Sunday, November 6, 2016

On Looking, Better

Sherlock Holmes, already the best-known character in modern fiction, has enjoyed an even better run since the Arthur Conan Doyle copyright ran out.  Holmes and magnifying glass are the inseparable duo that seemingly forever mark the detecting profession and its mindful observation skills, combining imagination with knowledge and applying analytical tools to solve complex, wicked problems.  The Holmes legacy focuses on intelligently viewing the world, pattern recognition, and making sense of what’s out there – talents inherent in cultural analysis.
Maria Konnikova’s excellent treatment of this process, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013), takes apart the three stages of detection—observation, imagination, and deduction—to show the brilliance of the Holmes method through leading cases in the canon.  Her casebook is a master class in learning about the processes implicit in thinking, decision-making, planning, and action-taking.  This is the difference between vision, the human talent for insight into the past, present, and future based on visual memory, and just registering what’s on view around us avoiding attentional blindness, and related practices basic to mental well-being of the “present mind.”   
Seventy percent of our sense receptors are around the eyes.  But vision as processed looking doesn’t happen in the eye only – it only occurs after processing by the brain.  Our limbic system is constantly building our emotional world as the structure that filters the input of the senses through experience and cultural values.  Our emotional sorting device, the limbic brain, is always leading our thinking and responding.  Everything in sight carries an emotional charge. Our entire emotional array—geared to social and emotional goals—is set up to see risk or reward, opportunity or danger, play, love, joy, fear, uncertainty, or doubt—depending on just how our brain codes whatever we see as positive, negative, neutral, or more rarely, to put on hold for future reference. 
Why do we see, but don’t observe, as Holmes is constantly reminding Watson?  It’s not that difficult:  because seeing is a physiological act of the senses, whereas perception is the brain-based outcome that follows the inner processing of light and image.   What we perceive doesn’t reflect what’s in front of us—nor what others perceive.  Looking and observing is a complex process that involves many factors:  what we expect to see, matching that with our entire seeing history, and the cultural (social) world in our heads—important in setting the ideals of what we prefer to see, what we most fear seeing, and what we think others are seeing.  All these trigger our immediate reactions.
Looking differs from mindful seeing, as Jim Gilmore shows recently in Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills (2016), his metacognitive treatment of the sight experience under various modes of aided perception.  In opposition to routine autopilot approaches to looking, Gilmore’s six-looking-glass toolbar is a tactical lever to extend this seeing, breaking out ways of observing and their concomitant benefits for raising awareness, macro to micro: from the broad-range binoculars (wide-shot) to magnifiers and microscopes that home in on details (close-up) that open up yet more landscapes to explore.  This is a working philosophy of observation to upgrade any effort, from pedestrian examination to innovative seeking, using these powers of discovery when ordinary seeing isn’t nearly keen or deep enough.  This guide to enhancing observation also grows a most valuable resource:  attention and focus, the wellspring of analytical ability. William James, father of psychology, called engaged attention the root of judgment, character, and will.  Seeing better has powerful outcomes: a means to think better, discover potentials, inquire deeper, and make better decisions.
Gilmore’s section on rose-colored-glasses looking is ingenious in its view of perceiving potential—what isn’t visible except as “gems and gaps,” the baseline of creative perceiving to envision what isn’t yet but could be.  That’s the imagination function prompted by “power vision.”  He cites the rare ability of top sports-talent scouts like Tony Lucadello for his legendary spotting of ball players before anyone else could—an exercise in observation with a positive bias. The evolution of tableware showcases the same ability to envision value beyond present limits—in developing the fork out of the hunter’s blade.  Reading between the lines of what is already evident, but far from perfect, to see innovation, combines observation with imagination—to create and discover entirely new stars and tools.
Back in Mastermind, Konnikova details the power outcomes from better seeing, showing ways we can learn to attune our efforts and attention to rediscover the world out there beyond habit, routine, and mindlessness—to take us from passive absorption to active awareness.  But that transition demands a more attentive, curious, and engaged mindset to make our subconscious processing far more conscious.   

Monday, September 12, 2016

Ecolalia: Stating the Obvious by Echoing the Words of Others


                   If we mimic someone else, they will feel closer and more similar to us; we can fake the
                 natural liking process quite well .... all a good con artist needs.

                                                                                          --Maria Konnikova, The Confidence Game:
                                                                                             Why We Fall for It, Every Time (2016), p. 64
Those of us who provide business intelligence services get paid significant money to produce two key outcomes:   The first is to understand the core nature of the client’s business in order to frame their problems in useful and actionable ways.  The second is to bring new intelligence and solutions to resolve and turn those problems around, leading to profits and growth.

But over the past few years we’ve seen a disturbing trend in market research, particularly in Branding.

I call it Echolalia.

In medicine, Echolalia is a mental disorder; it compels the patient to repeat the last words other people speak.  The name comes from the ancient Greek myth of Echo, the nymph who was condemned by Hera to do just that for frolicking with her husband, the great god Zeus.

In market “research” (or pseudo-research), Echolalia is the practice of asking the client what they think their brand is, then handing in a report echoing what they told you.  As research goes, this isn’t. 

This practice appears to have begun with the financial crash of 2008, and the malaise of uncertainty in the ensuing recession.  Human beings normally don’t have a problem taking calculated risks, but that changes when high levels of uncertainty are involved. Our brain is hard-wired to avoid uncertainty. The science on this is clear. We would rather do nothing than to make a decision in shaky or murky circumstances.

We saw this with our own clients. Critical decisions were suddenly delayed for months, in some instances years. Projects were abandoned. Negotiations dried up. Venture capital stopped flowing.  We started hearing the phrase; “We’re not ready to make a decision on that at this time.” We heard that a lot.

And these were not small, struggling businesses. These were Fortune 500 companies. They retrenched, maintained, but were reluctant to move forward. My in-box started filling up with résumés from colleagues whose bigger, cooler, consulting firms had cut them loose – or closed their doors entirely.

