Thursday, December 7, 2017

Ideas are Cheap – Wait, No They Aren’t

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

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

Too Many Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Cultural Competence – The Right Tool for Dealing with Diversity


Training in Cultural Competence is replacing Diversity Training at many American companies, and it’s long overdue. Diversity Training has been around for over two decades now, which gave researchers at Harvard ample data to conduct a meaningful in-depth study of their effectiveness.  An article on the findings of that report in the Harvard Business Review, titled Why Diversity Programs Fail, concluded that Diversity Training not only shows dismal results, but also makes conditions inside the company worse. For full details, the article is available on the internet (HBR, August 2016).

Like many other long-term, research-dense studies out of Harvard, the authors validate conclusions that are self-evident to people on the ground. Ask any parent of a five-year-old and they’ll tell you that children don’t like to be told what to do and will push back when you try to do it. The Harvard study documents the fact that this pushback is part of being human and doesn’t end at childhood.

Diversity Training focuses on awareness and inclusion, taking a didactic training approach that seeks to outline a rulebook for correct thinking and behavior.  Efforts have been mounted to improve DT’s track record of training that shows little difference in outcomes from its first emergence in the mid-60s, and flat results in schools and the workplace for promoting fair treatment and hiring. While the conclusions may seem obvious in hindsight, the study’s significance is that Harvard documented and detailed this dismal result across a twenty-year timeframe. Failure here is no fluke, nor a case of technique, but due to a fundamental flaw in the approach.

As a cultural analyst, I think this is a major achievement and a step in a positive direction. The Harvard study found that people don’t appreciate being told how to think about or how to treat others. 

What is wanting is a deeper education (as opposed to training) that informs everyone first, about their own cultural ways of thinking, and second, about the universe of other mindsets in which they need to live.  The desired outcome is a liberal studies plan for learning about others and how to understand, communicate, appreciate, and empathize with people of backgrounds other than one’s own. This will never be achieved by a forced ruleset about accepting everyone no matter who they are.  There is just not enough “why” included to satisfy our naturally self-biased minds.  We have a deep need to understand why we are learning and how this learning can or should be applied.

In fact, the cliché that learning about foreign cultures (like foreign language) makes it possible to understand one’s own cultural identity is quite on the mark.  Learning about your own culture as a conscious act then makes it possible to see where other cultures line up around yours.  Unfortunately, the ground-floor knowledge of where you yourself stand is tricky to find and recognize.    

Cultural Competence

Culture learning has multiple aspects that make it sophisticated and a lifelong undertaking. Raising your CQ is therefore a complex undertaking. Using the simplest working definition of Cultural Competence as the ability to relate and work effectively across cultures--to communicate effectively and appropriately with people of other backgrounds--bypasses the difficult work of figuring out the rules, norms, ideals, and expectations carried by every culture that explain the ways in which they perceive, think, feel, and act. 

However, this is not ever as easy as just asking people the simple question, “Who are you, and how should I deal with you?”  Because culture operates below the surface of conscious thinking, it requires a close reading of how culture is expressed – in language, food, music, governance, art, technology, business, and domestic life—to derive from the way groups dress, for example, their ideas about appropriate or ideal ways of life and relationships.  The connection isn’t clear, but it can, with some teasing out, be discerned. 

The idea is to get beyond conventions of greeting, introductions, and gift-giving to the values behind those conventions, for example, in the handling of business cards as differing between American and Japanese business people.  What are the rules of negotiation and verbal conflict that are observed?  Of paying attention, listening, interrupting, responding to new information, positive or negative?  What do these tell us about how issues are identified and resolved?

The Cultural Question

The cultural question is always this:  What are people in any culture trying to do, and to become, to themselves and each other?  Once you have hold of this core Value principle, it then becomes far easier to read and understand what people are doing and to relate your own behavior to theirs in effective and even productive ways.  And yes, it is far easier to understand what you yourself are doing, and how that comes across to others within and outside your own group, if you can discover what your own culture is about.  That’s never easy to do—it requires breakthrough insight that’s (in my experience) relatively rare.  We each see the world through our own cultural lens and think we understand it.  Only when that vision stops working is it clear that something is off in our ability to read and navigate the territory. 

For example: Muslim culture has for three or more decades been the focus of world attention in its contest with the West for world attention.  Cultural differences exist within as well as between cultures.  So despite the headlines of terrorism that make this contest look like East versus West, the violent upheavals are far more an expression of intra-Moslem faith feuds than they are outward-directed attacks.  The task of understanding these cross-Islamic conflicts is an arcane and arduous one, far beyond the grasp or ability of media journalists and reporters (or even well-versed scholars).  The East-West story is far easier to outline and populate with villains, and that’s what we get in the Western press.  So Cultural Competence could bring real intelligence to the global conflict between Islamic v. Christian (Enlightenment) values.

There are other differences to navigate as well: by Gender, Age, Class, and Context.  These cultural aspects are just as real as national / ethnic friction. Gender is the only biological factor that directly influences how we perceive the world around us. This is why males and females perceive stimuli with brains that are configured differently, influenced by different chemicals, and transmit information to different arrangements of receptors. The human age-stage development chart bristles with value changes that occur every four to five years in twenty-year cycles over a lifetime.  Class differences are the root of racial and ethnic prejudice.  And cultures are framed and nurtured--national, regional, and local--by climate, landscape, agriculture, industry, craft, and commerce.  Culture is an outgrowth of its physical and psychological ecology and the values engendered by desert, ocean, mountain, forest, or plains.  One reason America became its own culture was that its temperate character offered such ridiculously higher opportunity than Europe, where land had been divided up and locked-in for generations.  The US open-ended frontier offered the chance to think outside history, to value creativity and enterprise, and to focus on the future potential rather than on frameworks of the past.


