Over the past few years we've had opportunities to work with many amazing startups, from one coast to the other and everywhere in between, but some of the most exciting (ambitious!) new companies we've encountered are all coming from the SURGE Accelerator in Houston, Texas.
Our friends at SURGE work with ambitious startups who share their mission to solve the world's many complex energy problems through software and innovative new services. They do this by connecting entrepreneurs with world-class mentorship and access to the capital needed to disrupt every corner of the energy industry.
Last year, I dropped in near the end of the program to help each of their ten companies lock down pitch presentations and slide decks, in preparation for their final "demo day" debut.
Yesterday morning, I hopped back on a bus bound for Houston to meet a new class of companies and share some storyboarding techniques for developing a clear, compelling pitch. Specifically, my goal was to get these teams thinking about how to humanize their value proposition through story. Why is that important? Read on.
For the first round, I presented a single photo of a simple driveway mishap: a blue pickup truck sitting atop a red sports car, inside of a decimated garage. Nobody was injured, just plenty of potential for drama.
The full group split off into five randomized teams, each representing a different persona:
The owner of the red car
The owner of the blue pickup
The insurance adjustor
The repair shop
The employer of the owner of the red car
Each team was given two 6-panel storyboard worksheets, and instructions to pick up where the photo left off, and continue sketching out the story.
The purpose of this round was simply to have fun and wake up everyone's storytelling muscles. Mission accomplished.
The resulting tale was incredible: there were saucy affairs, a child was bit by a snake in the forest, premiums lapsed, scooters were fought over, and a mechanic fell in love with his Italian translator (while searching for parts abroad, of course). It was a five-part epic, spun from a single photo and some simple prompts.
The teams regrouped with their co-founders and returned to their own teams, this time with a second pair of 6-panel storyboard worksheets and two stories to tell:
A day in the life of your customer, experiencing the pain you're solving, without you
A day in the life of your customer, after you have saved the day
Every team nailed it. Limiting the story to six frames required a lot of refinement. Some groups even created outlines and debated scenes on other sheets of paper before committing their panels. No doubt, the participants already understood their customers and users, but this distillation process seemed to open up new conversations about who these people really are, what they really care about, and what it means to step into their story. This helped the teams refine their own narrative, not just about what they do, but who they do it for, and why that matters.
It was a simple exercise, but hopefully helpful.
So, why does all of this matter?
We are all wired for story; it activates our brains in wonderfully profound ways. Story is how we package and share meaning, allowing listeners to momentarily experience the sensations and emotions of what is being shared. Story inspires action.
Drill down to the person who experiences the pain you're relieving, and make me –in the audience– feel that pain. Frame it all with simple, heartfelt language. Make it agonizing. Experiment visual metaphors for heavy lifting, if particular concepts are too verbose or overly technical. Let everyone else in the crowd feel it too. Then zoom out and extrapolate that experience across the full market opportunity you can address.
But but… but!
It sounds easy enough, but it means dropping much of the cherished vocabularies and esoteric debates that hold highly technical communities together. Believe it or not, your vocabulary is a massive part of your personal identity. For some folks that I've worked with it's like abandoning a child. It can get ugly.
One common excuse is "sure, there are a lot of people in the audience, but I'm only speaking to a few investors in the room, and they know exactly what I'm saying." Once a few audience members glance down to check their email, others around them will feel that old familiar itch to check theirs as well. Slowly, one by one, you will lose the entire room.
What those investors really want to know is that you can carry the ball. They want to know that you can share your vision to inspire all types of audiences: your customers, your employees, and new investors in later rounds.
This applies across the board. Whether you're trying to recuit potential co-founders, early hires, or even customers, they need to feel it to believe it. The best –perhaps the only– way to do that is through story.
The purpose of science is not to analyze or describe but to make useful models of the world. A model is useful if it allows us to get use out of it.
