Designers Live at the Intersection of Science and Art

#10 Be Whole Brain Creative; It’s a Skill and a Talent

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Pop psychology would have us think of ourselves as either right-brain-dominant people (creative/intuitive) or left-brain-dominant (logical/analytical). Bruce Mau’s tenth design principle reminds us that we are sentient human beings who can shape our own destiny. The ability to use both sides of our brain is not just a talent we are born with, but a skill that can be developed. As with most skills, this comes down to practice. If you’re a designer – or aspire to be a design thinker – approaching problems with your whole brain is a prerequisite.

“Designers must have the ability to work on both sides,” Bruce says. “They start with the qualitative and scientific, to understand the problem…. then imagine new things that may not exist in the data…. It’s counting the dots, then connecting the dots.”

We can create brand experiences that are technically excellent, with flawless logistics, but if the results don’t touch people, we’ve failed. It’s that synthesis of art and science — in solutions that appeal to us with their beauty and aesthetic insight — that inspire an emotional response, change behaviors, and create lasting impressions.

“That’s the underlying logic behind the concept of working in studio teams,” Bruce adds. When the group is inclusive of all the disciplines, with people from delivery, sales, strategy, creative and digital, then you’re getting a whole-brain approach with fully synthesized solutions. And along the way, individual members form the habit of exercising both sides of their brains. As Bruce says, “developing that elasticity of mind has to be part of what we’re developing all the time.”

There’s a classic ‘50s-era design publication called “Transformation: Arts, Communication, Environment” that Bruce admires. The editor, artist Harry Holtzman, wrote, “Art, science, technology are interacting components of the total human enterprise… but today they are too often treated as if they were cultural isolates and mutually antagonistic.” We have allowed these to be ripped apart, to develop in isolation, with their own languages, jargon, rules of operation and ways of incentivizing people. The tenth design principle seeks a return to synthesis.

Ironically, when we consider the people and companies who are successful at creating real value today, they are delivering at the intersection of art and science: Steve Jobs; Elon Musk; Walt Disney Company’s Pixar. In fact, there’s a reason we hear that Disney employs “Imagineers” to design its theme parks — the name implies that both imagination and engineering skills are required.

In 1958, when Walt Disney approached a transportation company to engineer the first monorail for Disneyland, they told him it couldn’t be done – at least, not in his short timeframe. So, Disney turned to one of his favorite Imagineers, Bob Gurr. He didn’t worry about what it would take to put a train in the air, but focused instead on how to make the experience of zooming through Tomorrowland fun, safe and memorable.  In the process, he imagined a new application for existing truck parts. The Mark I ALWEG Monorail train was installed in time for the rededication of Tomorrowland in 1959.

Today, we are always being asked to do the impossible. By embracing each challenge from a whole-brain approach, we may be able to redefine the problem so that the solution becomes not only possible but practical. When we think like designers – when we work within the Art + Science formula – we build an incubator for success. Wouldn’t you rather work there?

Converting Your Outputs to Inputs

#9 Design Your Own Economy

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

One way to think about design is to think in terms of inputs and outputs. If I input a certain amount of time, skill, raw materials and labor into a project, I can expect a certain output.  That output is the discreet thing I set out to create, along with whatever waste or by-product is left over when I’m finished.  Of course, in the traditional economic model (referenced in an earlier blog), people externalize the waste material and don’t consider it part of the process. We find it easier to ignore things like emissions, tainted water, dead bees and landfills when we write our balance sheet. But of course, these things have a cost — ranging from polluted air, increasing health costs, diminished food supplies and, in general, the cost of wasting resources that could be used more productively. Waste makes for poor economics.

That’s why Bruce Mau urges us to design our own economy — by flipping the old formula around.  If we consider that everything has value and cost, it informs the design process and forces us to start thinking from a more holistic perspective. “The new way of thinking in design is to think of an output as an input. If in the process of solving a problem, I create a waste product to my solution, that’s an output,” Bruce explains. “So instead of thinking about it as a discreet, separate thing, you really expand the brief and try to understand the problem in the greatest complexity.”

