Mardis & Phnam Bagley, Creative Directors & Founding Partners, Nonfiction Design (San Francisco, CA)
Mardis and Phnam Bagley are Creative Directors and Founding Partners at Nonfiction Design, a company that started originally as an industrial design firm but morphed into a future-focused studio. The studio works with startups, Fortune 500 companies, and governments to solve huge, complex problems and “change the world for the better.”
Phnam says all of their clients are long term and come to them “to solve huge problems about the future of education . . . living on Mars . . . food . . . neuroscience.”. The studio strategizes with a lot of these leaders in innovation, technology, and science to help them get their products “into the hands of people that need them.” The studio pushes clients “into extremes” to solve technical, experiential, and design problems “through ergonomics, through human factors, through thinking about behavior change.”
Mardis explains one of the challenges of this work – that people have to “fight the biases of the past.” A recent project was with Movida, the School of Lifelong Learning, which wanted to rethink the future of education. Nonfiction set up two teams, one that dug into white papers from the past, and the other, a group of creatives unexposed to this data, that freely brainstormed the future of education. In the end, both groups came to the same conclusion . . . but the creatives had actionable solutions for moving forward.
What did this exploratory discover about education? In this interview, Phnam outlines a few conclusions – one, that children would benefit from letting them “be and stay absurd.” She says, “Not everything in life needs to make sense, needs to be efficient.” She adds that life would be better if we sometimes spent time “doing things that don’t make any sense.” She believes today’s society schedules too much of children’s time. Teens, especially, need “time to rest physically, to rest the brain, to talk to other people, and to be bored” in order to grow to be healthy adults.
Mardis says, “Developing a solution that’s completely individual to the client’s needs is really, really important to how we conduct business and how we keep satisfied clients.” With an eye to the future, the studio has started working on a “more circular economy model,” where design not only takes into consideration recycling, but also repair and remanufacturing.
The Nonfiction Studio team is diverse . . . from “many different cultures, many different countries.” Mardis, with a background in industrial engineering and branding, says they don’t look much at résumés or portfolios. Phnam, an industrial engineer with a master’s degree in (aero)space architecture, says the studio hires people “because they have something very interesting, and most likely that thing has to do with their past – what kind of career they’ve been through, what kind of country they come from, what kind of past they’ve had.”
The husband-wife team presented “Designing the Future of Everything” at South by Southwest 2022 two times due to demand. Mardis, Phnam, and Nonfiction are available on Twitter and post future of design videos on Instagram.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Mardis and Phnam Bagley, Creative Directors and Founding Partners at Nonfiction Design based in San Francisco, California.
We have a special two-guest episode because we had two speakers and they like to spend time with each other. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Nonfiction Design, and what is your superpower?
PHNAM: Sure. Phnam here. I’m the wife of the Bagley duo. Nonfiction is a design firm based in San Francisco. Originally it was started as an industrial design firm because that’s both of our backgrounds, and it turned into this future-focused studio where companies from startups all the way to Fortune 500 companies to governments come to us to solve huge problems about the future.
When we say huge problems, we’re talking about education, we’re talking about living on Mars, we’re talking about future of food, and we’re talking about neuroscience. This is what we do.
ROB: That sounds like a wide range of things to solve. How do you go about knowing how to solve all these things?
PHNAM: We are an extremely curious group of people. There is not one subject in the world that we don’t want to tackle because, in the end, what we want to do is change the world for the better. Impact is really at the core of everything that we do, whether it’s thinking about the future of future humans or what we need today in the medical industry. That’s what drives us. That gives us the motivation to work and make other people’s lives better.
But also creating the foundation of a future that we want to live in, because when you look at the news, for example, a lot of things are not going according to plan. And I believe, and we believe, that designers have the power to change that. That’s why we started this company.
ROB: Is there an example, maybe, of a future that you have had to recently think through? And what did you think about it?
