The Big Reboot Starts Small

The benefits are potentially huge

In a recent post, I acknowledged that while I have great optimism regarding the rebooting of the live events industry, I understand that this cannot happen everywhere, all at once, as if with the flip of a switch. And even if the industry could magically start up where it left off, it would not be a good thing.

We have an amazing opportunity to rethink event design in a big way. And at first, that could mean that the events we design are smaller. They might also be more regionalized and more focused on specific audience needs, which helps us make them more personal. This individualized approach creates new paradigms for the industry and a chance for unprecedented innovation.

For too long, our industry has focused on the size and scale of our events, sometimes sacrificing the quality of the attendee experience. Through our data and insights team at Freeman, we’ve done some exciting benchmark work which shows that not all attendee profiles are created equal.

In a post-pandemic world, we can shift our focus to getting the right people to the physical events — the decision makers, influencers and brand loyalists who drive revenue for the 1.7 million businesses who exhibit annually.

We can deliver pre-qualified prospects to our exhibitors. We can foster more meaningful connections for attendees. We can incubate more powerful breakthroughs. And we can use a hybrid platform to reach more people, beyond the core, on a virtual basis.

By starting small and getting closer to our respective communities, we can also invest more in our own people. (This industry simply has the best people — I never get tired of saying this.) We can train our people to champion the new way of thinking and help people embrace the new norms.

We can also seize the opportunity to toss out the window any processes or procedures that have been holding us back. One of Bruce Mau’s favorite questions is, “what should we stop doing?” We have a unique opportunity, as we start fresh, to employ design thinking, invite fresh ideas, and innovate.

This notion of starting fresh has broad application and we can already see it playing out. COVID-19 was a wake-up call to humanity that has led to changes in behavior around social justice and the environment. It has nudged us into a place of appreciation and gratitude for what we hold dear.

In the live events industry, it has led to deeper conversations with clients, new levels of collaboration amongst competitors and partners, greater flexibility in the workforce, and the freedom of tossing away the words, “the way we’ve always done it.”

The key will be keeping those learnings when times are good again. Think big. Start small.

Pain Points Point to Opportunity

#23 Always Search for the Worst

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.

Optimists see the glass as half full. Pessimists see the glass as half empty. Designers see the need for a better glass.

The idea behind Bruce Mau’s 23rd Design Principle is that designers have an entrepreneurial mindset. Instead of setting up camp in areas already enriched by brilliantly designed solutions, they always search for the worst. Why? Because where there is failure, there is a lack of design, and that’s where design-thinkers can contribute the most.

“Designers see the world upside down,” Bruce says. “The biggest problem is the biggest opportunity. Good things are bad. Bad things are good. Terrible things are awesome. We have a first-responder mindset — we run towards the problem.  We’re looking for the biggest challenges, because that’s where the biggest opportunities are.”

Some of the best problems are ones created by our own success. For example, think of all the breakthroughs made to promote wellness, safety and extended human life expectancy. “The fact that we’re over seven-billion people creates a whole new set of problems,” Bruce points out. “And we’re over seven-billion people because we’ve solved so many problems.  If we failed more frequently, we’d have fewer problems. So this is a way of daily looking at where the opportunity lies.” And there’s plenty of evidence for just how well this methodology works.

Bruce points to some of the case studies collected in C. K. Prahalad’s  “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” In one story, Dr. V of Aravind (a ground-breaking eye care institution) made it his goal to design a way to eradicate needless blindness among India’s millions of poor people. Because they couldn’t afford treatment by an ophthalmologist and lacked the means of getting to a health care facility, blindness due to curable things like cataracts was rampant.  Designing a system to deliver quick, inexpensive eye surgery required that his team rethink every aspect of eyecare, from setting up rural eye care screening camps, to arranging transportation, to training surgeons and nurses to perform in new ways, with efficiently designed surgical rooms to take time out of the procedure. As a result, efficiencies went up, costs went down, and the contribution made by patients who could afford care was enough to cover the free services provided to the poor. Today, according to a Huffington Post article, Aravind surgeons to do more than five times the number of cataract surgeries performed by an average Indian doctor, and 10 times that of a typical US physician. Best of all, this proven system is now being replicated in developing countries throughout the world.

