Jake Barton: Storyteller

Latest word works, for my alma mater, Creative Review magazine (I have left in the English spellings as an homage to my motherland.) The piece is a profile of the New York City-based designer, Jake Barton, and his firm, Local Projects:

“Oh look. Russell Simmons!” Local Projects founder, Jake Barton and I are gazing from the window of the 20th floor of 1 Liberty Plaza in downtown Manhattan. In theory, we are noting the hustle of activity down below, as ant people and Lego dumper trucks swarm around the former site of the World Trade Center. In reality, we have been distracted by the sight of a reality television crew running around on the roof of a nearby building to capture the latest exploits of the Def Jam hip hop mogul.

It’s an odd juxtaposition, but one that somehow encapsulates the surreal nature of work on the 9/11 Memorial project, whose organisers are based here at Liberty Plaza, and whose employees are working flat out to ensure their plans are realised on time. It’s difficult to think of a project more fraught with raw emotion, shrill opinion, and conflicting interests for the citizens of New York. For the past ten years, the swirling development of a memorial fit to live in the footprint of the Twin Towers has provided the city, and the world, with an old-fashioned soap opera all its own.

Barton and his team have been in the mix since 2007, when, together with New York agency Thinc Design, they won the commission to design the exhibits within the site’s museum. Creating a space that will educate and enlighten–but not overwhelm–visitors is a huge challenge. Even now, mere months before the museum opens in early 2012, many of the specifics are still not fully buttoned down. Installations include an electronic message board that visitors can tag with their responses to the events of that fateful day, while a photographic installation comprises historical news images taken by and collected from the public. For Timescapes, Local Projects has developed a software algorithm that presents current news events through the lens of September 11, thereby ensuring that the museum has a way to respond to its own ever-evolving story.

The pieces are emblematic of Barton’s approach to museum design, which eschews the old-school approach of expert curator bequeathing nuggets of knowledge to wide-eyed, grateful visitor. Curators are still necessary, but here they are enablers rather than dictators of experience. “I have always been interested in collages and the ways groups of people can tell stories,” he says when we meet once more a few weeks later, this time at his own company HQ in the equally bustling but arguably less celebrity-filled neighbourhood of New York’s Port Authority bus station.

There’s more, oh so much more, but head over to read the rest (and look at the images) at Creative Review’s site, as they’ve kindly released the feature from behind the paywall. Hurrah!

[Image from “Explore 9/11” c/o Local Projects.]

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Design at Scale: The Trailer

I’m a writer, not a presenter, and I am quite resigned to the fact that I’m often better at writing words than speaking them. Nonetheless, I think Redglass Pictures did a knockout job putting together this trailer for the upcoming DMI conference, Design at Scale. In it, my co-chairs — Richard Whitehall of Smart Design, Beth Comstock of GE and Karen Reuther of the DMI — and I talk about the theme of the event, while Jake Barton of Local Projects makes a guest appearance too. Thanks to Smart for organizing a lovely evening… if that’s a signal of how the two day conference will be, we’re all in for a treat.

Via Thought You Should See This.

Amazing Alexander McQueen

Finally made it to the Alexander McQueen show at the Met. It was a total mob scene; I queued for over an hour to get in, and once inside you get swept along in the slow shuffle of the throng. But, oh my, what a beautiful exhibition it is.

Curated by the Met’s Andrew Bolton, the interior design was by Sam Gainsbury and Joseph Bennett, who have done a marvelous job of capturing the spirit of each collection without turning each room into a different theme park. And kudos to whoever wrote the descriptions and wall captions. Whenever it was possible to get near enough to actually read them, they were strikingly well-written.

Fashion often struggles to take its place in the art world, but this show demonstrates masterfully the exquisite artistry that is possible with needle, thread, leather and, well, myriad other materials. McQueen’s story is so tragic, but looking at his masterfully tailored and created pieces of couture, I couldn’t help but think of him as somehow otherworldly, too. This exhibition will make you think about fashion in entirely new terms.

