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Making Better Decisions: A Conversation with Joanna Feeley

A platform devoted to farsighted decision-making couldn’t ask for a more fitting guest. Much can be learned from the way Joanna strategised about her trend forecasting career and carved out a niche in which she founded TrendBible. Our conversation focused on Joanna’s foray into trend forecasting and the particularities of forecasting for the future of home. We also discussed Joanna's upcoming book, "Trend Leader", in which she explores how trend forecasting may help with high-stakes decisions and its growing importance in achieving the triple bottom line.

You studied fashion to become a designer, but early on in your studies you realised that forecasting was what you wanted to pursue as a career. What attracted you to forecasting?

I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer, and I went to study fashion design at Kingston University. But it became very clear to me very early on that my creativity is linked to how I have ideas, not necessarily how I execute them. Some of my peers on that course went off to become couturiers in Paris. They had this amazing ability to take an idea or concept into three dimensions. I did not have that. It was apparent that my ideas and the way I thought about customers were my strengths. Even before I knew about trend forecasting, I was building a skill set that indicated trend forecasting was a good career path for me. I thought a lot about what customers would need, what they would do, and how they would live tomorrow. I loved the social science aspect of it and spent a lot of time researching.

During my second year at university, we were taught about the trend forecasting industry. Before that, I had no idea this industry existed. But once I knew about trend forecasting, I became curious about it. My career advisor told me that as a graduate, I would struggle to break into this field. I was also told to gain more commercial and life experience first. Her suggestion was that I try what I have been trained to do: be a designer and learn about the world of design. And then, with a bit more experience, I could keep an eye out for any trend forecasting jobs that might come my way. Of course, there weren't many. At the time, there were about 200 jobs in trend forecasting globally. But I didn't assume it would never happen. I knew I would have to be very creative about finding a way into that industry.

I went to New York for my first job as a menswear designer at American Eagle Outfitters, right when the collegiate aesthetic was taking off. It was quite an exciting time to be a menswear designer and to be in the place where that entire aesthetic was built. Looking back, I think my colleagues must have found me very irritating because I always used my spare time to create mood boards and colour palettes. I also ventured out to photograph things and people around New York City and brought my street photography into the design studio. I was focused on showcasing trends and their benefits. I took all those opportunities, and my boss recognised what I was trying to do. He said it wasn’t my day job, and I was here to design. However, if I wanted to take ownership of trend forecasting, they would embrace it. He gave me permission to spend time outside of my official working hours on trend forecasting. So, I was staying late doing these extra pieces of work because I loved it. And it paid off. With a trend forecasting portfolio and a design portfolio, I returned to the UK and landed a trend forecasting job.

I can imagine it was not what you wanted to hear from your career counsellor, but it nevertheless enabled you to come up with a smart plan to land the job you wanted.

It was very realistic advice. And yes, not what I wanted to hear at the time. Obviously, I wanted a concrete route to follow. However, it seemed to be a very closed industry. And it felt closed to me for quite some time. I remember applying for jobs with some of the big trend forecasting agencies and not getting a reply. This made me realise that I would have to do more and create my own opportunities if I wanted to get in. And eventually, a job came up. It was that perfect blend of menswear design and trend forecasting inside a London-based boutique agency called Bureaux. That was where I learned more about the art and science of trend forecasting. It was very real, and it was very commercial. I worked for brands like Calvin Klein and Kangol that wanted to understand trends and then design a collection that reflected those trends. It was a brilliant environment for me to learn about that. And we had clients all over the world: we were forecasting for department store chains in Poland, supermarkets in the US, and luxury brands in the UK. This gave me an understanding of the pace of change and the patterns trends form when hitting different industries, different consumer groups, and different tastes.

You mentioned that your skills matched more with a forecasting career than a design career. Looking back, what were those skills?