Diversity Training has been conducted over the past several decades by schools and workplaces driven by the need for functional teams that include diversity in demographics, belief, and hierarchy, expressed as gender, ethnicity, age, religion, class, and power relations of role and rank.  The goal of this endeavor has been to foster regard for differences and to facilitate strategies targeted to better decision-making and group performance.  This objective has to take into account the nuances of style, assumptions, communication, and autonomy needs within social situations.  A very useful theory base for this work can be found in the positive psychology movement of Self-Determination Theory.

Here at The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, we’ve been studying culture for a quarter-century, always starting from the perspective of fundamental questions: What is culture for? Why does it exist? How do we use it? How does it shape our fundamental assumptions? How does it work? What are its assumptions based on?

And we have found answers to many of these questions. They are not unknowable. When we started our work we thought we would be explaining American culture to foreigners. It turned out that we spend our time explaining American culture to Americans because culture operates below our conscious horizon. We don’t think about it, we just have it.

Which leaves us with one basic conclusion: You can’t understand someone else’s culture unless you consciously understand the cultural assumptions on which your own thinking is based. So we wound up explaining our own culture to Americans. That’s the basis of cultural competence.

While groups made up of people who are homogenous find it easier to arrive at consensus, diverse groups typically come up with more ingenious solutions to problems.  The issue is that diversity is more challenging to manage, takes longer, and requires more tools and techniques.  There is a broader horizon beyond the usual diversity mandate.  What does it mean to be competent in culture?  Here the aim is applied: to answer how people of diverse backgrounds and values can work together as effective teams. What is needed are new forms of social intelligence for the way we relate to each other  Elite professionals practice this all the time in the arts, sciences, technology, and business; ways can be found of deriving what they do intuitively to determine how human differences can be a source of competence wealth rather than conflict.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Collegiality: The coming wave for work and learning

Photo: Siansa National Concert Hall Dublin

“What do you call a co-worker these days? Neither teammate nor confederate will do, and partner is too legalistic. The answer brought from academia to the political world by Henry Kissinger and now bandied in the boardroom is colleague. It has a nice upper-egalitarian feel, related to the good fellowship of collegial.”

 A new exploration in the world of work and worklife is emerging: the discipline and skill set of colleagueship.  Starting at the university level, Michael Fischer wrote an impassioned piece in Inside Higher Education (April 30, 2009) on why colleagueship is important--in fact essential--to the rewards of teaching and research.  In his article, ”Defending Collegiality,”  Fischer explains the value and essence of the collegial life, noting that this is in many respects what makes college teaching careers so worthwhile.  Especially in academe, educators enjoy a “remarkable autonomy,” as distinguished from other kinds of work where people are considered employees rather than professionals.  But the social backdrop for this autonomy, rather than the boss-peer dyad, is the flatter dynamic of peer-to-peer empowerment.

Even deans and department heads, the boss level in higher education, are considered colleagues first and bosses second.  In his book The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2007), Robert I. Sutton details the extensive morale damage that can be done when power-personality-driven faculty or executive staff decide to treat colleagues like despised hirelings rather than respected fellow professionals. 

This innovative focus on the relations among professionals has been insightful in looking critically as a cultural analyst at a couple of leading professional schools: one in the arts and one in music.  The mandate was to design in-service seminars to teach the basics of what is being called Cultural Competence.  CultComp has become a requirement across colleges and universities intended to reflect and magnify their diversity profile, leaning toward students.  Such training serves to raise awareness and appreciation in order to improve communications to bridge language, value, belies, and ethnic differences. 

At both highly selective institutions, rather than researching their student identity brand at the Student Life level (the customary approach), my team determined that their selective student body was like the theory that informs Marine Corps recruiting: that recruits are born with the special aptitudes that make a Marine and then they find the Corps.  In the same way, students at highly selective institutions are born rather than made, deliberately rare and different from the ordinary in dedication to their métiers.  These academies, like the Marines, are looking for a few, not the many, very good students.

Also like the Marine Corps, specialized institutions are turning out graduates who will work in the same field, as friends, colleagues, and competitors – often over an entire career – and it is collegiality that makes that possible. As basic training, Cultural Competence makes crossing all sorts of borders the bridging tool.   

So rather than design Cultural Competence courses at the expected level of undergrad through senior, I recommended developing the “expert student” concept on a higher track – that of professional development.  Even at the entry level, these elite trainees are already performing at the expert level, expecting to continue along the fast track into their graduate and post-graduate careers.  From there to take their places in the front ranks of the arts, both visual and performance-based. 

The needed cultural learning bridge isn’t student life skills (study, time management, club activity, athletics) but the startup toolkit of a working professional, including agency (self-management), career management, competition strategy, teamwork, and long-term tactics for understanding the needs of colleagues and mentors alike.   Asking and answering lifelong questions along the career path within the studio or classroom takes the broader vision of student life as a career already well-launched. 

