Laurie Anderson’s commencement address to the SVA Class of 2012.

I enjoyed this so, so much. Several lifetimes worth of ideas and inspiration here.


The power of pull.

This is not a design post, but in a way it is.
I recently had the privilege of attending a launch event for the new book The Power of Pull, by the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation guys: John Seely Brown, John Hagel III and Lang Davison. This wasn’t just another book signing — Seely Brown and Hagel were interviewed by John Heilemann on stage at the Times Center and we had access to an in-depth conversation about how the world is shifting from push to pull — from 20th century strategies of total predictability and stabilization to knowledge flow. Here are my notes from the interview (I haven’t read the book yet).
What is pull? John and John identify three ways to get into the discussion: access, attraction and achievement. Access is about orchestrating the best of the best. They use the obvious (and already dated) example of the iPod — how Steve Jobs created something new by drawing out extraordinary people and resources towards a goal. Access is getting easier everyday, and today the idea of pulling powerful resources on demand is almost expected.

  • Spikes So interesting: the paradoxical idea that if the world is flat and everything/one is accessible, why does talent tend to come together in “spikes?” If you’re in a spike, you have more unexpected encounters. Where you place yourself — physically and virtually — is a choice. And if you find yourself in a spike, how do you stand out? Putting out beacons: going to conferences, hanging out in the in-between spaces and encouraging unexpected encounters. Today, attraction is about shaping serendipity.
  • Making 20th century institutions are running faster and faster in place, and losing position. The power of pull means turning the performance curve on its head by creating spaces for “making.” They use World of Warcraft as their primary example here. Fascinating — that the “guild” in WoW is the kind of space that encourages productive friction, that yields achievement, problem solving and creativity. That institutional innovation might be about finding (or creating) these spaces, and that this may be more important than technology development (a somewhat radical idea). 20th century technology was all about stabilization — sediments that accumulate over time. But there is no stabilization in today’s innovation: social media and cloud computing are more like shifting overlays, quickly changing spaces for creative engagement at the edge.
  • Edge/Flow The old model of “push” innovation was all about total predictability: find and invest in proprietary knowledge (knowledge stocks), hold closely at the core, and then extract. Umair Haque explains this so well. Today, your knowledge stocks are depreciating. To be in the flow means a big shift from the core to the edge — from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows. Flip the ideas of core and edge and you find a new source of economic value (of course, the art world learned the value of the edge long ago). Not just taking from the edge, but creating something new (making). Today, knowledge is sustained and valuable when it’s created (and co-created) and shared — when one edge engages with another. John Seely Brown says: “Be in the flow!”
  • Passion John and John identify passion as a key ingredient in pull. How do you measure passion in the workforce? The 20th century model was to leave your passions at home. Don’t bring them into the predictable workplace. This breeds disengagement (just collecting a paycheck) and if you’re faced with an unexpected problem, it’s terrible. Those with passion seek out new ways to engage. You welcome unexpected opportunities and look for them to drive performance to new levels. Cultivate passion in the workforce. John and John call this: “Up with People.”

So where are you in terms of knowledge nodes? Do you have a privileged view? Are you just a participant, or passionately creating and sharing? John and John focus on institutional innovation but I think there’s tremendous value here for the individual, for the small business. Especially designers.
If you made it this far and you want more, you should probably head on over to the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation “Edge-themes” area, where you can download some great PDFs.
Side note Anyone can learn to be a good interviewer (if I can do it, anyone can). But watching someone conduct a talk on-stage as a media performance is really impressive. I’ve never seen anyone do it as well as Paola Antonelli but John Heilemann comes close. He’s got charisma and brought a kind of intense interest and knowledge to the discussion (not only seeming to have read the book but able to converse on the fly with the Johns). I imagine this could be faked, but does it matter? The trick is to appear engaged, to stay on top of the subject, to lead the discussion. This makes for a great performance.



