Digital Craft in association withAdobe Firefly

Meet the Technologists: Tiago Baccarelli Justino

San Jose, United States
EY’s Design Strategy Leader on the beauty of constraints, finding inspiration, and how the metaverse can fix its biggest problem…

At EY, Tiago Baccarelli Justino spends his days building a better working world. That’s in addition to his role as adjunct professor at Chicago’s Institute of Design, where he helps inspire (and is inspired by) the minds who are gearing up to populate that working world tomorrow. 

Over the course of his colourful working life so far, he’s developed an understanding of design which connects it to people on a profound level. 

For Tiago, both technology and digital design are about culture and human beings. Here, he reflects on his early introduction to the world of technology as a kid growing up in Brazil, how he can find inspiration from speaking to anyone, and why constraints will always be a designer’s best friend… 

LBB> What kind of a kid were you growing up, and when did you first become interested in technology? 

Tiago> Ha, well that’s a great way to start an interview. From what I’ve been told, I was the kind of active kid who was always busy with a mix of sports, music, and technology. My parents tell me that they never saw me looking bored. 

I’m really thankful for their outlook throughout my upbringing, because they exposed my sister and I to a lot of different things. When I look at my own five year-old daughter who’s with me here in the States today, she has access to everything. There’s virtually zero limit to what she can be inspired by. That was different for the people growing up around me as a kid in Brazil and Colombia - but my Dad was very intentional about bringing stuff back for us when he travelled to the US as he often did for work. He was able to bring technology to me that only I had access to in Brazil at the time. I remember him arriving with my first Walkman - well, it was his Walkman technically but in my mind it was mine, of course! 

I remember being a small kid, and my Dad bringing back a Norton Commander from a trip. I was six years old, and that was my first computer. So if we’re charting my interest in technology, I think it has to start from there. 

LBB> Do you think you got an additional buzz out of playing around with that technology because of how personal it felt to you? 

Tiago> Probably, yes. It was certainly a contrast because on the one hand we had a black and white TV with little dials you had to turn, and on the other I was connecting up a monitor to a (admittedly primitive) computer. It had an air of excitement, and progress happening right in front of me. 

It felt like something which was groundbreaking and totally new. And that I was free to play with it and explore. 

LBB> Is there any tech out there today which has given you a similar feeling to that? 

Tiago> I think the scale and application of many tech innovations today means that we’re talking about stuff which changes how we look at the world. It’s easy to get excited about that! When we look at autonomous vehicles, for example, it’s almost difficult to get your head around just what that could mean for us as a species. 

Just yesterday I was reading about how Stanford has figured out a way to be able to capture energy from solar panels, just from the difference in temperature between the panel and the outside world. Which means we could get solar energy at night. 

So it’s stuff like that which has the potential to change the world that gives me a buzz today. 

LBB> Having grown up in Brazil, Colombia - and working in Italy before moving stateside - do you notice any differences in the way people talk about technology in those markets? 

Tiago> Absolutely. One of the things that I really love about technology and design is just how cultural it is. Two big parts of that connection between tech and culture are timing, and access. And they are linked. 

So in the US we have incredible access compared to other cultures. Whilst the gap is narrowing a little bit, so much of it is related to infrastructure and hardware which is just very different depending on where you are in the world. In one sense that limits the possibilities for entrepreneurs to design solutions which solve cultural needs. We take bandwidth totally for granted in the US, but it’s very expensive in Brazil and Colombia. 

And at the same time, I also think that lack of access creates a need for workarounds and creativity. Brazil, for example, has one of the most advanced finance systems in the world. That’s purely because there are specific needs which individuals have which require new solutions. Things that we’re only just experiencing now in the US, are things which have been around in Brazil for years. 

The lesson to take is that constraints can be a designer's best friend. They push you to find new solutions which are applicable and relevant to the people who need them. 

LBB> You’ve previously said that ‘the best digital strategies are human ones’. What do you mean by that? 

Tiago> I was fortunate early in my career to be exposed to human-centric design. I had the chance to work with someone in Brazil who had been practising human centred design as a discipline since the 90s. He builds methodologies based around understanding people, societies, cultures and communities and using that as a platform for designing solutions. 

When it comes to digital strategy, I think we should use the same starting point. Often, we start by thinking about how amazing an individual piece of technology is rather than why it’s relevant or helpful. And this risks leaving humans out of the process, the end result is something that people fundamentally fail to get to grips with or see the application for. 

