113 posts categorized "Creative Process"

Stones on Wood

Riverbed by Olafur Eliasson at the Louisiana

The toddler in the snowsuit slipped on a rock and slid into the burbling stream. His mother pointed at him, laughing to her two friends standing beside her. I thought: I’ve never seen that happen in an art museum.

We were inside the first room of Olafur Eliasson’s Riverbed, which was on display at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen. It was part of a series of situational artworks where natural landscapes were partially recreated within the environment of a gallery space. The year before, Mary and I had seen Lava Rocks at a museum in Aalborg, where we had to don a pair of museum-provided Crocs and gingerly step our way through a giant white room full of sharp red lava rocks. The combination of the crunch-crunch-crunch sound and light streaming in from the windows above made for a static non-terrestrial landscape, as if it were Mars from the legs down, while from the waist up we were within the environs of a hospital.

Riverbed by olafur eliasson at the Louisiana

But while Lava Rocks’s primary modes of engagement required us to stay focused on keeping upright as we explored the various terrain in the room—lest we injure ourselves—Riverbed was set up in a slightly different way. First, the artwork moved through a series of rooms, and the floor was graded as if you were hiking your way up a hill bank to find the source of water. You could duck through short doorways to move in and out of the rooms, as if the gallery environment itself had been reshaped by the natural material. You climb a staircase that has been overtaken partially by a trickling waterfall. In most rooms, the only sound you could hear was the rushing of the water downhill, which was so pristine I found myself searching the walls and ceiling to see if there were speakers piping it inside. The only thing the exhibit required of us, other than the ability to walk, was to cross the stream in order to view every room.

Riverbed by olafur eliasson at the Louisiana

What struck me most about this work was what it lacked. In Lava Rocks, I found myself considering how the rocks were birthed from fire and cooled into these shapes, and imagining myself in those environments. In a similar fashion, when experiencing Riverbed I found myself considering what you might find exploring a local stream: wind, sunlight, dirt, animals, insects, birds, plants, trees, lichens, fungus, worms, and all else that animates our natural world. All that was left here were the water and the rocks, and the sense impressions that they would leave us as we ground our way up the sloping room, with an inkling of what we would find at the start of the stream: the end of the work, and the beginning of your recollection of the experience. 

I found this re-creation of nature both constrained and expansive. I call the work constrained because the interplay between the gallery space and the raw materials (rocks, water) was intelligently assembled to evoke a few physical and sensory interactions—Eliasson meant for the destabilizing nature of the rocks against shoes, for example. But I call the work expansive to speak to the almost unlimited vocabulary of things people can and will do, based on how the environment was constructed. I couldn’t help but wonder how much thought had been put into the arrangement of natural materials as to how it could inspire these interactions, which rarely happen in an art exhibit. In just a few minutes observing those at the exhibit, I saw:

  • One man determinedly walking to the source of the water, as if truly hiking
  • A group of children running from room to room, being pursued by a parent
  • A young man filming the flowing water with his smartphone
  • Three men standing around having a conversation in a lower room, as if out for a smoke break
  • An elderly woman sitting down on a big rock to have her picture taken, like on a mountaintop
  • A girl filming her friend crawling through one of the low doorways, then leaping into the air to celebrate

Riverbed by olafur eliasson at the Louisiana

In an interview, Eliasson talked about how he would watch these people, and then try to literally recreate their movements, “so I can see what I have lost.” His perspective is that he can only control so much of someone else’s experience—and that the whole notion of him dictating an artistic experience is flawed:

“The interaction we have with our surroundings is actually a cultural construct. The way we engage with the world is based on our model, not on truth… What I also present you with is not real. It’s stones on wood. So I’m not trying to say I’m trying to show you the real thing. We are living in models and that it is always how it is and how it has always been… What is real is the way that you choose to handle your own model…

We don’t take in the exhibition, we produce it by walking through it. That is to suggest that the authorship of reality lays within the beholder, the user, the museum visitor. The museum is constituted by the visitors… [That’s why] we should trust the visitor to take the authorship, to become creators.” (transcribed from a video interview associated with the exhibition)

In this case, the child who was producing the exhibit alongside me was starting to cry, as he had gotten wet and the water was chillier than anticipated. His mother swooped him up off his feet, as six more children in a school group bounded past, giggling with excitement. In a world where so much contemporary art places demands on you to sense something quite particular or precious, it’s refreshing to spend so much time in an artistic experience where you are able to shape your journey so explicitly.

Slides from “Creating Creative Superteams” at HOW Design Live 2014


You know when a team clicks. Designers complete each other’s sentences. Team members engage in critique frequently, and relish the input into their work. People build on each other’s ideas in productive ways. Everyone feels invested in their project outcomes. 

This doesn’t happen through mere serendipity, especially when working with teams that have multidisciplinary participants working across multiple physical locations. You may be collaborating deeply with stakeholders across corporate silos, as well as involving users as part of the design process. Creating cohesive, high-performing teams requires not just talented people, but also the right structures to support them as they strive to achieve their goals. How can a manager or leader understand where these structures fit as part of their day-to-day workflow, and provide the necessary support to make creative work happen?

The above slide deck is from my talk “Creating Creative Superteams,” which I presented at HOW Design Live 2014 as part of their In-House Design Managers Conference. In this talk, I explored the different tools I use to empower indivdiuals and teams in today’s complex work environments. Some of these tools are drawn from psychology and social science, and were devised by Bruce Tuckman and David Kantor. Other tools are adapted from agile/scrum work processes, with a few new tricks thrown in from what I’ve learned from leading teams at frog.

