Nathan Paterson, Senior Design Lead at IDEO

Nathan Paterson, Senior Design Lead at IDEO

For some, the clear boundaries of an organization can be a comfort. For others, there’s something exhilarating about the great unknown. How do you bring curiosity and a sense of discovery to any situation or workplace?

Nathan Paterson has worked for organizations of many different shapes and sizes, in boutique settings, leading creative teams for the likes of Disney and now at IDEO Tokyo as a Senior Design Lead. His career orbits around creative pursuits he finds fascinating: theatre, film, musicals, cutting-edge tech, cross-disciplinary design. When Disney came calling, Nathan thought he would give it a year, and ended up staying for nearly ten. Curious about other industries, he transitioned to IDEO, a playground of nearly every industry, sector and organization under the sun.

Nathan joins us to talk about his journey, and how different organizations and industries inspire in different ways. Hear how ambiguity and optimism help him to stay curious, and what excites him about what’s to come.


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Carl Smith: Hey, everyone, and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. Today, we have a guest so far away from me, he's actually in tomorrow. You're just going to have to fathom that for a minute. This is the former of design at Disney Interactive Labs, the senior design lead at Ideo, and somebody that I like to call a friend. It's Mr. Nathan Patterson.

Carl Smith: How are you Nathan?

Nathan Paterson: I'm great, thanks, Carl. How are you?

Carl Smith: I'm good. I'm glad that you're on the show because ... and call this blowing smoke, or whatever you want. You have a presence. I don't understand it, and I'm not the only one who feels this way. I can get other people to go on the record. You show up in life with this sense of childlike wonder and curiosity.

Carl Smith: I don't know if you remember. Do you remember the first time we met, like, how we met?

Nathan Paterson: Yeah, of course. And so we-

Carl Smith: We were at design leadership camp.

Nathan Paterson: Yep.

Carl Smith: Do you remember what you were doing?

Nathan Paterson: I was having a wander around the grounds. I think I was early. I couldn't find many people until I bumped into you. You were setting up the big room for the meeting the next morning, I remember correctly.

Carl Smith: That's right. The first time I saw you, you had your hands up against the class and your face up, and you were looking in. I was like, "Who is that?" And so I went outside, and I said hello. You came in, and you walked around, and you saw the bureau logo, and you said, "Whoa. Could you explain that to me?"

Carl Smith: And so i explained it. I said, "Well, it's like a shield, but it's digital but it's also small pieces coming together to be protective of the whole." But the thing was, you got me out of thinking about what I was doing and thinking about why I was there.

Nathan Paterson: I'm sorry. I was probably a complete distraction.

Carl Smith: It was amazing. It was so good.

Carl Smith: I'm just curious. How do you show up every day? What is your routine that gets you going every day?

Nathan Paterson: Hmm. I won't bore people with the whole rigamarole, but I do start with meditation and reflection on the day ahead. I do this before anybody else in the house wakes us because then it's chaos. But then I like the chaos as well, so I try and make the most of about half an hour to an hour on my own in the quiet. That's just a chance to think about what's going to happen that day, what my priorities are, and where I want to focus my energy. I get to remind myself of that during the day, which is interesting. This is something that I've started doing fairly recently in the past few years, but I really enjoy finding myself at two in the afternoon, remembering what I had decided earlier in the morning to focus on that day and whether or not I've actually been successful to do so that day is another thing.

Nathan Paterson: But that jolt in the middle of the day is interesting to me. It reminds me that yes I did have something to do today and either I've completed that task, or I haven't and I need to go about that from now on. But yeah, that's how I generally start. It's, I guess, some sense of focus, some sense of rationality before the day actually begins and all things turn to chaos. Yeah.

Carl Smith: I meditate as well. I try to meditate daily. I use the Head Space app. I don't know if your familiar or not with that. I do it once I get in. So it's hard for me at the house. We've got three dogs, two teenage daughters, a wife who wants everybody to leave the house so she can have some peace. So when I get in, that's when I'll meditate. It's so hard for me to quiet my brain from all the things and be on purpose, but I understand this concept of trying to approach what's coming with focus and intention.

