James Haliburton co-founded Topp 5 years ago. They have offices in Malmö, Stockholm and San Francisco.
James Haliburton created Topp 5 years ago with other colleagues. With an aim to work with as many emerging industries as possible, they now have offices in Malmö, Stockholm and San Francisco and clients all around the world.
Please, introduce Topp a little bit.
Topp is a design and innovation company. We work with shaping new projects, services and experience. Essentially everything we do is combining emerging technology, emerging business needs and, of course, and most importantly, human behavior of some sort or another that we’re looking to work with and shape.
We founded it a little over five years ago with six other people that I worked with at a previous company called TAT, The Astonishing Tribe. The company was acquired by BlackBerry.
We went through this experience of going through designing and developing BlackBerry 10 and many of us having key roles in that process. This was a big introduction to us of being on the inside of a very large company that was at the time of the acquisition peaking in a particular enterprise mobility space, and we really saw the inside of the sausage factory during that time.
We were all looking for new challenges. We had seen the inside of these large companies and realized that there’s so much potential within them, but a lot of that is not realized because of kind of inherent blockers in their process. Not because they don’t have good ideas, but in fact because they weren’t making a lot of ideas tangible.
We spent so many years in the mobile space and we had this list of different industries that we wanted to be working with. We wanted at the time, to be working in internet of things and wearables and automotive, and all these new, emerging spaces. Actually, by year two or three, we had checked all those boxes. We started to continue pushing ourselves in new directions.
That’s really the brief history of where we got to with Topp. Today we’re a little over 30 people with two studios in Sweden and one in San Francisco.
How has the culture changed in those five years?
We have a very strong founding team. Of course, when we started the company in many ways that team shaped the culture of Topp. I think one of the big learnings that we’ve had is essentially how to let go and trust the people around us. I think in many ways the culture is defined by the entire team, that we’re trusting people’s experiences, and we’re actively seeking people who have experiences different than who are on the team today.
—It was very easy to find 15 great people in a couple of cities, but it’s not always easy to find all of them located in one place.—
Sometimes that’s challenging. Over the last six months we’ve been very actively working with people who are design strategists, who have this deep business knowledge and understandings of business frameworks, and who are ambitious about pushing those practices forward as well.
When somebody new joins the team, we might ask people internally, say, “Look, before they come in, you’ve got six months to a year to get everything you can of new knowledge from these team members.” That’s an invaluable period of time is when somebody new joins with a new set of experiences and skill sets that you have to take advantage of that first period. Even if there might be friction and people can’t figure out how everyone’s working together, that time is really important for learning.
For every new person who joins Topp, the culture shifts and changes. It would be an exercise in evolutionary biology I think to track the culture of Topp over the last five years. It continues to evolve every day.
—For every new person who joins Topp, the culture shifts and changes.—
But how does having offices in different locations influence the culture? Are there cultural differences between them?
There are. The Malmö studio is much larger than the others. One of the things that happened with the San Francisco studio is that we only have a handful of people there full time. But we’ve treated its as an inclusive studio – it doesn’t run independently. I can say Malmö doesn’t run independently either. We’re treated as a whole company.
People have the opportunity, particularly around projects, to go over, spend time, work in that studio. That’s something we are doing with more and more frequency. I would say there’s more of a culture of extending a single studio culture across locations than there is the idea of building independent shops around the world.
The U.S. does have a different work culture than Europe or Asia. Even when we are in Malmö we had clients across the world. This is something slightly different as well. It’s not always typical for a small studio in a small city in particular to have clients in China, Japan, Korea, throughout Europe and North America. We have these clients around the world and both run projects from here but also do a lot of traveling. That’s not the way that most studios are developed as a business.
Actually, we did it backwards for the first two years. We hardly had any clients at all in Sweden. Then we kind of backed into that and developed relationships with Stockholm Transit, and E. ON Sweden and others.
But essentially, when you have people on the ground and constantly experiencing and interacting with an American culture, particularly one that’s diverse, fast moving, and innovative that you find in the Bay Area, you will inevitably learn about new cultures and new ways of working and that affects design process.
You get exposed, you encounter friction because you have assumptions about what kind of process you have seen being successful in the past and whether that’s about communicating, whether that’s about creating a particular deliverable that has resonance, whether it’s just about the pace and interfacing with different development processes. Inevitably it’s always going to be different from organization to organization and certainly from culture to culture. The Korean way of working is very different than the Bay Area of working and really different in terms of communication and acceptance around design work as well.
In the end you find people on the team who have an adaptability and an ability to identify cultural differences and get to the point right away, and identify archetypes of different cultures and trying to look at what will be successful across those cultures. It’s about rebuilding the proper process that is situational for that client and that culture around it.
—In the end you find people on the team who have an adaptability and an ability to identify cultural differences and get to the point right away, and identify archetypes of different cultures and trying to look at what will be successful across those cultures.—
From what I hear, it demands a lot of adaptability as you said and certain willingness to evolve as a person and as a company. But what does it mean for you as a leader, as a CEO?