All images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Design Thinking Won’t Save You

Recently, Kevin McCullagh of British product strategy consultancy, Plan organized a two-day event for executives to wrap their heads around the concept of design thinking—and, in particular, to think about how they might go about implementing it within their own organization. Kevin invited me along to give an overview of some of the things I’ve been thinking recently. “Don’t hold back,” he advised. So I came up with a talk entitled, “Design Thinking Won’t Save You” which aimed to outline what design thinking is *not* in order to help attendees figure out a practical way forward. Here’s an edited version of what I said:

Ladies and gentlemen, let me break this to you gently. Design Thinking, the topic we’re here to analyze and discuss and get to grips with so you can go back and instantly transform your businesses, is not the answer.

Now before you throw down your coffee cups and storm out in disgust, let me explain that I’m not here to write off design thinking. Really, I’m not. In fact, I’ve been a keen observer of the evolution of the discipline for a number of years now and I’m still curious to watch where it goes and how it continues to evolve as its influence spreads throughout industries and around the world. So to be clearer, I suppose I should say that design thinking won’t save you, but it really might help:

First, some context: Until July of 2010, I was the editor of innovation and design at Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Before that, I’d worked consistently in design journalism both here in New York and in London. The reason that I wanted to join BusinessWeek in the first place was precisely because it struck me as being the one place that had its eye on both camps, on the creative industries and on the business world writ large. And it struck me that it’s at this nexus and intersection that the thriving businesses of the future will be built.

I joined the magazine back in 2006, which was a time when design thinking was really beginning to take hold as a concept. My old boss, Bruce Nussbaum, emerged as its eloquent champion while the likes of Roger Martin from Rotman, IDEO’s Tim Brown, my new boss Larry Keeley and even the odd executive (AG Lafley of Procter and Gamble comes to mind) were widely quoted espousing its virtues.

Still, in the years that have followed, something of a problem emerged. For all the gushing success stories that we and others wrote, most were often focused on one small project executed at the periphery of a multinational organization. When we stopped and looked, it seemed like executives had issues rolling out design thinking more widely throughout the firm. And much of this stemmed from the fact that there was no consensus on a definition of design thinking, let alone agreement as to who’s responsible for it, who actually executes it or how it might be implemented at scale.

And we’d be wise to note that there’s a reason that companies such as Procter & Gamble and General Electric were held up time and again as being the poster children of this new discipline. Smartly, they had defined it according to their own terms, executing initiatives that were appropriate to their own internal cultures. And that often left eager onlookers somewhat baffled as to how to replicate their success.

This is something that I think you need to think very carefully about as you look to implement design thinking within your company. Coming up with ways to implement this philosophy and process throughout your organization, developing the ways to motivate and engage your employees along with the metrics to ensure that you have a sense of the real value of your achievements are all critical issues that need to be considered, carefully, upfront.

Designers often bristle when the term design thinking comes up in conversation. It’s kind of counterintuitive, right? But here’s why: Having been initially overjoyed that the C-suite was finally paying attention to design, designers suddenly became terrified that they were actually being beaten to the punch by business wolves in designer clothing.

Suddenly, designers had a problem on their hands. Don Norman, formerly of Apple, once commented that “design thinking is a term that needs to die.” Designer Peter Merholz of Bay Area firm Adaptive Path wrote scornfully: “Design thinking is trotted out as a salve for businesses who need help with innovation.” He didn’t mean this as a compliment. Instead, his point was that those extolling the virtues of design thinking are at best misguided, at worst likely to inflict dangerous harm on the company at large, over-promising and under-delivering and in the process screwing up the delicate business of design itself.

So let’s be very clear. Design thinking neither negates nor replaces the need for smart designers doing the work that they’ve been doing forever. Packaging still needs to be thoughtfully created. Branding and marketing programs still need to be brilliantly executed. Products still need to be artfully designed to be appropriate for the modern world. When it comes to digital experiences, for instance, design is really the driving force that will determine whether a product lives or dies in the marketplace.

Design thinking is different. It captures many of the qualities that cause designers to choose to make a career in their field, yes. And designers can most certainly play a key part in facilitating and expediting it. But it’s not a replacement for the important, difficult job of design that exists elsewhere in the organization.