How does this apply to our industry? At the very top of the pyramid — exclusive, well-funded events have the resources to invest more in experimentation and the development of innovative ideas. At the base of the pyramid, the challenges are huge, because often there are more customers to serve but fewer resources to bring to the solution.  This points to a tremendous opportunity. If we can design solutions to elevate the experience of myriad exhibitors and trade show participants — and make that scale around the world — we can have a big impact.

Where should we begin? Bruce would tell us to search for the worst. Are people waiting in long lines to register? Are they eating mediocre food? Are they having trouble getting to the one exhibit they most want to see? “Anywhere there is friction, where people are not happy or satisfied, those are all opportunities for making money,” Bruce says. “They are all opportunities to create new value, to advance our industry.”

Digital technology has opened the door to innovations that simplify workstreams, engage audiences, and help personalize the experience. Consider the problem of sleep-inducing general sessions.  Sync™ by Freeman second-screen technology (formerly FXP|touch) gives presenters a way to connect with audiences in real time, assess their level of engagement, seek feedback and address their questions. It scales to any size audience and requires no special app downloads — just a web connection.

One of the most exhilarating things about working in the arena of live brand experience is that there is so much that we can improve. “Pain points” point to a need for designed solutions. Optimization is opportunity. In the new world of design thinking, it’s the optimist who notices what’s wrong.

We Are All Time Travelers

#16 Design the Time of Your Life

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.

Have you ever watched a time-lapse study of a flower blooming? Have you ever noticed the ever-shifting pattern of shadows created as the sun moves across the urban landscape? We don’t experience the world as a snapshot, as something static — we experience it across the expanse of time.

That’s how we need to think about the medium of live experience. It’s what Bruce means when he urges us to “Design the Time of Your Life;” he’s reminding us that things unfold in seconds, minutes and hours. Participants at a trade show don’t interact with exhibits and displays in a single instant, but over a prolonged sensory engagement. As professionals in the medium of brand experience, we need to shift how we approach our work and think about designing for time travelers, instead of simply creating an object (display, exhibit, booth) that is fixed in space.

“Experience is a time-based medium,” Bruce begins. “When we do our work, the real value we create is the time of our exhibitors and attendees…. and really making the most of that time is the design objective.”

The implication here is that we need to rethink a few givens that are manifest throughout the world of conferences and exhibitions. For example, we know from countless surveys that professionals value the time they have at conferences to exchange ideas, network with colleagues and learn what’s new.  Why, then, would we isolate them in front of a row of computers to earn education credits they could as easily earn from home? Why not let them interact with a live expert and benefit from their classmates’ questions? When we make attendees pay money to do something at our event that they could more easily do at home, we have failed to add value. We are wasting their time.

Conversely, we can design participants’ path across the overarching experience — plan the emotional and sensory course they will take over the time they have together. Bruce describes this as orchestration. “What we’re trying to develop as a methodology is really orchestration, which is having the shape of the time lead to something. …  to create a crescendo. The crescendo is a time-based event…. You have to be there to be part of it.  If we do that, what we’re really doing is designing the time and maximizing the value. At that moment, everyone is thinking, ‘I don’t care what I paid to be here, this is awesome.’”

Disney understands about designing the time you spend within its gates. As noted in Design Principle #14 — Design the New Normal — even standing in line becomes part of the planned experience. When we apply this approach to the brand experiences we create, we can imagine people wanting spaces to discuss, collaborate, rest their feet, and share what they’ve seen on social media. We start to think about how activity in the space changes over time, and how to keep the experience fresh, unexpected and inspiring.  And we start to think in terms of storyboards, like a film director, instead of in static snapshots.

This can be a big leap for event planners, especially when they are rewarded for selling space, not time. But here’s where the magic can happen. “If you start to think of yourself as being in the time-selling business, you can sell the space more than once,” Bruce explains. “That can change the economics of what we’re doing…. If your product is space, it’s fixed. If it’s time, it’s dynamic.”

That’s a game-changing thought. If we design our space to showcase an ever-changing series of experiences, and find sponsors for those experiences, we can generate new revenue and create an audience magnet on the tradeshow floor. If we think of ways to stretch time – the way 10-minutes in an intense VR experience can feel like an hour on the show floor – we change the value equation in profound ways.

In this sense, sponsorship becomes a tool to fund the design of time. And beyond that, it becomes a metric that helps prove out the value of our concepts.  If our idea for something doesn’t earn sponsors, that item may not add value. This brings us back to the core proposition, that what brands require out of any experience they sponsor is quality time with their audience —time to establish a relationship.

