Friday, June 29, 2018

Designing Experience


                “The broader one’s understanding of human experience, the better design we will have.”   -- Steve Jobs

The toolbar of design intelligence is now being developed not just for the fine arts, media, or performance and theater, but for a far larger universe—that of experience and the experience economy as XD, or experience design. 

The Experience Economy was formulated by Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore in their 1999  book of that title that describes the progression of economic value from commodities through brands to customization into experience—and ultimately into meaning and transformation.  “We are talking about a fundamentally new way of attracting and retaining your customers through creating new experience offerings.”* Early examples cited include Volkswagen’s Autostadt flagship / destination attraction at Wolfsburg, Germany, General Mills’ Cereal Adventure at the Mall of America, American Girl in Chicago, and the Heineken Experience in its old factory in downtown Amsterdam.  These build the brand well beyond the conventional faculty tour, and for retail like Starbucks, can actually replace advertising.

Business has discovered the Experience premium—the multiple value people are willing to pay (up to four times) (McKinsey, 2017) for experience at all levels, over products: from the Starbucks latte to art tours in exotic locales to healthcare concierge services to trips into space on Virgin Galactic (tickets: $200 K).  Meditation at mind spas on private island resorts, airport massages, semesters abroad, outdoor kitchens, a world built of toys (Legoland).  And recently, Starbucks Reserve, the upscale version, at company headquarters in Seattle, with 1000 planned worldwide.   Pine and Gilmore pose the question as to why Amazon has not (to date) created its own experience in the same city.   

And of course the great template of the total destination theme park, the archetype from the imagination of Walt Disney in the 1950s, when no one but a handful of Imagineers even guessed at what he was trying to do.  Disney was looking for a way to translate his film production success into an interactive drama, with stage sets, on the ground, as an immersive public experience.  No one suspected, other than a few avant-garde architects, that his park success would create an entirely new way of thinking about goods, services, and settings—as experiences.  This is the mindset that is now designing everything from retail to restaurants to cities, regions, and living compounds for Mars.

At the recent Hawaiian Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) dome on the Big Island, a series of a six-person astronaut-capable crew lived in isolated confinement to experience living and working in the hostile Mars environment. Their mission: to anticipate the social and psychological challenges on another planet.  In the same way, themed environments—even the most unassuming Chinese restaurant—re-frame our brains to evoke other times and places, freeing us to think in new ways about both ourselves and world.  

Experience design is a universe of knowledge, ancient to state of the art, one that requires keen insight into how to draw upon its variants to solve problems around creating experiences in real time and space.  These XD skills—are there are hundreds—can be applied across the board to any and all aspects of the wider Experience Economy – including every type of experience, and futuristic trends like Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality. 

This panoply of public and private spaces (including virtual spaces) ranges from work- and data-based: software (User Experience, UX, is the general label), offices, social media, virtual reality, libraries; to travel: airline flight, resorts and hotels, auto and public transport; sociability: sports and stadia, city, social center, house, complex, parks, and neighborhoods; health clubs, auditoria, supermarkets, dining, malls, church, games and gamification, bars, casinos; to cultural and educational, including college education (test prep is a subindustry), museums, galleries, and exhibits, classrooms, retreats and seminars, special public events, the Olympics, television, film, and looping back to screens of any size, jumbo to hand-held.   

These places, physical or virtual, have always been designed to the conventions that dictate what they have long been expected to look, feel, and act like.  But the indications are that technology and innovation, as in the theme park case, are having their effects in making us keenly aware of new potentials in every area of human life for design that fits the human factors landscape. That would include the way we instinctively take in these places into our imaginations, set our mental agenda to fit their archetypal uses, and adapt our thinking and behavior to fit their purposes.  Now, though, through better cultural research, these places can serve our purposes (rather than our fitting theirs) and even produce novel ways of making their purposes fit our own in ways we hadn’t before been able to imagine. Helper robots, self-driving cars, private pods on trans-continental flights, and importing the movie theater to our phone or desktop screen are everyday examples.

These human factors are those theme-park designers discuss in their design sessions:  context, perception, attention, color, scale, lighting, expectation, press (forces operating at odds to the design), procession, pacing, arc, suspense, resolution.  So that now, teaching this still-evolving artform - and finding a way to do knowledge transfer with a complexly creative skill set - will be the ongoing task of the XD / thematics industry.   It will at the same time advance the cause of creativity across disciplines.   The outcomes of experience mindset range from Fitbits to inspire more walking to discovering life’s meaning at a family reunion in the Magic Kingdom at locations worldwide.  

The experience design industry can be traced back to the 19th-century World’s Fair as well as other commercial showcases like the Ford Rotunda at world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan—host to more visitors in the 1950s than the Statue of Liberty.  Another wellspring is Tivoli Gardens, a very early amusement park (1843, the world’s second-oldest) where as a tourist in Copenhagen, Walt was first inspired to think about his film work in a new way: in translation--to create immersive worlds people could walk through and imagine in three dimensions. This single idea, brought to life through the arts, is one of the most transformational in art history. 


