Debbie Millman speaks to WeTransfer’s CIO Georg Petschnigg

Creativity is not a monolith, but a federation

Here we are, at the big 1-0!

To celebrate our 10th birthday, we created an awesome print magazine, but the stories were too good not to bring them to life online.

For the last 10 years, WeTransfer has used design thinking to provide a solution-based approach to solving complex problems by understanding the human needs involved both internally for the organization, and externally for the WeTransfer audience. WeTransfer has done this by re-framing design problems in fundamentally human-centric ways, using brainstorming and a more hands-on approach to prototyping and testing.

The company has championed the tenets of design thinking across the creative spectrum in the editorial platform WePresent, mobile app Collect, the slide-making tool Paste, the sketching app Paper, and with the 50 million monthly users sending over a billion files every month.

As Chief Innovation Officer at WeTransfer, Georg Petschnigg is a multi-hyphenate. A designer, engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, he first catapulted to fame as one of the founders of FiftyThree; makers of products over 25 million people have used worldwide: Paper, Paste and Pencil. Born in the midwestern United States and raised in Belgium and Germany he was predominantly influenced by his grandfather, Hubert Petschnigg, one of the renowned founders of the German architecture firm HPP. Hubert had a philosophy that guided all of his design decisions: “What counts most is that human beings feel well.” Georg is committed to this design ethos as well, and he has continually sought to get close to where people do their best thinking and their best work. Part of that effort is furthering WeTransfer’s long-term commitment to design thinking and the role empathic design plays in the work ethic of the organization.  

After one year as Chief Innovation Officer, and in honor of WeTransfer’s 10th Anniversary, I got the opportunity to interview Georg, wherein we talked about what it really takes to understand the human psyche, how to create a set of tools to motivate ideas, how to maintain courage in today’s society and how design thinking informs both his work and the culture at WeTransfer.

— Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman — Georg, in so much of the research I did in preparation for our interview, I kept seeing the term “renaissance man.” Do you think designers need to be multi-skilled polymaths now in order to be successful? If so, what are the most important skills to master as a designer now?

Georg Petschnigg — Be sure to live a bit! As a designer you need some life experience to draw from, just like a writer needs some life source to write about. Of course, you need to get the mechanics of design down and understand the materials you shape (such as code, pixels, or networks). But in the end you design for humans so your need to know that context best. Being multi-skilled equips you to work and learn from a wide range of people. It's in collaboration a designer’s work is amplified.

At a minimum be good at one more thing in addition to design. For example, I have found that designers that worked in hospitality or as a DJ have a unique vantage point: They pace experiences and understand the human psyche.

Debbie Millman — How so? In what way are they able to understand the human psyche?

Georg Petschnigg — People in hospitality or DJs work while others have fun. This means they see the good, bad, and ugly of human behavior. From a simple meal to elaborate weddings, they are part of some of the most basic and charged human rituals. Throughout they have to anticipate needs, cater to comfort and emotion. That requires empathy.

Debbie Millman — Late last year you joined WeTransfer as the Chief Innovation Officer. This comes after an illustrious career at Microsoft and as Co-Founder and CEO of FiftyThree, the makers of Paper and Paste. What made you decide to make this move? What do you hope to accomplish in your first two years?

Georg Petschnigg — We saw a great brand fit and opportunity to take our mission forward. WeTransfer is one of the biggest creative brands in the world, serving over 50 million creatives a month. However, it is relatively unknown in the US – something we could help with being based there. We are now working on a set of tools to move ideas, from initial thought to final delivery.

This started with WeTransfer’s file sharing product, then Collect. FiftyThree was a well-recognized leader in tools for creativity on mobile with Paper, and in-team collaboration with Paste. Combined, these form a set of tools for creativity.

Debbie Millman — Will you be developing more products in the realm of drawing or collaborating? If so, can you give us a hint as to what they will be?

Georg Petschnigg — With WeTransfer we want to get behind every great idea. Our set of tools are about the movement of an idea. At this point we are building out each tool. Paper to think through and form ideas. Collect to save and fuel ideas. Paste to show ideas and align a team. Transfer to deliver and share ideas. Over time we will look at the links and connections between our products, to keep people in their flow. For example, I can see us quickly turning a Collect board of ideas into a presentation deck in Paste.

Debbie Millman — You studied with David Kelley at Stanford University. What did he teach you about design thinking?

Georg Petschnigg — At the foundation of design thinking lies a text called The Universal Traveler: A Soft Systems Guide for Creativity, which everyone at the Stanford (or Joint Program in Design as it was called then) reads. It describes a process for creativity. David’s teaching had a profound impact on me. He stressed that the purpose of a process was not about being right, but rather about being able to reflect on the different phases in a design and get better the next time around. “If there is no process, how will we learn to get better the next time?” I learned that design and creativity is teachable and everyone can get better at it.

Debbie Millman — How has design thinking informed your work over the years, and how do you use it at WeTransfer?