MARDIS: Hi, this is Mardis Bagley. Great question. I think one of the things we like to do is shake up the status quo. When we’re thinking about futures, we often have to fight the biases of the past. Stepping out of this entrenched thinking. One of the projects we worked on recently is called Movida, the School of Lifelong Learning. Thinking and rethinking education is a very, very complex problem.
One of the things we did right off is we said that we don’t want to step too deep into research and repeat all the past, or even bias ourselves in thinking about the opportunity of the future. So, as we do this, we’re a number of creatives from all over the planet; we’re a very diverse studio of men, women, many different cultures, many different countries. But we all have some sort of experience. We have a certain amount of intuition. We all have been through school on many different levels. How do we redesign education in the way we think?
What we did is we started designing it straight out of the gate. We pushed research to the side, which sounds kind of crazy. We totally avoided research in redesigning this school and this education system, and we came up with these really unique ideas about how to approach school and expand the minds of young children in a way that spoke to their wellbeing. It spoke to future generations. When we’re talking about designing education, we can’t design education for jobs that we don’t yet know what they’re going to be or the technologies that are going to empower them using the thinking of education that is well over 100 years old in the process.
While we’re doing this wild ride of creativity and exploration on one side, we had a secondary research track talking to leaders in education from MIT and Stanford. But we never let them talk to our creatives on the other side. We let them have independent paths as they explored forward.
What happened is after a few months, we ended up at the same exact location in terms of knowledge, in terms of understanding education, and how to break the norms – except for we were reading whitepapers that are decades old on one side, and on the other side is purely months of creativity. We got to the same exact location except for the creatives came out with solutions that are actionable, solutions that are ready to change young people’s lives.
ROB: It might have even been hard to get to those solutions starting from the whitepapers, right? You started from another place and maybe even went some places you would never go. Part of brainstorming sometimes is proposing the impossible, the inappropriate, the unacceptable, but then bringing it back in bounds. So, what’s a solution that we didn’t know to a problem?
PHNAM: Letting children be and stay absurd. The fact that not everything in life needs to make sense, needs to be efficient, and sometimes spend your time doing things that don’t make any sense. That’s part of being a child. So, reintroducing that in the way you interact with yourself, you interact with others, and you interact with the architecture of a school – that’s what we wanted to bring in there. There are certain aspects of the school that don’t really have a means. So that’s very much part of it.
Another thing is that when you look at the schedule of children today, it’s a lot of going to school and going to after-school, activity, activity, activity. Their schedule is packed, and their parents are just driving them from one place to another. Really spending the time to rest physically, to rest the brain, to talk to other people, and to be bored – that’s very much part of human evolution. It’s a need that we have that we’ve taken away with all the screens and all the activity. We want to integrate it back into the lives of the kids so they grow up to be healthy adults.
ROB: Are they allowed to be lazy at the same time, or can they do that at different times? Because structured lazy time seems like it would still be kind of in the pattern, but somebody’s going to go crazy thinking about letting each kid be lazy when they want to. How do you pull it off?
PHNAM: Laziness is something that we know of. We call it laziness, but really it has a lot to do with physiological changes – in teenagers, for example. When you grow, you actually need to sleep more. You actually have to rest more. We’ve been forcing a schedule that’s extremely unnatural onto growing young adults, and that’s not really working. What that does is teaches humans to learn how to read their own body and to give their body what they need. That’s very much part of growing up and learning about the world.
ROB: I think adults could learn that, too. We still need to learn how to accept that permission.
I’ve done the audience a disservice; I’ve failed to mention why you have a loud fan club behind you. The reason is that we are live at South by Southwest at the interactive portion of the conference, primarily, this big old festival of people getting together in Austin, Texas for the first time in three years. You both are here to present a session. You presented it twice. What people don’t know if they have an event is you sign up for the session, and if it gets a lot of popularity, they schedule you for it again. So, you presented this twice because probably some combination of reputation, a good sizzling headline and summary, a following, and all these things.
Your session was “Designing the Future of Everything.” What content, what frameworks, what ways of thinking – or was it more examples? What did you share with the audience? What did you want them to take away?