My theory is that the business environment was so gloomy, and the future so shuttered, that everyone began to second-guess their ideas and decisions. They started to rely more and more on consensus and groupthink to validate their decisions, to feel safer about anything they were doing or might do. 

And that’s when we began to see a new sort of consultancy emerge. They called themselves Branding Agencies but what many of them delivered was carbon-copy “Echolalia.”

There has always been a certain amount of pandering to the client in the market research that we are asked to review, but this went beyond keeping the client in a good mood. I saw this for the first time in an exercise – a mock branding competition during which one of the teams simply copied, word for word, what the client said he wanted and pasted it up into a PowerPoint presentation, preceded by the words “We Will Provide….” 

Our teams were working in an auditorium with maybe 200 seasoned marketing professionals. Our first thought was “They’ll never fall for that.”  We were so wrong.  

This was amusing at first – it surely had to be a parody – a one-off. However, after encountering it again and again across industries, it had become a new blunt instrument in the consultant’s toolbox.

Boards of Directors tend to be conformist groups.  Creative problem-solving researchers and consultants should not be.

This “re-verb” trend is built around posing the input from clients as processed findings or insight. Delivering ideas that simply confirm your client’s opinions of--or hopes for--their brand’s position and equity now manages to pass for research, apparently.  This means it’s now on the client to be sure they are getting their money’s worth, which they are not.

There is no analysis, no insight, no building on ideas, or folding in real knowledge toward a goal. Repeating the client’s words does not equal research, and certainly can’t be considered analysis.

For over two decades I’ve reviewed plenty of poor consumer research at our client’s request. I’ve seen the obvious touted as deep insight. I’ve seen research laced with superlatives in an attempt to cover up nothing of value to report. I’ve seen the wrong methodologies applied to the wrong problems, senseless questions in surveys and focus groups for null-value results. I’ve seen the right questions asked but to the wrong subjects. I’ve even seen reports that make it obvious the highly-paid consultant had no real idea of whet his client actually does.

That’s nothing new. We have all seen poorly executed research. But this is something added--an outright con.

It’s literally based on an old con-man tactic: the simplest way to convince someone that you are smart is to tell them something they already believe.  Even better if it’s flattering.

And this is downright dangerous. It’s the equivalent of your doctor asking if you have cancer. When you reply in the negative his diagnosis is, “Well, the good news is, you don’t have cancer!” Which, while unprofessional, seems harmless enough – unless you have cancer.

Reconfigured but not transformed. This is a form of idea flattery that consultants know very well how to execute; they’ve been doing it forever under the cover of “research.” But I have started to advise my clients, who regularly ask us about the value of their consultant reports, to be very careful and circumspect about this particular form of flattery. It’s an expensive luxury that won’t help solve your problems, move you forward, or otherwise improve your bottom line.  At best, It validates that you have a problem you recognize, as defined (correctly or not) by you.

Here’s a simple test for the client.  Looking at the report, how much of this information is actually news to you? How much challenges your beliefs and opinions? And how much is just your own ideas cut and pasted, without an ounce of value added? Do some simple math.

The consultant’s art needs to do much more:  analyze that “felt need,” the client problem statement, to see if that is really the core problem.  In our experience, it seldom is, rather, it’s a symptom (in sales, money, reputation, branding outcomes) of a much deeper underlying misdirection in purpose and resources.   Unless companies understand the deeper cultural value of what they do, they will never know how to plan, communicate, or allocate their money and time.

How does Echolalia operate on the ground?  Here are a few examples. 

If you tell your rehab architect that your kitchen is too dark, he needs to do more than tell you “Your kitchen is too dark, isn’t it?” You might hear Rogerian psychotherapy in this response.  He actually needs to do some work on your statement, for example, apply creative intelligence, a status study, strategy, and tactics to the problem.

This involves at least framing the problem as presented into a solvable proposition. This involves asking the question “OK, WHY is your kitchen too dark? What does “too dark” mean to you? And what can be done about it, from various thought bases?” 

Perhaps the solution is opening up the walls or even the ceiling to the sun. Artificial lighting is an answer, but what kinds are feasible, available, and affordable? Perhaps the entire room can be broken out and extended by new building or adapting adjacent spaces.  Maybe you need a fresh concept of what a kitchen is—this can include dining, conference, living room, and den spaces What is the desired overall effect in terms of design, use, and aesthetics? A whole range of questions can be provoked by the concept of “too dark” or solving for more light. And creative design firms know that their client’s version of the problem rarely points directly to one obvious solution, otherwise clients would readily solve the problem themselves at Home Depot.


Alan Turing developed an artificial intelligence technique to make a computer almost human by programming the computer response to human dictation.  In his 1951 paper “The Imitation Game,” he devised tests to make computers indistinguishable from human subjects as a test of intelligence.  You may remember the Turing Test from the days of early personal computers. There were programs that would initiate a conversation. The program would ask “How do you feel?”  You would respond “I feel fine.” Or “I feel sad.” And the program would respond “I’m happy to hear that.” Or “I’m sorry to hear that,” whichever was more appropriate. When in doubt, the computer would fall back on generalities; “Why do you say that?” Or “I sometimes feel that way, too.” The whole point of the Turing Test was to see how far the user could go into the program before realizing they were talking to a machine.

I’d extend Turing’s concept to propose the Echo Test. 

The test works like this:  Are you getting your money’s worth by picking professional brains? How much of this do I agree with wholeheartedly? Are you sure? How do you know it’s valid, other than the feedback sounds just as bright as you are (and remember, you are the one who can’t solve the problem)? 

When my company went looking for a public relations firm, we interviewed several national outfits. They were great listeners, enthusiastic and attentive (and nice dressers), and seemed to have what it took to talk about us to the press. However, we soon discovered their secret weapon; they were skilled at feedback but not at moving ideas around or handling new concepts to produce new knowledge. We read their proposals with some amusement as we realized everything we had talked about with them was indeed in evidence--just not in any digested form.