*The Experience IS the Marketing (2002)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Second-Order Solutions by Reframing the Problem

   “We are what we think.  All that we are arises with our thoughts. 
With our thoughts we make the world.” --Buddha

What is the problem frame you are always turning to?  Think about how you or your group are doing mental and emotional work on your problems.  You may not be going far enough to reexamine the problem territory or the solutions that are hiding there.  Moving beyond the first-order solution takes a thinking leap to levels above where the problem can then be transformed into something more solvable.  This means trying on other frames to open up new ways of thinking for new outcomes.

The future by reframing

This is the process that invention has followed for millennia – from the Ur-invention of fire to the space program.  It is part of the definition of culture to build on its own past – but then to depart in novel ways from that mindset to nonlinear breakthroughs that couldn’t be arrived at by moving in a straight line from the present to the future.  This is the main contribution of creativity to disrupt mainstream cultural ways of thinking to open up new fields of thought by means of innovative concepts.  However, these mind leaps don’t occur outside the culture itself, but must have a sizeable overlap with the ways and means of culture, the way life is lived and the values that drive it. 

This is why transition from idea to execution is a difficult struggle, and why so few make the journey to become part of the cultural record. 

Those that stray too far off-base fall into the category of ideas that might have worked—except that they had some feature that disqualified them from general acceptance.  An example is the Segway, which works fine on factory or post office floors, but fails the test of being an extension of the home that cars fulfill.  Rather than replacing walking, it fills a dedicated niche more as a tool than as a disruptive technology. 

Two problem types

Problems in business  or personal life alike seem to have a double nature:  Most are what we’re used to, the straight-line, incremental problem:  It’s often phrased as a need question rather than as a challenge:  We need more visitors, more profits, more trade, more leverage against competitors, more media exposure, better reputation-building or brand enhancement.  The matching solutions then become quite obvious, taking the form of higher sales and profits, better networking, which will grow reputation and market share.  Improve expansion and exposure. Increase range and opportunity, which will then circle back to “more sales.”  If only it were that simple.  Hanging out at this first level of challenge can’t be a creative response to the need to grow and prosper.  It seems obvious.  But few companies show the ability to move beyond this low-level problem statement.  The other kind is the Breakthrough, transformed problem—the second-order solution. 

On the personal level, a high-school-level question posed by a 15-year-old, it might be phrased as “I need to somehow become more popular in order to be happier.” Remember thinking this way?  Would adults think this way beyond high school?  Maybe.  First, what does “popular” mean, and how can we unpack this profitably to engender answers that can be acted on?  If it means attracting like-minded people you feel kindred bonds with, then like attracts like and this shouldn’t be a permanent problem.  Is there a communication block or gap?  That’s a different problem, isn’t it?  Or does popular denote having currency with people unlike yourself – a different challenge – which calls for approach by that point of view, not your own.  OK, that’s doable – but is that what you’re after?  Maybe you just need a single link into a group – analyze that to see who and how it can be achieved.  Or are you just less than happy for other reasons? Returning to the defining term, “popular” contains a wealth of potentials for your life that you can begin to discover immediately.  And they extend far beyond your peer group approval.  The second-order question might be reconstructed as “In what ways can I discover the breadth and greatness of my potential?”

Try another logic

These examples introduce the Breakthrough Idea, using transformation of the problem into a different equation, using a logic different from the original problem logic.  Most first-order problem statements are far from ideal:  labor-intensive: without any outcome guarantee – “on spec” solutions (If we build it, they will come – and if we build it bigger, even more will come).  But what is usually needed are high-concept, low-labor, high-return ideas that leverage existing scarce resources for limited manpower able to execute with whatever small time-spans can be spared from regular routines. 

Here are some examples of second-order problem framing: 

1.      Longitude: John Harrison was the 18th-century genius who made longitude measurable by inventing a watch that kept precise time at sea.  The three clocks he spent decades perfecting suddenly took a technology leap on the fourth.  This final iteration become The Watch for navigation to establish longitude—a centuries-old problem.  Solving that problem with Harrison’s mechanical answer suddenly increased the scope of seagoing travel and Earth exploration. This man’s motto might have been “Stop improving, start innovating.”

2.      Specialty drinks:  The original sports drink Gatorade decided to expand their business not with additional products as extensions of the brand, but to move in greater depth for serious athletes as the core clientele.  This strategy focused development in a smaller innovation footprint, saving development costs, but also managing marketing within a tighter, well-known user base. 

