Meet Paris Pitsillides, the Director of Strategy at Matchboxology, a pioneer in the world of creative thinking. Alongside his partner, Carl Bruns, Paris co-founded Matchboxology in 2005, where they honed their skills as creative directors in the advertising industry. Long before it became a buzzword, Paris and Carl realized that their work was inherently human-centered, always focused on understanding people’s desires and experiences.

Paris’s expertise lies in the power of listening over assumptions, and in this podcast, we’ll explore his insights into human-centered design and the transformative impact of truly understanding the people we design for. Join us as we delve into the mind of an innovative strategist in the world of design.

Welcome to Great Minds Design Think Alike. Where we investigate design thinking, the challenges, the successes and the problems it solves. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of design thinking, check out episode 1. Be sure to subscribe so you get the newest episode as it’s released. Great minds design think alike is hosted by Stuart McDougall, owner of Tenaka, a leading design thinking consultancy in Johannesburg, South Africa and is proudly brought to you by Mac Media.

The conversation with Paris:

SM: Welcome to this episode of Great Minds Design Think Alike. Our workcast and podcast. Today I’m having a chat with Paris. How do I pronounce your surname? 

PP: Pitsillides. 

SM: He is from Matchboxology a Director of Strategy and has been using human-centered design for some time now as far as I understand. And we are gonna dig a bit deeper with him and understand it. So Paris thanks for your time. I really really appreciate it and.

PP: Thanks for the invite.

SM: You are welcome man. So I think just give us a breakdown quickly about Matchboxology and what you guys are doing. And how you fell into the human-centered design space.

PP: Right. I think that Carl Bruns who’s my partner and I started Matchboxology 2005. And we both have a company in the advertising industry. We were both creative directors. And I think to a certain extent we’ve lived in the minds of consumers or lived in the minds of people that we’ve been trying to convince to buy or do things for so long that in essence I think you’ve always been doing, we have always been human-centered in that regard. And in fact when we were trying to do was trying to sell a job to the listed company and of course they were accustomed to working with Consultants and they said well they said what’s your process, what’s your procedure and we thought geez, we don’t actually know because everything is just too big for us and we started looking for a way to describe what we were doing. And Carl called me one night and said you wont believe this exactly what it is that we are doing. It’s captured and Stanford University and says what we are doing human-centered design.

Ok great. So it’s now seven years later the huge buzz word but I would like to think that our headspace has been in that round for a while. But there are things about human centered design. There are signs of it which dictates an approach to how you think about things that make it different. And people try to, a lot of our clients ask us to do the job, again say can you  show us how to do it? And it’s pretty difficult because we each have our own personal ways of doing these things. It’s like a chef and there is a recipe everyone is gonna follow the recipe. But it’s different chefs are gonna come up with a different outcome isn’t. So human centered design for us is about going back to the previous experience. What people desire, that ability to look and listen but mostly listen. And it is an exercise in understanding how little we listen. And the reason we don’t listen is because we live on assumptions you know. And that’s gotta change. 

SM: And we make decisions based on those assumptions as well.

PP: And we make decisions based on that. You know and I think it is quite interesting to have this conversation in the time of Covid because all of the things that we are currently in state of thinking is playing out in real life on a scale that is frightening, but it’s playing out. And we kind of realize how in a sense we are prisoners to our own views, we are prisoners to ways of thinking. And I said prisoners because we are struggling to think out-of-the-box and to think differently because we are just so hooked in those old assumptions of the way things ought to be. And we gotta break loose if we wanna innovate. If we wanna think differently. If you wanna be different.

SM: Paris on something that you were saying a little bit earlier where I mean you guys were using obviously that the principles of human-centered design without really knowing that it was boxed as human-centered design and when you when you went and had a look at the methodology, were you guys are pretty close to the format of human-centered design and how it’s kind of prescribed, I mean obviously it is flexible in your application. Were you guys pretty close to that? And how are you different and where do you see things that you might be doing better than might be in the actual process as it stands? 