Please drop me a note at david at changeorderblog dot com and let me know if you try out any of these techniques—I’d love to hear how they work for you and your teams!

P.S. As a warm up at the start of the talk, I asked the 600 attendees to perform the solo to "Beat It" as the world's largest all-designer air guitar ensemble. This is what they did:

Upcoming Talks and Workshops: CCA, Kansas City Design Week, SxSW, and HOW

Here's a list of some upcoming talks I'll be doing around the U.S, on the heels of being on podcasts with Ash Thorp (The Collective) and Jason Fruy (My Creative Copilot). Hope to see you at one of them!

Friday, February 21st, 2014
"Design Is Hacking How We Learn"
California College of the Arts
San Francisco Campus
1111 Eighth Street
San Francisco, CA 94107-2247
7 PM in Timken Hall, reception at 6:30 PM
Free and open to the public

This is a new iteration of a talk that I started giving this past year. The abstract: The next big disruption in lifelong learning will be by design. We are innately trained and poised to have a global impact on how other people can survive and thrive, whether they are designers or not. In this talk, I'll point out opportunities for designers to participate in this disruption, sharing tools such as frog's Collective Action Toolkit, which has made the skills designers use more accessible and available for people worldwide. This is part of the Interaction Design faculty lecture series.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014
"Envisioning the Balance: The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship"
Kansas City Design Week
Think Big Partners 6th floor event space
1800 Baltimore Ave
Kansas City, MO 64108
5:30-8 PM
$10 admission in advance, $15 on site, limited to 75 attendees

In this talk, I'll explore the expanding role of design in entrepreneurship, looking at emerging principles we can use to drive sustainable innovation, growth and beneficial cultural change within our startups, companies, nonprofits—or even within a group where no business may yet exist. Through this entertaining talk and Q&A, I'll uncover how different tools used by designers allows entrepreneurs to create valuable new products, services and business models with their customers and communities. And, most importantly, I’ll examine the proper place and role of design in the lifecycle of your ventures, finding the right balance between design and other critical activities that lead to successful businesses in the long term. (You mean just design isn't enough? Yep.)

Monday, March 10, 2014
Workshop: "Expansion Through Ecosystems" with Diego Depetris, Patrick Kalaher, and Steve Selzer
South by Southwest Interactive Conference
AT&T Conference Center
Classroom 102
1900 University Ave
9:30 AM-1:30 PM
Advance registration and workshop signup required, attendance limited to 40

Ecosystems are critical when exploring new market opportunities, or seeking to expand or diversify an existing market. Value in an ecosystem is created not only by driving adoption for your products and services, but by driving demand and “coopetition” from the entire ecosystem. When parties in an ecosystem collaborate to expand the entire pie rather than just their slice, growth occurs faster and everyone benefits as a result. Ecosystem strategy helps you determine the options available to your business to make this growth happen. In the future, the ecosystems that you participate in become your business. Few companies will successfully operate in isolation. If you don’t actively identify and plan for opportunities to shape that ecosystem, often in collaboration with others, you may fall behind. This collaborative 4-hour workshop will simulate the ever-changing nature of ecosystems as you work with others to stay viable in the marketplace.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Workshop: "Off the Page, Into the Wild: Designing for the Internet of Things"
HOW Design Live
Hynes Convention Center
900 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02115
10:15 AM to 12:30 PM
Additional fee required for this workshop

Attend this session for a set of quick and dirty storytelling and prototyping methods for cross-screen and cross-device interactive design. Drawing from influences as varied as reality TV, automatic writing, artificial intelligence, and improv, I'll show you how to work individually and with multidisciplinary teams to: target unique user needs and tasks with a story-first approach; rapidly ideate around those needs and tasks using unique methods that range from text and photo prompts to prototyping with your phone's camera; capture, evaluate, and iterate on provisional artifacts and scenarios; understand when to shift from low-fidelity prototypes to full-on technology simulations and prototypes. This workshop draws from David's experience in teaching storytelling in user-experience design at California College of the Arts and in his ongoing work in exploratory research and design with cross-disciplinary teams at frog. You’ll go home with a cheat sheet of storytelling methods and examples you can bring directly into your studio practice.

Thursday, May 15, 2014
"Creating Creative Superteams"
HOW Design Live
Hynes Convention Center
900 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02115
4:30–5:30 PM
Presented as part of the HOW In-House Management Conference

You know when a team just clicks. Designers complete each other's sentences. Group brainstorms yield breakthrough ideas. Team members want critique frequently, and relish the feedback. Everyone feels invested in where your projects are headed. However, if you lead or work on a creative team, you may have experienced the opposite, from team members struggling to remain engaged in brainstorming sessions, or fighting for their interests in what's meant to be fruitful critique. In this session, you’ll find out how you can encourage and empower creative teams, helping to improve their communication and collaboration skills along the way. The tools you’ll learn from this session will help you: Lead brainstorming sessions that teams love to participate in; identify which team structures lead to maximum creativity and project ownership; expand your critique vocabulary, with five unique strategies to help your team open up when sharing work in progress; understand what conversational cues can lead to constructive dialogue, rather than creating competition; empower your team members to build off each other's skills and perspectives.

Exploring Student-Led Problem Solving in Savannah High Schools

The 11 students in the room were nervous. They were about to present their ideas for an Anti-Violence Week to the school principal, Mr. Muhammad. Their journey began with a simple question: What change do you want to see in your community? It ended with their answer, which they created collectively over 12 class periods as part of their marketing class. Would their principal approve their idea, so their event could take place at Alfred E. Beach High School?

