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Apple, Google … McKinsey? How an Old-School Company Is Changing the World of Digital Design


When James McKinsey founded “McKinsey and Company” almost a hundred years ago, there was no such thing as management consulting.

Fast forward to today. The organization has become not only an American institution, but a global one. McKinsey helped usher in the era of science and data-driven business practices, and has founded its reputation on an ability to solve difficult problems.

Traditionally, though, McKinsey hasn’t been known for its creative work. That’s why I was intrigued to learn that the company assembled an impressive digital design team–led by former members of Facebook, Google and Apple, just to name a few.

I had the chance to speak with Collin Cole, McKinsey’s Vice President of Experience Design. The firm–as employees of McKinsey often refer to the company–recently added Cole and Nitin Gupta, co-founders of digital design studio Carbon12 Creative, to its digital practice.

I was curious to learn why Cole chose to join McKinsey at this point in his career, and how the company is changing. Here are some highlights from our conversation (edited for brevity and clarity):

1. Almost your entire team (from Carbon12 Creative) chose to follow you and Nitin to McKinsey. Why was that?

For three decades I’ve worked in design studios–each of which were exciting places that brought together lots of diverse, creative viewpoints. But even the best agencies have blind spots; or, put another way, design alone is not enough to solve every problem. How studios engage with clients can also post challenges; we wanted to play a bigger role from end-to-end, from developing the initial recommendations to operationalizing solutions.

Additionally, McKinsey works at the highest levels, including the biggest and most complicated companies in the world. Actively participating in meetings with those senior leaders, the challenge of multifaceted problems–these are massive opportunities for learning and growth.

At the same time, designers are able to help clients see issues and drive impact from an entirely new perspective.

2. How is your role at McKinsey different than what you’ve done in the past?

My role includes working with not only designers and clients but also business consultants and technical experts. My job is to add ‘design thinking’ to our problem solving–a deep consideration for the actual people who will be touched by the solution.

I love my team and continue to actively mentor them, but I’m also excited to work with the broader Experience Design team. I get to mentor but also learn from them. I also get to work with separate but adjacent leaders, other VPs from data science, development, agile coaching, and more–which is helping me think through not only how I best serve a particular client, but also to take a broader perspective and think: What can we now create, across all of these disciplines, to better serve our clients?

3. Any major changes in thought or strategy you can share? How about special challenges?

Globally, McKinsey has been quietly but steadily amassing some of the world’s top design talent. People I would consider thought leaders in the experience design field are peers of mine here–and that reflects a big shift in strategy from historically focusing on business consulting to now welcoming those of us from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds, from design, technology, and more.

McKinsey is sending a very strong signal that it is serious about bringing top design talent to its clients. Among our main challenges is: How can we fully harness the added diversity of background and perspective our team brings, while also ensuring consistent development?

It’s a cliché but it’s true: We live in a world where the only constant is change, where companies no longer have time to settle for steady growth and incremental improvements. Companies need to think differently, work differently, and serve customers in new ways.

Design is a great catalyst. It helps us reframe problems and discover exciting new opportunities.


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