3.      Security: A major supermarket chain in the Northeast increased the penalty for shoplifting, with a marked reduction in in-store crime.  Rather than the first-order, straight-line solution to “improve surveillance in stores,” using creative problem-solving facilitation, they hit upon criminal trespass arrests as the second-order solution.  When this reputation quickly circulated among shoplifters, less security was actually required.*

4.      El Al:  TSA in the US could take a lesson from the Israeli air security force.  They focus on detecting terrorists, not weapons (or anything that could conceivably be construed as a weapon, like a cheese knife).  The Israelis’ record of success indicates that this problem frame works far better in prechecking passenger backgrounds, not weapons searchers.  Aren’t we trying to stop bombers, not just detect bombs?

5.      Education:  The Los Angeles Library System recently redefined library not as “a place that collects books to be read and checked out” but as a GED High-School diploma academy for many thousands who never graduated.  Locating this service within the libraries underused spaces halted county cost-cutting, because the system libraries became measureable producers of graduation numbers that city funders could claim credit for.  By looking at production, then translating to education goals, a new identity was created to preserve the traditional book value as well.

6.      Bag time:  Houston Airport had baggage delivery time lags resulting in passengers having to spend too many minutes hanging out at the carousel.  Airport management initially went for the first-order question, “How to accelerate bag delivery,” which would be the logical shortcut to a solution.  But after studying the unloading and loading-up picture, they reserved the question in an intriguing and effective way, by asking not “How can we speed up delivery,” but “How can we slow down the passengers” walking from arrival terminals.  The solution implementation involved moving terminals further out, increasing walking time to bagging six times, which then resulted in on-time delivery. 

Reframing is a powerful tool to begin to see problems in an entirely new way—one that invites for consideration a totally new set of ideas.


*Supermarkets General case from Steve Grossman,



Saturday, April 28, 2018

Metacognition: Thinking about Thinking – the dawn of creative thought

“There are no gods in the universe, no nations, not money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

                                             --Yuval Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind 


The cognitive revolution arose from the evolution of the human brain into our most important organ.  Artwork from European caves painted 40,000 years ago is often cited as the dawn of creativity through artistic effort and the use of symbols to communicate – indicating a new kind of intelligence that made us homo sapiens, thinking humans.  Our language skills—and the thinking that mobilized them—began to hone into abstract concepts and “fictive” capacity around 70,000 years ago—the inception of the Cognitive Revolution.

Recently, the discovery of an abalone shell workshop in South Africa containing iron oxide (ochre) pigment and dating to 100,000 YA (=years ago) points to an even earlier benchmark for creative awareness – meaning that the mind had to think very attentively to what and how it was creating, and to the social aspect: how that creativity would be received and understood.  This sets back the date of discovery of conscious thinking beyond the cognitive starting block of 70,000.  The date keeps receding as we learn more about the brain and how it developed.  Yuval Harari’s account in his best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015) through culture, anthropology, and economics, puts the cognitive revolution at around 70,000 based on many clues about how human began to develop our giant brains.

About that time, human brains took a giant leap forward that ultimately made us lords of all other species on the planet.  While we had been tool-makers for far longer, and firemakers for 130,000, suddenly the brain size expanded beyond the confines of energy use, from 8% of our energy to 20%, transferring our body’s allocation from muscle-building to building up the 100 billion neurons that make up the brain’s huge capacity to form connections.  Human children build up to a thousand of these new neurons per second.  With homo erectus, our new upright posture freed our hands so that they became fine-tuned for developing tools and working them. And when humans started using fire for cooking, the time required for the body to process food drastically diminished, protein intake shot up, and the stage was set for the large brain that quickly came to rule the world. 

What happened then to our new capacity for thinking?  We could move beyond survival and coping with food procurement and defense, moving along the path from tool-making and fire wrangling to begin managing larger and larger social structures, building new kinds of architecture including religious shrines, developing clothing and textiles, domesticating animals, painting, sculpture, and later writing.  The ability to reflect on our own brains, to look inside the black box of those complex structures and ideas, images, and symbolic representations--which could be articulated for others to respond to and in turn think about--formed the early core of creativity, metacognition.  Without understanding completely what our own brains do and how they do it, this question of how thinking and consciousness operates is an ongoing project for science as well as philosophy; the 1990s were the Decade of the Brain.

But the search for meaning goes back well before fMRI research.  Philosophy since the Greeks and earlier was asking questions of how our thinking emerges from our search for purpose and meaning, as well as lower-level problem solving of finding our lost keys and following directions.  Existentialism is the branch of philosophy concerned with existence – to explore the question of how we are conscious of ourselves and our meaning to self and others. 

