Getting Schooled on Serious Matters

Early lessons in leadership – #2

Here’s another lesson in leadership… from when I was just a punk kid running housekeeping for a major hotel chain.

One of the supervisors who worked for me came in to complain that a housekeeper I personally liked was acting out: not putting washcloths in the rooms and generally being belligerent. I knew this was not normal for her. She was a great person and a hard worker who was obviously having a bad day. But I pulled up my boss pants, called her into my office, and told her in a stern voice, “this is serious.”

She then put me in my place by explaining that “what was serious” was being beaten up by your drug-crazed son in the middle of the night because he wants your cash to get his next fix. What’s serious is having to pull a loaded weapon from under your pillow to keep your own child from killing you.

Oh. Right. Like I could even relate to that. I apologized and told her to just go home and get some rest, and I promised to clean her rooms myself — which I did. But to this day, 30-some years later, I wish I’d started that conversation by asking her what was wrong, and what could possibly have happened to make her have such a bad day. Of course, that kind of learning only comes with spending more time on the planet. But it’s a lesson in empathy that I’ve never forgotten.

The next time you “can’t understand” why someone is behaving in a certain way, make the effort to understand. Then formulate your plan. It’s one of those things that distinguishes a leader from a boss.

Designing for the Crisis of Trust

#18 Design What You Do to Tell Your Story

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.

It’s a sign of the times that the word “optics” — which refers to the properties of light that let us see things — has been hijacked to describe “how something seems.” It’s used as shorthand for situations in which the actions people witness don’t jive with what they’ve been told. Countless celebrities, politicians and brands have been pilloried on social media for #BadOptics. Public shaming via memes, Facebook rants and #twitterstorm posts are the new norm.

This wasn’t an issue 25 years ago, when the sausage-making part of the working world was hidden in the factory.  Today, however, living in the age of social media and ubiquitous camera phones, everything is recorded and published. Progressive enterprises understand this phenomenon and are intentional about designing not only their brand narrative, but everything they do to tell their story.

“This concept rests on the insight that the connected world fundamentally transforms communication,” Bruce Mau explains. “The everyday crisis that we’re having right now in America is a crisis of trust, that we can’t believe what they say and what they do are the same thing…. The real thing that you should be designing is what you do.”

The examples in our industry are easy enough to find. Many convention venues have been renovated to achieve LEED certification. As part of their conferences, associations often create charity events that support relevant causes and support the host community. Groups like Gender Avenger act as watchdogs that collect, report, and broadcast information about gender balance in conference presentations.

Bruce describes this as going from a paint culture to a transparent culture. “The new world is a world of total transparency,” he says. “We should work as if everyone can see everything, because they can…. what you do is actually who you really are, and what you say is often of little consequence…. So, designing how you do that is really a critical piece of defining our product.” Another way to think about it, he advises, is “Turn the sound off and just watch the action — that’s who we really are.”

This is the perspective we need to adopt when considering each opportunity to design a brand experience. If a car manufacturer talks about the quality of their brand, everything about how they engage with people must reflect that quality — the exhibit itself, of course — but also every sensory experience that contributes to or detracts from the message.  We must be mindful of the fact that we reflect who we are from the moment we approach the assignment.

Here are some examples specific to our industry: Organizers for an information technology trade show cannot afford a snafu with registration software. But they can proactively survey attendees to learn about favorite conference apps.  A teachers’ association would look silly if they published anything with typos or grammatical errors. But they could create a space on the show floor where they reveal the process used to check for errors, and even invite teachers to share and collect strategies that work with students.   As design-thinkers, we should never offer our clients products or services that violate fundamental design principles. But we can bring them fresh ideas on how to proactively remediate past oversights or outdated exhibits. And we can use tools and systems that reflect our design perspective.

At Freeman, if we want to be known for inventing the meaning of live experience, we have to do it.  That’s why we’re investing in new display systems, new technologies, new ways to collect and understand data, and new acquisitions that bring fresh ideas and approaches. It’s why we established the Design Leadership Council. It’s why we are aligning our organization to better surround our customers with multidisciplinary support.

When I first got into the business, we were urged to “walk the talk.” Our new mantra must be, “design what we do.”

