Digital Craft in association withAdobe Firefly
“We Craft Tech Around A Feeling - People Are Social Creatures That Want To Feel Connected”
San Jose, United States
Haraldur Thorleifsson, CEO / CCO of creative agency Ueno, on designing products and experiences infused with emotion
Adobe XD is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the Digital Craft content channel, we will be spending time with some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry. 

In this conversation we talk with Halli Thorleifsson, the founder and CEO of Ueno. A creative director and designer, Halli founded the agency as a one-man operation out of his Reykjavik apartment in 2014. Just a few short years later, Ueno has more than 60 full-time employees with offices in Reykjavik, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, collaborating with some of the biggest global businesses such as Google, Facebook, Uber, Visa, Apple and Red Bull to name but a few.

LBB> Can you tell us about your first experiences with technology and digital design and how this fuelled your fascination for the industry?

Halli Thorleifsson> My first interaction with the internet and technology was around 13 years old in 1990. My uncle set up a modem connection to my PC and when he went home he sent me a message on it and I thought it was just magical. It got me really excited at the possibilities of the future. 

And then at university I was studying finance and there was a class we had to take in IT. One of the assignments was to create your own webpage and again I thought it was magical that I could type anything and it would be instantly accessible to the world. 

LBB> What are the key responsibilities in your role as CEO / CCO of Ueno?

Halli> My role as CEO and CCO is pretty intermingled. The three core areas that I focus most of my time on are creative output - including overseas projects and client reviews; new business - talking to potential clients and existing clients about new workstreams; and communication - both internally and externally to help get our name and brand out there.

LBB> How would you describe company ethos and what does Ueno pride itself on?

Halli> The core thing comes back to the quality of our work. Everything else is in support of being able to create the best work possible. To be able to achieve that we have a set of five core values we use to make a lot of our decisions: 

  1. We’re all in this together - we listen, ask questions and respect different points of view.
  2. Be raw - we grow together with honesty. 
  3. Figure it out - we know our success relies on how fast we can adapt.
  4. Bring the chocolate - we surprise and delight, think ahead and give people more than they knew they wanted.
  5. Life is short, enjoy it - we are here, we’re alive, and that’s pretty damn great.

LBB> As a company doing relatively well with its diversity and inclusion, how does this enable you to deliver better products and experiences for your clients?

Halli> We’re doing better than the average company in the industry but we are still striving to be better to get to where we need to be. Because a diverse company understands a lot of different points of view. They have backgrounds that allow them to see themselves in different types of communities. 

Diversity creates much better work. We design for a whole range of people and if everyone who works here is the same then we can’t do our job very well. A fully inclusive team is able to utilise that diversity and each team member feels like they can speak up and be heard as part of the collective decision making. 

LBB> Some of your most memorable projects include Google’s Santa Tracker and a redesign of the Lonely Planet website? What was it you most enjoyed about working on these projects and what lessons did you take forward?

Halli> Google Santa Tracker was the first piece of work where I led a big global project and felt that I fully owned the core experience. I took a lot of initiative early on to help shape the project and by doing that I was given the opportunity to run the full project. I was able to pull together a group that I felt could achieve what we were looking for in a relatively short period of time. Just seeing how we came together to create something really special was rewarding and I learnt that you can’t always wait for someone to give you the opportunity, you have to put yourself forward in some way and really trust in yourself.

On the Lonely Planet project I started off working on a very small part of it but as we gained the trust of our client, and by really taking the initiative and pushing forward on a clear vision, we started to take on bigger and more strategic roles as the project grew. It was a huge project with fantastic teams and I got to make something I was really proud of in the end.

Both of these projects where I was more personally involved made me realise that I could take on bigger and bigger roles and helped me push for more challenging projects. I also now love to be able to pass these opportunities to people on our team at Ueno to help them grow in their careers. That’s one of the most rewarding things in my role at the moment, seeing other people grow and get given the chances that I got.

LBB> One of your goals is to help people feel more connected and you launched Uenoland in New York last year to bring interesting people from the design world together. How are you hoping to develop Uenoland and what are you hoping to achieve with this event?

Halli> The first event we put on was an experiment as we’d never run a conference before and we wanted to work out the logistics and how it would work financially. There were lots of smart people talking about very diverse topics, interconnected through design. We learned a lot through that so future events will be a little more focused with very clear objectives. We’re going to focus in on smaller areas within design and allow ourselves to go deeper into the subject, bringing people from the industry together.

LBB> You’ve mentioned that some aspects of technology in the last ten years or so have not had a good impact on society, creating more disconnect and isolation. How do you use design at Ueno to help battle these issues? 

Halli> The core issue is that technology has been built as a really functional tool that allows you to achieve or perform a certain task. But it hasn’t really been infused with any emotion, or feeling of being connected to the world around you. People are social creatures that need to feel like they are part of something and we have very strong communal ties to where we grew up and the people that are around us, giving us a strong sense of belonging. Technology doesn’t really give us any of that - it just gives us the technical benefits of being able to reach out to anyone at any time but you don’t feel that connected through it. 

In the last ten years or so, as tech has become more and more ubiquitous and has taken over pretty much everything, I don’t think everything that has happened has been for the good or delivered on the promise of what we thought the internet would be - a very inclusive place where knowledge was accessible to everyone. It’s created a lot more division than anyone expected and it’s created a lot of isolation where people feel less and less connected.

We want to fuse emotion into all our work so that when people use our products they feel connected. When we design a product we think about the feeling we are trying to create and what emotional connection we want users to have with the product or the brand itself. And then we really try and craft the experience around that feeling. We start from a place of understanding our users and what it is that they are looking for and not just what they are looking to achieve - which is often what technology focuses on, the function. It comes down to things like how you write copy, what colours you use and what imagery you insert, where it feels fun and interactive - like it was made by a human and not a robot. 

LBB> You take quite a holistic approach to your work, designing a limited edition product range for the home. Where did the idea for this range come from and how do you hope to be able to inspire people through it?

Halli> The idea for the products came from thinking about the first few items people would buy when they move home, and how to make them feel more special. When I moved out of my parent's home for the first time, most of the products I bought were as cheap as I could get because I didn’t have a lot of money but there were a few items here and there that were a bit more special and added real value to my place. I still have a stool and lamp I bought when I was 20 so the product line is going to start from there.

Our products will not be mass produced but something you invest in and own for a very long time. Nicely made things that you will hopefully keep for a very long time and aren’t disposable items. So that when you interact and use these products you can feel the care and love that was put into their design. 

LBB> What has been some of the best advice you have learned from in your career?

Halli> Always remember to design for the user and not for yourself. Make sure that you really fall in love with the problem and not the solution, understanding that whatever you make is temporary and it can and will always be improved upon. 

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