Smashing Spotlight: Scott Scheff, Creative Director

Ever wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Scott Scheff, Creative Director, to talk shop, hear how classic piano training facilitated his love of design, the three distinct elements of design thinking he feels clients should incorporate into their practices, and how storytelling is one of the most important skills a designer has in shaping new ideas.


How would you outline your path to becoming a creative director at Smashing Ideas and what attracted you to design in the first place?

My path into creativity and design started when I was young. My grandparents taught me how to play classical piano and art was my favorite school subject. I received a BFA from Miami University (in Ohio) with an emphasis in graphic design, and started working as a professional designer in 1998 when the web emerged as a promising communication and commerce platform. I got in at the ground floor working as a visual designer and have continued working at design firms ever since. I love working at firms because they offer a wide diversity of projects across industries and an opportunity to design solutions that can make a positive impact on people’s lives.


Creative Directors are known to have very interesting and unique processes to get the creative juices flowing. How do you get yourself in the right mind-space to let the creative inspiration flow?

My creative ideas flow best when I’m knowledgeable about the problem space that needs to be solved and I relax to allow my mind to wander. Funny enough, inspiration and creative ideas pop in my mind when I’m showering in the morning or out for a run. Like many designers, I routinely sketch in notebooks and collect reference materials that I can draw upon in the future. But, it’s the act of getting out of my own way that’s my real trick! I write in a diary to help me examine my personal biases and beliefs; doing this flushes out the emotions that won’t serve me well. I attend a weekly men’s yoga class to help focus my mind and calm my natural anxieties.


Your background extends beyond design and goes into the field of consulting and marketing. How would you say that experience plays into your understanding of the role design plays in whether or not products are successful in market?

Storytelling is one of the important skills I’ve developed from my experience working in marketing and consulting. A compelling story has the power to peak interest in new ideas and shape beliefs. I love wearing my marketing and consulting hats to help client’s develop stories as a vehicle to increase empathy, rally audiences around a common cause, navigate internal politics, and motivate their constituents to act.


Who are your design heroes? Whose work do you return to time and time again, and why?

Design is really a team sport! My design heroes are people who I had the good fortune to collaborate with on projects. I do admire the work of companies who are at the forefront of our industry such as Nielsen Norman Group, Cooper, and IDEO. My bookshelf continues to grow with Rosenfeld Media books because they are relevant to the practice areas and problems I am working on. Related to user experience design, I subscribe to Metropolis magazine to stay connected to architecture, industrial design, and urban planning. I also love the Frere-Jones type foundry, and the 99% Invisible podcast by Roman Mars because both display a great reverence for the history and culture that informs any design solution.


Professor Scheff, you are currently teaching UX Design Thinking at the University of Washington. You have a very active day job, so what is it about teaching that inspires you beyond your 9 to 5? And, how does educating the next gen of UX professionals inspire your professional endeavors?

Last year I spent time considering how I could make a positive contribution to the world that extended beyond client projects. I learned that the University of Washington Continuum College was exploring the possibility of developing a certificate program centered around user experience and interface design. I joined the program’s advisory committee and became one of the course instructors because I’m inspired to help adults acquire design thinking skills and techniques, support their pursuit of a more compelling career, and give them the tools and confidence to create a more collaborative and fun work environment.

Designing the curriculum and instructing is similar to how I run collaborative workshops for our design team and clients. I’ve had the benefit of observing how the students from a diverse background tackle design challenges each week. By providing classroom instruction and facilitation I have observed and learned how I can inspire more creativity and critical thinking.


What are your guiltiest pleasures when it comes to pop culture?

A few years ago a copywriter I worked with turned me onto The Bachelor and Bachelorette dynasty. It’s a very silly show (no doubt!), but I enjoy watching because it raises so many questions. Is she or he really the right contestant? Are the producers orchestrating the outcomes? If this is not reality TV, is it a game show with winners and losers, or an instructional video on the do’s and don’ts of breaking up? Oh, I could go on…


As a more recent addition to Smashing Ideas, you still have a fresh perspective on what we do and who we are. What have you found to be surprising about working at Smashing?

There is a genuine excitement at Smashing to solve the next set of challenges our clients face and help them make a meaningful impact in the world. My colleagues share my passion for collaboration. A perfect example is that project teams co-locate without hesitation. And, I am proud to work for a company where audience research is a standard practice on every project!


What are three elements of Design Thinking that all clients should know about and incorporate into the way they run their projects/teams/organizations?

  1. Understand your audience and market.Spend time getting to know your end-users, their cultural context, and the market ecosystem. This is the creative fuel needed for discovering uniquely innovative solution.
  2. Visualize the solutions.This is a superpower of designers – the act of visually representing your idea helps your organization gain new insight.
  3. Evaluate and iterate.We often unknowingly screen out plausible solutions due to our personal bias. Our gut instinct can be our worst enemy at times. Allow your target audience to evaluate concepts to learn if they respond positively before rejecting ideas outright.


What have you experienced as the biggest disruption in the digital world and do you have any predictions on what will disrupt it once again?

Smartphones, mobile computing, and connected products continues to transform our world. I believe the next wave of disruption is already underway as evidence by the 2016 elections. Companies and organizations are leveraging data in new and powerful ways. Our behaviors and relationships to the people, products, and services that surround us will profoundly change as we increasingly trust the advice and recommendations provided by computers.


As a creative, who is your toughest critic?

My toughest critics are the most experienced users and reviewers of my work. They find gaps in logic and levels of nuance I was unable to see. They become great partners on projects because they push to create stronger work.


And last, but certainly not least, in the movie of your life that will undoubtedly be made, who will play you and what will it be called?

Dingbats and Descenders, The Musical. A designer’s journey to find weird and wonderful ideas. Staring Seth Rogan. Music by Lady Gaga.

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