What do you get when a branding and communications genius marries an industrial design guru? If you guessed a whole new breed of creative studio, you probably already know Nigel Smith and Helen Kerr. The two first met in the elevator of the Toronto building where they both worked–he was the creative director of Hahn Smith Design, a graphic design agency on the 10th floor, and she was the president of Kerr & Co., an industrial design firm on the ninth. Small talk led to coffee, which led to dinner, which led to a wedding–and to increasing collaboration between their two companies.
In 2010, after 10 years of marriage and countless projects together–from furniture to cutlery to potato peelers–Smith and Kerr merged their companies into a unique hybrid they hesitate to call a design company. “Our areas of expertise are research, design and solutions,” says Kerr. “Those are the things we do, but our goal is really to help companies broaden their world, to innovate and offer real solutions that may or may not be design.” It’s not uncommon for a client to walk in wanting a new website, and walk out with binders full of ideas to rethink their entire business.
Employees: 14 Year founded: 2010 Home base: Toronto Number of patents held by Helen Kerr: 14 Battered hubcaps in Nigel Smith’s office: 25 Number of design books on site: 1,356
In other words, Kerr Smith is in the business of skyrocketing its clients to next-level success, and the team will turn the office upside-down to do it—the walls are perpetually covered in photos and paper printouts. For one project—designing a line of health-care chairs for hospitals—Kerr Smith filled an entire room with prototypes. “We work in a very visceral way, and wall space is very important to our process,” says Smith. “We have a lot of war rooms where the walls just get covered in paper. Creativity is messy, and we go through many, many, many iterations of things—some people think we’re crazy to spend so much time and energy on this stuff, but I think it’s that level of obsession that distinguishes us.”
- Not everyone needs us, and that’s okay. “We’re interested in doing transformative work, and we love working with clients who have an appetite for that,” says Kerr. “We work best with companies that have, or have the seed of, a culture of innovation. It’s hard to impose change on a company that’s not open to it. I don’t think that’s our job.”
- Innovation is risky. “Creativity is about going forward and doing new things, so there is a kind of leap of faith involved in what we do,” says Smith. “We’re always moving into the unknown and dealing with things that are intangible, so failure is a real possibility. It’s important to manage and communicate that risk, because in creative services nothing is ever guaranteed.”
- Prototype everything. “Although we live very much in the world of ideas and process and research, we temper all of it with real life,” says Kerr. “A fundamental part of what we do is to try stuff out. We have a 700-square-foot workshop where we produce prototypes of everything we’re working on. It’s so important to understand how a human being will react to something before it becomes real.”