Further back, Buddhist meditation was about becoming conscious of our own consciousness.  Rather than being shunted around by our perceptions and our emotional reactions to them, the Buddhist mental review (as well as the Western adaptation) trains the mind to observe its own productions…the images, preoccupations, worries, cravings, and attachments streamed by the mind and mind-body connection at warp speed, generating scores of images and thoughts per second every waking moment and in dreaming.  Paying attention to our own consciousness is uniquely human and something that religion (especially Buddhism) has honed to a fine point.  Becoming aware of our own awareness is the key to understanding how the mind       -body works, and therefore how we can intercede in those workings to temper our thoughts, ignore them, put them aside or to sleep, or set them creative tasks. 

How does this cognitive history relate to creative thought?  Deliberate creativity, the kind we can learn to cultivate in our daily living to solve problems and create new ideas and concepts, depends on a conscious focus on how our own thoughts affect our perspective and outlook on problems and opportunities.  Foremost here is awareness of how and why we make opening assumptions about reality that actually limit the vision needed to approach and frame the issues.  Assuming that no one could run a four-minute mile, for example, regardless of athletic prowess, kept anyone from doing that until Roger Bannister’s May 6, 1954 sprint against  the stopwatch; that record stood until just 45 days later, when another runner, John Landy, did even better, breaking Bannister’s miracle record at 3 minutes 58 seconds.  “Impossible” is a powerful mindsetter against imagination. 

But it is that imagination, even more potent than our rational calculating abilities, that gives our thinking its incredible ability to make real anything we can dream up.  That is proven every time a breakthrough occurs in the way we look at what’s possible, starting with the scientific and industrial revolutions.  And human beings do something even better: invent and grow a shared imagination, the collective vision of the world we call culture.     

The master inventions took place in the ancient world – starting with the control of fire, the Ur-invention that led to every other, including our brain-size expansion.  The rope, knife, metalworking, wheel, ramp, calendar, crossbow, irrigation, navigation, mathematics, and language, followed by the written word, were the technologies of creativity that built civilizations and empires as an outcome of our unique ability to think about thinking.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

First, Check Operating Assumptions

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world.  Scrub them off every
once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”      -- Isaac Asimov

If you haven’t heard this one before, try to answer it: 

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies instantly, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor comes in and exclaims, "I can't operate on this boy."

"Why not?" the nurse asks.

"Because he's my son," the doctor responds.

How is this possible?

The “Why can’t the doctor operate?” riddle shows how assumptions can block answers.

Only by blocking the idea that the doctor has to be male (the father) can you get to the answer that the doctor must be female (and the boy’s mother).  This is a simple example of extinction: dismissing an unproductive idea masking the solution from being seen or developed.

What assumptions do we routinely make that create problems with problem-solving?  Usually our common assumptions serve us well.  They keep us from having to reinvent reality every time we wake up. This means that every day, we assume thousands of “facts”:  But in the case of open-ended problems, those that are new, unfamiliar, unsolved, or ongoing, preassumptions (as they are called in psychology—assuming you know basically what things are and how they work) can actually block or derail our efforts at understanding problems, imagining solutions for them, then working solutions into practical tools or fixes we can apply.

Take the mislaid keys problem, a common real-life conundrum.  When we look for our lost keys, we look in places where it’s easiest and most familiar and well-lit. Most of time we search around our home or office in the usual places—and most of the time, we find them.  But when they are hiding in an unusual or unaccustomed place–when ordinary assumptions don’t serve the purpose–we have to seek answers further afield, like our sports bag, notebook cover, refrigerator, under the dryer, or, sometimes, in the lock outside where we actually left them.  Extending perspective in this way is a quite normal form of creative idea-generation.

This leaving the familiar behind, or out-of-the-box thinking, is all the more important for solving persistent wicked-tricky problems with limited resources.    Think about it this way:  The best solutions aren’t obvious, or they would already be implemented everywhere.  Discover the problem-within-the-problem, the core problem lurking inside, through recognizing the solution (not the usual sequence).  But if we’re taking some concept or belief for granted, problem solving is all but impossible because it’s being very effectively blockaded—outside our awareness and knowledge. 

There is a connection between Intelligence and Creativity.  Intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills for general cognitive tasks – understanding what things mean, how they are related, what information might be missing, and how to fill it in, either to carry out actions or to plan for the future by making correct inferences about what things mean and the consequences of events.  Creativity takes intelligence a step beyond—by questioning information, ideas, and standing assumptions to generate new ones and forge new connections.  This calls for the act of destruction as well as generation of the new.

To quote physicist Nikola Tesla on creativity:  “The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his creative brain.”  This is often a matter of redefining the territory in which to look for the most promising ideas.