By way of example, Bruce points to Gunter Pauli, author of “The Blue Economy,” and his work with an urban beer brewery. The beer-making part of the business was going great, but the cost of hauling away the waste was eating their profits. Then they reconsidered the output as an input, and were able to design a more holistic process. They used some of the by-product to establish a bakery and the rest to create a substrate for growing shitake mushrooms. Then, with what was left after the mushrooms did their thing, they created a worm farm. These three new businesses account for a third of the brewery’s income and are the most profitable part of their designed economy — because the inputs are free.

Another great illustration involves Segway inventor Dean Kamen, who rethought the economy of pure drinking water.  He wanted a way to generate electricity off the grid, using available bio-mass as fuel, to help people create water purification systems in remote areas.  His Slingshot system, based on a Sterling Engine design, can be fueled by whatever biomass the local population has in surplus (dung, dried grass, anything that burns). This economy is based on converting outputs to inputs – using waste fuel and tainted water (even sewage or seawater) — to create a new output: enough purified water to meet the needs of about 300 people per year of operation.

“That’s really the new way of thinking,” Bruce says. “It means we have to approach the problem differently and see it as a complex equation … and design that economic solution. And when we do, there’s a big upside, because we can capture wealth that’s being thrown away.”

When we think about trade shows and expos — when we consider the economy of our industry — our efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle make so much sense. We have learned to do this with aluminum MIS materials. And going forward, we will improve our designs to be thinner, lighter, stronger and more beautiful. Ultimately, everything new we design could come from a transformed “output.” This is the approach design-thinkers embrace. And very soon, it will be the only approach acceptable in a world increasingly driven toward sustainable solutions.

The next time you walk into a branded experience, try thinking about the outputs as inputs. Who knows where that new economy could lead? Cost savings? A new revenue stream? More engaged consumers? Bruce and I would love to hear your ideas.

Seeing is Believing; Experiencing is Remembering

#8 Design the Invisible.

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

One of the common misconceptions we learn to overcome when we embrace design thinking is that “design” is restricted to the creation of a visual object or work of art, crafted by a single, discreet individual. Bruce Mau reminds us that design is often team-based and has more to do with designing the systems you don’t see.

Moreover, Bruce describes the ability to design the invisible as “a totally liberating experience. So much of design is really bracketed by what we see…. In some ways, the highest order design is what you don’t see….  When you get in your car, you don’t want to know how it works… you want the experience … The Holy Grail of design is to be behind the scenes — under the surface.”

Ironically, the most elegant designs are those we don’t even notice.

It’s gratifying to consider that this is what Freeman has long been known for. We were doing design thinking before we knew what it was. When I watch our team at CES planning everything from load-in to load-out — storing the crates in a certain order, thinking through every aspect of risk management, considering every logistical detail — this is the essence of what design means. Our success at CES is the result of hundreds of thousands of decisions that remain invisible — decisions that allow a vast and complex show to happen right on schedule.

Plans for any big brand experience call for incredibly robust design. And the proof of success is that the design remains unnoticed. To quote Bruce in the book “Massive Change,” “For most of us, design is invisible. Until it fails.” Think about that the next time your paycheck is magically deposited into your bank account, and be grateful for the invisible payroll design that makes it happen seamlessly.

The notion of designing the invisible may have been around a while, but it was championed by the 20th Century artist Marcel Duchamp, who wanted to release himself from the “tyranny of the eye.” Duchamp said, “What art is, in reality, is this missing link, not the links which exist. It’s not what you see that is art; art is the gap.”

Bruce explains how this notion of exploring a creative practice unlimited by what we see gets at the heart of designing experiences for all five senses.  “We can think of the whole experience as a design project. It’s not limited by the visual. And there are even things you are not aware of that are part of the design. All those systems are essential to our modern practice.”

What are the implications for those of us committed to designing the future of brand experience?  An article in the Harvard Business Review cites research by the American Society of Association Executives pointing to declining membership across the board. The trends explored in the article underscore an opportunity to help our association clients become more relevant.  It’s evident that many of the content and networking opportunities that used to be enjoyed as proprietary are now easily delivered online through streaming video, social networks, etc.  And millennials who attend an event are looking for a different experience than the associations have traditionally offered.

