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Tim Kobe on bringing design studio Eight Inc to Dubai

Tim Kobe on bringing design studio Eight Inc to Dubai

Eight Inc Founder and chief executive officer Tim Kobe explains why he brought the big-hitting design firm to the emirate

Chances are you are more familiar with Eight Inc. than you think.

If you have ever visited an Apple retail store, you have come into contact with them. If you are a Citibank customer, you know them. If you have bought Nike products, enjoyed a Virgin Atlantic Airways Clubhouse, bought a Lincoln in China, or experienced one of Nokia’s global flagship stores, you have touched base with them.

Citibank

In fact, with clients as high profile and diverse as Coca-Cola, Nissan, Vodafone, Hewlett-Packard and the Office of the Crown Prince of Dubai, it might be hard to avoid the San Francisco-born design studio’s influence.

Now, the firm’s handiwork is set to spread even more widely across the Middle East and North Africa with the opening of its 12th global office in Dubai Design District – a move that founder and chief executive officer Tim Kobe says was almost inevitable.

“We’ve had some very interesting relationships here in Dubai over the last few years, working with people who are involved in really helping to drive the thought leadership, to drive innovation. In those relationships it became clearer and clearer to us that it made sense to have a presence here,” he explains as we meet at the new studio.

“When you look at the other oil economies in the Middle East, this is really the future model, and that future orientation is something that we’re really excited about,” he adds.

Having opened Eight Inc.’s first studio in California in 1989, Kobe is the brains behind – among other things – Apple’s iconic retail stores, events and MacWorld exhibitions. Bringing a new type of experiential design and branding to the tech giant, Eight Inc. is credited as taking it to a new level with now familiar elements such as the Genius Bar, open store layout and customer service counters.

Apple store inside
Kobe and his firm were in the right place at the right time and with the right ideas. And it is that good sense of timing that has brought him to the United Arab Emirates.

“This is our 19th year with Apple and we worked 12 years with Steve Jobs,” he says. “I feel like we were part of that emerging time and I see the same kind of thing happing here in Dubai. When you consider the economic pressure, the demographic diversity we see here, and a number of other factors, it all adds up to make Dubai a very interesting place.

“The economy has to continued to fill into other areas outside of tourism and those kinds of categories, and when you look at intellectual property being created, there is an incredible amount of desire to do that. We tend to bring the capabilities to help do that, so from a business strategy perspective, it makes sense for us to be here now.”

According to Kobe, the emirate is forging an innovation environment similar to Silicon Valley – a notion backed up by a swathe of innovation-centred initiatives, summits, projects and funds in recent months, not least the development of Eight Inc.’s new home – d3.

And the CEO is excited by the prospects of being based in the up-and-coming creative hub.

“We’re working on a large master plan right now that is looking at some of the qualities d3 represents in terms of an environment that is focused around creativity,” he says.

“None of it happens without the right chemistry, the right kind of alchemy, and I think d3 is trying to put that together in a way that will have strong ramifications for the country. To do this you need to have photographers, you need to have artists, you need to have designers, you need to have engineers, you need to have a diversity of skill sets,” he says.

“Where does the next Steve Jobs meet the next Steve Wozniak? There has to be this type of interaction potential for these things to come to life. Where we’ve seen the greatest success is where this diversity of experience and points of view can come to life and do so in a safe, productive way.”

With phase two of d3 expected to be completed by mid-2018 and phase three to be completed in 2021, Eight Inc. is an early mover into the design hub, planned to blossom into a creative community featuring studios, exhibition spaces, workshops, showrooms, cafes and restaurants.

The firm’s new office has room for about 30 people – a number Kobe describes as “a sweet spot” as well as being able to accommodate his desired mix of local and global talent.

He says: “The way we typically start an office is with about 50 per cent of the studio from our other offices. We would try to bring in those who are interested in coming to a new office from within our organisation.

“Then we would take 50 per cent of people in the office from the local community. We’re really looking for people who have a deeper knowledge of the local customs, local traditions, local business manner.

“Wherever you are in the world, that local knowledge, understanding and experience is essential.”

The office will not just serve Dubai, the UAE or the Gulf Cooperation Council, but will act as a hub for the wider region.

“From Dubai we have work that we’re doing in India, in other parts of the Middle East as well as Africa,” confirms Kobe.

“We saw this move as a strategic decision for the whole region. It fills what was previously a gap within our global time zone distribution and that makes for much better coverage for what we do.”

As we talk, the theme of timing returns to the conversation. This time in relation to the evolution of design in the GCC.

Kobe believes there is an opportunity for design to start playing a bigger role in the region, largely because companies are increasingly seeing the value of it as a driver for success.

“As we’ve seen, whether it’s with Apple, Virgin, or any other business, the value that design can create for a company is huge,” he says.

“It allows that business to distinguish itself within a category and studios are moving away from just being a consultant, and moving towards having a much deeper relationship.

