-What made you decide to become a designer?
As a teenager I made zines, and I studied art at university, focusing on computing in the arts and photography. While I was studying, people asked me to design various things for them, including education materials for NASA and album covers. I wanted to say yes to everything because everything was interesting. This kept happening and snowballed until I started working for a design agency. Eventually, I began working freelance for a number of years, then found myself in Japan. A friend I knew from the US introduced me to SmartDrive’s CEO, Kitagawa-san and he quickly became my favorite client. He had strong opinions and made smart decisions quickly, but also understood that you get the best work from designers when you give them room to move. That’s perfection, as far as I’m concerned. Our conversations were always fruitful and I always came away feeling like I had a million new ideas that I could present as options for supporting the company’s goals. Some of those goals included and still include reducing traffic fatalities and non-fatal accidents, so it was something to genuinely care about. SmartDrive has always had interesting challenges and possibilities in branding, data visualization, technology, business model creation, outreach, and more. So when I was asked to become an employee it was an immediate “yes.”




-What was your role at the time you joined SmartDrive?
When I joined SmartDrive, I was the first employee at a brand new startup. When you find yourself in that position, you end up filling a lot of roles until more people join who can do them properly. But the focus of my role remains the same, which is to use design to support the goals of the company in the broadest sense. There are a lot of things inside that idea. I’m responsible for all the design output of the company as a whole, which includes shaping all visual aspects of our brand from the micro to the macro. I also help to steer UX, as well as try to establish and maintain an environment within the company that encourages design to both flourish and function at full capacity.


-I understand that you were the first employee of SmartDrive. I think this is an indication that Mr. Kitagawa, the president, also recognizes the need for design in management, but why do you think design is necessary for a start-up company?
Kitagawa-san understood that design was a highly valuable tool from the beginning. He was only 25, but I didn’t need to teach him anything at all. At the same time, I think there was an organic development based on needs. “I need an investor deck and a website.” “Okay, so we need a visual brand, some messaging, some illustration, and UI design.” Design can contribute in all those areas, directly or indirectly helping to shape what the product will actually be. And that can be a part of influencing decisions about how to sell, what to develop, and why. So getting a handle on something that important would seem advantageous.

When tech startups are newly created, I think there’s often a fight to establish some sense of legitimacy and stability when being viewed by the outside world. It’s very possible to hire a single freelance designer or agency to create the brand that will do those things in a single, one-time project. However, eventually I think it’s always going to be really valuable to have a trusted partner who can stay with you through your various stages of growth, evolving the brand as the company evolves and giving your communication a consistent voice.



-What exactly did you do in the early activity?
When I think back to how we got from the beginning concepts laid out by Kitagawa-san in his initial pitch decks to the very first iterations of product ideas, there was an absolute blur of activity.

There was already a strong foundation in place, which was centered around using driving data to reduce car accidents. But the actual product wasn’t fully conceptualized yet.

Very early on, Kitagawa-san shared his idea that we should use positive feedback wherever possible when communicating with drivers, so that has guided a lot of our efforts, including every iteration of the company logo.

We spent some time looking at some possible inputs, like driving location, routes, driving behavior, check-ins, and tons of others. Kitagawa-san explained a lot of potential business models, including some that were consumer-focused. We even talked about doing an in-car karaoke product! Of course we didn’t make that one, but it did lead to us talking about driver incentives and other ways to make the driving experience more enjoyable. Often, Kitagawa-san would share a business idea with me, we would talk about for a while, I would create some slides, wireframes, rough design, or prototypes, which would then get shared with users or business contacts for feedback. Kitagawa-san had a really aggressive meeting schedule with surprisingly senior people from famous companies. Some of them were coming to meet us in our Hongo office that was actually a one bedroom apartment, and coming back again for more discussions. As a result, I had the sense that we were onto something. There was a lot of thinking that tried to consider the whole user journey from start to finish and where that might take us in the future. The fun thing about that is, over the years I’ve had product managers come to me and say, “We need design for feature X.” Sometimes I’m able to show them something I designed a year ago that’s 90% ready to use. That’s a somewhat rare occurrence, but it’s always a laugh when it happens. I think that’s a testament to the effectiveness of involving designers in business discussions.






-How did you build your design team after joining SmartDrive in 2014?
For the first few years, I was the only designer. There wasn’t a team at all. I designed everything from the logo to the web site to app UI, print materials, presentation materials, and even hardware enclosures. Assembling the team so far has been a mixture of good luck and scouting. I’ve both scouted people and been lucky to have people find us. I looked for people who can approach the work earnestly, humbly, thoughtfully, and move quickly. That describes our team pretty well, so I couldn’t be happier. In terms of my own contribution to building cohesion in the team, I think that in our case it might be the result of everyone knowing that I want them to succeed and seeing that I will put in the effort to help them achieve success. But team cohesion is a combination of everyone’s efforts.




-I understand that you all work remotely. What do you think is the key to successful remote team building?
I think that when you have trust in place, it doesn’t matter if you’re working in person or remotely. I firmly believe that you build your team by actually working together and establishing reputations as individuals, as a group of people, and as a company. There’s no trick or hack. You just have to approach other people with humility, curiosity, and welcome other perspectives. In the act of actually working together on time sensitive projects with real world consequences, I think that forces you to figure out how to work well together.