A full 40 years were required for Englishman John Harrison, a carpenter and clockmaker, to solve the Longitude Problem, the age-old problem of east-west navigation that thousands of minds tried to crack without success over centuries of seafaring disasters.  As Dava Sobel explains in her 1995 history Longitude, once Harrison was able to determine that the solution was mechanical (the chronometer) and not astronomical (the lunar distance method), he was able to work out the solution.  After over four decades of daily frustration, and battles with everyone in authority in science and government, Harrison finally managed to win most of the 1714 Longitude prize.  The issue was deciding where to look, and stop looking, for the answer.  Once that territory was defined, he developed his sea clocks (H1, H2, H3, and H4, “The Watch”), the last completely different from the first, a seeming nonsequitor in evolving the most important time keeper ever built. 

Another example of defining the territory is the discovery of the missing planet Uranus. In 1781 William Herschel discovered Uranus under the assumption that it was a star or a comet.   Through a self-made telescope this astronomer instantly doubled the diameter of the solar system as the first to discover a planet since antiquity. Beyond inventing his original lens to extend humankind’s vision of the heavens, Herschel could show other astronomers where to train their focus.

How about these “truths” that “everyone knows”:  In a country with the world’s best water supply, no one would pay for water because this is a commodity that’s practically free (bottled water).  Americans don’t need a scientific computing instrument in their home (the personal computer and androids), nor do they need or want microwaves in their kitchen (microwave oven).  We don’t care much for raw fish and no such product would ever command a premium price (sushi).  And who would think of spending four years of their life working hard to master subjects they don’t understand and will probably never study or use again—for up to $60 K a year (college education), only to end up in decades of debt?  In addition, would anyone pay top dollar (over $130 a day) to walk through a collection of fake buildings (the theme park)? 

Assumptions are always worth checking against.  There’s a good chance we are all making a critical assumption that stands between us and the hunting grounds of a great discovery.  

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Theory as Practice

                                “Nothing is so practical as a good theory.”

             -        Kurt Lewin, social psychologist and Action Researcher

What is theory?

Theory is that insight for guiding educated guesses across complex and shifting conditions, a road map, or the central lens for policy and decision making.  Theory is background intelligence, the logic system that tells us what to do and why we are doing it, in any given situation.  Tell me why, and I’ll then understand what I need to do.  Simply, it’s the ruling premise of anything: person, place, philosophy, artifact, time period, culture.   Understand it, and you have the key to predicting its workings, history, and effects.  And in relationship to other concepts, an added plus. 

Then why does the term sound so forbidding, abstract, nonessential, or difficult? 

It shouldn’t be, because theory is “high concept” or theme, detailed as a holistic explanation of why things are, how they work, (or are designed to work), and how they can be expected to operate into the future, making theory immeasurably valuable as predictive as well as descriptive.  “Theory of mind” tells us how to read people’s thinking in order to know what to expect they will do as an outcome, and more important, why.  Theory of negotiation formulates the purpose of deal-making, as in MGA, the Mutual Gains Approach.  Theory of second-best deals with suboptimal systems or system parts to make decisions about how to upgrade effectiveness in a factory, economy, or organization.  As engineer W. Edwards Deming drew the equation, “Rational behavior requires theory.” 

Still – what is the problem people have with the theoretical?  Why is the term so off-putting rather than instantly welcome? 

Theory is comprehensive and systematic …so it’s not enough to explain one event or condition (“I have a theory about why everyone is so depressed today….”).  It must explain not just one occurrence but a whole series, and how each event relates to others as well as the larger environment.  Gravity, for instance, in Newton’s theory.  Evolution explains the origins of life and species development and diversification over time.  Quantum mechanics does the math to explain motion and interaction at the subatomic level, far from the intuitive physics experienced in daily life.  Creative problem-solving theory outlines the way ideas can be generated and selected by groups (primarily) to evolve optimal potentials that can produce workable solutions. 

The best sense of theoretical isn’t speculative – it’s comprehensive intelligence, systematically worked out to describe and explain how and why things operate.    

In another domain, detective fiction looks for a theory to explain how the crime was committed, and by whom, through absorbing clues that make sense within a larger view that will include all important persons, motives, and incidents.  Reviewing the narrative or action, the reader must work to construct and test this theory in parallel with the detective’s speculations and investigations, while forming his own ideas that might vary from the detective’s.  The crime theory provides the handle (grip, focus) that affords the ability to see what fits as well as what doesn’t belong in the solution universe.  Within the crime scene and world of motives and characters, the story weaves a matrix to understand the dynamics of the total system.  In this sense, theory is the discovered mind of any black box that can be reverse- engineered to crack the case.

Design theory acts like a well-conceived theme in bringing to life an environment.  It allows the artist to make optimal decisions for any aspect of that design, because it instantly tells you if things fit in or fail to fit.  Assuming a solid understanding of what you are trying to construct, and for what purpose, creates strategy and tactics.  If it’s a midcentury modern house, then Tudor detailing is out.  Good artistic direction operates by design theory that knows one style from another.  Does any given style or action fit into the theme?  Theory is useful to answering yes or no, seeing direction and where to go next, discerning if it’s on or off-track, working backwards from the mind of the design.  If you want a positive vision of the future, lose the dark dystopian spikey designs from Disneyland Paris; if not, then fine.  Without a good working theory, there is no strategy, no battle plan.  That means no way of relating stock buys, marketing moves, career direction, college choice, even time management must be informed in some way about what you want to accomplish in a day, a month, a year, or, as BF Skinner wanted to plan his life, the next ten years. 