Edward de Bono
Design researchers and strategists spend a lot of time with models. A lot of time. What kind of models? Mental models, cultural models, concept maps, affinity diagrams, customer journey maps, Blue Ocean canvases and grids, business model canvases, system maps, flow diagrams, 2x2 matrices. Wherever there is a known pattern to exploit, there is probably a visual model of some kind to capture and articulate it.
But there is an implicit risk of constraining our imaginations to the known models of the moment when we should be looking for entirely new relationships and patterns. I think there's a subtle difference between using models to express and share what we know, and using models to unveil and understand what we don't. Not a big difference, but one worth exploring and discussing.
Here's a fun exercise: take two random visualization models that have nothing to do with each other and force them together. Break them apart and see if you can put them back together.
Stretch Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs across a second dimension, like RKS did with their Psycho-Aesthetics® Map. That x-axis could be anything: time, money, frequency of any particular behavior or social interactions. Make something up. It's that easy.
Or maybe bend a cultural map around a 2x2 matrix. Cultural maps tend to float around, spatially unhinged like flip flop guy at Coachella on a existential walkabout. Let's give it some polarity and see what shakes out. Here's a visualization I created that illustrates interviews with local farmers as a cultural map framed against the 4 Ps of Marketing: Product, Promotion, Place, and Price. The connections between entities are also color-coded by sentiment; green means positive, red means negative. Color-coding for sentiment is a powerful concept that can be applied almost anywhere.
Cultural maps are a massive distraction in a slide deck, so I stripped it down to focus solely on sentiment. There's much to be said about friction and the future. This visualization hints at the possible evolution of local food networks toward collaborative production, in the form of joint-offering CSAs.
This visualization started on paper and took a few iterations before arriving at what you see here. The magic is in the process of reconciling these two unrelated models, revealing a treasure trove of deeper nuance and interconnectedness.
What crazy one-off visuals have you created?
What other models could we mash together to visualize sentiment?
Our field is full of tools and techniques for planning and executing contextual research projects, but the truth is sometimes you just have to make it all up as you go. I ran into this during a project while interviewing local farmers in Savannah. I wanted to understand how their business models changed throughout the year, whether their biggest challenges occurred during the peak of off-season, and how seasonal transitions were managed.
So, I decided to make a one-page worksheet out a full calendar year, and invited my interviewees to join me in decorating the page with notes, timelines.
Here are a few interviewees' worksheets:
Looking back, I'm still delighted by the conversations that took place on these worksheets. By visualizing their thoughts, my interviewees each told a great story. Sometimes they would get lost in a long pause, thinking back to last year, that long deathly grind of a summer, or that early spring cold snap that hurt market turnouts for an entire month. These conversations brought a richness to the research that I might have missed, had I not created a place for them to take shape.
Is it money that motivates us?? Not really.
A showcase of studies of how monetary rewards motivate (and don’t).
3 Factors leading to better performance & personal satisfaction…
1. Autonomy-desire to be self directed (find PLAY & FUN in work)
2. Mastery-urge to get better at stuff (find challenge, a way to find mastery & contribution—because it’s FUN & ENGAGING)
3. Purpose-brings talent & makes coming to work better “when the profit motive gets unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen”
(These three factors following paying one enough to take the issue of money off the table so they can think about work)
The only way to weed out your own biases and misunderstandings is to get out of the building and challenge your assumptions. Constantly.
It's really extraordinary how polished and sophisticated some product ideas become before anyone asks if a particular concept is even the right one to pursue. Is the pain point something clearly and explicitly known, to the customer? Do they intuitively 'get it'? Is it compatible with other artifacts or concepts they already understand? Do they adopt technology as adamantly as you do? Is it possible that your own blindspots have you out of phase with your customers' needs? Solutions that are painfully obvious to us may actually be at odds with the nuance and subtleties of their day-to-day lives.
These issues need to be quashed as early as possible, long before your first code commit, way before you get hung up on typefaces, domain names and versions of a logo. Before it's even a "project." In most cases you can begin to iterate on your ideas and check your assumptions with office supplies, in less time than it takes to brew a pot of coffee.
Here's a quick example of a time when we did just that, while exploring opportunities within local food networks.
