Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Traits of Design Thinkers - and Imagineers

Back in 2012, SAP AG's Gerd Waloszek did a blog posting called Introduction to Design Thinking which is one of the best compilations of material on DT that I've seen.

It should probably come as no surprise that SAP is a big advocate of DT, since Hasso Plattner, who co-founded the company and has served as Chairman of the Supervisory Board since May 2003, is the same Hasso Plattner who has donated tens of millions of dollars to fund the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, aka the “d. school”, which is recognized as the first program of its kind dedicated to teaching design thinking as a tool for innovation — not just to designers — but to students from all different disciplines.

One point of confusion about the practice of Design Thinking is philosophical; If humans are all natural born designers, and natively creative, aren't we all native design thinkers? As usual, the answer is yes, and no.

Like most skills, once learned, Design Thinking is something which is refined and improved by practice. As with other creative skills, such as music, we are born with the ability to recognize good design when we see it, even if we may lack the (learnable) vocabulary to describe it.  This is why Dave Kelley says that at the they discovered that they don't need to teach the students anything, they just need to overcome their fears of being judged.

Now, that is a very interesting assertion. If all we need to do to become wildly creative is overcome our fear of judgement, sign me for the next Overcoming Your Fear of Judgement Seminar and let's get going!

A little reflection on this will probably lead you to conclude that just overcoming fears alone doesn't turn someone into a brilliant and successful designer.  There is a lot of learning, study and practice which goes into it.  Fortunately, the problems most of us need to solve don't require genius class brilliance and execution to get the job done. What they do require is the mindset of a Design Thinker.

In the SAP blog posting, Gerd has two tables which summarize the Attributes of Design Thinking and the Characteristics of Design Thinkers.  I've combined and edited the two together here;

Traits of Design Thinkers
Think of this like a check list, or job requirements posting. These are traits and characteristics which will help you become more creative. If you don't have them, you can develop them, or get help from someone else who has them.  If some of these feel like personality traits, it's because they are. Being non-judgmental, open minded and curious are right near the top. By the way, this grouping sounds like several things which Walt Disney said about his process and Imagineering. I've deliberately strung them together into a flow, so it's not an actual, in context, quote;

I believe in being an innovator.  Around here... we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we're curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.  It's kind of fun to do the impossible.  Somehow, I can't believe that there are any heights that can't be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. 

He also said; "We like to have a point of view in our stories, not an obvious moral, but a worthwhile theme." 

Getting the POV is also a key principle of Design Thinking.

Oh, I almost forgot; There's one more thing that D'(isney) 'Thinking (Imagineering) and d.(esign) thinking have in common; Storytelling.

We'll come back to all this later in some other posts.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Why, whatever do you mean?

The same issue of the Kaiser Aluminum magazine on Communication that had the article on Arrow Development's work on Disney's King Arthur Carousel had this delightful little tidbit;

It is offered without explanation, if you take my meaning. ;-)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast

One of the most interesting things about humans is our bipolar relationship with perfection. On the one hand, we value and admire the concept immensely. The highest expression of that being God and mirrors. God is perfect. Mirrors are perfectly flat. We love the traits of perfection; flatness, roundness, smoothness, eternal un-changed-ness.  Over the past 200 years we have elevated our ability to produce completely uniform regularity (perfection) in physical forms to the level of a science. Modern machinery can produce edges and surfaces which are straight and smooth to within fractions of the wavelength of light (microns), in other words, at the boundaries of our perception.

This is pretty cool stuff. It enables us to peer billions of light years out into space or see the borders of atoms. We can produce small quantities of materials which are essentially pure at the molecular level. We can produce machinery which can carry us to the moon and the deepest ocean trenches. It raises man almost to the level of gods - sort of.

Our definition of God is the embodiment of perfection. God is all knowing, all powerful and capable of anything.  We point to the earth and sky as inspiring examples of God's handiwork.

