Meet Tucker Fort: Executive Director & Partner
Tucker Fort, Executive Director & Partner, is a pioneering voice in the design industry and passionate about the intersection of design, business, and innovation.
Throughout his career, Tucker has created market-defining experiences that leverage emerging technologies to meet evolving consumer trends. He oversees Smart Design’s design and technology capabilities and is the sector lead on CPG, consumer goods, and IoT.
We sat down with Tucker to talk about why designers are good at navigating a crisis, how trust and collaboration are critical to client relationships, and why long walks around New York City help keep him centered.
Looking back, what were the most significant insights about the role of design that emerged from the pandemic?
When Associate Strategy Director Morgane Le Beguet and I spoke with 10 design leaders for our report about the pandemic, Welcome to Innovation 2.0, it reinforced our conviction that designers are uniquely qualified to foster a sense of optimism, especially during times of uncertainty. They help us focus on the future and a better tomorrow. Designers are learning new things, identifying opportunities, and finding solutions. They understand the need for empathy and have the patience to listen and absorb different points of view. Equally important is that designers are good at navigating ambiguous and complex problems. They can juggle many ideas at once, and figure out how they come together as part of a recipe for success.
Tell us about a moment in your career that changed your outlook on being a design leader.
About a decade ago, I was with one of our teams reviewing a range of concepts to present to a client, when one person said, “This is the best idea, but the client is never going to go for it.” My first response was to agree, knowing that many clients can be risk-averse. But then I realized that if we, as designers, truly believe something is the best idea, our job is to convince the client of this by framing it as the best opportunity for their business. If we can’t, then it probably wasn’t the best concept. From this point on, Smart Design made a deliberate investment in building a more robust business design capability. We hired more MBAs and candidates with management and consulting backgrounds and integrated them into our teams and processes. I also started to guest lecture at NYU Stern and Columbia Business Schools to understand the mindset of the next generation of business leaders and communicate the business value of design to them.
How has Smart Design’s long-standing relationship with Gatorade helped the company evolve its product line and brand?
To help a company navigate into an entire category requires a deep understanding of its existing strengths and brand vision, and connecting these to evolving consumer trends. Throughout our innovation journey with Gatorade, we developed a working model based on transparency and collaboration that allowed us to gain insights, and quickly pilot innovative ideas that led to new and commercially viable products and services.
Using this process, Gatorade expanded its product line from packaged sports drinks to individualized sports fuel solutions, apps, wearable devices, and sports equipment. I’m most proud of how our knowledge of youth and high school athlete personalization enabled an entirely new equipment business. And also, how our emerging technology capabilities such as computer vision and machine learning helped create a digital first ecosystem that reflected the brand, and also brought professional level sports science diagnostics and recommendations to all athletes. Our long-term partnership with clients like Gatorade is a constant reminder that innovation, when done right, will take you to the most unexpected places.
What are some of the unique qualities that make Smart Design so special?
There are so many! For Smart Design to be able to do what it does requires a certain level of craft and excellence from across all our disciplines. But what also stands out in my mind is that everyone here believes so strongly in the power of design, even if they’re not trained as designers. You can count on that incredible level of passion and design love to create not only an enjoyable work environment but also a common understanding and culture that drives extremely high quality results. The curiosity is contagious, whether it’s a lively conversation during lunch, a hallway test of a digital prototype, or the latest 3D printing on the workshop bench.
Sometimes clients (and designers) get stuck while developing a project. What are the best ways to move the design process forward?
Try to move quickly from a two-dimensional document format into more experimental and experiential activities, like primary research, a prototype or a pilot, anything that makes it more real and shows progress or will inspire new solutions. Look for opportunities in what I call the middle or gray areas between traditional categories, or where categories cross into new and unique spaces. For example, between the physical and the digital services that can be built onto core products. Also think about the shift from legacy brick-and-mortar retail to e-commerce and the design, packaging, and marketing experiences that go along with it. We’re only just starting to explore these areas.
What influences your work?
A great thing about living in New York is that you have to spend a fair amount of time walking—and that means less time in front of a screen. Walking keeps you mentally active and exposes you to different environments and unexpected situations. It’s one of the few times you’re not engaging with technology, and so you often think about things in a new way and perhaps see connections and patterns you hadn’t noticed before. Walking in the city means being constantly surrounded by humanity. As a designer, this helps me stay true to what human-centered design is all about.
On a personal note, tell us about what you do in your free time.
With three kids I don’t have too much free time, but I do have a few hobbies. On the athletic side, I enjoy the racket game squash. I played a bit in high school and after moving to New York, I realized it’s a great city sport in that it doesn’t require a lot of space, you can play it all year round, and meet new people along the way. It’s competitive, and much more fun and motivating than using a treadmill or running on your own. On the design side, I collect vintage Japanese postcards. About 20 years ago I saw an exhibition at The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston called the Art of the Japanese Postcard, and was blown away by the integration of bold graphic elements with more nuanced visual representations of nature, landscapes, and architecture. Since then, when I’m traveling or online I am always on the lookout for unique examples of this art form.
About Tucker Fort
Tucker is a pioneering voice in the design industry. He has a strong track record of creating market-defining experiences that leverage emerging technologies to meet evolving consumer trends. He is passionate about the intersection of innovation, design, and business. At Smart Design, Tucker oversees the design and technology capabilities and is the sector lead in CPG, Consumer Goods, and IoT. A guest lecturer at New York University’s Stern School of Business and Columbia Business School, Tucker is also a frequent contributor to Vogue Business, Fast Company, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg Businessweek.