VISIONARY ENTREPRENEUR AND DESIGNER.
Debbie: Clement Mok has had an incredibly eclectic career. From his early days as a technology pioneer, to today's totally digital companies employing thousands. Clement has staked out a role as a visionary entrepreneur and designer. Today he's the reason phrases such as experience design, information design, information architecture, interaction design, strategic design, interface design and customer experience are part of our lexicon. In the early '80s, just a few years out of art school, Mok took a job at Apple computer.
As the creative director, he designed all aspects of the Mac experience, from packaging to manuals, and helped to develop the simple, friendly sensibility of the Mac that persists to this day. In 1988, Mark left Apple to create his own firm, and went on to found several successful design related businesses, which we're going to talk all about now. Clement Mok, welcome to Design Matters.
Clement: Thank you Debbie.
Debbie: So I read an article where you stated that from the time you were very young, you knew that you wanted to do something creative and there was really no other alternative for you.
Clement: I want to be an architect and I would take sheets, bed sheets, and I would build these connected spaces between my bedroom, into my brother's bedroom and then into the bathroom. It was a lot of fun making things.
Debbie: So you trained as a graphic designer in the late '70s at ArtCenter College of Design in California, but immediately moved to New York city after you graduated?
Debbie: Why is that?
Clement: It was important to me to work with mentors and masters, and New York had a disproportionate number of masters.
Debbie: And you've worked for quite a few of them. You landed your first job at CBS' advertising and marketing department.
Debbie: Working not only for Lou Dorfsman, but also with Paula Scher. But that-
Clement: Well, Paula was in the building I guess [crosstalk 00:02:41].
Debbie: Okay. So she was in the building [crosstalk 00:02:43].
Debbie: But that was only after you attempted to get a job with Massimo Vignelli.
Debbie: So I want to know more about what happened with your interview with Massimo and how you ended up at CBS.
Clement: Yeah. Okay. When I got out of ArtCenter, the first person I called was RitaSue Siegel.
Debbie: So the headhunter, the famous headhunter.
Clement: The famous headache headhunter. I wasn't even 21 at that point. And of course I had this list of people that I want to see. And [inaudible 00:03:16] "Clement you're not going to see these people." So I think I took it upon myself to drop off my portfolio at Massimo's office. And at that point in the '80s, Massimo would not see anybody. And I guess I had dropped off the portfolio in the morning. At the end of the day when I picked up my portfolio, Massimo wanted to see me.
Clement: Yeah. I was just floored. And actually sat down in his office and Massimo [inaudible 00:03:48] "Why don't you open a firm. You're good enough." And I was like, "No Massimo. I need to learn from masters like you." Massimo was like at that point, he there wasn't even ... Michael Bierut was at Massimo's office at that point and he referred me to see my Michael Donovan and Nancy Green.
Debbie: So you worked at CBS for a little over six months and then found yourself suddenly back in a position to go and work for Michael Donovan and Nancy Green. How did that come about? How did that full circle happen?
Clement: I just sort of looked at where I was, here I was six months and I really didn't feel like my potential was tapped and I wasn't doing the kind of work that I thought I would be doing. So I called up Michael Donovan and said, "Michael, remember the phone call that you got from Massimo about a young designer?" And I got hired.
Debbie: Were you worried at that time that being at CBS for such a short amount of time would have represented something negative on your resume?
Clement: There was that fear. Certainly, but I think the fact that I started at CBS in 1980, and then I leaped into the position in may in '81, I could create-
Clement: Yeah, I could fudge a bit.
Debbie: Now I read that when you were working for Michael and Nancy, that you said that working in a studio environment like theirs, altered your perspective and opened your eyes to the different arenas of design you could be involved with, and no longer felt constrained or pigeonholed as any one type of designer. How did they do that for you?
Clement: What sold me on Michael and Nancy and what they were doing was this notion that they were not doing a graphic design, they were doing an exhibit design. They were also doing multi-image shows. So, not only did it give me a diversity, but an eye that, "Oh, you can actually cross different medium." You can go from print to do multi-image shows, to do exhibits that sort of extension of an idea and how you can apply that across different things.
Debbie: It seems like the experience allowed you in some ways to realize that you didn't really have to be a subject expert, but that this way of design thinking, was a way of solving problems to any kind of endeavor.
Clement: Yeah. It was it really about asking questions and asking the right questions and not be afraid that you don't know that you don't know.
Debbie: I think that becoming a protege of sorts in a design studio for extremely worldly designers is an invaluable lesson for any designer, almost at any age.
Debbie: Now, is it true that you went on vacation? You went on a vacation while at Donovan Green, and while on vacation in California, were offered a job at Apple Computer?