In business, it’s not even enough to know your objective – you need theory to give you a working strategy and the tactics to work forward.  The company directive to “increase profits 20%” sounds good – but directives aren’t directions.  How will this happen, and how will it affect every other part of the system?  Is this a short-time goal that will act adversely against longer-term values, relationships, and objectives?  The adage of social science rules the dynamics of any system: you can’t just change one thing.  What must be measured against this 20% gain?  That depends on your theory of profitability versus success.  If the goal is not just profits but long-term value (as Disneyland proved to create in 1955), this theory approach requires strategies divergent from the most common quarterly guidance to cut costs, decrease risk, and tune up productivity.  And what you measure is what you get more of. 

In the study of culture, this adage couldn’t be more on the mark.  Culture is a master matrix of thousands of systems—run by a basic checklist of values.  Looking at it piecemeal won’t yield any insight.  It is the master idea that drives story-telling.  All parts relate to a major subject and theme, giving a design template for generating ideas and processing information.  Cultural analysts (like us) ask basic questions devised to elicit answers to clarify:  What is jewelry for?  Marriage, children, work, money, time, energy, profit, change, belief?  The research answers demonstrate the essence and power of theory—the thinking framework behind understanding where any culture has been, what it wants, and where it is headed led by its cultural credo, its value DNA. 

There are simply too many facts, choices, agendas, purposes, and goals active at any point to make sense of any of the big picture.  That means we need ways to clarify the big themes that make sense of the detail, to clarify the larger purpose.  Academic approaches tend to make things more complex, not more clearly simple.  We need a theory of culture to do that: arriving at organizing principles to sort out “unrelated” material to profile meaning, purpose, and direction, in culture at large as well as in design and creativity.  The alternative is random file folders without links or logic.  We have plenty of those already.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Creativity Is More than Imagination, It’s Evolution

 “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” 

                                       -        Carl Sagan, astrophysicist

 “Creativity is as important as literacy.”

-        Ken Robinson, education philosopher


A maxim in the world of applied creativity, attributed to Linus Pauling, is that “The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”
Steve Grossman thinks that’s the worst thing you can do. 

Cultural Studies colleague Steve Grossman has been working and consulting in applied creativity for decades. To the practice of consulting he brings far more than getting to original answers to solve inveterate problems.  He has spent his time with industrial clients in thinking carefully and consistently about the care and feeding of ideas—how to conceive and nurture them.  And surprising, also, how to kill them off when they aren’t serving a creative cause.   
As a result, Steve finds that he must constantly differentiate between the act of imagination and the act of true creativity.  When people talk enthusiastically about the wonders of being creative (how good it makes them feel, for example, to be in that elite league of the “creatives,”) his habit is to put up his hand in warning and caution them that “You mean that you are imaginative; that’s far different than being creative.”  Because creativity is more than generating free-form ideas, loosely connected, or vaguely envisioned.  It is finding brilliant solutions to problems – from small to overwhelming, from the annoying to the intractable. Or in inventing whole new ideas from which thousands of others can spring. 
Imagination with Purpose

This purposeful solution-finding means allocating time and focus and attention to cultivating “imagination with purpose.”  Rather than spending energy and attention on what is beyond our control, we can, with the right focus and knowledge, shift our energy to what can be created.  Inspirational writer Roy T. Bennett notes that “Change begins at the end of your comfort zone.” 

Allocation of effort means doing more thoughtful perceiving, and noting where you are in the domain of ideas in the process of doing that.  At its core, Grossman says, creativity is “much less a generative act and far more an act of recognition.”  The recognition skill “lies in the ability to look at something apparently unrelated to a problem and discover there an exciting connecting pathway to a solution.” 

And here we come to the killing-off phase.  This is difficult to countenance because ideas are difficult to come up with and work out; they seem too heavy an emotional and labor investment to just jettison.  But this is exactly the reason we have long-term unsolved problems, he claims: we keep trying to find our keys over and over in the places where things are easiest to find: out in the open, under a streetlight, or by the door—those places where we most commonly leave them.  The stroke of genius is to start looking in unexpected places more difficult to navigate and not as well lit – the garage, the back of the sock drawer, next to the curb, even in the trash.  By extinguishing (mentally roping off) the familiar and easy terrain where people are accustomed to thinking and operating, we open the mind and fancy to new hunting grounds where completely novel ideas have a chance of being recognized and taking hold of the imagination in the form of unexpected answers to long-term problems.  

