Information is everywhere in a digital world, and yet there’s only so much time and attention we can pay to all this information in our daily lives. Thus, human attention is a scarce resource–and the most successful businesses, brands and creators know how to capture our hearts and minds best. Today on our show, we’re joined by Sean Rhodes, Executive Design Director in frog’s New York studio, to talk attention, passion and why there’s evidence we’re in the ‘Golden Age of Learning.’
Design Mind frogcast
Episode 20: Creating Value in the Attention Economy
Guest: Sean Rhodes, Executive Design Director, frog NY
[00:09] Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood.
[0:24] Elizabeth Wood: Today on our show, we’re talking about creating value in the attention economy. The attention economy is formed around the idea that in a digital world, information is everywhere, and yet there’s only so much time we can spend engaging with all this info. With human attention then a scarce resource, businesses and individuals seeking to capture our hearts and minds are having to get creative. To talk about the opportunities for companies and creators alike, we’re joined by Sean Rhodes, Executive Design Director in the frog New York studio. Sean has spent much of his career designing experiences that vy for human attention, and he’s excited about the potential to empower those who are most passionate about creating in the attention economy, especially as we move into the era of Web3, the Metaverse and new, more immersive virtual worlds. Here’s Sean now.
[01:13] Sean Rhodes: There’s only 24 hours in a day. We’re only awake for two thirds of that. Out of that time, you know, there’s only so much time and energy that we have to pay attention to things. There’s kind of this weird thing about the way that humans’ minds evolved. We kind of block out a lot of the noise. The classic example is when our predecessors were out in the wilderness, we really needed to be able to focus on catching game or avoiding a predator. Our ability to block everything out and focus on that one thing and make a decision around it with imperfect information has served us incredibly well from an evolutionary standpoint. Fast forward to today, you know, when there’s so much abundance in terms of media, of people to talk to, of things to do, what we end up doing is blocking out most of that noise and just focusing in on one or two things.
[02:07] Sean Rhodes: I’m Sean Rhodes. I’m the Executive Design Director with frog. I’ve been with frog for almost 14 years. It’s been an incredible place to grow up as a designer.
[02:17] Sean Rhodes: Back in the day, when there was, you know, two newspapers in town or three television stations, and only so much that you could be doing with your work or leisure time, there weren’t as many businesses or things competing for your attention. Today, obviously, there’s millions of websites you could go to. There’s billions of people creating content. There were 570 and change shows that were released last year over linear or streaming television. There’s just an incredible abundance of things competing for your attention.
[02:50] Sean Rhodes: So in the midst of all this abundance, we have all these choices. And everything is accessible. Most things are free. Many things are cheap. And they’re really accessible. We’re in this golden age of learning and exploration.
One of my mentors, and this goes back years, and it was more, I think, in a real pure creative context gave me great advice. And he said, “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.” Right? And there’s this idea also in the attention economy, there’s the philosopher who has this quote is, “Tell me what you pay attention to and I’ll tell you who you are.”
[03:22] Elizabeth Wood: Today, it’s almost too easy to dive in deep to the topics that grab our attention online. But this wasn’t always the case. Sean explains why we’re actually at a unique moment in human history.
[03:35] Sean Rhodes: If you go back to before the printing press, in order to share knowledge, written knowledge, someone would have to hand transcribe that book. It was laborious. It was really expensive. The powerful thing about the printing press is it reduced the cost of sharing that knowledge, of distributing that knowledge. But of course in comparison with the internet, that was incredibly expensive. The internet makes the cost of distributing something incredibly low. And there’s also zero marginal costs for distribution. So if I make something, I can distribute it to one person or everybody on the planet. It’s basically the same cost. So those are some of the underlying basis for the attention economy. But you know, for creators on one hand, creators can go as deep as they want to on any subject. And then they can distribute it for free to anybody.
[04:31] Sean Rhodes: For consumers of content, you can find the things that are interesting to you, and you can go as deep as you want to into that particular subject. And, this is something that’s incredibly unique from an economic perspective, that has never really existed in human history before, which is so exciting: the ability to either create or consume as deeply as you want to in a permissionless way.
[04:57] Elizabeth Wood: As a consumer of content himself, Sean shared a bit about what captures his own attention online.
[05:03] Sean Rhodes: I think that in particular, during the pandemic, over the last bunch of years, I’ve been able to dive into Twitter or Discord or these, you know, sort of emerging communities to find people that I really admire and respect. And I think many people are very, very generous with their time if you express interest in them. I think we’re living in this golden age of learning because there are all these brilliant people out there that are essentially giving away knowledge and information that used to cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to get and they’re just putting it out there for free. And again, many of them are so generous with their time that they’ll connect with you on it. So I think, again, in terms of finding mentors for the things that you’re really interested in, they’re out there. It’s really accessible.
