as Pinterest, Airbnb and Fab, are emerging. Why should designers be as much of a part of the business decisions as the aesthetic decisions?

I think good design is always more than aesthetic decisions. Design is about thinking about the bigger picture, and it is a strategic tool when used correctly. As the media landscape is getting more cluttered, design allows you to cut through it all.

We believe it’s about designing the experience, so it makes a lot of sense for companies to think about design being at the core of that process.

Do you think that design can change the world?

Yes I do. But then again, I’m a designer.

What emerging trend in advertising are you most excited about and why?

I’m not sure I’m excited about any one trend in advertising. What I can say is that I believe the best advertising today is not advertising in the traditional sense. Digital makes everything transparent, and we’re moving away from persuasion. We need to think about how we can create useful things for people so we can become part of their lives.

Must-read book:  “Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent!)” by George Lois.

Favorite ad of all time: I don’t really have a favorite, but I did enjoy watching the “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn” web series — probably because they weren’t really ads. I wanted to play Halo 4 after watching them, and I’m not even a gamer.

Connect with David on LinkedIn or follow @hellodsgn on Twitter.

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Jami Oetting is the Executive Editor of The Agency Post. She is an advertising nerd who's big on creativity, quick wit and good conversation. Interact with her on Twitter @jamioetting or connect on LinkedIn or Google+.

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