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.


A Hummingbird's Perspective

A Hummingbirds Perspective

Sitting on the cabin's deck was like having a front-row seat at a dragstrip. The birds would park themselves on the perches of a bird feeder, seesawing back and forth to take little sips of sugar water. Then, with a snap, their bodies would shift from sitting to hovering and zip into the treeline.

The lavender in the garden sparkled in the afternoon sun. A light wind played over Westcott Bay, rippling tiny flags on sailboats berthed far from shore. Mary and I had planned this week-long summer getaway so I could finish the manuscript for my second book. After lazy mornings tucked under electric blankets in the cabin, we would spend a few hours walking or drive to Friday Harbor, take in brunch, and then I'd settle down to write for the balance of the afternoon and evening.

This continuous display of nature made the writing hard. We had seen the red bird feeder outside the cabin on previous trips, but those had been in late fall or winter. We'd never had a chance to see the hummingbirds during their migration. I don't think I have ever seen so many hummingbirds in one place. For every sentence typed into the computer, it seemed like there was at least one hummingbird finding its way to the feeder or coursing its way around the yard.

We weren't only dazzled by the hummingbirds. We saw large woodpeckers digging into a rotted log, island cats stalking across the asphalt road looped behind a string of summer homes, a herd of deer pacing through the backyard at dusk. Ants thronged around the herb garden. At one point, two deer were fighting about twenty feet away over who would have first dibs on eating from a tasty bush. In another situation, a baby doe fed on grass up to her shoulder, causing me to arrest the clickety-clack of the computer keys to more clearly hear her chew. In all of these cases, our presence was noted with mild disinterest.

None of this would have been visible to me if I hadn't been sitting on a wooden chair in the backyard, every afternoon.

*

Within two days of our stay, the bird feeder was nearly depleted. Over dinner that night, Mary and I pondered: Do we refill it?

The cabin we were staying at had no Internet. This was intentional, so we could get away from Seattle and find some focus. So Mary had to use her iPhone for some Internet sleuthing, and figure out how to feed the hummingbirds. With additional information, things only became more confusing.

In sifting through the pantry, we found only raw sugar and powdered sugar. Powdered sugar may be the most crack-like delivery mechanism for sucrose imagined by man—just say the words "funnel cake" and you start salivating. But it isn't pure sugar. It has additional corn starch added to reduce caking. Same goes for raw sugar, which has extra iron in it. Hummingbirds can't process these additives. They prefer pure sucrose. Which made us wonder: What had the hummingbirds been eating up to that point? Who was refilling the feeder? Were they slowly killing the birds?

To be safe, we decided to drive to the grocery store before it closed to purchase white sugar. We also cleaned the feeder before refilling it, as anywhere sugar touches can mildew.

*

These birds didn't need our help. During this time of year, the high temperatures, light breeze, and blooming flowers and trees everywhere must make for an ideal stopover during their commute up the Pacific coast.

I couldn't help but catch the subtle irony of the situation. Here I was, a user experience designer that didn't let the feeder run out and see if the birds would return to the garden without any additional incentive beyond a flower garden. Instead, I didn't want to risk their absence during our final days of the trip. Or, to put it another way: For the first time in my life, I could see this beautiful bird when he was at rest, all day long. Even if his movements distracted me from what I was trying to do.

The substance of our world can be like sugar water in a sealed tube. Our thoughts and emotions circle, dart around it. We stop, reflect, sip through the provided straw. If we stay too long in one place, we often get stuck in thinking it's the only place to find sustenance.

From a hummingbird's perspective, this really isn't a problem. There's no clear reason why I would be there, watching him eat a fraction of the sugar he'll need for a day's flying… other than it's a lovely place to burn your knees on an overheated MacBook Pro.

I'm the one that isn't moving.


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.


The Cult of Awesome

Some Awe

One morning, I had a dream that I was eating a red-hued apple. With each bite, the fruit would yield to my teeth with a pleasant snap—but over time, it began to dawn on me that I wasn't making any headway in consuming the entire flesh of the fruit. As I kept eating, the fruit seemed to grow larger and larger, and the task of consuming the entire fruit was impossible.

The dream seemed prophetic, as I'd been meditating on the notion of quality for a long time. Or, in particular, our desire to be part of the Cult of Awesome.

The idea behind this religion* is simple: Devote yourself to manifesting ideas that are awesome. There are plenty of other people trying to clarify what awesome means just in the context of life itself, but specifically I'm referring to Umair Haque describing the concept behind this belief system in 2009 on his Harvard Business Review blog:

"I'd like to advance a hypothesis: awesomeness is the new innovation… "Innovation" feels like a relic of the industrial era. And it just might be the case that instead of chasing innovation, we should be innovating innovation — that innovation needs innovation."