Photo: CalArts: U.S. News and World Report
Such questions that inquiry and training can address early on include career-building, networking, work/life balance, the ethics of competitive performance, publication, and service.  The emergent meaning is in discovering how to be and behave as a worthy colleague (including reputation-building, maintenance, and repair).  These concerns begin at the graduate level and project decades into the future of any professional career.  A Higher Education Research Institute study at UCLA in 2004-05 ranked “being a good colleague” as “very important or essential” at 91.6%, versus 80% fifteen years earlier.  

Collegial life is increasingly militated against by scarcer public resources, the alienation of faculty from their schools and each other by the pressures of squeezed budgets and time-scarce schedules, a buyer’s job market, increasingly fragmented adjunct and part-time “piecework,” and amidst growing pressure to publish and perform, increasing introversion and disengagement—all tending to community disintegration.  And there is increasing need to create engagement and networking designed for independent scholars and freelance professionals, including still-active retirees, who labor in isolation or project by project or course by course. 

Overall, the skills of colleagueship can be ranked as basic social skills, which are not taught explicitly but picked up and practiced as group norms or far more rarely, by leadership example.  In collapsing-hive cultures, however, where norms have gradually sunk to abysmal, collegial relations can deteriorate so severely that the only solution is a complete escape and a fresh start in a better-kept hive.  But community disintegration is definitely one of the least-desired concomitant outcomes of the breakdown of social mores among professionals in any field.   Negative interactions, at the micro level, exert five times the effect on mood and morale than positive ones, a finding often cited to show the high importance of supportive environments of compassion over those of distrust and intimidation. 

To address these pressures, colleagueship is poised to become the mainstay skill of any successful career as well as school or department.  It is not graded per se as a skill area for promotion and tenure (as are research (creative activity), teaching, and service.  Yet the human relations demands of the professions, from the arts to music to medicine and the law, are based on their increasingly collaborative nature, within and across disciplines—especially in closely concerted enterprises such as studios, stage, R&D labs, and orchestras.   In these sophisticated venues,  understanding how to approach, analyze, and resolve the inherent conflicts of highly competent people working within the paradox of closely competitive as well as cooperative conditions—including issues of gender, religion, politics, class, ethnicity, nationality, personality, opportunity, and styles—is all activity seasoned professionals do intuitively.  That skill is why they are seasoned and therefore successful.  Sensing and solving for conflicts and avoiding confrontation is just a part of “expert system” thinking by pro collaborators, which operates consistently and without overdue conscious deliberation. 

Making that expert system visible and conscious by analytical exploration and explanation can reveal the principles of diversity, self-awareness, and negotiation involved.  What is called for are ways to codify what expert colleagues do naturally as part of a process of knowledge transfer for the upcoming generation (and Millennials reputedly do this, so far, poorly).  Treating collegiality as a skillset, as an art and a practice essential to the profession itself, can open out to understanding how differences operate to support and further creative effort and environments.   




Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Omni-arts and Imagineering

CalArts: the first degree-granting institution in the country specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts.
 Photo: California Institute of the Arts

“I love Walt Disney’s original concept of creating a school in which the arts could intermingle with each other. “
–Rick Haskins, CalArts Board member

Last month I toured California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA, and began to reflect on its meaning.   

The school came into being out of budget hardship in 1961, with the merger of the Chouinard Art Institute and the historic Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, when both had financial troubles. One of the benefactors of Chouinard was Walt Disney, who had been training and finding his artists there since 1929.  His vision culminated in the merger of the two institutions to create the first degree-granting institution in the country specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts.

CalArts was imagined by Disney at the end of his lifetime in the mid-1960s as a tribute to the many arts that supported his studio empire-enterprise.  Now nearing its half-century anniversary, CalArts has already graduated major talent in music, graphics, film, and theater, besides its best-known suit, animation.  It is also a hub for advancing the global reach of avant-garde communities across Latin America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim.  As one example, CultureHub is an international streaming incubator linking artists and audiences to promote collaboration across continents., with studios at CalArts, SeoulArts, La MaMa NYC, and Manchester UK.  

The school’s deliberate one-building design, mandated by Walt, provides a single-planet creative space for a unified arts experience.  Part of the arts interplay is learning one’s way around the tunnels without signage—much like the infrastructure at Disney World park.  The CalArts mission for the arts is interactive, integrative, and international.  The curriculum reflects the broad as well as intricate knowledge base of the original Disney Imagineering team who were tasked to think like storytellers and filmmakers as they executed on architecture, city planning, wayfinding, exhibitry, and ride design.  By this method of imagination plus engineering (Imagineering), they pioneered the gold standard of themeatics as “venu-ology,” the creation of meaning out of space. 

Imagineers were constantly asking questions about the ideal forms to match up to the demands of the exhibit, ride, landscape, parade, or pavilion on the drawing board:  how would any given artform or effect, drawn from the treasury of cultural history worldwide, fit into and advance the story and theme?  It is the ongoing question of every filmmaker everywhere.  Disney’s talent was to apply that question in three dimensions on the ground. 

To respond, the Imagineering studio had to know how the guest—the theme-park arts audience—thought and felt about an array of themes and stories, and the potential of each art form to bring it to life as a design suite.  Leading portfolios of their solutions can be experienced as Main Street, USA (Hometown, childhood), Adventureland (exotic places and people), and Tomorrowland (the imagined future as it blends back into present-day technology).   These theme cores actually form the heart of the Disney parks and re-create the core values of the American experience in symbolic form, choreographed to be experienced in small (mainly family) groups.