I've learned this through my own experience and through hiring a brilliant team of trend forecasters. I think curiosity is the most important factor. You need an innate curiosity. By that, I mean you can't just be curious about one thing. You must have a broad curiosity that makes you ask many questions. When you're curious, you are eager to learn and always striving to improve. You'll find that trend forecasters don't like standing still. Many of the trend forecasters working for me wish to develop a variety of skills. They're constantly wanting to learn all aspects of the job, not just how to be a better forecaster.

Curiosity is extremely useful for trend forecasters. When you're curious, you can't help but ask a question and go down a rabbit hole. It's a valuable tool because it takes you places where nobody else is looking. Linked to that is the ability to ask good questions. Research will only get you so far; you need to ask the right questions. I see this all the time in my business: you gather a certain amount of information about a trend, but you only focus on the positives of that trend and ignore the negatives. That's why you must develop questioning skills to dig into everything about that trend, not just the things you might be naturally drawn to.

That links to the next thing, which is about making sure you've got processes in place to avoid unconscious bias. We've learned so much about the importance of having a diverse viewpoint and workforce over the past six to seven years. You can't assume that you'll just remember to be inclusive; you must put processes in place to ensure that you see through other people's eyes. This wasn’t a concern when I started in the trend forecasting industry. Now all our clients, who are large global corporates, want to know how we are diverse as an employer. They want to know from their trend partner how we ensure to consider diverse opinions and avoid unconscious bias because it informs everything they're about.

Another helpful skill—and this has changed over the time I’ve been a trend forecaster—is balancing the commercial requirements of a business with the argument of the day. That might be a sustainability, equality, or diversity issue. Businesses we work with are switched on to the idea that, although they're there for commercial reasons, that can't come at the cost of other important topics of the day. In that respect, trend forecasting has changed a lot. In the early days when I ran the business, the scope of the brief was limited; for example, "Help us figure out what motif we might put on something to make it commercially interesting and impactful." Today, the conversation is much broader. The topics of the day inform what those brands will ask us. We now receive briefs like, "How might we, as a toy brand for small children, ensure that they grow up in a world where they understand that they matter?" The questions are much more powerful, and the work is more meaningful. That's one of the biggest shifts I've seen. Quite often, that's why people come to us because they understand we're trying to use trends for good and they want to make a difference.

Did you have to evolve your tools and methodology to respond to the new challenges?

Yes, we evolved that over time as our customers and their challenges changed. Because our customers now ask different things of us, we've had to produce different types of services to cater to their needs. When I started the business, I had a physical trend forecasting book. That was a seasonal product and our main income stream. Of course, we still produce that, but now we've evolved it into an online subscription service. But that's not the most useful tool for somebody who wants to know what’s next.

As an example, utilities companies come to us with questions about the future of water consumption or how the cost-of-living crisis impacts different segments of society. Another example is a laundry powder company asking us about the future of laundry with regards to clean water. They are asking whether clean water will be the next big luxury. That's a different set of challenges than a seasonal forecast with a colour palette and material direction. We've developed a consulting side of the business to cater to those problems. The questions we get asked now are very much about the home and the householder. But they're not necessarily concerned with décor. In that respect, some of our tools and methods had to change. However, other methods have stayed the same throughout. For example, we've always hosted trend panels where we asked trend forecasters to come and share their research and opinions with us. But if you compare a trend panel from twelve years ago to a trend panel we run today, there are differences. This again comes down to diversity.

We’ve always wanted access to a more diverse range of trend forecasters, but we found they're not really there. We realised we were approaching that challenge from the wrong angle. So now we invite people with lived experience of diversity. That might be someone with a particular disability or ethnic background. We invite them to our trend panels to share their experiences and research with us. This has really enriched our trend forecasts. Instead of twenty-five trend forecasters around the table, we now have five. But the other twenty people come at the challenge from a different perspective that we can't see. Yes, we still run trend panels, but instead of two a year with twenty-five trend forecasters, we now run eight with a broad range of different people. I think you can see that in the outputs we create and in our forecasting.

