Thought You Should See This, February 17th, 2012

This week’s posts on Thought You Should See This, the innovation/design-themed blog I write, mainly for my colleagues at Doblin:

I had a piece published in Fast Company, sparked by the Interaction Awards, which I judged last year. My favorite quote came from the program’s co-chair, Jennifer Bove, who explained the importance of her discipline thusly: “Behavior isn’t explicit in computer chips; interaction designers are the people who understand how to make things work.” In the piece, I outlined four interaction design trends we’ll likely see more of in the near future, while there’s a bunch of interesting videos to watch, too.

The Boneyard Project is an *amazing* sounding show currently on at the PIMA Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, featuring World War II airplane wrecks customized by various street artists. (Eric White’s nosecone shown above. See the post for his equally wonderful insight into the creative process.)

Nike has made a commitment to remove water from its apparel dying process. This is a huge deal, while the Nike VP in charge of the program also gave insight into the internal challenge of trying to change the status quo.

Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Chicago gets a temporary night-time makeover with a new digital installation.

McDonald’s promises to make its pork suppliers provide plans to phase out pig gestation crates by May. Yes, that wording is a little hinky.

By now, everyone has surely read and dissected Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker piece on brainstorming and ways to promote creative thinking, Groupthink. So I won’t add much but to say it’s a must-read for anyone charged with working on big thorny problems or how to manage collaborative creativity.

Finally, a wonderful story detailing Stanley Kubrick’s obsessive approach to film-making, which the director believed was “an exercise in problem-solving”. This article explains how his focus actually led to the development of Variety magazine’s box-office reports.

The Real Problems with Design Thinking

[Latest word works, published over at Fast Company.]

Rumors of the failure of design thinking appear to have been somewhat overblown. At the recent Design Research conference in Seattle, the consensus reportedly held that whether or not you like the term, design thinking is here to stay. At a recent panel discussion in New York, “Design Thinking: Dead or Alive?” it was hard to find any of the speakers (of which I was one) quibbling with more than the fact that it wasn’t a very interesting question.

Nonetheless, it’s also somewhat hard to find many fervent supporters of design thinking. Designers I’ve talked to still bristle at a phrase they see as subtly maligning the validity of the rest of their work. Executives meanwhile, still seem baffled by the term, even if they quite like the general idea of adding design into the business mix.

The latest book on the topic is Designing for Growth, a “design thinking toolkit for managers” and it provides a pretty good snapshot of how people are thinking about the discipline right now. Namely, that the reins of design thinking lie firmly in the hands of executives. In this world, design thinking is shorthand for the process implemented in a more creatively driven type of workshop, one involving visual thinking, iteration and prototyping. In this world, you don’t have to be a designer to be a design thinker, and the process has been codified as a repeatable, reusable business framework.

This is all, arguably, fine. But mostly it unwittingly highlights the true tension at the heart of the design thinking debate. A codified, repeatable, reusable practice contradicts the nature of innovation, which requires difficult, uncomfortable work to challenge the status quo of an industry or, at the very least, an organization. Executives are understandably looking for tidy ways to guarantee their innovation efforts — but they’d be better off coming to terms with the fact that there aren’t any.

There are certainly ways to make them less of a random shot in the dark, and most companies could use some help in thinking about innovation in a more systematic, organized fashion. But design thinking is no magic key to a secret kingdom of innovation. Coating a veneer of design processes on the top of innovation initiatives that will promptly be stymied by internal bureaucracy or politics doesn’t help anyone. In fact, as we’ve seen, it’ll frustrate designers, who find themselves with the unfulfilling role of making Post-it notes look pretty, and it’ll disappoint executives, who feel like they’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Another problem: The question of when design thinking is actually appropriate remains unanswered and apparently unclear to many. The authors of Designing for Growth outline their own experiment in design thinking–as applied to the design of their book’s cover. It’s meant as a cute interlude, but it highlights a huge issue: A book cover is not a design thinking problem, it’s a graphic design problem. The last thing executives need is to imagine that they must immerse themselves in a complex program of prototyping when really they’d be better off commissioning someone trained in a discipline for which they themselves have exhibited neither interest nor aptitude. Design is a skill all right, and thank heavens for those who are good at it.

The real problem of course is that when it comes to large programs of innovation, the contrasting practices and systems of business and design continue to be a stumbling block to progress. Until senior leadership figures out how to get teams working together harmoniously, they won’t make much of it. Note: The onus for that rapprochement isn’t merely on the business side. At that recent panel event in New York, one of the speakers recounted a project in which she and some other professional designers had engaged in a design-thinking exercise. They had all become terribly bored, she remembered. “We were too good!” she said. Too good at what, precisely? Too good at the process of visualizing ideas, maybe. But that’s just one part of innovation, which is only successful when it creates actual value, which requires taking those ideas and figuring out how to make them fly in the marketplace.

For designers to have strategic impact, they need to work with managers to ensure that the business elements of a project are being catered to, too. That might not play to the innate strengths of designers, but it’s vital for leaders to figure out ways for everyone to get along so that innovation can be a team sport. Otherwise, we’ll be left with bizarre stories such as the one that ran recently in The New York Times, with a Smart Design director arguing that the Flip camera was, in fact, just about perfect. Just not so perfect that Cisco didn’t decide to discontinue making the product. Executives don’t always make the right decisions, of course, and perhaps Cisco management did make the wrong call in this instance. But proclaiming that smartphones had no bearing on that discussion and arguing that all of the design decisions were correct smacks of hubris and myopia. Design doesn’t–shouldn’t–live in a bubble and designers need to bridge the divide between their world and business, not just lob ideas over the fence and hope for the best. As it stands, it takes a particular type of person who can span those two worlds. Those are the must-hire employees of the future.