There was nothing there we hadn’t told them; nothing new; no actual work had been done on our ideas to carry them forward--no assimilation or transformation of information (i.e., learning).  Just a clever reposting job posing as news.

In the past year we’ve been called in to rescue two clients who thought they had commissioned a branding study and ended up with very expensive case of Echolalia.

One was a university. The branding company interviewed the faculty and administrators and gave them a “Creative Brief and Research Summary” defining their brand, which would have been great, if their brand was Harvard instead of a fourth-tier liberal arts college. It was unadulterated magical thinking. What it did was describe the school the faculty wanted to teach at in their dreams, replete with buzzwords like “rigor” and “excellence.”

We addressed that little problem by parking ourselves in the school cafeteria with a couple of the more engaged faculty members to whom we gave one simple instruction: “Snag us your best students – the ones who are thriving here.”

From these students we put together a new brand profile or value proposition: a student-centered environment, freedom to explore, easy access to faculty, caring faculty, helpful staff, etc. These were not just the best students, they were precisely the type they wanted and needed more of. It was that brand profile – how the students – the school’s “customers”-- recognized value -- that was then used to recruit the largest freshman class in the school’s history.

And, even better: the school didn’t have to change much – they were already delivering that value – they just weren’t marketing it correctly.  Because they didn’t know what it was. You can’t solve a problem at the level at which it was created. That’s why companies have hierarchies – problems you can’t solve get passed up to people who can. But fundamental cultural issues – such as what your brand means to the customer - can’t be handled from the inside. Your own corporate culture and assumptions get in the way of your analysis. This is when you go to the outside - that’s the core value of consultancy.

Your brand is who your customers think you are, not who you think you are.

Our other major involvement with Echolalia was an established company in an evolving competitive market. The “Brand Statement” came back reading like their brochure. Again, it was the inside view of who they were and what they stood for.  No one interviewed their customers. No one interviewed their competitor’s customers. Many in the company are happy with that because the report validates what they already believe. Of course it does – the report is simply feeding back what the consultant heard and read.

In the meantime, the marketplace is evolving rapidly. New players and products are being introduced on a regular basis. It’s only a matter of time until one of them comes up with The Big Idea. That’s how the marketplace works.   

Fortunately, not all the executives drank the Kool-Aid, so there we were, searching out their value – their Brand - where it actually lives: in the minds of their customers. We were not just looking for what they asked for, we were searching out what they needed to know in order to position themselves effectively.

Enormous sums are expended on echoing client ideas back. This brings nothing to the table. In fact it sets everyone back and makes us all cynical. The advice to “Keep doing what you’re doing, only better/faster/more” is the same as saying keep doing what you’re doing and hope for different results.

We all know how well that works; it’s one of the clinical definitions of insanity.

Next time you commission work or just a blue-sky session for a wickedly persistent problem, ask yourself this question:  what’s new here that I didn’t already know or say to the brain I’m paying to pick? If the answer is very little, then you are either dealing with an amateur or a favorite consultant you didn’t choose and whose work you can’t use. You have our sympathies. I never wanted to be a firefighter, but when the phone rings, it’s often because someone’s carefully crafted marketing plan just went up in flames - because it was built on echoes.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Problem Solving in Space: Labyrinth as Journey

The classic maze is an intricate puzzle of twisted corridors, chambers, or passageways.  It is an ingenious wandering way filled with devious detours and byways, constructed to perplex and confuse. The labyrinth is a special type of maze.  And now for some ancient history.

In Egypt, Amenemhet III of the XII Dynasty built himself a funeral temple in the form of a great labyrinth. In Europe’s first civilization, crowned with the 1,500-room palace at Knossos, a more famous example in Crete was built by Daedelus for King Minos to house the Minotaur and trap his sacrificial captives.  Theseus, son of the Athenean King, was able to solve the riddle of the maze using a ball of string, killing the Minataur to end the cycle of blood sacrifice that started with Minos and his defiance of the gods.  This labyrinth is also associated with Rhea, mother of Zeus, goddess of caves whose symbol was the double axe, “labrys,” from which the term comes.

The labyrinth is one of the earliest man-made environments, an artwork of stone or hedges (the maze) designed not to shelter people or store goods but to confound the mind and spirit.  It was the first puzzle in three dimensions to be solved in real time. Its windings have been the nexus of fascination in myth and legend—starting with the trials of the gods, moving on to the devout pilgrim’s journey and taking the contemporary form of the maze-making of experimental psychology. An experiment at the University of Rochester in a basement maze was used to demonstrate the difference between male and female toolbars in direction-seeking.  It is a metaphor of frustration and anxiety, of tangled politics, of inconsistent systems and clues, as well as the spiritual quest for meaning.  There is a critical distinction between the maze and the labyrinth here:  The maze is designed mainly to confuse; the labyrinth, a more specialized format, to resolve the maze confusion by both leading to a central core and then back out again for the resolution of a complete journey.

Its serpentine shape bespeaks intrigues, captives, teases, and outrages.  Used as a substitute or symbolic journey for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, it is a capsule version of the Christian progress through tests of faith as the center and return that can be won through faith and patience. The mazes at Hampton Court Palace in Greater London, at Villa d’Este in Tivoli, at the Emperor’s Summer Palace in China, and in the film “The Shining” and “Sleuth”-- all play their parts in constructing the meaning of this special journey in its time.  The maze at Versailles (now defunct) contained at its 39 intersections fountains in the shapes of animals from Aesop’s Fables.  The maze concept was incorporated into the formal garden as topiary and ornamental plantings forming circuitous routes called alleys.     

In this way the labyrinth is a living illustration of the merging of symbol with nature, in which the map is itself the puzzle to be divined.  Since ancient times, it has been far more than a shape in which to move around and find one’s way (and oneself); it has been the archetype for a wicked sort of complexity.  The word itself is the index for intricacy, intrigue, and ingenuity in both the problem-poser and the solution-finder.  The labyrinth constructs a special kind of journey, not only, as the “Twilight Zone” TV series put it, of sight and sound, but of mind.  The web of sinuous windings is the problem itself.  Its heavy symbolism is an invitation to more abstraction, for example, in the puzzle-map model as viewed from above.  In the glass case model in the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining,” a close-up inspection shows little live figures tracking its pathways. We can’t be sure whether they live in Jack Torrance’s tortured imagination or in director Stanley Kubrick’s --or in ours.

