Transit Art

I love public art, and this new series of surreal scenes on (and about) BART is charming.

A few weeks ago I snapped this poster of the little girl and the duck at my local BART station, wondering what it was. Other than the station scene, the poster offered no clues to the purpose or message.

Fortuitously, a Facebook friend posted a link to this article about the posters, which are whimsical stories created by Josh Ellingson. In each scene a child’s fantasy crosses over into reality — a boy with the undersea-themed backpack spots a deep sea diver with a squid, a boy with a toy rocket sees rockets zooming past through the window, and a girl with a toy duck passes a duck with a toy girl. While they celebrate the adventure of travel, in keeping with transit poster tradition, they are mostly just plain fun and avoid seeming like ads.

Transit art is my favorite type of public art because it adds much-needed lightness and beauty to what is so often drudgery. Years ago while commuting on a bus in Chicago, I saw an excerpt of a Mark Strand poem about a snowflake that affected me so much I was inspired to jot down the name and buy the book. (And I’m not even a poetry fan!) Recently on the Metro light rail in Phoenix I also spotted mosaic sculptures built into platform shelters.

There is currently a MOMA exhibit of London Underground posters from the 1920s-40s, including pieces by E. McKnight Kauffer (one of my favorites of the era) and László Maholy-Nagy. Unfortunately this kind of poster has largely disappeared, replaced by commercial ads, but sometimes we get lucky and find ones like the new BART series or the iconic national parks posters by the amazing Michael Schwab.

I hope to see more art like this popping up. The Bay Area has a tremendous wealth of artists and stories to tap into, and in these tough times we could all use more beauty and levity around us.

DMI Recap, Part 3

Wrapping up my thoughts on DMI Re-thinking…The Future of Design, I have a few final thoughts on pushing the design thinking discussion farther. I came away from the conference feeling there is still a lot of talk about the theoretical application of design thinking, but not much about the actual practice of it.

A critical comment was made during the wrap-up, wishing there had been more conversation around applying design thinking outside of design disciplines. I couldn’t agree more. I already live in the world of design thinking for designers, and I want to learn more about design thinking for more traditional business domains such as finance and corporate strategy.

David Butler and Chuck Jones were edging around that conversation, stating that as executive design leaders they were being invited to business planning meetings and the like. That is exactly what I wanted to hear more about, and what I hoped to find at this conference. How are those interactions going? What are they able to bring to those discussions, or finding they are unable to bring? Are they doing anything to actively advance the case for “designers” moving beyond conventional perceptions and becoming business partners within their organizations? I’d like to see some tactical discussions about what it took to get to those positions and what they think design thinkers need to know or learn to succeed.

On the other hand, as much as I would like this guidance, Valerie Casey made the point that she’s tired of designers asking for “5 steps” to make things happen. She argued that we’re designers, our job is to use our imaginations to solve problems. We should be able to figure things out for ourselves and not need everything spelled out for us, and she isn’t entirely wrong. We can’t wait for someone to tell us what to do, we have to just jump in.

That’s what I’ve been doing for years and while it does work, it works very slowly. It would be nice if there were more institutional track being laid to draw connections between disciplines and change job descriptions to reflect our more complex world. For instance, I’ve seen articles discussing universities cutting liberal arts majors due to a lack of interest because of job placement fears, and yet I know plenty of anthropology and philosophy majors today who have amazing jobs as design strategists and researchers. The universities aren’t doing enough to draw lines between their humanities programs and the design thinking type jobs that value those skills. And, they could be better preparing those same students through integration across disciplines including business courses.

My last thought is that we did get one real-world example of organizational design thinking from Katie Taylor of the Four Seasons, but it wasn’t universally recognized as such. After the conference was over, I was engaged with a gentleman who felt that her presentation did not reflect design thinking. It’s subjective, but I believe the elements of design thinking that are most valuable to business are: user-centered principles, systems thinking, and prototyping. Her story sounded a bit simplistic at times — the best design is often obvious, after all — but describing how they assess and adapt to guest needs, understand the entire customer experience, and empower employees to try out new solutions certainly met my criteria to qualify as design thinking.

DMI Recap, Part 2

More from DMI…

Silver buckshot

Soundbite of the day: There is no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot. (Valerie Casey)

Interdisciplinary takes work

Being interdisciplinary involves more effort than simply assembling a committee. It requires training in how to work collaboratively, and — more importantly — how to communicate your values and point of view in a way that is understandable and compelling to others.

Oh, the humanities!

Roger Martin says integrated thinking starts with critical thinking, and is bolstered by a well-rounded education in the humanities. My mom’s insistence on a BA instead of a BFA is looking pretty good right now! It is true that while I lost out on a more rigorous education around concept and craft, I gained a better education in all the things that help you understand who people are, where they are coming from, and how they think. There will always be someone who is a better visual artist than I am, but I am a better critical and abductive thinker than most.