This is just one story from a pilot program I helped facilitate at frog, where we’ve been exploring how student-led problem solving creates ripple effects felt in the classroom, the school, and the community at large. This work has been in partnership with schools and local community groups, who have been using the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT)--our award-winning open-source guide to design thinking--in their classrooms and community meetings. The toolkit encourages problem solving as a form of skill development, with group activities that draw on participants’ strengths and perspectives. The toolkit challenges groups to act on their ideas by defining and clarifying shared goals throughout the process.

While we’d initially created the CAT to provide community leaders with resources and activities for bringing groups together to solve problems and create change in their local communities, we’ve seen it used in a much broader array of use cases. This includes everything from corporate innovation groups and startups to NGOs and governments. But we were intrigued by stories from teachers around the world, who were using many of the CAT’s activities in their schools. In order to better understand the potential value of group problem-solving in the high school classroom, we embarked on a 10-week pilot program with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Design for Sustainability program, in partnership with Design Ethos, Gatorball Academy, and teachers and classes at Beach, Groves, and Savannah High Schools.

In Professor Scott Boylston’s 10-week class “Sustainable Practices in Design,” eight designers worked with 42 students and three teachers in Savannah area high schools. The designers facilitated CAT activities over several weeks, moving from identifying community issues the students were passionate about to proposing implementable solutions using the toolkit’s six categories of activities.

I've documented this pilot program in a series of articles over the past two weeks:

If you’d like more information about this pilot program, download We Have a Voice: Facilitating Community Action with High School Students, a 100-page document created by the SCAD graduate students about their work with Beach, Savannah, and Groves High School. It also contains the graduate student's findings about how the community organization Gatorball Academy—who helped us connect with the high school teachers and classes—could position themselves to better serve local school students.

Many thanks to the eight graduate students, three teachers, 42 high school students, and community organizations that participated in this pilot program. They include:

Scott Boylston, SCAD Design for Sustainability
David Sherwin, frog
Erin Sanders, frog
Larry "Gator" Rivers, Gatorball Academy / Menyet
Debra Hasan, Gatorball Academy / Menyet
Robynn Butler, SCAD
Eric Green, SCAD
Carol Lora, SCAD
Marina Petrova, SCAD
Katie Mansell, SCAD
Naz (Najmeh) Mirzaie, SCAD
Alexandra Pappalardo, SCAD
Nathan Sundberg, SCAD
Ms. Wilson, Beach High School
Ms. Dawson, Groves High School
Ms. Reese, Savannah High School

How Are You Using the Collective Action Toolkit?

Students at SCAD take part in Knowledge Fest activity

The SCAD graduate students split up into teams and gathered around their copies of the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT), considering their homework assignment for their next class period. Their task: To pilot the first activity they would use with local high school students as their first introduction to working together in a group. In two days, they’d have to do a dry run with their classmates. As they looked over the toolkit’s action map, they began to where they should they begin? By having a “Knowledge Fest” or a “Skill Share?” By helping their group identify a goal right away, or by having fun and getting to know each other?

The CAT has been out for almost two months, and situations such as the above are happening more and more. The toolkit is being deployed far more broadly than expected, such as in our new Chinese language edition. People are finding new uses for it, from local education to entrepreneurship in global organizations. And frog has embarked on our first educational pilot, working with SCAD’s Design for Sustainability program.

How did this happen? And in what ways can you use the CAT that you may not have considered?

Read more on frog's design mind blog: ("How Are You Using the Collective Action Toolkit?")

Read about my involvement with the SCAD + CAT educational pilot on the Design Ethos blog ("frog + SCAD Design for Sustainability pilot frog’s new Community Action Toolkit").

Slides from "Design Is Hacking How We Learn"

This past September, I spoke at AIGA Seattle's Into the Woods, a multidisciplinary retreat whose theme was "Survive and Thrive." Five speakers were asked to speak on that theme through the particular lens of their practice, on topics as varied as sustainability (Scott Boylston) to inspiration (Jeanette Abbink) to creativity (Howard Lichter) to business (Seth Johnson and Karen Kurycki). The topic I was asked to speak on was design and education.

At the event, as we participated in far-reaching conversations fueled by everyone's passion for what design could accomplish, it seemed like each night would never end. But just like a long college weekend, we would still have to drag ourselves back to class (and/or work) on Monday. And even if you haven't been to college, you know what that feels like. We've lived it, as part of our experience growing up with school.

Take this scenario. It's your third cup of coffee for the 8 AM seminar, you sit down, and the room feels like it's filled with an incandescent haze drilling holes into your cerebral cortex. The teacher is passing out a handout, you turn it over, and suddenly you realize: You've been smacked with a pop quiz!

The fog lifts as the adrenaline courses through your veins. Sure, you've watched all the lectures, jotted down the occasional notes, and maybe done some of the reading while catching up on Breaking Bad. But the information swirling in your head hasn't come into a coherent whole. Maybe this is what your professor thinks she needs the class to do to critically master the material. And if you're going to get that degree next year and stumble out into the world, this could have an impact on your GPA.

You turn over the paper and see the first question: Can design solve most of society’s biggest problems?*

"Of course! Design can change the world!" You blurt it out loud, without even thinking. Everyone in the room looks at you. Oh, this is going to be easy, you think. I’m just going to write in “Yes.” Next question.

Then, you notice the asterisk. Your eye drops to the disclaimer lurking at the bottom of the page: *Be sure to show your work.

Suddenly, this test doesn't look so easy anymore.

If you'd asked me this question two years ago, I'm not sure I would have had a good answer. It wasn’t until this point in my career, 17 years in, that I could even venture taking a shot at it. So this is the topic of this talk: answering that question. And here's the response I'm going to write on my pop quiz:

Design can solve society’s biggest problems… if we cultivate a love of learning through the design process.