Carl Smith: It's always been difficult for me. You say you've just started recently?

Nathan Paterson: I started meditating a few years ago. I started with Head Space as well. I tried a few other things and they hadn't really worked for me. I really enjoyed the onboarding that Head Space provides and certain rewards and things that keep you going. That was great. Then also it helped me get some friends on board as well, which is obviously a great strategic play.

Nathan Paterson: Then, I found myself repeating a lot of the sessions, so I decided to try something else. I was listening to Kevin Rose's podcasts a lot and he talked about Oak, his meditation app that he's diving into more and more these days. So I switched to that and one of the options there is unguided meditation.

Carl Smith: Okay.

Nathan Paterson: So you can choose the duration. I choose around 20 minutes. You can choose the sounds and they have some really beautiful sounds. And that's it. It lets me know every two minutes that we're still going, we're still meditating and at the end of 20 minutes I'll get a different sound which means it's time to open your eyes and get going. So it's much more simple and I actually like the simplicity of it. So I've been doing that now for a couple of years.

Carl Smith: So with Head Space, this is really a little bizarre, but I met the wife of the guy who does the voice.

Nathan Paterson: Oh, Andy?

Carl Smith: Yes. Do you know him?

Nathan Paterson: I don't know him personally. Actually, my ex-colleague at Disney was a drinking buddy of Andy's before Andy stopped the drinking and went through a different path. So yeah, we almost crossed paths when I was based in L.A. and he was coming through Santa Monica occasionally to headquarters, but we never quite met.

Carl Smith: His drinking buddy? I can't meditate to Head Space anymore knowing that guy's drinking.

Nathan Paterson: He's allowed one or two. Maybe he was drinking soda. I don't know. They were friends back in the UK at some point. But we never crossed paths. But we did visit the headquarters a few times. They host events as well. Usually design related events, but also wellness related events. It's a beautiful space they have out there and a great team.

Nathan Paterson: Yeah. It's an interesting company.

Carl Smith: Before you were at Disney, what did you do?

Nathan Paterson: Before I was at Disney, right before I was freelancing. I had my own small studio in Tokyo. I was working with various clients, mostly Japanese clients who were curious to get their word out into the rest of the world. So we would develop [inaudible 00:08:40] websites, bi-lingual e-commerce sites, bi-lingual social media services, things like that. Before then, it was sort of a mitch-match of agencies and clients, going back and forth between those two kind of world. Also often where I grew up, whether in London, after graduating University and eventually Tokyo. It was in Tokyo that I started to talk with Disney.

Carl Smith: Okay. When you got there, I'm just curious because when we first met, you felt like Disney to me. You did. And it wasn't just me. There were other people that were there. I'm not saying that we held a secret meeting, we held a photo of you up under a candle or anything. But did you feel when you got to Disney like this was a place where you could bring that curiosity and that sense of discovery and this was a place you were going to be able to live? What was it like when you got there?

Nathan Paterson: Yes and no to the first question. The guy who became my boss and brought me on, I wonder if he saw some doubt in my eyes. He said, "You know, I started like you did." He had a similar background to me. When Disney came calling, he thought, and I thought, this is a big global corporation and this isn't for me. I'm better in boutique shops or in smaller settings with familial like teams. That was my background. I really enjoyed that. So here was this mammoth of a company, but when you mentioned curiosity, the fact that it's so big and so beloved by so many different kinds of people. And the Japanese market I was to find out later is very unique, very different for Disney. My curiosity was peaked then. When I thought there are so many arms to this thing. It's beloved because of story telling and these characters that they develop and become favorites to people and deep seated favorites, whether it's through songs, whether it's through theme parks, whether it's through animation and film. So all of those creative pursuits were always interesting to me, not necessarily Disney's, but generally. Musicals, theater, film.

