Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Mind of Design at the Dagger End

Where Can Design Intelligence exert the greatest effect on project success?   At the fuzzy front end, in the brain stage

“Cultures select and shape technology, not the other way around, and some societies have rejected or ignored even the gun or the wheel.”   --David E. Nye,* Technology Matters (MIT, 2006)

American culture is action-oriented. You hear it in our everyday expressions, such as “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Nike sells shoes with the slogan “Just do it!” The London-born actor Michael Caine once noted that the English make what they call “talking pictures” while we make “moving pictures.” Our role models are people who do things. We don’t make the same fuss over people who think about things.

Name a famous American philosopher.

We have them. Just name one.

I’ll wait.

In Asia, the Japanese, in contrast, will spend a decade thinking and planning before they develop and launch a new product. The Chinese work to twenty-year plans. Americans are more concerned with being first to market. As a general rule, we tend to start things in what other cultures would consider the middle of the process, then deal with obstacles when (not before) we hit them. We are a rich country. In government and in business, we tend to deal with problems by throwing money at them.

 As a result, we waste far too many resources on correcting mistakes and crisis intervention. Yet the design studio, desk, or laptop—and ultimately the human brain-- give us far more leverage for far longer at the lowest cost…before staffing, scripting, fabrication or even models are on the schedule.  As you move up and away from the brainwork of creating and mentally testing concepts, everything intensifies: time, labor, energy, and of course, the dollar costs and commitments. 

Before development costs money and materials and time, problems are best solved in the brain, the place where all design begins and ends (first from the creator’s then to the user’s brain).  It’s said that the mad genius physicist Nicola Tesla could run entire systems, test inputs, and detect issues--entirely in his head.  This saved a lot of development cash in his electricity-transmission work.  

Problem Definition

And the design problems to be solved may not manifest as people report them in surveys and focus groups—or in their own in-house meetings.  Food shortages have much to do with a lack of water, as do many health problems.  Human conflict is most often a matter of our universal tendency toward ethnocentrism (tribal ethic), flocking with our own kind.  Our sociable nature as primates is great—but equally leads to violence (tribal rivalries) – witness baboon battles.  In dress, jewelry is not about adornment, but about symbolizing and advertising our bonds with other people important to us – chains of office and the wedding ring.  And the theme park was invented to provide gated entertainment based on shared values and stories that last a lifetime, which gave them an edge over the short-lived physical thrills at amusement parks and carnivals.  That’s why the people who thought of, developed, and created Disney parks were called Imagineers - combining the concepts of thinking and doing.

Design is the drafting stage where concepts and supporting details still remain fluid.  In fact, virtually all of the work in the art of writing is in drafting, then revision after revision of ideas until either perfect or at least publishable (a wide range indeed).   In writing, the act of creation is in designing and redesigning, drafting dozens of times – each draft a thinking stage in the process.  However, to the reader, all of this work is quite invisible, so it looks easy.  As any writer can tell you, it isn’t. 

Bill Nye (The Science Guy) trained as a mechanical engineer, so he has an engineer’s appreciation of systems and cause-and-effect relationships.  His thoughtful work on problem solving, Everything All at Once (Rodale, 2017), sets up the case for the mind of design in chapter 12, “The Upside-down Pyramid of Design,” in which he urges young inventors to “Be Part of the Start” (image adapted from Nye’s, p. 137).


Nye’s advocacy of taking time with the design is another way of saying “Be part of the problem [statement], not just the solution.”  Design is the upper brain of building new creations, and his guide to problem-solving addresses this process in advancing entrepreneurship.  He uses his experience at Sunstrand Data Control, quoting designer Jack Morrow: “If the design is bad, no matter how well everyone else does their job, the result is never going to be any good.”  It’s “easy to get things almost right…” which is to say that “they do not work at all.”  The narrow point at the bottom of the pyramid is the theme-setter, the guidance systems for the rocket above.  As Nye says, “Filter information carefully so you can home in on the best way to solve your problem, and then develop your ideas fully in the hypothetical before you execute, so that the resulting system really does what you intend to do“ (p. 133).