Georg Petschnigg — Design thinking in many ways is a collection of tools and techniques. We’ve been translating those tools into products to support creativity. Take sketching, taught in ME101: Visual Thinking. This directly led to the development of Paper. It lets anyone express their ideas with a sketch. Paper’s graphics algorithms encode techniques for linework and color. Our app Collect is all about seeing and keeping ideas as fuel, a sort of digital shoebox for insight. Paste, our team presentation tool, emphasizes the storyboard for storytelling which is a tenet of design thinking. It brings transparency to teams and builds opportunity to learn from others. Our Transfer product celebrates the delivery of an idea. Speaking about delivering work, David Kelley has an impressive collection of briefcases and enjoyed finding the right one, in tone and function, to stage the reveal and delivery of a client project. 

Debbie Millman — What do you like to collect in real life?

Georg Petschnigg — I’ve not been collecting many physical things and I’ve been told I don’t have many things. Personally, I think I made room for the things I really like! I immensely enjoy finding the one perfect object of a kind, say knife, glass, gray sweater, lamp, etc. and knowing why it’s perfect for me. If I were to collect something, it would be the art/products/books made by my friends, or antiques from my family.

Debbie Millman — Can you talk a bit WeTransfer’s your design ethos – "tools that enable and support human creativity”? How do they do that?

Georg Petschnigg — Designing tools for creativity is different than designing for efficiency or entertainment. Efficiency has a clear path. Creativity is an exploration. It’s a journey and you want to keep the mind in a state of flow and play. All of our tools strive to be beautifully obvious. This is to keep people in their flow. The trick is not to be too simplistic: Our Transfer tool on the surface is straightforward but has a rich system of options and delivery notices behind it. Paper is very approachable and allows for mastery, where change in velocity or taps can trigger additional functions. Aesthetics and beauty play an important role since they give creation meaning. Slides created in Paste never look bad because they follow intelligent brand and layout guides. Our tools also recognize that creativity is not a monolith, it’s a federation. So we don’t want to trap your data in and design for integrating with other products.

Debbie Millman — Can you elaborate a little bit about how creativity is not a monolith, but a federation? Can you give me an example of what you mean?

Georg Petschnigg — Creativity requires combining one part familiar, with one part new. By that definition creativity can’t come from a monolithic source. It is about joining independent ideas into a whole, a federation. This thinking applies to software suites as well. You can design them to be closed and monolithic, like Microsoft Office before the Department of Justice’s Antitrust laws, or Facebook’s messaging system today. Or you can design for openness and federation. With WeTransfer, each tool is designed to work by itself and function with other products, whether from WeTransfer or not. A WeTransfer link connects ideas, and does not lock them in. 

Debbie Millman — Some of the best companies today are showing quite a lot of courage and supporting non-neutral stances. Often, they are quite opinionated. How do you and the team at WeTransfer feel about that? What are some of the ramifications or results of that position?

Georg Petschnigg — We have to take a stand. On culture. On technology. On politics. Not because we think we are right, but because we think it’s the responsible thing to do. Technology plays an outsized role in our lives and is never neutral. We need to own it. Take our advertising product. 30% of our ad inventory, billions of impressions, are devoted towards causes like Gun Control, and voices across many different communities.

Our editorial platform WePresent demonstrates this most vividly. WePresent puts diversity at the center of the stories it tells – whether that's age, race, geography, gender or sexuality. Put simply, more voices = better ideas. This gives our employees the permission to take a stance as well, to agree or disagree, and it’s that creative tension that gives rise to the best solutions.

Debbie Millman — Do you ever get worried you might alienate members of your audience? How do you keep your courage steadfast?

Georg Petschnigg — Yes, this is a worry, and it applies to our audience and also our employees. Keep in mind one of the most visible products WeTransfer has is our wallpapers. These are billboard like ads for the internet. They are a reflection of the brands that advertise with us, but also of WeTransfer itself. The choice of what ad to run can cause alienation or lengthy debate. I recall a very heated discussion whether to show a cannabis ad or not. Our team from Venice California, exposed to the luxury cannabis boom in the US, was in favor. Our team in Amsterdam, with decades of experience with coffee shop culture and open tolerance, saw a much more complex picture. I realized I had an oversimplified view of Amsterdam’s approach to tolerance. 

Courage and strength are related. You build both by taking strong positions and maintaining optimal tension. This requires giving yourself the permission, and also a supportive environment, to take those positions in the first place. You get none of this growth if you believe your position is neutral. Courage means speaking from the “cor”, latin for heart.

Debbie Millman — We are living in a day and age where American adults spend an average of more than six hours a day on the internet. How can we use design thinking to navigate our online behavior?

Georg Petschnigg — The internet was conceived for idea exchange. It is a triumph of human ingenuity and cooperation. However, today immensely powerful platform companies set the rules for discovery (search) and discourse (social media). Maximizing engagement and profits came with the cost of distraction, isolation and polarization. I’d like to return to the internet as the greatest invention for idea exchange. Design thinking as an approach here may be too incremental. We need to envision a world where things are not as they are. That requires vision. And bringing it to life is a social process.

Debbie Millman — I love the idea of discovery being about search and discourse about social media. Do you think we’ll ever get to a point where we have best practices put in place for a more just and tolerant form of discourse?

Georg Petschnigg — Absolutely. I fundamentally believe humans are the most noble creatures that exists. Every invention from stick, to stone, to printing press contains a promise for good or harm. And every time the merits have won.