The value of multi-disciplinary thinking is one that many have touched upon in recent years. That includes the T-shaped thinkers championed by Bill Moggridge at IDEO, and the I-with-a-serif-shaped thinker introduced by Microsoft Research’s Bill Buxton, right through to the collaboration across departments, functions and disciplines that constitutes genuine cross disciplinary activity. This, I believe, is the way that innovation will emerge in our fiendishly complex times.

Just as design thinking does not replace the need for design specialists, nor does it magically appear out of some black box. Design thinking isn’t fairy dust. It’s a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself.

Instead, it turns up insights galore, and there is real value and skill to be had from synthesizing the messy, chaotic, confusing and often contradictory intellect of experts gathered from different fields to tackle a particularly thorny problem. That’s all part of design thinking. And designing an organizational structure in which this kind of cross-fertilization of ideas can take place effectively is tremendously challenging, particularly within large organizations where systems and departments have become entrenched over the years.

You need to be prepared to rethink how you think about projects, about who gets involved and when, about no less than how you do things. The way that you approach innovation itself will probably need to change. This might seem like a massive undertaking, but if you’re after genuine disruption more than incremental improvement, these kinds of measures are the only way to get the results that you need.

Design thinking is not a panacea. It is a process, just as Six Sigma is a process. Both have their place in the modern enterprise. The quest for efficiency hasn’t gone away and in fact, in our economically straitened times, it’s sensible to search for ever more rigorous savings anywhere you can. But design thinking can live alongside efficiency measures, as a smart investment in innovation that will help the company remain viable as the future becomes the present.

Somehow, for a time there it seemed like executives thought that if they bought into a program of design thinking then all their problems would be solved. And we should be honest, many designers were quite happy to perpetuate this myth and bask in their new status. Then the economy tanked and as Kevin wrote in a really brilliant article published on Core77, “Many who had talked their way into high-flying positions were left gliding… Greater exposure to senior management’s interrogation had left many… well, exposed. The design thinkers had been drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid.”

The disconnect between the design department, the D-suite, if you will, and the C-suite is still pretty pronounced in most organizations. Designers who are looking to take a more strategic role in the organization, who should really be the figures one would think of to drive these initiatives, need to ensure that they are well versed in the language of business. It’s totally reasonable for their nervous executive counterparts to want to understand an investment in regular terms. Fuzziness is not a friend here. And yet, as I’ll get into in a moment, sometimes there’s no way to overcome that fuzziness. Leaps of faith are necessary. But designers should do everything they can to demonstrate that they have an understanding of what they’re asking, and put in place measurements and metrics that are appropriate and that can show they’re not completely out of touch with the business of the business, even if they can’t fully guarantee that a bet will pay off.

The two worlds of design and business still need to learn to meet half way. Think of an organization in which design plays a central, driving role, and there’s really only one major cliché of an example to use: Apple. But what Apple has in Steve Jobs is what every organization looking to embrace design as a genuine differentiating factor needs: a business expert who is able to act as a whole hearted champion of the value of design. In other words, Jobs has been utterly convinced that consumers will be prepared to pay a premium for Apple’s products, and so he’s given the design department the responsibility to make sure that every part of every one of those products doesn’t disappoint.

He is also notorious for his pickiness. I’ve talked with Apple designers who say he would scrap a project late in the game in order to make sure something is exactly as he thinks it should be. Now I don’t know about you, but how often does a project come back and it’s not quite how you wanted it but it’s ok and it’s really too late to make the changes to make it great and so you go with it? I know I’m guilty of doing that. Jobs doesn’t countenance that approach. And he’s set up processes to ensure that problems are caught, early, and the designers have enough time to get back to the drawing board if necessary. This commitment to excellence has helped turn Apple into the world’s most valuable technology company.

Note too Jobs’ approach to customer research: “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” Jobs is comfortable hanging out in the world of the unknown, and this confidence allows him to take risks and make intuitive bets that for the past decade or so have paid off every time. And he’s instilled this spirit in his team. New company leader Tim Cook is renowned for the creative way in which he worked on supplier issues.