For example, Nye attributes the crisis in automotive engineering in the 1970s to a failure to spend the serious thinking time required of complex machine development.  He cites the Pinto and Vega as two disastrous examples, contrasting these to French and Japanese achievements like the fourth-generation Miata.  And as he points out, design is the cheapest stage of the development process for anything, and the one involving the fewest people.  After the design is set, all subsequent stages are the ones where real money starts being spent: procurement of materials, fabrication, and marketing costs.  And all this expense is never going to be any better than the starting concept of the bottom of the larger triangle supported by insight and research. 

A good design may not guarantee a good product, “but you will never, ever, have a great product without a very good design.” Bottom-up thinking privileges conceptual thought---the themeing of ideas to combine and take shape in the service of the user and the user experience.  This is the meaning of reverse engineering in cultural terms. 

So—it’s essential to have a design that takes into account the culture it will have to operate in.  Identifying any problem in cultural / human terms first, before technology gets applied, is the way cultural analysis approaches the design pyramid.  Is there a problem or opportunity in search of a solution, or just a solution to nothing in particular you want very badly to bring to the marketplace?  90% of all new products fail--because they don’t actually need to exist.  It’s simply that a designer or his company wants to see them built.  That is why it’s so important to put human wants and needs first, at the pointy dagger-end of the pyramid, where they can support an invention or idea that really begs to be realized.

(P.S. We’ll be doing our bit to spread the word. Cultural Studies & Analysis will be presenting at Penn State’s 10th annual Global Entrepreneurial Week in November.)


*no relation to Bill

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Nature: There’s a reason it’s called a “park”

Today's post is a guest blog on nature's effect on behavior from Jamie O'Boyle, Senior Analyst at the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis.


Park [ paark ]

1.      area for public recreation: a publicly owned area of land, usually with grass, trees, paths, sports fields, playgrounds, picnic areas, and other features for recreation and relaxation

2.      protected area of countryside: an area of land reserved and managed so that it remains unspoiled, undeveloped, and as natural as possible

synonyms: gardens · botanical gardens · common · green · grounds · country park


There’s a reason themed entertainment venues are called “parks.”
Theme parks are cultural mind maps–symbolic landscapes built as storyboards of psychological narratives. They are detailed holistic evocations of a place in time. This is one of the major elements distinguishing the theme park from its cousin the amusement park. Unlike thrill or amusement parks, the theme park is not ride-dependent, whereas rides are the raison d’ĂȘtre of the amusement park. A theme park without rides is still a theme park; an amusement park without rides is a parking lot with popcorn. 

In the theme park, while rides expand the experience with physical sensations designed to carry the narrative, actual time spent on rides comprises a tiny fraction of the total theme park experience, totaling as little as ten to twenty minutes.  

Unlike the amusement park patron, a theme park visitor can fully engage in the theme experience without ever setting foot on a ride.  This is because there are so many other features to engage and hold attention: architecture, graphic design, animated and live performance, video, sound and music, light and water, and the simple fulfillment of pedestrian movement within and among the artfully landscaped themed “worlds.”  The most walking most Americans do in a day is in a themed place. 

In the theme park, rides are mechanisms designed to position the visitor’s point of view, much as a camera lens is aligned, moving riders past a series of meticulously focused vignettes to advance the narrative. However, the brain can only focus for a limited length of time before succumbing to "directed-attention fatigue." 

Guests become distracted, irritable, and impatient; less effective in focus, attention, and comprehension, even less aware of their surroundings. They can literally become “blind” to your carefully crafted messaging, attractions, and merchandise immediately after any peak experience. They need to mentally shut down their focus until the brain hits the “reset” button.  Sensory overload must be balanced with downtime.  

This is why theme parks are parks.  Landscaping is not just there for a pretty background or theme-setting. Your artfully constructed landscaping is the primary reason that the average visit to a theme park is eight hours. It is also why your guests don’t turn on each other in this very competitive environment. 

Think about it. A theme park visit demands almost continuous decision-making and problem-solving.  One unofficial guidebook compared the complexity of the experience to the logistics of a military amphibious landing.  The visitor is constantly engaged in the process of learning, because learning is how we adapt to our environment. Learning is also an extremely demanding activity. 

Add to that environmental “press” the fact that you are accompanied by your family, people who - although you love them dearly - really know how to punch your stress buttons. You are wrangling your spouse and children while competing with thousands of complete strangers for limited goods and services in what can fairly be described as a physically abusive environment such as Central Florida – glaring sun, high temperatures, muggy air punctuated by sudden thundershowers, and traversed almost entirely on foot.  