So while I'd been asked to speak on the subject of design and education, my talk wasn't about educating designers. It's about how we learn. The next big disruption in lifelong learning will be by design. We are innately trained and poised to have a global impact on how other people can survive and thrive, whether they are designers or not.

The above slides are from a talk where I outlined how designers can do this better. I argue in this talk that the mode in which designers learn—with a focus on practice and reflection, supported by theory—is not limited to just designers. Taking this orientation towards learning hacks how we learn. This is an approach we can communicate to others.

I believe that anyone can adopt the range of skills that we regularly exercise, and learn about a variety of topics of value to them, without having to formally be or become a designer. This can happen not by redesigning how schools work, per se, but by looking at the design process as a form of skill development that can help people change their world. Within that process, there are simple tools we can teach others that help them to create more meaningful lives, independent of formal design work.

In the first half of the talk, I talked about what survival means through the lens of design and lifelong learning. In the second half, I shared tools I've gathered that have helped me become a more adaptive learner and designer, using the action map of the Collective Action Toolkit as a way to organize them (at the time still a work in progress).

Designing the Destination

Designing the Destination

A few years ago, I hated flying. I'd been deathly afraid of it since I was a kid.

I knew this was a completely irrational fear. I knew the odds: only a 1 in 20,000 chance that anything might ever happen to me in my lifetime. Compared to the odds of dying due to cancer or a heart attack, I had bigger fish to fry.

Flying was something I knew I needed to do, especially as I grew up on the East Coast and have lived on the West Coast for eleven years now. Whether to see family and friends or take off on an adventure, I'd have to fly. But whenever possible, I would try to avoid flying. Even for most vacations, I was content to stay in Seattle or drive to somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

Last year, I had an epiphany that helped me to better understand this fear, and make some peace with it.

It was on a plane flight two years ago, commuting to Austin to help lead a work session. We were at that fulcrum point in the project, where you start moving from the initial immersion and research into full-on design. There wasn't any more work I could really do to prepare, or try to stave off how most designers feel at this point in the process: a mixture of excitement and fear.

I was staring out the window of the plane for a really long time. Just sitting with the discomfort: my fear of flying, blurring into my excitement for us to get there and start doing our design work.

At a certain point, I realized they were almost one and the same. Excitement, because we were about to create solutions that were going to help people in need. And fear, because we didn't know exactly what we were going to make yet. This fuzziness, in the journey we take when we work in a creative discipline.

When you get on a plane, it's really easy to imagine the journey. Through the magic of technology, you'll be thousands of miles from your home in a matter of hours. San Francisco to Boston. There'll be a crappy in-flight movie. Some peanuts and soda. Germs and crying babies.

My fear about flying was all about the reasons why we might not reach Boston, or Austin, or Madrid. And I realized those are some of the same hurdles that stand in the way of someone who wants to lead a design team.

When you're a design leader, you're the one getting on the plane for the trip and you're the one flying it. But it's not clear if you're going to Boston, Shanghai, Toledo, or some borderland between countries that no one has ever visited. Would you tell someone flying on a plane that's where you're going when you take off? A city that does not yet exist, with an airport that needs to be built while you're in transit.

This is the challenge for a design leader: making awesome s*%t real. You could argue that any designer is a futurist. But the best design leaders that I've worked with, the ones that inspired their teams to go far beyond what they thought was possible, were able to describe a place to travel that did not yet exist and say, "Go there." They didn't exactly know where we would end up. But they knew by attempting to get there, the right destination would emerge from the haze. That excitement and fear blurred together again, as we discovered where we could travel next.

The only risk is that where you're at in a project may not feel like a natural end. You would have to go somewhere new before you had a sense of the destination where you'd arrived.

That is the journey that we all take as leaders, and the vision that it takes to sustain that journey, trip after trip, year after year.

And you'll have the frequent flyer miles to prove it.

Needs More Refrigerator

Needs More Refrigerator

A random non-sequitur folded into the copy on the screen design. An arbitrary revision of your brand’s color palette. An abstract request for insertion of an additional typeface into your layout.

Why would designers, partaking of an applied art, not be fearful of such changes during a project? What would encourage a designer to be open to such tangents? What would make her meander if only for a few minutes’ time, before closing down from the realm of endless possibility to the realm of get this project shipped before my hide is whipped by my boss?


While such changes can feel painful at first, and often contrary to the intent you want to bring to your work, they sometimes take you down avenues that defy logical interpretation and plug you back into your intuition. New currents can electrify your design work, encouraging a more poetic design execution. But at first, those new currents may feel more like electroshock than a positive stimulus.

In my third year of college, I took a poetry class with a writer named Tan Lin. You can trawl through his read and written work if you want to get a taste of exactly how oblique and maddening some of his poetry was, especially within a conservative English department that leaned perilously into the traditional. Surprisingly, the content of his class stuck with me more than much of what I read when getting my degree, probably out of sheer contrast to the Miltons and Donnes that larded our heavy Norton anthologies. The poets we read included Gertrude Stein, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, John Ashbery, and many others on the forefront of American language poetry.

Until then, I’d been a purist about what was and wasn’t poetry. I was addicted to meter and form, and have the pile of pantoums and sestinas to prove it. I was the guy lampooned in a spoof campus literary magazine for overusing iambic pentameter—the author parodying lines of mine from a recently published work wrote “blah blah blah” whenever the original words felt like filler.

So I didn’t take this class because I thought I would like language poetry. On the contrary—boy, did I hate the stuff.