I was lucky enough that when I grew up in Canada and my family moved around a lot when I was a kid. Canada is a very big and multicultural country. I think that was built into a bit of my personality growing up to experience different cultures.
When I was fairly young I moved to Korea, before I came to Sweden. I’ve also lived in the United States. The cities I’ve lived in have all been very fast moving and empathetic towards design and technology. In many ways, my career and my motivations are perhaps a product of my circumstances rather than the other way around. I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg.
But what it demands of leadership is the ability to not direct, but to illuminate what the circumstances are. If you direct, you’re creating a rigid structure and rigid structures do not tend to adapt. Instead you should be reflective and communicate what circumstances people are in, provide abstractions and taxonomies, illustrate the situations and to be at a point of reflection for them.
—But what it demands of leadership is the ability to not direct, but to illuminate what the circumstances are.—
Nine times out of ten, it’s not the design work or the design intent at all that is the issue. It’s about communicating that work to get the most resonance and make sure it has the most forward momentum for an organization.
For me, this is a constant development. When I started the company I had ambitions and an assumption that leadership is a lot about directing and it’s about giving people answers. For me over the last five years, it’s an evolution of answering fewer and fewer questions and simply asking more. That’s the biggest shift for me.
I think a lot of people have a tendency to want to answer a question. And particularly for a designer, you’re sort of built to say, “Oh, I’ve got a problem. Let’s go solve this thing.” My day-to-day friction with myself is to remember it’s not necessarily my responsibility in a leadership role to answer any of these questions, but to have faith and trust in a team to do great work and to illustrate different questions that they’re going to be great at solving.
But what have been the hardest questions to ask during those five years?
The hardest questions to ask are actually the ones you know people will have a hard time answering because, again, sometimes the purpose of asking a question is not to get somebody to answer it, but it’s for them to participate in it and form their own perspectives. They’re very open questions like, “What do you want to do with this?”
If you’re faced with a design problem where you have a brief from a client and it seems limited. It seems to have already answered the design problem. They’re just asking for the production.
You can ask the team, “What do you want to do with this?” This seems like an obnoxious question to ask because on the surface it’s not helpful. It doesn’t give anyone the next step because they just feel frustrated by the brief and the limitations in what they can do from their creative superpowers. But what those kinds of questions get to is pointing at and poking at the fact that it is in the power of the team to redefine the brief. It is in the power – it’s the you, what do you want to do. Not what does the client need, what do you want to do. What is important here in bringing quality to this work?
Those are difficult questions also to ask simply because you know they are going to be hard to answer and they might turn things around. It’s not asking, "Hey, what’s the deadline on this? How many screens can we get done? Are they going to like it?” Those are not super important questions in the end. They’re practical questions, but they don’t give anybody the ability to shine or grow
—Those are difficult questions also to ask simply because you know they are going to be hard to answer and they might turn things around.—
I know you’ve worked a lot with design schools, like Hyper Island and Umeå. How did that come about? Has that influenced your work in any way?
I think more than it influences our working it influences our way of thinking.
What I was saying was more than influencing our work or our output, I think it even does more than that. It influences our way of thinking.
We had this discussion actually just a few days ago. We’re working with different student groups all the time. We have student visitors and we’re giving workshops and courses quite frequently. One of the things that we look for in a good partnership is that we are getting something out of it. This seems selfish, particularly when you work with students and educational aspirations, but we realize that we make the most positive impact when we create a dialogue. A dialogue is essentially what we’re looking to get out of a student relationship as well.
It’s actually the same as we treat a client. We do our best work when we have a peer-based relationship with somebody, where we are learning something at the same time as creating great design work.
When we work with design curriculums and education, we have an opportunity to test new ideas, to bring out the most radical insights that we’ve had and bring those out to students and create a dialogue around those elements. Our assumption is that when you’re in school, this is not the time to only learn about the history and the practice of design as it has been, but this is an opportunity. This is your time to experiment and contribute to the canon of design practice.
We want to be playing an active role at sparking the innovators within those design schools. This also allows us to spend time innovating our design practices by working with students, to get new ideas and insights that come out of the blue with completely new perspectives, that might be naïve at times as well, that ask us questions that we thought we knew the answer to, but perhaps we didn’t.
—This also allows us to spend time innovating our design practices by working with students.—
This is what we’re looking to get out of that relationship.We believe strongly that those are the types of benefits that the students and educational institutions themselves get when they have a dialogue with us.
Just as an example, the topics that we’re covering with educations these days are around design practice when working with the internet of things: how do use generative art; where does programmatic visuals fit into the future of design, not just art but how that actually influences design systems; working with design and data, how to use data as a design medium.