Define winning

David Butler of Coca-Cola talked about the importance of clearly defining “winning” for the organization, to give structure to decisions and resolve conflicts. I’m sure there isn’t always such organizational clarity and selflessness, and it called to mind Joel Kashuba of P&G who spoke at CCA last semester. When we were at dinner he said his first question in any collaboration is to ask how they are rewarded, meaning what success means to them (and their boss). This is simply the personal definition of winning — is it patents, a bonus for meeting a target, career growth? Once you know what it is, make it a design requirement and things will go much smoother. It’s obvious, but we rarely think to ask explicitly and then wonder why our projects get mysteriously derailed.

Project ROI

Butler also brought up something I should make my personal mantra: Focus on the highest-value offerings. There are infinite projects that are interesting or fun or relevant, and it’s easy to get distracted by them especially when you are passionate about your work. Use finite resources and time intelligently to get to winning faster.

DMI Recap, Part 1

This year I was unable to attend Sustainable Brands, but in its stead the following week I went to the DMI Re-Thinking…the Future of Design conference in San Francisco.

At the risk of sounding like a jaded know-it-all, by the time there is a conference created it seems that I’ve already been having many of those conversations for years. I’d like to see conferences push the conversation further, going from theory to practice and becoming far more multi-disciplinary. More on that to come.

That said, there were still great insights and conversations to be found, and following are the ones still on my mind a week later:

Defining “design thinking”

John Fly of Milliken made the argument there should be no canonical definition of design thinking because its very essence is rooted in a diversity of ideas and insights and therefore should not be fixed.

Later, Joel Podolny was discussing how the Yale business school had to create an internal communications program to ensure students were able to successfully discuss their new, unusual curriculum with employers. It immediately occurred to me that the DMBA program could benefit from this type of messaging training as we talk about our unique education to the world. Then my follow-up thought was that, per Fly, there is a value in each of us defining it in our own way. (We should each have a definition and be prepared to discuss it, though, whatever it is.)

Leadership matters more than talent

Robert Verganti said that half of all of the famed Italian industrial design is actually designed by non-Italians. What the design houses have in common is the vision of Italian design management.

Innovation is risky. Deal with it.

It was unanimously agreed that innovation can’t be measured and validated, and anyone who says they can is wrong. (Not so different from other strategies and forecasts. They are always invented numbers to a greater or lesser degree.) You simply can’t measure the future. Verganti recommended involving executives in the entire process so that they see the solution as an inevitability rather than something that arrived out of the blue. On the other hand, someone else noted that you can’t overwhelm clients with every detail of your process and thinking. Getting the right balance and facilitating stakeholder involvement sounds like one of the key challenges of innovation.

During a break, I was speaking to a consultant who pushed back on the inability to measure innovation, stating that most big companies just aren’t going to do something you can’t prove the case for. He’s right. That’s why most firms aren’t innovative.

Making the case

In a conversation with Nathan Shedroff, the chair and creator of my Design Strategy MBA program, and Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek, Bruce said that companies should be snapping graduates like us up. Great! So how do we convince them of that? Or do we? This may be similar to innovation — convincing companies is a waste of time, but you can find the converted and work with them.


Hearst Castle meets Wuthering Heights

After two years of ambiguity and stretching and perseverance, I have officially earned the designation of Master of Business Administration! That seems like a silly title; administering business is just about the last of my aspirations.

It would be nice if I could enjoy a little more R&R, but finding work has to be my first priority. Plus, I am excited about the prospect of a new job. I’ve worked at home for a long time and while it will be challenging to give up those advantages, they are outweighed by my desire for the collaboration and learning of a team environment. (Remind me of that when I have to get up 3 hours earlier than I am used to, okay? Thanks.) I’ve learned and connected so many ideas in the past 2 years that now I am eager to put it all into action.

I was able to take a couple of days off to head down the coast to the famed Hearst Castle. It was nice to be off the grid (no cell service in Cambria) and spend time with my Mom, who hasn’t seen a whole lot of me for the past two years. Unfortunately there was unexpected cold rain, obscuring the views and leaving us shivering and impatient to get inside. This was especially disappointing since the exterior architecture and beautiful gardens were highlights for me — perhaps because they offered a respite from Gothic and Renaissance overload inside.

On Being Unreasonable

Friday I gave a brief speech at a Designers Accord town hall event “Design Change, Change Design” hosted at California College of the Arts and organized by Design Strategy MBA students Ahmed Riaz, Elysa Soffer, and Mike Funk.

My talk was geared at designers who want to work towards social good but aren’t sure how, and it was inspired by The Power of Unreasonable People by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan. A fellow speaker also brought the Unreasonable Institute to my attention, which is based on the same idea.

A short version of my speech follows.

My goal in life is to be an unreasonable person.