When Empathy Trumps Authority

Early lessons in leadership — #1

I’d love to tell you a story about myself as the child prodigy who led a fund drive to acquire new life-saving equipment — that I helped invent — to support the local children’s hospital. But for me, the path to leadership has been less Hollywood and more humbling. Leadership, in my experience, is about earning the trust of the people you hope to lead. Trust begins with empathy. And I had to learn this a few times over in my career.

My first gig out of college was with a big hotel chain in Cincinnati, where I was quickly put in charge of Housekeeping. It really made no sense. It was the toughest department — with purchasing responsibility and hundreds of employees — and I had the least experience of anybody. Plus, the housekeeping staff was already disgruntled; there was a lot of tension and some talk of unionizing when I took over.

Two things you should understand about this situation: First, I was a twenty-something 150-pound kid from Indiana, trying to manage a group of much older, tougher inner-city women who could easily have wiped the floor with me. Second, it was my job to convince them that they should love their jobs — that they should be personally invested in cleaning some entitled guy’s room and creating a welcoming experience for our customers.

Lacking any real experience of my own, I had to lean into “me.” I was raised to be an empathetic person. So, I tried to put myself in their shoes. And when I walked around in those shoes, what I saw was dismal. The Housekeeping Department room where we had our meetings every day was dirty and ugly. There were no tables, no chairs… so people who were on their feet all day had to either stand or sit on the grubby floor. The housekeeping caddies they took from room to room were old and broken. The supply cupboards were a mess. These women were not being treated with respect. So how could I ask them to show respect for the hotel and the work they were doing for our guests?

One weekend when we knew things would be slow, I called in my managerial staff and we personally fixed or replaced the caddies, cleaned the break room, organized the supplies, and brought in furniture and plants. I personally ran that giant floor polisher — actually, I think it ran me.

And when the Housekeeping staff came for our next meeting, they saw what we’d done for them and they felt the respect. They saw that they mattered. And many of those women remained my friends long after I left the hotel. And by the way, they voted not to unionize.

That was an important lesson. I didn’t do anything profound. I didn’t spend a lot of money. I treated people the way I wanted to be treated. Ultimately, I guess they empathized with me, too. And those women made me successful and jump-started my career. Lesson learned.

All Designers Are Entrepreneurs

#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.

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.

Designing with Renaissance Teams

#15 New Wicked Problems Demand New Wicked Teams

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.

In the 15th century, the Italian Renaissance was characterized by a renewed belief in the power of learning, spurred by curiosity and revealed through the rigorous consideration of the world from multiple perspectives. One of the interesting things about the Renaissance period is that it was still possible (if not likely) for a single person to master the basics of Western knowledge. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are both held up as “Renaissance Man” poster boys — artists who also mastered the essentials of military strategy, science, literature, engineering, architecture and other disciplines.

Today, we can point to a few big-brains who seem to have more than their share of multidisciplinary accomplishments. But the truth is, in the 21st century, the body of information — the expertise required for any big project or piece of business — is both too vast and too deep for any individual to master. The problems are too complex and thorny— too wicked — for any one person or discipline to get their arms around. And that’s why, as Bruce points out, we need to form new wicked teams that combine everything we might need to tackle these complex, wicked challenges.

When Bruce was working with noted polymath Bill Buxton, the developer of Maya and SketchbookPro who now serves as Principal Researcher at Microsoft, he observed that Bruce’s way of working involved the formulation of Renaissance Teams. “You can work create a Renaissance Team to behave like a Renaissance person,” Bruce explains.  “And that’s the underlying concept here… none of us can really master interactivity, architecture, new materials, the science of communication, all of that.  We can’t master that individually, but we can master that as a group.”

We know that the design process is essentially a collaborative process.  And this 15th principle explains why we want to work in Studio Teams that include as many disciplines as possible — whatever it takes to master our complex new reality. We want to give our process the kind of collaborative engine it needs to keep running at full speed, because that’s the pace of innovation in the world around us.

Trade shows used to involve a straightforward parade of attendees who moved through an exhibit space and perhaps engaged in a sales pitch. Today, the live experiences we create have evolved to include a physical interaction with the environment that’s augmented by a layer of digital, virtual engagements.   Data helps us understand the dynamic. Strategy helps us apply the data on a personal level. Synthesis of these new disciplines is the key to success. That means that to design this new medium of live experience, we must assemble teams that reflect that same vital complexity — informed by diverse perspectives.