These are all practices that are not yet formalized or established. There are more and more designers trying to experiment and pick up these mediums, but it’s not the same as saying doing responsive web design. It’s far from that. Frankly, there are good colleges and good educations for responsive web design. They don’t need us to come in and talk about that.
Topp had also created new possibilities of developing internet of things and the use of data. How have those projects come about and have they evolved from the beginning to this point? Talk a bit about those projects like Noodl.
The origin story of Noodl was that when we started Topp really early on, we had Samsung as a client of ours. We were doing essentially daily deliveries of prototypes.
We essentially realized that there was no existing prototyping software in the world five years ago and even today that could keep up with the pace that that project demanded, so we had to create our own tools and framework for the rapid creation and delivery of high fidelity prototypes, experience, and visualizations.
As our projects and our general curiosity for these new mediums and domains, new behaviors continued to evolve to IoT, and data, and multi-platform, and multi-touch point experiences, to AI, and mixed reality, we continued to evolve the model of Noodl to a node-based system that was adaptable to these new domains, that allowed us to not only work on one of these domains at once.
There are plenty of screen-based mobile design, web design and prototyping tools out there. But there was nothing and there still is nothing else that allows you to mix and match an intelligence API with a multi-touch point experience within a car and then create a design system that is contextualized to location data. We were looking to continue to break down new barriers.
As our practice evolved to continue to include things like research and strategy, we also realized that by working in a fidelity that we could work directly with these design mediums or treat these elements as design mediums, it also helped to inform things like research and strategy because we brought tangibility to the ideas. We created a common touch point for all the stakeholders and not only our designers, but the clients and the engineers and even the marketing teams. Everyone could have foresight and they could contribute to these platforms.
I would say that the main reason Noodl exists is to continue to enable the tangibility and to empower the creators to work in designing and developing new experiences and bringing new value to these platforms.
—I would say that the main reason Noodl exists is to continue to enable the tangibility and to empower the creators to work in designing and developing new experiences and bringing new value to these platforms.—
This was a good case I would say across the board in leadership where it wasn’t about direction and it wasn’t about even asking a question, it was just about letting something good happen. That’s often one of the harder things to do.
—It was just about letting something good happen. That’s often one of the harder things to do.—
Would the way you lead the company have been possible 20 years ago?
My personal style of what would be classified as leadership is on the asking questions and revealing opportunities side, rather than the sort of more militarily directed, here’s the iron fist and the marching orders. Perhaps a better metaphor is the sports coach, the football coach or basketball coach who amps the team up every time and say, “Here’s the massive challenge and we’re all going to get in line and toward this one challenge.”
Whether you could have this trust in an organization to happen 20 years ago? Not in the same way. We are in many ways unique to the product of the role of design in different industries and the role of design leadership in different industries.
Twenty years ago, it would have been difficult to say design itself played a leading role within the organizations. It was a struggle for that to happen. In fact, this is something that is really over the last five to ten years, where there’s been a wide appreciation of design’s place.
Of course we can point at the marketing campaign around user experience design from Apple, who really marketed, and I really use that word consciously, the power of design. This has trail blazed a place for design leadership and importance of design process to play a role.
It’s a little bit by happenstance that great design is born out of openness in many ways and an ability for designers to create their own constraints, to do their own problem solving. If you’re looking for great designers to play leading roles, you need to allow that to happen. There’s a necessity within our team to allow that openness and to be asking questions as part of leading that team and we need to allow opportunities to unfold in front of us rather than simply directing it.
—It’s a little bit by happenstance that great design is born out of openness in many ways and an ability for designers to create their own constraints, to do their own problem solving.—
Yes, there were people who could lead this way and sure there were people who would respond well 20 years ago, but I don’t think it wouldn’t have been as easy to be successful doing that. It may not have resonated as well when you look to the actual impact in other organizations and how design would be received and how work would be received.
What are the pitfalls leaders usually fall into?
I think a key element is really transparency. If you’re working with team-based systems, in particular, where you’re trying to leverage the power of teams and roles within those teams, you also have to recognize that they’re actively working to better the entire organization and they require a level of transparency in what they’re working towards.
We work in a design business, so it’s important that everything from the finances, to the growth, to hiring directions, to foresight are as transparent as possible. I think a lot of younger design companies can fail in the assumption that “Oh, we need to keep our cards to our chest.”
There is no us and them when it comes to those who found or lead a company and the designers who work on your team. You are a single entity and it’s important to respect that everyone is capable, interested and motivated by understanding the inner workings of the business behind it. We encourage every designer to understand what happens on business development, to tax system, to profits and losses, and all of those things.
—There is no us and them when it comes to those who found or lead a company and the designers who work on your team. You are a single entity and it’s important to respect that everyone is capable, interested and motivated by understanding the inner workings of the business behind it.—
I think this is just something that often feels uncomfortable for new leaders to share and for big companies to share as well. It’s something we have to constantly remind ourselves or rather leaders in general should constantly remind themselves that people are interested in the inner workings.