PP: I think conceptually It’s quite similar. But I understand that, that classic human-centered design was born out of product development really. So the guys were looking at and how to do things and how people interact with things and what became natural but in the same sense there’s a degree of honesty that required. And I mean think about Steve Jobs and his computer and his entire interface. He at the time of Apple the second round. He had no place. Why would he be in the business of laptops? He was up there against HP, IBM, Dell was on its way. Any astute businessman will tell you the competition is too big don’t go. But he had this idea of and I  believe that at Apple their whole business plan must be based on ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’. 

You remember when laptops first started or PCs and you had this like ctrl-alt-delete and everything was a function and somebody must have thought, wouldn’t it be cool if you could just drag this thing and put it in the box and whatever. And the wouldn’t it be cool sort of position allows you to say well what if it could be. Let’s do that. And it’s the kind of thing like kids have. 

When you listen to kids talk like hey wouldn’t it be cool if we could touch this and the whole world would exploded, or this or that or whatever. There are no limitations to the ideas. And you can kind of realize that a combination of our education, the need to perform within a box, the need to be constrained, limits your imagination and the solutions you can provide. 

So the difference between us is that we have a more human component to it. So instead of looking at products we focus a lot on people. What is it that they need to do and how they need to live? And obviously because we live in an ecosystem, we don’t live on our own. We have to understand what our society is and everybody that we interact with plays in on us. So since that call by that listed company to have a process we have actually knocked one together. We call it the ‘five e process’. But it’s an interpretation on human centered design but there is no rule and people need to understand that. You can go online and go to IDEOs website and get all the tools that you want. But in application you got to adapt it for what you need. I think that the heart of human centered design is being able to be free enough to think in what you need. And to be honest about the solution you are thinking of. And often we describe ourselves as a solutioning business. I hate those terminologies but that’s what we do. We help provide solutions. And we are honest about the fact that we can’t do it on our own. The people who are part of the problem are always the best in solving it. And that’s something that business does not listen to sufficiently I think.

SM: In terms of the kind of work that you have been doing I see that you’ve done quite a bit that I think is in the sort of in the social responsibilities space and a lot of it is up in Africa. What sort of challenges and successes are you experiencing you know in that space? And maybe give us some examples on a project which you think was astounding in the outcomes just through the process of human-centered design that were great.

PP: So yeah, you are right. We kind of did start off as a corporate social opportunity business because we knew the power of brands and we thought it was the age of transformation in South Africa and we thought that brands are getting it wrong. You shouldn’t just have a person on the board to donate money. You should use your competence to change your society to contribute in a more meaningful way. And we somehow ended up, not somehow, we did end up doing a project in HIV specifically for Levis. And they gave us the freedom to do what we wanted to do. And we created what was at that time and it still is the most successful HIV campaign in the country called Scrutinize. But it gave us a wonder in what was being done in the development sphere and in the health sphere we realized that the communication was so incredibly bad. 

But not only the communication, also the understanding of people, of human beings and why they did what they did. So we sat out to try and solve this in various ways. 

So I’m currently working on a project that is funded by the Gates foundation, which is to try and get the last 20% of men on to treatment. And it’s quite a lengthy process in which we are discovering A. what the problem was, you know you have to go and listen to people and understand what the issue is. And we are recognising how wrong we got our approach to HIV communication. And what we need to do correctly. It’s not just the communication, it’s understanding men’s fears, where they are born and what it’s going to take to correct that. After six months we are in a pilot which is proving to be quite successful. 

So up in Africa we do similar work. Where we are strengthening health care systems. One particular job for example in Sierra Leone where we are understanding how communities have come together to provide a mish mash of services that suits them. 

What you normally have is the big donors or people in the west coming in and saying this is how you should do medicine. This is how you should deliver the service. And it doesn’t meet the lifestyle or the requirements of people in any way. It flounders. If you understand what it is that people need from the bottom up and you inform policy makers on how to do things differently, you might probably come up with a more efficient way of delivering a health service. 