Such in-depth insight called for a solid grasp of culture as it exists in the collective imagination—the way people perceive and value the world as a shared mental and artistic expression.  This turns out to require approaches and appreciation going far beyond replication of authentic and documentable reality.  John Hench, as lead Imagineer, outlined this archetypal understanding of the park guest psyche in his career portfolio, Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show (2003).  Hench lays out the operating principles of theme design based on human perception and behavior as his Theory of Constraints.  This theory runs what designers can and cannot do--by defining and drawing the limits, first, to describe the range of physical and cultural spaces that human beings experience, and second, to understand that creativity has to take place within those limits of perception, expectation, thinking, behavior, and social awareness.   

Disneyland was an entirely new artform in 1955. Critics didn’t quite know what to make of it.
Photo: J. G. O'Boyle, The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis 

The Disneyland proto-park concoction was first unveiled in 1955.  This was a new artform/ critics didn’t quite know what to make of it.  It was clearly far more than an amusement park.  By now it has far overreached its original concept of public space drawn from film, pollinating and breeding dozens of new design platforms across the past six decades (malls and history museums are just two).  It is also the most comprehensive artwork ever devised, conflating and incorporating every other known art within the theme-space berm. 

These range from the folk arts to the fine arts, performance (dance to speech), graphics in every mode from murals to signage to digital; architectural innovation, film, sculpture, light and sound, and of course, special effects of every sort imaginable, and hybrids of all these derived from Ars Mixto technology.  It is the complexity from pairing-up of forms that makes up the native creativity of Themeatics.  “This model of creative exchange,” says the college’s outgoing president Steven Levine, “the crossing over of different perspectives and influences, has always been in our DNA,” at the root of the college’s dedication to cross-pollination. 

Now CalArts has a new lease on the future of design and the creative imagination that feeds the “arts in concert.”  Elsewhere in Creative Intelligence I’ve written about Visioneering as the coming phase of creative artsmaking, outlining the interplay and interbreeding of formats, history, and styles.  As these become a working assumption, the school, with its already global reach and reputation, has a jump start on becoming the place where Visioneering grows and thrives.  

How, then, should this new Omni-arts vision be instructed and practiced within an arts academy?  The professional organization for theme park design, The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), will hold its annual SATE (Story + Architecture + Technology = Experience) conference on CalArts’ campus this year in October.  Design now operates within a world in which the theme park is an established arts institution and in fact a core concept of practice and collaboration that has spun off its magic into the many arts that created it.  However, there are still few academic centers dedicated to this vision, taking it apart to make sense of its dynamics, preserving and curating its process and histories, or teaching it. 

An engine of the new age of the arts is the strength of the colleagueship behind any project and its operation for multidisciplinary specialization. Here Carnegie Mellon, Savannah College of Art and Design, and Valencia College are in the forefront of entertainment design.  Programs and majors are so far a rarity.  Most theme-park designers are the self-made product of their own CalArts-style personal programming in the tradition of project-based experimentation.  The challenge is to find more systematic ways of capturing, curating, and transmitting their hard-won work and knowledge to take it to the huge stage that off-screen entertainment will occupy for the coming century. 

The lead role is now open for the perceptive institution that can envision itself inventing and reinventing  the theme parks of the future—and other launching pads and creative platforms to come.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Design Ethics Across Cultures

Design Ethics Across Cultures -  Ideation for cultural clarity

Commentary from Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis – Jamie O’Boyle and Margaret J. King, Ph.D., cultural analysts

Kile Ozier is a colleague and, IMHO, one of the clearest and deepest thinkers in the field of experience creation and a master at creating experiences that resound with the audience on a personal, emotional level.

And we’ve never seen him create the same thing twice.

Recently returned from the Gulf Region where he was one of many expats working on the upcoming – and troubled – Expo2020 Dubai, Kile has a lot to say about several aspects of professional ethics for Experience designers working overseas. Since we have written that creating a compelling experience must be based on a shared vision that goes all the way to the top, we couldn’t help being interested.

Also, Kile is one of the most ethical people it has been our pleasure to know and work with.

The topics below come from Kile’s IMHO online posting of March 20, 2017, at (“Sharing what I’ve learned…of creating experiences with deep emotional connections”), and on his Elephant in the TEAroom 2017 (March 20, 2017) blogsite.

In these, Kile proposes areas of concern for designers working in other cultures as start points for “Consciousness Conversations.”   

And we agree. Exploring topics of expectations, mentoring, problem-framing, attitude, open communication, and installation maintenance should become standard for discussions about best practices and the ethics of cross-cultural project management, with designers as “Ambassadors of Best Practices.”  With this in mind, we responded from our cultural analyst perspective below. 

Kile asks:   

Might we find ways to communicate these things, cross-culturally, to the benefit of future projects?

Is it too late to impress these lessons on EXPO 2020

Do we not have an obligation to support the ultimate success of all projects in order to continue to build and evolve the industry? Is it possible; would such advice be or have been heeded were it to have been given, supportively and early on, without coming across as paternal?

What are the realistic possibilities?

….It has to do with self-awareness, responsibility for the business, the future of the business, the sharing and spreading by example of best practices…and the obligations inherent in leadership.

