Meet Richard Whitehall: Executive Director & Partner
Richard, a Smart Design Partner and Executive Director, brings over 30 years of design consulting experience and client engagement in the US, UK, and Japan to this leadership role.
With deep expertise in design research and strategy, service design, and product development, Richard inspires Smart Design teams to deliver innovative solutions for global clients, in sectors including technology, media, and telecommunications, healthcare, automotive and transportation, and consumer-packaged goods.
We sat down with Richard to talk about the mission of design to advocate for people’s needs, the impact of technology on design, and how he discovered the joys of virtual cycling.
Tell us about a design innovation that defines what Smart Design is today.
Our work with Meta on teens and social media pushed us in several new directions, expanding our research methodologies and global reach and consideration of both product and policy.
The company wanted to know more about what teens were experiencing on platforms like Instagram, and how parents were coping with their kids’ technology usage at this crucial developmental stage. We engaged teens in co-design sessions in 5 countries, with the goal of having young people build solutions rather than simply discussing issues. Then we expanded our research by bringing in parents, academics, teen advocates, and experts from the policy world. Our experts helped us interpret what found in co-design and understand how our insights might scale to the broader population.
Ultimately, all these different voices helped us develop features for parents and teens to better navigate the use of digital products, and informed Meta’s policy teams that interact with regulators on such issues as privacy.
What are the unique advantages Smart Design provides companies and brands seeking strategies and solutions?
One of Smart’s core principles is that design is about people; that is, it addresses human challenges through understanding emotions and needs. A good example is our work with Amplifon, a leading retailer in the hearing care market that was facing increased competition and market deregulation. As part of our design research, we shadowed customers and met with audiologists, looking for consumer pain points as well as opportunities for innovation in the employee experience. In particular, we wanted to know what it’s like to have hearing loss, and how to reduce the social stigma surrounding this medical problem that makes people reluctant to seek help. With this understanding, we created a unified brand and global customer experience, including a digital ecosystem to personalize customer care. We had identified a human problem worth solving and found a tech-based solution for the company and the consumer.
How have Smart Design capabilities changed since you joined?
We’ve shifted along with the world. As people spend more time engaging with digital devices, more of our projects naturally have a technology component. So we’ve expanded our development capabilities, with more engineers working on hardware and software interfaces, machine learning, and building launch-ready products. Without such sophisticated tech capabilities, like understanding generative AI, it would be difficult to deliver on human needs. Young designers nowadays are digital natives. But what’s interesting is that we’re hiring more people from a technology and business background who can use these new tools and methods to help us advance the design process.
How will the practice of design change over the next few years?
Automation is changing everything in the economy, along with design. There will be more and more platforms that allow us to work faster and more efficiently. But we have to remember that not everything can be learned online; we also live in the physical world. You can’t just use algorithms and data to understand the nuances of how people live, because you’re only seeing part of the picture.
What is the most exciting aspect of your job?
Championing the needs of people. By that I mean, while companies want to create products and services that consumers will buy and enjoy, and make money doing so, it’s also important to consider the broader context of consumers and employees as people. Like our work for OXO, which started by looking at how kitchen products might be designed for someone with arthritis or by a professional chef—rather than focusing solely on an “average” consumer. This way we could not only understand the physical task of cooking but also the emotions and social role that food plays. What we can do for companies is bring the perspective of everyday life to the table in order to discover unexpected innovations.
I think it’s a designer’s mission to advocate for people’s needs as well as the ambitions of our clients—whether it’s making home cleaning a little more enjoyable or last-mile delivery services better for delivery workers.
Talk about Smart Design’s leadership structure and how it helps drive innovation.
We are a project-based organization. Core teams with between two and four people are deeply engaged in reaching project goals while our directors act as mentors and coaches. This model empowers teams to take more creative approaches; it encourages junior members to stretch their skills and assume more responsibility than they would in a more hierarchical organization. Because our directors are responsible for both client relationships and a practice area, they can utilize their craft in the context of real world challenges. I’m proud to say that so many Smart Design alumni have been successful at taking on important challenges at other amazing organizations. Our impact is much larger than what we do at Smart Design, as it encompasses the broader community of Smarties.
What influences your work?
As a child, I was into both science and the arts. As a designer, it’s important to bring these together. I’m inspired by developments in technology—like soft robots or MRNA technology—and by the arts and culture, and how they intersect and influence each other. A Brazilian theater performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, say, might add some cultural context to a consumer research study in Brazil or how we think about narrative or motion in a digital experience. That’s one great thing about living in New York City, where the business, technology, and arts scenes are so vibrant.
On a personal note, tell us about what you do in your free time.
I’ve been a passionate cyclist since my teenage years. At age 14, I even built a bike and rode it from London, where I grew up, to Paris. I still ride that bike, which gets some respect on the streets for its vintage design. Now I ride a folding bike to the office, and have a cyclocross for more serious treks. I started cycling indoors during the pandemic, mounting the cyclocross bike on a smart trainer and joining Zwift, an online cycling community. You can ride in a few different virtual worlds along with thousands of others, watching an iPad that simulates the terrain. It’s great to ride in the real world, but you get something quite different from the virtual experience!
About Richard Whitehall
Richard Whitehall is a partner at Smart Design. He brings expertise in design research and strategy, service design, and product development and has worked across the healthcare, TMT, mobility, and consumer-packaged goods industries. Some notable clients include Amgen, Meta, Ford, Upstream, and Google. He sits on the DMI advisory board and is a judge on the IDEA awards this year.