Todd Falkowsky on Canadian design and life as a polymath

Todd Falkowsky

Canadian design is a bit of a strange scene. Ours is a (relatively) new country, and designers are often separated by vast distances. So, a person like Todd Falkowsky is particularly important.

Through his work with The Canadian Design Resource, he brings focus to notable projects that deserve attention they sometimes don’t get. He also created side-projects like Object(ing): The art/design of Tobias Wong and Cabin

Todd runs two studios (Motherbrand and Citizen Brand), and has worked with leading brands including IKEA, Ferrari, and Wolff Olins. He also teaches, and lectures, on design. Today, he talks to us about how he makes it all happen.

Tell us a little about your past. Specifically: how did you make your way into the creative career?

For me, design wasn’t something I grew up with; I only discovered it after the path I was on bottomed out. I desperately wanted to be a Formula 1 driver, and did manage to do well racing with a national rally team. After a few serious crashes, I wanted to get into something that was meaningful and gave back to society. I was really inspired by the early recyclable PET Coke bottle, and realized how influential design was in shaping behaviour. If you have something to say and want to make an impact, design is the perfect vehicle.

Your background and skills are pretty varied. What do you find yourself doing most, these days?

I find my consulting is most in demand. Clients are just learning the language and concepts of how design can help them. The Canadian marketplace is looking for new ways to grow and innovate, and the conversation surrounding creativity is gaining steam. All the parts of my toolbox are flexible, and a thread runs through them, so they are not the rigid in how they intersect. If there is a project that I think is cool, I can usually find a way to get involved. However, you’re right—I typically have a wide variety of work on the go.

Can you tell readers who you’re currently working with—or the projects you’re most excited about?

I am working on a book about how locations drive value into design (i.e. cars from Italy, fashion from Paris, et cetera)—an area that Canadian creative industries do not benefit from. A stamp that has been shortlisted for 2017 celebrations; an exhibit that matches 150 designers to 150 brands in Canada to create a store of Limited Editions to help brand the country through it’s material culture; lecturing in Syracuse, NY and Milan, Italy; and a new consulting product that focuses on brands coming into the Canadian market, and—more importantly—helping Canadian brands going global.

Penny Smash hijacks the familiar souvenir penny press to produce truly affordable works of art.Penny Smash hijacks the familiar souvenir penny press to produce truly affordable works of art.

What are you helping these groups do, fix, or improve?

In a very small nutshell, to connect to the significant values that design thinking and creativity bring. I have a niche consulting product that helps clients grow their revenue and mind share and apply the same tools that the bigger players use.

What do think companies most often get wrong with their brands?

They think of themselves and not their customers. They neglect the full customer experience (the journey in from the website, to packaging, to customer support, etc.). They are not tapping digital and data ideas, and fail to use design to maximize each touch point. They do not properly manage their brand, nor value the impact that it can create.

Which companies get it right? Who should others look to as examples of great, design-lead organizations?

The obvious examples are the majors like Nike and Apple, but I am most interested in fashion companies and start ups, they have more flexibility in how they articulate themselves, do things in a more artful and risky way, and are in constant motion—accepting that not changing is the biggest risk.

You run two shops: Citizen Brand and Mother Brand. Why the separation between these?

Citizen Brand is a straight up design consultancy that has a number of products to help clients grow their businesses. I believe that design and creativity are the secret sauce that make companies stronger and keep them innovating. Motherbrand is a lab for tactics and ideas that might not be ready for clients. It’s more of a platform for exhibits, events and experiments. I also publish The Canadian Design Resource, an ongoing process that helps me stay in tune to the creative industries and thinking going on here.

Sneak peek at the incoming redesign of The Canadian Design Resource.Sneak peek at the incoming redesign of The Canadian Design Resource.

The CDR is a pretty spectacular tribute to design in Canada. What have you learned from building this?

Lots–much more than I could ever express in a short interview. Oh–and also that people still own and love their WearEver Cookwear from decades ago. That post gets the most comments out of any other on the site of thousands. I am still amazed at the depth of the work, stretching back in time, and how our design life answers the question of who we are and where we are going. The challenge is getting Canadians in on the journey.

You’re “renovating” the CDR website. What’s do you have in store for the resource?

Broaden it. More magazine style with improved partnership opportunities, better mobile experience, Wiki tools for the resource side, a brand Canada shopping section, and stronger community tools. I am always trying to expand on the value it serves to the audience and to the articulation of Canadian design as a whole. FYI, 75% of our audience is not Canadian, so the site offers neat data on how we can shift our industry to a global setting, and see how the globe is looking at what we do.

