A look at Design Thinking – and how it’s not a milk cow

Vitruvian ManThe phrase “Design Thinking” is getting bounced around a lot, and for a while I found it a bit puzzling. I didn’t understand how it differed from regular thinking. Then today I read Rick Wise’s succinct (if perhaps oversimplified) definition in the FastCompany blog and realized the reason the phrase puzzled me was because is regular thinking. At least for me.

“At heart … it is about fusing the creative and open-ended with the analytical and operational, combining very different ways of thinking and acting. This is, of course, easier in theory than in practice. How do you get children’s book authors and chemical engineers to click into something greater than the sum of the parts–rather than devolve into warring camps?”

Like Rick Wise says, “Everyone’s a bit of everything.” Few people are all creative or all analytical. But I have been lucky enough to build my skills in both realms to a point where they are balanced and integrated.

Mostly from being in the right place at the right time, I’ve been blessed with abundant opportunities for education. My first degree was in visual art, a BFA from the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington , D.C. It was a marvelous experience that I still treasure years later. But after that first degree, I was too curious to call it quits on tertiary education. Next up I studied philosophy and linguistics at the University of Auckland, and received rigorous training in analytical reasoning. It was sometimes difficult and dry, but I knew I needed the skills. Then after that experience, I went back to art, and did an MFA at Portland State University.

Now, as a business-owner and strategist/designer, the combination of inspired+creative  and rational+analytical is an enormous asset. I am able to help clients strategize their brand and website to fit their organization’s goals, I’m able to meticulously plan timelines and budgets, and I’m able to maintain big-picture perspective during a project. In this analytical realm, decisions get made based on looking at premises, and following them to their conclusion. This is what we have now. Over there is the outcome we want. This is what will happen if we change what we have by doing X. Will that give us the outcome we want? No? Return to the premises and start over. Maybe? Tweak the variables until an acceptable level of probability is achieved.

But during the project, I will switch gears and be the designer. It’s a new set of decisions to make, but they mostly happen on the visceral level. Color palette? Hmmm. Uh. Er. Oooh…. Ah!

Choosing photos? Too gloomy. Too cute. Too green. Almost, but too wide. Will it crop well? No. But this one will…nice.

Creative decisions are made split-second fast, and it’s later that I go back and find reasons for them — which I need to do when presenting design decisions to clients.

Client: Of the three color palettes you’ve shown us, which do you think is the best for our organization, and why?

Me: Option three is the best. The intensity of the palette visually supports the vibrancy of your organization. You fund organizations that educate children in energy-intensive ways. However, your website audience is adults, not children, so while the colors are bright, it’s a sophisticated adult palette, not a play-school or candy-bright palette.

Client: “I see what you mean, yeah…” 

The FastCompany post focuses on how Design Thinking is done at a particular firm, Lippincott, which is much larger than Blue Mouse Monkey, with eight offices worldwide. Design Thinking impacts not just client strategy, but how their whole company is structured and how staff are coached, and how they are paid. I can only say as a creative and as a business-owner, am inspired by Lippincott’s priorities and strategies.

However, Design Thinking has its critics. When taken as not simply a vague label to describe the ability to blend “left-brain” and “right-brain” problem-solving (over-simplified terms in themselves) and is used instead to mean a specific methodology or process to “get more value” from staff, then it can become a mere trick, applied externally to people situations to provoke them to be different from how they are. A type of provocation that can easily fail. Bruce Nussbaum, also in a FastCompany blog post, outlines his criticisms of Design Thinking, and calls for a new conceptual framework he calls the “Creative Quotient.” His recent book is Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire.

I have not read the book so can’t comment. But all this talk of finding the right way to “harness” creativity makes me a just a tiny bit queasy.

As Thomas Frank says in his article, TED talks are lying to you, “The creative class has never been more screwed. Books about creativity have never been more popular. What gives?”

He goes on: “Those who urge us to “think different” … almost never do so themselves. Year after year, new installments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed. Creativity, they all tell us, is too important to be left to the creative. Our prosperity depends on it. And by dint of careful study and the hardest science — by, say, sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine — we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.”

Creative minds, says Frank, are treated like they can be “harnessed” and then are supposed to “do their nonlinear thing” and out of that flows “epiphanies and solutions” that make corporations rich.

Thing is, creativity doesn’t work that way.