Pain point: Prior research revealed that farmers feel a ton of pressure balancing work and personal relationships on market days. Friends and loyal customers want to stop by and chat but, as one farmer put it, "I work nonstop for six days, and then this is my one day to make any money for the week. I hate feeling rude, but I've gotta be selling!"
Hypothesis: An eWallet app for farmer's markets. A streamlined checkout process could be introduced to take cash handling and card swiping out of the equation. Additionally, this service could provide customer account management so farmers could download records from every market day. There was a whole laundry list of opportunities and value propositions on the customers-side of the equation, but we will save that for another post.
Prototype: We literally sketched the idea across a stack of Post-it notes, trimmed to fit the screen dimensions of an iPhone 3Gs. Each note represented a screen. It was a horribly hacked-together job, the only thing we were missing was duct tape.
This prototype took less than 5 minutes to prepare, and our mission was completed by lunchtime. You may be thinking this is horribly sloppy, that we should have tried a little harder before heading out into the field. Our goal was to start a conversation, not convert new customers. We needed a representation of our concept that was approachable and renegotiable by non-designers. We wanted them to wrestle with the concept, not interface elements. In a situation like this, nothing stunts a creative conversation more than a fancy hi-fi rendering. If it's fully baked, it's too late to discuss the recipe. You won't get engaged feedback, you'll get a "Nah, I don't like it," or worse: polite indifference.
We hit the marketplace, prototypes in hand, just as the day was winding down. We presented the idea for what it was: a quick sketch. "Just an idea, here's what we're thinking." Our goal was to challenge that thinking and make the learning loop as short as possible.
The result: Our instincts were in the right place (farmers definitely liked the idea of streamlining the checkout experience) but we soon learned that our approach was a bit off target. We discovered brand new variables that had not previously been taken into account. We had some incredibly insightful conversations, and ended up forming better questions than the ones whose answers had led us this far.
Rapid prototyping isn't about validating a concept, it's about deepening the learning process. It's about getting past the obvious ideas and on to the good stuff, faster. Make your thoughts tangible and take them for a test-drive.
I stumbled onto this recently and got really excited. Mohionote is a prototype from a group of students at The University of Auckland, New Zealand. It builds a graph visualization of notes and tags from an Evernote notebook. I've been looking for something like it and even considered building one myself.
I think this type of visualization for emergent taxonomies has a lot of potential, particularly for finding patterns and relationships in a pile of digital assets like text snippets, photos and websites. That should get your attention if you're a design researcher or ethnographer.
Pulling the lens back a bit, however, graph UIs like this have typically failed to grab mainstream users as hard as they grab their inventors. But that got me thinking... People regularly use whiteboards to map out big hairy ideas, so why haven't these apps made it into the mainstream collaborative toolbox? What's different?
Then it hit me: it's a difference of intent. These types of interfaces are just a new flavor of documentation, visualizing the complexity of things already known. Most importantly, they are fully decoupled from whatever conversation shaped their content, and will need to be lovingly maintained for all time to keep pace with reality. The SaaS biz app marketplace is peppered with services that decouple communication from their artifacts. They masquerade as "team collaboration" apps, but in reality they offer little more than static documentation, and punt the messy communication stuff (read: the magic stuff) back to your inbox.
On the other hand, the collaborative whiteboard experience usually goes something like this:
Start with a single point
Conversation ensues about the relationship(s) between the first point and the next point(s)
Conversation goes on and on an on, recursively chewing through points and ideas, explanations, demonstrations and scenarios, occasionally detouring, diverging and converging again
The board is full and/or the participants have reached their final destination (or are just plain exhausted!)
Outsiders see a messy board, but for participants the outcome is (hopefully) reaching a higher level of clarity and opportunity around whatever they just hashed out. The whiteboard allowed them to visualize their points and add greater bandwidth to their conversation. If a simple chat in the elevator were a dial-up connection, this is 4G LTE. The destination is what matters, not the means of getting there.
