Things have been heating up for Steve Mykolyn ever since he stepped into a freezer to test out a design idea for a coat stuffed with newspaper. Mykolyn, the creator of the award-winning 15 Below coat designed to keep homeless people warm in sub-zero temperatures, was recently named Chief Creative Officer at Taxi, the agency that funded his project. Mykolyn joined Taxi eight years ago, after successfully launching his own Toronto graphic design firm and then doing a stint in interactive design with Organic. These days, he’s charged with merging the three disciplines of design, interactive, and advertising at Taxi. one.design talked to Mykolyn about the 15 Below coat, his time spent in a deep-freeze, and the role of design at his firm.

The origin of an idea.
We were trying to come up with a way to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Taxi, while also giving back to the community. But the idea for the coat was also partly triggered by an experience where I was walking with my son on a cold evening in Toronto, after a basketball game. He stopped to give money to a homeless guy, but since it was really cold out, I didn’t even want to stop. I just wanted to keep moving. Afterwards, my son asked me a question that really made me think. He said, “Sometimes you give money to homeless people and sometimes you don’t, why is that?” I couldn’t really answer it, but it stuck in my mind. Meanwhile, as all this was happening, I saw an article in the newspaper mentioning that Tour de France riders use newspaper for warmth by sticking it under their jersey. So that sparked the idea of designing a coat that could be stuffed with newspaper. But it was really all these things coming together that led to the idea. Taxi got behind it and agreed to pay the whole freight for manufacturing, shipping, and everything.

Going into the freezer.
Once we’d designed the coat, (Mykolyn worked closely with fashion designer Lida Baday on the project) we wanted to test it to see if it worked. One of our clients is a meat company and they had a facility set at 18 degrees below (Celsius). They agreed to let me use the freezer. To be really honest, I was nervous as hell. And it didn’t help when I saw that all the guys who worked at the facility were taking bets on how long I’d last in there. So I go in there at 6 a.m., wearing the coat stuffed with newspaper, with a few clothing layers underneath. We arranged to have a paramedic there, and they stuck all these nodes on my chest, and the guy checked my vital signs every 45 minutes. It was amazing, but my vital signs never wavered. And after four hours, I was sort of hot, so I took one of my layers off and put the coat back on and spent another couple of hours. At this point I know the coat works at 15 below, but I’m bored out of my tree, so then I went into the blast freezer – it’s set at 29 below, with fans blowing that can bring it down to 40 below. I went in there, and at one point, the paramedic came in to check me and I was still fine – but he got frostbite on his ears just in the few minutes it took to check me. When I’d finally spent about eight hours total in the freezer, I thought, “You know what, the coat works, let me out of here.”

Taking it to the streets.
We’ve had interest in the coat from all over—including Japan and Sweden. I could see it working anywhere it’s cold—the northern states, Canada, and Europe. So far, we’ve produced 3,000 of them, and the Salvation Army has about 2,500 in their various outreach depots. They’re giving them away to people in the beds. But they also have trucks that go out at night when it’s cold, and these guys take a bunch of them with them and hand them out to the people who don’t go to shelters. These are kind of the hidden homeless. And there are different views on how you deal with people like that when it gets cold outside, as I learned. The most obvious answer is you have to try to get people to come inside. But the problem is, some of them don’t want to go inside. So what are you going to do, drag them in against their will? My idea was, if some people are going to stay outside, try to make things more comfortable for them. But when I was dealing with the city government, they told me they didn’t think it was a good idea to be giving the coats to homeless guys on the street. I said, “But it will help make them more comfortable,” and I was told, “We don’t want them to be comfortable.” To me it was an example of how government can become narrow minded and single-focused in their way of doing things.

Next steps. What I’d like to do is make the coat really economical for a corporate sponsor to pick up the project and do it affordably, on a larger scale. There are lots of ideas we have – maybe a “buy one, give one” strategy. But the best thing would be if someone just pays to have them made. The Salvation Army’s already acting as a distribution arm and those guys are experts at it, so why reinvent that?

Design as an agent of change. It does feel to me like design right now is more focused on doing good things, solving problems. And that’s dovetailing with an expectation of people to have more beautiful things. If you can combine a beautiful design with a useful solution, that’s design at its best.

The role of design at Taxi. When Taxi was founded in 1992, it was part graphic design firm and part advertising agency. When I joined in 2001, interactive became an equal part of the mix. So the three basic components are design, digital, and advertising. When we launch brands, we actually launch the whole thing from thinking up the name to all the identity programs. Often we’re working on what that business stands for and even influencing the product design itself, not just the marketing of that product. So it’s very holistic.

I think there’s an important difference between design as it’s done in an ad agency versus design in a graphic design studio. An ad agency tends to focus on the big idea—while studio designers tend to focus on the craft. Now if you can get craft and a big idea together, the results are greater than the sum of the parts. And that’s what I think agencies can do if they have great design. But it’s hard for big agencies to support a graphic design operation, because the big agencies are more reliant on media buys, whereas graphic design quite often is project-based. You can’t forecast graphic design the way you can ad campaigns. But design can make an agency better in so many ways. At Taxi, designers are brought to the table on any problem we’re trying to solve, right at the outset. And it means there are so many more things we can do for clients, right down to the annual reports. Not to mention that when you have graphic designers on staff, your new-business pitches look so much better.

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