[05:52] Sean Rhodes: I think the abundance that digital has brought us and then sort of the way that our minds are wired, really there’s only so many businesses or things that we can pay attention to, and the ones that are really, really good at that are the ones that are going to benefit the most. They’re going to be able to commercialize that. So pull that back out to the internet and some of the things that have been really exciting over the last 10 years, is the businesses that have been able to capture our attention the best are the ones that are some of the most successful organizations in the world, that have become incredibly profitable.
[06:26] Sean Rhodes: So Apple, obviously through the iPhone, Apple’s the most valuable company on the planet. Apple created this device that unlocked real personal computing and opened up this world and it is the most powerful value concentrator in the world–in human history, actually. So Apple did that really well. Google, you know, the vastness of the internet they made accessible to us and through that they aggregated our attention. You search for anything. ‘Circus’ on Google brings up billions of results. There’s literally that much out there. But then they bring you the best results and they capture our attention by making that really accessible. So I think that’s the attention economy. And I think technology in particular, does an incredible job of harnessing that vastness and bringing it to us. And I think design is incredibly important to making that a delightful, wonderful, usable experience.
[07:22] Elizabeth Wood: During our conversation, Sean shared that, like many of us, his favorite content creators are all about sharing their expertise–whether it’s financial guidance, tech advice, or, as a passionate DIY-er, Sean’s always seeking tips for all things home renovation. He’s inspired by the potential for new, immersive formats to enable different learning styles.
[07:44] Sean Rhodes: On one hand, you’ve got creators making the content. You’ve got new business models arising to support that. You’re gonna have new technologies to make that accessible. And then you’re gonna have new virtual potentially spaces that are going to replicate that again, I think we’re gonna have a step change. I think maybe the thing that’s exciting about that is, you know, through the internet, we can basically learn through the screen. Potentially with the Metaverse, there’s going to be new ways to learn. And if you do any thinking or research on learning, there’s so many different ways of learning. There’s kinetic learning, there’s contextual learning, there’s physical learning, there’s emotional learning. Potentially what we’re going to start to see through the Metaverse are just like really new ways to begin to learn or some of those other ways of learning kind of getting surfaced.
[08:33] Sean Rhodes: There’s some great businesses out there, there’s one that enables you to get on the phone with a plumber, say I’m trying to fix this toilet, they give you advice, and then you can order all the parts through the app and they send it to you. That’s pretty exciting for a DIYer. Imagine that in the Metaverse where you’re actually working with someone that’s there and you’re doing the plumbing on your toilet in a virtual space trying to figure that out, or you’re doing it through augmented reality with someone there and you’re sort of experiencing that presence together. I just think when it comes to learning and understanding, we’re at the beginning of a lot of things that are really exciting.
[09:07] Elizabeth Wood: According to Sean, we’re also at the beginning of seeing new business models that rely on passionate people sharing valuable information, and the technology platforms that make distributing and accessing this content possible.
[09:19] Sean Rhodes: We’re starting to see the shift where there’s an expectation that many of these creators when they’re good at this, that they’re starting to build an audience, a following and a community, they realize that there’s, there’s kind of career potential here. And really widely, the expectation is, they’re not doing this for free, that they’re able to figure out ways to monetize this, to build their audience, to build their brand. There’s this really interesting study that was done in the last couple years where they asked grade school kids what they wanted their job to be, and three to one they want to be YouTube stars over being an astronaut, which, you know, as a Gen Xer, it’s kind of mind blowing to think about. But to kids, it’s really natural.
[10:08] Sean Rhodes: So where this kind of gets a little bit interesting is platforms like Facebook, like Google, like Instagram, Snapchat, etc. They had the expectation, I would say, like five, six, seven years ago, that creators are just gonna be out there creating content, and capture the majority of that value through advertising dollars, and we’re just giving them a platform to be creative or expressive. What’s happening now is many of them are realizing that it’s important for them to help, let’s say, co-create value with those creators, to share that value creation with those creators.
[10:43] Sean Rhodes: All those businesses are successful because they’ve aggregated our attention. And the technology is core to that, of course, because it helps you get that marginal cost of distribution, marginal cost of creation. But at the same side, you need the creativity and the energy from those creators to capture that attention. And what we’re starting to see is a shift where most of those businesses are moving into a different model where they are sharing that value or co-creating that value with those creators in order to be successful. Historical footnote on this is Vine, which was very popular short video format. I think very similar DNA to TikTok. It was getting very big and popular in the mid teens, and then was bought by Twitter, and eventually just totally dropped off diminished impact and attention. And I think part of the reason why that happened is that Twitter and Vine didn’t do enough to help creators be successful. So they went somewhere else. And the main place that most of them went, I think is YouTube, which has done an incredible job of through the advertising model and then increasingly through direct value creation with their creators, like subscriptions or selling merchandise, has become the 800 pound gorilla in the creator economy in enabling the monetization for creators.