Debbie: Okay. So you go on vacation. You're like, "Laddy Doug going back to California." Bump init to somebody, it's like, "Hey, I'm working at this really cool computer company. Want to come work there?"
Clement: No, it wasn't quite like that. Do you want to come down and see me? I've got ... It's a company called Apple and at that point it was Commodore Atari the same, Jeff [inaudible 00:07:24].
Debbie: And you thought that they were like in another Atari Commodore kind of a-
Clement: Video game company and I had no clue. And I went down thinking that ... Since these companies were in the news for having, instead of out of the ordinary working environment that they have two spas and video games and what have you. So I was just, "Okay that'll be fun to go check it out."
Debbie: But you turn them down. You turn down a job at Apple.
Clement: Yeah. I sort of went down there, they gave me a job offer and I'm saying, "Oh God, I mean Cupertino? I'm pleased. [inaudible 00:08:00] I've been very snobbish about not being in New York. And it really wasn't until coming back to New York, having lunch with my friends, and it was my friend who told me, "The founder of this company, wasn't he on the front cover of Time Magazine?" And I said, "All right look, I've got to go check this out." It was only maybe two or three months out, so I was able to find an old copy of it at the library, and sure enough. And I found out it was Apple Computer, this guy's on the front cover of Time Magazine, and there was this thing called personal computers and I was like, "Okay."
I want to work for someone that [inaudible 00:08:46] can learning from someone who made a name of himself doing something really different.
Debbie: So when you called them back and asked if the job was still available, you had a criteria that included working directly with Steve Jobs?
Clement: I did. I called Tom Suiter back. Tom Suiter-
Debbie: Tom Suiter was the creative director?
Clement: Yeah. And I was very insistent at Tom, "I want to work with Steve Jobs."
Debbie: You were 24 years old. Steve Jobs was only three years older.
Debbie: And you went there actually thinking that you didn't think that he would teach you anything about design.
Clement: Well, I didn't think he would teach me anything about design because he was not a design master. No one knew he was a design master at that point. He was just an engineer wearing t-shirts and scruffy jeans, really bad wardrobe.
Debbie: This I guess was before the turtle necks.
Clement: Before the turtle neck.
Debbie: So what was it like working for Steve Jobs? There's the big question? What was it like?
Clement: Steve is every bit as mercurial as the media have portrayed him in the press, as well as in the books. He has a very definite point of view of what he wants and what he sees and we basically have to draw it out of his head. He has an a thousand ideas, not all of them good. And when he is fixated on one idea, you have to convince him why it's right or wrong, and if you can't do that, then you're not right.
Debbie: Were you ever able to convince him that something that you thought was right and he thought was wrong was actually right?
Clement: That took a year and a half before I got there.
Debbie: Well, that's not that long in the grand scheme of things, given what I've read.
Clement: [crosstalk 00:10:45] right. But it also was a change in my mind as to how to approach explaining and defending my ideas. I think the first three months, we did Tom Hughes and myself into anything right. We were called bozos. We were incompetent. There was nothing that we did that was up to his standards.
Debbie: Did you think that you were a failure? Did you think that you'd ever get to a place where you were no longer a bozo? Or did you believe that you actually were or weren't a bozo?
Clement: No, I think you start after three months, you actually have self doubts. He is after all the chairman and CEO of the company and has his idea and so, after three months we were banging our heads, 15 rounds, 16 rounds of comps and I think Tom Hughes finally said, "Steve, we can't do a guessing game every time we come in." So we need to have a better idea what you think is great design. And I don't remember which portfolio exactly, but I do remember Milton's portfolio, Woody Padal's portfolio. And I think it was Ivan Chamia's portfolio and lay that out and ask Steve, "Are these great designs?"
And see [inaudible 00:12:22] nah.
Clement: Nah, yeah. Really
Debbie: Three of the most accomplished designers working then and now.
Clement: Yeah and Steve turned to us and said, "Well why do you think these are great?" And then we started talking to him about the quality of the work, craftsman ships, insight and all the attributes that we thought were great design. And he's basically say, "Yeah, Clement. Yeah." But, what I think great design is, and I was like, "Okay, well waiting." It was The Beatles.
Clement: So we were just okay, stunned that it was just out of left field. And then he set a pause and thought about it and said, "It's not the late Beatles, it's the early Beatles." Okay. So we were just waiting and trying to understand what about this particular period of The Beatles that has anything to do with design. And he said, "Well, it's the raw energy, the verb, the vibrancy of their music. That should be the characteristics and the expression of what the Mac is." And that these were true artist. So, that was what he thought great design was.
Debbie: Did you agree with him?