So now we get into something of a problem of terminology, because more than likely, Steve Jobs doesn’t consider Apple’s approach to be “design thinking”. Yet he’s the consummate example of one who’s built an organization on its promise. This approach of risk taking, of relying on intuition and experience rather than on the “facts” provided by spreadsheets and data, is anathema to most analysis-influenced C-suite members. But you need this kind of champion if design thinking is to gain traction and pay off.

I once heard a discussion between the current director of the Cooper-Hewitt museum, Bill Moggridge, and Hewlett Packard’s VP of Design, Sam Lucente. Sam was talking about how design thinking had helped him and his team to redevelop the design of one particular product that had done badly in the marketplace in order to produce a later, more successful version. The way he told the story, design thinking meant that this couldn’t be seen as a failure, because every moment had been one of wonder and learning. My interpretation was initially a little less poetic, that in fact design thinking no more guarantees the success in the marketplace of a product than any other tool or technique.

But actually, reframing failure in terms of learning is not just a kooky, quirky thing to do. In and of itself, it’s perhaps a useful exercise. By taking the pressure off design thinking and not expecting it to be the bright and shiny savior of the world, those trying out its techniques will be empowered to use it to its greatest advantage, to help introduce new techniques, to give new perspectives, to outline new ways of thinking or develop new entries to market.

In fact, I would argue, beware the snakeoil salesmen who promise you’ll never take another wrong step again if you buy into design thinking. While some executives have been running their businesses according to its principles for years now, the formal discipline is still pretty new, and individual companies really have to figure out how it can work for them. There’s no plug and play system you can simply install and roll out. Instead, you have to be prepared to be flexible and agile in your own thinking. You’ll likely have to question and rethink internal processes. For there to be a chance of success, you’re going to have to ascertain what metrics you want to use to judge whether a program has been successful or not. And you’re going to have to figure out how to allocate resources to make sure that an initiative even has a chance of taking off.

I know some of you are familiar with the work and thinking of Doblin’s Larry Keeley, with whom I’m working now. For a long time, Larry has been at the forefront of the movement to transform the discipline of innovation from a fuzzy, fluffy activity into a much more rigorous science. His thinking in that arena holds for design thinking too. It’s time to move beyond the either/or discussions so often entertained within organizations. This isn’t about left brain vs right brain. This is about the need for analysis and synthesis. Both are critically important, from data analytics to complexity management to iteration and rapid prototyping. But even with all of this, there’s never going to be a way to 100% guarantee success. The goal here is to be able to act with eyes wide open, to have a clear intent in mind and to have systems in place that allow you to reward success and quickly move on from disappointment—and to make sure that your organization learns from those mistakes and thus does not repeat them.

The real theater on display at Christian Marclay’s exhibition

If you didn’t hear about it, the artist Christian Marclay’s The Clock was on show in New York recently. Essentially, it’s a 24 hour abstract film: Marclay expertly spliced together thousands of excerpts from movies old and new, familiar and foreign. Each shot is somehow related to time–and the whole thing plays in real time. So if you popped in at 4.30 pm, you’d more than likely watch clips about afternoon tea. Visit one of the late night showings and see rather racier clips. (That’s pure hearsay: I turned up at 10 o’clock one Friday night and the line stretched a two hour wait around the block and I wimped out and went home.)

The show has received raves pretty much everywhere it’s played. See reviews here, here and from the London show, here. And for what it’s worth, I agree with the experts. The film is totally mesmerizing. I watched, spellbound, for three hours, and only reluctantly dragged myself back to life’s more regular programming.

What was even more mesmerizing, however, was the behavior of the assembled masses. As I waited to get in, one of the security guards regaled me with some excellent stories of the tantrums people had tried to pull in order to jump the line. (Just an aside, but if you ever hear yourself uttering the immortal phrase, “Don’t you know who I am?” it’s time to have a serious word with yourself.) This guy wasn’t fazed in the slightest. “I don’t care if you know Miz Cooper, Mr Marclay or the Pope,” he said vehemently. “I’m not ruining your life. I’m doing my job.” And do it, he did.