Your career strategy is impressive. First, you decided to pursue menswear and not womenswear at university. Later, you chose home over fashion as your forecasting focus. I can imagine it wasn't an obvious choice. Can you take me through your decision-making process?

The more I think about it and the more distance I get from the decision-making process around those two decisions—to study menswear and then pick home over any other area of forecasting—the more I realise that it didn’t necessarily come from an insight but rather from a lack of access. Getting into trend forecasting or the fashion industry as a working-class person is difficult. There are certain routes you must be prepared to take, like unpaid internships. And I didn't have the money to do them. I had two part-time jobs while I was at university to make enough money to get myself through it. I made decisions out of necessity to stand out and ensure I had a better chance and advantage.

So even though I loved womenswear—that was why I'd gone into fashion in the first place—I strategically picked menswear because it put me in a better position. When I entered my second year, out of a class of 30 students, there were only two menswear designers. And of the womenswear designers, there were probably five or six girls with similar handwriting to mine. I wasn't doing something different enough to feel safe about getting a job. And it's the same with choosing home over fashion. I left the Bureaux to become a freelancer. I never intended to start an agency. I suspected that if I picked fashion, it would pit me against major trend services. I knew it wasn't possible for me as an individual to take them on. Why would a brand choose me over some of the brilliant trend forecasting houses established in Paris, Amsterdam, or London for 20 years?

I knew it would be tricky to carve out a niche. However, prior to setting up Trend Bible, I had a freelance job at Tesco, a supermarket. My job there was to buy trend services, which offered me the opportunity to see many trend books. I learned what the gaps were, and it gave me familiarity with the product and the way it was sold. And from working with designers, I quickly learned what an effective trend forecast looks like. This learning experience gave me the confidence to confront doubt from my peers. They were shocked when I told them I was intending to be a freelancer and wasn't going into menswear.

At that time, my love of home began to develop. I had just bought my first flat and decorated it. I spent a lot of time looking at home interiors and enjoyed a sense of stability at home. Having travelled a lot for my job, I loved being in my own space. I started playing with the idea of setting up a vintage interior shop or something like that. I wasn't really thinking about blending trend forecasting and home. I loved home and worked as a trend forecaster. I had not synthesised those two things, but my brain had. One night, I woke up, sat up, and thought, “That's it, that's the thing! It's trend forecasting and home.” I put this question—what my credible and plausible niche could be—on the back burner in my brain, and my subconscious did the work.

Once I had that idea, I did what every good trend forecaster should do: validate my hypothesis. When I checked the data, it all pointed to home becoming more important. This was in 2008. At that point, we didn't know just how important home would become. There was a big trend towards home baking around 2012, which was a significant indicator that people were embracing domesticity in a new way. Bringing the outdoors inside hadn't been a trend. House plans weren't a thing yet. We hadn't had the trend of wanting to expand our furnishings into the garden. Many of the trends hadn’t happened yet, but there was enough evidence for me to notice that there was a big enough niche. It was a wise move, but it wasn't completely conscious. And only when I validated it did I gain enough confidence that it was a worthwhile idea.

There are so many good lessons in your story. My favourite is finding your niche rather than covering every industry, which seems much more efficient.

Totally. It also gives you this rich resource pool. If you do a project with, for example, a company that's building residential homes, you gain a certain amount of information about architecture and the shape and size of new homes. You're building knowledge about the built environment. When you then work with a kitchen brand that makes cabinets or appliances, you can capitalise on the information that kitchens are becoming twenty percent smaller than they used to be. This insight informs the design of appliances. And when you work for a furniture company, you know what the kitchen table needs to look like. You also know that it can't exist at all because there's no room for it.

All projects impact every room of the home as well as the outside of the home. And of course, there are broader influences too. One of the big things I think will massively impact home is nomadism, the ability to pick your life and your job up and move them somewhere else. I think that's one of the most interesting shifts in how we think about home. Homemaking is such an interesting concept. It never ceases to fascinate me.

How helpful was the fashion lens? Did it give you an edge, or did you feel like you were entering completely new territory?