[12:06] Elizabeth Wood: We’re going to take a short break. When we return, Sean will share more about his experience designing for emerging tech frontiers.
[12:15] Hi, I’m Bethany Brown, Associate Director of Service Design at frog. It’s strange how something so ubiquitous can be so misunderstood, but this is the way for the services that impact our daily lives–from buying groceries to paying bills to accessing healthcare. At frog, we partnered with Savannah College of Art and Design and the Service Design Network to uncover the state of service design in the United States. Check today’s show notes to download the new research report. Find out where all the service designers are hiding, what they’re working on and what’s next for the practice.
Download ‘The State of Service Design in the U.S.‘
[12:51] Elizabeth Wood: Now back to Sean Rhodes, Executive Design Director at frogNY.
[12:56] Sean Rhodes: I always tell people that I got into design because I loved comic books as a kid. And a little thing called the internet came along, when I was early in school, and I dropped out and I basically started building software and never looked back. I felt like something really big was happening and I wanted to be a part of it. And it’s interesting, right? With Web3, I feel some of that energy as well that I hadn’t sort of in the interim with Web2. But yeah, I felt it just was something really big and exciting that I wanted to participate in.
[13:29] Sean Rhodes: Of course, yeah, there were moments of doubt. During the.com bubble, you know, it was tough for everybody. But I was wandering in the desert a little bit, and had some really incredible opportunities come out of it. But yeah, I don’t know. It’s just been wonderful. And I eventually made it back into school and grad school in parallel, but I just think my life would be really different if I had stayed, you know, illustrating with most of my friends at RISD, and, you know, who knows? Maybe I would have just released the next Buzz Lightyear movie, like my buddy Dean did. But you know, it’s been a wonderful road.
[14:03] Sean Rhodes: I’ve been with frog, I think, it’s 14 years in May. That’s eons and eons in the creative business. I grew up knowing about frog and as a professional and loving frog. And it was a dream to work at a place like that. So I think there’s a lot of deep intrinsic motivation there. And frog is a place that affords incredible autonomy for the way that you want to tackle a design challenge. There’s very rarely, if ever, that anyone has ever said, “No, don’t do that,” or, you know, “You don’t have the authority to kind of explore something this way or do something that way.” I think also from our clients, they come to us with really difficult challenges, but then also place a fair amount of trust in us in reframing those asks, or exploring it in unique and novel ways. Also, you know, there’s a fair amount of variety in what we do. Every couple months, you have the opportunity to become dangerously knowledgeable in what a chemical engineer does, or an investment banker or a mom, or someone that’s trying to ride a motorcycle.
[15:09] Elizabeth Wood: In his work at frog, Sean is already helping clients navigate the new possibilities that emerging tech enables.
[15:16] Sean Rhodes: I can’t talk about a ton of details about this, but one that’s close to the heart of what we’re talking about today, I had the opportunity to work with a company that just recently went public. And they are a roll up of a number of different technologies related to digital wallets, cryptocurrency, loyalty, things like that. And we were working really closely with their leadership team, in particular, their CEO, to help them chart the course of what their offering would be in the next couple years. And there’s obviously a tremendous amount of market activity around cryptocurrency and a lot of really established leaders. We needed to map out a space that would benefit from some of those changes and growth around it, but was differentiated in a way that no one else was doing. And we kind of were able to do that by combining aspects of loyalty and aspects of some of what we’re seeing in cryptocurrency and Web3. And we’re really excited about what we were able to create together. And I think it ties into some of the bigger themes of the passion economy, digital ownership, digital scarcity. In Web1, I had a real sense of pioneering and growth and opportunity. And I think there’s a lot of that today as well.
[16:36] Sean Rhodes: The Metaverse is another really interesting idea. Let’s imagine digital or virtual spaces where we’re able to interact, and there’ll be kind of virtual or digital economies that are happening there. I think conceptually, it’s very similar to what creators are already doing in the passion economy. They’re out there, doing the thing that’s interesting to them, you know, renovating houses, playing video games, talking about stocks, raising kids. Whatever it is they’re out there through the internet right now through the platforms, and they are starting businesses. They are monetizing those businesses. They’re building their brands in a sort of a very entrepreneurial way. That’s really exciting. And they’re all these sort of economies coming up to support that. And I think the metaverse is going to have more opportunities like that.