I’ve been a big fan of 37signals for a really long time (pre-Backpack!) so the talk by Ryan Singer at SVA last night was a must-see for me.
Ryan used the ideas of form, context, forces and fitness from Christopher Alexander’s 1964 Notes on the Synthesis of Form to talk about a different way to approach the design problem. He began with a few questions: some designers consistently produce good work — what makes them different? Why does good design work? How do you design from scratch, and how do you evaluate and improve existing design?
Any design problem (“design a tea kettle”) can be broken down into form (the kettle) and context (the stovetop, the kitchen). It’s typical to start with a list of requirements and attributes that are form-determining — the water must be kept hot, but the handle can’t get too hot, the water has to pour out when we tilt the kettle, etc. But what if we shift the problem from form-determining requirements to needs and context (what Ryan calls “the life situation”)? Instead of “making a kettle” to “I want boiling water in the kitchen?” This turns the nature of the design problem on its head and radically different results are possible.
To illustrate a process for designing from scratch, Ryan moved from water in the kitchen to a more relevant example: the design of the 37signals web app Highrise.
Step 1: “Draw a boundary between the form and context.” The form is the Highrise UI. The context is the browser and the needs and life situation of the user.
Step 2: “Identify the forces that make demands on the form.” Understanding the life situation in a design problem means starting from the bottom up with questions, needs and challenges (“I want to keep track of who we talked to, what was said, what to do”).
Step 3: “Resolve related forms into diagrams.” The forces can clump together into families of forces, and the design is sketched. “Independent groups of forces becoming diagrams.” Chunks of forces that work together, that motivate the form.
Ryan used very specific examples from the design of the core screens in Highrise.
Step 4: “Place the built form into context and look for misfits.” Do it for real. Evaluate the design by identifying brokenness, pain-points and conflict. The design is good when there’s an absence of conflict. Redesign to eliminate the conflicts.
Ryan’s takeaways

  • A different take on requirements is needed: use facts about the world, instead of attributes.
  • Designing with forces means understanding why.
  • Starting with forces allows us to design from the bottom up and combine forms into larger wholes.
  • A design is good when it fits the world, not a list of requirements or a trend.

Q & A

  • On customer feedback: “Feedback is information, not direction.”
  • On making difficult design changes: “Get the stakeholders in the room to widen the space of possibility and increase flexibility.”
  • On the biggest iPad design challenge: “No hovers!”

This was really refreshing. This is very much how I design — starting with interviews and my own experiences to identify the situation in a casual, conversational way. What I uncover is almost “evidence” and I use it to construct the design problem, which is frequently different from what the client has defined. I try to minimize my own pre-determined form-giving as much as possible. (I try!) I’ve found that clients love this approach — it puts them at ease, and they feel that they’ve been heard. I love that Ryan identified a real methodology behind this madness — I’m going to read Alexander’s A Pattern Language right away.
(Wow, what is this? Seems like some bizarre website devoted to Alexander. Can’t tell if it’s officially his or not.)
(Seems like this is the official Christopher Alexander website. And a lesson in web design circa 1996.)


The seven devices of propaganda that are well worth watching for.