Fashion was useful to some degree, but I learned quickly that I needed to work on a different timeline if I wanted to work in home interiors. The timescales on which you forecast are very different for fashion and home. Fashion trends are less than a year ahead. And for anything to do with the home, the production cycle is about two years. For a kitchen manufacturer it can be up to five years or even longer for some companies.

Forecasting methods are different. If you're only forecasting a year out, you can rely on Calculables (based on Will Higham's 4C model). These are things that you expect will happen, like events, music concerts, or movie releases. We know many of the things that will happen within the next 12 months. However, if you shift your focus to a two-year period, there is a lot less that you know. Move that into a five-year focus, and you can't extrapolate current data into the future. You have to use foresight, which is obviously much more about imagining a future and then creating a response to that imagined future.

There are limitations on how fashion and home work. People make decisions about their homes in different ways. They want things that are built to last. This means, things that are more directional and forward-thinking might not work. If you purchase a home and plan to sell it in two years' time, it will shape how directional you will be with the colour you put on the walls and the things you choose for your home. You might not choose the thing you love the most. Instead, you might opt for something that you think has the most commercial appeal for someone looking to purchase your house in a year's or two years’ time. This is not the mindset when buying fashion. In fashion, you buy something you love to get the look you want.

The challenges in home are different from those in fashion. You could ladder up and say broadly, sustainability is important if you're working in fashion and it's important if you're working in home, but they’re very different when you get down into the detail.

Let’s talk about your book “Trend Leader” coming out this year. What is a Trend Leader?

Well, I don't know anybody with the job title of trend leader. However, I do know that there are lots of people inside companies that need to make decisions about the direction the company will take in the future. And those people can be anybody from a chief executive to a design director to a head of insights. There are many roles within which those people are trend leaders. They understand how the consumer base is shifting, how home as a concept is shifting, and they need to make decisions around that to inform very real things like a five-year corporate strategy.

Trend leaders are inside every business. The reason I wanted to write this book is because I work with them all the time. But in my experience, no one company does everything the same. Trend leaders bring in trends and execute them in many ways. But there's nobody doing a cohesive, brilliant job of spotting trends, backing them appropriately, and executing them inside a business. There are some common traits for people who make high stakes decisions. They must be adept at persuading people at all levels and departments when they see change coming. Only half the job is spotting a trend. The second half is being able to activate it and ensure the company moves towards it. That's what I wanted to capture and research. What are the skills of an effective trend leader? There are many brilliant books about trend forecasting, but not from this particular angle. It feels very timely as well.

You might be on to something again. I spoke with Els Dragt last week who is currently working on an update to her book “How to research trends". This will focus on people inside organisations who are not trend researchers per se, but who apply trend thinking in their daily jobs.

When I decided to write a book, I ordered everything on the subject and thought Els’ was brilliant, such an invaluable tool. I agree with Els and would add that in addition to trend thinking, those people need strong decision-making skills because of the demands made of them; they cannot produce anything that doesn't sell. They can't be responsible for waste that goes to landfill. The pressure on them to make the right decisions is extremely high. The consequences of getting it wrong can be tough. If you are in week two or three after launch and your products underperform, everyone wants to know who's responsible. It becomes extremely personal. I've seen people who took those chances and didn't get it right and lost their jobs.

We at Trend Bible strive to make our clients feel completely equipped and confident when they present their new idea to the board or the chief executive. They need to know they have a strong idea backed up by research when facing challenging questions. That's also why I wanted to write this book. There will be moments where you put your big idea forward and you will be judged on it, and you must get it right. It's a high-pressure situation. You can’t afford to be seen as someone who can't get it right. I'm mindful of that when advising clients and writing this book. I think that with foresight and trend forecasting you can get it right more often. It puts you in a stronger position than just relying on a gut feeling.

In addition to making good decisions, what makes an effective trend leader?