People say that this language-based style of poetry has a dazzling surface to be appreciated… but underneath that surface, there isn’t much river. Trying to find a trickle of meaning in, around, or through the words became what felt like a fool’s quest. That class was an epic struggle between my rigid, meter-bound ear and poem after poem whose slippery internal logic that defied my conception of art. Pile onto that a steady diet of Abstract Expressionist art in my “Art After 1945” class and seeing plays by Ionesco and Beckett in the after-hours and my notion of what art could be exploded to pieces.

But there was one pivotal moment in that four months of mayhem that still stands out for me even today.

We had been given an assignment to write a language poem. Not an imitation of one of the many authors we’d been assigned. This was meant to be a personal, original work.

I sat down and labored over this poem like none other I’d ever written.

Okay, that’s a total lie. I bashed out some stream-of-consciousness stuff over about 20 minutes. I just let it ride. If it sounded good but didn’t make logical sense, it went in the work. If it made logical sense to me, it got scrambled up until it sounded good, but otherwise was utter nonsense.

This was it. My statement, a big F.U. to my personal beliefs about poetry. That you needed to have capital-I Inspiration strike you from the heavens. That you needed to sit down and write a draft, then perhaps another draft, and after that go through rounds of revision until the meaning of the poem finally revealed itself to you in a crescendo of spondees and trochees. Maybe 30 minutes maximum in the driver’s seat. Leaving plenty of time to have a beer with my roommates, cook some tongue-scorching Indian food, who knows.

I turned in this poem, proud of what I’d done. Actually, “pride” isn’t the right word. More like: petrified. I mean, how do you give feedback on something you’ve created where you have zero capability of describing what it’s supposed to mean or why you think it merits someone’s attention?

Two weeks passed, and at the end of class I received back my poem. At the top, scrawled in blue ink by my teacher, were three words I’ve never forgotten: “Needs more refrigerator.”

Even today, I puzzle over the many possibilities this statement was meant to elicit. I don’t think he means for me to put Whirlpool appliances and their ilk into this wordfest, though in a revisionist rage I tried such a thing and it was pretty funny.

Instead, after much reflection, what I gleaned from his feedback was this: there was no critical frame by which for him to understand the intent of my poem, so his feedback was meant to reinforce that view: that whatever he could throw at me with regard to “feedback” could only help me to clarify how that intent was expressed through the artwork.


This makes sense for going out and attempting to make this type of anti-sensical work. But what does it have to do with the realm of applied art and design?

As I spent more and more time in design, I realized there were moments you could switch on that anti-sensical mode as a method of generating new material on the page or new perspectives on what you could be making to help solve a client problem. The trick was to not let it overwhelm your path: what you wanted to accomplish with the design.

These were a few of the methods I started to bring into my work in the early 2000s as a visual designer:

Establish arbitrary criteria for what makes your work good. Most people say they want your visual design to be beautiful or for users to find the flow intuitive and all that other stuff that gets echoed until it’s meaningless. So come up with some criteria that makes your work exciting, like in the case above where you need more refrigerator. I’ve had multiple creative directors who’ve tried to express this arbitrary sensibility through dance, through onomatopoetic sound, through whatever means by which they can give a hint of a design’s character without limiting it to pure logic. Keep in mind, this isn’t something to use in general critique—this is meant to break through roadblocks or force a discussion into a new space.

Find material that is unrelated to the work at hand but historically or metaphorically rich. If I was stuck on a problem, I would go and try to For example: In trying to create a more modern layout, I spent a few minutes digging into an Art Deco pattern book, whose stylings I had studied in school but at the time I didn’t like and thought had no application to the current project. Surprisingly, one of those Art Deco patterns inspired a pattern used in the modern work. It wasn’t important to the creative director how I established that pattern, only that it seemed to be fresh—even though it was inspired by a wholly different period in history. The same went for viewing short movies or reading passages from books I kept on the shelf for similar uses.

Build brief breaks into your schedule for taking “random walks” into the work. Whenever I was really stuck on a design, I would take 15 minutes to disassemble the entire layout (and any other ones I had attempted), and then randomly reassemble them in a few ways. It was important to do this without thinking about what would make a good or bad solution, just that it was a new arrangement. After I’d done so, there were always one or two paths I could add to my current visual design explorations. Sometimes, it was the pressure release I was looking for in the midst of sharpening an idea until it had started to crumble in the execution.

Create prompts that force you into new paths, then follow them. My “Stop Trying Ritual” from a few years back was one of my more effective prompts, inspired by love of the Oulipo and the Fluxus movement. It’s important that you don’t just use other people’s prompts. You should create your own and see where they take you.


I’m not sure I’ve recovered from the experience I had in college. Nowadays, I have a few of these poets on my bookshelf, and ever so often leaf through them, puzzling again through what the words speak to me. In graduate school, I found myself willingly signing up for a class with Carolyn Forché in which we would read all 16 books (at the time) by John Ashbery and write imitations. My 19-year-old self would have probably committed ritual seppuku like in Harold and Maude before admitting that I’d even consider doing this.

But what I can say is this: any artist’s vocabulary can serve to be expanded outside their range of comfort, just so you have the words at your disposal in the situation you might need them. As a student, this helps to expand your critical perspective. As a working artist or designer, this helps you better orient what you’re doing and break through the boundaries that always slowly slip into place, as you become more deft in expressing your voice.

The Gift of Attention

Glass 1


The water glass tumbled to the floor and shattered. Glittering fragments, both small and large, covered almost every inch of the bathroom floor.

A minute passed. Still in shock, I surveyed the tiled landscape from my maroon bathmat island.

My wife called out from the bedroom: "Are you okay?"

