Joel Harding RGD, Art Director at Critical Mass, shares insights into the Calgary design industry.
Can you explain the state of the design industry in Calgary?
Calgary has a ton of great design talent, especially for a city of its size. We may lose some designers to bigger centres like Vancouver, San Francisco, Toronto and New York, but we also import and retain a significant number of ambitious entrepreneurial folks, who either set up shop on their own, make the rounds of the many smaller agencies in town, or come to Critical Mass. That might be simplifying things a bit—there’s also opportunities at corporate in-house departments and startups throughout the city. But for digital creatives at least, Critical Mass has always been the biggest player. Almost every digital designer and developer in the city make their way to Critical Mass at some point.
Alberta’s economy has been hit by slumping oil prices over the last few years, which has made it tough for smaller local shops who rely on Calgary businesses and the oil and gas industry. We’re fortunate at CM to be a bit sheltered from this, with most of our clients in the U.S. or abroad, doing business all over the globe in a diverse range of industry verticals.
Over the past few years, what changes to the industry have you noticed most in Calgary?
One of the things I’ve noticed—and this is probably not unique to Calgary or that recent—but the small, traditional design and advertising agencies have become a bit of a thing of the past. There’s definitely still a place in the market for the few niche companies who do traditional communications really well. But these companies have largely had to reinvent themselves by adding services like strategy, digital, social, etc. The designers that are most in-demand have done the same, or have moved into UX design, motion design, and/or video production. Another big change in Calgary is the number of tech start-ups that have entered the arena, creating a real burgeoning tech community in the city.
Why do you work where you do, considering the geographic location and the organization itself?
There’s no denying the pull of the Rocky Mountains. Calgary is a mountain town, which is why a lot of us live here. We have easy access to some of the best trails, slopes, and breathtaking natural scenery in the world, plus all the benefits of a metropolitan city. When you live in a city with snow for more than half the year, you’ve got to embrace it, and there’s a huge winter sports scene here, which brings with it a really active lifestyle, and a healthier work/life balance than a lot of other cities have.
Though my home base is Calgary for now, Critical Mass has been really proactive about acknowledging that in this day and age, people can work from anywhere. We even have a Liquid Talent initiative that gives experienced employees the opportunity to work wherever is best for them while staying fully engrossed in our culture and the team.
Is there a design approach or trend that is unique to Calgary/Alberta?
For the most part, with our globalized world and the online nature of the industry, I see those regional differences in design becoming less and less pronounced. It’s getting harder to tell work from Calgary apart from something designed in Portland, New York or anywhere else. That being said, Calgary does have a bit of an independent, trailblazing spirit, and the design that comes from here is often bold and unapologetic, with equal parts grit and refinement.
Is there a design approach or insight you feel is unique to Critical Mass?
The Critical Mass mantra is ‘a relentless focus on the customer.’ Other companies say this, but CM really lives it. It’s thoroughly ingrained in the people who work here, and frames every conversation, every strategic design decision, every creative solution that goes to the client. We make it clear to our clients that in order to help their business we need to put their users first. In practice what this looks like is in-depth customer research, rigorous design-thinking methods to build understanding and empathy for the customer, and creative experiences that provoke meaningful, and often surprising emotional connections.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities emerging within the design industry? What are the greatest challenges?
I think one of the biggest opportunities and challenges we face is artificial intelligence and the way it’s transforming the digital products we use every day. AI could make it so much easier to buy a car, or choose a health insurance plan, or cook a healthy meal. But AI relies on data, and as humans, we’re not always super comfortable turning over the details of our lives to algorithms made by companies we may not trust. It’s a sticky subject, and I think designers have a big role to play in ensuring that AI and data are used to design experiences that have the user’s best interests in mind.
About Critical Mass
Critical Mass is a global digital experience design agency with a relentless focus on the customer. Founded in Calgary in 1996, the agency has steadily expanded into a group of 950 people working in 12 offices across North America, Europe, Asia, Latin America, and South America. For more than two decades, Critical Mass has used design thinking, emerging technology, and customer empathy to drive engagement, loyalty, and business results for clients. Their expertise spans strategy consulting, experience design, marketing communications, implementation, and marketing science. Learn more about Critical Mass at https://www.criticalmass.com.