There are some mental gymnastics going on here.  On close inspection, very little of God's creation appears to actually be perfect.  Much less than the six sigma limits we set up as standards for ourselves. The deeper you go, the more chaotic the whole thing seems to be.

This sort of standards schizophrenia plays out in a number of ways, some of which directly affect us as designers. One of these is the difference between artists and engineers.  Here's one example:

Radar - Matt Kahn

A casual glance at this and you might think; Interesting, it does kind of look like an image of an old school radar display, with the sweeping line. At the very least, the artist had to draw hundreds of lines. (The actual count is near 1000.)  But on closer inspection, there is much more going on in this collaboration of straightness.

Every group begins with a single, straight, radial line. I know this not only because I've looked at the image closely, but because I asked the artist about it when I bought the print and had him sign it.  What he told me was that the first line was drawn with the aid of a straight edge, but every line after it was drawn unaided; freehand.

If I were to set out to create a piece like Radar today, I'd fire up Pixelmator, create a circle with a radial gradient fill, create 24 equal pie wedge segment masks, drop in a series of parallel lines behind each one and have something that a a dozen feet might pass for a decent copy of Kahn's work, but there would be two very important elements missing; First, there is a subtle irregularity in the straight line segments which he drew that can only be achieved manually.  Second, mine would be a mechanical reproduction.  If it was drawn with a pen plotter on top of a giclee print of the circle with a radial gradient, it might look like this:

Homage - Kahn

I'm not sure how Matt would have reacted to this. I suspect he would not have approved.  The mastery in his work is the ability to draw those lines freehand.

While I learned a lot about the limitations of Pixelmator drawing this, and got a stiff neck in the process, it's not the same as Kahn.   There is an obvious falseness to it which is given away by the precision of the line and shading, and that is very much at the heart of the matter.

Isn't it interesting that we value the natural beauty of God's great creative chaos and at the same time feel that there is a certain falseness in our own ability to create perfection. Our machines have taken the soul out of our art.

In his latest book; Creativty Inc., Ed Catmull's  says that Disney and Einstein were his boyhood idols.   Walt was all about inventing the new, both artistically and technologically, and Einstein was a master at explaining that which already was.  Catmull goes on to say that Disney's magic was in explaining the relationship between technology and art and imbuing it with so much emotion that Ed wanted to climb thru the TV screen and become part of Walt's world.

If everything in God's created universe is underpinned by imperfection and chaos, and man is striving to create perfectly ordered perfection, maybe we have things a little backwards. Perhaps Shakespeare was right;

"The fault... is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

For another perspective on the persuit of perfection, take a look at the posting at: Reflections on Walt

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Blind Men and the Elephant - A Cautionary Tale.

Back in 1965, Kaiser Aluminum published a wonderful magazine on the topic of communication. 

In it was this version of the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant, as told by John Godfrey Saxe. 

Remember this the next time you are absolutely, positively, definitely, certain that you are completely, 100 percent right and the other person is a total doof.

Some Differences Between Thinkers and Doers

This morning I was reading the Wikipedia article on Design and was struck by the implications of a couple of it's assertions. The most interesting was the notion that there are two fundamental models of design, one called the Rational Model and the other the Action-Centric Model. The article describes and offers a critique of each model;

Rational Model

Designers attempt to optimize around known constraints and objectives.

The process is planned and has a discrete sequence of stages;


Designers do not work this way – extensive empirical evidence has demonstrated that designers do not act as the rational model suggests.

Unrealistic assumptions – goals are often unknown when a design project begins, and the requirements and constraints continue to change.

I would add that the Wiki is playing fast and loose with definitions here and that it would be more accurate to say that Engineers primarily attempt to optimize around known constraints and objectives.

Action-Centric Model

Designers use creativity and emotion to generate options.

The design process has a variety of stages which are recursive, parallel and entangled.


Less intuitive than The Rational Model

Setting aside the oversimplifications of both descriptions, there is one point which I think needs emphasis. With regard to the Rational Model the author says:

"Designers do not work this way – extensive empirical evidence has demonstrated that designers do not act as the rational model suggests."