Idea extinction

So first: kill off old ideas.  Why? So that the nonsense, irrelevant, stupid, crazy, impossible notions have a different place to land and take root, instead of rehashing the same old list of ineffective ones. Extinction is the first phase of Darwin’s process of evolution, followed by mutation and selection (survival), as the basis for new idea finding and deployment.

Creativity expert Robert Weisberg has said that novel solutions arrive as we move further away from the very concept of the problem we started with, and that withdrawal or extinction process begins with negative feedback about our first inadequate moves to solve that problem.  In other words, in order to come up with better ideas, the first batch must die off, and quickly. 

Extinction is absolutely essential to moving forward to ideas that will actually work.  But much group creativity, especially, is tied into simply trying to generate tons of ideas and then to somehow prioritize these simply by how attractive they appear out of the gate as potential solutions.  When such ideas are selected with sticky colored dots, put to work as implemented projects, and then fail to solve the initial problem, people are at a loss to explain why--or to come up with a next generation of very different ideas, because it feels like starting over.  But, as it turns out, admitting defeat is exactly the new opening move needed to go forward.

Assumption reversal

There is now far more work waiting even once lame ideas are dismissed.  Once they can concede defeat, the problem-solvers can then begin the next phase of assumption reversal, a concept Steve has been credited for.  In this process, primal assumptions are tested by asking the question:  “What beliefs are we acting on that we assume are so carved in stone that there is no way to even question them?” Hard to do, or even think about, because underlying pre-assumptions are always concealed beneath our conscious radar – we don’t even know we are making them.  This is the essential feature of all cultures, which over the course of long histories of commonly accepted beliefs, act as shared social contracts to honor basic truths about the world and social relations.  Cultural assumptions build mental castles difficult to find our way around and even harder to update, change, or challenge.  

However, once an assumption is reversed--the idea behind it challenged and nullified for the purposes of the extinction exercise--huge new domains are opened up and available for exploration.  At GEON, makers of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), the work group questioned the truth value of “coffins are used to bury people” to open their manufacturing up to plastic pet coffins.  They had been stuck on the horrifying notion of burying people in plastic; once liberated from that construct, they were suddenly able to see the application to pets rather than people.  Actually, the growing appeal of cremation challenges the Western taboo against burning bodies—when the burning is contained and sanctified.  An interesting new burial product is Irish home soil imported to the US designed for its large ethnic population.  The idea is to mix the soil of the mother country with the ashes, or inter in the coffin or grave.  The effect, of course, is to be metaphorically buried in ancestral ground. 

Getting to applied

Creativity is imagination purposefully and productively applied.  Getting to applied separates the intuitive act of imagination from the more demanding rigor of shaping up ideas into recognizable working solutions: first, under a clear definition of the process, then using tools and techniques to make the outputs of imagination real.  This is the mentality behind the magic.

Now the question to shape the future:  How many fixed assumptions are we making as problem-solvers, creators, or designers that just aren’t necessary or even true?  How can venturing outside the lines, then reversing assumptions, change the course of everyday thinking by a block-busting invention or intervention?
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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Ideas are Cheap – Wait, No They Aren’t

“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”  -- Linus Pauling, Scientist 

“Creativity is the process of having original ideals that have value.  It is a process, it’s not random.” 
         -- Sir Ken Robinson, English educator, The Robinson Report

Too Many Ideas

What’s wrong with having ideas—the more the better, right?  From very early childhood, people love to think them up and they are at the heart of the human brain’s awesome powers to imagine and create. The human imagination lies at the root of civilization and innovation that makes us rulers of the planet and now the universe.  Even more critical is our native talent for mentally experiencing ideas before they happen-- and the capacity to share with others a vision of what does not yet exist but could.

But first we have to appreciate the difference between creativity and imagination. Ideas come from the imagination, and are all in your head. Creativity is taking an idea and applying it to successfully achieve a desired outcome.
In reality, unlike the imagination, ideas must serve a purpose as applied thinking. Not the ideas that are spun out as daydreams or projected desires – imagining yourself in the movies, or married to Genghis Khan, or running an international spy ring, or walking the beach in Malaga, or having tea with an alligator atop the Empire State Building (my own favorite).  The state of Georgia tourism board used to ask the public to “Imagine yourself vacationing in Georgia.”  Not very demanding, compared to Einstein’s visualization of riding on a beam of light.
Imagination is great – but how does it serve reason and the demands of problems and opportunity on planet earth? 

