A Designer’s Ghost Protocol
Jan Chipchase travels light. But after touching down in Myanmar in late 2015, Chipchase—whose design consulting company was doing field research on how rice farmers use their smartphones—decided he was still overburdened. So he headed to a local market and had his head shaved. “I believe I can do the best research by stripping myself down,” he says.
Everything about Studio D Radiodurans, which Chipchase founded in 2014, is stripped-down. It has no permanent offices and no full-time staff. Its website mentions few clients or specific services, but case studies and social media posts hint at the scope of its practice: dispatches from monthslong expeditions to places such as Somalia and Tajikistan; photographs of dirt roads and remote airstrips; references to unnamed global clients who demand “keeping relationships discreet.” If Chipchase weren’t design world royalty, the whole thing might come off like viral marketing for a Jason Bourne movie.
Before starting Studio D, Chipchase was executive director of global insights at Frog Design, the San Francisco consulting company famed for its work with Apple founder Steve Jobs. Frog hired Chipchase in 2010 from Nokia, where he spent a decade as a globe-trotting usability researcher. Chipchase, who was born in the U.K., was initially stationed at a Nokia research center in Tokyo. He soon realized, he says, “that the kinds of questions they were asking”—about how culture and context affect where, when, and why people use their mobile phones—“couldn’t be answered in a lab.”
Over coffee during a rare extended stint in his home base of San Francisco, Chipchase describes Studio D’s approach. “The art form,” he says, “is being able to look at this street scene”—he gestures toward Divisadero Street—“and pinpoint the three things that matter to your business and create an argument, with all the supporting evidence, for why those three things may grow or kill your business in the next 5 to 10 years.”
To gather that evidence, Studio D conducts field research, often in the form of pop-up studios where small teams of designers and fixers spend weeks or months interacting with locals and documenting their behavior. This ethnographic approach has become an important concept in corporate strategy over the past decade. Xerox employed an ethnographer as early as 1979 to document the habits of accounting clerks and now uses them to study why office workers still print out things. In 2014, Adobe Systems hired anthropologist Charles Pearson to observe how customers use Photoshop; his findings inspired a pared-down version of the software for mobile app designers.
Chipchase’s studio, named after a hardy species of bacteria, caters to businesses that want to understand markets whose geography or culture make them inhospitable to standard research. In 2015 a Studio D crew embedded in Riyadh gathered intel for Saudi Telecom (STC) on “what it means to be a ‘Saudi youth.’ ” STC used the findings to develop Jawwy, a youth-targeted mobile brand that lets millennials in the kingdom assemble a la carte data plans. That same year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sent Studio D to Somaliland to investigate adoption of mobile money services, which allow people without bank accounts to send and receive funds. That followed the Myanmar job, for which Studio D produced a report on the nation’s rice-production pipeline for the University of California at Irvine’s Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion. “I’ve not met another agency specializing in this kind of work,” says Mark Rolston, Chipchase’s boss at Frog, who now runs Argodesign in Austin. “I think he has a lock on it.”
Chipchase says he started Studio D after becoming frustrated with the bloated cost structures and distorted priorities at big-name design studios. He describes his alternative as “a laptop, connectivity, a pool of relationships, and some bare walls to stick stuff up on.” Studio D’s minimal overhead is a selling point, says Lauren Serota, who works as Studio D’s design director on a per-project basis. “We’re never in a position where we’re charging a significant percentage on top of our fees to cover administrative costs,” she says. “Our relationships are really strong, because our clients feel like they’re getting a tremendous value.” Which isn’t to say Studio D tries to undercut its competitors on price: “We charge similar amounts” as firms such as Frog and IDEO, Chipchase says.
Even though the destinations are exotic, the work isn’t glamorous. “There are bugs everywhere, the power keeps going out, and you’re covered in sweat,” says Craig Mod, a designer who worked with Studio D in Myanmar. Chipchase requires team members to hew to “a very strict rubric of do’s and don’ts,” Mod says, especially regarding photography. When concluding a session of fieldwork, researchers hand over their cameras and tell their subjects they may delete whatever material they wish. “That emphasis on respect and gratitude results in better insights,” he says.
Studio D’s method has also led to a line of rugged duffels and pouches. The $720 1M Hauly Heist is ideal for toting around “$1 million in used bank notes while minimising the risk of radio frequency tracking,” according to the description on the website of SDR Traveller, Studio’s D’s sister company. “We just design stuff for dealing with our world,” Chipchase says. “We have to pay people, and there often aren’t ATMs.”
Nondisclosure agreements are standard in design consulting, but Chipchase says he has other reasons for guarding his privacy (he wouldn’t consent to being photographed for this story) and that of his clients. “If I told you that I work for Company X, I could be at a border crossing three years from now and someone will say, ‘Oh, you work for X,’ ” he says—a preconception that could hamper his team’s ability to establish trust in the field.
When Jawwy won a Middle Eastern branding award in 2016, a press release touted the carrier’s collaboration with Frog and Lippincott, another leading global design firm. Studio D wasn’t mentioned, but that’s how Chipchase prefers it. “Of course, maybe five people on the planet will ever have to carry a million dollars around in a bag,” he says. “But there is a world where that is important. And if people do a bit of digging, they realize that actually, there is a company that does this shit—and that’s us.”
The bottom line: After honing his ethnographic method at Nokia and Frog, Jan Chipchase is running his own small, itinerant design studio.