Umair goes on to describe the four attributes of awesomeness (with regard to one-upping innovation) as:

  1. Ethical production
  2. Insanely great stuff
  3. Love
  4. Thick value (i.e. sustainable value over time)

When his post came out in September 2009, thousands of people online started to buzz about what it would take to get from great to awesome. Umair is working to create a larger, more powerful description of what makes the pursuit of awesome, well, awesome.

Umair's punchlist seems handy when talking with CEOs about how to foster sustainability practices and calibrate their engines to churn out awesome products, services, and so forth. What his list doesn't provide is exactly how the people that give ideas their form can aim for manifesting ideas that are awesome. He's aiming at influencing the top 5% of the executive pyramid, whose newfound and fervent beliefs in awesome will then trickle down to the other 95%: those who are busy churning out what will quickly be categorized as "not insanely great stuff."

I'm being a little flip here because this is nice for CEOs to digest while on their next transatlantic flight, but what does it mean for designers? Is it really so easy to say to design teams, “Go make insanely great stuff?"

I feel like there's a huge missing piece in his pursuit of awesome: the methods and efforts that everyday makers put into manifesting awesomeness while keeping your sanity intact. I'm confident there is no one true path to awesome, but perhaps there is a mind set or tools we can use when straining against the gravity of mediocrity. This is more than just a baseline design process. It's what we learn from the School of Shipping Awesome.

Which leads me to ask this not-so-simple question: How do we make things that we create awesome?** What principles define the process of making things awesome, for teams that include designers, on a practical day-to-day basis?

I sent the above text around, in an earlier draft, to people that I respected in the design community.*** I also had a ton of conversations with designers about this subject. The responses clumped into three areas of insight:

1. There are working processes that teams use, aligned around: craft, persistent effort, multidisciplinary teams, and regular gut checks with market fit and user need. To paraphrase their points:

  • Awesome products and services are intensely crafted.
  • Awesome design requires persistent effort over time for a team to realize. It doesn't emerge automatically from a great idea. It's the push towards realization that can define the idea's merit. (This is covered pretty well in Scott Belsky's Making Ideas Happen.)
  • Reaching awesome requires continuing to check your perspective, from overall business strategy to the production details, multiple times over the life of a project. Throughout each perspective check, you shouldn't be afraid to walk a dozen steps backward to make a singular gain. Most organizations don't have the stomach to throw everything away, declare failure, and start anew with a clearer point of view.
  • Awesome products and services comes from a fusion of multiple disciplines in how the thing is realized, all of those POVs informing each other. Ownership from everyone that's involved in that process is critical.

2. Creating awesomeness isn't something that can be systematically analyzed and realized. Or, in plain English: people called bullshit on the idea of an Awesomeness process. To paraphrase those conversations:

  • There is no silver bullet, process-wise, for creating awesome stuff. You should resist the notion of choosing some off-the-shelf process, which can then be plunked into your workflow and utilized with little to no extra effort.
  • You need to design each project around what it will take to achieve awesomeness.
  • If there was a consistent method of creating awesome products and services, we'd all be doing it.
  • You just have to try and keep trying. (Though one interesting follow-on observation was that awesome design can comes from having previously produced awesome design. Repetition and persistence through failure increases the likelihood of the best outcomes.)
  • Awesome products and services often comes from (initially) ignoring working process and speculating a solution—a "hail mary pass." This doesn't happen by following a checklist.

3. Awesome only becomes a factor once you see how your product or service is performing in people's hands. Until then, you can only aspire towards creating something great. Some interesting points:

  • Awesome design is a factor of constant iteration, both in the mind of the designer and the hands of the customer. There's a dialogue between the two.
  • You know when thing is awesome within 2 milliseconds of starting to use it. (This is the first litmus test of critique.) It continues to be awesome when it works like it should. In the past, it may not have ever met a person's expectations.
  • These awesome products and services then tell their own story over time, which people echo and expand upon. It rarely requires an external marketing story, which is redundant.
  • Awesome products and services force people designing the products and using the products to acknowledge their shared dislikes.
  • Awesome products and services manifest themselves via a feeling of intimacy (which leads to love). Without this, why would you be emotionally invested in them as part of your life?

*

After gathering the above responses over two years ago, and feeling a bit disheartened by the divergence of perspectives on the subject, I put the results of those conversations in a drawer (digitally) and just tried to focus on creating great work, hoping that I'd have greater clarity on which of the above perspectives held water after giving some of these perspectives a whirl.

After pulling this material back out of the drawer and looking at it again, I'm of the feeling that everything above has some merit.

There are working processes that teams use to try to create awesome products. Sometimes those processes get in the way of making great stuff, which requires teams to lean more heavily on their intuition to speculate about things that haven't been used (yet). And you don't know it's awesome until people let you know it's awesome, which is the most important feedback loop you can build into how the product or service operates.