It’s the fit between the idea and the problem that has to be first recognized.  That’s the problem to be solved – to make the mind more conscious in order to recognize and not reject out of hand answers that have the potential to be big winners.  Often good or great ideas are rejected because we fail to see the true nature of the problem in order to recognize the fit to a solution when it appears.  Far too often this is the “belief barrier” behind idea prevention.  We need to let go of the problem we think we are trying to solve to realize the shape of the needed solution to the true problem at hand.
The Idea Problem
The reputation of creativity has long been based on the image of the solitary genius suddenly struck with a world-changing insight.  But in business, group work poses greater problems to work through.  Chief among these are the labor-intensive processes of idea generation and the tricky labor of ranking idea outcomes to align with issues of cost, production, marketing, or innovation. The normal CPS (creative problem-solving) processes, therefore, are time- and labor-intensive for groups to perform.  CPS requires careful coordination, measured crowd control (in group idea generation), highly focused attention, and a clear common understanding of the target problem. The process also calls for skillful facilitation rarely available, and therefore yields less-than-stellar solutions.  Effectiveness suffers, and groups and their leaders get the feeling that it’s all just too much effort to justify the outcome.  And, over time, the reputation of creative work takes a hit every time an ineffective process is attempted and then fails to produce anything notable.
So idea management in groups is unwieldy –and this is mainly where idea evaluation takes place.  Ask anyone who has ever wrestled an intractable business problem in a high-powered boardroom.Or in the production studio.  Any filmmaker knows how expensive any novel approach can be to execute, even with computer-generated imagery.  Try, for example, generating a back projection through a screen of fog over a high rope bridge in a jungle canopy.  There is not enough time, money, and manpower to even work out the logistical burden of such a shot.  This is one reason even high-budget films routinely find themselves in the red.

What such artists are seeking are fewer, better-vetted, ideas – not more.  We overpitch: intention, interest, cost, sustainability, support, like “summer plans.”  We can’t follow all leads.  The idea of living in Paris or Madrid or Florence for a few months is beguiling.  Will it happen?  Probably not, because there are too many attractive options, too many world cities with magnetism.  People who make this happen in real time (not just in the mind) pick one and execute on that.

So in the creative world there are no lack of ideas.  In fact, there are too many of them.  Blue-sky-ing, brain-storming, and idea generation-- all are aimed by one working assumption:  the more ideas, the better.  This is fine as far as it goes.  We all have a lurking belief that the more ideas we surround ourselves with, the better off we are – that no single idea will get us where we need to go…unless it’s an obvious no-brainer or the idea is so brilliant that it outshines all contenders. 

This is in part a matter of cultural values.  Americans in general are in love with options and choice, the more the better.  We surround ourselves with them.  Which is why malls have so many shoe stores.  We’re never going to buy or even try on that many pairs – we simply want the option to do so, or to imagine we can. This is by the way the most likely reason America leads the world in creative thinking.

The creativity field has always been led by American values and expert consultants.  It’s our national character that has given creativity research and application its emphasis on imagination and idea generation rather than the more European and Asian consensus-seeking, research, or long-term planning approaches.  We really do believe more is better.  We just aren’t good at sorting through all those options. 


Idea proliferation leads immediately to the issue of how to manage so many.  But wait – what do we do with all these ideas on post-it notes covering poster board by the square mile?  The fact is that there is no possible way to act on or even develop even a handful—the time and energy bill is simply too high.  As a young filmmaker colleague of mine puts it, you have to close in on one or at the most two (one for backup) to pursue and develop.  Otherwise the overhead gets too expensive, with too much overtime to play with more than that.  Filmmaking is a high-ticket art, too costly to follow every promising lead.  As is oil drilling, auto production, and foreign policy.   As in the real-estate parable Glengarry Glen Ross, it’s the qualified leads we’re looking for. 

So maybe the real problem, famous in applied creativity, is to decide among dozens or scores of promising concepts to isolate the leading ones, those that show very early promise of delivering the best result.  This juncture, in the midst of a “mindfield” teeming with ideas of varying potential, is where the real creativity happens—in the selection process, much like Darwin’s concept of natural selection. Content or area experts always have some notion of what has worked in the past and so can determine what might work in the future.  The difficulty with using established expertise to sort options is that the brilliantly creative solution will by definition be distinctly unlike its past predecessor.  It’s the lack of resemblance to the past that makes it a great discovery, drawn up from a sea of ideas teeming with potential.  And this makes actionable ideas of great worth hard to identify and select out.

The old expression “Ideas are a dime a dozen” is wrong.  They’re ridiculously expensive once you factor in the high production costs in time, money, and human effort to filter out the high-value few from the many that will never see daylight.  When solving problems in concept, themeing, and design, we need far more than a better idea - we need better ways to vet the wealth of ideas we are already generating in the form of pre-qualifying them through a vision of what’s possible as well as intriguing.  That process of idea filtration calls for a well-thought-out problem frame for testing all potential concepts, from filmic effects to health-care interventions to schemes for living on Mars.

Out of the billions and billions of ideas in the universe, we only really need one—the one that will work.