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5 posts from March 2011

Slides from "Creative Workshop" Author's Talk at SxSWi

This afternoon I spent half an hour with a few hundred South by Southwest attendees, sharing how my book Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills came about. I presented the above deck, and answered a ton of diverse questions from the audience. I've tried to capture some of the questions and my responses below.

What do you do when you get stuck? I mean, you'll always reach a wall on any design project.

Yes, there are always moments on design projects where it seems like the well has run dry. I've found that in those situations, it helps to construct situations where you have to dig even deeper in the well to find more water.

One trick that seems to help is to set a goal to come up with 100 ideas on paper in one hour. Sure, you may not reach 100, but you'll have a moment (or two) where you'll stop thinking about making good ideas and draw on your intuition and subconscious. Sure, crap happens during those moments, but so do moments of gold. The point is not to decide whether it's crap or gold until you've had a chance to get a distance from the material, and let it speak for itself.

Do different personalities or dispositions gravitate towards specific types of brainstorming methods and design processes?

I find this a fascinating question, for a number of reasons. First, designers always gravitate towards more rational or more intuitive processes, just as a matter of how they incubate and execute ideas. So if you give a fairly intuitive designer a highly rational brainstorming method, it's likely that there will be some friction and potential fireworks.

However, rote repetition rarely leads to deep design intuition. The point of exploring different brainstorming methods—especially those that oppose your everyday tendencies—is to step outside what you know and explore what you don't. Sure, failure will happen, but taking risks requires such an effort. There's nothing to be afraid of except throwing away what didn't work… so if you're deeply attached to what you create, it's going to hurt.

I'm a developer and want to become a designer. What should I do?

Be tactical, observing how the designers around you work through a design problem, from initial research to conceiving ideas. Try out activities that utilize those processes. See which ones feel natural, and generate ideas in similar manners. Take on design problems and try to solve them only on paper. Stay out of code and technical architecture, examining how things could be made if there were no reality constraints. Then, when you've started to fall into a rhythm, see what happens when you bring implementation technologies into that process.

How should designers work with project managers?

As partners, with an appropriate level of give and take. I don't mind project managers drawing wireframes on the whiteboard when the team is grappling with a tough problem. However, they should also feel comfortable if the team begins negotiating dates on the GANT chart. Essentially, a collaboration with open communication and trust, as well as some fluidity involving roles.


If you're seeking more design challenges, I've posted on Scribd 10 bonus challenges that I couldn't fit into the printed book. Enjoy!

What's Your Bus Number?

Idea Going Nowhere

In the shower, the best idea of your career hits you like a runaway bus. Years of hard-fought labor melt away, as the details clarify themselves in your brain like pristine, hand-rendered architectural blueprints. You pump your fists in the air, giddy with triumph. This idea will define your career. It will leave your clients awestruck. It will make your company rich.

Sadly, no one will ever know your idea. Because in this hypothetical situation, on your way into work you are hit by a bus.

Contingency planning—being prepared for the worst that could happen, even though it's likely that it won't—is a necessary part of running any business meant to outlast yourself. Business owners need to understand where critical information and actions happen across their company, while individual employees must stay aware of who does (and doesn't) have access to the results of their labor.

This is no laughing matter, but we bring it up every time we say: "If you were hit by a bus tomorrow, who would know what you know? Who could do what you do?" It happens more often than we'd like, especially when working in a freelance capacity. Your bosses worry about it. If you're in charge of a business, you have probably experienced times where such lapses in institutional knowledge have hobbled projects.

Matt Conway, an Associate Creative Director at frog design, has a great turn of phrase for identifying what project details are shared amongst employees. When a project contributor tells him something important, he asks: "What's your bus number?"

His turn of phrase is shorthand for, "If you were to be hit by a bus at this very moment, how many other people besides you and me know what we just discussed?" If your bus number is low, then you will need to capture and share your knowledge before you progress further. If your bus number is high, then you're in a good place to keep your project moving.

So, take a look at your current projects and ask yourself: What's my bus number? Who needs to know what I've been doing? Are there any new ideas that need to be socialized, and quickly? And how can I share these ideas with my cohorts most effectively? Then, take action.

"Creative Workshop" Author's Talk at SxSWi on Friday

Creative Workshop SxSWi Author Talk

If you'll be at South by Southwest, join me on Friday, March 11th at 5:30 PM for an author's talk about Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills. The talk will be in Ballroom G at the Austin Convention Center, 500 E Cesar Chavez Street, and the hash tag will be #CWBook.

