The Mind Reader

He studies who we are and what we want, then reinvents the things we've always known.

Ziba Design's long odyssey into the hearts and hungers of consumers began with a squeegee. In 1989, an entrepreneur named Al Hansen hired the Portland, Oregon, consultancy to craft a hip-looking tool for cleaning gunky shower stalls. So Ziba dispatched a small team of designers to plumb the mysteries of the American bathroom. It spent 10 days shadowing people as they bent to their noxious task, photographing the balletic movements of window washers and even studying silk screeners to glean the ergonomics of handling a squeegee-like device.

Such surveillance eventually led to a sculptured, cylindrical handle, about the size of a shampoo bottle, which held two removable, wave-shaped plastic blades. Dubbed the Clerét, the freestanding cleaning tool looked like no other squeegee that had come before. Elegantly simple in its design and effective in its performance, it landed in the Smithsonian's permanent collection. Since the Clerét's launch, Hansen's startup has sold $40 million worth of the thing. From that point on, every Ziba design would grow out of an effort to first decode the consumer's mind.

Today, Ziba is a pioneer in the burgeoning field of design research, and Steve McCallion, the 146-person shop's creative director, is its chief trailblazer. McCallion, an architect trained at California Polytechnic State University and Columbia University, is the founding director of Ziba's consumer insights and trends group, an eclectic mix of social anthropologists, cultural ethnographers, user-experience wizards, trend trackers, brand translators, and cool hunters. By diving into a company's DNA and the motives of its potential customers, McCallion's clan of psychographic cartographers tries to connect brand and consumer--and make wallets fly open. It's doing something right: Ziba walked off with four Industrial Design Excellence Awards this year, the most of any single consultancy. And now McCallion is being invited to reinvent not only products but entire cityscapes as well.

McCallion, a sharp, linear thinker who speaks in complete paragraphs, argues that it's not enough to study the average user. "We're going for something deeper--to understand why people want what they want," he says. "Our ability to invent is solely dependent on our ability to capture that dynamic relationship between the brand and the culture that finds it relevant."

McCallion's excavation into what people look for in a community bank, for example, led Ziba to cast Umpqua Bank's Portland flagship branch as the quintessential un-bank. Gone are the glassed-in foxholes of the run-of-the-mill institution. In their stead: a communal gathering place with a coffee bar, three retail nooks for different financial-service packages, Wi-Fi--enabled Internet stations, and a teller row done up as a boutique-hotel reception desk. While the average full-service bank in the Northwest pulls in $15 million in deposits in its first year, Umpqua's "store," which opened in May 2003, racked up $32 million in seven months--and prompted Umpqua to start rolling out elements of Ziba's sleek urban-commons concept to all of its 127 branches.

"I was in awe of Steve's work when I first saw it," says Debbie Russell, the branch's manager. "I thought I'd come to the wrong place."

Some in the design world, of course, barely bother with consumer research. Nike's designers, to take one example, don't have to study their market; they are their market, a bunch of hard-core triathlete types who essentially design for themselves. But in a commercial design shop such as Ziba's, where the variety of assignments is almost boundless--from cat litter to feminine-hygiene products to industrial winches--a design team must constantly learn to empathize with rarefied consumer subcultures.

So when Sirius Satellite Radio enlisted Ziba to fashion a handheld receiver (what would become the Sirius S50 and the new Stiletto, which was scheduled for a September launch), McCallion and his squad went in for a deep dive, spreading out across Portland, Boston, and Nashville to spend some quality time with 44 Sirius subscribers. They toured people's CD collections, hung out with them at Saturday afternoon tailgating parties, studied how they accessorized their cars, and got them to riff on why music matters to them. Then, back at Ziba's studios, the team spent weeks harvesting raw data, photographs, and field notes. McCallion edited the material down to a design target--the "iPod fatigued"--and assembled more-focused profiles of Sirius users, such as the "intelligent fan" (dialed into a wide range of sports; listens to the radio while attending Red Sox games) and the "business charismatic" (drives a BMW 5 Series; holds a platinum frequent-flier card).

Working from the profiles, McCallion crafted a positioning statement--"discovery, portability, personalization"--that drove the entire design process as Ziba tested and refined scores of prototypes. He knew the business charismatic was looking for a device that wouldn't detract from a car's interior, so he urged his designers to give the S50 and the Stiletto a simple, accessible interface. The intelligent fan was keen on portability, and by storyboarding scenarios for the S50, McCallion discovered that many people wanted to use it to record programming and play it back later. McCallion also pushed for the prominent media dial and a lustrous black finish, based on his conviction that both were powerfully reminiscent of "radio."

"We all have memories of listening to the radio when we were kids," he says. "We wanted to tap into those memories; they help you emotionally connect with the product." Apparently, McCallion and Ziba scored a hit, as the S50 became one of the 2005 holiday season's top sellers and took a gold medal from the Industrial Designers Society of America. Currently, McCallion is applying his research strategy to a $2 billion project to transform Portland's South Waterfront district, a sprawl of parking lots and warehouses on the western bank of the Willamette River. "We're trying to create the first American city of the 21st century," says Homer Williams, South Waterfront's lead developer. "Steve is our guide. He's leading us to the promised land."

That's a long way from contemplating shower stalls. Then, the problem wasn't "design a squeegee"; it was "clean the shower." Today, the problem isn't, "clean up the waterfront"; it's "create a vision of urban river living." Years from now, we'll know whether McCallion unearths the place's true character and translates it into somewhere people really want to live.

Bill Breen (bbreen@fastcompany.com) is Fast Company's senior projects editor.

Add New Comment

2 Comments

  • Justin Discoe

    I was fortunate enough to have Steve McCallion teach a few classes during my Product Design studies at the Academy of Art in the mid-90's. Holy cow, the guy is a machine... and a true and rare talent. The little exposure I had to him as a young designer in school was awesome and changed the way I thought about design.

  • Justin Discoe

    I was fortunate enough to have Steve MaCallion teach a few classes during my Product Design studies at the Academy of Art in the mid-90's. Holy cow, the guy is a machine... and a true and rare talent. The little exposure I had to him as a young designer in school was awesome and changed the way I thought about design.