I found some of the earliest issues of Print Magazine (or as it was called then, “A Quarterly Journal of the Graphic Arts”) at a great old bookshop this weekend. I purchased Number 2, from September 1940. It’s very much a journal — small size, text heavy, seriously focused. But not without some fantastic treats, visual and otherwise.
The opening essay is by Frederick G. Rudge (son of Print’s founder William E. Rudge?): “Propaganda and the Graphic Arts — Influencing Public Opinion for National Unity.” Some beautiful examples of all sorts of “positive” messages accompany the essay, which explores the idea of using graphic design as a tool for conditioning human behavior. Rudge writes: “It is obviously vital to be able to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ (propaganda), through understanding and analysis. In other words, know how to evaluate; and, as the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, Inc. puts it, ‘Don’t be fooled.'”
Given that particular moment in history, his advice was appropriate, if somewhat obvious today. But what’s remarkable is this list of “the seven devices of propaganda that are well worth watching for,” which he quotes from the above-mentioned institute. They’re still well worth watching for in 2010 — who hasn’t experienced (or actually created) each of these in media, politics, advertising, etc.?
1. The Name Calling Device: “Name Calling” is a device to make us form a judgment without examining the evidence on which it should be based.
2. The Glittering Generalities Device: “Glittering Generalities” is a device by which the propagandist identifies his program with virtue by use of “virtue words.”
3. The Transfer Device: “Transfer” is a device by which the propagandist carries over the authority, sanction, and prestige of something we respect and revere to something he would have us accept.
4. The Testimonial Device: The “Testimonial” is a device to make us accept anything from a patent medicine or a cigarette to a program of national policy.
5. The Plain Folks Device: “Plain Folks” is a device used by politicians, labor leaders, business men, and even by ministers and educators to win our confidence by appearing to be persons like ourselves — “just plain folks among the neighbors.”
6. The Card Stacking Device: “Card Stacking” is a device in which the propagandist employs all the arts of deception to win our support for himself, his group, nation, race, policy, practice, belief or ideal.
7. The Band Wagon Device: The “Band Wagon” is a device to make us follow the crowd, to accept the propagandist’s program en masse.
It’s a fascinating essay, then or now.
Another section is titled “Why Printing Is An Important Part of the Picture” and includes a chart listing “Methods of Distributing Printed Messages.” The 40 methods include broadcast delivery (“Scattering from airplanes, Leaving on seats of parked cars”), at exits of factories, and personal delivery by school children.
And apparently, there was to be an exhibition at the AIGA in November 1940, covering “in detail the usefulness of proper graphic techniques in adding to the attention-value and in strengthening the resultfulness of government messages.”


How exciting it is to be stupid.

Richard Saul Wurman spoke to a crowded room at the New School last night about beginnings, learning, listening, remembering and being open to the unknown.
It was a brilliant conversation about his journey to zero, from a man who’s been around the circle a few times. Richard commands the room with a wit that somehow manages to be both self-deprecating and larger than life, leaving me to wonder at times if he’d gone too far. (He sort of makes Sarah Silverman look sweet.) No, in the end I was in awe: someone genuinely curious and generous and willing to share. A crazy old man at 75 who is so enthusiastic about spreading what he’s learned in life that he’ll take over the room and turn the evening upside down with maximum storytelling.
Wurman is famous for his disdain of note-taking so I felt a bit self-conscious about scribbling during the talk. He says that writing something down is permission to forget, and that a better kind of learning occurs when you listen and make connections without the crutch. I don’t always agree, but I love the sentiment. I also have a really bad memory.
So as an experiment I tried to jot down the concepts only, with the idea that I would make the connections later. This works for me. I need an artifact so I can put the narrative back together again, later on. Rather than try to tell Richard’s story for you, I present my notes. Fragments of words and ideas that caught my attention during the talk. The connections are all there, between the words.
Click on the image for a larger, more legible version.


Vignelli works it out.

Last night’s AIGA event started off with a Bob Noorda tribute by Jan Conradi (author of Unimark International: The Business of Design and the Design of Business), but then Massimo Vignelli took the stage and the show really began.
As reported: “he’s jaded, bitter and hilarious — all important ingredients for a modernist maestro.” Apparently Vignelli suggested the conversation, upon publication of Paul Shaw’s impressive book Helvetica and the New York City Subway System, which documents the evolution of the system’s graphics from the mid-1960s on. I bought both books at the event — each meticulously designed, beautiful, full of juicy detail.
Vignelli began the conversation, moderated by Shaw and Conradi, with an overview of the Unimark design process. The highlights:

  • Put the signs at the point of decision, not before or after
  • Standardize the support (the black bar at the top of the white signs)
  • Standardize the graphic modules (1 x 1 for arrows, 1 x 2 for information, 1 x 4 for directionals, 1 x 8 for station ID) — “You could make any message by putting these panels together.”
  • Three type sizes only
  • “Design is not embellishment — it’s about solving the problem.”
  • “Non-visual people panic when they see a map, so we have to take care of them too.” (the never-realized “Directory”)
  • “When working with a huge organization like the transit authority, how brilliantly you make your design is not as important as how brilliantly you master the implementation. The huge client will destroy it — they’re huge destroyers.”

