Making the invisible visible: Patrick Godfrey and Scott Dadich on inclusivity, impostor syndrome and Abstract: The Art of Design

Ex-editor of Wired Scott Dadich and Patrick Godfrey are the co-chief executives and co-founders of Godfrey Dadich Partners, a strategy, design, and content firm headquartered in San Francisco and the main brains behind Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design. Elly Strang caught up with them in Sydney at Semi-Permanent to talk making design inclusive, the future of the tech sector, and more. 

Scott Dadich and Patrick Godfrey met while Dadich was still editor-in-chief of Wired and Godfrey was the chief executive of strategy agency Godfrey Q, which was brought on board to redesign the prolific tech and innovation publication. The two became fast friends, and their creative process would later act as the roadmap for how their firm is modelled. The pair are also the producers behind the Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design, which celebrates the work of eight different designers across various disciplines. 

Scott, in your time at Wired, you were in the unique position of writing about technology companies while also experiencing the likes of Facebook disrupting your industry, sometimes to detrimental effect. What was this experience like?

Scott: One of the key things that was on my radar and part of my set of duties as editor-in-chief was to expand the platform to all relevant touchpoints for our audiences, breaking it out of what would traditionally be called a tech magazine for geeks into a platform or a portal into the future. That meant having a strong presence on social media, that meant having live events, that meant a video platform, that meant reaching retail and community members in retail and other places and diversifying revenue streams so that the ideas transported through Wired and as defined by Patrick and the strategy process, were relevant to the right audience at the right time. 

Do you think were ahead of the curve in thinking about a magazine like that?

Scott: I think with all things at Wired, you are a product of your environment and certainly living and working in Silicon Valley in San Francisco, the ideas that get unpacked by founders and entrepreneurs up and down that corridor – you can’t help but be in influenced by them. Wired was invented by a bunch of folks who thought it was a vehicle to bring stories back from the future. Kevin Kelly was the founding executive editor and called it a ‘letter from the future’, so Wired’s mission was very much imbued to the platforms that it spoke to. It’s about innovation and culture and the intersection of those two ideas. 

L-R: Patrick Godfrey, Elly Strang and Scott Dadich

And do you think mixing with inspiring individuals and companies led you both down the path of becoming entrepreneurs yourself?

Scott: Definitely – having founders and entrepreneurs and inventors come through the halls every day, it’s hard not to want to join their ranks at some point. The conversations me and Patrick had throughout the course of our work relationship and then as friends, you can’t help but be in influenced by people that are making great things in the world.

When you stepped away and ended your time at Wired, what led you to that decision? Had you achieved everything you wanted to in the industry?

Scott: I did. I saw the arc of my 11 years at Conde Nast and my seven years before that at Texas Monthly – two decades in this space – and I felt like I had learned what I wanted to in the industry. I had almost doubled Wired’s audience over the course of my editorship, I’d built a great team there and positioned it for the future in a strong place where I could step away and chase my next set of dreams with Patrick and think about what a firm that we would run together would look like and built for the colleagues we wanted to work with. 

What does a typical day look like for you now, or is there no such thing as a typical day?

Patrick: I think the reason we do what we do is because there’s no such thing as a typical day. A typical day may find us speaking at a design conference in Sydney, or going to the office. But the good news about our job is there’s never any opportunity to get bored because we have a broad set of client opportunities and if there’s a problem you’re not making progress on, there’s always another problem you can go focus on, and when you’ve made progress on that, you can go back to the other with refreshed vitality. So our days can be spent on aeroplanes, in a series of meetings – I don’t think I’ve had a typical day in 17 months. 

In New Zealand, I sometimes find that design doesn’t get as much attention or credit where it’s due. We have a booming tech industry and a lot of events and coverage around that, but design isn’t as much at the forefront of the conversation. Have you found that in your own experience and is that something you wanted to challenge with Abstract: The Art of Design?

Scott: Absolutely. I didn’t know that design could turn into a profession that people would pay me money to do and create until college, and I really wanted to make something that would educate the next generation of designers and enlighten and inform folks who maybe hadn’t thought about design either as a career or as a problem-solving tool, so that was an opportunity to bring more people into the front and centre of what we wanted to accomplish. 

Do you feel as though you changed that with the series?

Scott: I hope so. We hear from audience members and community members all the time who have watched the series and share that they learned something new or didn’t realise how design had entered their world, whether it’s through the architecture of the building they worked on or the sneakers they put on when they go for a run.

That’s the thing, design is often invisible to the naked eye until you point it out to people.

Scott: That choicefulness and the fact that somebody made a determination to put those colours and weave those sneakers in the way that they did [gestures to Patrick’s colourful Nike shoes] – a human being did that, and I think it’s good to remind folks that those choices influence just about every aspect of our lives.