I'm still writing the book, but there are six or seven different principles. Confidence in their decision making and the rigour they apply to make a good decision is one of them. Equally significant is knowing their brand and customers inside out. This is not something you can claim easily because your customers change. As a result, most product testing is inadequate. Often, companies present the product they are about to launch to a customer group and ask if they like it. Then they benchmark the results against last year’s testing. This kind of research informs their decisions. When customers don’t like the new product or like it less than last year, they decide against it. Instead, they choose what they had last year because customers liked it better when they tested it. But lo and behold, twelve months have passed, and this customer has changed their mind. They've read something in a magazine, seen something on Instagram, or seen a neighbour decorate their home differently. All sorts of influences have crept in in those twelve months. People’s tastes are fickle. And twelve months is a long time to change your mind. Understanding your customers doesn't just mean you understand them now. Being a trend leader means understanding how your customers are evolving. It also involves understanding that you are creating products with your future customers in mind.

It sounds obvious but understanding that the world changes is crucial. It’s baffling how reluctant people are to admit things change. It's part of human nature to change our minds. We change our lifestyles, our tastes change, our environments change—and we must keep pace with that. Unfortunately, some people inside companies just don't believe that. My job is to tell them why trends matter and why they should be on top of them. Change will happen. It's going to happen either with you or without you. Accepting that the world evolves is one of the key differentiators between a trend leader and somebody who doesn't get the job.

A trend leader also understands the value of originality and distinctiveness. Some leaders appreciate the value of doing something commercially successful, but it might be the same as what everyone else does. By contrast, a trend leader pursues distinct propositions. And I've seen that time and again with some of the brilliant brands we work with; they're not afraid to be first. Being a second or third mover can be effective. Successful trend leaders, however, value originality. They are open to innovation and cross-pollinate ideas from other industries. Brands often only think about their direct competitors. They're not looking outside their industry or category. They are not considering how their customers shop for and buy their products. In that sense, they are still very product- and not customer-centric.

Risk tolerance is another characteristic of a trend leader. They can handle risk and sleep at night knowing they did everything possible to manage it with immaculate trend forecasting and laser-sharp customer focus. It's not for the faint hearted. Not everyone feels comfortable with high-stakes decision-making. Being a trend leader doesn’t mean you always get everything right. That’s impossible. Even with impeccable forecasting something chaotic can happen that you cannot react to. Being a trend leader means people keep faith in you and your team even if you don't get it right. This is because you can articulate to them how you made your decision and what went wrong. Trend leaders don't hide from failures. They let people know from the start that there is a risk of failure. They do not promise to get it right every time. But when they get it wrong, they can explain what happened.

How can trend leaders persuade their colleagues and management to adapt a trend?

There are some good books on forecasting trends, but that’s only half the job. You can be a brilliant trend forecaster but not get your message across effectively. And as I mentioned before, you often communicate it up, down, left, right - to different divisions and departments. It's hard to persuade people in that way. However, there are things you can do to ensure trend knowledge is shared in your organisation.

One of the first things I ask a trend leader in an organisation is, how do people know when you've had the next big idea? How do you present it to the business? Do you have a trend conference? Do you have a trend week where you kick off all the trends for the season? How are you making your expertise a focus point and a reason why your colleagues want to come to you? Trend leaders tend to work quietly with their teams and suppliers. Trend leaders can cultivate a brilliant culture by sharing their expertise with their organisation and giving the spotlight to the team. Spotlighting trends can have this fantastic effect and advance their careers. Who wouldn't want someone around a board table who could think about the future? What an excellent skill to have and the demand for it is only growing. I was surprised by how few design people make it to board level. Something I would like to see more of is Chief Futures Officers and Chief Design Officers in the boardroom of these corporations. They are the ones spending most of their days thinking about the future.

The importance of successful product launches cannot be stressed enough—not only for commercial reasons but increasingly for environmental reasons as well. Yet the failure rate for new products is still somewhere between 70% and 90%. How can trend leaders ensure their products succeed?