MARDIS: I would say that at the foundation of our company, we like to say we turn science fiction into reality for a better future. If you step back and start to ask yourself what does that really mean, we as a company, Nonfiction, work with a lot of leaders in innovation and technology, technologists themselves, scientists. Oftentimes these technologies have a hard time getting out of the laboratory. They have a hard time getting into consumers’ hands, into the hands of people that need them. We come in and make these technologies available to people through ergonomics, through human factors, through thinking about behavior change.
Very much so, as the title suggests, we do it for everything from medical devices to consumer devices. We work in aerospace and we work on-planet and off-planet. Recently, we’re happy to say that we won first place in the Deep Space Food Challenge with NASA as well as the Canadian Space Agency.
MARDIS: Yeah, that’s very exciting. We’re building things that will hopefully leave planet and make future astronauts’ lives better as they travel two and a half, three years into space to Mars.
ROB: What’s needed differently on that three-year journey? What did you have to design for in that context?
MARDIS: I’ll let my partner, the outer space architect, answer that one.
ROB: I like that job title, too. Wow.
PHNAM: Yeah. I actually went to school for that. It surprises a lot of people. 15 years ago, I got a master’s degree in space architecture from the University of Houston. Back then, space architecture was very based on systems engineering, like what volume is necessary to help astronauts survive in space? But when you look at space today in 2022 with the SpaceX and Blue Origins of the world, it becomes clear that people like us are going to be part of the space industry in the future, whether as tourists or as people going to work up there.
The reason why it’s so important for designers and architects and creatives to be part of all of this is because we understand humans. We know how to ask the right questions and to turn these answers into solutions that actually mean something to humans. So far, we’ve been designing space interiors very much like spaces for survival. When you look up the ISS right now, it’s not really a place you want to hang out in.
So really thinking about making space more human is one of the models that we go after. We want to invite more designers, more architects, more creatives, more artists to really help us with that change. It does take a lot of disciplines to design for space because not everything works the same way. Here on Earth, opening a door is like you put your hand on it, you turn the knob and you’re done. Up in space you have to hold on to something else; otherwise you’re going to be pushed back. You have to think about food the same way – eating – what can be sent there, what can be safe to eat, what can protect you from cosmic radiation and things like that.
What is the long-term effect of microgravity on your body? There’s been the famous twin project, Mark and Scott Kelly. One of the twins went up to space and one stayed on Earth, and we saw the difference physiologically and psychologically, what’s been happening between the two. So, based on that type of knowledge, how do we design better interiors and better products and better medical support for us to see ourselves in space?
ROB: That seems like it must’ve had so many constraints to it, but also some constraints that maybe weren’t actual – that you were told were constraints but weren’t. What did you find was a constraint that helped you be creative and get to an unexpected solution? And what was something you were told you couldn’t do that you found out you actually could? Was there anything like that?
PHNAM: We believe that without constraint you can’t design. You’re just going to come up with something that –
ROB: “Let’s just put a five-bedroom house in space and call it good, we’re all happy,” right? It doesn’t work that way.
PHNAM: The constraint is space, of course. If it doesn’t fit in the payload area of a rocket, as of today we can’t bring it up. One thing that’s very different between designing for space and designing for Earth is weight. When we design something for Earth, weight is limited by shipping. In space, weight is money. I think it was in 1981, bringing a kilogram of mass up in low Earth orbit was like $81,000 or something. Now it’s less than $2,000, depending on what it is. So yeah, we have to think about things like this even before we design anything.
ROB: Let’s rewind a little bit. Where did this whole thing start? What made you all decide to bring Nonfiction Design into existence rather than just having a job?
MARDIS: Well, Nonfiction has been around for six years. Phnam and I have been in the industrial design industry for well over 16 years now. I’ve had a previous career in branding, and Phnam in aerospace as well. But what really brought it into existence is we were contracting, working in many different agencies over the years – all the big names you might recognize. We felt like there was a culture, there was a style of working that maybe could be refined. And I’m probably being kind. [laughs] We just felt like we could do it better, or at least let’s say different. We felt so compelled to give it a try.