It’s true most of the time people need to be more reasonable, not less — but reasonable people don’t change the world.  A quote from George Bernard Shaw:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world around him, where the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

To make a change in the world, we have to be unreasonable — we have to believe in things that most people think are pointless, or crazy, or impossible. At an event about “design for social good” it’s safe to assume many of you are already pretty good at this. But for those just getting started, here are 5 ways designers can be unreasonable:

1) Push back

The first step to being unreasonable is challenging the design parameters you are given. Even if they were written by a boss, client, or someone you think is smarter than you are doesn’t mean they’re right. Designers have a pivotal role as the gatekeepers to “stuff” — messages, products, processes — and they can use this to influence what is produced.

Ask basic questions: Is this the right solution, or even the right problem? Does it have to be done with this material or process? If you can, add your voice and improve the outcome. And even if you can’t, sneak in improvements. I had a client who didn’t like the idea of recycled paper even though he couldn’t tell the difference, so I simply didn’t tell him the paper he approved was recycled. Problem solved.

2) Just say No

Once you’re used to pushing back, stop working with clients or projects that are harmful. Tell your boss you won’t work on certain accounts, or turn down projects or clients if you have that power. Yes, it’s scary and risky. That’s why it’s unreasonable.

3) Believe you are the only one who will solve the problem

Reasonable people think others — people, governments, corporations — are working on the world’s problems. You may even be thinking that you aren’t business savvy, smart, or qualified enough to make a difference. But designers are, by definition, trained to solve problems. You’re exactly the right person to identify a need and find a way to meet it. Keep in mind you don’t have to have a big idea yet. Just keep your eyes open and needs will appear in your own backyard.

4) Find profit where others think there is none

Once you found your opportunity, become a social entrepreneur. Social entrepreneurs are the very definition of unreasonable, bucking common wisdom by finding creative ways to create economic gain alongside social good and refusing to accept they have to choose between doing good and making a good living. Just because no one else has figured out how to solve a particular problem and make money at the same time doesn’t mean you can’t. Figure it out!

5) Sell out

As a social entrepreneur you may have formed an entire community of unreasonable people working outside the system, and all of these ideas start seeming…very reasonable. In this group, perhaps the most unreasonable thing you can do is go back inside the belly of the beast and become a social intrapreneur instead. Going back to point #3, believe you are the person who can change  a mega-corp like Monsanto from the inside. I’ve taken a few potshots at Adam Werbach for working with Walmart and selling his agency to a media conglomerate, but he’s right that a micron of change by Walmart can create a larger measurable result than everything else combined.

For more about social entrepreneurship and what it means to be unreasonable, I highly recommend reading The Power of Unreasonable People.

Play That Silver Ball

For my elective class this semester I chose Mythology, Meaning, and Design, an exploration of myths, archetypes, and symbols and how they continue to play out today in modern storytelling such as media and branding. So far it’s a very demanding class — more than an elective is worth, probably — but I’m having fun with it.

For our second module I’m investigating of the experience of pinball: why people love the game and why there has been a small recent revival. Conveniently, the Pacific Pinball Expo just took place, and in Alameda there is a local pinball palace/museum, Lucky JuJu, so I have been able to observe players in their natural habitat.

The most surprising discovery has been the charming art of pinball. Before licensed themes became dominant (the era I played in as a child) there were decades of beautiful graphic art exploring every pop culture theme from science fiction to sports to the Old West. (Hmm, see any myths there?) Rows of seemingly endless machines displayed an incredible collection of this unique but endangered American art form

So far in this project I’ve created an epic pinball infographic that think may be portfolio  material. Next, for the branding portion of the project I’m considering designing a beer company with the pinball art as a centerpiece. Can’t wait!

Seeing the forest for the trees

Recently I got back in touch with a friend from high school, who has become an art teacher and an impressive photographer. Her photographs show patient experimentation and scene staging that result in charming, dynamic images.

I appreciate how she explores all aspects and dimensions of a scene to find her shot and uncover the happy accidents. It’s tempting to stop after one, two, or even three good ideas due to competing priorities and limited billable hours. Innovation comes from persisting past the easily seen to find less expected, hidden treasures.

In my professional work, the angles and the subject are on opposing ends of a seesaw. Spend too much time focusing on the details and you might miss the idea that wraps them all together, but if you don’t spend enough time exploring the details you won’t have learned important facets that increase your understanding of the subject.

Above is a class project her students have been working on, creating a wall-sized forest of Kandinsky trees. I love it!

Photo by Sina Evans.

The Fox

Downtown Oakland has an impressive Art Deco presence, and some neglected gems have recently been renovated, including the Fox Theater, built 1928. The interior is stunningly intricate with opulent details drawing from Moorish and Baghdadian motifs, among others.

As luck would have it, on the momentous day I was able to get inside this amazing landmark I forgot my camera! The iPhone can get a decent daylight shot (above) but the dark interior was beyond its limitations. I don’t know how or when I will be able to get back inside the theater to take more photos, but I’m hoping to have that chance because it truly is amazing. Although there is every chance I could never take photos as beautiful as the ones on Nathan Bennett’s site.