Nathan Paterson: I love film. There were so many things that this company produced that I was in love with, whether it was the direct content or not. And it had been direct when I was younger, when I was a kid. I just thought this was a great opportunity to learn a lot from a large, creative organization. I thought I'd give it a year and see how it goes and it turned into almost 10 years eventually. But it was also so big that I was able to move around a few times, not too often, but a few times and even globally that it kept my curiosity alive. In the past, I'd spent a couple of years with a smaller company but then you start to feel the outer walls of a smaller organization and it's scope and it's scale whereas with Disney, it's nearly impossible to find the edges. It's so huge. Like I said, Disney Japan was ...

Nathan Paterson: ... so huge, and like I said Disney Japan was very unique and I was ... I'm very grateful for the three or four years that I had there, and then came an opportunity to join a different kind if team in Disney US, and from Disney US we worked with Disney in Europe, in Latin America, in Asia Specific. So, there was a lot of scope, a lot of breath, and while we were the interactive group, and so we were primarily tasked with things that are downstream as the films and the music and the TV shows, we were still creating original content in the form of games or apps or things like experiences, and so it was all very, very interesting and labs became really interesting because it was Disney US and we were just down the road from Silicon Valley.

Nathan Paterson: So, we were working with the likes of Google X and Netflix and Microsoft and really interesting companies doing cutting edge tech and we were curious and they too about what it meant to marry that kind of tech with a brand like Disney and IP like ours, and so there was just so much to explore and so much to play with that it was too hot to pass up.

Carl Smith: I can only imagine. I did go to Disney University.

Nathan Paterson: Cool.

Carl Smith: I was trained. I was ... I did not work on Disney property, except at a Hilton, but just the concept of the onboarding and everything I experienced I can only imagine once you get to the global side because just the tiny little eye drop that I had felt huge, and so you're there for 10 years. At some point towards the end of that you came to the event.

Nathan Paterson: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Carl Smith: And meet with these other people who are leading design and organization. Some possibly at the scope of what Disney is.

Nathan Paterson: Sure.

Carl Smith: Then, shortly after that I get an email that you're going on to IDEO. Now, I think part of this was you wanted to get back to Japan, right?

Nathan Paterson: Mm-hmm

Carl Smith: So, explain the decision like what was it that lead you away from Disney?

Nathan Paterson: Part of it was 10 years felt like a clean break. It felt like a chapter that perhaps could be closed and I could try something different. When you start to get to those kinds of anniversaries within the organization people start to joke about you being a lifer and stuff like that, and I never really considered myself a lifer at anything.

Carl Smith: Well, you showed them.

Nathan Paterson: And there were constant changes, which is fine. I mean, that's to be expected, but it does get dizzying at times when every six months there's a major change to the organization, and then I was curious. I sort of ... I had chosen to make the move from Japan to the US and ... but it wasn't until I actually got there and started driving around LA that I realized I'm working in media and entertainment and I'm living in Hollywood. I never expected that of myself. It was so far from the things that I had dreamed of when I grew up that I sort of surprised myself, and so I think it was around that time I started thinking about other industries, other sectors, that I was also interested in and obviously Disney covers many of them. It's not just media and entertainment.

Nathan Paterson: It might start there, but it touches on so many industries and sectors, which did keep it interesting for a long time, but at a company like IDEO we get to work with pretty much every industry sector and many different kinds of organizations that you can imagine, and so that just meant the breath and the scope was even grander and greater and broader than I could have imagined before, and so ... and it continues to feel that way now that I've been here a year or so, and so that was very enticing to me. You know, I was looking ... I was in California, I was looking at other organizations. I met folks at the event who were from the likes of Facebook and Google and doing really great work, and especially for design, and so I was curious about those organizations as well, but then when the conversation began with IDEO it became quickly apparent to me that that was ... that seemed like an exciting opportunity, and so I continued talking with IDEO.

Carl Smith: What do you find being the biggest differences between being in-house somewhere like Disney where you do have internal clients and being at IDEO where you have these external clients?