Some of the things that we wanted to fight against is we didn’t see enough diversity or inclusion. I mentioned that earlier. We have a very diverse crew, and that’s part of our secret sauce – listening to everybody, being very inclusive. But also breaking away from the norms of what we call industrial design now. It’s not just shape development or form development. That is part of it, making beautiful things, but we’re well beyond that. We’re into user interactions. We’re into designing for impact.
We put a lot of things on the planet. Our efforts put a lot of things in people’s hands, and many of them go to the landfill. It’s a very linear model. We’ve started doing a more circular economy model where we think about designing not only for recycling, but for repair and remanufacturing. We’re thinking about our impact and we’re thinking about that lifecycle of a product along the way, and how can we do less negative impact and more positive impact? Positive impact would be impacting the planet in maybe an upcycling way or a regenerative way, but also impacting people’s lives along the way.
ROB: How much of what you do is somebody coming to you knowing they want that whole package, and how much of it is them coming to you having seen something you did and they want one thing, and you have to bring them into the bigger picture?
PHNAM: A lot of our clients today come to us with a question. They’re like, “How do we solve this endemic problem?” Then we strategize together on how to solve that problem, whether it’s a hardware solution or a software solution or whatever. Then from there, we build this relationship. Every client we have is a long-term relationship. We push them into extremes.
One extreme is hypercreativity. They came to us as a design studio because they want us to show them what they can’t get themselves, number one. Number two is that we as a design firm are extremely technical. We’re not afraid of going very deep into the mechanical engineering, electrical, firmware, all that stuff because it’s necessary. We need to be part of the process. So really solving the technical problem at the same time as solving the experiential and the design problem is what we do well.
As we do that, we take the hand of the clients and show them how it’s done. We don’t have a recipe that we apply to all projects. That’s actually a question we get asked all the time, “What is your process?” We probably have a different process for every single client we have.
PHNAM: Because each of the clients has very specific needs in time and space and in industry, so we have to craft something very specific to each of them.
ROB: I heard you say that a little bit when you were talking about not wanting to look at the whitepapers when you’re designing a solution. It’s not your process is always to put blinders on and not look at what’s out there, but sometimes it is, and it depends somewhat on the solution.
It’s also an interesting positioning because a lot of creative services firms are out there – it’s almost like if you need some more of this work than you have capacity for, then go call these people. “I need somebody to do a little bit more paid marketing than I can do internally.” You all are positioned in a way where they probably don’t have the technical knowledge, and they are literally saying, “We don’t know what we don’t know. Please help us.”
How do you communicate that when everybody wants to put a services firm into a category? How do you help people find you when they don’t know the category they’re looking for, maybe? Or is there a word of like five companies like you, and everyone else is somewhere else, that they’re looking for?
PHNAM: It’s funny because I can’t really think of any company that does the things that we do at the level that we do it. That’s why we started this company: we saw that hole and we were like, “We can be that.”
MARDIS: Yeah. Getting back to the question you were asking earlier of – do we guide our clients or do they come to us with a very specific ask. I think we like to assist our clients in dreaming. Dreaming of something bigger than themselves. We have to shoot for the stars to land on the moon, right? Let’s go really far and allow them to dream, and then we’re really good at fulfilling that dream. We have a lot of resources in-house, but we also have really good partnerships. Developing a solution that’s completely individual to the client’s needs is really, really important to how we conduct business and how we keep satisfied clients.
ROB: How do you think about what to partner on versus what to cultivate as your own capability? What’s something you know you send out of house because it’s not your lane, but you need a steady partner for that kind of capability?
PHNAM: I think it depends on the scale of things. If you need just a little bit of touch-up on mechanical engineering, we can probably do this in-house. But if you need a whole program developing new mechanism and new testing and all of that, or very specialized knowledge in acoustics, for example, that’s when we tap into our network.