The labyrinth is also the ultimate experiential puzzle.  Its baffling corridors remind us of the fuzzy logic problem to which the answer is never straightforward.  In fact, following the maze in search of the elusive exit more nearly resembles the search for the problem itself.  Once defined and tracked down by switchback routing, the question, once properly posed, answers itself. The parallels to spiritual journey and problem solving, along with the medieval metaphor of the difficulty of attaining heaven, are rich.  This richness invites exploration in the mind and heart in tandem with the journey on foot in physical space.  Maze is equally the word for testing skill in problem solving, linking mental dexterity to the “amazement” of spiritual inquiry.

To be in the hedge-and-alley maze at Hampton Court Palace (built in 1690, it is the oldest surviving maze in England), or following the labyrinth carved into stone in the entryway at Chartres Cathedral in France, is a living exercise in mind-reading: trying to follow the mind-map of the designer.  Did he make all right turns in his mind?  On the other hand, how did the labyrinth-maker predict the wayfinding of the puzzle-walkers who would take up the challenge of his creation?  It is a mind journey of discovery, frustration, and existential search.  Along the way are the key experiences (or mindshifts, as they are called at the School for Innovators) that can be charted on an expedition: thinking differently to get different results that get you to the top of the peak—and back down. Being lost in a space designed as a brain and body teaser forces discovery of the box as the key to finding the way out of the box.  It inspired the breakout of the Minotaur’s prison in Crete, because the mind contained by the walls knew that “the air and sky are free.”

Played out in space, the convolutions of the labyrinth resemble the folds and furrows of the brain, with its billion connections. These folds, turned in on each other to pack maximum torque into the smallest space, thrive on play and intrigue, leading us to invent these circuitous puzzles as we solve them.   

The convoluted trails, with their false leads and dead ends, quickly prove that there is no straightforward route to the goal.  Stress and discouragement soon follow this proof. Uncertainty, fear, and doubt soon prevail.  Even in the safest of mazes, the commercial theme-park type, there is always the lookout for a reassuring sign, any indication that there is an end in sight or around the corner.  Where are when the end is to be found is never clear because this is no distance race: this is distance coiled up in a cluster of detours and dead ends.  There is no reassurance, no benchmark to signal that success is at hand.  Very quickly after entering the maze, faith is involved: in staying the course, trusting that it leads somewhere and somehow, to serve one’s purpose.  Much like life.

As the journey progresses, one has the sensation of moving backwards through the landscape as old landmarks and vistas loom ahead in an apparent regression through the pattern.  Dismay sets in as the journey, proceeding to a point as yet unknown, seems to propel the maze-walker back in space and time, the working definition of “lost.” Accordingly, there comes the persistent temptation to retrace steps in a regressive re-run to escape to the beginning before bewilderment sets in.  Lost in Injun Joe’s cave, Tom Sawyer, with a ball of twine and a depleted candle, finally collided with the outside world only because he connected to an opening from which he could see the “free air” as a blue clue of daylight.  Had the sky color been the dark of night, the caves would have kept him prisoner.  

Anything circuitous and peripatetic appears to lead nowhere but back into the morass of misleading indirection.  But, with perseverance and faith, the path rewards by at last guiding the seeker to the goal. This is the magic and mystique of the labyrinth, and the reason that century after century we are drawn to its wicked lair design.  To find by looking, to discover by following, in real space and time, a systematic train of thought that carries the traveler through chaos to create a unique pattern of order: that is the labyrinth’s promise and purpose.

We move, not always forward, but sideways and backward.  Our goal is seldom in sight but must be held as a precious property in the mind, an abstraction that draws our steps forward.  Once inside this devious perplex, where there is no escape but to solve for the exit or center; in circle mazes, the center is only the midpoint of the journey; the next challenge is to find the way back out again to the startpoint.  Creativity, hope, and persistence are the required equipment.  Forced into conscious awareness is a whole cycle of thought; risk, ambition, reticence, and uncertainty about how and when the problem will finally be solved.  Resistance against entering the unfamiliar arena of complexity takes hold and exerts pressure.  Tortuous meandering locks into place and can’t be broken.

Originally a defense device to baffle the enemy, the labyrinth is a problem created to be solved, and to put the solver to a kind of whole-body test.  Humans are problem solvers.  To add to our myriad real-life fuzzy-mess problems, we invent them as an artform.  Here play as learning and problem solving is put through its paces in time and space. Getting through the maze of life is survival, but it is also, as an extension of the collective brain, the ultimate in gamesmanship—whether at the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg, at Hampton Court, or at Versailles.

Monday, June 6, 2016

What Is Culture FOR? The Culture Question

What is Culture FOR?  The Culture Question

“We see not only with our eyes but with all that we are and all that our culture is.”

--Dorothea Lange, documentary photographer

What do our cars, food, sports, movies, electronics, homes, and jewelry do for us?  How do they create our world and direct our responses to it?  This is the “cultural question.” That’s because the grand array of culture is never just about things, people, places, and experiences.  To understand our own ecology, the world made by and for humans, we must be able to move from objects and events into the depths of what it all means—and why.

This means transforming information by refining it, using analytical tools, into the far richer material of intelligence.  It is not enough to observe and describe.  Somewhere, somehow, the raw material must be refined to become research gold. 

The mandate

This mandate of cultural analysis is simple but not easy: to search through the record of human behavior and weed out the “ethnographic dazzle” —a term coined by British anthropologist Robin Fox to mean “blindness to underlying similarities between human groups and cultures because one is dazzled by the more highly visible surface differences.”  These are the fascinating but essentially meaningless behavioral variations that divert attention from the deeper core drivers behind any cultural aspect—a thing or experience—to explain how and why it motivates its buyers and users.