Nathan Paterson: Yeah, like you said, there are some similarities when you're still a designer, but then as a consultant you're also a consultant, so there's a major difference there obviously. You're working with your clients in a slightly different way. I mean, a company like Disney is so large that internal clients are almost the same as external clients from an agency perspective. They're entirely different organizations. They might be entirely different business units. Entirely separate PNL, but they're still Disney, and so you kind of meet on those grounds. You meet on the grounds that everyone here is at Disney and we all work for the same organization, whereas through consulting we get to learn so much about other people's organizations and that is really interesting to me.

Nathan Paterson: A lot of our work in Japan especially, but globally is around organizational change. So, whether you're a startup, and you're curious about how to navigate the water or you're a bigger, larger, more established organization and you are trying to navigate change, whether that's digital transformation or what have you. All of these things are really fascinating to me and it's a little easier from a consultant's perspective to say certain things than it is internally, and I think that's one reason why some organizations call on external consultants for help is they want that third person perspective, and when we were at Disney and we asked for consultants to help us there was that same third person perspective that would be helpful to us. They weren't another business unit under the same organization. They were from the outside, and they had a different perspective on us, and we get the nod to provide that for our clients and I really enjoy that.

Nathan Paterson: I think it's very helpful for consultants to work client side for a while. You develop an empathy that is otherwise difficult to understand if you've only worked on the outside, so I think it's really helpful to have had those 10 years working inside a large organization, understanding how finance and HR might be interacting on certain things, and, for example, it's ... Yes, it's a very different perspective, I guess is one of the major differences and we get to be helpful in a different way, and we also get to because we work with so many industries and sectors across the board then we get to kind of learn from different industries and be inspired in different ways. One of the traps that I think a lot of people fall into when they're working inside of an organization is its difficult to look outside and it's difficult to look far beyond your own organization, whereas that's what we do professionally.

Nathan Paterson: And so, we look at aviation and we see opportunities for mobility. We look at mobility and we see opportunities for retail, and so those kinds of jumps, those kinds of creative leaps that we practice a lot through things like analysis research and just general consulting across multiple industries that I find super fascinating.

Carl Smith: I think especially with everything that you just said it reminds me of ... I've had a lot of friends who've worked in-house at large corporations and some of the frustrations they'll have is there are people who just want to maintain. They just want to stay where they are, things are fine, this is what I can handle, but when you're in more of a service role a consultant role the way you survive is by being great. Right, because unless you do something great for whose hired you, you're probably not gonna get hired again.

Nathan Paterson: Right, right.

Carl Smith: Even with a very large organization, like IDEO, you still have that need to innovate and be creative and do things different then they've been done because that's why you're hired-

Nathan Paterson: Yeah, exactly.

Carl Smith: And to me that's why it's great that you're there because without that baseline of curiosity and finding out why somebody goes to a certain client, why they want a certain product or experience, if you can't get in that customers head, right, you can't find that out.

Nathan Paterson: Yeah. You've reminded me of a part-time job I had. Before I moved to London, I had about a month to spare and I wanted to save up some money and I got a job at a printing factory and I was on a conveyor line. It was a really tedious job, but I just went in and did night shift and it was a brainless eight hours, and then I'd get some pocket money, and I'd go home, but there was this other guy who worked night shift. He was one of the machine operators, and we got to talking during the breaks. He was ... He'd been at the company 40 years.

Carl Smith: Whoa.

Nathan Paterson: He was in his early 60s. He had his grown up kids and we got to talking about why I was there and I was saving money, I was going to London, I was all excited about my trip, and I was going to travel Europe and the world, and he said, oh-ho-ho, not for me, not for me, and I was curious about what he meant and he had only ever lived in the same country and the same city, and he had raised his kids in that same city, and he'd worked at the same organization, and he had changed jobs a couple of times, but change was not for him, and it was really interesting to me because I was all about change.

Nathan Paterson: I was trying to change as much as I could around me so that I would be stimulated and I would be learning things, and here I was about to go to the exact opposite side of the planet and I was saving money to do that and everything was gonna change except me, and I was probably gonna change for it, and then I was talking to this guy who had changed so little and was very happy, and so I'm still interested in the fact that different people need different things and change means different things to different people, but I guess, for me, change is a positive and I think that a lot of interesting things come from change and from shifts and from things that are new and unknowing.