So, the question we must ask ourselves as design thinkers is, how do we make the live branded experience the lynch-pin of the relationship? How do we leverage our expertise, our technology, our digital assets and data, to create experiences that simply can’t be held online? Many associations provide education and certification. How can we make this more meaningful at a live event than they could get online? How do we deploy the whole bandwidth of live experience to make participation in the live experience irreplaceable?  Why would we design anything less?

The answer isn’t a new logo or new projection device. It’s not a thing. It’s a process. A system. A template. The answer is an invisible design structure that elevates everything so well… no one knows it’s there. But the experience itself is unforgettable.

Big Brands Require Big Returns

What associations need to do to stay relevant

Every now and then I read an article that sends a shiver down my spine. That’s what happened when a colleague sent me a recent article in Politico magazine about how huge corporations are bailing out of an industry association — their industry’s most powerful lobbying group in Washington. While this isn’t a Freeman client, we’d be foolish to not understand the implications to the work we do on behalf of many trade associations. In this case, some of the dissatisfaction has been caused by policy disagreements between the industry association members — which has them lining up on different sides of legislative issues. Even more troubling is that some of the industry’s giants longer see the association membership as a good value; they feel there are more effective places to spend their marketing/influence dollars.

All of us in the brand experience channel would do well to take heed from the lessons surfaced in this article. Corporate CMOs have little tolerance for budget items that don’t deliver ROI. We need to think strategically about what brand experiences can offer and ensure that everything we do adds value in a unique way. And we need to demonstrate that value.

Here are a few insights from the article that speak to the important work we do:

  • As data gets better — as it is more keenly analyzed and sharply focused — it heightens transparency. This is awesome if we learn from and apply the data. But it also can expose flaws, weaknesses and complacency.
  • The failure to remain relevant brings a death spiral. Experiential events must answer to the rigors of any solid marketing plan; we must ensure that we are continuously working to reflect input from our clients’ end-users.
  • Traditional models have shifted and legacy brands are competing with upstarts — the disruptors who run lean and won’t pay for what they perceive as bloated or outmoded thinking. These established brands are taking a cue from the disruptors.
  • We need to proactively respond to splintering within the associations we represent.  What are we doing to reflect the interests of all association members? If reconciliation is not possible, where are the grounds for compromise, so that all are served?

As stewards of the brand experience, we can initiate the conversation with our clients and with other growth officers regarding the potential of face-to-face engagements to do more than “sell.” We can show them how meaningful experiences have the power to evolve brands, to build relationships, and to inspire action. But we can’t wait too long. The best time to bolster a business relationship is months before a disruption occurs. Next best is today.

Designing for the Greater Good is Good Business

#7 Think Forever; Design for Perpetuity.

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Imagine living and working in a world where the expression “not my problem” was obsolete. Can you picture all of the future challenges that would be obliterated before they hatched?  Can you breathe the fresh air of progress, untainted by the smell of someone else’s smoldering dreams?

With the seventh design principle – Think Forever; Design for Perpetuity – we are reminded that it’s the designer’s job to consider all the ramifications of a proposed solution. That means we must anticipate and own the consequences of our design for both the short and long term, for ourselves and our great-great grandchildren, in our own backyard, and in the world at large.

In the past, it was easy for companies to overlook the downside of their business plans by explaining it away as an externality. If the runoff from a plant polluted the drinking water downstream, or killed off the fish others relied on for their livelihood, it was a “negative externality” — an economics euphemism for “not my problem.” As long as the downstream victims weren’t paying customers, it didn’t matter to the business plan.

This business model isn’t only immoral, it’s unsustainable. It doesn’t account for reliance on resources that can’t be easily replenished. If you’re planning to light the world with whale oil, don’t expect your business to outlast the whale population.

“Sustainability is the baseline of 21st Century design,” says Bruce Mau. Examples are all around us. When a big retailer makes the decision to renovate its malls, and replace all its incandescent light bulbs with long-lasting, efficient LED lighting, they may incur a significant cost right away, but this will pay out over time in the form of lower energy costs and minimal maintenance.  Electric cars may cost a bit more up front, but they are inexpensive to operate and virtually eliminate traditional maintenance costs.