"Yes," I said. "It's no big deal." I had been holding a water glass in my right hand, which was also opening the door. In my left hand I was shutting off the alarm on my phone, which I'd accidentally set to snooze. I hadn't wanted to wake my wife up, but it was too late for that.

As my breathing returned to normal, I felt a throbbing pain in my right foot: two splinters of glass poking straight out from the skin, like mile markers on a jogging trail. Kneeling down, I plucked them out. Blood oozed from the wound.

"Wet a pile of paper towels and use it to pick up the fragments," she said.

I put my left palm on the counter and stretched out to pop the bathroom door open. Then I jumped through the door from the bathmat, so I wouldn't risk piercing the soles of my feet.

Outside, a garbage truck honked over and over again, so loud that it set off a car alarm.


I returned with the towels and thick-soled shoes. Leaning over from my waist, I did my best to pick up what pieces of glass I could see, piling them in a paper bag we'd saved from our last trip to the grocery. One of the larger fragments displayed a smiling cow, with a single word below it in handwritten script: "Moo."

Now, the work would begin. Since the glass was cheap, thousands of dust-sized glass pieces glinted from the tile. I wet the towels in the sink, squatted, and began to pat at the floor.

I knew that I had to reach every square inch, to make sure all of the fragments were gone. So I got on my hands and knees to finish the job.

It was only that moment that I realized the floor was filthy—even after having been professionally cleaned before we moved in. This went beyond the usual hair and dirt you might sweep up on a weekly basis.

With the 30 minutes I had before I needed to commute for work, I couldn't clean it to my satisfaction. It would take two hours. At the same time, I didn't know how I'd missed how dirty the floor was when we'd moved in.


Having lived with people who sleepwalk, I sometimes imagine what it would be like if I sleepwalked too: Staring into the mirror in the bathroom, brushing your teeth with shaving cream. Standing in the kitchen after having cooked and eaten half a stack of buttermilk pancakes. Gardening in the moonlight, watering a patch of blooming spaghetti squash. Walking down the center of a city street wearing only flannel pajama bottoms, plush squirrel slippers, and a coffee mug that reads "My Pomeranian Is Smarter then Your Honor Student"—then being woken with bewilderment by a honking Cutlass Supreme.

These moments, whether deliberate or unplanned, break our patterns of attention, much in the same way a Zen master may strike a disciple that has fallen asleep while in seated meditation. The master takes no joy in the act. It is not punishment. He bows to the sleeping discipline in apology for what he is about to do, to make sure the student can return to being present.

Such are these moments, where your actions provide you with such a gift. Did you already receive it?


After I cleaned up the glass and inhaled breakfast, I was standing at the corner of Grand and Lenox Avenue, waiting for the light to change. The clarity of the morning had dissolved into a swarm of thoughts. I was thinking about what I needed to do that day at work. About meeting my wife in Sausalito for a reading by writers that we admired. Dozens of thoughts, in the time it takes for a light at the intersection of Grand and Lenox to change.

A bicyclist shouted as he passed by me and another woman, "Wake up, you're beautiful!" He then whooped with joy and shot both of his fists in the air, balancing his bike between two fast-pumping legs.

The woman and I exchanged glances as if he was crazy.

But he was right. I wasn't there.


Above photo by Andrew Magill, reprinted via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license via Flickr.

"Beyond Craft and Tools: The Skills Design Students Must Master" on AIGA.org

Solution by Jessica Thrasher to the challenge Sixty Second Headline

When considering the skills that today’s designers need to be successful in today’s job market, we often focus on job requirements, which are listed in tidy bullet points on recruitment requests:

  • Experience working in Adobe Creative Suite version du jour
  • Knows Flash, Dreamweaver, HTML5/CSS3, Javascript, and more esoteric flavors of scripting languages (and theoretically knows how to create an interactive experience)
  • 3–5+ years of “related” design experience

Beyond these catchall job listings, what are today’s creative directors and designers really looking for from their hires?

To find out, I carved some time out of my work as a senior art director and user experience strategist to conduct some research. I sent out surveys to designers, creative directors and creative leaders in the American design community whom I felt could provide an informed perspective. Specifically, I wanted to know what today’s creative directors and designers sought in students emerging from today’s top design schools, and what skills designers weren’t learning that could be infused back into their course curriculum.

Continue reading this piece on AIGA.org.

Making Clients Part of the Design Process

This weekend, I participated in HOW Design Live, a U.S.-based conference intended to help designers, in-house design managers, and creative freelancers gain the information and inspiration they need to succeed with their design work. One of my contributions to the conference was a talk about facilitated collaborations with design clients.

Why collaborate with your clients? Because when clients and designers work together as equals towards a shared goal, they can feel like they're part of the design process. Facilitated collaboration can inform and inspire your design team, so you are empowered to create great design work. It can also create alignment, which contributes to ongoing trust and ownership from all parties involved.

The above deck shares principles and perspectives that any designer can use to plan better client/designer collaborations. In the coming months, I'll talk more here about this topic!

"The Creativity Killer: Group Discussions" in TheAtlantic.com

Traditional meetings are often more about socializing decisions than making them. A case for rethinking how we generate ideas.

Perhaps this situation hasn't happened to you yet at work. But it probably will.

Your entire team has been corralled into a conference room and told by your boss to become more creative as a unit. To collaborate more efficiently. To generate breakthrough ideas that will transform your business, your industry, the world at large. To hone your group's collective creativity in ways that makes a team of three or four people more effective than dozens. No pressure—only your career is riding on it.

With the emerging dialogue in the popular press and blogosphere about fostering creativity in business, there is no lack of desire for collective creativity. Take this recent quote by Bruce Nussbaum about looking beyond fostering "design thinking" and instead encouraging "creative Intelligence":

I am defining Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions. You can have a low or high ability to frame and solve problems, but these two capacities are key and they can be learned.... It is a sociological approach in which creativity emerges from group activity, not a psychological approach of development stages and individual genius.