Over the years our analyses have involved categories as diverse as diamonds, steaks, swimming pools, shoes, lawns, milk, and car mufflers.  As well as space exploration, college education, real estate, careers, fine art, and male-female bonding. In all cases we posed the same questions: How do people actually USE these categories as tools? What are they FOR? What makes them so useful that the categories and behaviors are passed down from generation to generation?

If you understand people and their priorities, all this falls into place as a grand array of exemplars; templates for the way people think, act, and make decisions on any aspect of their culture.  We isolate and clarify the top facts that describe these aspects as operational on the ground, how they work for us and evoke action, meshed with what’s already in the mind.  

And if people use it, have ever used it, want to use it, or will use it in the future, it’s part of culture.  And very often the way things are designed to be used are seldom the way they actually get used outside the lab, by real people in real time.


As much money and time as people spend on swimming pools, after the first few months, they stop swimming regularly and instead use them as water features  or as landscaping backdrop for parties. It’s a cultural trope – a mini theme which intuitively appeals because, when you think about it, people don’t live on land alone. They settle where the land meets the water.

Similarly, as exciting as space exploration is, the public identifies with living human astronauts, not with billion-dollar robotic equipment. Machines can’t replace humans in the public imagination. The one exception – the Mars “Rovers” – they have a dog’s name, and look something like robotic dogs – our oldest nonhuman companion as a species.

In another category, a college education isn’t about education as much as it’s about becoming a fully socialized person, building class (as in upper and middle) affiliation. You can’t sell a university by stressing academic rigor because education as a value is assumed at any school. Excellence isn’t a distinction here.     

Culture on the outside

When most people think of “culture” they think of it on stage, behind glass, in museums, libraries, archives.  That’s one level.  Then there is the other end of the scale – the culture of the houses, the fields, the streets and squares, the direct link between campfires of 200,000 years ago and the television and social media of today.  It’s what people do around the fire - tell stories about who they were, how they got here, and what is expected of them – that our early hominid ancestors did, and we still do today. It’s not what it is (fire/television) but what we use it for – that’s Culture the Tool.

Our mission as analysts is to understand how cultural values motivate behavior and social thinking.  We do this by examining the evidence of these values over long time frames, from ancient and pre-history to the present.  The historical record of what groups have paid for with their money, time, and experiences is basic evidence—far beyond what people say they do and want—for what they really believe is important. 

Culture is the ultimate case of groupthink.  It is the body of knowledge and custom passed from generation to generation in the oldest heritage system on earth.  But culture is far more.  Museums and archives collect and preserve the rich treasury of past artifacts, from bones and stones of prehistory to high-tech artworks and computer devices (in their own museum) of the digital near past.

The jewelry case

While we most often consider culture as the catalogue of these exhibit pierces, material culture is just the outward production, the showcased expression of culture in three dimensions.  In fact, jewelry is the first finding or clue (predating clothing) to be discovered as an insight into the mind of prehistoric people. The beta form of personal adornment (as termed in material culture) certainly has more to tell us about universal human values (or what we can call the “permaculture”), as underlying the roots of any culture now living.

Beyond metalworking, precious and semi-precious stones, and the earlier bead, bone, feather and stone example, all jewelry has a story to tell that extends from prehistoric to contemporary and from here into the future of culture.  From wedding rings to chains of office and military medals, jewelry has been almost entirely about relationships – to other people, our bonds with them within organizations, and our attainments of distinction.  That’s not even on the list of where jewelers think value lies in the formula “carat, cut, clarity, and color.”  That’s how jewelers buy diamonds. Customers buy symbols of relationships. If you don’t believe that, ask any woman to talk about her jewelry. You’ll get the whole story.

Jewelry is just one visible facet that tells us who we are by what we value.  Sports is ritualized violence and head-to-head competition in a palatable, rule-bound form of conflict, running from chess to football.  In the tech arena, computers revolutionized communication by making what people already do faster, easier, and cheaper—whereas computing was originally seen as a tool for a scientific elite working with math.  Word processing is now the central writing activity, essentially turning computing into letter-writing at digital speed with global reach.  

By examining the evidence for its core human value, we can build an analytical system to “read” from the big data what all our artifacts and behaviors mean at their deepest level.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

It’s about the Magic


The real magic of the human condition is that humans share a reality we don’t realize we share – until provided by way of an experience designed to evoke it.  A very early example is the campfire that provided light, warmth, cooking, and safety, the original heart of the home, the hearth—as well as the heat and light that anchored the earliest settlements. 

The first effects of controlled illumination were visible in the faces warmed and colored by firelight, along with the sharing of food, drink, and stories of the hunt, the journey, the battle, and fear and danger overcome.  250,000 years later, romance is still fueled by the hearth and candlelight, just as the outdoor grill and its aromas serve to recall and rekindle the rewards of the hunt, the original human teamwork project.  The gift of fire was the gift of reassurance, social cohesion in bonding, and confidence that we could fend off dark and cold, hunger and loneliness, with our creative crafting of the natural world.

Perfect places

This magic of the campfire has been extended in places so ingeniously designed that, like the fireside, they evoke behaviors perfect to their purposes, as if on autopilot.  No signage is needed, as in sacred spaces, because the purpose of the place is perfectly clear in itself, making intuitive sense.  The most successful places ever built pull this off seemingly without effort.  What their designers did was to understand instinctively, without doing the math, exactly how people behave, where, and why.  Find ways to build in this intuitive knowledge as a conscious act, and the public will visit, and more important, re-visit—the whole secret to public spaces that succeed to survive, prevail, and even turn a profit.

Magic on purpose

But this magic doesn’t just happen, it must be learned at a Hogwarts Academy, that hard place where magic must be earned by the exacting act of learning and absorption, then applied.  Intuition can take you so far, because it comes from the same brain as knowledge.  But there is a science of design as it fits human needs and wants, and that is the work of cultural analysis in centering human-based building.