As you’ve witnessed so much Canadian design, I’m curious about your perspective on its state. How do we compare to other nations?

I know what I want it to be vs. the reality but I can be blinded by my desire to advocate. I think it’s an industry needing of some maturing. We have very few design journalist or critics, so our creative life story gets told in really lightweight ways (i.e. “Hoser Chic”), enforcing the idea to readers that design is something that happens best in other places.

We have a rich history (even if it’s a fairly short one) and yet it seems each generation figures it’s the first. I think the state of design in the country would be more solid if we paid more respect to what has come before and build upon that. You see that more in places with long, entrenched histories of design. If I could upgrade one area, I would want designers to look into their own backyards for inspiration, and to find ways to dig deeper, and create meaningful work that really says something, instead of just being pretty.

Souvenir Tables for Cut Copy Paste at The ROM in Toronto.Souvenir Tables for Cut Copy Paste at The ROM in Toronto.

What about the unsung heroes of Canadian design? Which designers should we be directing our attention to—who don’t get the praise they should?

I am a big fan of Stefan Siwinski, a furniture pioneer who created the first fiberglass (before Eames) and plastic injected chairs, the ceramist Jean Cartier, who created a mountain of lovely pieces for Céramique de Beauce, and all the aboriginal designers who created the kayak, teepee, stone tools, and symbolic bead work. The graphic designers have done a decent job of maintaining their heritage, but modernists like Burton Kramer, Rolf Harder, and Don Watt always deserve a shout out. Being unsung is also a contemporary gap, and I love the work by Marian Bantjes, Patty Johnson, Stefan Monnet, Greg Durrell and Jonathan Sabine, a group whose work is so top drawer and amazing.

You’ve taught design for many years, and serve as an advisor to many design programs. How is design education changing?

Not much. They are usually top heavy, reward seniority, and prefer to react then originate. They tend to follow funding, are highly risk adverse, and cannot market/manage their own capital. Schools (and maybe the design organizations too) here are in a deep comfort zone. Design education is so exciting, literally creating the future, but the real action is in small, tightly run operations, like The Future Design School, IwB, The Red Academy, and Design Camp, groups that are super timely, lack bureaucratic baggage, and respond to change rapidly.

What about the students? How do they need to change, in order to best serve the businesses/organizations that will hire them?

Go out with ideas that will help the people you are talking to, and not just drop off portfolios. Pitch, and be a value add, not just an employee. Show an authentic interest in the work they do. Do your homework before you interview—surprisingly few candidates do this well, and it will help you stand out in the crowd. I think that there is too much emphasize on skills, rather than thinking, and that we are producing staff rather than entrepreneurs. Design education should be less about Photoshop, and more about a space that fosters innovation, in curriculum and in outcomes.

Are the institutions keeping pace with this change? Do you feel that certain ones are doing a better job of educating future-ready designers?

Not really. The best things I see are business schools authoring design thinking course work, and changing the way business thinks. I am not aware of any globally relevant institutions in Canada. The funding is there, but the community and collective will seems to be a challenge.

Provincial Flower paintings, sampled in time for Canada Day.

Provincial Flower paintings, sampled in time for Canada Day.

Just because I’m curious: What design books do you find yourself recommending? Are there a few that you believe everyone—regardless of business owner or designer—should read?

Not many. I rarely look at design publications anymore, I find the conversation shallow, inspiring designers to emulate and shift readers into shoppers. I like That New Design Smell, Dezeen, and Core77, and I always give clients a copy of Small Change by Nabeel Hamdi.

How do you balance your client work, personal projects, and the advisor roles you hold? (Doing all of these things seems like a tall order.)

I asked Douglas Coupland that same question a few years ago and loved his process so much that I now use it as well. I divide my week into blocks that have remained the same for so long, there are now a habit. One morning is nothing but writing, another day is nothing but client meetings, one afternoon is thinking of new work and new projects. etc. This gives me the freedom to get immersed, focused and concentrate, and to not feel like I am chasing anything, or getting lost in the process. It sounds stiff, but it is really a solid way to keep moving multiple types of projects forward at the same time. This process helps me avoid the fear that I am missing something.

You’re holding Officehours—and these sessions only last 10 minutes. What kind of help can your lend folks in such a brief window?

I would like to talk about locations and how you can use where you live, to be distinct, go global, and pull in clients.

Got a few more questions? Request a session with Todd, and get 10 minutes of free, one-on-one advice from him.