The difference? Whiteboards become complex, and are then erased; their content is as fleeting as the conversation that shaped it. It's a combination of communication and impermanence. Can that metaphor transfer fully into a virtual world, so thoroughly shot through with "document everything, measure everything" dogma of big data?
<trolling> No mention of actual communication.. but it looks like the real thing! </trolling>
Ok, to be fair, I took the photo of the whiteboard above just in case I ever needed to pull it back up; a practice I've perpetrated or witnessed thousands of times. I have hundreds more in a folder. I rarely return to them.
I'm dreaming of a tool that seamlessly blends real-time communication with automagically emerging visuals and ideas; a conduit for rich, vivid ideation among teammates who cannot stand together against a whiteboard. Patterns and relationships among the things discussed are easily articulated, bound together with story or illustration, and feed back into a more creative, insightful conversation. I don't know what this tool is called, what it looks like or how it will work, but I know why.
Theory on a dramatic scale happens when it is both possible and necessary for it to do so— when the traditional rationales which have silently underpinned our daily practices stand in danger of being discredited, and need either to be revised or discarded. This may come about for reasons internal to those practices, or because of certain external pressures, or more typically because of a combination of both. Theory is just a practice forced into a new form of self‐ reflectiveness on account of certain grievous problems it has encountered. Like small lumps on the neck, it is a symptom that all is not well.
In The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, Stanford professor, sociologist and HCI researcher Clifford Nass shares dozens of eye-opening discoveries about human nature and sociality. This book is chock-full of intellectual goodies and surprises surrounding relationships, team building and collaboration. What's truly fascinating about his insights is how they were teased out: through studying interactions with computers!
Nass learned early on that we actually extend our social niceties and norms to computers as if they were living, sentient beings. This insight allowed Nass to perform a wide-range of social experiments where interpersonal behaviors could be studied through controlled, perfectly repeatable interactions. For example, Nass demonstrates that it's possible to invoke a sense of team cooperation between humans and computers by creating the proper conditions for team identification and interdependency. These human-computer teams consistently out-performed those who were not identified and engaged as teammates.
This book is highly recommended for managers and team leads of all stripes, as well as those who are heading in that direction. If you design and/or build digital applications or interfaces this may change the way you perceive and approach the medium itself. It certainly had that effect on me.
"A chair is not a thing. It is a place of activity."
Interaction Design is the design of the way humans relate to one another, through the mediating influence of products.
What is a product?
1. Useful (logos): technological reasoning, intellectual content, does work, the right materials (what you think is interacting).
2. Usable (ethos): speaks in a language that my mind can comprehend.
3. Desirable (pathos): a quality of ethos that you want to be part of and bring into your life.
"The material of interaction design are the purposes and desires of the people we serve. That comes to us as clay, and we form that clay. We shape and express, give deep endurance, to the purposes and values of other people."
In the past decade there has been a movement within the design community (the field of design, as a whole) to seek out what design really means within the complex fabric of today’s society. The value of understanding and considering design in this sense means to understand how design decisions affect the politics of personal and social liberation. Richard Farson observes, “Every act [of design] reinforces or redistributes power” (The Power of Design 79). It is critical for a designer to recognize the significance of this act. Farson further elaborates by explaining, “It either increases or reduces the freedom and leverage of individuals and groups. Designs, whether conscious or inadvertent, liberate or constrain those who are influenced by them” (79).
It is a realization of design’s presence in our world and an awareness of design’s past shortcomings that is requiring a modification to existing structures and methodologies. Design’s impact is great. As John Thackara quotes in his book, In the Bubble, from the 2002 Design Council Annual Review, “Eighty percent of the environmental impact of the products, services, and infrastructures around us is determined at the design stage (1)”.
