MU/DAI: Lessons from a Design Startup

MU/DAI is an innovation and strategy firm solving complex business problems through design thinking for leading brands and organizations.

MU/DAI interview with 10,000ft

With just over a year into their company’s history, the team at MU/DAI is learning firsthand the thrills and challenges of growing a business based on humanizing physical and digital experiences through design.

We sat down over drinks with Laura Blaydon, MU/DAI’s VP of Strategy and Content, and Patrick DiMichele, VP of Experience Design, to get an inside look at how they articulate value propositions, build trust, and iterate on their operations model while keeping design at the heart of all that they do.

Patrick DiMichele and Laura Blaydon of MU/DAI

Patrick DiMichele and Laura Blaydon of MU/DAI

What role does design thinking play in your business operations and how you run your team?

Patrick: First off, we’re new. A lot of us have worked together in the past; many have had leadership roles inside of design companies. But this (starting MU/DAI) has been us operating without training wheels. There’s no boss looking over our shoulder, which is tremendously empowering and terrifying. You could look at the first year of our existence as testing and either validating or invalidating hypotheses, which has a lot to do with rapid prototyping and design. So in a lot of cases, whether we’re talking about a structure for a project or how we build a team, it’s been a matter of “Let’s try this and see if it will work.”

"You could look at the first year of our existence as testing and either validating or invalidating hypotheses, which has a lot to do with rapid prototyping and design."

Laura: In terms of how we manage the team, it’s been fairly loose. One of the things we’re dealing with now is adding more structure around things like performance management. Things that have been built in where we've worked in the past. Originally we wanted to get away from that but there’s a happy medium in there somewhere, so we’re figuring out what that looks like right now.

MU/DAI office

How do you approach a new project when the outcome or deliverable is loosely defined?

Patrick: We talk a lot about this idea of practical innovation, which means in order to do the most impactful work for our clients—work that they can bring to market and bring to life—we’re infinitely more interested in figuring out what’s the pilot we can put in the world six months from now, rather than what’s the blue sky three year picture look like. Ultimately that’s just conjecture and an idealistic vision that you probably don’t get to in the form you originally thought of.

Laura: The types of projects we’ve taken on have really opened our eyes to what it’s like to not have a prescribed outcome or course of action, and really drive the final result. That’s where I feel the best ideas come from and it’s a huge luxury to have that latitude.

Are you selective in terms of finding projects that will ultimately lead to really innovative ideas?

Patrick: We use a saying in our organization that’s this notion of “getting to the right idea vs. getting the idea right.” And I think a lot of design projects are about getting the idea right. What I mean by that is, someone comes to us with an end goal of a thing they want. For example they say, “We’ve got this app can you help us fix it?” or “We have this idea for a website, can you help us build it?” And the answer is yes, we can do those things. But what is fundamentally more interesting, to me at least, is a question like, “We’ve got this customer segment we want to reach and we’re not sure how to reach them. How would you do that?” When it’s articulation of problem rather than articulation of solution, that’s an infinitely more interesting place to play as a designer.

"When it’s articulation of problem rather than articulation of solution, that’s an infinitely more interesting place to play as a designer."

Laura: Any company that does that kind of nuts and bolts work is likely to never see a point where it totally goes away; what we're looking for is to be thought of as more of a strategic design partner than a production partner. When you think about differentiators for us, I think it’s a chicken or egg. Ultimately, the work that you do and experience you have is the differentiator.

Patrick: Absolutely. Where I think we’ve struggled most is since we want people to ask us any type of question, building a portfolio that makes any damn sense to anybody is a little bit trickier than it probably should be.

What is your advice to companies who have the same challenge?

Laura: One of the things we try to do is foster relationships with our clients that build trust so they come to us with, “This is what we want to accomplish, what’s the best way to get there?” or “How would you guys approach this project?” The more you can educate clients to invest in this type of thinking, the more you'll be able to succeed and get better. To get there takes a huge amount of trust.

MU/DAI team

How do you build trust?

Patrick: Blood, sweat, and tears (laughs). I don’t think there is a proven formula.

Laura: I would say open and honest communication. We need to be able to have a relationship with our clients in which we can be transparent when we don’t think they’re going in the right direction. That goes both ways; we want to actively seek out feedback on our approach and solutions, which helps us to develop in our relationship with a client and ensure we’re focused on the right things.

What are some ways you encourage prospective clients to go with you over other design firms?

Patrick: It typically varies from client to client. If we’re talking to someone who has hired an innovation shop in the past, then we can talk about how we try to go faster and land with something they can hold, and play with, and poke at; not something that you just see on a Powerpoint. If we talk about us versus a traditional agency, we talk about how we make stuff and not ads for stuff. But there’s often a 15-minute feeling each other out period as we’re talking about what we’ve done in the past, what they could do, until we finally find a way of matching it up.

"We make stuff, not ads for stuff."

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting MU/DAI?

Laura: My biggest learning so far has been reversing my “going-in” assumption that collaboration and communication with a relatively small team was going to be much easier. I mean, how hard can it be to communicate with 20 people? I think it’s easy to take it for granted what that actually looks like. You think, there is no formality to talking to someone sitting five feet away from you, but there still needs to be a certain level of structure around the ways we share information with the entire team. Even though we're small and have a relatively flat reporting structure, those things have been challenges for us at times. But for us overall, it's a huge advantage that we can work so closely together. The key is to be honest with each other and transparent. When we give each other feedback it needs to come from a place of wanting the other person to know exactly what you’re thinking. It’s completely in an effort to strengthen the relationship and ultimately means we can work better together.


MU/DAI is an innovation strategy and experience design firm located in Chicago, with offices in Austin and Los Angeles. They've helped solve complex business problems through design thinking in digital and physical ways for organizations such as XCOR Aerospace, Clayco and Cleveland Clinic. You can learn more about their work at mudaidesign.com.

Read more conversations with smart operations leaders in our Two Beers interview series.

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