Time is the currency of brand experience. It’s our job to design brand experiences that make the most of the participants’ time and stop doing things that are a waste of time.  We need to think of the time that’s been invested by attendees, exhibitors, sponsors, and hosts as the ROI that matters most. This dovetails with the design principle that invites us to break through the noise by consolidating, thrifting and aligning our communication efforts.

When we learn to consider the medium of live experience as a time-based medium, it changes our understanding in fundamental ways. It touches everything we do.  It dimensionalizes our designs. It brings empathy to the equation. And it builds a basis of trust by respecting that people are giving us the thing they value most — their precious time – and hoping to watch it bloom.

Learning the language of beauty helps us find it

#11 Compete with Beauty

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.

Those of us in the business of creating live brand experiences all appreciate the importance of connecting visually — graphically — with our audiences.  From directional wayfinding to vast interactive exhibits, this is what we do. But even in our industry, efficiency tends to dominate our priorities. Take CES. We have only a few days to build what is essentially a small city, and then we dismantle it in even less time. The work is so challenging, that success means getting everything where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. One of the most beautiful things about it is that the miracle happens year after year, just as planned.

Even so, as design thinkers, we are all called upon to raise the bar — to push our designs to a place where both visual aesthetics and functionality are elevated. With the 11th Design Principle, Bruce Mau challenges us to compete with beauty. “It’s not just, ‘I love beauty, and I’ve dedicated my life to beauty,’ … it’s more than a passion, it’s more than my profession,” Bruce says. “It’s got to be a competitive idea.”

It’s easier to grasp this notion when we look beyond our own industry. Steve Jobs took a technically revolutionary phone and made it beautiful to look at, to hold and to use. Elon Musk could have put his innovative technology in a knock-off van body and people still would have been impressed. But instead, he elected to capture people’s imagination with Tesla’s beauty. Bruce explains that this is what all winning brands do: “They go beyond the engineering and actual functionality to integrate the experience of beauty into the product and delivery…. Elon Musk made the coolest car on the planet that was also the fastest. And that combination put Tesla into a class of its own. He launched the brand instantaneously at the top.”

Where does that leave aspiring design thinkers who want to elevate our brand experiences by integrating beauty, but who struggle to articulate our concepts? How can those of us who aren’t actual designers convey our idea of “beautiful” to the long-suffering art directors, designers, builders and creative people trying to help us make it real?

Bruce has been on the receiving end of that frustration and has some advice we can all use to think about beauty. By considering the ten distinct dimensions of design, we can better articulate what beautiful looks like. Try using this vocabulary: Color, Contrast, Proportion, Shape, Material, Texture, Typography, Time, Image, and Content. Think about each separately; whenever you evaluate a design, look at it through each distinct lens.

For example, Bruce suggests that the dimension most relevant to our business is contrast. “Every client that I’ve ever worked for wants to be in the foreground against a noisy background,” he says. “Our work is to help pull them into the foreground, so people see them, and not just the noise behind them. And that is essentially contrast.” Clearly, if we’re doing what everyone else is doing, we’re not going to stand out. We need to think about our design in terms of what’s around it – the relationship to the background and to the audience — and include an element of contrast that will pull it to the foreground.

Color, proportion, texture and the other dimensions of design can be used to create contrast. And that’s why beauty is essential to what we’re doing. It sets us apart in the marketplace; it gives us a competitive edge.

At Freeman, everything we’re doing points in the direction of helping our customers compete by integrating beauty into the design. Our new FuzionSM event technology integration platform is all about making data beautiful. It offers an elegant solution for working seamlessly with a variety of digital products – connecting data points from across the event ecosystem – to help event planners formulate effective, data-driven strategies. Beautiful! And we will soon be launching a new exhibit system, Flex by Freeman, that allows us to radically upgrade the beauty of any show, while introducing a new level of efficiency in material application and speed of installation.

These two products would never have been created if our customers didn’t articulate a need. They would not be as elegant — as beautiful — if some design-thinker hadn’t pushed for that. Enlightened by the concept of competing with beauty, and empowered by the language of design dimension, how will you approach your next opportunity? When you sketch out your ideas — and when you provide feedback during the build – don’t forget to use your words. All ten of them.

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.

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.

Cynicism Is a Luxury Leaders Can’t Afford

#2 Begin with Fact-Based Optimism.

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.