Perhaps some designers will welcome the passing of the design thinking baton to executives. Perhaps they’ll be relieved to see design thinking shaking out as a useful problem-solving approach for executives to use when appropriate. But to me, this shift emphasizes the need for leaders of both business and design to further clarify understanding of who does what, when. Design should neither be aggrandized nor trivialized. But it feels like it could play an infinitely more significant role if only those involved could figure out more convincing ways to articulate its value. For now, the real issue with design thinking is that executives run with it as they see fit, design practitioners continue to shrug their shoulders at the discussion, and corporate continues to trump creative. Given the real need for innovation in every part of culture and society, that seems like the biggest problem of all.

How to Manage Massive Brand Complexity, Target Style

[[Latest word works, this article written for Fast Company.]]

Tim Murray has a daunting job. As creative director of the Creative Vision Group at Target, he oversees the work of 10 agencies, 4 digital partners, and 3 branding studios. And those are the external contributors. Internally, Target, a Fortune 30 company with a market cap of $34.6 billion, has more than 1,200 people working in the marketing department alone. The potential depths of brand and design-related chaos across its 1,755 stores are mind-boggling.

Yet, think of the Target brand, and it’s likely that one image will spring to mind: the Target bull’s-eye, that red ring around a red dot that has come to signify the design savvy and affordable prices of the Minneapolis-headquartered department store.

Last week, Murray took the stage at an AIGA/NY event held at the New School in New York to outline how exactly one goes about producing deceptive simplicity from unfathomable complexity. Alongside him were three of his collaborators, Michael Ian Kaye from Mother, Mary Ellen Muckerman, Wolff Olins’ strategy lead, and Joe Stewart from Huge. Together, the group discussed some successful projects–and even ‘fessed up to a few of the more challenging areas of collaboration.

For instance, this concept caused knowing nods from the audience: the “compliment sandwich.” Essentially, this involves a client giving an elaborate compliment, followed by some pointed criticism, quickly followed up by another compliment. As Muckerman put it, she and her team had come off conference calls feeling buoyant, only to figure out five minutes later that they hadn’t at all been given the go-ahead on a project. “Wait. What? I think they just said ‘no’?”

To his credit, Murray both nodded and laughed. “Target has what we call a feedback-rich culture,” he said gamely. Not to mention it’s a midwestern company to its “prairie roots.” But that, he added, is precisely why Target relies on outside contributors to come up with the biggest possible ideas. That way, as internal politics and processes inevitably chip away at that idea, they might still be left with something useful, beautiful, or unexpected at the end of the process.

Murray also outlined five tips for successfully managing collaboration and complexity:

1. Be Transparent
“You have to be clear that you’re collaborating with others,” he said. “And you have to figure out the roles and responsibilities of the partners and let them know what each is expected to do. Who’ll lead project management? Who’ll decide things? How will things get built?” There’s no one size fits all solution, he added, but making sure that the parameters of each new project are clear and understood from the start is key.

2. Play Nice
“When Target expects you to work with an agency that might be a competitor, throwing elbows won’t earn you the whole business,” said Murray firmly, adding that in fact, agencies that have tried to muscle in on others’ turf have lost credibility, not gained business. “Target won’t spend time disciplining agencies as if they’re unruly children. We won’t hire partners who won’t play nice.” For their parts, the agency creatives agreed this model of work is becoming the norm. “The speed of business demands this type of collaboration,” detailed Muckerman. “The days of an agency being briefed and disappearing for three months to come up with something fabulous doesn’t happen any more.”

3. Be Open
“Trust is the life blood of collaboration,” said Murray. “And good ideas can come from everywhere.” Huge is working on a new version of Target.com due to be launched in the fall. It’s a massive undertaking, as Target moves to design and manage the user experience of the third most trafficked ecommerce site in the world (it’s currently built on Amazon’s platform). “Everyone wants to go to same place so we have to figure out the roadmap to get there, not focus on who’s right or wrong,” said Huge’s Joe Stewart of the working process. “So there might be tons of fighting but we’re fighting together in the same direction.”

4. Stretch the Work
“We often find ourselves connecting the dots between agency partners and shaping a mass of ideas into something cohesive we can support and be enthusiastic about,” said Murray, who also spoke approvingly of the idea that “collaboration is the new competition.” Of course, not all Target ventures are wild successes, but one project with Mother certainly pushed the envelope: The company rented all the rooms on one side of the Standard hotel in New York, staged a fashion show on the High Line, and coordinated a choreographed performance art piece across the hotel rooms themselves. The whole affair was broadcast around the world. “There was an original score, 60 dancers, we had the lighting people from Daft Punk…” said Mother’s Michael Ian Kaye. “It was kind of a big ask.” Big ask = big get. So far, Murray said, the project has earned 180 million media impressions (he didn’t mention related sales figures.)

5. Talk Talk Talk
The final tip of the night was a reminder to keep the lines of communication open at all times. “We had a lot of meetings,” said Wolff Olins’ Muckerman drily of the process it took to develop the packaging and identity for Target’s Up & Up line of some 1200 own-brand products. “The hardest part of the process is to keep people aligned around the strategy.” Murray added: “The only way collaboration works is to be deliberate and consistent over communication. Invite participation; fearlessly put your worst ideas on the table along with the best and pressure test openly.”

As for the bull’s-eye, it turns out even the most successful piece of branding can at times be a millstone. “How many fucking bull’s-eyes do you want?” joked Kaye. “You should see my tattoos,” replied Murray.