“If I just have exhibit designers or architects designing the visit, they don’t necessarily think in terms of time. They think in terms of space, so they’re designing it spatially,” Bruce says. “But if you ask a movie maker to do that same thing, they’re going to do it as a series of storyboards. They’re going to design it from the perspective of time. So, they’re going to bring a time-based medium to the solution. And if you ask a digital person, they’re going to bring a kind of reach into content — a way of accessing knowledge — as the principle way of looking at it….  And so, designing the team is really the first part of the design.”

What kind of people do we want to include on our Renaissance teams? Bruce put together this list of seven essential qualifications for Renaissance Team membership:

  1. Expertise – each person must have deep knowledge in the field they represent.
  2. Curiosity – a Renaissance Team player WANTS to know about other things.
  3. Empathy – they must know how to listen, be respectful of other people, and have the ability and willingness to imagine other experiences and perspectives.
  4. Confidence – each member of the team must be willing to lead. Depending on the solution the team designs, it may make more sense for one expert to lead it into execution (i.e., the digital expert, or the data guy, or the film producer).
  5. Humility – each member of the team must be willing to follow. Don’t assume everyone has this skill.
  6. Independence – each expert must have a mind and voice of their own and the ability to offer an outlier’s perspective, even a critical one.
  7. Courage – members must be willing to share imaginative, even crazy ideas and trust the team and the iterative design process.

This approach is essential to the design-thinking approach we have adopted at Freeman. Having all the disciplines represented on a team at the outset changes the dynamic. Instead of simply embellishing existing ideas, we have the opportunity to bring our customers completely different, new thinking.

This kind of innovation is only possible when we diversify the talent, experience and expertise of the group. When we get in the habit of working in Renaissance Teams, it’s amazing what we can do. It may not result in a new Mona Lisa or Sistine Chapel. But you can bet it will be wicked cool.

When Change Feels Stable

#14 Design the New Normal

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 people I know consider themselves to be rational human beings who make their most important decisions based on objective information, weighing the pros and cons, and then making their move.  For better or worse, this is a myth. If people were really all that rational, we wouldn’t engage in all those behaviors that we know are unhealthy (smoking? overeating?), our wardrobes would consist of strictly practical garments (jewelry? neckties?), and we would probably live in a different house (easier to maintain, cheaper to heat and cool).  The truth is, we are not the reason-based animals we think we are.

Bruce Mau invokes the lessons of neuroscience: “… the way that we make decisions and conduct ourselves is mostly not governed by the region of the brain that is responsible for reason. In other words, most of our behavior is governed by the reptilian brain that looks for cues in the environment on how to behave…. Most people make decisions based on emotion, not reason. What really happens is that you have inputs that will trigger behavior.”

In short, we tend to do what other people are doing.  We tend to dress alike. We adopt trendy brands. If we see a mass of people screaming and running away from something, we’re likely to join them. If a fire alarm goes off and everyone ignores it, we assume it’s not a real threat. Our brains have developed to take our cues from the group — it actually overrides our own individual will.

What does this mean to those of us designing brand experiences? Everything. When Bruce encourages us to “Design the New Normal” he’s applying what we’ve learned about neuroscience.

It means, if we’re smart, we’ll design our shows, conferences and exhibitions in a way that doesn’t scare our audiences and constituencies but engages them emotionally. Once again, scientific research points the way. Bruce references the work of Professor Paul Dolan — best-selling author and an internationally renowned expert in behavioral science. Prof. Dolan brings new meaning to the term, “SNAP decision,” which becomes an acronym for Salience, Norms, Affects and Primes.

Here’s what that might look like if we’re designing an innovative new customer experience:

  • Salience: We make sure our content is relevant and that people care about it. That means they have to notice it and make a decision to engage with it. Think: the Madonna Curve.
  • Norms: Since we tend to do what other people do, if we want audiences to adopt a certain behavior, we need to make it feel normal. The easiest way to do this is to demonstrate it. That’s why our live events are so powerful – we can make the most radical innovations seem normal (i.e., not scary) by showing other people using them.
  • Affects: Emotions outweigh logic almost every time. We can tell people the scientific facts behind our agricultural breakthrough, or we can show them how it saved a farm family in Burkina Faso from starvation.
  • Prime: Our lizard brain is searching for signals in the environment. We can “prime the pump” — nudge them in the direction we want or reinforce the desired behavior— by placing cues in the environment. Think about Disney – they’ve designed “the happiest place on earth” so that people don’t seem to mind standing in line for a majority of the day. They have redesigned the norm to make standing in line acceptable.

