Dan Makoski: Why I’ll make more impact in banking than at Google

Anna Starasts

December 1, 2015

Last week at the Design Exchange, Dan Makoski spoke on “deeply human design” and how it “can transform technology and business in profound new directions.” What everyone in the audience actually wanted to know was why he left Google to join a financial services company, Capital One, as its VP of Design. Not the typical move for an irreverent, out-of-the-box creative mind. But the banking sector is catching up quickly with the creation of innovation labs inside their organizations in an attempt to move its reputation from old school to mobile- and convenience-oriented customer experiences.

Makoski’s work history is impressive. At Google he worked for Dr. Regina Dugan, former head of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a division of the US Defense department. She was hired to head up Google’s ATAP (Advanced Technology & Projects, Google’s most experimental arm for software and hardware). There, Dan started and guided design for Google’s Project Ara, a unique modular phone. He has also led design and research for products including the Moto X, Moto Skip, new RAZR and Microsoft Surface 1.0.

Here are four points that stood out from Dan’s talk:

1. We’re all creative – but as we grow older our creative confidence is diminished. Building your organization’s creative confidence is key for innovation. 

Dan’s talk was full of audience participation including an exercise of portrait-drawing your nearest neighbour and making the next generation toothbrush out of Play Doh. Besides a good laugh, what was the point? To show us that we’re all creative but as adults many of us stop thinking we are. We grow up and are exposed to criticism and lose our perception of our own creativity. We need to regain this, since product innovation often comes from embracing uncertainty and creativity. (Dan’s suggested read on this: Creative Confidence by Tom & David Kelley)

2. Design is a profession of service to others (designing with others), not telling people what they need (designing for others). 

Dan is a big fan of designer Elizabeth Sanders (maketools.com) and hearing the design profession described as a service-oriented professional made him see that listening to people’s needs is an essential part of designing cool products. For example, when designing Google’s Project Ara, Dan and his team drove across the US in a minivan wired up as a coding lab to generate suggestions from University campuses to ask the question: What would you create, if you knew you couldn’t fail? The result was the quirky modular phone of Project Ara.

3. The DARPA model is a really cool way to innovate quickly. 

Dan took the DARPA/ATAP model of innovation with him to Capital One because of its effective formula: cross-disciplinary group members, temporary teams and lightening fast ideation and iteration. If it works for the organization that invented the Internet (DARPA) and the company that organized it (Google) – there must be something behind it, right? For more on this check out Regina Dugan’s TED talk or this article in Harvard Business Review.

4. Getting to the heart of your users’ pain points will help you be inspired about your work. 

When Dan was considering Capital One’s offer, he started his research with Google, searching “finances are…”. Google’s auto-complete guessed the next few words including “…ruining my marriage”, “…ruining my life”, “…stressing me out”. With these as the most popular associated terms, it’s clear that finances are deeply personal and stressful. What if they didn’t have to be, and design could be the driving force behind this? This became a key reason why he chose to move to Cap One: there was a huge opportunity to help people live better lives by helping them better manage their finances through excellently designed mobile and web products.

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