70 to 90% is a shocking statistic, isn't it? I've mentioned a couple of these things already. One of them is how companies test new products. Testing is one of the key components of making an informed decision about whether to invest in a trend. But often, they ask the wrong questions. There are different ways to test products with customers. One thing I recommend is something I borrowed from Jim Collins, the author of “Great by Choice.” He uses a metaphor about firing bullets and then cannon balls. Imagine you're trying to sink a ship and you start by shooting cannon balls. However, you only have a certain amount of gunpowder. The first one you fired hit 30 degrees left of the ship. Then you fire the second one and it hits 20 degrees to the left of the ship. You realise there is a limit to how many cannon balls you can shoot. You need to get your aim right first and then fire the cannon balls. This applies to trend forecasting too. You must get the direction right first by doing small product runs and testing the market before you produce large quantities of something that won't sell. In worst case, it’s made from virgin plastic, and you must dispose of the entire stock. When something doesn't sell, the consequences are terrible. That’s why I like to introduce this idea of testing small and smartly. Don't test by asking customers what they'll want in two years’ time. They won't be able to tell you and it won't give you confidence further down the line.

One of the other things that impacts products' success is the idea of balancing commercial appeal with newness. Many companies struggle with that. They want to demonstrate newness, but they also don't want to take risks. So, they often resort to something that worked last year and make it a bit different. This is particularly prevalent in industries with a strong manufacturing focus. For this type of company, innovation is difficult because they’ve set up their entire production line to produce a component of a particular shape and size. Innovation is dictated by the manufacturing process. Instead of caring about bigger things, they think about what works on their production line. They still want to know about relevant trends, but they can’t respond to them. They miss the opportunity and lose to more nimble competitors.

While I think that you can increase the probability of success, I don’t think you can make a product that is fail proof. You can get close if you're a small business and produce goods on demand. Your customers probably already understand that they'll have to wait for something. Some customers understand that ecological reasons might delay the release of a product. Other customers still prioritise convenience and speed over ethical beliefs. When asked they might say they want to do the best for the planet, but when push comes to shove, they opt for getting their sofa tomorrow. There are several consumption patterns that need to change. If consumers are serious about only buying things that they really want, there's a lot of change that needs to happen. It's not all on retailers; consumers must make good decisions too. There is a shift towards that. When I worked at Tesco fifteen years ago, we produced a T-shirt for two pounds, forcing people to buy five for eight pounds. We wanted them to consume more. The fashion industry has largely moved on from that, thank goodness. But not far enough yet. We are still seeing consumers that are happy to buy virgin plastics; that opt for convenience; that need things urgently now. There's a whole market willing to cater for that. But there is space for brands that want to do better. However, they must take the customer on a journey with them and educate them if they want to reduce new product development failure.

About Joanna Feeley:

Joanna Feeley is founder and CEO of TrendBible, a UK based trend forecasting agency predicting the future of life at home. With 24 years’ experience as a trend forecaster, she has grown the business to become a leading authority in the future of home, working with recognised brands such as Valspar, Starbucks, Samsung and LEGO. Joanna leads a team of 24 staff based in Newcastle and around the UK, and a network of trend scouts based all over the world. Joanna is quoted as an authority on trends and is regularly cited by The Independent, BBC Radio 4 and the Financial Times.

Joanna is passionate about raising the visibility of the creative sector in the North East of England, evidenced in her commitments outside of running TrendBible. She has launched Creative Studio Tours, a programme for school students to visit creative companies in Newcastle to build aspirations for a creative career, and has launched The Female Scale Up, a forum for sharing knowledge with the next generation of female founders. Honoured by the think-tank Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), Joanna was named as ‘one of the new generation of female entrepreneurs’. She was named Entrepreneur of the Year at the Entrepreneur’s Forum Awards, won Female Entrepreneur of the Year, the Susan Dobson Award for Entrepreneurship in 2018 and won the Great British Entrepreneur award in 2022.
Further Reading:

Check out William Higham's 4C Model in his book The Next Big Thing and Jim Collins' Great By Choice


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