The magnitude of this should not be underestimated. (Nigel Cross' latest book Design Thinking looks at this in detail.)

This presents an interesting question; What possible value is there in a model which does not describe the widely observed behavior? Isn't that a bit like having laws of physics which don't describe the behavior of matter?

I recall running into this issue at one of my more culturally traditional employers. My supervisor wanted me to provide a description of the design process. Fortunately, I had a copy of Product Design and Development, by Ulrich and Eppinger, which contained exactly the type of process flow he was looking for:

As I prepared my report, I recall thinking; That is a really good description of all the steps required to design a good product. Everyone is included, finance, marketing, legal, manufacturing, facilities, service, they're all there. At the same time, I also recall being very aware that some of the most innovative work I've ever done came from a process that looked very little like this beautiful chart.

So, what is going on here? Let's dig a little deeper into the descriptions of these two models.

The Rational Model is about thinking. The Action-Centric Model is about doing. Why the difference? What might bias someone towards preferring or avoiding thinking or doing in trying to create something? I think the answer to that can be found in understanding the motivation of the manager who asked me for a description of the product design process.

Whenever we set out to do something which we've never done before - or confront an ambiguous situation - one of the issues we need to consider the level of risk we face if we fail. One method to mitigate risk is to try to plan for it. In business, we add a bit of extra money to the budget, or time to the schedule. If we are planning a trip, we may seek out an alternate route. This type of forward thinking, call it forecasting, contingency planning or risk management, is a way to reduce your fear of failure. In effect, you plan in a bit of a buffer, so that you can afford to fail a little. This works well in situations where there are few unknowns and the cost of failure is low. However the solutions are bounded by what you can imagine in advance.

The experiential (Action-Centric) approach doesn't suffer from this imagination-boundary problem, but presents another, possibly more difficult, issue, particularly for people who have a low tolerance for risk/high fear of failure; In the absence of perfect knowledge, unexpected outcomes are highly probable and some unexpected outcomes are metaphorically, or actually, fatal.

I'm guessing that there is a high correlation between creativity and high tolerance for risk, but also a high correlation between high tolerance for risk and failure.

High tolerance for risk ~ Creativity ~ Failure

Correlated with this is the idea that "Designers" differ from "Engineers" both in their different levels of comfort with risk and their methods in dealing with it. Both are forward looking, but the engineer is more of a forward thinker and the designer is more of a forward doer.

This sign hangs prominently over the common area in the building at Stanford, right outside their Maker Space;

Another take away from this may be to not let "analysts" write the articles on "design".

So, I leave you with this thought;

Friday, April 11, 2014


This week I had a few moments free to drop in on the  So here is a visual homage to the use of Post-Its, from one type of art-form to another.

Art for Art's Sake

More Typical

Tidy, but just as effective

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Power of First Impressions

Lately, I've been researching and reflecting on the history of design and Design Thinking in particular. While doing that, I've often found it necessary to reframe my verbal and visual vocabulary in order to understand someone else's points of view about what they think is and isn't Design Thinking.

For example, there are times when Dave Kelley's conversational style feels very non-linear, almost chaotic, with threads of ideas spreading out in different directions, each asking to be understood and evaluated.  On the other hand, Nigel Cross' style is more linear, although every bit as thorough.

I've also noted differences in the graphics which have been used to describe the Design Thinking process flow.  The one on the inside front cover of Tim Brown's latest book; Change By Design is an example. Since it's the very first thing you see upon opening the cover it sets the tone for what follows;

Here is the front cover of the's Virtual Crash Course Playbook;

Given the intimate relationship between IDEO and the, the similarities aren't too surprising. 

One of the things that Matt Kahn taught in Art 60 was that content communicates intent.  (Not a direct quote.) These two images present some very interesting elements for our consideration.