A large part of this journey is redefining design in a very broad sense. Design is now starting to encompass fields like business, education, health, energy, transportation, and others that have not been typically associated to the discipline. It is looking at old problems, reframing them and creating new approaches to answer our human needs more appropriately. Because of the inclusion of such fields in this evolution of design, new methods, theories and techniques are being demanded to better address these new, more complex problems. So far, this redefinition of design is asking designers to think more systemically and approach problem solving using more collaborative processes. It is designing to integrate the user as co‐creator, taking a more human‐centered approach, rather than designing to meet market demands. It is requiring designers to see things differently, and to no longer view design in the material sense, but to see how design can be applied and how it can affect the immaterial and metaphysical realm. As Bruce Mau describes, “No longer associated simply with objects and appearances, design is increasingly understood in a much wider sense as the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes (Mau 2010) ”.
While conducting research to build the initial phases of a communications plan transitioning Global Alliance for Arts & Health from their previously branded organization, Society for Arts in Healthcare, Lybba was able to spend time talking with one of Global Alliance’s inspiring board members, David Leventhal of Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG). Leventhal is the founding teacher and Program Manager of Dance for Parkinson’s (Dance for PD®), a collaborative program between the MMDG and Brooklyn Parkinson Group offering dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease at Mark Morris Dance Center and The Juilliard School.
Dance for PD has now been used as a model for classes in more than 75 communities around the world by offering master classes through MMDG’s touring outreach program, teacher training and nurturing relationships in outside organizations so that classes are available to local communities.
“If you work in an organisation that deals with long-term social, commercial or organisational policy planning, then you’ve got wicked problems. You may not call them by this name, but you know what they are. They are those complex, ever changing societal and organisational planning problems that you haven’t been able to treat with much success, because they won’t keep still. They’re messy, devious, and reactive, i.e. they fight back when you try to deal them.”
In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, both urban planners at the University of Berkley in California, wrote an article forPolicy Sciences with the astounding title “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”. In this landmark article, the authors observed that there is a whole realm of social planning problems that cannot be successfully treated with traditional linear, analytical (systems-engineering-like) approaches. They called these wicked problems, in contrast to tame problems.
(A year later, in his book “Redesigning the Future”, Russell Ackoff (1974) essentially put forward the same concept — although in less detail — which he called a “social mess” or “unstructured reality”.)
Posted here are pictures of Project H’s pilot program for Learning Landscape at Kutamba School for AIDS Orphans in Uganda. The Learning Landscape uses a grid-based design in an outdoor space to elementary math (“including addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, as well as spatial and logical reasoning through individual and team-based competition”). However, in the four installed Learning Landscape projects that followed, teachers adapted the system for geography, language arts, and science material. In fact, the design itself encouraged teachers and students to work and develop their own games. When the game is not in use, benches can be placed over the tires (old, unused and found locally) to create an outdoor classroom.
What I think is so special about this project is that it makes more aware of how we can learn from the spaces and objects around us.
When BLDG BLOG discussed Project H’s Learning Landscape they connected the project to an exhibit at the Institute for Figuring that I feel is worth mentioning here.
Here is a section of their write-up:
In an unbelievably interesting exhibition held two years ago in Pasadena, the Institute For Figuring explored the educational system of a now relatively under-known man named Friedrich Froebel and his influence on what we now call kindergarten. To quote from their online exhibition at length:
Most of us today experienced kindergarten as a loose assortment of playful activities – a kind of preparatory ground for school proper. But in its original incarnation kindergarten was a formalized system that drew its inspiration from the science of crystallography. During its early years in the nineteenth century, kindergarten was based around a system of abstract exercises that aimed to instill in young children an understanding of the mathematically generated logic underlying the ebb and flow of creation. This revolutionary system was developed by the German scientist Friedrich Froebel whose vision of childhood education changed the course of our culture laying the grounds for modernist art, architecture and design. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller are all documented attendees of kindergarten. Other “form-givers” of the modern era – including Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Georges Braque – were educated in an environment permeated with Frobelian influence.
I don’t mean to imply here that Project H’s “math playground” in Uganda is an example of Froebelian education – because, as far as I’m aware, it is not – but I do mean to say that it would be amazingly cool if the spatial environments of modern life were organized more along educational lines.