That said, do you have your own POV that helps you aim for awesomeness? Is there a middle path that designers can follow in how they work with teams to let them balance the demands of shipping stuff with the ideals of making it insanely great? Or is aspiring towards awesomeness a ruse, a Sisyphean task?

If you have thoughts on this, feel free to voice them in the comments below.

That would be awesome.

*

Notes:

* I'm calling this "Cult of Awesome" a religion because subscribing to any ideal like the above can tend towards dogma. Might as well give it a name that makes the risk clear.

** I'm sidestepping the word "design" (for now) and using the word "making," because I think that the role of design is an implicit factor in the creation of awesome products and services, whether we're talking about design, engineering, manufacturing, et cetera. While the businessmen at the top are busy trying to wrap their brains around what awesomeness means for their business, I think there's much greater value in empowering everyday workers—and designers are first and foremost among them, oft transmitting their skills to their teammates—in translating the desire for awesomeness (the shared vision) into tangible, real results.

*** Thanks to Jon Bell, Hans Gerwitz, Justin Maguire, and Raj Thiagaraian for sharing their perspectives on this subject with me, among dozens of others in casual conversation who have enriched this piece over the past two years. But those four people were most awesome in grappling with the subject at the inception of this blog post.


"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.


Where the Roads Become Rivers

Street, Dhaka

The rules of the road? There are no rules. Riding in a fast-moving car, the freeway is a fat, pulsing vein, and we are but one blood cell swirling through the body called Dhaka.

Oncoming traffic doesn't matter, since we can swerve into whatever lane is free to get there a few seconds faster. Right of way isn't important, because we cut off everyone else indiscriminately—three lanes of road packed five to six vehicles across at any moment with rickshaws, mopeds, cars, buses, compressed natural gas (CNG) taxis.

The man who was helping me find my way around joked that when traffic lights are green, you slow down. When they're yellow, you start to speed up. When they turn red, you drive as fast as you can.

 

Stuck in Traffic, Dhaka

Sounds of the road: constant staccato horns warning of impending crashes in a language only locals can understand; strains of late afternoon prayer floating from mosques and prayer rooms; constant pinging of rickshaw bells; intense revving of engines when brief stretches of open road present themselves; painful shrieks of car bumpers on speed bumps that materialize from out of nowhere.

The air is thick with exhaust, oil fumes, plumes of dirt. When I blow my nose, the tissue is stained black.

 

Market on Saturday, Dhaka

If you live in Bangladesh and want robust health services, quality food, access to clean water, careers for those who have gone to university, greater possibilities for entrepreneurship, better schools for your children, you go to Dhaka.

But with the lure of all the benefits the megacity may provide, the costs of gas, food, transportation, and housing are rising on an exponential basis, further deflating the taka, the country's currency. The district around the city proper of Dhaka has seen unparalleled growth over the past decade, doubling its population to over 16 million residents—most moving into the district from rural communities.

 

On the Road, Dhamrai, Bangladesh

Peering into other cars, I see haphazard crates of chickens and rabbits strutting in straw; families of eight squeezed into a car designed for five; piles of narrow gas tanks in battered two-seaters; businessmen in striped suits behind chipped, tinted windows; military men in green-purple camouflage with rifles lazily pointed towards the sky; an entire backseat piled with mounds of bananas, jackfruit, oranges, and coconut.

But it's the buses that take most of my attention. Their sides look like flayed skin from a running child who tripped and fell on the asphalt. Blue birds painted above a landscape are gouged off. Names of transit companies are ripped away. Bright white, cyan, mustard, and cinnamon hues: fresh coats of paint mask the bruises, but don't make them go away. Men on the roadside wave their hands, they pull up and part with a few hundred taka. The buses fill up until men hang outside open doors, out of open windows, and finally, clamber to the top rather than miss a ride.

The people on the buses look at me as intently as I look at them.

 

Sorting Trash, Dhaka

Just as there are no rules of the road, there is little clarity around the boundaries that sustain Dhaka. Much as a flooded river may reach its fingers into any embankment that sustains its flow, the city's efficiencies are eroding in ways that defy their design.

My Dhaka friends tell me this means that if there were any form of major disaster, such as an earthquake or a cyclone, the impact on the city would be catastrophic—and not just because of population density. It has to do with what people have designed to survive, rather than what might satisfy long-term plans.

An example from a CTO of a small software company in Dhaka: "Imagine that a textiles factory employs 3,000 people. When they build the factory, the owners don't install a fire exit. There is no one who can force them to do it. An earthquake strikes the city, the building is damaged, and no one can get out."

He lets this hang in the air, with all of its implications.