First, their composition is very informal and fluid. The fonts are casual and seem handwritten, letter sizes and spacings vary, circles and arrows are scattered about.  They provide clues to the flow and priority, but all in all it's a bit chaotic. The at Stanford is center stage in the second one.  It's also interesting that tone is called a playbook - which bids to you to "READ ME".

Here are a couple of other graphics, which are someone else's work, but also intended to express the Design Thinking process:

What is interesting here is that although they are much simpler and orderly,  neither of them accurately capture the cyclical and re-iterative nature of the Design Thinking process flow accurately. To me, they also seem a bit static.

Let's look at q couple of other charts which are intended to communicate process flow; The first is a type of software flow chart and the second a football play diagram;

FAA TEA-21 Project Process

Football Play

There are (at least) two things going on here.  Both have to do with vocabulary, one visual, the other verbal.  First to the visual;

Compared to the types of flow diagrams used by computer programmers and business analysts, the charts used to illustrate Design Thinking are much more like the football play diagram than the software flow chart.  Anyone who has watched football knows, things don't always work out according to the playbook, even with professionals who are getting paid much better than any designer I know.

One could argue that both types of charts are accurate depictions and that they reflect the true nature of their respective processes.  That would be true, but - and this is a BIG BUT - to the neophyte, or someone from another field of study, like Finance and Accounting, the message they deliver may be very different.  

The logic diagram graphic says;  

"This process may appear complicated, but it has an organized flow, which I understand, explain (and hopefully manage) well enough for you to understand it."  

The other says;  

"Bowl of spaghetti! It's a crap shoot at best and futile at worst, but trust me, I know the territory."

The problem with chaos is that it is unpredictable, unteachable, and therefore un-learnable by analytical means.  Becoming a Jedi Master requires overcoming your fears and endless practice on a planet that is light years away in another galaxy. This is where DT really shines, because it gives you tools to explore the unknown and embrace the ambiguities.

The next problem is confusion about meaning. What does "design thinking" actually mean?  Dave Kelley says its the way designers think, but professional biologists and sociologists have been studying that for decades and they haven't advocated a "best" method of doing it yet. Although that is partly because they are researchers and don't apply theory. Which is also probably also why David Kelley does classes, and Joi Ito at MIT does projects.  

This is also where analytical personalities, like businessmen, may start repeatedly checking their stock portfolios and emails on their Blackberries.  Some of this is cultural, but I wonder if images of Design Thinking as a chaotic process fail to send a comforting message to the more analytical professions.  (Note: At IDEO new clients are prevented from seeing the chaos behind the curtain until they can be acclimated. 8^•

Home, Sweet Loft Space, Stanford style.

Note to aspiring Design Thinkers; The folks who pay the bills are often nervous about chaos.  
If the first rule of Design Thinking is Start with Empathy, maybe the visual, spacial, non-sequential thinkers need to have a little more empathy for the linear thinkers who balance their checkbooks to the penny every night before turning out the light.

A Brief Diversion -

Heading over to storytelling for just a minute;

Marcy Barton and the 5th Grade Dimension

Now, Tom Kelly is telling a really cool story here, but it's buried in the middle of a 90 minute video with no chapter headings.

Now, back to our story -

These examples are taken directly from Stanford, IDEO and the, but the observations may be useful to others who are interested in, or frustrated by, the current state of acceptance of Design Thinking in the business world.

Remember, the first rule is; Start with Empathy.

To that end, I have a proposal for what may be a more accurate expression of the Design Thinking process, and is built up out of three elements; the color wheel, the phases and, most importantly, users.

The basic idea here is pretty simple; There is a multi step process, expressed by the hexagons. Their colors transition blend, like a color wheel, representing moving thru all the aspects of the situation and illuminating the scene with all possible points of view. In the middle, where they belong, we have users.  Arrows guide the re-cyclical process flow and the text explains the function of each phase. The background is a perforated metal grill, which just looks cool and feels "professional".