The Volta Collaborative is hosting an experiential learning event on envisioning community renewal. This three hours event, is designed as pre-conference activity of the EPIC annual that will be held at Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) in Savannah, Georgia, from October 14-17, 2012. Information on the conference is available at http://epiconference.com/2012/
This pursuit invites participants to explore Savannah by biking the city. Using the World Café approach this activity will immerse EPIC participants in a rich, contextual exploration of downtown Savannah, inviting them to join with community members in discussions about Savannah's past, present and future. Using bicycle as a sustainable mode of transportation, participants will experience Savannah through multiple stops and engage in dialogue with people from different communities within the city.
We look forward to seeing you at this important event.
Some of the most interesting revitalization work in Savannah is coming not from the traditional--and often unsuccessful--saviors of decayed neighborhoods. It’s coming from design students, who are earnestly trying to find ways to work with local residents without igniting suspicion of outsiders wielding big ideas.
Designers know how to throw a good conference, and the 2012 Design Ethos conference in Savannah, Georgia, was no exception. Conferences like this play an essential role in the continued evolution of the art and science of our work. More importantly, they offer a space for the community to look inward upon itself and to ask really important – and often times uncomfortable – questions about our own assumptions, biases and motivations. These brief family reunions of colleagues, contemporaries and conspirators drive renewal within the very fabric of our character: our ethos.
Design Ethos, founded by SCAD professor Scott Boylston, aims to "to redefine the role of visual communication as a tool to help empower, shape and amplify the voices of traditionally under-served communities, and their business assets." The energized, enthusiastic discipline of Social Design is skyrocketing into common consciousness as a designation for those who believe Design can and should be waged as a force for the common good.
Those who are familiar with one Mr. Scott Boylston know that he has an uncanny appreciation for dialing up the mayhem:
"Another main objective of the conference is to redefine the structure and role of the traditional conference model to provide more experiential interaction for attendees [...] in a way that allows for meaningful interactivity between visual communicators and those whose voices would be amplified by these design abilities."
If a conference is a place where so much talent and potential momentary convene to share the alchemy of their efficacy, what might happen if that potential for impact were fully unleashed on a common goal? What happens when people momentarily convene to do? Enter the Design Ethos Do-Ference: a forty-eight hour challenge to for conference-goers to join local community leaders in realizing and catalyzing new opportunities for meaningful, sustainable progress within the Waters Avenue Revitalization Project. Industry vets, professors and students were divided into six teams focusing on six essential initiatives.
Volta served an interesting role in the Do-Ference. R, Jill and I shuffled about as “synthesizers,” responsible for keying off of patterns and overlaps across multiple teams to bridge connections and providing clarity where possible. We were an active feedback loop, working closely with organizers, facilitators, and student aids, as well as participants who needed a little extra coaxing to engage with their teams.
From our vantage point we observed a rich medley of creative chaos and confusion as teams grappled with the gravity of the challenge. The potential for impact was huge, but so were the constraints. First: the project would last for a full 48 hours, and second: the project only lasted for 48 hours. How deep can you really dive in such a limited amount of time? And, should you engage, how much should you realistically (and responsibly) commit to?
Central themes of food shed development and educational reform resonated throughout the rooms, as teams recognized that the major challenges and points of tension within the space were about identify, continuity and autonomy. Each group tempered the impulse to assert top-down solutions with the candor to simply asking better questions.
The collaboration that emerged between the conference-goers and Waters Ave. community leadership was beautiful. Common design methodologies like affinity diagramming and concept mapping (things we often take for granted) deepened conversations and forged entirely new ideas that were more connected and comprehensive than anything the teams might have proposed otherwise. In fact, it was the teams who were able to connect directly with the immediate needs and aspirations of their community leader that delivered the most value. Not surprisingly, those teams also coalesced into productive powerhouses once they defined their point of attack.
The clock marched down to the wire with Scott's cautionary maxim from the kickoff session hovering above every team: "Promise only what you can deliver." The pressure rattled folks; some we least expected, and in ways we couldn't have imagined. But deliver they did:
This is a guest post by JD Prater, Colorado Educator for the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), and a dear friend of the Volta team. ACE is the national leader in high school climate change education. We’re glad he enjoyed Savannah, because we’re crafting diabolical plots to bring him back a few more times :)
Inspired. That’s how I left Savannah this past weekend.