And you know I will give you an example, we went into the village where a nurse was dealing with a pregnant woman. She was a patient, she was shouting at her being completely freaked out and we thought isn’t that typical bad health service all around the world nurses shouting at people. And on a little further investigation, we realized that this nurse was brought into the village to provide a service. But the room she was providing that service was also where she lived. And the conditions were difficult and quite unbearable for her and that put her on the back foot. So how easy to take a step back and say; Ok let’s configure this. To improve the service. Why did people think this will not matter? So equally in South Africa you hear stories about how bad nurses are particularly with treatment to men. But the condition of nurses in this country is horrendous.

But you have to delve into it to understand what that problem is. And it’s not an easy fix. Because you find that she is the only breadwinner in the family. And she’s gotta go home everyday and the patriarchal husband is gonna make her clean the house and feed the kids and do the meal. In all of that she is getting no sleep etc. And then you put her in this situation and expect her to perform. 

So we are never solitary people and we look at the bigger picture and solve these things in different ways. 

Is there anything special that we are doing? I don’t think so. Is our ability to listen and be objective. Humility to go in there off the bat  knowing that we don’t know. We don’t know the answers. We don’t have any. These are things that you get to learn how to do. And we have a self correcting system within the company where constantly when we are debating or brainstorming something, somebody will point out hey Paris you are assuming that, don’t assume that. Go in and check that. You kind of realize geez there is so much stuff that we build on assumption. And if you don’t create a vacuum you can’t build anything new. That’s the learning really. And that’s it. Covid is the big wake up. We don’t know how to deal with this. We have never had it. All the assumptions we had aren’t working. We are trying to solve it with what we have without saying hold on a second. Let’s take a step back. Do it as a vacuum and say what would we do if we had a choice?

SM: It’s actually amazing that something like Covid can actually start to ignite that side of innovation and say you know, we have to change. I think a lot of people I mean ourselves included as Tenaka had certain things that were on the back burner and decisions that we were gonna make in the future that were just expedited now when Covid came around because it’s the stuff that we inherently knew we needed to do and Covid just made that decision easier. So it’s interesting times that we live in. 

Has your business in terms of how you are operating during this time of Covid changed at all or you know, how you are doing design thinking projects? Are you doing them online or how are you doing them now?

PP: Well a lot of our work is based on human interaction. We like to do it live and in person. So quite a few of our jobs have been suspended. We can’t travel anywhere. We’ve been doing the parts that we can online with our research. So instead of interviews, we call them immersions because we immerse ourselves in people’s lives and their environments. We have just done a set of immersions virtually using WhatsApp because that other assumption is that people have these kind of connectivity. But if you’re working with people in rural areas who don’t have the resources for who data it is a luxury. 

We’re finding that if you can get onto a WhatsApp call you can go to a certain extent. You can’t share physical things with people, you can share photographs and so a 35-40 minute discussion is taking up to two hours now. 

It can happen, depending on the subject at hand and what we’ve been exploring is something in the area of PREP (Pre Exposure Prophylactic Pills). Again it’s a very personal topic to talk to people about what is meaningful in their lives, their sex lives etc. And having that distance in a way has been quite good. I think people have been more forthright there’s like a stream by not being there in person, in this case that has been quite useful. But it’s not ideal. We struggle to do workshops online. Again if it’s in a corporate environment and people understand technology and you can get some meaningful interactions. But in a work workshop where you having people work with each other, we not only have struggled, we are not doing it. We can’t do it, it would be irresponsible to, we’re gonna have to wait it out and do it then.

SM: So you see the value in being in those people’s space and being in front of them as an enormous amount of value and comparison to just having a call or an immersion as you put it over the phone or Whatsapp?

PP: Yeah yeah. So in some cases immersions are fine but you know people interact with each other. And you know sometimes if you have to interview two guys about a subject on sex, the one plays off with the other guy is boasting or not. Keeps the other guy honest or you can get some insights into what people’s heads are at, what the pretense is, what the boosting is. You know if you have two people and say you would do that for that purpose, But you can’t bring two people together now. You know, social distancing this that. And we are very mindful of that. Our workshops are incredibly interactive because we don’t live solitary lives. So we are never gonna solve solutions in that way.