Another network that we have is in material science. None of us are material scientists, but we work a lot with materials. But when it comes to the science of it, the scalability of it, and the transparency behind the sustainable decisions that we make, we actually go to see scientists or a specialist of that kind. Over the years, throughout our career, we have built this amazing network of people who can pretty much answer everything we want. And if they don’t know it, they will know someone who knows. That’s very helpful.
ROB: That makes sense. Sometimes the fastest way to the solution is just saying out loud that you don’t know and throwing it out into the world and somebody points you there. But when you’re struggling, you’re like, “How are we going to do this?” You don’t know how you’re going to do it and you feel trapped.
PHNAM: Not knowing is actually where you have to start, in our book. If you start a project and you know exactly what you’re going to do for the rest of the project, you’re probably going to do what someone else has already done. But if you don’t know, or if you’re in a very uncomfortable space where you’re like, “Oh my God, this project is so big, I don’t know where to start” – that’s a good sign.
ROB: You mentioned you all have been in this business for six years. What are some things you’ve learned in that time that you wish you could go back and tell yourself? A lesson or two, maybe “rethink this” or do it a little differently?
PHNAM: I can give you one quick answer. Business development is extremely difficult to find externally. We’ve had people who helped us and it was not very successful. We realized two or three years ago that Mardis and I are actually much better at it than people who have that on their business cards, for our particular company, because we have the vision. We know what our company should be doing and what it should not be doing, and we know how to speak about it with passion.
We can also modify our spiel to be a little bit more business-oriented, to be a little bit more design-oriented or future-oriented. That connects a lot better with the audience that we’re going after. We don’t sound like salespeople. We really go deep in conversations with potential clients very quickly, and I think they see that authenticity and they’re willing to go deeper with us immediately.
ROB: There’s a credibility in your experience. There’s the founder authority in knowing the heart of the business. What do you think, Mardis? What would you say you might do differently?
MARDIS: I do think Phnam nailed it. That would be by far the biggest thing.
ROB: How do you think about growth, then? Do you feel like you grow by scaling your influence together and larger engagements? Do you think there’s a place where you find a “mini Mardis” or a “mini Phnam” to come in, somebody who actually does have – I mean, that intersection. I’ve seen folks say it before. It’s like, learn how to build something, learn how to sell something, and you’ll be unstoppable. You all are in that “technical but sellable” lane. So how do you scale, or do you want to?
MARDIS: I don’t think either Phnam or I could handle a mini Mardis or a mini Phnam. Let’s just be outright about that. [laughs] Again, respect to so many other talented people that might come to work for us.
We love diversity. We love having clients of all different sizes, different shapes, as we’ve mentioned, in different verticals. This is all really fun and exciting to us. We take knowledge and apply one aspect from one category to another all the time. In a funny way, we kind of ebb and flow with the clients, and we select them as they come.
PHNAM: And I think it’s kind of like the same way we hire people. We could hire people who think like us and act like us, have the same hard skills as us, and just apply them. But what we look for is people who think differently but have the same drive as us. The way we choose concepts to go forward with is not. “What do I like as the founder of Nonfiction?”, because that’s pretty limited after a while. What we look for is, “What is going to blow our minds so it can blow the client’s mind, so then it can blow the user’s mind?” We always go for that.
And then, once we’ve made that decision, we turn very quickly into “let’s prototype it, let’s test it” mode. Every time we’re uncomfortable with a solution, that’s usually the nugget of something extraordinary. We design the future. The future is not here yet. If we’re comfortable with everything that we do, we’re not doing our job. We need to make ourselves uncomfortable within our team first, welcome our clients to do it, so the rest of the world can do it too.
ROB: Is there any signal that you might be just slightly too far in the future? Obviously, 20 years out might be too soon for a lot of things. How do you know when you need to pull it back just a couple of notches? How do you get there?
PHNAM: Nonfiction at its core is the merging of five different disciplines. It’s business, technology, science, art, and design. When you practice all of this, specifically business, you always have to make sure that whatever decision you make makes sense from the business perspective. If I’m coming out with a product in two years and the people who we’re designing for can only afford $300, I cannot come up with a concept that’s going to cost $2,000.