Cultural Studies & Analysis offered responses to clarify cultural differences.  Often this is a matter of pointing to the contrasts between American values and developing world cultures, roughly dividing culture into East and West.   

       1)    Maintenance and upkeep post-design:  “It's natural to evaluate the likelihood of good or poor maintenance at the pre-design stage, under ‘How will this installation be used and abused?’  Our job is to do the absolute best work possible to prepare the receiving client to manage and maintain…in the best way.”

CS&A:  The maintenance concept can often be an outcome of culture, which is the outcome of environment. Many tropical and subtropical countries have evolved a fatalistic – and quite environmentally sensible - culture that says “You can’t fight nature or God’s will.  Things will fall apart.  The cost of keeping up outward appearances is steep in labor and materials.  So it would be futile – if not outright blasphemous – to try to maintain when the environment always wins out eventually.”

Maintenance is a cultural issue, based on the environment, not a personal character quality (which also works for health care, for the same reason). It actually makes sense from a cost/benefit analysis, so deterioration is viewed as natural and just another aesthetic stage. That’s mostly confined to Africa and Asia.  However, Louisiana began as a French colonial possession, and culture evolves very, very, slowly. You can see evidence of this in the tourist zones of New Orleans. If you were trying to theme New Orleans, you would have to build in a sort of genteel deterioration to make it look right. That’s what they do with new construction in New Orleans. If you are building a Cajun restaurant, it can’t be sharp and polished.  No foul here.  It's the way groups think based on long experience within their own environments of extreme heat, humidity, and the sheer cost of upkeep.

2)    Condescension:  Across race, age, gender, ethnicity, education, and language:

CS&A:  Concepts of respect and honor vary widely across the globe. In the US, we promote the concept of “constructive criticism.” That value doesn’t exist in many countries, where any criticism, even “constructive,” equates to a personal affront. Americans are not culturally conditioned to the extensive social negotiation of the Middle East and Asia--particularly whenever they have one eye fixed on the deadline.

Condescension in working teams between client and consultant: this is a tough one. As professionals, we are always selling our ideas, but people accept or reject them on the basis of their own reasons—of which a newcomer may be totally unaware.  So as a professional, you have to recognize that their local colleagues are not unintelligent or willful. They have reasons – and these may be reasons they are unwilling to share with an outsider out of mutual consideration.   Some of the dominance and hierarchical behaviors that go on in projects are outcomes of stress; others are culturally driven.  We are engaged on a project for a major music school to identify some of the cultural awareness points that need attention -- and finding that intense competition and professional stress at a young age are the core issues, not cultural insensitivity or ignorance of other ways of life.

The short form: when working outside the US: never criticize, condemn, or complain. Not even “constructive criticism.”

3)    Speaking Up with negative communications: “Is there an approach where projects known to be at risk can be rescued before it’s too late?”

CS&A:  This one has strong cultural underpinnings. In many strict hierarchies, including China and the Middle East, you don’t ever, ever, give a superior bad news. Army Special Forces are specifically taught the “no criticism, overt or implied” rule when dealing with foreign nationals.  One polite fiction was to ask their advice, then say “Very good…and may I also suggest we … (do what actually needed to be done).” This would generally be OK’d, not because they were unaware of our ruse, but because they themselves probably invented that particular tactic of face-saving dialogue.

Now nobody seeks criticism, but in many cultures “critical thinking” can/will be interpreted as setting up an adversarial relationship. Arab business relationships, for example, are built on a history of personal exchange – they are trust relationships, but they are also fragile. The only true trust relationships in these settings are family (extended). No matter how good your relationship, as a colleague, you are not family. And criticism or trying to set realistic deadlines when someone higher up the ladder has already made their wishes known places you in the role of adversary – and trust-breaker.

4)    Raised expectations at openings:  “Today’s opening-day expectations are far more sophisticated, aware, and critical of failure than in the past.”   

The world is now full of lifelong theme park experts: they are the sophisticated guest list.  They’ve seen the best and rest, led by top-shelf design.  This is one reason museums hold "soft openings," to learn from their own mistakes as part of the process of fixing what doesn’t work in real time.  Perhaps that's a way to frame the opening as experimental - making the audience part of it as evaluators. Raised expectations are part of the equation for competing in the experience economy.  Beginning with Disneyland, the designers made it better than it had to be – setting the A-plus standard for the industry ever since.  Unless you can exceed expectations in novel ways (as innovation across park-design parameters), there’s almost no sense in trying to be creative. 

5)    Role of mentors / rescuers:  “Can we effectively offer advice, mentorship, responsibly sharing cautionary tales to contemporaries in other parts of the world or industry?”

CS&A:  This would be far more routine if the profession were more self-aware and didn't view one another as rivals bound by trade-secret silence.  We'd love to see this happen as what we should all be pursuing.

If you are working in another culture and you have a good working relationship with your local counterpart, think of that person as a guide, interpreter. Don’t offer your opinion, ask him what he thinks of this or that idea. Placing yourself in the eager student position is flattering and you may start hearing things that would never occur to you otherwise.

6)    Problem solving for best design answers:  “And how do we create these answers? By applying our bodies of knowledge and experience to what we learn before we act in a new context; using our judgement with that experience to craft original approaches to the cross-cultural work.”

