Philip Thompson, vice president of global design at Rubbermaid, is on a mission. His goal? To build an organization famous for design and product performance, making products better, different and worth it to enrich consumers’ lives every day. And his secret weapon? Self-awareness.
“As a designer, you have to know what your subject matter expertise is and what you stand for and have a clear point of view on that, have responsibility for that,” Thompson says. “I trust my aesthetic judgments much more than I would trust somebody else’s. I trust their financial judgments much more than I would trust my own. You have to know what you’re good at, you have to know what others are good at, and then you have to collaborate.”
This is not to say that he doesn’t welcome outside opinions. Instead, Thompson argues a strong sense of self-awareness and worth can empower designers with the self-confidence to invite those opinions but help prevent the designs from being “nibbled to death as if by ducks.” Instead of seeking specific guidance on how to improve a design, a designer should help focus on the what. When collaborating with others, Thompson asks: “What is the design not saying to you? What points do you want to convey to this product, package or whatever? Don’t tell me how, tell me what.”
The path to the process
An approach refined by more than 22 years of global experience shaping and leading multi-disciplined design planning strategy and strong formal training in industrial design and communications, starting with a Bachelor of Arts degree in industrial design and English from Teesside University to a Master’s degree in industrial design from the Royal College of Art in London. Thompson’s career includes stints as vice president of design and planning strategy at Masco Corporation, leading global design at Whirlpool Corporation and setting the creative direction for the company’s well-known Whirlpool, KitchenAid and Kenmore brands, and industrial design at Electrolux. Along the way, he’s earned the respect of his employees and peers, including Jeffrey Browne, who reported to Thompson at Masco and joined Newell Rubbermaid before Thompson. Browne noted Thompson’s ability to “simplify complex information, set the vision, and then execute to the plan” on a LinkedIn recommendation. Another recommendation from Pam Nyberg, now director of experience design at Humana, also details Thompson’s ability to create structure out of complexity. She adds, “Because of his calm demeanor, cheeky British wit, supportive nature, and his disciplined approach to focusing on the task at hand, Philip’s been able to drive success for his teams, even in the most challenging situations.”
Optimizing opportunities for cross-pollination
Newell Rubbermaid has now tasked him to take his structure building skills to help evolve the design culture and maximize the return on one of its most recent major investments in design. “The design center within Newell Rubbermaid is a really exciting new venture [less than two years old at the time of publication],” he explains. “It was conceived by our CEO and our executive leadership team. We’ve built this physical building in Michigan that houses about 100 designers from multiple different backgrounds—industrial design, graphic design, human factors, usability, color and trend, design planning and strategy, and prototyping. So you’ve got all this talent under one roof serving all the different brands across the portfolio.”
There are also immersion rooms, which enable designers to see what the different design groups are working on for inspiration. “An immersion room is a safe environment, as well, where we can expose new ideas that maybe aren’t fully thought out,” Thompson says. The entire design team is also encouraged to critique the projects displays, which also serve as centers for cross-pollination of ideas. “For example, we have a tools business in our portfolio and we also have a baby business with Graco and now with Baby Jogger, Aprica and Teutonia,” Thompson says. “These are not two markets that you naturally put together—babies and tools. But there’s a fashion side to both of these businesses.” These designers can share ideas on how to best sew soft-sided items from tool bags to seats in strollers and other baby products. Thompson opines, “Because all of Newell Rubbermaid’s market segments and brands are represented under one roof, you have the best of both in-house collaboration and an outside opinion.”
Fewer partners but deeper relationships
This central location has also enabled Newell Rubbermaid to work more efficiently with its design partners. “Previously, each of the different business units had their own design consultants or design partners they would work with,” Thompson explains. “There were no standard rates, no best practices, and no leveraging of knowledge across the different businesses again. Bringing the internal design group together also caused us to look at our network of partners and to essentially reduce the number of partners down from more than 200 to around 20 or 30. And that’s made our relationships with those few much stronger. Our spending power is more focused and larger as a result. And so you get a better relationship all around.”
The new agency-client relationships also became more strategic. “We work with them on a more regular basis,” Thompson explains, “so we don’t need to keep reintroducing new partners to the Growth Game Plan.”
Larger, faster and more profitable
Newell Rubbermaid’s Growth Game Plan is its corporate strategy to accelerate into a larger, faster growing, more global and more profitable company. Quite a feat considering the company already has a strong portfolio of brands in a variety of markets from luxury writing instruments to household and baby products. Several of Newell Rubbermaid’s brands are household names, including Waterman, Calphalon, Lenox, Goody, Levolor, Graco, and Rubbermaid, of course.
The first two pillars of the Growth Game Plan are 1) Development: Making Brands Really Matter and 2) Delivery: Building an Execution Powerhouse. Newell Rubbermaid considers both pillars interdependent, of equal importance and shared accountability for driving growth.
And design plays major roles in both core areas for growth.
“The beauty of design is summed up well in the phrase, ‘soup to nuts,’” Thompson says. “Design may not come up with every idea, but it certainly works with those that do. This might be through insights, a retailer or an end-user. It can be from working with marketing in terms of how does design fit the brand, the brand strategy and the priorities; working with manufacturing to develop supply chains, sourcing, et cetera; or working with sales to ensure the design or idea intent and the design execution is carried through and delivered as intended.”
For some brands, design plays an outsized role in the marketing and branding of the product. “If you look at our portfolio and the types of brands that we have, packaging plays a tremendous part in conveying what that product is at point of sale,” Thompson explains. “In many cases, it is our primary form of advertising. The Mr. Sketch brand has no merchandising or advertising per se, but we continue to push that business forward by working with our chemists to develop new scents and we redid the packaging. The potential for change is probably greater in package design than it is in so many other areas.”
Responsibility and accountability
The recognition of the power of package design and design, in general, brings not only investment from upper management but also makes design responsible and very accountable to Newell Rubbermaid’s C-suite. An executive team comprised of the CMO, CDO, a representative from research and development, and a leader from supply chain and sales review all major design projects at a standing monthly meeting. “That’s huge for me,” Thompson says. “It tells me that the senior leadership team is actively engaged and passionate, and cares about the product that’s going out the door. These executives review every single aspect of these projects—the financials, the schedules, the marketing plans, and the product and the packaging design. I’ve never worked in a company with quite that amount of rigor and discipline at that level for every single project.”
And this commitment to design is part of what attracted him to Newell Rubbermaid. “It was their very aggressive and ambitious growth game plan, the role within design clearly laid out as very strategic,” Thompson says, “and the opportunity to build a culture in the design center. I’m building something that’s going to last and have a legacy.”
Newell Rubbermaid’s Design Center houses approximately 100 designers and design-centric professionals from a wide range of disciplines, including industrial design, graphic design, human factors, usability, color and trend, design planning and strategy, and prototyping.