Over 20 minutes, I'll share the thinking behind the book and some of the interactive challenges, then take part in a Q&A. Books will be for sale, and I'll be happy to sign a copy for you.

You can add the event to your schedule at the official event listing here.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

P.S. I'll also be releasing at the conference one last bonus PDF of free material associated with the book...

This Week's Challenge: The Grand Finale


The heavy red curtain comes down with a crash, and the applause is deafening. Walking back to their dressing rooms, the actors and actresses give each other high fives and smiles, proud of their three hours walking the boards. After wiping away the stage makeup, they will slip out the back door of the theatre, unrecognized by the bustling crowd on a busy Saturday night.

Such is another successful show, winding down to make room for the next production of the season. Whether Shakespeare or Tom Stoppard, the spirit of a stage production can't be easily captured on film, or experienced through a live simulcast from halfway around the world. Stage performers feed off the energy of their audiences, transforming that electricity into more powerful performances.

So, what would happen if this conversation between the audience and the actors were even more explicit?

You've been tapped by an Off-Broadway theater in New York City to partner with a playwright in creating an interactive stage production. Instead of the actors breaking the "fourth wall" and asking the audience to vote on a series of possible outcomes, like "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," the audience will be encouraged to send feedback via their mobile devices to the show's director in real time. The director will then use that feedback to shape the show in real time, in constant communication with the actors. Every night, the show could end in a radically different fashion—there would be no set number of outcomes. Additionally, the director could send out prompts to the audience to solicit input on particular story beats.

In 90 minutes, design how to facilitate this stage production, from the necessary user flows to describe how mobile devices will be used by the audience, to how the director will communicate narrative changes to the actors. Feel free to identify stage stories that would be best suited for the system you're creating.

If you want to take this further, write a brief treatment for the play and what crucial moments will likely attract a sellout crowd, enhanced by the technology you're leveraging.

Keep in mind that the more complex your communication system becomes, the more people are distracted from the play they're watching. How can you balance interactivity with the intimacy the actors require from their audience?

This is the last creative challenge I'll be posting on ChangeOrder for the next few months. If you want more, snag a copy of my book Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills.

The above photo is by Kevin Dooley on Flickr, shared via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

When Sparks Won't Fly

Designer Charades

I'm proud to welcome our very first guest columnist. She is a writer, teacher, and public speaking coach, and has been a collaborator for much of the thinking on this blog since its inception. She was also my co-author for the e-book Creative Workshop: Teacher's Guide. Welcome to ChangeOrder the first full post by Mary Paynter Sherwin.

A group of us have a Wednesday night ritual. We sit around at our local burger place and kvetch about work and life and design. Every burger comes with fries, no questions asked. No extra effort. But you can get onion rings, and there’s a Mafia-like dialogue that occurs when orders come around. Onion rings are powerful, because you can get lots of fries for a single ring. We have to make sure that sides of rings and fries are equally distributed. If three of us get onion rings, everyone else has to get fries, or the whole thing goes off kilter. There’s probably a decision tree on some humor website about how this all works.

I’d been obsessing over these onion rings all day long. I hadn’t had them in weeks, and come hell or high water, they were going to be on my plate that night. Our favorite waitress came around to serve drinks, and I ordered first. And ten minutes later, my plate showed up with French fries. Because that’s what I ordered.

Why, after all of that planning and drooling, did I suddenly change my mind? If I really, really wanted onion rings, why didn’t I order them? Everyone else had to pick their fries or onion rings accordingly, based on my preference. A preference that wasn’t really my preference.

I ate an order of French fries because I couldn’t speak the words, “onion rings.”

My brain has electrical problems. From time to time, my ability to speak what’s in my head escapes me. I can see the word “cat,” can look at a cat in a book, and out of my mouth comes “Christmas.” More often than not, nothing comes out at all, and I just sit and wait. Eventually, the right word makes it through the synapses to my mouth. Or it doesn’t, and people think I’m really tired. Or on drugs, a popular theory in high school. Last night, though I was frantically thinking “onion rings,” that was as far as it got.

I’ve had a lot of years to deal with this glitch. And yes, I’ve had a full medical workup and, though it’s pretty clear what’s happening on an EEG, I’m fine. But it wasn’t until last night that I realized how much my inability to communicate about simple and familiar things could influence other people around me. Because I wanted something that I couldn’t articulate, and because I had no way of communicating that failure, everything else changed.

Continue reading "When Sparks Won't Fly" »