SM: It’s amazing and interesting times that we live in. I think business in itself and its essence is gonna change. But at the same time there is opportunity because you know you are looking at more and more issues and problems that now need to be solved. So you know a pandemic like this brings about that opportunity. 

Paris, I mean if there was anything that you could say to a business or a company out there that was looking to be innovative and apply innovation within their organization, what are the key things that you that you would you would tell them in and try and guide them on?

PP: So I think that from the experience, from my experience and again to use South Africa as a good example where the other big word that’s been bending the round for over a couple of decades is transformation. And what it takes to bring about change and we kind of hobbling along trying to panel beat the way our society works. 

To bring about transformation where real transformation means you have to let go of what you had before and create a void and fill that with something new. And we haven’t had the courage to do that as a nation. And I think we don’t have people who really innovate and understand that. To be able to let go of things and put in something new is difficult to do. And we see it even in the work that we do we’ll come back to the system and say, look here is a component we suggest that you do x with it. But the bigger health system is just so difficult to change that it can’t adapt to accept the new thing. So the new thing dies. And you really have to make space for new thinking and new ways of doing things to come into play. And I think that we’re at a stage worldwide where we have to be open to that and then look at interpretation of new liberal democracies in the UK and the US and what a mess that is. And we have to let go of all this terminology to bring it back home again. 

You know it can be all the words that our current politicians use and our oppositions use and even the EFF use. It’s all these old fashioned terminology that is used that is useless to us. You know there is this opportunity for us to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch and just say would it be cool if? What do we want? What do we want to create here? And start from that and have the courage to let go of the things that we have in order to to grow on it. So that they would be the one thing and on the back of that I’d like to suggest and I mentioned earlier humility, there’s anything I know now it’s how much I don’t know. 

And really we know nothing, we know so little we working around that is just dominated by really clever people a lot of PhDs lot of scientists a lot of people who we can’t taut to because they are so big and yet they can’t solve the smallest of problems and they can’t solve the real problems. So you don’t need to have a little bit of humility and understand what it is that we don’t know. Science is easy because it’s empirical but humans we are soft and malleable and we are very hard to pin down. And we’re not a science but a combination of like an art and science. And we don’t know, there’s so much we don’t know and you have that humility in order to make space for something solid to come in. So I’m pretty conceptual because that’s really where we wanna be.

SM: Paris, cool. It’s been an awesome chat and I really really appreciate it. I think if you could maybe tell us the kind of work that you are looking for? How people can get hold of you? And yeah and you know if you’re open to conversations with them, you know what’s the best channel for them to reach you on?

PP: Yeah I’m completely interested in anything that is interesting. That requires some meaningful thought on change whether it’s human behavior change or even organizational change, if you are an organization looking for purpose and lost your way. 

Or if there are certain behaviors that you are looking to correct in some way. We don’t position ourselves in the sector. We do work in health but we do work in the environment, we do work in entrepreneurship, and youth, we have done work in the arts. So we don’t pigeonhole ourselves in that way. is our website. There is a new one that’s coming up soon. Or you can just email me directly and matchbox with a  o l o g y at the end. 

We are not a massive company. Our company itself is quite innovative in its structure. We probably had anytime have about 14-15 full-time employees but expanded to currently 81. 

And we like to, we do most of our work in Africa. We like to focus in Africa because we have a really good understanding of what it means to be African. And we translate Africa to the world because people are not the same as us. We do work with we are part of the network that does work globally but our comfort zone is Africa.

SM: Ok Awesome man, thanks Paris. I appreciate your time and I look forward to obviously touching base with you in the future seeing how these projects are going and I’m sure we can obviously share some insights and that as we go along in this journey of life and listening basically to the people that we are solving problems for.

PP: Thanks man, thanks. It’s been fun being on here.

SM: Awesome, cheers.

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