“Dubai today is not just a sales outpost for global brands and companies can see this. It provides an opportunity to create things for export from Dubai, which is really interesting. And being here now means that we can be at the foundation of those kinds of relationships. From our own business perspective, that’s a very good place to be.”

As with every expansion, Eight Inc.’s move does not come without its challenges. Indeed, Kobe is well aware of the hurdles a new market brings, not least the need to understand new cultural aspects.
But rather than see this as a barrier, the CEO views it as an invitation to innovate.

“Where we’ve seen the most interesting possibilities is where there is a diversity of culture,” he says.
“China is generally viewed as culturally consistent or more monolithic, but in fact there’s a lot of segments of types of culture as you move throughout the country. Some people have said that India is really made up of 26 countries. That diversity – particularly if it’s based on openness and respect – has always led to more successful outcomes.

“Engaging with this part of the world in a positive way is really important. I think there are a lot of things to be proud of. The technological heritage of Islam is very deep and very rich, for example, and that understanding leads to opportunities to connect with people on a more meaningful level.”

Not being confined to certain categories or sectors – as some studios are – has allowed the firm to explore those opportunities much more freely than some of its peers, working across technology, financial services, hospitality and tourism, aviation and more.

It has also given the company a philosophy that is not limited to aesthetics.

“Our offices are unique in a sense. We’re focusing on what we hope will be successful human outcomes as a result of the things that we do,” explains Kobe.

“Our clients here to date have an amazing vision that is very positive – it’s about a better way of living, a better place for people.

“These kinds of things may sound easy to say but they are difficult to do, which is why the relationships we have are so important. The more we can be affiliated with people who believe in that, the better the work we can do.”

The roots of this outlook are in the company’s early years when it opened its doors to a range of different projects and categories.

“It took us down a path of not looking at things by a particular discipline or particular practice,” says Kobe.

“We started to look at what we were really doing and the purpose behind it. As with any good design, you’re doing work that progresses something – you’re creating something new. Design is really about change.
“We were learning how to design differently and we were learning in a sense that it wasn’t a purely discipline-based practice.”

He admits that many of Eight Inc.’s projects don’t fall immediately into specific verticals, but rather engage their environment.

“The architectural interiors engage the products and services that accompany has,” he explains.
“It engages the behaviour of the staff as well as the customers and it engages the communication that a company has with its people. So it’s maybe harder for people to understand that we don’t fit neatly into that box. Instead we fit neatly into the way people experience things. This is where we see the opportunity to do the most meaningful kind of work.”

Another result of its outlook is the development of the company’s design incubation arm.
Having clients across a range of industries and sectors allows the firm to see where they are focusing their attention in the future or, as Kobe puts it, “where they are placing their bets”.

But while these clients are largely looking within their own categories, he says Eight Inc. is able to “see the spaces in between what they are all thinking”.

“I describe it as being able to see the moisture before the clouds are formed,” he continues.

“We can see an opportunity and we will then focus on design incubation within that opportunity. We pick one project each year, we fund it out of our team revenue stream and then we put it out for proof of concept.

“We’ll test it with people who we consider to be experts in the field and, as it’s turned out over the last three or four projects, when we do that the people who are the experts in the field want to be part of the company. They get involved in some way, whether that’s investment or whether that’s being CEO of the business or technical advisors. We’ve had some really amazing people join us because we are able to see it and express it in a way that they see as being meaningful in that category.

“It’s really gratifying to have that kind of outcome and it allows those projects can take on a life of their own. Eight Inc. just retains a percentage of the shares having incubated the project.”

As well as making business sense, Kobe reveals there is a much bigger reason for the company branching out into incubation.

He says: “We try to pick things that can improve things on a big scale. “It’s a new model and it’s something we’re very excited about. We’re looking at things in mobility, we’re looking at the internet of things, and a lot of categories where we see the potential for the future.

“We’re working on technology for concussions, for example. We see that as a huge problem, from equestrian to football to basically every active sport. This idea of what happens when people sustain severe impact. So, we’ve created technology, we’ve received a bunch of patents for it, so we’re off to the races in terms of the development and finalisation of it.

“If we can reduce 50 per cent of the concussions globally through this technology, that’s a great thing to be involved in.

“We’re also working on a fintech solution for the cost of education in America. It’s a huge problem and we’re working on a workaround for that. These are the kind of things we want to get involved in and have some impact. If we don’t have the ability to influence our clients to do that, then we have the ability to do it ourselves.”

Primarily based out of Singapore, Kobe aims to bring design incubation to the Dubai office eventually, reiterating the shared goals of the company’s clients and partners in the region.

“Our local partner is phenomenal, really insightful and really looking to make things better,” he says.
“The fact that we share the same values was fundamental in us making the decision to come here. A lot of our work is as intuitive as it is strategic and there was something about this opportunity, this place, and these people that felt really compelling.”

With such a commitment to Dubai and the region as a whole, it’s likely you’ll become even more familiar with the company before you know it.

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