CS&A:  Problem-solving - and problem FRAMING, especially - rather than just coming in with off-the-shelf answers, is the heart of the creative enterprise.  This is what expert opinion is all about: the "lay of the land," understanding the context of any project and its opportunities and limits -- as we do for the cultural and human factors side in cultural analysis. The Japanese might spend years preparing, thinking, and learning before they initiate action. Then they go straight for their goal.  Americans tend to jump right in and correct as they go rather than spend their time making certain that the problem they are solving is, in fact, the problem they should be solving. We think we have a planning stage--but compared to other cultures, our background research and percolation is ridiculously brief.

7)    And finally, Social Media:  “…will cut the [subpar] project down before the day is out,” if it’s found wanting.

CS&A:  Think about Black Sunday, July 17, 1955, at Disneyland in California--as a social media event.  Half a century later, such a disastrous opening would have set the proto-park off course for the next two years or killed it.  Social media leaves almost no margin for parks and events to develop and grow within the audience experience feedback loop.  Instant feedback presents yet another aspect of design to be considered and weighed in the pre-opening equation. 


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mediocrity Part III – Visioneering (Inspired Design)

Inspired Design

Everyone knows you can’t compare apples and oranges. On the other hand, people do it all the time.

Take, for instance, my recent blog posts about the “ordinariness” of Disney Springs’ new Town Center – you can’t help feeling you’ve seen it all before because you have, many times at malls and resorts, for at least the past decade. I was writing about how the design process can inadvertently default to mediocrity as the most cost-efficient outcome, how that process works, and what should be done about it – particularly if your brand is based on creating magical, memorable experiences.

Some people took that to mean that Disney Imagineering had lost its position as the Gold Standard in park design to Universal – citing The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ and Diagon Alley™ as attractions that left Disney scrambling to offer a crowd-pulling alternative from their non-Disney Star Wars and Avatar properties.

Disney doesn’t usually play defense, but that doesn’t mean that Universal Studios is the new Disney. What Universal had was J. K. Rowling’s very compelling, remarkably detailed, proven vision in her book and film version of the Hogwarts universe to build on--with the financial support to do it right. This last part is important.  The Imagineering path is littered with the ruins of creative visions destroyed by a single guy in a suit who shrugged and said, “Just give it a Marriott-level finish.”

There is no lack of design talent.  But for a vision to work, it has to be shared all the way to the top. This all goes back to the original genius that illuminated Disneyland in taking a set of mental images (as story) and giving them unexpected power in three dimensions to create a walkaround artform no one had experienced before. In the Disneyland case, the vision was driving the outcome. As the late legendary Imagineer John Hench once told us about creating the original Disneyland, “Even we didn’t really understand what we were creating, but we trusted Walt’s vision.”

To bridge the gap between the creative vision and practical economics, we need a new way of thinking about what people really value about experience – what we think of as Visioneering – in which the value proposition is built into the Vision itself. One aspect of this is behavioral design, a discipline parallel to neuroeconomics in that it merges psychology, neuroscience, and social science with the “rational man” theory of classical economics. Economic theory has come to recognize that money and wealth theories must be grounded in the way people actually think about and handle their spending and saving, far from the left-brained numbers scan of money experts. In the same way, experience design, to succeed on the ground, has to be based on the ways people intuitively consider their personal issues and opportunities in using architecture and space.

As a parallel example, despite many decades of trying by the financial sector, they have come to the reluctant conclusion that it’s really not possible to re-engineer the customer.  People don’t buy “financial instruments.” What they are buying is a home, a better future, an investment in their children, and security.  That’s why neuroeconomics was created: to study the way the brain actually makes decisions about money in order to design new financial products that people are predisposed to buy rather than trying to foist habits of saving and spending on unwilling customers. Likewise, designers can’t re-engineer the guest. You have to understand what and how people are motivated to act in a given set of circumstances.

The original Disney Imagineers were artists and filmmakers operating under Walt’s edict illuminated by brilliant intuition, not marketing.  Not everything worked as planned.  But the team was led by a guy whose main talent was not artistic but editorial.  Pitting his keen brain against the prolific output of his team, he made the many cuts that always need to be executed in-between what works for the artist and what works for the audience. What worked in Anaheim and Orlando has been copied worldwide—but without the underlying knowledge of how or why it does its job so well.  This is “the magic” that Disney marketing sells, but this magic is knowable and its essence can and does work to inform the future of public space.

With the brain revolution in science added to evolutionary psychology, it is now possible to know far more than Walt did about how to design the way guests think, act, see, and move – and the critical role of place in shaping behavior by using space creation to set the mental agenda of people in groups.  It is the role of cultural analysis as a partner in the design suite to identify the human factors that operate within any design concept. This map of the brain, behavior, and biology guides design ventures a long stretch beyond the upscale Tuscan mall at Disney Springs.

Visioneering v. mediocrity

How can such cultural intelligence enable us as design thinkers to recognize “Visioneering” when we see it?  What warnings and cautions should we observe in looking at the design outcomes visible around us all the time?   

Let’s begin with museum publication awards.  Some are inspired, but the AAM awards tend to go to the same cluster of studios--because these are the same names, year after year, that turn out design for leading museums across the country just by the force of reputation.  It’s a circular logic that takes hold as museums quite reasonably opt to hire the best.  But that loop doesn’t promote a search for new ideas or inspiration from the corners or margins – less fashionable quarters geographically or by museum type (science v. art centers, for example). 