Clement: We were puzzled.
Debbie: See, it's funny because I would've thought he would've said the late Beatles, mostly because of the artistic experimentation, but I guess he was looking more for the, as you said, the energy.
Debbie: How did you ... Like how-
Clement: What was the intensity? And then I think there was also another meeting where he kept referencing the restaurant Chao in San Francisco and was like, "Well, what about this restaurant? Is it Italian restaurant, but what part of this that is just sort of appropriate for the Macintosh?" It's the feeling of the space and I said, "For real? Okay. So we did go to Chao, looked at what was there and it was a white tile environment, and it was a script, very casual scripted logo Chao. That was it. And that was what he felt appropriate.
Debbie: Did you understand that? Did you agree with him?
Clement: Absolutely not. No idea. Absolutely. No. And I think we spent a good couple of months mimicking trying different combinations of all the different white background, scripted logos, but we really didn't quite understand the thought that technology is an art form. And I think it was Tom Hughes who picked up on this when he was working on a script and hearing Steve Jobs talking about engineers and programmers, are artisans. And that at that point, I said, "Okay. So we're really talking about technology as a form of art and it needs to be expressed as a form of art."
Debbie: After the year and a half that it took for you to gain Steve's respect. What was the sort of tipping point moment where in that occurred? What happened that suddenly gave him pause about your real talent?
Clement: It's a love-hate relationship and I think many people who have worked with Steve have that experience. So you do respect the fact that he pushed you to the point that you just sort of go ... you do your best work for him, but it really was not until I got off that the Macintosh team and I had a chance to be on my own and working on Apple's annual report for 1984. And at that point I was basically, I was, "Do you know, I'm not going to please Steve, I'm going to do what's right." Because I was not under the Mac division, so in a lot of ways, I actually have a little bit more wriggle room in terms of what I can do and can not do.
And I came to the realization and I think watching how other people got their ideas through is just that it'd become, be very sure that it was a right idea and that you believe in your heart of heart it's the right solution and you tell him why. And he could see that, if you're a very firm in your belief and that this was the right solution, he'll let it go. And having that experience and going through the approval process with Steve on the annual report, and I was like, "Oh, it doesn't have to be so difficult in guessing what's in Steve's head." It's just that you have to be very passionate and convinced that you are doing the right thing.
Debbie: You've said that working at Apple was very much a post-graduate course in marketing and business for you.
Debbie: And that it tested your beliefs about what's good and what's bad.
Debbie: How did it help you form your beliefs about what was good and what was bad?
Clement: The notion what's good is, is relative to what you know. And since it is a new category, new marketplace, you actually get to set your own rules. So if you're first to market and you're first in the category, you get to define the rules of the game. And I think in a lot of ways, that really shaped how I would look at a problem and can we reshape the conversation, reframe the conversation in such a way that we can be setting new standards and setting new rules.
Debbie: I read an interview where you talked about what you learned from Steve and you stated, "I now know that Steve taught me how to design an idea." You design the inside, the outside and everything around, and God willing, you design what's being said about it.
Debbie: When Steve Jobs used the word design, he was advocating the whole user or brand experience, everything from the hardware, software, communication, advertising and user experience design. He was years ahead and thinking about how design should be, and in the process convinced those of us who worked for him back then that we too could change the world. And you did Clement. You really did. Did you have any sense at the time that you were doing this?
Clement: Not initially. I think it really was after the launch and perhaps the first month after the post-launch, then just like, "Oh, this is kind of big."
Debbie: You think?
Clement: But at the same time, there was also a big let down at that point too. And the market took a little while to also really understand what the technology was all about. So I think if you go back to 1985, Apple had a very bad year. The sales was off and people absolutely thought the Macintosh was a toy. And I think looking back that you realize, "Yeah, this was kind of big."
Debbie: So you worked at Apple from 1982 to 1988.
Debbie: And you worked on over 1000 projects while you were there and then you left to found your own firm. And I read that you said that starting your own business was about following your heart and how so? What did you hope to accomplish?
Clement: For me at least at that point in the late '80s, the most interesting things were really happening in software.
Debbie: When you were 30. When you started your own business.
Clement: Yes I did.
Debbie: Have you ever worried Clement? Have you ever been worried about your future or whether or not you were going to be successful?
Clement: Fear. Absolutely terrified, because I sold all of my Apple stock, bought my first laser writer and a Mac all on employee discount, and started my own firm in San Francisco.
Debbie: Three years after you opened the doors to Clement Mok Designs, you had already grown outgrown your space. You were a studio of over 20 people. How did you manage that kind of rapid growth?
