#17 Think Like You’re Lost in the Forest

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 you walk into the woods to enjoy a picnic lunch. You look for a nice, flat, shady spot to spread your blanket and then turn your attention to setting out the tasty treats you brought along. Instead, imagine you are lost in the deep forest and your cell phone is dead. Immediately, your priorities shift, and you begin searching for anything that can help you find your way out: Footprints or well-worn paths; moss growing thickly on the north side of the trees; maybe the sound of a stream that leads to a more populated spot? You begin looking for clues as if your life depended on it.

A successful businessperson once told Bruce the secret to being an entrepreneur. He explained that, when most people sit down to eat, they attend to the meal. But an entrepreneur instantly scans the table, the room and other patrons to see how anything there might advance his business.

“That concept of constantly looking for opportunity is a designer mindset,” Bruce notes. “Which is an entrepreneurial mindset. And what you realize is that designers are entrepreneurs.”  Designers may not monetize their observations in the same way, but they continuously search for clues that will lead to a better design. Entrepreneurial thinking is essentially a design methodology.

Entrepreneurs and designers also share a focus on the question “why.” People often frame up their problems by asking for a solution: “I need a ladder.” An engineer will want to know what kind of ladder, how tall, and how heavy. A designer – exercising the value of empathy – will ask “why do you need a ladder?” They’ll ask questions until they understand the real need.  The final design solution could involve a pulley/winch system, or an elevator, or a trampoline, or a trebuchet or, in fact, a ladder. An entrepreneur will consider how to monetize ladder alternatives. But both will begin by gathering information so they fully understand the opportunity to find a better solution.

Consider, once again, our plight while being lost in the forest. A map might help — but only for that forest and probably only for that year, because the forest is always changing.  Bruce clarifies: “What you want, ultimately, is not a methodology to get you out of that forest, but out of any forest.” At Freeman, the forest is the everchanging medium of brand experience, and our methodology is the Freeman Learning Cycle. When you can’t see the forest for the trees, try looking for new opportunities.