It was funny how Tinker Hatfield was saying during his talk that he has an increased level of notoriety now thanks to Abstract: The Art of Design, but it’s just the right amount – it’s not A-list celebrity level.

Scott: [Laughs] Exactly, although he is pretty darn famous, he gets recognised whenever we’re hanging out with him.

Was it also important to make sure the series appealed to people outside the design industry?

Scott: Yes, as when I went back to the design media that I had encountered that had been tailored to me, it was a pretty narrow band of products. We were thinking about creating something for the Netflix platform which had to speak to 100 million people around the world, so it had to be inclusive and for folks way beyond the fields of design. 

I didn’t know that design could turn into a profession that people would pay me money to do and create until college, and I really wanted to make something that would educate the next generation of designers and enlighten and inform folks who maybe hadn’t thought about design either as a career or as a problem-solving tool. 

What was the most interesting thing you learned throughout the process of interviewing the different designers?

Scott: There was a host of learnings from each of the subjects, but the through line was no matter the outcome and the end product of their efforts, the processes were all remarkably similar. They all used pen and paper to draw, they all took those decisions one at a time, they all built on the wealth of their experience, they all surrounded themselves with potential collaborators and creative partners. I think if you look at the commonalities between each episode, you’ll see the evidence of that and it was sort of surprising. We had that as a thesis walking into it, it wasn’t until we finished the series that we were able to validate that by seeing it come across on film. 

Have you ever had a 'fanboy' moment with someone you're most excited to meet or interview?

Scott: On Abstract, I was lucky that I knew most of the subjects and was able to recruit them to join the tribe, but Tinker was certainly one that I had a huge fanboy moment and looked up to for so many years. The first time I met him I was a little star struck. 

Would it be fair to say that at Wired, it was meeting and collaborating with Barack Obama?

Scott: Absolutely, without question. And J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan and Serena Williams and Edward Snowden, I learned from every single person I encountered there. 

You've both previously been nestled pretty deep in the tech industry, and now you’re skewing more towards the design side of things with Godfrey Dadich Partners. Do you feel a pull towards one or the other, or do you think they’re one in the same these days?

Patrick: I think what I’d say is the tech industry gets a lot of credit for its transformative effects on how we interact with one another, how we publish information and how we get places. But very few of those firms that are built have an awakening moment where design is recognised as at the centre of what they do – they’re bad at telling people these stories.

So I think design illuminates a path forward to help those companies be more human-centric, have more empathy, develop products, services and capabilities that are more in tune with human needs versus just what’s possible. You know, it’s not a secret that there’s always been an arrogance in the technology industry, that just because you can do something, you should or it’s on the whole, good.

And by the way, I embrace all the new technology and use it, but I don’t reflexively believe it’s good. We’ve been lucky to work with some of the great tech companies that embrace community, empathy and design thinking, and it makes an enormous difference. 

...I think design illuminates a path forward to help those [tech] companies be more human-centric, have more empathy and develop products, services and capabilities that are more in tune with human needs versus just what’s possible. 

Is there anything about the future of technology that worries you, or do you sit in the excited camp?

Scott: We know that – and numbers vary – but in as few as five years, 80 percent of the information published will be false. That’s chilling. We also have the debate that rages about emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. Elon Musk takes the side that it’s a fundamental danger to humanity, Mark Zuckerberg takes the side that considers people who say things like that to be reactionary and shouldn’t be worried about. I think when we see what’s happened with Facebook in the last year with Mark, who’s a lot smarter than I am and certainly a lot richer than I am, it’s a little glib to suggest, ‘Don’t worry about it, everything’s going to be fine’. We’ve seen a lot of unintended consequences of technology already.

That said, on the whole, technology has made the world a better place. We live longer, we’re happier, our infant immortality is down, our literacy rates are up. If you take the right perspective, the world is getting better and technology is a huge part of that. But you shouldn’t ever allow that to lull you into a sense of security, because the stakes are too high.

Do you think we’re entering that stage now where people are looking with a more critical eye at the technology industry?

Scott: No question. And I think it’s overdue. Good ideas and good companies can withstand scrutiny and I don’t think we have to hesitate to provide that for these ideas and opportunities, because it’s like creative ideas that our teams put in front of our clients all the time. Sometimes you hear from someone and they’re in a defensive space about getting feedback, and the answer to that is if you believe in your idea, you don’t fear feedback. You use the feedback to make it better. It’s absolutely the standard technology companies should be held to.

A presidential collaboration on a magazine, a Netflix series, founding a firm – are there any moments in your career you have left to tick off, or are you feeling pretty accomplished so far?

Scott: Oh no, I have a strong case of impostor syndrome, so I’m never certain of my own ability to create work. I always feel highly doubtful at just about every turn, so it’s just about putting in the work and trusting in your colleagues, trusting in Patrick, and believing we’ll design the outcomes that are most important at that moment. 

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