[17:25] Sean Rhodes: Back to this idea of tell me what you pay attention to and I’ll tell you who you are, I think throughout human history, artists, singers, creators have been rewarded for being really great at those things and the things that they do. And I think there’s been periods of time where certain creators have been rewarded in a big way. And then things sort of change and maybe it’s less valued. You know, an example is in the 1800s, people that played classical music were revered right? I mean, there weren’t that many people that could do it at a certain level. Everybody was going to the opera or to the Philharmonic to listen to these things. They were marrying royalty, you know, if you will. And you fast forward to today, I think you know often times it’s difficult for some of the most talented people in the arts, in classical music to be successful. And again, it’s just because of the waves of change of where society’s at or the technology that’s involved. But I think that potentially in the Metaverse with Web3 and digital scarcity, digital ownership, it will open up new opportunities for creators to do what they love and build lives, build careers out of it.
[18:37] Elizabeth Wood: While there’s more potential than ever to make a career online, there’s also a lot more competition. Sean shares why it’s not always easy to get noticed–and why it’s not always a good idea to give away our attention so freely.
[18:49] Sean Rhodes: I think there’s incredible access, but it’s also really difficult to get found. We’re competing on a global scale. We’re not just competing with the artists, creators, thinkers, locally or in our nation. We’re competing with everybody and that can be brutally difficult. Many of us, I’ll put myself into this as well, spend more time on our devices than we’d like to. We’ve evolved to pay attention to things and oftentimes, that’s our smartphones, right? So we can spend a lot of time on our smartphones. We’ve also seen tools and platforms, Facebook, Instagram, etc, be incredibly destabilizing from a political standpoint. The Facebook Papers just came out, we know how harmful social media can be to all of us, but in particular to kids. There’s a lot of different things to pay attention to, to be aware of. I think some of this is new. I think the scale of some of this is really new with technology. At the same time, people have been saying, you know, radio is gonna rot your brain or TV’s gonna rot your brain or newspapers are going to destabilize society. I think there’s been an undercurrent of some of that all along. I think some of the best advice you get is, you know, everything in moderation.
[20:08]Elizabeth Wood: Of course, the sheer abundance of content out there isn’t without its detractors. But as someone who gets a lot from learning from passionate creators online, Sean has reason to believe there’s still a lot of value being created, even if there’s a lot of noise, too. And this value creation is part of what makes him optimistic for the future of the attention economy.
[20:27] Sean Rhodes: I recently bought a home. And it’s an old Victorian in Long Island, and we’re renovating it. So we’ve been kind of journaling this a little bit on Instagram. And it’s been, you know, obviously nothing major, but it’s been really fun to kind of express ourselves very intentionally in that way.
[20:46] Sean Rhodes: A neighbor bought me a shirt, and it says, “I’m not a professional, but I have watched a few YouTube videos,” which it’s absolutely hysterical that they got me that for Christmas, but I think it’s true, right? Because Youtube has done such an incredible job of being able to monetize creators, there is a video on YouTube for everything. Everything that I could possibly want to do in this, you know, 250-year-old house, from plumbing, to electrical, to painting to anything, I open up my phone, and the first thing I do is try to find a video on that so that I can tackle that. And that would not happen if YouTube didn’t have that platform, and that they hadn’t created this mechanism to enable people that are really passionate about building, that are really knowledgeable about building and restoration, all these amazing things, to be able to create these videos. And there’s incredible value in that. I find, personally, incredible value in that. Hopefully, those creators are definitely finding value in that. And YouTube, just because it’s the genius platform that it is has figured out a way to connect all those in really powerful way.
[21:55] Sean Rhodes: So, it’s funny last night, I was looking on Instagram, and one of my friends had posted himself in the sweatshirt that says, “Stop calling art ‘content.’” And I agree with that. I think if we are flattening out all of human existence and all of creation into a device to capture attention, then we’re denying our humanity. And I guess this kind of comes back to the influencer versus creator, right? I think if we are buying into this mental model of the reason why we’re doing all this is to influence people, so that we can financially benefit, that is very aligned with calling art ‘content.’ If we are creating art or sharing art or talking about art, because we’re genuinely interested in those things, and, hopefully, audience will come from that. Hopefully, value will come from that. But that’s secondary, then I think conceptually still we’re not losing our humanity in the mix. And that’s my optimistic side. Right. That’s my optimistic side.
[23:01] Elizabeth Wood: That’s our show. That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a leading global creative consultancy that is part of Capgemini Invent. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation. You’ll also find a link to download frog’s new report ‘The State of Service Design in the U.S.’ We really want to thank Sean Rhodes, Executive Design Director in frog NY for sharing his perspective on designing for and living in the attention economy.
[23:28] Elizabeth Wood: We also want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify . And be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at frog.co/designmind. Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at frog.co/contact. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.