Another museum example is the trophy-collection museum, like the Liberty Museum in Philadelphia.  Showcasing and celebration go far to satisfy founders and boards.  But this impulse doesn’t fuel the spirit of inquiry that promotes creative ways of understanding or exploring things, people, and ideas.   Museums and historic homes and monuments are sacred spaces built to inspire reverence and awe. 

However, such an impulse doesn’t invite critical thinking or education—the stated goal of the AAM.

At the other extreme is Las Vegas, dedicated to pleasure, excess, and adrenalin.  Now its casino arcades and gaming floors are widely themed.  But notice the repeat floor plans, often with the same stores.  Whether cast in marble or neon, strolling from one spot on the strip to the next, the furnishings start to look alike.  Think back to the 1992 inspiration of Caesar’s Palace Forum mall that so effectively recreated imperial Hollywood Rome by sculpture, motifs, and classical fountains under cycled lighting--that sparked themeing on a scale outflanking the Stardust, Flamingo, Riviera, or the low-profile Dunes.  Heavy capital investment (and stupendous water bill) in a luxury experience has paid off by creating the highest-grossing mall in the country (including all of Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills).    

Elsewhere on the strip, creation of a Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1998 lasted just a decade because the electric bill to light the Enterprise (as it looked down at earth) was considered by Accounting an unacceptable luxury: even for a glimpse of a future way of life in space and the History of the Future Museum. Unlike the water bill at Caesar’s, this cost broke the budget barrier at the Hilton.  Subsequent licensing and funding problems have now blocked the ST Experience from feeding on the energy of the film franchise success. In New York, Julie Taymor’s spectacular innovations with The Lion King on Broadway weren’t sufficient to surmount the budgetary limits that got her fired as artistic director of Spider-Man in 2011.   

Cost / Benefit

Chris Barlow, Clinical Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Director of Experiential Learning at the University of Illinois at Chicago commented on our pervious posts on mediocrity’s merits: 

In our Value Engineering work, I have been very conscious of our process being the unpacking of a bunch of previously made and tested decisions, having the expertise available to reanalyze those criteria and goals and the current situation (both problem side and potential solutions), exploring the alternatives this makes possible, and choosing one to re-collapse on.

Innovation and design is very expensive in time and resources and demands expertise which is also expensive (including paying you guys the big bucks). Innovation is a capital expense. As someone living near the original "Town Square" in Wheaton, IL, I see in your posting evidence that developers around the world saw no value in investing the capital to find new approaches.… The real question is what profits and advantage could the developers and investors have reaped from investing the required capital for better design?

For both building and performance, world expos are current ideal incubators for brilliant design ideas and solutions – when they aren’t vetoed by committees who can’t determine their value to international audiences.  Ultimately all creative breakthroughs must somehow grapple with and overcome the bean-counters’ blade. The simplest way might be to build the value proposition right into the Vision. 

Why not? It’s do-able, and desired. As one executive told us, “I’d love to have some other way of determining value besides just numbers on a page – some way of evaluating soft costs, for instance.”  Successful Visioneering relies on those “soft costs” – all the extra detail that drives the vision home. Without them everything is just the dread “Marriott-level finish.” 

Clearly, we need better ways to recognize the value in ideas in order to nourish them – in visionary design teams better equipped to generate, vet, and nurture ideas in their early stages.  This goes beyond artistic merit: how will these ideas operate on a grand scale for thousands or millions of people in groups? What, where, and how do you provide the experimental value that people will instantly recognize as worth more than the cost of admission?  And the clincher: How will you maintain that value over time in repeat visitation?


Mediocrity is cheaper because it creates a “confidence comfort zone” based on guaranteed outcomes.  Deep knowledge of customer needs and wants can be built by digital communications, giving experience economy mainstays like cruise lines better confidence to invest in new ideas (as Joe Pine of Strategic Innovation notes in his January 2017 piece on mass customizing at Carnival Cruise Lines).  Novelty grabs attention in the business press. But the enduring value to audiences of any offering can be measured in advance against the human factors involved as they’ve operated for millennia.



Thursday, February 2, 2017

Mediocrity II: The Wonderful World of Agreeable Gray

Disney Springs' Town Center  Photo: Miami Herald
Mall design has been proceeding under the influence of the Disney parks since the 1960s.  Today this legacy has come full circle to the point that now the malls are leading Imagineering.  Industry gossip has it that achieving the look of Disney Springs’ new Town Center’s been-there-done-that result took working through at least five design outsourced firms that had, one would hope, less pedestrian ideas. 

Unlike the careful integration of El Paseo within Santa Barbara’s tradition of stucco and tile tied into the surrounding streetscape, the new Disney Springs Town Center shows little sign of understanding where it is or what it’s doing there.  By way of contrast, the Town Square opening onto Main Street in the Magic Kingdom is designed to welcome with icons held in common through collective memory—the park benches, plantings, firehouse, town hall, gas lamps, soda fountain, and the charm of historic storefronts featuring markers for park memories. 

For any industry evolution, the search for quality may ironically lead to settling for consensus, B-level midrange results.  This is the reason that no matter what the make, cars now look very much alike.  The middle-of-the-curve design point of mutual mediocrity signals the maturing of any artform.  In a way, this midpoint is a mark of quality because it signals an agreed-upon standard of design performance--one levelled down from excellence or inspiration.