Did we mention that you are on the clock? An admission charge is a simple exchange. The guest gives you money in exchange for time. Time is the currency of the park. Like any currency, people don’t like to waste it on long walks between attractions (liminal space) and standing in line. They want full value for every minute paid for.   

This is where natural landscaping comes to the rescue. We know a lot about the virtues and positive effects of landscaping on a practical scale. It creates the layered design that provides interest in itself while enhancing and softening the built features, breaking up crowded walkways, buffering sound volume, offering climate control, and adding the classiness of cultivated plantings, layout, and design.
On the Human Factors scale, however, the far more important benefits operate below our conscious horizon. Cognitive scientists have confirmed that even a brief exposure to seemingly natural environments has psychological benefits. The most important are the calming and restoring of attention after a cognitive shutdown.
The brain never stops working. Our grey matter burns a lot of energy – 20% of our calories, so thinking hard can not only make you tired, it can make you hungry. As your brain loses focus, you get frustrated and, ideally, stop what you are doing and turn to something else – something routine that uses a different part of your brain, like cleaning the house, which doesn’t involve much directed attention.   Literally, as in the familiar idiom "a change is as good as a rest," the brain can then reset to an attentive state. 
Natural environments trigger different parts of the brain than attractions that require directed attention. Naturalistic environments have an abundance of "soft fascinations" such as leaves rustling in a breeze or water bubbling over rocks in a stream that, unlike directed attention, engage a soft focus with little conscious effort. 

This Attention Restoration Theory (ART) was developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s in their book The Experience of Nature. In short, the theory documents the fact that people can focus better after spending time in nature - or even looking at images of nature. 

In terms of real-world applications, we can look to the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) – simply being in the presence of trees – which has been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of well-being. Shinrin-yoku became part of a national public health program in Japan in 1982. 

This isn’t just a Japanese fad. Scientists at the University of East Anglia analyzed the findings of more than 140 health studies involving nearly 300 million people from 20 different countries. This meta-study confirmed that just being in nature – even an urban park - is associated with lower risk for type-2 diabetes, heart disease, early death, and high blood pressure, not to mention better sleep and a stronger feeling of well-being. 
We just like nature. Not actual biting, dirty, disease-ridden nature of course, but controlled nature with heavy edits. This wasn’t always so. For all but the last two centuries of human existence, nature was "red in tooth and claw" - something to be fought and tamed. That changed as urbanization and the first industrialization took hold in the American East and Midwest. People shifted focus from what they had gained through land development to what they felt they had lost. Americans began to romanticize the same natural environment in which their forebears had spent the past century fighting for survival and settlement.

Romanticism has a number of features: it is highly imaginative and subjective, emotionally intense and escapist, and focuses on nature as refuge from civilization, a source of knowledge, and intensely spiritual encounter.  Thoreau’s 1854 Walden: or, Life in the Woods describes nature as refuge from civilization, a source of knowledge, and intensely spiritual experience--much in the same way we think about it today. (Even though Thoreau actually lived about a mile from his mother’s house, brought his laundry home with him, and dined there most evenings, Americans love a great story.) It was our new tendency to romanticize nature that provided the public support for the 1872 creation of the National Park System through the hiking, glamping, and kayaking trends of today. 

When it comes to the type of nature people find relaxing and invigorating, theme parks are at a distinct advantage. Theming is, in itself, a physical manifestation of our brain’s tendency towards selective attention to edit out information that does not fit our idealized image or advance the story along the dramatic curve. Theme park landscaping offers us not reality, but hyperreality – a tightly edited, stylized, and focused version of nature – one that effortlessly captures and restores our attention and puts us back in the game. 

What we find desirable and pleasing about nature is cultural. The idealized nature style has evolved over time and changes as our social and physical environment changes. The Japanese have been sculpting symbolic landscapes for centuries, an art they adopted from Korea as the tea garden. The upper class British of the 18th century invented the predecessor of today’s suburban lawn. French formal gardens of the same period preferred their greenery pruned into neat geometrical squares and cones. They also liked their trees in neat, regimented rows. Popular styles of idealized nature evolved and changed with the times. They are evolving still. 