Buckminster Fuller said, ‘I can’t change mankind, it’s too difficult, but I can redesign the environment in a way that encourages the right behavior.’ That’s the secret to this design principle. In fact, it’s the secret to everything we do when we create a live brand experience. But as Bruce reminds us, not everyone who likes to hear about radical change wants to experience it.  We need to bring innovations into our design in a way that doesn’t scare away our customers or their audiences. We need to make the innovation feel normal. When we use proven templates and methodologies that drive innovation, like our Learning Cycle, those things help mitigate the fear factor.

“If we want to change the whole enterprise – the whole industry – we can’t just do avant-garde things,” Bruce says. “They want predictability, they want results that they can count on, and we want to produce that. So, designing for the norm is really important, understanding that what we’re really doing is slowly shifting them to a new place.”

When we embrace the idea of designing the new normal, and combine this concept with all of the other design principles – such as Break Through the Noise and Compete with Beauty — we can design events that are worth attending, and worth attending every year, because we’ve kept them relevant, engaging and inspirational. And we’ve designed them so that the only thing people are afraid of is missing out.

When continuous change and unrelenting innovation feel normal, we’re doing something right.

Help People Hear You

#13 Break Through the Noise

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’re having a conversation while waiting to cross a busy, noisy city street. There’s construction nearby, so you shout to be heard over the jackhammer. As your friend strains to hear, you raise your voice louder and louder. Suddenly, the jackhammer stops, and everyone within a 50-foot radius turns to stare as you scream at your friend.  It’s embarrassing. But as marketers, it’s what we are all trying to do — we’re trying to be heard above the hubbub.

The thirteenth design principle is super-relevant to our industry. When everyone is trying to break through the noise in the marketplace (or high-tech expo hall) we each raise our voices and the general clamor just grows in volume.  No one really cuts through. This situation, which literally happens all the time, is also an apt metaphor for the exponential growth of media outlets — cable, network and streaming television, publications, social media outlets, online programing, email and texts —bombarding us with messages every minute of the day on the myriad devices we can’t seem to put down. We are living in the nosiest time in history — constantly deluged with more information than we can possibly sort through — to the point that it’s hard to hear any single message clearly.

Bruce Mau’s Massive Change Network probed the problem of getting drowned out in this hubbub and learned something every marketer should take to heart.

“What we discovered is that when you are in the noise, and you are trying to put your message out, there’s a linear relationship between work and impact. Between the signal you put out, and the money that you spend to put it out. If you want a certain kind of impact, let’s say that you want one unit of impact in that noisy environment, then you have to do one unit of work to get that,” Bruce explains. “Whereas … when you get above the hubbub, there’s a non-linear relationship between the investment and the impact. As you get above the noise level, the impact accelerates, so that every dollar you spend above that level gets increasing impact. That is a profound difference.”

What can we do to propel our brands or our specific messages above the hubbub? Bruce notes that most of the time, we simply aren’t investing enough in any single message to make a difference. But what choice to we have? We have limited time, people and budgets, and there is so much we want to accomplish.

It feels counterintuitive, but a better approach is to start by doing fewer things, not more. It’s not hard to understand what happens with most trade shows that have a long history of success.  We have new ideas, but don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken. So, we push the same-as-last-year button and then add a bunch of great new ideas into the mix. The problem is, when we crowd our event space with too many messages, we are creating competition for our own ideas. We are adding noise without adding meaning. Bruce recommends two techniques we can use to break through the noise:  editing and alignment. Get rid of some items. Consolidate where it makes sense. Instead of setting off a bunch of fire-crackers everywhere, all at once, we need to put our resources into a single rocket ship that can punch through the noise barrier.

“We just have a lot of inertia in the industry and in these shows,” Bruce notes, “and we never subject them to a real, critical, creative process, to say, ‘is this the best use of resources?’”