Bruce also references his firm’s work with Coca-Cola, which realized that, if 2 billion people drink a Coke every day, that adds up to 720 billion plastic bottles per year.  As a truly global brand doing business in every market in the world, they made a business decision to own the problem, instead of pushing it to some other country or some future generation. As they designed a long-term solution, what began as a corporate social-responsibility initiative became an entirely new, long-term approach to the business — one that reduced waste and reused material across the supply chain. It was good for business, and good for the planet.

“Perpetuity means we’re not trying to just get to a less negative way of doing things, by trying to mitigate our impact,” Bruce explains, “but rather, to understand how we get to a positive impact…. not just a positive economic effect, but an ecological system effect that’s positive…. You don’t just have to solve for the next quarter, or the next earning cycle, or the annual revenue. You really have to solve it in perpetuity.”

Freeman has done this historically with our aluminum MIS display systems, which are used over and over again. And the next-generation system we are developing will recycle this aluminum into a product that offers an even better user experience, while sustaining the recyclability of the material. Carpeting is another good example of a product that can be reused and, thanks to design-thinking at a molecular level, can be completely recycled.

Freeman has traditionally sought to do the right thing and avoiding waste is just good business. But as individuals and as design-thinkers, we need to be vigilant about looking for new ways to effect positive change … in perpetuity.

Bruce sums up the idea of designing for perpetuity this way: “We want greater and greater impact, with less material and less energy. So, if we think about the future of stewardship at Freeman, its understanding that idea, and making a long-term effort to apply it to everything we do.”

We are all focused on strengthening the core of our Freeman business. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by embracing business habits that work in perpetuity. Savings go straight to the bottom line. And untold generations will thank you for not making it “their problem.”

Unconditional Love is a Design Value

#6 Sketch: Hey everybody, let’s fail!

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Anyone who has ever scrubbed crayon marks off the wall knows that children are born with the instincts of a designer. We are all makers. We want to capture and share our thoughts. Unfortunately for many of us, somewhere along the way, the confidence to sketch whatever is in our heads is discouraged — we’re laughed at or given a poor grade — and we stop trying.

By the time we reach adulthood and engage in business, we’re told to “do it right the first time, every time.” Failure is anathema. Of course, we all want to do our best for our customers. So why does the sixth design principle encourage us to sketch … and fail? Bruce Mau makes it clear in his design workshops that, in the course of formulating concepts, we need to fail early and often, because failure is the essence of design.

“The designer starts with not knowing how to do it,” Bruce explains. “If we did, we’d just do it. It wouldn’t be design, it’d be production. The design process demands that we start by admitting we don’t know the solution. We need a cultural acceptance that we’re going to fail a lot. I want people to fail 100 times so that they get the one most brilliant way to do it.”

That’s where sketching comes in. “Sketching” may or may not involve drawing – it’s simply a quick, low-cost way to capture and share a prototype. It could involve creating a short description with words … dashing out a high-level budget … using Play-doh to make a model … or just snapping a photo and adding a note that says, “something like this, but with fish instead of birds.”

The good news is that anyone can sketch in this way; but like so many things, it takes practice and hard work. The more you make it part of your routine, the more you try to generate, capture and share lots of potential solutions, the better you get. And the more everyone on your team does it, the better your collective results. It’s a collaborative process. The point is to capture and share, quickly, to keep the flow of ideas coming, so that the process is quick and cheap and hugely productive.

Bruce refers to this as starting with low-resolution ideas and then adding detail, over time, as the iterative process of refinement and testing (or approvals) progresses. This may take a little more time up front, but it saves a lot of cost in do-overs, because the design has been poked, prodded and proven before any of the build dollars are spent.

This process reminds me of an adage that salespeople will recognize – it takes 100 “no’s” to get to “yes.” Think about design this way. The more quickly we can conceptualize and share several rough concepts, the more quickly (and cheaply) we can reach the optimal solution. Thomas Edison understood this in his relentless pursuit of the light bulb. He’s quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

This is where unconditional love comes into play for design thinkers. We need to encourage each other to fail quickly and cheaply in the formulate phase of a project. And we need to give ourselves permission to sketch out and share half-baked ideas — lots of them — to be tossed into the salad of ideas that lead us closer to the right one.