Familiar spaces are those we know so well, from our homes to the White House, from the office to the zoo, department store to gift shop, as object lessons of problem-solving at its most pragmatic.  But the process of coming up with solutions to place-making problems can’t be explained by the “magic” touted by Disney Company.  We know how to behave in a castle – even a “real fake” one in Disneyland, or in the glitter of a casino, or the awesome majesty of a cathedral, or again, the civil sanctity of the Oval Office (where the most sophisticated guest can choke up on a planned speech). 

Why?  Because each of these places evokes a set of behaviors within each visitor—an inner character and core script close to theatrical.  The ability to cue this acting is the outcome of clear design parameters that set the stage.

This blog will describe various stage sets.  But it will do something more: lay out the parameters of our common cultural equipment that make these stages work, starting in the mind with perception.

For example, how do we know, at any moment, where we are, and what we are supposed to do there?  The answer depends on some heavy brainwork: work that takes in the sensory world, compares it to inner templates of meaning and motivation, and makes almost instant decisions about the appropriate script.   There is a whole rationale for this instant recognition, the built-in rulebook by which people understand and act within the spaces we all know – as well as new ones (hint: we treat the new as an extension of the old by sensing and filing its perceptual cues in the old folders). 

How it works: Rules for human-based design

Once these rules and rubrics are out in the open to demonstrate the dynamics of space use and wayfinding, the task of designing places that work can be an informed one.  Not through some arcane process that defies explanation, but as a deliberate decision sequence that illustrates the logic of thinking and feeling as inspired by design. We should be the sorcerer, not the sorcerer’s apprentice, practicing magic by design.  The better the marriage, the less dependent it needs to be on the magic of romance and more on the harder logic of relationship maintenance and negotiation.


Such decisions include: How much space for how many people?  What colors should dominate for this purpose?  Lighting, furnishings—what styles are best suited to the behavioral theme?  What historic or geographical themes offer the most effective outcomes?  Music, programming, drama, icons and symbols, and “talis” array (the touchstone takeaway objects and images) are all synthesized into creation or re-creation of spaces to promote the purpose. Designers make these decisions intuitively all the time.  But what I’m raising here is a bigger question: how do all these aspects interface with the visitor mind? 

This is the human/design interface.  What is already in this person’s mind?” What template will they use to identify this place when they see it? What emotions are attached to that template/algorithm?  How do we manage those emotions? In what context will the observer be observing- where will they “stand” contextually – solo, with a group, what sort of group – intimate? Strangers? Colleagues? Other?

Much of the rulebook of contemporary retail was worked out by Henry Selfridge from the turn of the last century in his London emporium.  He operated by shrewd instinct to create retailing traditions out of his head that are now industry templates.  He also had his store designers to consult.  But what works can be copied, explained, and replicated for future success.


And what is the purpose of any given space?  This is a question more often assumed than analyzed; we think we know this intuitively.  We do—when we see it.  But before we do, someone must know what they are doing in order to create place out of space.  Disney’s original statement about what was in his head was nothing anyone else could relate to: (Iwerks and Kenworthy in Hench, The Art of the Show, p. 2) “…a small amusement park…designed to appeal to both children and adults….something of a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic.” No wonder, under this rudimentary business plan, that so few people were able to understand his start-up vision by this hazy outline.  What Disney was inventing was a new kind of public space, attuned to an audience he loved and respected—an experience environment.

What Disney and his team designed was far more, but it had to be experienced to be believed and understood a generation later – nearly twenty years after Disneyland—by the handful of architectural critics and practitioners who were, despite their formal training, able to transcend that barrier to grasp what was in Walt’s mind. The first Imagineers weren’t architects, and the initial appreciation for themeing came from the ranks of people trained outside architecture, in animation, filmmaking, theater and interior design, and urban planning.

With the creation of the first park, Disney achieved an institution beyond the user-friendly public space now so widely praised and emulated. In fact, he produced something far greater, a template for the building-scape of our cities and suburbs ever since.  This early innovation deliberately followed a sequence of related thematic stories for a walkthrough environment, a series of crafted experiences to be lived and re-lived in totally immersive 3D; a living movie in which the visitor is the lead actor.

Just as theme parks embody “the art of the show,” we use the wider term “thematics” to encompass the entire built environment and all that visitors “perform” or experience therein.  This domain includes the humanscape of buildings, transportation (from land vehicles to ships and skyways), suburb and waystation, malls, assisted living communities, from major cities to edge cities to villages and small towns; oil rigs, castles, hospitals, airports, warehouses, and golf courses – every node imaginable. 

Everything people do within and about these designed worlds is included—working, socializing, buying, selling, browsing, walking, riding, boating, flying, hiking, and biking; learning, adventuring, meeting up, gardening and growing, sporting, worshipping, fair-going, recovering, being born,  grieving, and dying—from birth to funeral, our lives happen within spaces designed for the grand scope of human talent and potential. The gamut runs from hospitals where we now are both born and die, to theme parks that showcase our deepest and dearest motivations.   

Human-based design

The age when designers could dictate their own terms is closing down.  The humanscape is becoming a flatter ecology.  The visitor, user, or guest always did shape place to their own ends.  It is now far more clear that in order to compete in the mass public arena, the audience and their aspirations and perceptions of things has moved up to take the helm of the design agenda.

Architecture and building can no longer operate within the “pure” control of the architect and builder alone; they have to engage with the instincts, tastes, and talents of those who will use the space with their own agendas drawn from the broader cultural mandate.  Rarely are these the same as the private creativity of those who conceive and create these places for their own personal ends as monuments to their own talent.  It has to be about the user as the client, with the architect as a rapt artisan who serves at the client’s pleasure.

The best places are custom-designed for the innate genius of the human brain, body, and behaviors—to fit the cultural (shared belief) program, after Universal Design has been satisfied. This means there are actually two style sheets for place design:  first, what all humans share, and second, the cultural “set” that distinguishes one group from another—northern and southern, French and British and Arab and Asian, male and female, younger and older, upper, middle and lower class.