So at this point I realized that Vignelli’s got a bone to pick.
Next up on stage is Michael Hertz and colleagues. Hertz was awarded the subway work in 1979 when the MTA decided not to work with Vignelli any longer. Hertz is responsible for the NYC subway map we use today. Until last night, the two had never met. Hertz began by saying that Vignelli’s famous 1972 map is immortal, and beautiful. So how did the current mess happen? During the next hour it was battled out — reasons ranging from ADA requirements, the expansion of the system, “giant client” problems and MTA gems like “Marketing was high on the list of things to do” and “There was a lot of thinking going on” (??)
But Vignelli really said it best — with MTA decision-makers on stage and in the audience:

  • “The transit authority was never aware of what it meant as a system, which is why it could never be implemented properly. When there’s a problem, why not go back to the original consultant? That’s not the way intelligent people solve problems.”
  • “A diagram is a diagram — don’t cheat me. The current map is a by-product of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

At the end of the discussion the tension between Vignelli and Hertz was as clear as the differences between their respective maps. By the time an MTA guy stood up in the audience to plea his defense (to laughter and applause), I realized that so much more was happening. We were getting a taste of:

  • Design vs. operational bureaucracy
  • Abstraction vs. literalness
  • Clarity vs. clutter
  • Systemic change vs. incremental tinkering
  • European elitism vs. American pragmatism, etc.

As enthused as I was leaving Bierut’s client talk a few weeks ago, I walked home from this talk kind of down. I was looking for inspiration but found discouragement — big clients who don’t “get it” are bad, smart design legends are good. I guess in the end everyone’s happy: we’ve got a subway system we (sometimes) love and Massimo is still worshipped and Michael Hertz still has a client who keeps him busy. Life goes on.


Some really good advice.

Just came from a brilliant short talk by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut at the SwissMiss Creative Mornings. His slides were great and so very tweetable (on purpose?) — short summary statements in giant type that filled the screen.
The topic was clients.
I was going to tweet during the talk. But because the bits really add up to a good story and a very specific philosophy about the client/designer relationship, I think it’s worth presenting them all together. So here they are. It’s some of the best designer advice I’ve ever heard and I want to share it, but I’m also putting the quotes right here on so I can come back and read them over and over again. Every day.
Michael Bierut talks about clients.

  • Clients can be the best part of the design process.
  • Clients are the difference between art and design.
  • My clients are the same as yours.
  • The right client can change anything.
  • The best clients love design, or don’t give a damn about it. (i.e., they have confidence)
  • The worst clients are somewhere in between. (i.e., they have fear)
  • Never talk about “educating the client.”
  • What makes a great client? Brains, passion, trust and courage.
  • “You’ll never go wrong when you work with someone smarter than you.” (Tibor Kalman)
  • Warning: Your great client may not be my great client.
  • Great clients lead to more great clients (and more great work).
  • Bad clients lead to more bad clients (and more bad work).
  • Bad clients take up more of your time than they should.
  • Meanwhile, we take great clients for granted.
  • The trick is to reverse this.
  • What do I owe a great client? Loyalty, honesty, dedication and tenacity.
  • Once you find a great client, never let them go.
  • If you can find five great clients, you’re set for life.
  • “You’d better find somebody to love.” (Jefferson Airplane)
  • Good luck.

Why not — let’s call them Bierut-isms.
I can honestly say that I also share Mr. Bierut’s love of the designer/client relationship (point #1) and that I’ve learned many of these lessons the hard (and enjoyable) way during the last 15 years. It’s immensely satisfying to hear it reinforced in such a clear way by someone you have respect for and someone who’s been at it for awhile.
Mr. Bierut ended his talk by saying that he was very lucky — he could name not just five but ten great clients in his career so far (“These people are why you’ve heard of me…”). Moving and inspiring to hear work so closely associated with the designer dedicated to the people who made it possible. He mentioned Fern Mallis (7th on Sixth), the architect Robert Stern, Terron Schaefer (Saks), Laura Shore (Mohawk Paper), Chee Pearlman (I.D. Mag), David Thurm (New York Times), Christy MaClear (Philip Johnson Glass House) and others. Proof that design is best when it’s a collaborative effort.