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Revolutionizing Problem-Solving: The Design Thinking Philosophy of Entrepreneur and Creative, Sean Shepherd

Are you ready to revolutionize the way you approach problem-solving? Meet Sean Shepherd, award-winning designer, entrepreneur, and creative Principal at Nucleus Strategies. With his expertise in service design, innovation design, and user experience design, Sean has a proven track record of helping clients solve complex strategic problems while creating consistently exceptional experiences. He is dedicated to human-centered design and uses visual thinking and radical collaboration to drive success. 

I met with Sean to talk about his professional background, diverse expertise and interests, and exciting projects.

Shane Austin:  Sean, you have a diverse range of interests and talents, including art, social causes, design, entrepreneurship, innovation, technology, and civic engagement. What inspired you to become a designer, and how did you get started in the industry?

Sean Shepherd: It started back in high school where I had an opportunity to take graphic design classes with an ex-graphic designer teacher. I fell in love with the subject, and after working for a few years in the business side of marketing and communication, I pursued my graphic design degree. It was an unusual transition, but I was able to move into the creative side and translate my business experience into design. I loved it so much that I could easily spend 12-14 hours working on it without being paid.

Shane: How did this lead you to entrepreneurship or entrepreneurial activity? Because you’ve been kind of dancing this game between arts and business for a long time.

Sean: High school. I started putting on concerts, gigs for Indie rock bands, which my friends and I were really into, which would come through Kelowna in between Calgary and Vancouver and they would need to stop off for the night.

There were some really interesting older brothers and some friends of mine who were really into unique music, like the pre-Brit pop, UK invasion, and shoegazer stuff. They were really into that music. 

Shane:  You obviously came back to the Okanagan, and there are probably professional, business, and arts interests that attracted you to being in the Okanagan. How did you arrive back in the Okanagan, and why did you choose the Okanagan as a place to further your career in business?

Sean: It was accidental, actually. While en route to Vancouver for a new job, I stopped in the Okanagan where my family lives. I had previous agency work in Winnipeg, and while running my own design firm there, a big contract went unpaid, causing insolvency. Smarting from that loss, I stuck around the Okanagan for a while, and met people in the web development industry, which I was interested in. I was given the opportunity to start their web department, leading to a year and a half of invaluable experience. Job offers followed, and eventually, I started my own business here.

Shane: Can you tell us about the origins of Nucleus Strategies?

Sean: I was previously working as a creative director at a branding agency specialized in marketing. Although they survived the 2007 economic crash, I found the agency model to be limiting for creating proper User Experience Design. So, I started Nucleus Strategies out of my interest in UX and service design. Initially, we focused on affiliate and web marketing for large manufacturers, which kept us going for the first seven to eight years. Our biggest client was one of the largest manufacturers I had worked with previously, who followed me to the branding company and became our biggest client to start with. Over time, we specialized in working with manufacturers, with a focus on customer experience and service design.

Shane: Can you tell us about your involvement with coLab and the innovation community here?

Sean: I got involved with coLab and the innovation community for several reasons. First, I attended a UX breakfast event, and the conversations were so ahead of the curve that I knew I had to find like-minded people who shared my passion. And that’s exactly what I found in this community. I also had a friend involved in the first group of companies that I used to meet before coLab, and through that connection, I met several other interesting people. The energy and vibe here were so cool and refreshing, and it was such a fantastic experience finding something leading-edge like this in Kelowna.

Coming from a corporate and agency background, the startup culture here was different from what I was used to, but I found it positive and everyone was open to discussions. It was a different way of looking at business and the world, and I loved it. The types of people and the energy level here have always been welcoming and positive, which made it easy to choose coLab when I parted ways with my business partner.

I’ve worked with several members over the years and even collaborated with some of them on cool projects. Currently, I am working on a project with Ian Cranston from IC Infrastructure, and it’s been a couple of years in the making. It’s exciting to meet interesting people, and the collaborations and projects continue to this day.

Shane: You seem to have a lot of professional and personal interests, such as the Palace of Manufacturers project and various startup entities. How do you balance all of these?

Sean: A while ago, I became comfortable with not getting everything done in a day. I used to stress myself out by ranking everything I did out of 10 every day and having every minute of the day planned meticulously. Looking back, that was not a healthy way to live. Now, I have priorities. My work and exercise are non-negotiables, and spending time with my partner comes next. After that, it’s a matter of what I have energy for. I have a ton of interests, but they all stem from my fascination with creativity and entrepreneurship. I find it interesting to make something from nothing.

Shane:  So looking ahead, what do you see as some of the unique challenges and opportunities for you as a designer in the Okanagan, and how are you acting on them?

Sean: Oh, my worries are always the same. It’s about how to communicate with the community. As a design thinker, I preach to my clients and mentees to understand and articulate their value proposition, but it’s not easy when it comes to describing what I do. I struggled for years to refine my service design practice, and now even my clients use “service design” as a verb. While it’s a sign of success, it also highlights the lack of communication from me. It’s about finding the right language to describe the value I bring to my clients.

Shane: So, Sean, do you have an elevator pitch?

Sean: I’m in the process of rebranding and refining my elevator pitch, but it’s been a bit of a challenge. However, it’s an exciting opportunity to articulate exactly what I do. I’ve been focusing on this project for the past six to seven months, and I plan to unveil it in the coming months. My goal is to clearly communicate my expertise in service design, innovation design, and user experience design, and how I use design thinking to help clients solve strategic problems and develop successful organizations.

While I have penetrated the biggest clients in the Okanagan region, diversifying my client base is always a priority. However, I’ve been so busy with work in recent years that I haven’t had much time for marketing. It’s a good thing, but I know I should be doing more. So, I plan to leverage the products we’ve developed and showcase some of the really cool work we’ve done in the last couple of years.

I tend to work on long-term projects that can take up to 18-36 months before I have something to show for it. However, some of the big wins are starting to come out, and I’m excited to promote them. I’m always looking to push the boundaries of what’s possible and take my practice to the next level. There are no real boundaries when it comes to design thinking, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

Shane: Do you have any exciting projects that you’re currently working on?

Sean: I’m excited about this pilot project we’re doing with IC Infrastructure, with the City of Salmon Arm. The goal is to unpack the value of a particular service for different stakeholders and compare those perspectives. This way, we can create a strategy to maintain and invest in that service going forward. It’s challenging for any city to improve their services because they don’t have a clear understanding of what people value. Each department has their own perspective on what’s valuable, which can be biased since it makes their job easier. There’s very little transparency into what people care about, especially during times when attitudes are changing, creating tensions and pressures on municipalities.

We’re taking a service and figuring out its core value, which is unusual. We’re then going to design an implementation strategy that considers asset management and service design principles to create a blueprint for the city to invest in the service over the next 20 years. It’s an interesting way to learn, and it sounds obvious that if you’re doing long-range capital planning, you should have an idea of what your citizens care about. Typically, some survey is done once a year, which gives you no insight.

We’re pushing the boundaries of what service design can be by looking at services from a human perspective while also considering asset managers’ viewpoints. It’s essential to bridge the gap between the two. This project is going to be pretty cool, and I’m really looking forward to it.

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