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.

When Promoting from within is Wrong



Bringing in “outside” talent means management is investing in you

As someone who grew up in Indiana, I’m still a die-hard Colts fan. If it’s clear that my team needs a new wide receiver, I want the club to invest in the best player available. When they do, I’m pumped; I feel that the Colt’s management has placed a bet in my favor. Conversely, when they ignore the problem, shuffle players around or try to make due with last year’s sixth-round draft pick, I feel cheated.

I believe most fans feel this way. Whether we are cheering for Manchester United, the Mercedes Formula 1 race team, or the Victorian Roller Derby League Queen Bees, we have equity in “our” team and we expect management to invest in a way that builds toward a championship.

I wonder why we don’t feel the same way about our place of employment; I wonder why we don’t demand that management invest in the top picks. Throughout my career, I’ve listened to people express dismay whenever a position isn’t filled from within the company ranks. Even when the job demanded some pretty esoteric credentials — players not readily available within the team — there were still people who had hurt feelings or who felt indignant at being passed over. But in almost every case, these people had consistently been promoted, given raises, given better titles, and shown plenty of love.

So, what is it about “going outside” that raises people’s ire? I think there are two factors at play here.

First, everyone likes to see loyalty and dedication rewarded. At good companies, it is rewarded. Consistently. Reaching outside for a high-ranking, highly qualified professional isn’t a reflection on the good people already in place, who have been promoted and will continue to be promoted. More likely, it’s an indication that the company is experiencing quick growth in a rapidly changing environment. It means that management wants to diversify the leadership team and bring in someone with a unique skill set. (Even though it is easier and less expensive to fill the job from within.) In this situation, everyone should hope that the company invests in the best player possible, because that will directly impact their retirement plan, 401K, job security, and future career opportunities.

Second, I wonder if it’s simply a case where bringing in a new person is more noticeable than an internal promotion, and that provokes resentment. Even when there are 40 internal promotions for every single person brought from the outside, it’s the outside talent we focus on. Maybe it’s just that when a colleague gets a promotion, we assume they were in line for the job and we don’t begrudge them getting it. But if it goes to anyone “outside” the firm, we all imagine the job could have been ours.

Freeman is a perfect example of a company that is rapidly expanding into new markets, repositioning our services, and growing internationally, all while trying to manage for extreme market volatility. We owe it to the organization to invest in top-pick talent who will complement our leadership team by bringing greater diversity in skills, backgrounds, perspectives, and business experiences. I hope our people see this for what it is, a vote of confidence that the job they are doing merits the best team of leaders available.

Whether it’s in the sports arena or business field, top-ranked teams remain on top by investing in their players – all of their players – to amplify the capability and equity of the entire team. When that happens, it’s something we should all cheer for.

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