Nathan Paterson: One of our values at IDEO is to embrace ambiguity and it's really hard, and one of the tasks as a consultant is to help our clients along the journey, and it can be really uncomfortable when it comes to ambiguous moments in the process, but we need to learn how to help them and by becoming teachers of embracing ambiguity we become better at it ourselves and we start to understand it better. But that's a big value that sort of stands out for me among our seven, and it's ... The others are more obvious and easier to understand.

Nathan Paterson: The others are more obvious and easier to understand. Collaborate, yeah, that's a great idea. Take ownership, absolutely. Embrace ambiguity catches people by surprise, and it's not until they're halfway through the process that oh, this is what they meant. It's really tough for some people. It can be really tricky, and it is tricky. We have faith as designers, I think, that we are going to get through this, and there's going to be light at the end of the tunnel. Having been through the process a number of times you build faith in the process. You build faith in creativity, and perseverance, and hard work, but that's not always easy for people who are less familiar with the process or haven't been through it as many times. Part of being a consultant is to guide people through that.

Carl Smith: I can see embrace ambiguity as being a banner of protection as well.

Nathan Paterson: It can be.

Carl Smith: If somebody is going through a chaotic period in a project, and somebody asks, "I'm just exhibiting a core value, I'm embracing ambiguity." I'm sorry that the client cried, but that was necessary at the time.

Nathan Paterson: We hope it doesn't get to that point.

Carl Smith: I'm dying to know. The guy in the factory said he was in his 60s. I wonder what he's doing now.

Nathan Paterson: That was a while ago. I guess he might have retired, and he's at that house that he grew up in and raised his kids in, perhaps.

Carl Smith: Yeah. He's getting it ready for his kids. See, that's the thing. Happiness is about what you're comfortable, what you want to do. It's one of those things. I have friends, I'm sure you have friends like this, who all they want is for everything to be normal. That's what they're comfortable with. Then I also have friends who embrace sadness, which is really horrible, but I had a friend tell me once. He goes, "I don't mind being sad because I know it can always be there for me."

Nathan Paterson: Interesting.

Carl Smith: Happiness goes away, and I'm not even in control of it, but I can be sad on my own. I'm just like, "Put down the beer, okay." Walk away, it was just a football game. It's not a big deal.

Nathan Paterson: That's funny.

Carl Smith: What is your team like at IDEO?

Nathan Paterson: We're a global organization here in Tokyo. We're about 30, 35 people. It's really interesting. Almost everyone at IDEO is a designer of some description. Everyone has their different background. Most people enter IDEO with a particular discipline, so I entered with interaction design as my discipline. We have business designers, design researchers, environment designers who have architecture backgrounds, service design backgrounds. All of those different backgrounds come together, and that's part of the secret sauce of IDEO, is that it's this multi-disciplinary approach. It's not a secret any more, but it's definitely a part of the reason why we think we can innovate when people bring us new challenges. When you put an industrial designer, a design researcher and, a business designer in a room together on a project, then those conversations are fascinating. They lead people down paths that they would not have been able to go down by themselves. Those are the surprising moments for our clients, is just to see where things lead and where things go.

Carl Smith: What are they like as they people? I understand they're disciplines, but as individuals are they ...? Is it multi-generational?

Nathan Paterson: Yeah. We have, I guess, in Tokyo it averages around, a lot of people are in their 20s and 30s. We have people older and people younger. Our youngest intern in New York right now is nine.

Carl Smith: What?

Nathan Paterson: I believe she's working one day a week, and I'm sure she's having the greatest time. I've asked my five-year-old daughter if she would like to be the IDEO Tokyo's youngest intern, and she said, "Yes." I'm going to talk to the powers that be to make that happen. I think five is too young, but by nine you're starting to be pretty helpful, I think. It definitely ranges. I think one of our IDEOers is around 80. She's been with the company since the beginning. Obviously, David Kelly is still with us and his brother Tom visits Tokyo a lot. It's a real range, and that's a part of it as well. We embrace diversity. In Japan, because of the cultural and language differences, then we have around 50% Japanese, 50% other in terms of background. Then in terms of language, our studio language is English, but then it depends on the engagement whether it's primarily English, primarily Japanese, or a mix.

