creative mornings


John Maeda’s six leadership principles.

Another inspiring talk brought to us by Creative Mornings — my first this year. John Maeda took the stage with Becky Bermont to talk about creative leadership. To help John with his new book (Redesigning Leadership) she’s been culling through thousands of his tweets, and they structured the short talk around six principles that emerged.

Knowing a bit about Maeda’s recent struggles at RISD, one can see that these mantras were written as guiding principles for educators or corporate executives who want to learn from artists and lead more creatively. But this is obviously a valuable and inspiring list for any kind of design professional or anyone engaged with creative growth.

1. Build new foundations.

“Artists have to get their hands dirty, starting with core foundations and basic principles.” He showed images of pages and pages of RISD data taped to his walls at home and spoke about touching and feeling the data, getting dirty in the data. This reminded me of Edward Tufte’s seminar, where he strongly suggests that data should be released from the screen — lay it all out on large surfaces and let the data interact in non-linear ways.

2. Craft the team.

“This is a principle I didn’t know from art or design. I was very ‘un-teamish,’ very lone-wolfish.” He gave the example of 1,200 year old temples in Kyoto. When he asked why they’re able to stand for so long, he was told that all of the wood to build the temple came from one mountain. The north, south, east and west sides of the temple were constructed from trees selected from the north, south, east and west sides of the mountain, respectively. Nature had pre-conditioned the wood for durability and strength, according to specific conditions. Selecting great people for your team is like the artist who finds the highest quality materials for her work.

I think this is a bit of a stretch (wood = team) but the poetry of the example is beautiful nonetheless.

3. Sense actively.

“Artists are always trying to sense something.” He showed a javascript project from MIT involving kites in the wind. “Kites help you see the wind. Artists make kites to help you see the wind. Why would you want to feel the wind? Because the wind is always changing.”

4. Take leaps.

He describes a paradigm shift within corporate structures — organizational trees have turned into organizational networks (with some beautiful diagrams to illustrate this). Trans-organizational networks are a radical departure. A “changing wind.” Artists ask questions and then they take leaps. They know when to leap. Another leadership diagram:

  • imagination — completely unstructured
  • creativity — rubbing two good ideas together
  • problem solving — constrained by reality
  • reflex — instinctive

Leaders occupy the lower half (problem solving, reflex response) and artists the upper half (creativity, imagination) — the most strategic space today.

5. Fail productively.

Instead of needing to be perfect, why not just jump in and try? Artists are risk-takers and artists productively fail. Artists have the ability to recover very quickly. Growing from failure means using it to birth another creative moment.

6. Grow from critique.

“Anyone who exhibits art or ships product knows that these are quick ways to get critique. Artists want to do this to change, to find out who they are.”

Maeda didn’t speak much about the controversies surrounding his presidency at RISD, but he did start the talk by saying “I’m in a different place in my life.” Which is a way of saying something, by saying nothing.

He ended the talk with: “It’s been a challenge to be president of RISD in a time of change. RISD has a history of creativity, resistance and pushing back its leaders. I’m the fourth president to get the faculty’s vote of no confidence…how do you stay centered and move forward, and be the artist who can productively fail? How do I be this new person and still be me?”

  • Q: Do you regret taking on the role of president at RISD?
  • A: “No regrets. I can take a stand for creative people. Art is being removed from education and the U.S. is in danger of becoming a test-taking nation like Singapore. I’m trying to inject art into the America Competes Act and I’m thrilled to be able to take this on.”
  • Q: Instead of speeding up, how can we slow down and have longer thoughts?
  • A: “Contemplation and areas of reflection have a history of being in higher education. We need to make more free space and create more time to think. This is critical. Make that space and manage your time. Control your time. The first step is making yourself conscious of this.”



Today’s Creative Morning was a treat. Liz Danzico hosted and the virtual guest was Swiss Miss herself with newborn Swiss Mister. Allan Chochinov of Core77 was the guest speaker and he kept it short and sweet with a song and a talk.
The song was “There A Hole in My Bucket” and Allan dedicated it to the virtual guests. Who knew that this song traces back to 1700, from a German collection of songs Bergliederbüchlein as a dialogue between an un-named man and a woman named Liese? Thanks to Wikipedia we find out that later versions were called “Heinrich und Liese” and credited as a folk song from Hesse.
Allan used the song as a metaphor for the design problem. A “cascading sequence of contingencies and consequences.” Who is the user? Is it @henry? We might call the bucket a container, or a vessel. We might say that the bucket is “a liquid containment and conveyance system.”
So what exactly does Henry need? What is the context? What about ergonomics? Ethnographics? And what about that relationship between Henry and Liza? Maybe “the bucket is the last thing we should be worried about.”
All important questions we ask when confronted with the design problem.
The client brief: “There’s a hole in our bucket!” Allan showed typical designer responses:

  • The systems approach (Honey Bucket)
  • The solution that doesn’t solve the problem (Lucky Bucket Brewing Co.)
  • The branded experience (Yankees-branded buckets)
  • In the end Allan called out for sustainable design: maybe all we need to do is re-imagine the good old-fashioned bucket. The old wooden one that’s been engineered to last forever. Sure it’s got a hole, but maybe the solution is right in front of us and needs rethinking (he showed great examples: the hippo water roller and the GRIP rake by Scott Henderson). Sometimes as designers our instinct is to add more design, more solution — stacked up solutions that are conceived as a patching together of more and more design. Perhaps we need less “might do,” less “can do,” and more “ought to do.”
    A thoughtful, important message for a snowed-in morning.


    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.