The mediocre brand, once accepted, turns into the passing grade for all planning and execution moves, from cars to cookware, national elections to trade shows, classroom to casinos, clubs, convenience stores, and experience spaces of all kinds and purposes.

Experience designs that used to lead the pack by genius and innovative thinking become, after decades as models, just the standard of performance, or given a “Marriott-level finish,” a cringworthy term coined by former Disney chairman Michael Eisner. 

Over time, creative vision seems doomed by the theory of second best.

In economics, the theory of second best holds that systems work better when all elements are designed to operate at less than optimal level.  Integrated excellence costs more because all parts of the system can’t keep up with the top-performing aspects, and if and when these fail, the whole system goes down. Better to maintain everything at an average or second-rate mode.  This is why very ingenious home design, no matter how brilliant, doesn’t sell on the housing market.  Homeowners are just more comfortable with trusting the average—for themselves as well as for the future buyer of their home.

This is also why any responsible real estate agent will tell you to paint over your custom color palette with beige, eggshell, or the latest “agreeable gray” found in any new construction.  In order for buyers to imagine themselves in a new house, the atmosphere must be scrubbed of personality, including the genius type.  The neutral middling aesthetic is the basis of the home-staging ethic. And this gives instant insight into consensus taste in home surroundings.  Agreeable gray carries the day.

But brilliant public spaces are not comparative-market residences, nor is “second best” the quality that made Disney the gold standard for 3-D walkaround design.

When Disney’s first Imagineers invented the theme park in 1955, they had no model to follow except the world’s fairs (now expos), and certainly not the amusement park, which Walt was creating Disneyland to replace. 

The prognosis for amusement parks at that time was dim. Banks and commercial sponsors had a difficult time building a mental file folder for what Disney was pitching.  There wasn’t one handy.  So when we look now at the most popular artform of the last century - the one that initiated more 3-D design than any since - it’s difficult to recall that before 1955 no one knew what a theme park was. It was a journalist from The LA Times, not Disney, who coined the term “theme park” because there just was no existing term to adequately describe the world’s leading experience environment.  That in itself is amazing testimony about the state of the art.

Disneyland could only be defined by what it wasn’t, what people knew at the time—the thrill park.  Six Flags, Cedar Point, Magic Mountain, et al. are defined by physical thrill-seeking, not the narrative-image journeys that now define the theme park industry and increasingly are taking over thrill-seeking in the form of the action story.

Since then, an entire design industry has grown up and matured around the thematic template, which still holds its place as the gold standard.  To such an extent, ironically, that it has become difficult to color outside the lines of that mandate: world’s fairs, expos, malls, resorts, history parks, and museums (last to the theme park table)–all ideation is ruled by the silent standard of the mega-successful template: the giga-park prototype. 

This isn’t just a Disney problem, It’s a systemic problem.  As one of our colleagues at a design school put it, “It’s now designers only talking to designers,” without reference to any wider context.  Disney’s context was his young daughters and their weekly “daddy’s day” outings where Walt sat on a bench on the sidelines to watch his kids ride the carousel.

He decided that, in breaking up the American family, this back-seat routine wouldn’t do. As with his films, starting with animation, he wanted to create a place where generations could have fun together (now we call it inter-gen experience).  And he did just that. He created something rooted in familiarity, but presented in a way we had never seen – or even thought of -- before.

“Family” now can include five generations from great-grandparent on down.  To succeed, design needs to be intergenerational, and that means the whole age-development gamut.  Disney proved that the family audience could inspire ingenious solutions, far beyond a bland canvas compromise.

So…calling something a Town Center doesn’t make it one; people naturally gravitate to a town center. In Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis without a natural center, it was the legendary science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury who noted that Disneyland had become LA’s de facto city center – the one place where everyone meets.

Disney Springs Town Center is not a town center, and not just because the psychological center of gravity is closer to the Disney Store. Nor, unfortunately, is it a Disney Experience. Expensive, and yet nowhere near gold standard.

Can you make a town center that not only looks like one but motivates people to treat it as the town center? Of course, malls have been doing it for decades.  It was only a matter of time before a mall was restyled in the form of the Main Street malls displaced. In 2009 we walked the streets of Town Square. It’s an upscale, open-air shopping, dining, office, and entertainment development in Enterprise, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas. It looks like a well-to-do town center with its mix of architectural styles, but there is no town there; it serves the surrounding sprawling housing developments.

Las Vegas' Town Square   Photo: J.G. O'Boyle
It was less than two years old when we first saw it, but Town Square had already become more than just a place to shop. Along with stores and restaurants, it has three parks that host seventy community events annually, from all major holidays to open-air movies.  And it’s not the only such development, which is why Disney’s Town Center, however pretty, looks like we’ve seen it all before, only better. Town Center should have been what we’ve come to expect from Disney: rooted in familiarity and yet seen through new eyes – inviting, even inspiring, transporting you to a new and intriguing place you want to explore. Walt Disney’s genius was building places that tapped into a deep sense of anemoia in his guests, which means a nostalgia for a time and place you’ve never actually known.
As for Disney Springs’ Town Center, we’ve seen it before, we’ve known it for years. It’s ordinary, uninspiring, intimidating, and surprisingly unwelcoming – and that does not bode well for the future of theme park design. Somehow design ideation needs to start pushing beyond what used to be “good enough.”