These categories each come with a unique value system that requires different stylings to promote and underwrite them.  “Family” is code for child, class, and cost, most often in a category by itself that excludes adult, and especially teen, themes (Las Vegas being geared to these two). Both New Orleans and Las Vegas have gone through branding experiments pitching their images to the family market. These failed because people have a mental file folder for both places labeled “hedonism, adults only, and 18 and older.”  These are special “forbidden zones,” escape valves from the righteous and careful ethic of civil society geared to order.  Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has explained the gap in his quip “There is no such thing as fun for the whole family,” because, as our age-stage development chart shows, adults, adolescents, and children have widely segmented priorities.  Many times these are at odds. 

While this is a very general schematic, it outlines the categories key to audience-based decision making in design.  Twenty-five years’ experience in guiding our clients’ focus on what is most critical to their audiences will be clarifying to every designer who needs to create the public space that targets every type of experience.  

We are too often called in to troubleshoot when the issues causing problems could have been addressed, avoided, or solved far earlier in the design process—at the fuzzy front end.  Human dynamics introduced earlier, rather than later, always yield cost and time-saving, up-front economies that go far to prevent the expensive bill for damages to operations and reputation otherwise doomed to happen on the ground.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Mind of Design


“Yes, an architect’s primary responsibility is to shape form.  But there is social meaning inherent in every structure, in every form, in every place, and in every situation, and it does architecture no good to suggest that the act of form-making is separate and distinct from the uses to which a form will be put.”

                                       --Shigeru Ban, Pritzker Prize recipient, 2014

The designed environment consists in every kind of structure, but most are conventional, based on standard patterns that work and have worked for hundreds of years.  At the opposite end of the scale are those experimental artworks, like Buckminster Fuller’s spherical dymaxian house, monuments to creativity – some of which work, some don’t, most erected for looks (like sculpture) rather than designed for function.

Move over to the other side of the equation. The human beings who use the designed environment, from kitchens to Olympic stadiums. These two energies, design and user, can sometimes meet in the middle – but often this meeting is awkward, ill-planned, or off-base, requiring alterations in the design and / or, more often, workarounds by the user.  This is why people are constantly trying to manage their environments – with mixed results.

But if environments, from auto shops to automats, were consciously conceived and executed for the ways of the social brain and the human body, the foundations of a far better world—with less stress, higher productivity, creativity, better quality of life, and far less conflict between where we have to live and what we need to do and our ambitions for how we’d prefer to spend our time, money, and energy. 

This upgraded scenario includes transportation (cars and planes, the bane of modern life), moving to the places we live and work, shop, meet, and learn.

It turns out that we’re old-fashioned - we would usually rather be within walking distance for everything we do.  And on from these sub-prime environments into our prized leisure retreats for recreation and restoration at hotels, resorts, vacation clubs, and theme parks. These places are desirable largely because their design (with lots of walking, as on the golf links) so closely fits the way we enjoy eating, resting, playing, and recharging—mostly in contrast to where we must do these things but don’t especially like to.  

The best places operate on autopilot, meaning that the design is so attuned to what people already want to do that the dynamics between the way the place is built and the way it is experienced set up a self-motivating engine, a virtual cycle, of design and use.  All great design works this way.


At this point a word about autonomy and its place within the mind of design.  Our brains enjoy a certain autonomy of thought; we can imagine, and dream, and daydream, and we do all these things consistently; they inform our lives in the important unfocused scanning of the possibilities of each day and also in reforming and making sense of the past.  However, our brains are also raised on culture, the social brain, so we act and make decisions by social primate thinking.  The way in which we use space is based on a set of rules that follow this social, or shared cultural, agenda.  Context use and perception follows group thinking. 

Context rules

Our normal behavior unfolds in context, and within all of them, follows rules that are often centuries old, based on the basics of age, gender, and group dynamics.

What we do every day is not individually conceived or executed but highly themed to fit each node.  That is the reason we “know” what to do instantly within the built environment—car, concert hall, bookstore, child-care center, art gallery or garage sale.

In all these places (more than in our own homes, where we do enjoy greater but never total latitude), autonomy is minimized as the social agenda asserts itself.  At root, design is about culture - our shared reality - and not about individuals.

Individuals can command a custom-designed home, but since people use domestic space in very similar ways, aside from materials or site, there isn’t that much point—besides vanity--to the exercise of customization. As many a residential architects can attest, every home has a standardized packing list: heat, light, plumbing, ventilation, energy—all keyed to the human machine: our common brain, body, and behavior, as expressed in culture.

Like our unique ability at creating culture through the art of language, we also shape our lives by creating the very spaces that promote living to our cultural ambitions.  We have been obsessed by the art of place-making for thousands of years; that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.  The nice thing about deep history is that it contains broad clues to ongoing constants that continue to rule the way we do things and our motivations for doing them.  The past therefore indicates how the future is going to unfold.

Symbolic language of space

Our lives as human beings began 200,000 to 300,000 years ago in prehistory with the emergence of language—but also with our ability to abstract spatial relationships, starting with the protected space of the home plot and the physical integrity of the body.  Parallel with language, dedication of various spaces for specified uses created a symbolic environment to suit our emerging abilities and desires.  Place-making allows the world outside to merge with the images and ideas inside our heads, and to provide for our needs and projected needs beyond the immediate present.

Place design presents an earlier way to preserve and transmit knowledge in three dimensions across the generations, before the later achievement of written language.  What is preserved of ancient civilizations, allowing us to know them, is through their sculpting of spaces that have survived the centuries.

It was this received knowledge reserve applied in design that implanted the behaviors made possible by the separation of major life themes—in spaces designed for cooking, resting, working, bathing, socializing and entertaining.  We made the places—then the places made us.

The homes of ancient Egypt show us some of the first themeing of home spaces devoted to specialized behaviors, like rooms devoted just to leisure (the equivalent of the modern media room), adapting the environment to emerging wants as well as ongoing basic needs. 

