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July 22, 2016
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The Journey To SmallBox 3.0

July 22, 2016

If you are familiar with SmallBox you may have noticed a shift over the last year or so. 

When SmallBox started in 2006 we were, essentially, a web development shop. We had built a custom CMS (Content Management System). Mostly we developed websites for the clients of other agencies in the first couple years. SmallBox had our own client work, but more than half of our revenue came from agency partnerships.

In time we grew weary of that dynamic – wanting to create our own experiences from the ground up – and began to build our own book of business. Building a website was all well and good, but you needed to get people there. This led us to marketing.

We began to call the CMS era “SmallBox 1.0.” Around 2011, we started talking about “culture-powered marketing” which, to us, meant that effective brands needed to empower their employees to be brand ambassadors. This was the 2.0 era of SmallBox. We peeled the onion and saw that the web, and all the devices connected to it, had fundamentally changed the game. Brands could no longer hide behind flashy campaigns. They had to engage. And who better to engage than the people who worked for them? No-one knew the product or service better.

But there was a problem. Their employees weren’t engaged in the “why” of the business. In fact, they were overwhelmingly disengaged. Maybe they were too close to seeing how the “sausage” got made. Regardless, we peeled the onion some more and saw that all of the wonderful design and messaging in the world meant nothing if it wasn't backed up by starting with purpose, living core values, and shifting out of reactive modes to strategic mindsets.

This is where the era of 3.0 comes in. We see brand experience as a spectrum: from back stage to front stage. The back stage elements include employees, culture, language, strategy and values. The front stage includes marketing, customers, messaging, advertising and tactics. Front stage is where most agencies are focused. It’s where most marketing is spent.

An increasingly critical opportunity is focusing on the back stage, and even further, seamlessly connecting the two. All of this leads us to human-centered design, an approach we have embraced because it supports our vision – to spark a revolution of people-centeredness. It has catapulted us from focusing on web and brand, to service and experience design, and to solving all kinds of big, fuzzy problems. 

We began to see work as an opportunity for play and a way to experience joy. We insisted on finding meaning and purpose in our work – and helping our clients make this transition too. And, a little to our surprise, we began to be known as much for "how" we worked as for "what" we did. We saw that our heart was in the "how" too, and over the last year we began making the pivot.

The 3.0 Era

So this brings us to SmallBox 3.0. Helping our clients find and seize opportunities to innovate on their offerings. Working together to build and sustain a people-centered workplace where collaboration and creativity thrive. Teaching others how to solve great challenges using human-centered design.

We started to approach projects as platforms for learning and change – meaning we focus not just on the output (e.g. service design, a rebrand), but also empowering our clients to solve things on their own. We understand stuff needs to get done, why not get it done while improving how you work along the way? We have found that change happens as much through the experience as the project outcome. Essentially, our process is now our product.

Some examples of SmallBox 3.0 in action:


It's very much still a journey. For more on how we work please visit our updated services page.

P.S. I will be on summer sabbatical this July and will not be able to respond to any comments until I return in August. Thanks for understanding!

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