“I want to be able to look at it and know, is this plausible? Is this promising? Is this something that we could accomplish? And really use the sketching method to turn that cycle as quickly as possible and as many times as possible in the process,” Bruce explains. “Because the more times you actually explore something, and decide yes or no, the more opportunity you have to get an amazing result.”

Every day it seems there is some new app or software to help us sketch ideas digitally and even physically. You can actually buy 3D printers that children can program with kid-friendly software. Clearly, the barrier isn’t our ability to sketch. It’s our reluctance. We are fighting years of being taught not to share something that’s less than perfect. Many artists talk about having to re-learn to see and experience things as a child — unselfconsciously.

We can help each other get there by jumping into the sketching process with enthusiasm and by surrounding the process with unconditional love. It doesn’t matter whose idea is chosen. We just need to remember that each sketch brings us closer to what beautiful looks like. Our design quality goes up. Our costs go down. And everybody wins. Especially our clients.

Being Grateful for Unmerited Gifts

Thanksgiving is not about “what” but “who.”

I hope I carry a spirit of gratitude with me throughout the year, but as an American, this feeling comes into focus as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday.  I feel like the luckiest person on the planet, because I am constantly surprised by the number of people that I have affection for – specifically, people I’m privileged to work alongside of. I once thought this only happened to young people for whom the world was still new, exciting and ripe for conquest. I guess, for me, the world IS still new and exciting, and so are the human beings who people it. What a blessing.

Some background: When I was in my twenties and thirties, I was lucky enough to rub elbows with the smart people who were exploring the nascent technology known as the World Wide Web (LANS and WANS). I worked with the founders of Java; I helped those who were first to modernize publishing and ignite the eventual digital revolution. These people were changing the world forever, and I fell in love with their intellect, their integrity and their unmitigated energy. Perhaps it was just a young man’s perspective — from what felt like the pinnacle of my career — but I assumed I would never again work with such inspirational people.

How nice to be proven wrong, time and again. Across multiple career changes and chance encounters, I find myself surrounded today by an amazing number of bright, generous, witty and inspirational people. And I have come to look forward to the next meaningful encounter. Mind you, I am not egotistical enough to think this is something I earned, or that I am a human magnet for the best sort of people. So, I can’t help but wonder if it is just my own unmerited luck, or if other people have succumbed to the habit of walking past unopened gifts — turning away from unexplored relationships that might have been life-changing. The thing is, some of my favorite people don’t agree with me on “important” issues like politics, religion and lifestyle. None of that matters, because we connect on a higher (and deeper) level.

Whether you celebrate an American Thanksgiving or not, I wish you a life warmed and enriched by a diverse array of amazing people who share your workplace and heart space. This November 23 will find me thinking, with appreciation, about all who have blessed my life.

Thank you.

~ bph

When You’re Not the Center of the Universe

#5 We Are Not Separate From or Above Nature.

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Most of us have little patience with people who act like they’re the center of the universe. Who has time for anyone with such a misguided sense of their own importance, right? Of course, in the 16th Century, everyone really did think that human beings were at the center of the universe. No wonder they were so disoriented by Copernican heliocentrism, which challenged a story foundational to their belief system. The thing is, they became even more hostile 70 years later, when Galileo submitted irrefutable, scientific proof.

It seems we are hardwired to think human beings are the most important thing in the cosmos – separate from, and having dominion over the flora and fauna that make up the “natural” world.  It’s not too surprising then that, while scientists were busy cataloging these “others,” Darwin rocked the world again in 1859 when he published his theories regarding natural selection.  It threatened our sense of self-importance. It threatened our place in the universe.

Bruce Mau points to the 5th Design Principle – “We Are Not Separate from or Above Nature” – to illustrate how “many of the ideas we’re working with today are really Copernican in their disorientation.” Consider the issues surrounding environmentalism. Many of us today (okay, most of us of a certain age) think about sustainability as a nice-to-do gesture that avoids waste. Sure, we’ll recycle plastic bottles. Sure, we’ll avoid the conspicuous consumption of water. But this is still subject to our convenience as benign rulers of the planet.