This collective insight into the advantages of designed space is built into our cultural heritage, at least 200,000 years strong, continuing today as the longest-running invention of humankind.  It is the key to our sovereignty over the earth and our command of time and change, adapting our living spaces to new environments under shifting conditions of climate, habitation, politics.

The earliest signs of design have been discovered in the heartland of human origins – Africa - as fire, jewelry, clothing, art, tools, furnishings, and weapons, marking the ascent of homo sapiens.  Today we are still evolving the ideal design for the things that surround us, for an excellent reason: so that their workings can best support and reflect our collective cultural visions of the ideal life and the ideal self.  

As social primates, we need to move through the built world in formulated ways; which is why design needs to follow a unified field theory of use.  Cultural analysis, based on the fundamentals for a theory of human dynamics, lays the groundwork for such a discipline.  Human-centered planning and building is moving to become the focus of many design disciplines. Place-making may be the most important, because it centers and mobilizes all other human activity.

Theme park, automotive, recreational, church, and dormitory design – just to name a few - all share a basic requirement:  adapting to the human factors always activated by the script of a given place.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Human Toolbar: Resilience


“It’s not that I’m so smart.  It’s just that I stay with problems longer.” 

-- Albert Einstein

“Resilience is the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance.  It is the capacity to rebound after a disturbance or interruption.”

-- Resilience Design Institute, 2016

There is some very good news about talent and native ability.  It applies directly to students just entering college.  On the other hand, it’s a work order that’s open-ended--across your lifetime.  Welcome to your new best secret weapon:  Resilience.

Talent, ability, and achievement receive plenty of attention and reward.  And these do mark the high points on the heroic chart—especially for athletics, the arts, science and technology, business innovation, and academics.  Success is visible, dramatic, and high-profile.  One of the things human beings most love witnessing is virtuoso performance of any kind.

But the backstory to talent and great performance (virtuosity) is far more complex, and largely invisible. A lifetime of thinking and practice is at the root of achievement, tens of thousands of hours of work behind the scenes of every “effortless” career.  This ability to withstand, be tough, and show ego strength on a consistent basis is the essence of success--better even than brains, in fact. Many people, but probably not a majority, have developed these skills in various concentrations.

Motivational factors matter more than cognitive ability for student performance.  Mindsets and self-regulation drive motivation.  Intelligent persistence pays off over brilliance—innate ability.  While brilliance is facile, even glamorous, trudging through a field of reading, writing, experiments, and ever more thinking about it all—it takes serious tenacity to achieve the long-range, big goals like college, professional school, a book, a relationship, a career.  Perseverance is essential to the realization of every creative idea.  As Carol Dweck proposes in her high-concept book Mindset, we are all in the process of becoming—virtually no one ever has it made.    

Resilience is increasingly recognized not as a personal trait but a learned skill for frustration tolerance and living with stress.  How we respond to stress of all kinds is at the core of rebounding from negative thoughts and behavior.  New research in brain science can train people to build and strengthen connections that avoid the fear and disappointment circuits that are so easily self-reinforcing and can take over.  Southwick and Charney's book Resilience is an excellent overview of research done and now in progress. 

Resilience is probably the core human skill set because it allowed us to evolve as far as we have as highly social (and therefore also highly conflicted) animals.  Resilience is individual and keyed to our personal stress limits and the rewards needed to stay engaged.  Several factors seem to be involved for successful resilience practitioners:  facing down fear (getting out of denial); strong social networks with people who "have our back"; regular exercise to defuse our heavy mental and emotional loads; and mindfulness, including meditation.  Dennis Charney says, “There’s not one prescription that works…You have to find what works for you” (Time, June 1, 2015, p. 40).  But the core story here is the human genius for converting pain into growth.

We are researching this promising area for colleges looking for ways to coach students at all levels to survive the rigors of academic achievement.  Such coaching can counter the gamut of school hazards from freshman dropouts to low or slow graduation rates, even extending to Ph.D. dropouts--all expensive derailments of time, self-esteem, and fees.

The dynamics of human evolution, and the history of civilization (the “career of culture”) depend less on invention and innovation and far more on practice over time to create culture.  As humans we are constantly “practicing” the art of our humanity – a complex and formidable mix of intuition, rules, brainpower, sociability, and imagination.  This collective endeavor as culture-building calls for these, of course.  But also fortitude against discouragement, demotivation, and pessimism: the source of solo and collective depression (and the worldwide disengagement in the workplace now widely reported and discussed).

In the 1950s, Emmy Werner’s study of 700 vulnerable children in Kauai found that good survival of poor family conditions came from tight-knit community, stable role models, and a strong belief in one’s abilities to solve problems.  The researchers discovered that around a third had the resilience quality.  Other studies focus on Special Forces, victims of floods, fires, tsunamis, prisons of war, and survivors of other such horrific tragedies.  “It seems to us that there is enormous untapped capacity of the human brain,” notes Charney.  How we respond to stress is the heart of resilience: the ability to turn off the stress response and return to a useful emotional baseline.  This talent to return to normal can combat the ravages of disappointment, fear, rejection, loneliness, failure, and anxiety and guilt about the future and past.  Frustration tolerance, which can be learned and practiced, turns off our natural fear circuit, which otherwise leads to the repeat cycle of depression and hopelessness. 

Scientists are looking closely at the psychology of courage and perseverance—and engagement in general--in the form of resilience, which is being considered over innate ability as the key trait needed for lasting growth and learning.

Sustained focus over time is difficult for the human brain.  Across the extended time frames of a college education, a graduate or professional degree, and careers, continued focus is especially challenging.  And with our prolonged age span into the 80s and 90s, resilience will become even more in demand to face illness and infirmity, financial downtowns, and finding purpose ranging out beyond work and family responsibilities and the vitality of youth.

Even beyond mental and physical gifts, resilience confers the necessary toughness and ego strength to keep moving in the face of obstacles and setbacks, including our own built-in aversion across the range of natural discomfort, disappointment, and the disorientation of uncertainty.  It might be our first and last secret weapon. Best of all, it’s not something you are born with, it’s something you can learn.