 

Girl Wiping Car Window, Dhaka

Children squeeze between the gaps between vehicles, selling the daily news, slices of carrots and cucumber in thin plastic bags, maps, and books. A man with no hands places his arms against our driver's side, peering inside to look at us. Women with hollow-boned faces tap on windows, some holding babies swaddled in their arms: something to eat?

An eight-year-old girl wipes down the windows and headlights of our car with a dirty cloth. "That girl loves what she's doing," a Dhaka resident says from the seat next to me.

"I don't think that's the precise word for it," I say. "Love." Perhaps she does this out of love, I think. The resident considers my words, says the girl likely cleans cars to bring money back to her family, to eat and have a place to sleep on the one day she doesn't have school… if she is able to attend.

The driver gives her 50 taka before the traffic unfurls. She darts to the median strip.

 

Overpass Under Construction, Dhaka

Dhaka is pocketed with ongoing construction: bypasses, overpasses, buildings, living domiciles, a university campus. Everywhere you look, you see the soon-to-be complete. The gaps are always visible in the city's infrastructure, from transit to banking to telecommunications, and the entrepreneurial are finding ways to fill them.

New services for wiring money to local post offices and bKash (mobile money services) are helping businesses and families better share their money without bank accounts. The availability of WiMax networks around the city provides people access to high-speed Internet without the need for physical wiring.

But on an individual level, the users of these services have to work the systems in order to make the best use of them. Cell phone users have adapted to uneven network coverage by purchasing multiple pay-per-use phones for competing networks. Business automation suffers due to the constant heat, humidity, and lengthy rainy seasons, which destroys technology. Perhaps destroys is not the exact word. Eat might be better. During the monsoon season, consume might even be more appropriate.

 

Aarong, Dhaka

Dhaka's exponential growth is reflected in the the fierce celebration of Bangla culture both within and outside the city: in its language, poetry, dance, song, clothing, and crafts. Some businesses are built around curating this cultural output, such as Aarong, a chain of stores started by BRAC that brings together high-quality crafts, textiles, clothing, and other goods sourced from villages in Bangladesh. There is value that Aarong creates that could be replicated across other cultural industries, even though the richness of Bangladesh culture outside of Dhaka is what makes such a business model possible.

And a question lingered in my mind afterward for which I couldn't find an answer: How many people living outside Dhaka would be capable of shopping there?

 

Ekushey Book Fair, Dhaka

My last afternoon in Dhaka, I visit Ekushey Book Fair. It consumes multiple city blocks, runs the entire month of February, and looked to be attended by what I estimated at 50,000 people that single day. How often do you see such a throng rallying around the consumption of any literature, let alone literature only written in Bangla?

Leaving the bookfair, I talk with the software CTO. He asks me: "What was the most powerful observation you've had about Dhaka?"

"Why do you care about what I think about this city?" I say. "I didn't grow up here. I'm not from this culture. Wouldn't someone who's grown up here know it best?"

"You have to be an outsider to have an opinion about Dhaka," he says. "Many of us also moved to Dhaka—we aren't from here. And so much has changed in the past few years, that it's good to see the city through fresh eyes."

I think for a minute. "How small one can feel, in the midst of a city that is so large. Unlike any other city I've been in, you can't wrap your mind around it. And yet, at the same time, you have so much room to create your own path."

"I agree with that," the CTO says. Then he pauses, looks out the window. "But then again, you have to see rural Bangladesh to really understand Dhaka."

 

Roadway at Dusk, Dhaka

I keep returning to the behavior of a river when I think of my time in Dhaka. It has an ability to cleanse, to sustain, to transmit, and to display unwavering tenacity when dammed away.

I was only able to go a few hours outside Dhaka for a single day, and not far enough to fully escape the influence of the city. But even in those few hours, I was immediately struck by the sun shimmering off lush fields of irrigated rice and corn, expanses of water, the scale and space of the city inverted. All roads in Bangladesh may lead to Dhaka, but not the rivers.

Within inefficient systems are always the seeds of their long-term survival. You just have to grapple with the chaos long enough to sense where they will emerge. With patience, you can see what new channels the river will cut into the landscape, and perhaps follow them. Or, what is often more likely: see if you can divert some of that flow without disrupting the source. And when the monsoons come, you hold on to survive. The cycle continues. Within that optimism is a strength that can't be easily diminished.

I think this is why so many people see such promise in Dhaka's expansion. Standing alone on a dusty road, surrounded by millions of people, I return to the word promise in the same way that my mind returns to the river: the promise of a brighter future, the promise of what might happen tomorrow. Promise is a positive word, swollen with hope the way that the outer district of Dhaka is being flooded with people darting between cars, walking from home to work or school, doing their best in the sweeping current of the history of their rivers—and their country—to put back together what has been broken.


