Studio at WO: Neil Cooper on Digital Design and its role within Brand Experience 

We sit down with Neil Cooper, Senior Creative Director and Head of Design at Wolff Olins, to find out more about his career journey and to pick his brain about digital design's role in brand experience.

Hi Neil, can you tell us a little bit about your role at Wolff Olins?

Of course! I’m Senior Creative Director, meaning I lead brand projects for clients, from an experience POV, thinking about consumer interaction with the brand and how the brand comes across for users. I’m also Head of Design in London, which means I lead the Wolff Olins design community in London, making sure everyone is thinking about the next possible avenue for design, what developments we can offer our clients, and staying on top of trends and audience behaviours. 

Can you tell us about your career journey into digital design? 

I studied graphic design at university, back in 2005, when websites and digital were less prominent, and, as a young designer, I thought that seeing my designs come to life in the digital world was far more exciting than seeing them in print, so I focused on digital design in my final year. Post-graduation I then started at River Island as a Web Designer, to help them redesign their site from flash to HTML. My first couple of jobs were within retail experience, exploring how design directly impacted user behaviour - and this was before UX became as well-defined as it is today. I thought it was super interesting how we could tweak and play with experience to generate a different outcome from the user. 

So I did a couple of roles within the retail space, then I went freelance for around 5 years, taking my knowledge of UX and design to the wider market. I worked for some interesting places in this time including Channel 4, The Times, and some within fin-tech, and then I did a long stint of freelance with Rehab, helping them build Google and Facebook products, before going perm with them as their Head of Design and later Creative Director. I was with Rehab for 5 years, leading the team and pushing them more into the innovation space, before joining Wolff Olins. 

Can you tell us about an exciting digital project you have worked on to date? 

Back in 2017 when I first joined Rehab, a couple of us were toying with the idea of blockchain and what we could do with the technology, and one of the things we kept asking was: could we make a blockchain-enabled sneaker that a user could purchase on the blockchain, have ownership of on the blockchain, and then be able to trade and mash that sneaker with other users? 

So essentially, think Pokemon for sneakers, could we give each sneaker a DNA, both recessive  and progressive, and each time you mash and AirForce 1 with a Jordan 1, there are parts of the sneaker DNA that are recessive in that mashup and there are parts that come through, and it creates a brand new sneaker that you can then buy and sell and upgrade. 

We talked about this idea for 6 months or so and then contacted Nike, specifically Matthew Davis, who was Global Director of Brand Innovation at the time. We pushed this idea with them and explored concepts of how Nike could create these digital products and where they would be placed in the marketplace. For example, could your sneakers be placed in Fortnite, or could they be placed in space in games in general. This lead to Nike filing a patent in 2018, essentially patenting the idea of buying, selling and mashing sneakers with other sneakers digitally. 

Why was this particular project a favourite, upon reflection? 

I guess as it made me think more broadly about digital touchpoints, how digital spreads it tentacles all around us, how a touchpoint for a brand is not just a screen, it can be blockchain-enabled, or can be through other mediums like gaming - it made me think more broadly about brand experience as a whole. Also, we were helping Nike move into the frontier of the next 50 years of their brand ecosystem, we were on the precipice of the strategy of them moving into digital products, and it was an incredible place to be. 

In your opinion, what does strong brand experience look like? 

It’s something that puts the users first. Something that solves a problem or creates joy in someone’s life. A brand’s job is to enable that utility or that moment, and strong brand experiences have to put users first in order to do this. 

Why is brand experience important, now and in the future, more than ever? 

People’s expectations for brands are high and always increasing. Netflix, for example, set people’s expectations that you can get £5 billion of content for only £6.99 a month. That is a prime example of paying a little bit of money for a huge amount of return, and that expectation continues through the market and so people are consistently expecting more from brands as time goes on. There are so many options available to us now, so in order to hold user attention and maintain a sustainable business model, brands have to provide optimum user experience and top tier service that is constantly evolving to meet their needs. 

What are your favourite digital design software tools, and why? 

I am a big advocate for Figma, it’s a wonderful tool for both collaboration, file organisation, transparency on projects and handover to client. It’s the perfect balance for craft and collaboration. Having said that, I also love using pen and paper - old school! 

What advice would you give to someone looking to get into digital design? 

Try and think of ‘digital’ as an ecosystem of touchpoints, rather than just a screen - Take a step back and think: what is the rest of the ecosystem for that digital platform? What other experiences are the user going to encounter as well as this digital touchpoint? Step back from the designs and think broader.

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