Clement: It's called a shoe box. You move money from when box, the inbox to the outbox. [inaudible 00:21:03] boy manage would be too polite of a word.
Debbie: And you changed the name of the company from Clement Mok Designs to Studio Archetype.
Clement: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Debbie: From what I understand within a year of your doing that, your head count had grown to more than 100 and your revenues to more than 20 million.
Clement: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Debbie: What made you decide to change the name and what catapulted you into that stratosphere?
Clement: Having seen what had happened with the Mac, being the first player out there doing the first thing you get to set the bar. And that was great. And I think as a result I was very addictive to doing new software company and new startup companies.
Debbie: I actually remember the day that I first heard about you selling your company to Sapient, because you suddenly weren't a designer anymore. You were an entrepreneur, and you were a successful entrepreneur in a space that very few designers were even working in, let alone understood. So you went from being the CEO of your own company, to being the chief creative officer of a brand new organization, merged organization.
Clement: An IT company in a management consulting company.
Clement: Absolutely. Yeah.
Debbie: What was that transition like for you?
Clement: Well, for me personally, it was an amazing learning experience, but it was pure hell for everyone who worked with me. There was a huge cultural clash between the left brainers and the right brainers of these two companies. And we missed that when we did due diligence.
Debbie: Well that's also very typical of any type of acquisition. The cultural part is the hardest part and there really aren't a lot of manuals out there for how to survive-
Clement: Absolutely not.
Debbie: ... or navigate that type of situation. How long did you stay at Sapient?
Clement: Till 2001.
Debbie: So you took it all the way through the internet bubble?
Debbie: Now, actually this is funny. I read that after Sapient and during the period of the post-internet bubble, you decided you needed to rest and wanted to do something to ground yourself. So you went and became the president of AIGA, the largest professional organization of design in the world. That was a big job to take as a period of grounding yourself.
Clement: AIGA at that point was an organization and that continues to be an organization in transition, and having been involved with a company like Sapient and dealing with culture and change, designers working with technology and the challenges in the three years that I was with that company, I learned a great deal about change management. I said, I wonder if I can shift that learning and trying to draw that out and model that for AIGA as an organization.
Debbie: Well, you also created a number of other businesses at that time, CMCD, which is a stock photography company in net objects, which it's hard for me to explain what it is, but I guess the best way to describe would be a web authoring application?
Clement: Yeah. The way that we looked at it, and then initially when we started the NetObjects was PageMaker for the web.
Debbie: So you're a bit of a serial entrepreneur,
Clement: Parallel serial entrepreneur.
Debbie: So you're now a partner in Sugarfish, which is the collaboration of Kazunori Nozawa, legendary owner of Sushi Nozawa, as well as the technology and new media entrepreneur, Jerry Greenberg, who is also the co-founder of Sapient.
Debbie: So your sort of life has come full circle in many ways.
Debbie: How do you go about creating a brand for a restaurant?
Clement: The goals were pretty audacious.
Debbie: What were the goals?
Clement: Changing the way, how Americans think about sushi. And I think most people think about sushi as the things that you can get out of the supermarket.
Debbie: Cellophane wrapped.
Clement: Cellophane wrapped.
Debbie: Nori wraps.
Clement: Yeah. Or the things that have cream cheese in there and ...
Debbie: Fake crappy.
Clement: Yeah. All of that stuff. And Chef Nozawa was one of the few chefs in the US that brought this notion of traditional sushi, where the chef dictates what you have. You don't get an option to order what you like. No one showed up at his place for good number of months.
Debbie: How did he manage to survive?
Clement: Stubbornness, and sort of this notion that what he's doing is the right thing. And it's the integrity and the principles of serving the fish the right way and having respect for the food. So, in the interim 40 years, he had developed a cult following in Los Angeles, and he was known as the sushi Nazi in Los Angeles. He's been known to kick out celebrities and people who are just being rude and disrespectful in the restaurant. So we want to take that as a brand attribute, and repackage it in a user-friendly version, and it's really taking his style of sushi, with a softer touch in terms of the user experience, and create the entire experience around eating fish as an experience.
Debbie: So it's really bringing together all of your talents over your entire career?
Clement: A little bit of all of the above, yeah.
Debbie: One of the really extraordinary things about your career is how you have built from one thing to another these successful entrepreneurial, creative endeavors.
Clement: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Debbie: What do you foresee coming next?
Clement: Follow your heart. Follow my heart.
Debbie: Clement your legacy has changed the way we practice and understand design. Thank you for being on Design Matters.
Clement: Thank you.
Debbie: To learn more about Clement Mok, and to watch a Ted Talk, visit Clementmok.com. I'd like to thank you for listening, and remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.