I’m an advocate of relentless prioritization. If we are doing our homework as design thinkers, we should start off every opportunity session by asking “what should we stop doing this year, so that we can consolidate our investment where it really matters?” This is surprisingly easy — most of us can point to some aspect of the show or even a specific exhibit that doesn’t further our most important objectives. Imagine what could be done if we cut 75% of our messages and put all that resource behind the things that really mattered — and represented them using the latest technology paired with the most compelling, beautifully rendered graphics.

Ironically, we often hope to get the most bang for the buck by surrounding our audience with a variety of media and messages, when this is actually a waste of valuable resources. And not just our own resources. When we fail to cut through the hubbub – when we add to the hubbub – we are wasting the most precious resource of all, which is the time and mindshare of exhibitors and attendees.

The trap we can fall into is trying to parse through good ideas vs. bad ideas. The truth is, they might ALL be good ideas. But they can’t all be equal. They can’t all be as relevant to your audience and as vital to your mission.  That’s one of the things that makes design thinking and our use of the Learning Cycle so effective — it forces us to define what beautiful looks like and helps us focus our resources to get there.

Bruce sums it up this way, “If we believe in the show, and if we believe in our ideas, we should make sure the way that we do it reflects our commitment.” What brand experience are you designing next? What should stop doing now, so you can do something else better? Consolidate, thrift and align your efforts, and see what happens when you break through the noise.

Mastering the Algorithm of Sameness and Difference

#12 Design Your Own Madonna Curve

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 wondered why, when you’re at a restaurant where the TV is on, you can’t resist the urge to glance over every few minutes? Even when it’s a sport you don’t follow, you keep checking it out. Bruce Mau explains that our brains are hardwired to do this.

“When our neurosystem evolved, it evolved in a context where, if you could see change in the landscape, you survived. If you couldn’t see the change, you were eaten … the lion or tiger got you. And so, we evolved a hyper-vigilant awareness for change.”

This also means that if something doesn’t change over time, we simply stop seeing it. In Bruce’s analogy, our ancestors learned to ignore the baobab trees and look for what was behind them. The lesson to marketers, then, is that to stay relevant —to attract attention — a brand must continuously be in motion; it must refresh itself. Automobile manufacturers got this idea early on by inventing the concept of model years. We are primed to expect new vehicles every year, which are revealed at elaborate auto shows, in cities across the world, in ways that recapture our imagination.

The person who best exemplifies a mastery of this concept is Madonna. She had the uncanny ability to recognize the shift in attention — the point when her command of the public interest had peaked and was just starting to decline. “And when that happened,” Bruce says, “… she’d disappear for 6 or 8 weeks, and she’d re-emerge with a really new image. And it’s important to see that it’s not just a variation on a theme. One minute she’s a cowgirl and the next she has metal breasts…. It’s not a different cowgirl outfit. There’s an actual change. You know it’s still Madonna, but you’re captured by it. It inspires you. It makes you talk about her.” Madonna embraced controversy. She was on hundreds of magazine covers with as many different looks.

As brand stewards, we can apply this strategy to continuously attract audiences, capture imaginations and inspire innovation. But, if we serve up the same content that’s available everywhere else, if we don’t change up our format or offer something exciting and fresh, our brand will become irrelevant. If we don’t design our own Madonna Curve, people will turn elsewhere for information, connection and inspiration.

For those of us creating brand experiences at annual conferences, trade shows and expositions, this can be especially tricky, because we risk becoming “invisible” to specific groups without realizing it. Are we failing to refresh our appeal to younger audiences? Or conversely, have we fallen off the radar of what should be “loyal” participants because we have underserved them in pursuit of some other group? It seems the bigger the tent gets, the easier it is for someone to get lost or left behind.

Consider this example: A trade show catering to manufacturers of musical instruments expands to include amplifiers and mixing boards and other electronics. The show has reinvented itself, but over time, it no longer serves the people making acoustic guitars, pianos and band instruments — which was its original mission. The show organizers can decide to exclude the electronica, but unless they design their own Madonna Curve strategy, they still face obsolescence. And if the group promoting electronic gear for the music industry joins a larger trade organization, they will still need a strategy to refresh their public image or they will succumb to a similar fate. Irrelevance begins the death spiral. The time to relaunch is when you’re still near the top.

If your brand dominates its market today, great. What’s your next move? If your growth plan is just to keep watering the baobab trees, it’s already too late. Your audience is focused on the tiger crouching behind those trees… and they are scanning the horizon for whatever is coming next.

You need to be what’s next.

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.