Yes, group activity can provide the impetus for better framing of problems, which can lead to original solutions. But creativity is the "end result of many forms of intelligence coming together, and intelligence born out of collaboration and out of networks," to quote one of my co-workers, Robert Fabricant. When we collaborate with different kinds of thinkers, sometimes from different cultures and backgrounds, we individually struggle with ingrained behaviors that reduce our likelihood of manifesting creativity.

One of the joys of working in teams is the cadence and flow of dialogue between people, and seeing how ideas grow and change through discussion. We often become lost in these exchanges, and delightfully so.

They seem to be core to the notion of design and creativity, but they aren't.

Continue reading my article on TheAtlantic.com.

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!

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.

This Week's Challenge: Chatty Baby Bib

(don't) Cry

While wandering through the Gap, you notice a hat that can broadcast your latest Facebook status. Or a scarf that displays @replies to your Twitter account, writ large in sparkling letters. Or a belt buckle that warns you when traffic becomes busy on your usual route home.

Mobile phones and tablets are only the first wave of connected devices—and our notion of what a "device" looks like is going to radically change. I find my designerly eye drawn most to wearable technology: clothing that can gather and display information, provide control to other devices or services, or otherwise remove our notion of the screen-based interface from human-computer interaction. If the current Arduino craze is any indication, our clothing can be enhanced with embedded processors, sensors, and lightweight software that communicates with cloud computers via Wi-Fi or cellular data networks.

How do designers create concepts that describe how to exploit these novel uses of technology? In this challenge, you're going to try and envision how a piece of wearable tech can be used by our most demanding technology users: babies.

You've been hired by a technology firm that wants your help in devising a line of baby clothing that is able to monitor body heat, pulse rate, blood pressure, and other biometric information. The clothing can then change color or display information regarding what data has been collected over time.

In 60 minutes, create a 6-panel storyboard that describes a critical usage scenario for this baby clothing, being sure to clearly show the context of its use.

If you want to take it further, move from a drawn storyboard to creating a photo-real video scenario that shows a faked prototype. Or, if you have the skills, a real prototype!

The above photo is by Pedro Klein on Flickr, shared via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license on Flickr.

The Metaphor of the System

Targets for Ideation: Interaction Models

Recently, I've been meditating on what makes brainstorming for interaction design so challenging. (Not just because I'm leading a workshop about it at Interaction 11.)

After spending a few years in the trenches of product and service design, I've discovered that ideation for interaction doesn't operate quite the same as other design disciplines—especially when compared to visual communication, branding, marketing, and so forth.

Why? Because interaction designers are creating multifarious, complex systems comprised of repeating elements that must cohere into a recognizable and usable whole. And more likely than not, what you're attempting to modify or construct wholesale over the life of a project is an interaction model.

Never heard of an interaction model? To explain, let's take a trip to your local art gallery... in my next post.

This Week's Challenge: Through the Looking Glass

Magnifying Glass

Mail = A6 envelope. Chat = speech balloon. Search = magnifying glass.

When creating icon systems, designers exploit our familiarity with commonplace physical and lingual metaphors. They are universal, pervasive within our culture.

However, by tying ourselves so closely to such analogies—both when considering individual icons and icons that may represent a corporate brand as part of a logotype—we contend with the wide range of meanings that others have already exploited in the world.

With this challenge, you'll explore what happens when you mold three of these everyday icons to a uniquely tailored use.

Your alma mater has hired you to redesign their campus-wide email, chat, and bulletin board systems. As part of this redesign, they would like you to create unique icons that represent Mail, Chat, and Search.

In 30 minutes, create these icons. They must immediately convey to any student, faculty, or staff member that the functionality is affiliated with the school—but without directly integrating any existing official crest, seal, or logo within the icon.

If you want to take it further, design the key screens for Mail, Chat, and Search as part of a school-provided mobile application.

Want more challenges? The first 24 pages of Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills are available free on Scribd.

This Week's Challenge: Please Sign Here

december • 2009

I worked with an excellent proofreader whose cubicle you would never approach until she had flipped a little sign from “No Coffee” to “Had Coffee.”

At that same job, one of the designers kept a mini-whiteboard up to date with her ongoing projects, what’s on her plate, and when she was planning to take lunch—so she wouldn’t be surprised by rogue project managers while she was running out the door.

And, of course, there was the ever-ubiquitous promotion by Veer, which was a flip book that consisted of various tongue-in-cheek phrases: "Where am I? Letting someone else do the creative."

These designed moments become part of our studio environment and culture. So for this challenge, show us how you share your status to your co-workers—
like only a designer can.

In 30 minutes, create an interactive piece of signage you can place on your design studio door, desk, or other clearly visible place. The signage must be easily modifiable to note your current project status, overall mental state, and any other data points that are critical to the health and wellbeing of yourself and your co-workers.

If you want to take it further, how would your sign translate into an iPad or screensaver application?

Shown above is one of the beautiful monthly desktops created by graphic designer Miss Vu, which are posted regularly to Flickr.

Want more challenges? The first 24 pages of Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills are available free on Scribd.

The Fundamentals of Effective Design Critique

Design Critique Fundamentals

In my previous few posts, I've explored some of the root issues that stand in the way of well-considered critique habits. This post is focusing on the process of delivering design critique, and what specific areas we can improve.

The above chart describes the overall flow of high-level actions that comprise a successful critique situation. Let's explore each of them in further detail.