Details about "Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers"

Cover for "Success by Design"

Hot off the presses, I thought I'd share with you the cover for my next book, Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers.* The book will be out in November 2012 from HOW Books.

Want to be notified when the print and e-book versions begin their presale through Amazon.com and MyDesignShop? Sign up for my mailing list for the book. I'll only send one email a month, and will never sell or give out the email address to others. I will also share via this email free worksheets, templates, and bonus chapters that you can download and use along with the book:

I've wrapped designing the 325-page book, from the cover (which you can see above) to the interior illustrations and typesetting the content. While the cover does share some DNA with Grace Ring's awesome art direction for Creative Workshop, the interior balances crisp, informational charts and graphs with some tongue-in-cheek design humor that you've seen on this blog over the past few years. Over the summer, I look forward to sharing some sneak peeks with you!

* In previous posts, I'd been calling this book Design Business from A to Z, but that was a placeholder name through the writing process… this is the final title for the book.)


Thinking Outside the Elephant: Part 2

Addo Elephant Park, South Africa

This is the second part of a recap that was written over 51 hours at the HOW Interactive Design Conference, then delivered to attendees as a 45-minute closing talk. Read the first part here.

Now, for those of you that know me, I have a penchant for pushing analogies to their breaking point, until they become so absurd that they start to resemble reality. So I'm going to start visualizing for you what kind of world our elephant lives in, and what might be stressing her at this very moment.

Continue reading "Thinking Outside the Elephant: Part 2" »


Thinking Outside the Elephant: Part 1

This is the first part of a recap that was written over 51 hours at the HOW Interactive Design Conference, then delivered to attendees as a 45-minute closing talk. The second part will appear on Tuesday.

During the first day of the HOW Interactive Design Conference, I was having a conversation with Richard Hassen of To the Point Design Studio about the challenges that designers with deep expertise in print are having adapting their skills to interactive design. He said: "How am I going to bite into the elephant? It's just too big."

I loved his analogy—that acquiring the necessary interactive skills to be successful in our careers was equivalent to chowing down on a elephant, spoonful by spoonful.

What's inside this elephant? Us, of course. Then tools, clients, technologies, frameworks, methods, you name it. And this is a baby elephant, not a full-grown elephant, since interactive design is much younger than the disciplines of industrial and graphic design. (Baby elephants are still heavy, mind you.)

Based on Richard's analogy, I felt obligated to thinking about just what we were trying to eat. What follows are the four top themes from the conference that describe our proverbial elephant, and further thoughts about what forces are being exerted on our baby elephant, out there in the world.

Continue reading "Thinking Outside the Elephant: Part 1" »


Slides from "Information Architecture: Making Information Accessible and Useful"

The above slides are from a talk I just gave at the HOW Interactive Conference in San Francisco on November 2nd, entitled "Information Architecture: Making Information More Accessible and Useful." The talk was about how designers can help people make use of information—both find and act upon it.

The core metaphor of the talk was centered on a recent trip that I took to the SFMOMA to see a career retrospective of Dieter Rams's work, whose ethos of "Less, but better" is a challenge to any designer seeking to create better websites and applications. (Go see this exhibit!)

I re-explore this trip multiple times over the course of the talk, considering the overlap of information in physical and digital systems—and how conceptually we merge them.

From there, I provide best practices and principles for how to approach information architecture and user experience design in a more iterative, agile fashion through in-line prototyping.


The Tipsy Triangle of Software Startupdom

Tipsy Triangle of Design Startupdom

In talking with entrepreneurs of many stripes over the past year, I've heard the following hypnotic refrain repeated over and over again: "If we design a beautiful user experience, we've got what we need to launch a successful business."

Whether uttered by corporate executives or designers fresh out of school, I've been surprised by this near-religious belief that great user experience is the silver bullet that will attract a huge audience base to your company's products or services. Surface solutions trump business plans. To quote Enrique Allen, founding member of The Designer Fund—a community of designers that invest in designer startup founders (of which I’m a member):

“UX can be a 'grabber,' like the shiny materials we buy but then don't end up using after a few days. Without a solid tech and business model 'holder' that provides lasting utility, startups will peak but then crash…”

Yes, to your customers, the user experience (UX) is everything: it's how your product or service is utilized by the world. But if you are a designer trying to create a sustainable business from your product and service ideas, the UX for your product is one important facet of creating a successful business. The user experience you design, the technology selections you make, and the business model you generate: all of these decisions support how you make money from your products and services. They are interrelated, to the point that you can't truly sustain a business in the long term without them all in place.

This may be obvious advice for those who have spent time creating products and services, or worked at a startup before. But for any designer that is looking to jump into the software game and bootstrap their own products or services, closely consider the following perspectives in the early stages of any new business venture.