There was some even more amazing theater on display once you actually got inside. You can see the layout of the space below. What’s not so clear is that there weren’t enough seats to go round. At least half the crowd had to stand or sit alongside the edges of the gallery. Initially, for instance, I got a spot sitting halfway along the right hand wall—and I quickly realized that the subplot of the film was going on in the room itself.

Whenever someone got up from a sofa, it sparked a quiet, fierce, intense and entirely mean-spirited free-for-all. I saw two women lose all sense of decorum as they pelted towards one spot, one of them throwing her bag onto the seat, the other throwing up her hands in silent disgust. I even got caught up in it myself. I moved to take a seat that opened up right next to where I was—but moved way too slowly. Suddenly, some guy came out of nowhere, skidded past me and plonked himself down. I stammered unintelligibly—I’m excellent in a crisis—and then he played a devilish joker card. “Do you mind?” he said as he settled in. “I don’t feel at all well.” (Later on, of course, I came up with all sorts of witty comebacks as to why he should clearly go home and I should get to sit down. At the time, I meekly slunk back to the wall again, throwing up my own hands in silent disgust.)

I’m not sure it’s quite what Marclay had in mind when he put together his masterpiece, but the additional elements of musical chairs and Benny Hill actually enhanced the experience. Not to mention provided a useful reminder: never hesitate.

Images © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Why Design Now: World Health Challenges

A few weeks ago, I dragged my cold-addled self to the Lincoln Center to moderate a panel on the role of design in health care as part of the Why Design Now symposium organized by the Cooper-Hewitt and GE. I was completely foggy and somewhat braindead (you know when you feel like you’re underwater, and everything is totally surreal?) but the panelists were fantastic. Smart, engaged, thoughtful and really trying to use design to make a difference in healthcare in very different contexts. Jose Gomez-Marquez is program director of the Innovations in International Health innovation platform out of MIT, working most often in developing countries; Lorna Ross is design manager and creative lead of Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation while Bob Schwartz is general manager of global design at corporate giant, GE Healthcare. The video is below, while the other videos from the day are here. My thanks to all of the panelists for making my job super easy, and to Marc Schiller and his team at Electric Artists for inviting me to play a part in proceedings.

National Design Awards at Cipriani

Last night, I attended the National Design Award shindig at Cipriani in midtown Manhattan. I can often be somewhat curmudgeonly about such affairs, griping at warm wine and cold food and resenting the over-the-shoulder gazing that goes on as people try to work out who over there might be more important to talk to. And last night certainly brought out plenty of the big guns: Throw a bread roll and take out a design world icon. Milton Glaser gave the Design Mind award to the fantastic Ralph Caplan, who’s as spry a wit as he ever was (at 85) and who told me he’s working on his next book, a memoir based on his time as a standup comedian in the Pacific in World War Two. Sam Farber gave the product design gong to his early OXO co-conspirators, Davin Stowell and Tom Dair from Smart Design. Stephen Colbert beamed in by video to poke fun at communication design winner, “my son” Stephen Doyle (above). (Ok, Colbert’s not really a big gun of design, and he wasn’t really there, but it was a funny moment all the same.)

Current Loeb Fellow and former I.D. magazine supremo Chee Pearlman honored Pentagram partner and interaction design guru, Lisa Strausfeld (left). And the lifetime achievement award went to Jane Thompson, another I.D. alum and the powerhouse behind the legendary store Design Research, which introduced European design such as Marimekko to the United States. In a charmingly lowkey way, Thompson was clearly pretty happy about the accolade, but seemed most pleased about the number of women going up to receive awards (Rodarte won in the fashion design category while People’s Choice went to Leslie A. Ligon for her Braille Alphabet bracelet.) Things have changed a lot in the design field, said Thompson, and in this regard at least, they’re heading in the right direction. Thanks to Bill Moggridge and all at the Cooper-Hewitt for a stellar night, when I remarkably didn’t feel like throwing a bread roll at anyone.