Meet Cameron Hanson: Strategy Director
Smart Design is a strategic design company that helps people live better and work smarter.
Everything we do starts with understanding human behavior—not just what people want and need but also how entire systems work and interact with users. Our strategists use insights gathered by the customer research teams to identify the best opportunities for your business, and what an organization and brand should do next. At the highest level, it’s all about understanding how your product, service or experience should be positioned in the market—and then giving you a strategic roadmap to make that new position a reality.
We sat down with Cameron Hanson, Strategy Director, to learn about how remote tools are the new frontier of design research, why leadership means empowering teams and individuals to do their best, and the challenges of cultivating a backyard garden in Brooklyn.
“It’s like a dance between all the participants—you’re listening to everyone while also keeping the project momentum going.”
Tell us about a time you solved an intimidating design challenge.
Intimidating design challenges usually involve lots of players and points of view. It’s like a dance between all the participants—you’re listening to everyone while also keeping the project momentum going. For example, our recent work with Meta focused on how people make digital payments on messaging platforms and involved various Meta verticals, two distinct user groups, three different platforms, and four countries. Each Meta team wanted a different slice of our research insights, so we made sure to identify and acknowledge the different business angles and make time for revisions and feedback so that each stakeholder group could be part of shaping the strategy. As always, the voice of the consumer and the users’ needs and emotions anchored the design process.
What are the new frontiers of your discipline?
The pandemic changed everything about how we do research. Going totally remote forced us to develop some intriguing methods we would have otherwise neglected if we continued mostly with in-person. Now we can reach more people, faster, and in far-flung places and tell stories better by using more audio and visual tools. In-person isn’t over, though. The new frontier is hybrid. On a recent project for a mobility client we did most of the research through Zoom and a digital diary study program. But we also visited one local participant’s home to see his vehicles and his neighborhood—to get a peek into his world that helped us understand the client’s audience and needs.
What types of problems get you excited?
Problems that are like solving a puzzle, and also change people’s lives—even in small ways. We redesigned the experience of opening the package of a direct-to-consumer cholesterol-lowering drug. What seemed rather straightforward about the box and directions actually required deep insight into a customer’s psychological reckoning with a serious health issue. By making the package less sterile looking and giving it some personality, we could shift the user’s mindset from doom and gloom to proactive control of their health. It was welcoming and was informative—you felt good about the purchase. Another project for a banking client focused on small business owners and their habits and credit card needs post-pandemic. What we learned was that businesses that pivoted to meeting unique COVID demands—such as restaurants mastering takeout—were thriving.
What are the qualities of a designer at Smart Design?
In my discipline, designers lean into ambiguity. They are curious and empathetic and get excited about something messy—those grey spaces or areas. They know how to act in the face of uncertainty and after seeing potential, use the tools we have to take action. Their role is both inward and outward: they listen, absorb, and are a sponge for information, and they also translate, amplify, and articulate a voice.
How would you describe the culture at Smart Design, and what do you like about it?
At Smart Design, you work with people who are experts in their craft and speak the same language of design. They’re creative and friendly and respectful of others—and genuinely love working together. In some companies, egos play a big role. But as we keep switching projects and teams here so often, collaboration is critical. Most of all, you have to appreciate the talent your colleagues bring to the table.
What is your definition of leadership?
Leadership means empowering teams and individuals to do their best. It’s about creating an environment that is psychologically safe. I want my team members to feel respected and encouraged to shape the project. It’s also a balance of guardrails and guidelines: give your team the space to explore while also stepping in when firmer direction is most useful. At Smart, I engage with projects at different levels, sometimes directing them or leading user interviews. These varying roles allow me to keep both my design chops and leadership skills sharp.
“I think of it as scaffolding: methodologies provide rigor to the process, and there are tools and processes to help you create.’
What’s one thing about strategy you think people should know?
Design research is both an art and a science. You can’t just follow steps and arrive at an answer. I think of it as scaffolding: methodologies provide rigor to the process, and there are tools and processes to help you create. But each project is different. The patterns and insights you need may be easily discerned on one project, while for another project you have to massage the data from different angles to arrive at a more profound insight. Design methods provide structure, but uncovering themes and truths is a well-honed art form.
Are there adjacent spaces that inspire your design work?
I’m inspired by urban and community-based design. My graduate thesis was on how to create public spaces that generate a sense of camaraderie or “neighborliness.” During the pandemic I organized “Front Porch Fridays” which became a community-gathering event in my Washington D.C. neighborhood. I also created a zine called DIMBY or “discovery in my backyard,” (as opposed to NIMBY) as a way to explore the architecture, nature, and vibes of all 131 D.C. neighborhoods by bike. It opened my eyes to the different ways of living in the city.
What are you currently learning, reading, or building?
I’m cultivating my backyard garden in Brooklyn. This has become a lesson in patience and what you cannot control. Squirrels and rats haven’t been my friends—they chomp on the vegetables, even the mums! My backyard is also an oasis for gathering people and throwing dinner parties, sometimes with themed evenings such as Robbie Burns Night and Persian New Year. Lingering around the dinner table and talking with friends is a truly magical experience.
About Cameron Hanson
Cameron is a Strategy Director who leads multidisciplinary teams to tackle human issues for large organizations. An expert in design research and service design, Cameron uncovers the root of behaviors and motivations to strategize actionable paths for improved products and services. Notable clients include Capital One, Meta, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Lexus. Cameron has an MFA in Transdisciplinary Design from Parsons School of Design and a BA in International Relations and Media Studies from Claremont McKenna College.