Stuart Costley, Senior Vice President of The Big Picture, US: “Good research kills bad ideas, bad research kills good ones”

We’ve spoken to Stuart Costley, Senior Vice President of the recently opened U.S. office of the design research company The Big Picture, about why a good design research is not just a ‘pack research,’ and why the recognition of the value of good design has increased among clients.

Photo: Stuart Costley
Photo: Stuart Costley

—Stuart, was the opening of the U.S. office stipulated by the needs of the existing U.S. clients? And how does the Englishman feel about New York? 

—Several of our biggest clients do indeed have key offices in the US and we’re sure that having a presence in this market will enable better working relationships and greater flexibility (and we won’t have to jump on a transatlantic flight as often!). I realised that over a 12-month period I hadn’t given a single face to face debrief, so it will be great to develop our existing relationships further rather than just talking into a speakerphone—it’s easy to feel like a talking debrief-clock at times.

Don’t get me wrong, our US clients have been more than happy with the great work we’ve been delivering from our London HQ. But in fact, the move is about business growth and opportunity—our business has been growing steadily for the last five years (we’ve doubled in size in that time) and we’ve realised that our unique design research approach has huge potential in the US. Around 70% of our work is international so really it seems like both a natural extension and an exciting means of expanding the business. So in contrast to the excitement accompanying the move, actually the answer is rather more mundane—a business decision based on opportunity for growth.

And as for the Englishman in New York? Well, an important clarification—actually I’m Irish! So really I’m the latest in a long line of Irishmen arriving in Manhattan, though probably the first to specialise in Design Research.

—Does your narrow specialization in Design Research help The Big Picture to compete with the one-stop-shop research giants like Kantar, TNS, Nielsen etc.? 

—It’s certainly a specialisation, but for us qualitative design research is anything but narrow. It’s often the case that design research is seen by clients as synonymous with ‘pack research’, and indeed, there are research agencies out there with a ‘specialisation’ in pack research. But this is an outmoded view of design research—it encompasses so much more, for example: structure and ergonomics; visual brand language—understanding design’s application across the full panoply of consumer touchpoints; and pre-design, where we help clients and design agencies develop a design brief for a brand, understanding visual brand equity, how the brand lives in a consumer’s mind and any communication gaps vs brand design); and of course new product development work.

So really if you want to do pack research well, you need to understand where it fits into the bigger (design) picture—you can see where we got our name from.

More and more brands are recognising the value of good design and are also seeing a need to place design research in its broader context.

With this in mind, we don’t feel at a disadvantage vs some of the aforementioned research giants—they do loads of great work, but actually we don’t really see them as our competitors because we operate in different fields.

What’s your specific approach/methods? Do you usually do the post-research to learn consumer feedback on some newly launched products or do you do the research on the pre-launch phase?

—The bulk of our work is on the pre-launch, design development stage. But importantly, the consumer remains at the heart of design development. A lot of design agencies hate consumer research, espousing the sentiment captured in the famous Henry Ford adage, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Perhaps surprisingly for a research agency, we can sympathise with this. But that’s because we think a lot of design research is done badly. We’re firm believers in ‘good research kills bad ideas, bad research kills good ones’.

Regardless of which particular methodology we adopt with our clients, our work is underpinned by the importance of context. This means research methodologies recognise consumers’ limited understanding of how design impacts on their lives and doesn’t therefore ask them to post-rationalise or overthink their actions (a central tenet of Behavioural Economics). But it also means, as I mentioned earlier, the need to place design work in the context of the overall marketing mix. The pack can’t convey everything about the brand, and a brand mark can’t always convey every aspect of a brand’s personality. So a brand needs to have a clear understanding of the role of design.

This is why we think it’s vital consumers play a key role in the design development stage—clients and designers are often so close to their brands that they can lose sight of how it lives in the mind of the consumer. Often a visual equity considered highly prized by the brand team turns out to be something the consumers have never noticed, or has no meaning for them. This kind of insight is vital to the creation of a design brief that allows a brand to really fulfil its potential.

Our research methodologies are therefore geared to taking brand team, designers and consumers along the design development journey—from conception through to launch.

—Celebrating TBP’s 20th anniversary you’ve started a so-called “Design Research Diaries 1993-2013”, where in the second instalment you talk about the packaging. Do you think that structure, colors and emotional connection mean more to consumers than the values of the brand? 

—You forgot to say Happy Birthday!

—Oh, my apologies, Happy Birthday to TBP!

—The Design Research Diaries have been a great opportunity to take stock of 20 years of insights and our impact model (from which the sentiment of the question derives) has been a key tool in helping us unlock those insights. Whilst it helps us to understand which elements of a pack are helping to drive the consumer connection (or lack of, as the case may be), it would be misleading to suggest that this is how consumers deconstruct a pack—in fact, nine times out of ten they don’t consciously deconstruct these elements at all.

Design and brand values need to be seen holistically; in the eyes of the consumer they are one and the same thing—they are what makes up a brand’s gestalt. And it’s that combination of brand story, values and design that drives the consumers’ emotional connection. What’s more, the reason generating an emotional connection is of such value to a brand is because it’s an ‘unthinking’ consumer response.

So while it’s vital that as design researchers we have the tools to understand what role design is playing in generating this response (such as our impact model) and how design can work harder to drive a more engaging emotional connection, they are a functional means to a creative end.

—What has been your most exciting project so far?

—So much of our work is international which always brings a more exciting element to projects. It’s difficult to pick a favourite when you’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years in more than 30 countries!

One of my personal favourites however, is the work we did for Dulux on their new brand identity, launched last year. It’s a great example of how design research is so much more than just pack evaluation—we had to explore how a radical redesign could work across dozens of global markets, and thousands of product variants (read more about it here)

From a professional researcher’s point of view, what is the biggest design failure in the branding world of the past 2-3 years? The biggest success? Why?

—In terms of a design failure, one example which we blogged about at the time, was the short-lived Gap logo redesign. We viewed it as a classic example of a brand that failed to understand its existing equity, and one which highlights the importance of consumer research in feeding into a new design brief. That said, they didn’t need to do any research to tell them they’d committed the design equivalent of ‘mis-speaking’! Social media took care of that, and the proposed new design was shelved within a week!

As for successes, it’s probably too soon to say, but we’re pretty big fans of the new American Airlines brand identity. It’s a bold step from a brand behemoth that’s been in trouble for a while. It has modernity and power, evoking the brand (and country’s?) heritage in a way which doesn’t feel hackneyed or which resorts to clichéd iconography. It also transfers across consumer touchpoints really effectively (although, I’m not so enamoured of the aircraft tail execution).

—You’ve been in the industry for about 10 years. Do you see any changes in the value of research (specifically, design research) for clients?

—I think as recognition of the value of good design has increased, so has understanding of the role design research can play. It’s perhaps the realisation of where design research can fit in that’s changed the most. For example, we’ve seen more and more of our clients recognising the role that pre-design research can play in ensuring that the design development process starts off on the right path, helping them to avoid issues further down the line.

From the client side, interest in specific research methodologies tends to come and go—for example, a couple of years back it was Co-creation that was generating a lot of research hype. Now research approaches rooted in Behavioural Economics are increasingly coming to the fore. They all still have a role to play, but what’s remained constant for us are the fundamentals I spoke about earlier—it still boils down to understanding how consumers relate to design and placing the role of design in a brand’s wider strategy.

And that’s the message we’re now bringing to the US!