Attractions may bring guests into the park, but natural landscaping makes it psychologically possible for them to remain there for an average of eight hours. And the longer the stay, the higher the perceived value of the experience.


Condensed from the series “Hidden Systems,” (2015--) “Nature: The Brain’s Reset Button” by Jamie O’Boyle


Friday, July 27, 2018

Enhancing Reality

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

-- Georgia O’Keeffe


I. Better than Authentic

“Every great work makes the human face more admirable and richer, and that is its whole secret.” –Albert Camus

America’s quintessential icon is “Liberty Enlightening the World,’ the very image of our country’s values enshrined on Liberty Island in New York Harbor. When the US postal service introduced its Statue of Liberty “Forever” stamp in December 2010, the striking face of the statue was an instant hit. The image was engraved from a stock photograph of the statue chosen and purchased from Getty Images.  

More than three months after the issue the Postmaster General was informed by a second stock photography company, Sunipix, that the image was not that of the original Statue of Liberty, but a photo of a  replica located outside New York-New York, the casino hotel in Las Vegas that the sculptor, Robert Davidson, now calls a “reimagining.” The replica’s creator then sued for copyright infringement and, as of this writing, was awarded $3.5 million by a federal court on the grounds that his “reimagined” work established his piece as different enough from the original to be protected.

Which raises the issue of what was actually copied – an image, a replica, a reimagining, Bartoldi’s original sculpture, or the scaled-up monument that stands in New York Harbor today. The bigger cultural question is why that particular image was selected by Terrance McCaffery, longtime head of stamp design at the USPS, from the hundreds of stock photographs he reviewed and why the USPS liked the image so much they kept producing it even after they realized it was not taken from the real Statue of Liberty.

In a side-by-side comparison, the later version has, as Davidson’s attorneys argued, “Sexier, more fresh-faced, with smoother, fuller lips….updated and more youthful and desirable, and a little more feminine“-- more current with beauty standards based on youthful female pulchritude (NYTimes, July 7, 2018, p. C3). Which very well may be why McCaffery and the USPS preferred it over other images and why it has proved so extraordinarily popular. Davidson’s sculpt was a face more in line with contemporary standards of beauty, a face twenty-first century Americans could identify with (and did – it sold approximately 4 billion copies).

And despite the new face’s modern appeal – and McCaffery had hundreds of other images to compare it to –no one in the USPS involved in the project ever realized they were not looking at a photograph of the original Statue of Liberty.  That seems extraordinary – unless you understand how your brain actually works. Most people believe that a memory is an accurate snapshot of reality. It isn't. Memory isn't a library. It's a theme park.

The Lady Liberty incident explains much about how themeing operates as the chief element of designed environments. McCaffery and his USPS colleagues didn’t realize that the emotional impact that made this one image stand out was because it carried the themes of the original monument in contemporary form. Themes carry Values – which are simply shared tendencies to prefer one state of affairs over another – in this case; America = Freedom. The updated symbol did that even better than the original because it fit the liberty theme as it always had—only better. 

II. Themeatics

Places (including monuments like the Liberty Statue) have character that sparks chemistry to inspire thinking and feeling for the audience.  Context—the essence of place—directly affects mind and body to set the mental and dramatic agenda, and it does so immediately and subconsciously.  Theme is the mind-setter for story and action by cueing the key emotional state.  This is what stage sets have been doing since antiquity. Place design leverages this awareness of place power to focus attention and channel emotion.  Themeing is the universal language of social artworks with a cultural resonance.

Essentially, the world is a stage because it can be themed--and becoming more so every year. The themeatics skill set is predicated on a deep feel for cultural coding, which is understanding the heavy value of images and icons to the way people think and respond to a four-dimensional symbolic landscape.

Themeing, and the study of thematics, is the key to placemaking, the creative design of “sets” temporary to permanent. The outcome is enhanced reality—one more intense and distilled than its real-life counterpart.  Any space can be themed, extending the traditions of set design to include churches, miniature golf courses, malls, airports and airplanes, and office plans.   If it isn’t already themed, it will be.  I have predicted since the 70s that in the 21st century there will be virtually no un-themed spaces. 