Younger generations have already let go of the notion that, just because we wield opposable thumbs, our whims are somehow above the demands of nature and a sustainable ecology. Bruce tells about a time Massive Change was working with high school students in Vancouver, exploring the Toynbee premise that the true purpose of the 20th Century was to imagine the welfare of all mankind as a practical objective.  The students insisted that the welfare of all life trumped the welfare of all mankind. This perspective caused Massive Change to shift their own approach. “It’s understanding that our responsibility as designers is to understand the impact of what we do on the ecology that sustains us,” Bruce explained, “and realize that we are not somehow exempt from the laws of nature. And once you start to see that, it makes you see everything that you do in a different way.  Like Copernicus – who changed the universe.”

That’s the Copernican disorientation we face every day when we choose how we will go about our work. We can think about “ecology” as something separate from ourselves and our work, or we can make it part of our economy. We can think about any waste we generate as something that demands a high ROI on our balance sheet.

At the experience FREEMAN event in August, Carrie declared that a commitment to sustainability was no longer an option.  “It’s about more than reducing waste,” she said. “It’s also about optimizing opportunities. When organizations prioritize the health of the planet, everyone benefits.” We’ve amended our Freeman manifesto accordingly to read: “We work every day to inspire our people and partners to optimize our use of energy and material, minimize waste, and measure and improve our ecological impact.”

The truth is, over the years, our industry has put a lot of stuff in landfills. Without question, we are getting better at finding new ways to reduce, reuse and recycle. But how does it scale? Bruce reminds us that big challenges are rich ground for innovation, especially when we start to think about designing for perpetuity.

“When you’re actually creating the world that we live in, we have new responsibilities to manage it and design for it,” he says. “When you start to look at the business world today – all the work that we do – you realize that almost none of it is done in this new way. And the opportunity in front of us is really profound. Because the work it will take to reimagine practically everything that we do … every one of those problems, those challenges, is a realm of opportunity for innovation.”

That’s a disorienting thought —that every decision we make today could have repercussions in the amazing natural world of which we are a part.  But it’s an empowering thought, too. Freeman has the scale to effect new procedures that will reduce waste and engender positive change. We work on more than 14,000 projects around the globe. We are thousands strong. And we are all design thinkers.

Where do you want to start?

What Happens When Service Fails and You Want to Tell Someone?

Finding a chink in the armor

{A Note to Readers: This is another in a series of guest blogs focused on Customer Experience from the amazing Katy Wild. Working with Katy, I can always expect to learn something; I trust you will, too. ~ bph}

Let me start by saying I do a lot of shopping with a major online retailer that happens to be a valued Freeman customer. I think they are a phenomenal company.  They have offered  technology and consumer service that no one would have thought of even 5 to 10 years ago — and they continue to set the bar high not only for their competitors but for all companies in general.  It reminds me of the quote from the movie Field of Dreams — “if you build it, he will come.”  This retailer seems to know what the public wants even before the public knows.

But for the first time recently, I found a chink in their armor.  I had a question about an order I received so I went to the company’s website to see if they had a Live Chat option — or a 1-800 customer service number.

I know it’s hard to believe but neither are easily (or obviously) offered on their website.  If you are determined, you can find a Help link at the bottom of one of the pages, which gives you another page to scroll through with repeated information and a “Need More Help” at the very bottom of the page again.  After following prompts to click on Contact Us, and clicking on four or five more drop-down fields, you can then choose to email or chat, and there’s an offer for them to call you — but no phone number for the customer to initiate a direct call.

By this time, I was really curious — how DOES the customer contact this online retailer by phone?  As an experiment, I typed “customer service” into the search field.  The first item that popped up was the name of a book about how to reach the company by phone. They are online retailers, after all, so their systems are all wired to promote online transactions. In fact, they actually offered up three books (from $0.99 to $2.99) that tell customers how to contact the company by phone – I can only imagine the customer reviews.  Ironically, I later discovered that the easiest way to find their customer service number is to search through Google. It’s right there.