As an Educator for the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), I get the opportunity to go to high schools and educate students with our award-winning presentation on the science behind climate change. But the best part of my job is inspiring these students to take action and find solutions, because we believe these students can have a meaningful impact now.
With that in mind, The Volta Collaborative invited me to come down to Savannah to present to some local high schools and attend the Design Ethos conference. So when the opportunity to present for a class at Savannah School of Art & Design (SCAD) came up, I pounced on it. These college students really amazed me with me their ability to take complex ideas and map them into a story. I left that classroom inspired by knowing that their innovation and creativity are our future.
Immediately after presenting at SCAD, I went over to Windsor Forest High School. Due to excitement in the air at the end of the presentation, I could tell we really inspired some of the students. But not only the students, the teachers as well. Several of them came up afterward to thank me for the work ACE is doing. They even gave me an Earth Day t-shirt. Score! The eagerness and excitement radiating from that school inspired me.
The Design Ethos conference blew me away. I never thought about how sustainability, social change, and design intersect in real life, but after attending this conference, I have a much better idea of how all those puzzle pieces fit together. Hearing some of the most prolific and world-renowned designers, authors, professors, and inventors, I have to ask; how could anyone leave that conference uninspired?
Being around all the creativity in Savannah left me truly inspired and ready to engage the ethos of the next generation.
I recently had the pleasure of being involved in the Do-ference portion of the design-for good-focused Design Ethos Conference held at SCAD April 19 - 21, 2012. Answering the Design Ethos call for “talking less and doing more,” the Do-ference portion of the conference organized a mix of students, designers, conference speakers and community members into six teams with distinct focuses derived from the City of Savannah’s Waters Avenue Revitalization Initiative. Tasked individually with Empowering Community, Empowering Business, Empowering Youth, Empowering Culture, Empowering Place, & Empowering Renewal, each team had three days to immerse itself in those respective problems, ideate, refine and present a concept to the full conference.
Each team had roles assigned for design voices and community leaders. For my team, the Cultural Identity Team, John Bielenburg, Project M Founder, and Josh McManus, Curator and Lead Inventor at Little Things Labs, served as our design voices. Jerome Meadows of Meadowlark Studios was our partnered community leader. The outcome of our approximately two and a half days together was an “adoption service” targeting the 28 abandoned concrete planters that line both sides of the portion of Waters Avenue where the efforts of the Do-ference were focused. This framework for taking ownership of the “400lb Baby” planters served to begin the process of establishing value in already existing elements of the community as well as inspiring ownership through cultural artistic expression of maintaining the planters. Both our concept and presentation appeared to go over well with conference attendees and community members. I was proud of where we landed in such a compressed time frame.
Examples of how the "400lb Baby" adoption service can transform the abandoned planters
While our positive output as a team can take some credit from the talent and hard work of the group, it is safe to say that a major factor of this “success” was due in large part to the team dynamic and team management. Essentially, when working in a diverse team environment, the efficient management of both the team members’ talents and the decision making processes can be the make or break point in the development of a sound concept. It was in the management of our team that I would like to pause for some small reflection.
We began our work with Jerome Meadows on Wednesday, visiting his studio and walking a portion of Waters Avenue to get a grounding on the background of the community and the work done up until then. In this first day, as we introduced ourselves, Josh McManus made it a point to ask of us what sort of skill sets we had, both design-related and from out in left field. He made note of the fact that this was to establish an inventory of talent for later in the workshop process. Later that day, John Bielenburg made a call for us to work toward what he calls a “little bet,” a small, highly creative concept that can be rapidly developed and deployed. At the end of this first day, Josh gave us a homework assignment for each of us to ponder on our own that evening: to ideate on a potential overall direction (or "little bet") for our assigned problem. These ideas would be shared back the next morning to the full group.