Continue reading "The Tipsy Triangle of Software Startupdom" »


ChangeOrder Moves to California

Welcome to California

After 10 years living in the Pacific Northwest, Mary and I have decided to move to the sunnier climes of Oakland, California.

I will continue to be a Principal Designer at frog, now working out of the San Francisco studio. In addition, in 2012 I will be joining the faculty of California College of the Arts as an adjunct professor of design, teaching in the new BFA of Interaction Design program helmed by Kristian Simsarian. I'll also continue my involvement with The Designer Fund.

Mary will be a candidate in the Master of Fine Arts in Poetry Writing program at St. Mary's College of California, as well as a teaching fellow there. (Thankfully, Mary is not going to St. Mary's College within St. Mary's City in Maryland, which would have been an exceptional tongue twister.)

August has been our month to make the transition, with full time off from all work and school commitments. As you've noticed from the radio silence on this blog, I've also been decompressing from what has been an extraordinarily active summer. Between wrapping a busy period at work, to packing for the move, to delivering the manuscript for my second book Design Business from A to Z to HOW Books, I've needed some time for focusing on this change, recharging my batteries, and stepping away from design for a bit in general.

Moving into September, I will be rekindling ChangeOrder with a deeper look at some interactive design topics, as well as sharing a few meditations I've been mulling over this past year. I'll also be blogging some of the material I've been generating for the HOW Interactive Design Conference in San Francisco this November. (I'll post separately about this so you can get the full details.)

Seattle friends, we'll miss you and will visit soon. But California, here we come!

 

P.S. For more details on some of the above, check out this recent podcast I did with Donovan Beery and Nate Voss from 36 Point at June's HOW Design Live conference.


How to Conduct Post-Mortem Project Evaluations

You're it! - Tagged

This is an extensive rewrite of a previous ChangeOrder post for my next book Design Business from A to Z—so much so I'm reposting it!

The website went live last week, and the entire staff is throwing a party to celebrate! The developers are huddled in the corner with some microbrews, plotting how they'll splice into the agency intranet to add a virtual dartboard. Designers are mingling with the copywriters and account people, clinking wineglasses and bonding over the ads they saw during The Office.

Yes, the job went way over budget—and the last thing your team wants to think about is who needs to take responsibility for it. Not the best time to mention that tomorrow, you're scheduling a post-mortem meeting (a.k.a. lessons learned, post future, etc.) to talk about how the project really went.

Was the estimate wrong to begin with? Did the designer spend too long tweaking those page comps? How come the developer pulled so many late nights wrangling with the content management system, when he said he knew .NET?

Discovering how a creative agency fails to make profit on a project usually boils down to a series of in-project decisions that, while intended to contribute to project success, lead to cost overruns and errors. Isolating and clarifying those agency decisions, role by role, can be punishing if conducted incorrectly. But if carried out in the right manner and in a safe group setting, a post-mortem meeting can galvanize a team and bring them closer together. By being aware of everyone's perspectives, your team members can see repeated problems in patterns of behavior and discover ways to change them. Plus, the ongoing learning that comes from open communication and active collaboration is what makes businesses more sustainable—especially on large, multi-phase projects that continue over months, if not years.

Continue reading "How to Conduct Post-Mortem Project Evaluations" »


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!


Got a Startup Idea? Apply to The Designer Fund

Logo_sketches_v02

I'm happy to announce that in the coming months, I'll be increasingly involved in a new nonprofit called The Designer Fund. This is a community of designers that will be investing in design founders through education, angel funding, and access to a network of people and resources to help them create their own businesses.

If you have ideas for your own business, or an existing prototype or early-stage app or service that you've been trying to get off the ground, this is an awesome opportunity to get serious about it. As you'll see from the other people associated with this venture, you can potentially be mentored or receive angel funding from some of today's top designers, both from early-stage designers at YouTube, Facebook, Google, and Twitter to designers at IDEO, Cooper, Jump Associates, and Method, as well as current designers at Path and Flipboard. (And me.)

Why? Because recently, I've seen a number of online discussions about ways that designers can have "a seat at the table" with their clients. How they can be part of helping to formulate product, service, or marketing strategy. How they can be seen as adding more value to businesses than just providing an aesthetic perspective. How they can collaborate more effectively with their cohorts in technology and business. These discussions are valuable for those of us who work in-house, or are hired by companies to provide the right kind of influence, at the right time, to create the meaningful impact. Designers may yield profit from providing services to these clients, but it's rare that they get to profit from creating and deploying the products themselves.

In conducting my research for my next book—talking with a wide range of designers both at design studios, within in-house studios, and working at their own startup ventures—I've come to the (perhaps apparent) perspective that both fledgling and seasoned designers can be extraordinarily effective at designing and running businesses. It's not just about having a seat at the table with senior-level executives, changing the course of how that company makes their customers' lives better. It's that they can own the table. Their passion, knowledge, skill, and artistry are all brought to bear with the right partners to create businesses that transcend the common billing-for-services model. While that model is an important path today for many of us (myself included), it is not the only way to make what you love.

