The Best Way to Have Good Ideas is to Have a Lot of Ideas

Q&A with Nate Clinton, Managing Director at Cooper

Nate is the Managing Director at Cooper’s San Francisco office. In his role, he blends the decisiveness and collaborative skills of a product manager with the acumen of an economist to build bridges with people and organizations. Equal parts teacher and student, Nate leads initiatives in content creation, business development, and creative leadership. At Cooper, he helped United Airlines find new ways to reward loyal customers, led an effort at GE Healthcare to create a strategy for the international expansion of a key product line, and designed solutions for workplace collaboration, delivering technology to schools, and the future of the connected kitchen. Before Cooper, Nate led design and product management at BuildZoom, and was a Director of Product Management at Thomson Reuters. In his spare time, Nate plays piano, searches for amazing meals, and knows how to bake a mean english muffin.

He will be speaking at Uncharted Minds: Beyond the Button, Design for Conversational User Interfaces on May 24th. Click here to get 20% off tickets to the event.

Q. When you were growing up, were you always interested in design?

A. I grew up in Cairo, Egypt, a place that was both my home and foreign at the same time. I developed an appreciation for the feeling of being an outsider and also seeing things from other perspectives. But I had no idea that “design” existed when I was growing up. Like most people, I never really considered where things in the world came from — they just appeared.

Q. What were some early influences on your career choice?

A. After a stint doing research at the Fed in Washington DC, in 2005 I bought a VW bus and painted it and drove it across the country to San Francisco. I had studied economics and computer science but knew nothing at all about creating software. I took at job as a QA engineer at a fintech startup called StarMine, and quickly realized that the product managers were making all the fun decisions. So I asked one of them how to become a product manager. One of my first tasks was to read Alan Cooper’s “About Face” and start applying that thinking to StarMine’s product line. Mentors creating opportunities for me has been instrumental to my career.

Q. What did you study in college?

A. I studied economics and mathematics, with a minor in computer science.

Q. What did your parents do?

A. School librarian and college counselor.

Q. Tell me about your first design job.

A. My first design job was at StarMine, where the product managers were expected to design the product (design as a profession was still in its adolescence). We didn’t call ourselves designers, but we created mockups and specifications and interviewed users. Excel was our design tool of choice, if you can believe it: it had a built-in grid system! The product was not very beautiful, unfortunately, but it worked, and created a lot of value for users.

Q. What were some early lessons that shaped your approach to creativity and design?

A. One lesson I learned early was that the best way to have good ideas is to have a lot of ideas. The big myths about creativity are that it is a solo activity, and that it happens quickly. I watched the movie “Amadeus” a bunch of times when I was a kid, and I had this false notion that creative solutions just spring out of solo genius minds fully formed. The truth is that design is a team sport.

Q. Tell me about your role with Cooper.

A. I lead Cooper’s San Francisco design studio, from recruiting to new client development to project leadership. It’s a group of incredibly talented people, and it’s a privilege to work with each of them.

Q. What do you do for inspiration? How do you generate ideas and stay inspired?

A. My main inspiration comes from words and sounds: I have what you might call a reading “ritual” or cycle — it takes me from current events to broader cultural and economic trends to literature, and back again. I listen to Garrison Keeler’s “Writer’s Almanac” in the morning: a daily dose of poetry. I play my piano in the evenings, and sing to my son. These things both activate and relieve the stress on my brain, and they keep me motivated.

Q. What career advice would you give to young people today?

A. The first piece of advice I usually give is: start doing the thing you love to do, and don’t wait for someone to give you permission (for example, permission in the form of a job title). If design is what you love, but your job title is something else, go learn about design tools and techniques and start applying them to whatever job you have. My first job title was “Research Assistant” in a group of economists in the federal government, but it was my job to create presentations for Alan Greenspan. Presto: communication design. Information design. I read Tufte. I hacked the presentation software to give me more colors and better charting tools. I became adept at visual storytelling. And so on.

My second piece of advice is never (ever) make a career decision based on salary. You will become accustomed to a higher or lower salary in about two months, but on the first day of the third month you still have to love going to do your job. More than half of my career transitions have involved taking a lower salary to do something I enjoy, and I’ve always been happier and more successful than when I let money drive a decision.

Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of being a creative leader?

A. The most challenging aspect is pushing forward in the face of uncertainty. It’s hard to do because it’s risky — clients and stakeholders depend on results, and sometimes creative projects go in an unexpected direction. Another way of saying this is the hard part is to continually manage expectations.

Q. What’s your favorite aspect of being a creative leader?

A. Seeing what people come up with. In many ways, my job is to provide the space and time to let design happen — I never stop being delighted by the incredible things that my colleagues invent out of thin air, with hardly a prompt. “Let’s find a way to tell this story” becomes a comic book. “How do we socialize this idea?” becomes a game. “We should explore that opportunity” becomes a sweet prototype. The joy of creation is all around me, every day.