Smashing Spotlight: Chad Otis, Executive Creative Director

Wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Chad Otis, Executive Creative Director, to talk shop, how his hippie upbringing was the catalyst to becoming a designer and artist, and how the relationship between design and technology is becoming more of a statement of self-identification, not just function.


There are a lot of predictions for what the next big thing in tech will be in 2015 – everything from the infiltration of smart watches to 3-D printers that print food. From your vantage point, what do you think will be a game changer in 2015?

Without question, 3D-printed, edible watches will be a reality. Okay, seriously, this isn’t very exciting creatively, but there’s been a lot said about the efficiencies that will be created through “The Internet of Things”, or smart objects within companies and industries. Sure, wearables and other connected experiences will continue to dominate the industry headlines, but it looks like the consumer market will be a small percentage of revenue. For example, if a mechanical part on an freighter can automatically communicate to a warehouse that it is near failure, and the warehouse can tell an automated forklift to retrieve the part and ship it to the freighter’s next port of call; the people involved would simply get a message letting them know the part is waiting for them. Less human involvement means higher efficiency, which saves money. That’s a good investment for large companies and a lot of revenue for the not-as-large companies responsible for providing solutions. On the consumer side, I like to think 2015 will be the year Apple Watch, Apple Pay, and Oculus Rift all really get traction.


With how fast technology is moving these days, design sometimes takes a back seat. Wearables might be functional, but not necessarily the most fashion forward. How important is the role of aesthetic design in technology?

Its huge. Before mobile phones the computer on your desk said something about you, then the phone you carried became a more ostensible statement about who you are. Now, literally wearing technology is a new ball game altogether. Apple has been leading the technology-as-aesthetics charge for years with people like Steve Jobs and Jony Ive hitting that form/function sweet spot in a way others haven’t. The new Apple watch continues that trend with Apple having gone as far as hiring Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry, and renowned designers like Marc Newson to help in the effort. Google has announced they’re working with Luxottica, makers of Ray Ban and other luxury eyewear, to re-imagine their Google Glass for non card-carrying nerds.


How would you describe your job to people who don’t know you?

I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s never been easy explaining what I do. The short version? I’m a Creative Director for a digital agency.

The longer version? Depending on the audience, (my mom gets a heavily revised version), I usually tell people we’re a creative agency that works with companies to develop digital products like apps and websites and that, as Executive Creative Director, I’m responsible for the Creative Team and the creative guidance of the company in general. For those who haven’t wandered off and insist on a better understanding, I provide clarification by going on to tell them what we aren’t; that the products we make aren’t physical, that we aren’t an advertising agency. Still don’t get it? Examples usually help. We’ve made games, but don’t make many now, we often work closely with large companies to help them define and develop the digital products they’ll put into market through methodologies that include UX exploration, collaborative exercises, research, testing, visual design, and so on.


You oversee all of the agency’s projects from a creative perspective. Is there one that has stood out over the years?

In my nearly ten years at Smashing Ideas I’ve worked on everything from web-based SpongeBob SquarePants games to Stephen Hawking iPad apps. With that range of technologies and properties there have been a number of projects that have been memorable for different reasons, but I’ll narrow it down to something I was involved in more directly. Developing Stephen Hawking’s Snapshots of the Universe app challenged us with translating Dr. Hawking’s books, with their conversational, illustrative explanation of metaphysics and other theories, into digital form. Interactivity has been the missing piece for these heady thought experiments; the thing he couldn’t do in print. Empowering people to better comprehend these theories by trying, failing, and repeating until they succeed in a fun way is a natural continuation of Dr. Hawking’s spirit of making this material more accessible and a little humorous. Getting it all right was not easy, but Dr. Hawking’s blessing and being recognized as one of Apple’s App Store Best apps of 2014 made it a little more memorable for me.


Motivational Design is the key lens through which we create digital experiences. What role does the Creative Team play in this?

Motivational Design involves almost every practice at Smashing Ideas. Strategists, Creative Directors, and the UX designers shape the vision for which Motivational Design principles and components will achieve the goals of a project. From there, UX Designers and Visual Experience Designers are responsible for fine-tuning every part of the experience.

I talk in more detail on the role of the Creative Team in my blurb, titled coincidentally enough, “The New Creative Team”, which you can see here.


Rumor has it you lived in a van down by the river as a kid…or say, a converted school bus traveling the country selling your father’s art. How did your unconventional upbringing influence you as an artist?

Spending a good chunk of my formative years in a rolling hippy house left me with a deep-seated desire for order and predictability. I like some straight lines and grids amongst all the color and free form expression messiness. In short, I guess it made me a designer.


Around the agency we’ve been floating around the concept of Head. Heart. Hand. and how each element contributes to a successful design. Explain.

That’s just a reminder that, along with all of the human-centered problem solving and responding to business needs that happens in developing a solution or a product (the parts in which we’re using our collective “Head” – well, our left brained heads anyway), we’re here because we’re talented; because we’re creative. It’s our job to bring “Heart” to what we deliver through things like story, voice, motion, surprise, creating a desire for exploration, and then we need to execute on that vision with exceptional craft – to design, illustrate, and compose audio with our “Hands.” Head. Heart. Hand.


You create consumer art on the side. Where is the craziest place you’ve ever seen one of your pieces of art?

I created a series of large prints inspired by early 20th century food and beverage posters. I haven’t actually seen them in any crazy places, but do enjoy tracking their global sales in places like Australia, Europe, and Asia.

In case you’re curious you can see them on here.


Creativity is all about inspiration. Where is the strangest place you’ve had a moment of inspiration strike?

Well, I’m not sure I can talk about that here. I will say that unfortunately I tend to solve a lot of problems and generate a lot of ideas between 4 and 6 a.m. I will add that while inspiration is critical to creativity, perspiration is what brings it all home. Our first ideas are rarely what make it across the finish line. We act on inspiration, iterate, modify, and reinvent many times before creating something exceptional.


Who is your toughest critic?

No points for originality here, but it’s always me.

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