Nathan Paterson: Every day is interesting. Every day is different, and it's a very global and fluid organization. That was one of the things that really struck me when I joined, is how fluid it is. People are moving between studios a lot whether that's for meetings, or projects, or different engagements. Rotations whether they're for three months, or six months, or one year, or two years are encouraged. If you want to learn something about another studio or another location, you're encouraged to explore that path. Almost no day goes by where we don't have somebody visiting from another studio, another location. That means that that knowledge sharing is very serendipitous. It's a very serendipitous organization, which I find fascinating whether that's through Slack, or email, or whether that's in person.

Nathan Paterson: There's some sort of fluidity to the people and therefore, the ideas, and the knowledge, and the information that I find really interesting. It's very helpful that information and knowledge can move and flow like that. It's also really interesting that it does and that we can maintain that. You'd never know when you're going to need certain inputs. So often, those inputs just appear when you need them, which is really fascinating. I'm always curious how to maintain that and how that was achieved, but it just seems to work. It's really interesting.

Nathan Paterson: Another one of our values is be optimistic. When you ask about the people, I think everyone is very optimistic, which is a part of embracing ambiguity, is being optimistic that there's something at the end of this. There's a reason to persevere through this difficult moment because at the end of this there's going to be something magical. There's going to be an ah-ha moment, or a surprise, or we're going to get through this if we are optimistic that there is something worth it at the other end of this. That's definitely a big part of what gets us through those ambiguous moments and the kind of people who tend to join the organization.

Carl Smith: Nathan, it feels like you found where you're supposed to be.

Nathan Paterson: It feels good.

Carl Smith: I have no doubt that every phase of your life felt like where you were supposed to be. I have not had that luxury, but I'm curious. When you look ahead, what gets you excited about what's yet to come?

Nathan Paterson: I have two young kids, so seeing them grow up, seeing them explore the world. My parents gave my sister and I the gift of travel and took us to foreign countries when we were young, and we want to do the same for our kids. It may be further than where we went when I was a kid. We traveled to some amazing places. Probably the most foreign to a New Zealand kid was Singapore, but we went to Australia, and the United States, fantastic, amazing travel experiences. Travel is huge for me in terms of curiosity, and exploration, and learning, and creativity. We want to instill that in our children, but also just see them grow, generally. I'm very interested to see where they go and how they grow.

Nathan Paterson: Then I don't know what else. It's about a year since we moved to Japan and since I joined IDEO. It's still early days. I'm just very interested in how we can fulfill our mission or work towards our mission here in Japan, which is to help Japanese organizations and Japanese people unlock their creative potential. We think there's so much potential there and so much interesting, exciting work that can be done, that I think that's going to keep us pretty busy for a while. In service of that mission, one of the things we're focusing on more recently is education for our clients whether that is to help them become more innovative, or more creative, whether that's for senior leaders who want to learn new skills, want to ask the right questions of their teams at the right time, whether that's for teams navigating innovation and change within their organizations and their industries, or whether that's for individuals, and they're looking for new skillsets and new mindsets to help them navigate their careers in the 21st century.

Nathan Paterson: This is all really interesting. It's still a design lens on education for our clients, but the outcome is very different than designing products or designing experiences. We're still designing experiences, but the outcome is about people's future growth and future development. That's really fascinating to try yet another angle on applying design to the world and applying the design lens in new ways, at least for me. I find that opening up a new chapter yet again is really fascinating and keeps me going. Then beyond that, I'm not sure. Maybe another international move. I'm not sure, but we'll see.

Carl Smith: Thank you so much for being on the show today. It's been an absolute pleasure to catch up with you, and I'm absolutely happy for everything you've got going on.

Nathan Paterson: Thank you, Carl. It's been a real pleasure to be on your show.

Carl Smith: For everybody listening, thank you so much. We'll be back next week. All the best.