Enhanced reality

Theme parks are the dramatic exemplars of the Experience Economy.  Because they are evocative stages for story, sometimes just in capsule form (as ancient Rome is a shorthand capsule for ancient empires). Even museums, which used to be temples of static, out-of-context artifacts, now have Directors of Visitor Experience. There is a global demand for designers adept at the Art of the Show – the Disney Imagineering term for all park levels of design from two to four dimensions (see John Hench’s Designing Disney (1994), the art history of the Imagineering experience in creating theme-park magic). 

But the Disney Magic, the marketing formula for the company’s parks empire, is not unknowable or mysterious.  While magic means unaccountably wonderful, Theme park magic is actually the outcome of a multi-disciplinary artform: story, technology, psychology, human factors engineering, ergonomics, brain research, environmental studies, ethnography, chaos, fractal, and systems theory, and experience analysis.  In addition, the arts / media / architecture / exhibit palette of any theme park consolidates every art ever invented across the millennia, including the multi-futurist threads like Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality.

Disney Imagineers were filmmakers and animators able to translate their talent for creating whole worlds (themed, of course) as 3-D spaces.  Some efforts, like Space Mountain (1967), lay behind the feasibility curve for a decade before technology could catch up to their drawing-board visioneering (see March 16, 2017 blog) to design the first roller coaster scored to music and choreographed to its dynamic shape in the dark--all in virtual outer space.  A medieval version of the dark ride are the 14 Stations of the Cross—a classic dark ride Catholicism designed to tell the story of death and resurrection.  The rituals of religion are the original designed experiences, complete with special effects, sound, script, lighting, music, and sleight of hand as the Eucharist–transforming body and blood into the Host, the heavy symbol of Christ and his sacrifice for believers. 

This symbolic act of the sacrament happens in the mind in the shared imagination of culture.  Symbolic thinking was the hallmark of the cognitive revolution of 70,000 years ago that transformed our species into makers and rulers of the planet, and, like transubstantiation, is the dramatic visual process experienced in themed environments.  Both involve hyperreality, symbolic reality, and enhanced realism.

The first Imagineers learned their themeing on-the-job, and because they had acres of potential at the parks to inspire their thinking, the studio vaults were always full of unrealized projects, business as usual for any art braintrust.  They became masters of understanding the context in which their creations would have to function—the people-dense, fast-moving, demanding millions of all ages who became their total-immersion audience. 

What is theme park magic?  It is the ability of themeatics to transport the mind of millions of guests from the present and immediate by projecting us into the past, to foreign or imagined places or situations, and into the future.  This works by evoking a set of clues derived from the culture we all share.  This shared stock of images and sets (the legacy of film and TV history) means that we instantly recognize a Martian space station, a Parisian cafĂ©, a Wild West saloon, the Oval Office.  We are there; their shorthand set design feels even more intense than the real thing.  Under the spell of enhanced reality, our emotions are transported to allow us to think differently as we access unaccustomed brain zones.  As the late Anthony Bourdain once noted, “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park.  Enjoy the ride.” 

The benefits of themeing have in six decades taken over virtually all venue design.  Forecasts for 2020 for the industry worth is $44.3 billion (source: Global Industry Analysts). As Senior Imagineer John Hench explained the Disney Effect, “Walt was a visionary: he introduced people to a new way of experiencing a planned environment,” starting out from a modest-sized park prototype in California to set a worldwide template for themeing that evokes the hyperreality craved by the human mind. 

Memory effect

Well-traveled visitors may remember icons such as the Statue of Liberty, or St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice, from personal experience.  Most, however, call up mediated memories from popular sources—eclectic images from advertising, photographs, television, and movies.  In either case, these memories, imperfect and derivative to begin with, are colored by time and emotion.

Either way, it doesn’t matter. Your brain doesn’t take photographs. It assembles a memory from image fragments and emotions – themes. And every time we recall a memory, we alter it slightly.  The woman in EPCOT's World Showcase we once overheard telling her companion, “I’ve been to Venice, and it looks just like this” was being perfectly truthful, even though Disney’s Italian Pavilion is a melange of Venetian, Florentine, and Roman architecture.  Disney’s Campanile, its colors burnished, physical space compressed, contemporary anomalies edited out, and perspective exaggerated, is faithful to the memory of this woman’s experience in a way that the real thing can never be.

Which is the same reason postal authorities never realized the image they chose was not the real Statue of Liberty.

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.