Whenever I start work on a new design project, I’ll ask two questions. Firstly, what is the purpose that this organisation has around their digital strategy? And secondly, what are those often unspoken needs that employees have when they’re collaborating with each other, their vendors, and their customers? 

So when we think about digital strategy we need to incorporate both that top down approach and a bottom up approach. That’s how you create something which is going to be flexible, adaptive, and ultimately relevant for the people who need it. 

LBB> But human beings are inherently unpredictable, aren’t they - does that not make it a massive challenge to design systems around them? 

Tiago> Well, ultimately we have to acknowledge and embrace the fact that people are our clients - it’s our job to understand them! As designers we have to learn about their patterns, their needs, and try to organise what might seem like chaos at first. 

It reframes things when you stop thinking about people as resources, and you start thinking about them as the clients you are there to help. 

LBB> Today, there’s a lot of buzz around the metaverse and cryptocurrencies as exciting or disruptive technologies. Are you enthused by the potential of either of those? 

Tiago> I am, yes. I have to say I’m less excited about what we have in front of us today, and more about what it might mean for tomorrow. Although both the metaverse and crypto have actually been evolving for some time now, it feels like we are at an early stage in the discussion around their respective applications. 

That is also sparking an important conversation around the nature of our society. What does it mean to have ownership of goods? In fact, what does money itself even mean in 2022? And when I think about the metaverse, I’m wondering how it might change the way we collaborate and the access gap we mentioned earlier. Perhaps we can close that gap with the help of these emerging technologies. 

LBB> On the metaverse specifically, how do you think it connects right now to your point about designing for a human need? Do you think there is a clear application for it, or a prominent problem it’s set to solve? 

Tiago> I think that’s probably one of the Metaverse’s biggest failures up until now in that we’ve yet to see that clear human need communicated on a scale which justifies the level of hype. 

But there is another side to this. I recently stopped by to visit my Grandfather, who is 96. He was wearing a headset that I brought him a year or so ago, which he uses as a hearing aid and is connected to his phone so he can talk to people who are elsewhere. So when I call him from the US, he can talk to me. It would be impossible for him to do that without the headset. And then in the same house is my little cousin, a teenager, wearing the same headset playing video games with his friends. I see them both enjoying and getting a use out of the exact same technology - a 96 year-old and a 12 year-old. So there were specific applications that headset technology that allowed it to become relevant and widely used. The same thing needs to happen now with the Metaverse.

Whilst we’re still a few steps away from that, it is thrilling to be a part of those early conversations today and I’m certain that genuine use cases will be identified. The technology is too exciting. 

LBB> What most excites you about the work you do with EY?

Tiago> Ever since I joined EY, I've been very fortunate to have some really amazing leaders that have given me a lot of space to explore how I can bring value to the organisation. Some of that has been stuff I do in my day job, and some of it goes beyond the day-to-day. 

One of the things which really excites me about my role is that I’ve been given space to build a team of really diverse, dedicated, and talented people. We’ve been able to create a culture of collaboration between our people, helping them feel that they belong here in whatever way they want to belong here. That starts by going into Universities and looking for the right people to bring into our organisation. We figure out how we can help them upskill and get to where they want to be, or become who they want to be. That’s immensely satisfying. 

Through that, I’ve been able to collaborate with companies like Adobe who are fantastic about bringing inspiration, information and training to people. 

LBB> You’re also an adjunct professor at the Institute of Design. Does that give you a good insight into what’s motivating the next generation of designers and technologists? 

Tiago> For sure - and it also helps me learn a lot, as well! I get to work with between 20 and 30 students each semester, and it's amazing how each one will bring a different perspective or vantage point to a discussion. Something I’m seeing a lot right now is a link between technology and psychology. So many of these students are coming from a psychology background, which is really fascinating and helpful when it comes to human-centric design for obvious reasons. 

That brings an understanding of how we can expect people to interact with new technologies, and how they might change the roles of people in a society. As technology evolves, human behaviour of course changes as well. That’s a very useful perspective to be able to draw upon when we’re talking about some of these new groundbreaking technologies. 

LBB> On a final note, do you take any inspiration from outside of work? 

Tiago> What inspires me most - both inside and outside of work - is conversations. 

Whether it’s someone who works in biotech or fintech, or my daughter, it’s different perspectives on the world which fuel me to become a better designer. For as long as you’re listening, you’re improving. 

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