Taking this a bit further, towards a softer, less industrial feel, we get this:

Another possible configuration...

Which is actually a re-arrangement of this image from the HPI School of design.

I know, they aren't a brainstorm of post-it notes, and flowing, loose, stop-action marker pen animation, but maybe it can provide a framework for everyone to comfortably play in.

This isn't the only area we struggle in our efforts to "sell" Design Thinking.  Our verbal expressions are often imprecise and laden with metaphors. We need to clearly show the process and describe it in terms which bridge the languages of art, engineering and business. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How Fear Blocks Your Creativity

Hidden in Dave and Tom Kelley's presentation at the MIT Media Lab in July of 2013 was something which is easy to miss. Seventeen minutes into the session, Dave dropped a diamond.  Once you trim out the hems, haws, parallel thought paths and false starts, the implication becomes clear.

"We only have to remove the fear of being judged by other people."

Some may argue that it oversimplifies things.  It certainly challenges the idea that creativity has to be taught, but the concept is still very powerful, for reasons we'll see shortly.

Let's start with some background on the neuro-biology of fear.

Fear is a perfectly normal, healthy emotion. When something unexpected happens, like a loud noise, a flash of bright light or a sudden physical or electrical shock, our nervous system transmits the electro-chemical signals to the thalamus, which sends them on to both the sensory cortex, where it is interpreted for meaning, and the amygdala, which tells the hypothalamus to immediately initiate your "fight-or-flight" response.  Looking at the image below, you'll note that the sensory cortex is on the outside of the brain, the hippocampus is in the middle and the thalamus, hypothalamus and amygdala are in the core, "primitive" or "autonomous" area.

The sensory cortex determines if there is more than one possible interpretation of the stimuli and passes that along to the hippocampus, which checks to see if it has experienced anything like it before. If so, it pulls memories of what it meant the last time.

The hippocampus considers all the inputs which might give clues as to what is going on. Taking that into account, it determines an appropriate response and, if there is no danger, sends a message back to the amygdala, which tells tells the hypothalamus to shut down the fight-or-flight response.

Just looking at all the arrows makes me a little dizzy. This dual path processing creates confusion in all of us.  The signals' side trip thru the cortex takes longer and our higher brain functions have to override the primitive brain, which has already primed us to argue, run, or hide under the covers.

All this sub-conscious brain activity also releases a flood of over two dozen hormones, which have some predictable results:
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase. 
  • Pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible. 
  • Veins in skin constrict to send more blood to major muscle groups (responsible for the "chill" sometimes associated with fear -- less blood in the skin to keep it warm).
  • Blood-glucose level increases.
  • Muscles tense up, energized by adrenaline and glucose (responsible for goose bumps -- when tiny muscles attached to each hair on surface of skin tense up, the hairs are forced upright, pulling skin with them). 
  • Smooth muscle relaxes in order to allow more oxygen into the lungs.
  • Nonessential systems, like digestion and the immune system, shut down to allow more energy for emergency functions. 
  • Trouble focusing on small, detailed tasks, as the brain is directed to focus on the big picture to determine where the threat is coming from.
It's this last one that has the biggest effect on creativity. The frontal lobes are essentially off line. Long range planning and "daydreaming" is put off in anticipation of the need for imminent action. It also takes a while for the hormone flood to subside and return to normal after the order is issued to stand down. In cases of severe PTSD, the Fight or Flight response becomes chronic.

Note that the first part of the fear response is completely automatic and uncontrollable. Charles Darwin told of an experiment he did on himself in the reptile house at the London Zoological Gardens. While trying to remain perfectly calm, he stood as close to the glass as possible, while a puff adder lunged toward him on the other side of the glass. Every time it happened, he grimaced and jumped back.  In his diary, he wrote, 

"My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced.

Now, Dave's statement raises an interesting question; Why do the students he's referring to have a fear of being judged by other people?  When did they loose their innocent joy of being creative and what makes anyone think they can get it back?