The following is a short Q&A between methinks’s CEO, Aaron Burcell (AB), and Tractor Studios’s Steve Huber (SH), the full-service design agency’s founder and mainstay. Based in San Francisco, Tractor has worked with startups, tech giants, award-winning entertainment and San Francisco institutions alike for over 20 years. Tractor is perhaps best known for developing the brand identity for the City’s famed “Muni” mass transit system, which became the central iconography in an early-century, San Francisco-inspired fashion trend made popular by the renowned urban retailer Upper Playground. Late last year, Tractor Studios and methinks created a co-marketing agreement to help companies develop customer insights in creative and product development.
AB: We’ve known each other since the late 90’s, so I know that Tractor’s services description has changed dramatically over time, how do you describe what Tractor does today? And, can you use some client examples?
SH: Tractor is a creative studio driven by innovation. For almost two decades, we’ve been helping clients turn obstacles into growth opportunities. We believe new questions lead to great work. That’s why we take the time to deeply understand target-customer needs before initiating any strategy, design, or code. Some example works are SHOWTIME’s Years Living Dangerously, Weirdwood Manor and Relisto.
AB: In your long history of work, what are the projects you felt were most impacted by customer feedback — either product testing or market research?
SH: Admittedly, we focus mostly on digital projects, but one of our favorite and most notable efforts was informed by customer research and feedback — and, that’s the SF Muni brand-identity development. It was an opportunity to rebrand one of America’s more famous transit systems at a time, circa 2000, when the Muni system was overwhelmed by the boom years of the late 90s. To understand the negative brand impacts, we interviewed riders and drivers to understand their positions and needs. This research and insight drove the rebranding, which became immediately visible via thousands of pieces of signage in the City, and then achieved global iconography through fashion that lifted the logo.
AB: That’s amazing. I had no idea that you interviewed drivers too. I’ve seen that muni logo on hats and shirts all over the world — club-goers in London, skateparks in Munich. At what point in your own career did you figure out how and when to inject customer feedback into development? And, more importantly, how did you figure out how to “incept” customer research into your client’s processes and decisions?
SH: When the web started, there was a lot of bias that Clients brought into the process from whatever field they worked in previously. It was hard to navigate because few people had experience with interactive media twenty years ago. Adding insights from customers/users really helped frame projects correctly.
AB: Right, right. It’s pretty hard for marketers to contradict customer opinion, right? Do you feel like people have become more accepting of product-customer validation over the last 25 years?
SH: I do. I’d say the acceptance has really accelerated in the last few years. It’s likely a combination of factors that’s driving this trend. I’d like to think that we are all focused on the user experience and the user needs above all, but I also think customer-centric approaches, like Lean development, are returning to more traditional businesses because Silicon Valley-based authors created really compelling depictions in business media and written works.
AB: You have worked with some “big personalities” in your career, but, I have always wanted to ask — Tractor worked on SHOWTIME’s Emmy-Award-Winning docuseries, Years Living Dangerously, produced by Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by James Cameron — what’s it like working with James Cameron?
SH: Ha! I was actually pretty nervous about this before starting the project. I was convinced I’d get yelled at, but JC was very hands-off and even complimentary.
Note: To learn more about Tractor Studios, follow @TractorStudios on Twitter.
Aaron is the CEO of methinks, where he oversees marketing, revenue operations and marketing partnerships.