So, we have to make decisions like that, check in often, and make sure that what we come up with makes sense, because in the end we are not here just to come up with concepts. Honestly, anybody can come up with concepts. Even non-designers. But the magic is how do you turn a concept into something that’s real, into something that’s attainable, into something that has the potential to change people’s lives?
That’s why we call our company Nonfiction. Science fiction has been around for a very long time. We all want it. But who is going to turn that into the real thing? It’s going to be people like us.
ROB: That’s a great positioning: to build near science fiction, but call it nonfiction to make it concrete. It’s an excellent place to be.
You mentioned hiring for diversity. If you look in the creative services world, I think diversity is often achieved, but perhaps it’s achieved by optimizing for some people in some roles, some people in some other roles. You have 90% of this role are guys, 90% of this role are women. All your ethnic diversity is over here, all these people are white Americans. How do you think about diversity in roles and hiring for people in positions that are harder to find diversity in?
MARDIS: I do think that we’re very lucky that we’re a small enough team where we don’t have the large diversity challenges. Not to say that it doesn’t exist, but we do challenge our team members to adapt different skillsets, to step outside their comfort zone, to think about it in a different way.
PHNAM: Another thing is that we’re not doing diversity for the sake of checking some boxes. It actually came very naturally. We don’t hire people just because they’re not white men. That’s weird. We hire people because they have something very interesting, and most likely that thing has to do with their past – what kind of career they’ve been through, what kind of country they come from, what kind of past they’ve had.
When we interview people, really what we want to hear is what kind of crazy stories they have to tell us. Do they have a sense of humor? Are they able to tell stories that I’ve never heard before? And then the skills are just going to come, because everything we do is for the first time anyway. As long as you have the bare minimum, you can figure it out.
MARDIS: I’d say when we do hire people – it’s funny; we have a joke around the office. We don’t really look at resumes or portfolios that much. We look at them a little bit, but really it’s a conversation. Talking to people, understanding what they’re about, who they are, their personality. This is a great way to filter through people that will work in a smaller team and won’t work in a smaller team. You don’t always have that ability when you’re in a really large organization. You’re being filtered by AI or some sort of online tool long before it gets to a human, and the human has all the different constraints.
With us, we have great conversations. We go out for cocktails. It makes sense. We’re doing a lot of filtering long before we’ve got them in the office.
ROB: It’s very interesting. It makes sense. Even if you go back to what you’re talking about with the lifelong learning school, that’s going to get to the right solution when you talk about everybody’s experience in school – what baggage do they feel like they’re carrying from that? What do they wish school had done for them? You can get a diverse set of experiences in a lot of ways there. So I can certainly see how that would come in handy.
Mardis, Phnam, when people want to find you, when they want to find Nonfiction Design, how should they find and connect with you?
PHNAM: We’re actually very active online. On Twitter, you can follow both Mardis and me and Nonfiction.
Our Instagram is quite active as well. We post our video series on it. We have a video series on future of design. Basically, it’s years of experience that Mardis and I have accumulated over time – we’re just sharing that very transparently with everyone, and we’re doing it in layman’s terms. You can be a child, you can be someone who has nothing to do with design, you can be an engineer, you can be the head of a company – it doesn’t matter. You can connect with us as designers, not as Nonfiction, as just plain designers. We share our methodologies. We share our way of thinking, and we share our vision of what the future of many industries is.
ROB: I encourage people to go check all of that out. I love how you’ve open-sourced a lot of that. People are so scared about what they share, but there’s the total package that you all have put together that delivers for clients, but there’s little seeds of thinking that still help other people. They’re not going to go steal your lunch money.
Mardis, Phnam, thank you for coming on the podcast. Thank you for meeting up. Congratulations on the encore session here at SXSW, and I wish you all excellent travels back to San Francisco.
MARDIS: Excellent. Thank you. It’s been our pleasure.
PHNAM: Thank you for inviting us.
ROB: Thank you. Take care.
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