-What do you feel is the importance of having an in-house design organization?
It’s probably the same as with any other part of an organization. If it’s done effectively, you have a team of people who actually care about what happens when people see or use their work. They are more connected to their work and they have an opportunity to improve the work later on. An in-house team that’s a valued part of the company will know the company well, understand what the goals are, and align with them to push the company forward. There’s no discovery process or if there is, it’s only about truly new things. You can nurture the development of that team and get consistent, reliable output.

-When did you become CDO (Chief Design Officer)?
We tried a few titles in the beginning, but settled on CDO, I guess around 2016. Early on, we saw concrete returns on design investment with things like partners choosing us because they liked our website, or people selecting our services because the design was easier to use and more pleasant to look at than some competitor solutions. I think there was an obvious need to maintain whatever we had achieved in design and continue to use it to grow the company, so it made sense to have a role for design at the C level. That allows the design part of the company to exist not as a child of another part of the company, but as an equal contributor.


-What do you think is the role of the CDO in this context?
A CDO is a partner who uses design expressly to help achieve business goals.

I think I’m like a creative director who cares about things beyond what might strictly be defined as “design.” I do a lot of design myself, but I also care about the success of the business more broadly so I use my position to try to initiate or support the internal and external relationships and processes that get us to where we want to be. I think you don’t absolutely have to call the person who does that kind of work a CDO, but that’s what we call it.

SmartDrive is in a position where we have a very wide range of design needs, so if there is a design department, then it will naturally interact with several other departments. It won’t be a child of marketing or a child of engineering, for example. We work with those departments and we support them. We are in conversation with them, exchanging ideas and working towards the same goals. We grow together as equal partners.




-What is your mission and job description as CDO?
In addition to the previous answer about my role, I generate systems that try to reduce redundancy in our work, such as creating a design system for our UI’s. I also directly work with the other designers to try to keep their careers moving in a direction that matches their goals. In that sense, I’m less of a manager and more of a facilitator.

I also see design as one of the ways we can directly advocate for users, but not the only way. I think that enough user advocacy has been put forward by the design community as a whole that it has reached a lot of areas of business and development, so we don’t need to fight for users anymore. Everyone understands that we need to keep users/customers in mind at every stage, so just about everyone has something to contribute to UX. That’s a wonderful situation to be in. At the same time, I think that things like usability are uniquely the responsibility of designers. I hope to take this concept a little further, however. It’s more than just, “What’s an easy way to do this thing?” In many cases, our services are being introduced to workplaces where no such service was previously used. We’re asking people to add new tasks to their already busy and demanding jobs or we’re asking people to do things they’ve been doing but in a different way. So how do we do that in a way that feels inviting and actually saves time? And how can we accommodate people who use the information at different levels of detail and at dramatically different literacy levels? Can we automate this in some way? There’s some degree of overlap with product level thinking, so it includes larger ideas beyond the details.

When we do this well, we’re making our products easier to sell and making our customers happy.



一方で、ユーザビリティのようなものは、デザイナーにしかできないことだと思っています。しかし、私はこの考えをもう少し先に進めたいのです。「これを簡単にできる方法はないか」という発想だけではありません。私たちのサービスは、これまで利用されていなかった職場に導入されるケースが多いです。すでに忙しくて大変な仕事をしているのに、新しい業務が発生したり、今までやっていたことを別の方法で対応したりする必要があります。「どうすれば魅力的で、時間の節約になるのか?」 「情報の粒度やリテラシーレベルが大きく異なる人たちに、どうすれば受け入れられるのか?」「なんらかの方法で自動化できないか?」。これらの思考は、プロダクト開発レベルの思考とある程度重なるので、細部を超えた大きなアイデアも含まれています。


-What do you think are the skills and mindsets that will be required of young creators aiming to become CDOs in the future?
I don’t think you should aim to be a CDO, at least not at first. I think you should aim to gain the most understanding and experience you can. Understand what design can and cannot do. Learn how to have conversations about design with different kinds of people, including people who know nothing about design or are even hostile to design. Defend design with solid, honest arguments. Seek help from and give help to other designers. Help various people with design in some way and try to track and quantify the impact of what you’ve done. If you do all those things, it’s likely that you will find opportunities to fill roles that feel right for you. In terms of the mindset, I think it’s humility, curiosity, and some healthy stubbornness.


-What advice would you give to young creators?
Try as many areas of design as possible and see what feels like a good fit for you. But always bring design fundamentals to each task. 

I’ve seen many lists of skills that designers need and some are pretty reasonable. You may be left with the impression that you need all of the skills listed. You don’t. Learn how to work with other people effectively. Learn how to use design to focus on what’s most important. Learn how to say, “no.” Learn how to respond when people tell you “no.” Learn how to ask good questions. Learn how to balance having enough confidence to take on tasks and try crazy things while having the humility to change your work when necessary. See other designers as colleagues and not competition. Feedback is an opportunity to improve the work you’ve done. Not everyone knows how to give useful feedback, so be patient with people and guide them toward giving you feedback you can act on.



-Please tell us what you would like to accomplish with SmartDrive as CDO in the future.
I would like to be able to say that SmartDrive design has been a part of saving X number of lives in 202X. It may not be possible to give a number, but I would like that very much!


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