Initiate: The designer initiates a critique session, either through actively requesting it or by attending a meeting that has been formally set up. Having a standing critique meeting encourages designers to work towards critique, rather than having it sprung upon them—though sometimes it's best to put the designers in control of when critique occurs, so they don't feel rushed.

I've purposely not included the "drive-by critique," where the boss happens to wander by the desk and can't help but comment. That should not happen without the permission of the designer. So ask before you open your mouth.

Reflect: Participants in the critique should actively solicit the intent of the designer if they aren't familiar with the project (and its creative brief), explore the detail of the design, and gauge the level of fidelity based on where the designer is in the project flow. This all happens before verbalizing any immediate thoughts or impressions. Those participating in critique should also consider any previous experiences they've had with similar material. As we'll see later, this may not immediately impact the critique.

This phase can last anywhere from a few seconds to a dozen minutes, depending on how much design work is on the wall and the level of its fidelity.

Assess: There are three questions that I find critical to ask myself before offering comment. If I skip over any one of them, I almost always say something that really doesn't contribute to the critique and causes problems both in the critique session and later on in the project.

"How does the designer's intent match the brief?" Knowing that a design is on strategy, or at least tracing the boundary of it, is a litmus test for measuring creative quality. This question may become less important if you're working from an intentionally unbounded brief. (Ulp.) In those cases, a better question to answer may be, "How does the designer's intent shape the strategy?"

"What tangible design decisions contribute to their intent?" If we start critiquing the aesthetic details too quickly, hammering on technical deficiencies such as poor kerning or lines that don't meet up in an illustration, we may be missing opportunities to align around what specific art direction or interaction decisions may strengthen the work.

There's always time to fix typos and adjust leading. There is rarely enough time to clarify an overall information architecture or art direction too late in the game. Besides, if you spend too much time hammering on the details—forcing designers to become better craftspeople, fostering a detail orientation, etc.—they may not have the space to be more aware of how those details fit into a coherent sequence of designed moments. Bouncing between the big picture and the details is one of the few ways to make sure you don't slide into a habit of thinking small first.

"What do they still need to solve for?" In critique, we're often asked to verbalize or sketch out unexplored paths that a designer could follow from where their work currently stands. Providing effective design critique emerges from in measuring what ideas and specific notes will aid the designer in fulfilling their intent—and personal goals too! From your own experience, and in observing others grappling with similar problems, you may know what is required to help them reach that intent.

Critique: Now that all of this information has worked its way through your brain, you can vocalize, sketch, and otherwise contribute as part of the critique. However, you have a range of actions at your disposal.

You can help to calibrate and otherwise re-align the designer's intent, if you feel it is either off brief or requires a more articulate strategy. These kinds of conversations should be happening early in the process, but sometimes you don't understand the implications of a design direction until it reaches high fidelity. So a designer shouldn't be fearful to scrap everything at the eleventh hour in critique—they should only be fearful that the conversation hadn't been evolving that deep rework may be necessary late in the process.

You can provide notes on craft, either to bring the craft in line with their desired art direction or to help identify and improve any technical deficiencies. Clarifying art direction should always trump fixing tiny details—the latter can be worked out via notes written on paper rather than out-loud conversation.

You can praise what is working in the design, choosing to illuminate what intent- and craft-based decisions resonate most powerfully in the work at hand. This should really be happening first and foremost in the design process, and usually follows a formula known as the "shit sandwich" in writing workshop circles: identifying a powerful detail or feature and praising it, pointing out an area that may require more work regarding craft or intent, then closing with further praise. Even if you work in a corporate culture that offers criticism before praise, you should measure where praise fits into the process and be prepared to offer it in every critique.

You can choose to defer to comment, delaying critique until the work has had more time and energy invested in it. Designers should never interpret this option as potentially harming their work later down the road. Selecting this option should mean that those in the critique trust the designers to further their work, based on their vocalized current intent and art direction. This is any design manager's secret weapon, and I know I don't exercise it often enough. Providing no feedback, or solely positive feedback regarding what's working best, will create the necessary space for creative leaps to happen.

Don't allow delaying critique to turn into a passive-aggressive method of control. And keep in mind that you should also offer your designers the choice of what kind of critique they may want to receive. They may just want you to see where they're at, but no detailed feedback whatsoever. Don't feel like you're required to lob a nuclear bomb at design work that often needs just a gentle nudge down an alternate path.

Again: Let the work be good!


What Good Design Critique Tastes Like

Unlike other types of wines and spirits, there is a unique method of properly discerning the many distinct notes in a glass of quality sake. Compare this to the tasting of red wine, where a person may hold the liquid on their tongue for fifteen to thirty seconds before the full complexity and body of a decanted wine yields full bloom.

When trying a new sake for the first time, take a drink from the glass, then hold the liquid on your tongue and soft palate. Breathe slowly inward and outward for one breath. The sake will open up, revealing secondary characteristics that would have remained otherwise unobserved. The drinker can then swallow the sake, discerning the difference between the first taste, the second taste upon the palate, and then the wine's overall finish.

In a similar manner, reflection must precede analysis if you aren't going to solely "shoot" at creative work. When dealing with complex subject matter, the end product may feel simple, but there is always enough detail layered underneath that requires deep consideration to properly vocalize how it may be improved.

So in this New Year, consider how to create these moments where you can hold creative work on your tongue, savour it, and let it be good in its own right. It is these moments that we will enjoy most and will most nourish us as designers, as leaders, and as members of collaborative teams.

Otherwise, that bitter taste in your mouth at the end of every project won't be the bite of strong, celebratory champagne.

Many thanks to Mary Paynter Sherwin, who helped create the central theme of this series.