Amazon’s Mike Rice on Books, Leadership & In-House Design


We all know Amazon.com as a leading sales website, but what about browsing books in person? What’s perhaps lesser known is that the retail giant has bookstores across the country in a chain called Amazon Books. Having opened its first store in 2015, Amazon now has 15 stores from Seattle to New York. 

Some are calling the brand’s approach to online-to-offline retail effective in a time when offline browsing is necessary to target a certain clientele.They offer ‘browsers,’ which are people who can offer recommendations, and several titles are shelved with a review from a recent Amazon user. In addition, you can peruse the bookstore to find sections like “Most wished for books on Amazon.com” and “Highly rated, 4.8 stars and above.” The bookstores have also been noted to offer perks for Amazon Prime members, as with a membership card ($99 a year), you get the books at a cheaper price-point than competitors at Barnes & Noble.

 

Mike Rice is creative director for Amazon’s brick-and-mortar book stores, where he leads creative strategy, exploration and execution across all customer touch points for the Amazon Books brand, including all in-store and digital marketing, while also managing a team of designers and copywriters. Formerly, Rice served as design director at brands like Whole Foods, PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble. He’s also both a judge for this year’s HOW In-House Design Awards and has landed a spot on the HOW 100: a listing of 100 of the most talented and influential creatives working today. [The complete list will be published soon—stay tuned!]

Amazon Books store

The Power of In-House Design

Rice thinks that in-house design teams are often a better option than hiring an agency. “There are always pros and cons to either scenario, but in most cases, I feel an internal team is able to gain a much deeper understanding of the brand, which is more difficult to have with an agency,” he says. “This happens through the day-to-day interactions of cross-functional teams.”

That all comes unexpected, according to Rice. “Quick meetings and hallway conversations can be very powerful,” he says. “Many times it’s what you don’t hear or what people are talking around that best informs creative solutions.”

But that’s not to say that in-house design teams don’t have their challenges. As with any role, it’s necessary to work to get better—especially in a large company with thousands of employees. “Be sure that your team is seen as a strategic partner rather than the gift-wrapping department at the end of the process,” Rice says. “Always present your work through the lens of a brief to reinforce that your creative solutions are coming from a thoughtful place. Aesthetic debates are always best managed through previously aligned strategies, as opposed to personal opinions.”

Rice will use that same approach when judging design work for HOW’s In-House Design Awards, where he’ll be looking for simplicity and crystal-clear storytelling. “I am of the belief that less is more,” he says. “How is the creative solution telling the story in the simplest way possible?”

One of the biggest mistakes he sees is “over-design,” which typically is the cause of two reasons: “Either the brief was unclear and or the design team was asked to communicate far too many things,” Rice says. “Or, alternatively, designers are trying to compensate for a less meaningful idea with design tricks.”

The Intersection of Leadership and Design

The real magic often lies in the often-overlooked intersection of leadership and design. “It’s challenging; I have always found this is a challenging subject,” Rice says. “In my experience, the best creatives are seldom the best leaders, as that’s not how their brains are wired.” He adds, “Where they may be creatively inspiring, they often times force their opinions on others rather than empowering and enabling.”

The ideal approach for design leads is finding a balance. “You need to be inspiring while managing and deflecting the administrative and political aspect of the corporate world,” Rice says. “It’s the greatest enabler to a happy and inspired team.”

It’s also about bringing enthusiasm to the role, as that positivity can be infectious. “The best design leaders empower and enable their team by setting clear guardrails, so that each member can be as creative, productive and excited about their work as possible,” Rice says. “In so doing, this ensures that the team is viewed as a strategic partner to the business.”

A Love of Design, a Love of Books

The real passion for Rice and his team is promoting reading and selling books for Amazon—both online and offline. “Our stores are all about helping customers discover great books, test-drive devices and discover other customer favorites,” he says. “As an extension of Amazon.com, we have integrated the benefits of online and offline retailing to create an experience that gives customers more information as they browse and makes them feel confident it in their selections—whether discovering a new author, buying a new device, or finding a gift for a friend or loved one.”

Rice’s favorite book cover from the past year is a children’s book (a journal) called Me: A Compendium by the Wee Society. “In a visually noisy retail environment,” Rice says, “the best way to be noticed is to be simple, bold and impactful to make someone pick up your book.”


In-House Designers, These Judges Await Your Work:

  • Meghan Newell, senior art director at Lyft
  • Mike Rice, creative director at Amazon, former senior creative director at Whole Foods, former global design director at PepsiCo, former global creative director at P&G 
  • Viet Huynh, communication designer at Slack

HOW In-House Design Awards Early-Bird Deadline: 11:59 pm ET on May 7!

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