A hypothesis needs to be borne out: that designer-led businesses and startups could perhaps be more valuable in the long term than traditional startups. In the best case, designers can launch the next wave of innovation. In the worst case, more designers understand how to create awesome products and services, and then enter into employment with today's leading agencies and companies.

Jump on in and apply!


The Building Blocks of Design Studio Culture

Building Blocks of Design Studio Culture

Studio culture is everything people in a design studio do that supports the process of making work happen. Culture can create joy, while process can facilitate profit.

A studio’s culture is not created solely by the business owner. It is generated from ongoing contributions and discoveries from both studio owners and employees. With this in mind, the following are some building blocks of a design studio’s culture—some of which the studio owner can invest in, and others that studio staff can own in order to create their ideal working environment.

They are divided into two groups: hard building blocks are created through a budget (money and time) as a formal part of studio overhead. The soft building blocks can be created through the decisions employees make over the course of their daily work, life, and play (with little material investment by studio owners). Both types of building blocks provide emotional and material stability to studio employees in the face of ongoing work challenges, and are often perceived by clients, family, and the general public as ingredients of the company’s brand.

The above chart was generated by me and David Conrad, Studio Director at Design Commission, for our workshop this Wednesday about how to structure design agencies for success.


When Should I Decline Client Work?

Yes, Not Yet

The failure most of us frequently face in the business of design? The failure to recognize that a client project is something you should decline. Here are common situations where working designers fail to decline an opportunity that may be a poor fit.

The client thinks you want the work they're offering, no matter what.

This is the beauty of establishing strong client relationships from your first contact—if you connect during those initial dialogues, there will be a strong reservoir of trust that will fuel your first projects. They like talking with you, and expect that working with you will be the same. They genuinely care about your shared success. They just don't realize that what they're throwing your way is not the best fit. Right client, wrong project. And we're afraid to say no, for fear they won't come back.

Your long-term client knows you need work badly.

The studio has been quiet, except for your primary client's big project. This client, when they're in the studio or communicating with you, is aware that the studio needs business. You might have even asked them directly for more business. And in return, they bring you a project that can keep the cashflow running, but is a poor fit for your short- and long-term goals. So, you take it.

The client doesn't know that you lack competency in an area… and you don't tell them.

Designers don't like to admit weakness in a specific area, especially if they are hungry to keep work rolling in from a client. Example: You design their identity system. They're offering you some motion graphics work to animate it for a video. You've never used AfterEffects or Flash. Now may not be the time to crack the manual and dive in. There's too high a risk of failure. This holds even more true for facilitating development work. Are you really going to learn enough HTML 5 in three days to do front-end development for that hybrid mobile app? Disaster comes in many flavors, and this is one you don't want to inflict on any client. Bring in the appropriate specialists. Mark up their time. Get it right.

The client doesn't want to work with anyone else.

This is similar to the previous situation, except the client knows you don't have the expertise they seek—and they still want to give you the work. They are willing to trust you with something they know you may not fulfill effectively, either out of trust or desired convenience. This is dangerous. Making an error on a project in a known area of weakness is still an error.

The client wants you to do work that's part of their job responsibilities.

Designers are frequently hired to fulfill tasks that are outside their client's job description. But sometimes design projects come along that are part of a client's everyday work responsibilities, and you often don't recognize that you're doing their job until you've signed the contract and started the project. The risk with these kinds of projects is that you usually don't get to follow your standard agency process and have to work through the same politics as your client to gain approval on the work. This can be a burn on your time and resources, making a prospective project an unprofitable venture.

The client desires your bid to establish agency selection criteria.

"If you say no, there are plenty of other agencies yearning to tackle this project." This threat is always half true. If a client threatens to take the work to another agency, they're taking this tack because they want something from you: your participation, your investment, your attention. Either that, or they just need a third estimate to see who is the best fit.

You really do need the money.

Yes, you need to pay rent. Yes, this work is not beneath you. Yes, the work will hopefully lead to better things. You have staff you need to keep busy. It'll be over quick and then you'll be on to better things. Projects stroll through the studio that are purely money-makers and never appear your portfolio. (Does the Regional Design Annual accept PowerPoint templates as a category?) But if word spreads that you are really good at the very projects you don't want to specialize in, you risk being offered those projects over and over again. The old adage reads: "Be careful what you're good at." Can you afford to promote yourself as an expert in one area and end up spending your time working in another?

*

You will be continually thrown opportunities you don't really need or have the depth of knowledge to fulfill well. You need to be prepared to walk away gracefully as part of any ongoing negotiation. So you've recognized that you should be declining a prospective project. How do you do it?