Bruce Mau likes to remind us that, as design thinkers, we are called to be critical but not cynical. Our responsibility is to design a new or better way of achieving or creating something — a product, a process, a piece of art, an experience, etc. If we don’t believe a better solution is possible — the cynic’s point-of-view — we’ve failed before we’ve begun. Buck Freeman understood this when he embraced the value of enthusiasm, which remains a core Freeman value today. Freeman values are essentially design values.

Although we can’t afford to be cynical, we can’t forego the rigors of critical thinking. Bruce urges us to qualify the essential challenges before we try to solve for them: “We have to start with, ‘This is really the true problem and we’re going to figure it out. What about this problem can we measure, and what kinds of proxies could we measure to help us understand the problem?’”

This is where data enters the picture.  In the history of live events, good metrics were hard to come by, so we relied on anecdotal evidence and hunches. Today, most things are measurable if we have the will to seek, analyze and believe the data. There are two problems here: One, we collect so much data, without thinking about what we need to learn, that we become inundated and just fall back on assumptions; Two, we initiate surveys or focus groups designed to affirm our assumptions, or make us look good to our bosses and our clients, instead of unearthing insights that could drive improvement.

To be designers, we have to be honest. “And when you start to think like that,” Bruce concludes,  “then the process that you’re in is a design process, because you’re actually looking for the truth.”

Integrity, of course is another Freeman value that aligns with a design-thinking approach to leadership. If we punish our people for delivering bad news, they will quickly learn to bring us only the good news. This begins the spiral of complacency and slow, sure death.  If we choose to believe that the things that have always worked will continue to work — that the next generation of attendees at our medical convention or auto show or user conference will engage the same way as their predecessors — we are doomed to fail. Conversely, when we form the habit of collecting meaningful data, when we think about what kind of proxies and metrics we can start to gather, and design that continuous cycle of learning into the process, we are well on our way to being a design-thinking company.

Cynics are usually just waiting for something bad to happen so they can say, “I told you so.” They treat the future as a minefield they refuse to cross. Designers consider all the bad news early in the process, when they think about the opportunity for improvement and formulate their plan. Having flagged and defused all the landmines, they can afford to be optimistic about their success for the future.  And people are inspired to follow them.

You can read more about Freeman’s decision to become a design-thinking company here.

It’s Your Job to Inspire People

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.

The trick with working with someone as brilliant as Bruce Mau is that there is so much value in the simplest remarks that it sometimes takes me a while to unpack it all. The notion that we are called to inspire the people we work with underpins everything we have learned about design thinking.  I always thought that inspiration was a sort of lucky-strike extra. But Bruce has shown us that there is methodology to this madness. Literally. As leaders, we are called to take people on a quest — a collaborative journey that has a clearly defined objective. It may be difficult to achieve — we may need to adjust our course along the way — but our first duty is to inspire the people we hope to lead.

The design-thinking methodology that Freeman has embraced is unique in that it is fundamentally a leadership methodology. When I think of all the leadership books I’ve read, and the many lectures I’ve attended, they generally consist of anecdotal stories that describe amazing people and how they demonstrated grace under fire. But those stories don’t provide a DIY method that helps us become more effective leaders.

Freeman’s 24 Design Principles begins with this essential directive: “First inspire… lead by design.” True leaders take the time to show people what success will look like once it’s been achieved. They engage their team both emotionally and intellectually in “what beautiful looks like.” They act with intention to inspire their people, and to show them how to inspire each other.

When I think about where we are today, both Freeman and our industry at large, leading by design is more important than ever. People used to come to trade shows because that was the only place to get the information they needed to succeed. But today, they have plenty of options on where to get information.  I believe that they turn to us — and to the brand experiences we create — for inspiration.

What does this kind of leadership look like? I saw it in action the other day, and it was truly inspirational. One of our account leaders was kicking off the start-of-work meeting for the team working on a very high-profile client event. Normally, she would have framed it up by talking about client expectations, budget limitations and timeline challenges. She would have addressed questions about the size of the exhibit space and logistical concerns. Instead, she started the meeting by asking our team to think about how our client’s innovative technology could change the world for the better. She asked them to consider how to engage participants in this mission. She inspired the team by visualizing the opportunity to design for massive change.

For me, that’s what beautiful looks like. That’s what leadership looks like.

P.S.
In the workshops Bruce Mau conducts, he helps us think about how to act with intent by having everyone write their personal manifesto. You can read more about that here.