That may work for online transactions. But Freeman’s business is ALL about connecting people in meaningful ways and working WITH our customers to transform, grow and extend the world of live engagements.  We invest a tremendous amount of time and financial resources in technology, websites and education but, in the end, it’s all to make it easier for our customers to reach us — and chat with a real, live person if that’s their preference.   Talking, and listening, to our customers is our business and our culture. Make it yours — make it personal.

Change Happens When You Inspire People Who Inspire People…


#4 Scale for Impact

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

If you created a narrative about the 20th century, what detail would be most telling? Productivity made possible by the Industrial Revolution? Medical breakthroughs? Scientific discoveries? 

Bruce Mau suggests that the most significant fact of the last century is a fourfold increase in the global population. In 1900, it was estimated at 1.6 billion; this year, we reached a global population of 7.5 billion and are rapidly heading toward 8 billion, which we are predicted to hit in 2025.

“When you put those kind of numbers on the planet, the potential for impact is really dramatic,” Bruce says. “When we’re changing behavior, and redesigning what we’re doing – and what people do – we’re not just doing it for that example, we’re setting a prototype or a template for behavior all over the planet. If we change how people interact with business ideas in live experience, that will affect hundreds of millions and even billions of people.”

What does that mean to us as professionals in the brand experience industry? What does it mean to us as citizens of the world?

This is a huge topic, but let’s focus on two things:

First, while the expanding population presents challenges in how we feed, shelter and ensure the well-being of so many people, we need to acknowledge that this so-called problem is a result of success. Human beings are living longer, largely as a result of all those innovations and breakthroughs made in the previous century. And as much as our headlines are filled with violence and acts of terrorism, the data show that more people than ever are living in a time of unprecedented peace, especially in the years following WWII. The facts behind population growth tell us we are making headway in the struggle against disease, starvation and war.

Second, the opportunity to effect positive change scales geometrically with population growth. Roughly 69 million people attend exhibitions and conventions each year in the U.S.  UFI has estimated that 260 million attend events globally each year. Consider how this power to connect people scales. Freeman is the world’s largest brand experience company; we serve 300,000 exhibiting clients every year. Last year we worked on more than 14,000 projects around the globe. What we do matters — our efforts have unimaginable repercussions.

In our Freeman Manifesto, we claim the responsibility to advance society and elevate the human experience. This isn’t romantic puffery. When we help inspire professionals at the American Heart Association to share new life-saving methods, we help spread those ideas globally. Lives are saved. When we work with the Institute of Food Technologists, we further their goal to feed 10 billion people in the not-too-distant future. More people eat nutritious food. When we bring together the world’s innovators attending the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, we help expedite the social and economic opportunities promised in 5G connectivity.  More people have access to the things that matter. We are helping scale big ideas for big opportunities.  Even cooler, as we master our ability to apply metrics and digital technology to personalize these encounters, we can scale in both directions — toward the vast masses, and toward specific, individual needs.

We’re all familiar with the story of the bricklayers.  We are in much the same role — we can simply put bricks on a wall, or we can help build the cathedral. Freeman, in fact, is very much a part of building a new world. That’s what makes our work exciting, challenging, and so worthwhile. I believe that each of us has innumerable opportunities every year to inspire the person who will inspire the person who inspires the next breakthrough.

When Larry Brilliant, working with the World Health Organization, was challenged to eradicate smallpox from the face of the earth, he wasn’t overwhelmed by the notion that it had been around before the dawn of civilization. He studied the scale of the problem in India, then helped design a way to distribute the vaccine so that with each outbreak, anywhere in the world, the smallpox could be stopped from spreading by isolating and vaccinating everyone in the area. It worked. And his methods have inspired countless others working in epidemiology and global healthcare.

“When you start to think about the impact that you’re having, and really understand the potential of that,” Bruce says, “it lifts our spirits in a way that really inspires us to look at the challenges that we face — as the opportunities that we have.”

The influence we have at Freeman, as leaders in the far-reaching world of brand experience, is mind boggling. We can squander this opportunity to inspire innovation. Or we can start with our next event, and scale for impact.