Jerome Meadows of Meadowlark Studios worked with the Cultural Identity Team, providing representative leadership from the Waters Avenue Community
On the second day, we did share back our ideas to the full group and we did vote as a group on the direction we believed had the most potential for our assigned problem. However, post-voting our group became somewhat bogged down in what to do next and the direction we had all voted on sort of mutated in front of our eyes into a diluted version of where we were when we started the day before. At this point, both Josh and John had left the group to give their talks. What we were lacking was someone who could take point and shape what we had on the table into a solid direction and say “go.” When Josh arrived back from his talk, he did just that, sorting through where we had landed and finding a direction to push toward in unison.
The remaining night and day saw us focused on executing tasks based on our expressed “talents,” adhering to a timeline of deliverable “due dates” established first thing Saturday morning. We essentially switched into production mode, only making group decisions where absolutely necessary. Oftentimes, the groups making the decisions were comprised of just those team members for whom the specific question at hand had particular relevance instead of the full group (Jerome and Josh were the two who had the most obvious connection to every step of these processes). All told, we made our deadline and produced a concept and presentation we were all proud of.
John Bielenberg and Josh McManus served as the Design Voices for the Cultural Identity Team
Though I didn’t get to attend his talk, I know Josh spoke to the balancing act that must occur in a group setting between collaborative group decisions and the solo creative process. This is a topic that I had taken note of in a recent New York Times editorial. The final 24 or so hours of our time together as a team brought to life an accelerated example of how these two facets of collaborative work environments must be thoughtfully managed in order to navigate the dangers of getting hung up in process.
While it is ideal to work collaboratively in brainstorming processes, it is oftentimes beneficial to break apart and have time for creative ideation in solitude. In coming together for a share back, the opportunity lies for combining and mixing and matching these individual ideas, which returns them to the collective sphere of the group. Furthermore, being able to fluidly read when a group’s creative momentum is beginning to stagnate is a necessary skill for the management of design teams. It is at these points that breaking a group up to work separately presents an opportunity to prevent the process from getting bogged down in fruitless, circular thinking.
It is also worth mentioning here, that having one or more members of a team who are comfortable with pulling the trigger on conceptual directions are a crucial asset to team environments. This was the case for our Cultural Identity Team. While it remains an imperative to collaborate on a problem as much as possible, the need still remains for a person or persons who can say, “This is it, let’s go for it.”
While this case study of managing collaborative design workshops took place in less than three days, this same scenario has a tendency to repeat itself in larger and longer projects. It’s in the creative management of design teams that the deliverable for design problem can narrow in from a loosely defined collection of process to a solidified, actionable idea.
During the darkest days of the Great Depression, the Starland Dairy, located at the southern edge of Savannah's historic district, commissioned the construction of the town's first lighted baseball park. The dairy initiated educational programs that brought milk cows to school yards around town, culminating in a contest where the winning student could name a cow (they chose Starlanda) and take their family to an amusement park. Conventional business logic says expenditures like these amount to economic suicide in such dire times, but the Dairy leadership saw things differently. They funded projects that created jobs while enriching the cultural ecosystem. They invested in their community and gave people cause to feel hopeful about the future.
Fast-forward 70 years. John Deaderick and Greg Jacobs, along with Jerry Lominack and later Christian Sottile, recognized the significance of this neighborhood within Savannah, and set after a vision of resurrecting it from the ages. During this effort, the Starland Dairy became the first LEED certified building in Savannah. In September of 2011, Volta Collaborative engaged the Desotarow art gallery, Christian Sottile and Jerry Lominack, in collaboration with SCAD design students from the Architecture and Fibers departments, to further reassert the Starland Dairy as a beacon of community revitalization and local ingenuity.
Through several weeks of fiery collaboration, the project stakeholders were able to see their assets through an entirely new lens. The students, too, were exposed to a depth and intensity of interdepartmental collaboration that they had not yet experienced. It was a profound journey for everyone, culminating with a public exhibition of the students' concepts for the "historically reverent" revitalization of the Starland Dairy.