  • You need to show humility. Declining work is a form of power that you hold over your shared client/designer relationship. You should not let the client feel like you are declining the work because of ego.
  • You need to do it early enough in the new business process. Once you’ve moved too far down the sales cycle, such as the point where you’ve already generated a proposal, it can be unprofessional to say “No” to an extended offer on your part.
  • You need to leave the door open for the possibility of “No." You should be honest that a project may not be a 100% perfect fit for your studio in early discussions, until you've gathered the necessary background information.
  • You need to encourage future opportunities. “The trick is to turn down work, but have the client remember you as a positive person/agency that they want to work with in the future,” says project manager Fiona Robertson Remley. “No” should never be the last thing a client remembers about their interaction with you.
Declining an opportunity is not a sign of weakness. It's a continuation of an ongoing relationship. Use your refusal as a chance to describe what kind of work is a better fit, and be willing to make a reference to someone in your network who can fulfill their needs and return the referral in the future. Such a dialogue would sound something like this, delivered via a phone call or in a face-to-face meeting:

"I’m sorry, but it looks like the project we’ve discussing won’t be a good fit for us at this time. Let me refer you to another designer (or two) that would be able to help you out with it. And we should put something on the calendar for coffee in a month, as it was really great talking with you this week about our shared passion about Web analytics.”

This is a subtle art, especially in the midst of any critical negotiation with a long-term client. But remember: this is not the last project opportunity you will receive. And if you do it correctly, your potential for reward may only increase in the future.

I'd love to hear your stories regarding this topic. I'm sure we all have a few of them…

This post is part of an ongoing series I've been publishing every other week on PRINT Magazine's website, Imprint. Read the most recent ones, which are about risk assessment, client confidentiality, and proofreading like a pro, which have been previously discussed on ChangeOrder.


People Don't Pay Much for Umbrellas

Take It Anywhere Raincloud

Working in New York City more than a decade ago, I was always charmed by how the cost of umbrellas would magically increase during a downpour. Those umbrellas never lasted. They just worked until you reached where you needed to go.

Riding the subway, watching people struggle with their half-broken umbrellas—aren't all umbrellas half-broken?—was an object lesson for me in the value of selective innovation. There's a reason GORE-TEX jackets cost so flipping much: a guarantee of staying 100% dry is almost impossible to deliver. This is a valuable problem, with a valued solution for products that last.

But there are so many short-term solutions, it's almost overwhelming. Mr. Wikipedia says that there are four people at the patent office employed to sift through patent proposals for umbrella-related inventions, and a fellow at Totes was quoted saying that "it’s difficult to come up with an umbrella idea that hasn’t already been done."

That's some market for innovation for the problem of "staying dry." It's a valuable problem that people keep solving over and over again, seeking new niches to monetize.

Now, let's think about web pages. Proper placement of where the search box should go, and how it should behave: pennies or millions, depending on the scale of traffic flowing through a web property. The impact of poorly considered design decisions can be like accidentally nicking an artery while shaving. At times, this is the value we provide to our clients, often in the context of seemingly small yet critical decisions in creating an existing product. But such decisions map back to a much larger context, grounded in customer and business considerations. People will always be searching for content on web pages. Do they need an umbrella or something more durable?

Back away from solving small problems at key points in each of your projects and consider: How valuable is the larger-scale problem I'm trying to solve? With regard to human need? From a business standpoint? Where do I need umbrellas, and where do I need to invent something that will durably last? That can't be easily copied?

This kind of thinking is useful when clients come in crowing about their new umbrella idea, when really they need a waterproof jacket. When discussing a potential new project, ask your client about what problem(s) they're trying to solve. Then, ask them how that problem came about. Usually, that points to a much larger, more valuable problem—where the rain is currently pouring. Gauge the value of the largest problems you can help your client solve, then consider the effort (and decisions) that will be necessary in your current project to move you towards influencing them. It takes more effort to make that waterproof jacket, but it'll last them longer and retain its value better.

How does that change your conversation with the client? Is that a problem they're willing to let you discuss openly? Look at it from a few different angles or higher-order perspectives? Change the nature of what kinds of projects you'd like to retain?

Once you start seeing what you do as a designer in this way, you'll have greater clarity regarding exactly what kind of value you're providing as a designer. Solve valuable problems, charge your customer what the market will reasonably bear. And remember that people won't pay much for umbrellas. At any price point, they always vanish into the closet.

Now, please excuse me... this was one of the few sunny days we've had in Seattle all year, and I'm going to go get my yearly Vitamin D allotment.

This post was inspired by recent discussions with David Conrad, studio director of Design Commission and the co-presenter with me for an AIGA Seattle Design Business for Breakfast next week about how to structure a design studio for success.


"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.