Not to say that corporations haven’t gotten rich from epiphanies and solutions arrived at by creative people. As Frank says, “Spend a few moments on Google and you will find that the tale of how Procter & Gamble developed the Swiffer is a staple of marketing literature.”

But it can’t happen by applying a formula. What the writers on creativity fail to mention is the role of intuition. And that intuition can’t be forced. Sure, it can be encouraged and developed, but it can’t be imposed. It simply doesn’t work that way.

The corporations that get rich from some creative insight are lucky. They had the right people at the right time. Other corporations might have the right people at the right time, or they might not. When it works, it’s not because of the application of a formula, it’s because of a serendipitous set of circumstances. As much as corporations want to control variables, and “harness” intangibles, there is no way to reduce the creative process to a repeatable formula. You might invent the Swiffer, or you might not.

Keep trying, sure. Don’t give up. But don’t expect to corral the ethereal, evanescent, weightless nature of creative inspiration like you might a cow that you expect to give milk at will.

Lisa Onstad artist website launched

Lisa Onstad websiteBlue Mouse Monkey is proud to announce the launch of an art portfolio website for Portland artist Lisa Onstad. Lisa works in book arts and painting, and she teaches workshops at the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts and elsewhere. Lisa wanted a clean, minimal design to present her work, and a scalable content management system to enable her to add and edit content over time. Check it out at LisaOnstad.net.

MIT establishes Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST)

Photo: Andy Ryan

I’m excited that MIT is recognizing and supporting interdisciplinary collaboration in the arts and sciences with this new center. I’ve always advocated a breakdown of the artificial division between the two disciplines, the overly simplistic “right-brain” vs. “left brain” classifications of not only activities, but people. Creativity is enormous and comes in many forms. Cross-polinnation between arts and sciences can only be fruitful. I can’t wait to see what sort of projects, ideas and resources come out of CAST.

The grant will provide awards to faculty, researchers and curators seeking to develop cross-disciplinary courses, new research or exhibitions that span the arts, science and technology. Mellon funds also will supplement MIT’s existing Visiting Artists program. The goal will be to embed artists’ residencies in the curriculum and create a platform for collaboration with faculty, students and research staff in the development, display and performance of new and experimental artwork or technologies for artistic expression. In addition, the grant will support the participation of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the activities of the Center.

Anders Bjorling website launched

02_anders_bjorlingWe’re pleased the announce the launch of the website for Minnesota photographer Anders Bjorling. Anders travels the world to take beautiful shots in his native Sweden, as well as Iceland, Africa, the Galapagos, Ecuador, and elsewhere. The site was built with scalable portfolio pages, so with the CMS (content management system) in place, there is no limit to the number of images Anders can add.

Marlana Stoddard Hayes website launched

06_marlana_stoddard_hayesBlue Mouse Monkey is pleased to announce the launch of the website for Portland artist Marlana Stoddard Hayes. Her interest in living communities leads her to explore the relationship among various nested systems found in the natural world, and she uses elements of nature in her painting practice, such as spore prints from fungi. The site is starting small, but with a CMS (content management system) in place, Marlana can add new portfolio pages over time. Marlana Stoddard-Hayes is represented by Butters Gallery.

A chance to play

Last weekend I had the opportunity to play outside. I guess I don’t get to do that much anymore, because it felt like an incredible treat. At home I can be outside in the garden in two modes: gardening, or relaxing. The relaxing thing happens rarely, and only for a half hour, tops, then I’m off doing something else. The gardening thing is good, but purposeful. There isn’t much pure play involved in weeding beds and harvesting vegetables.

img_0372But last weekend I stayed in a log house in the Hood Canal (which is really a fjord) with three other women. We were there to share creative solitude during the day, and friendship over dinner in the evenings. The others worked on writing projects, and I made art. I expected to write, too, but earlier, while cleaning out our basement, I found a bunch of leftover bits and pieces from grad school. Plaster casts of hands, rolls of colored string and cellophane, paper cut-out shapes. On impulse I decided to take this flotsam and jetsam of a period of intense art-making up to the Hood Canal to play around with it and see what happened.

At my friend’s place I chose to work in a small meadow next to an old shed. It was more like a clearing in the forest, and filled with buttercups and light slanting through the trees. I didn’t have any particular plans other than I’d make site-specific sculptures and leave them there. (Or dismantle and discard them in my host didn’t like them, but it turned out she did :-)

img_0434The first piece I made was inspired by sun hitting tendrils of tall grass in front of the shed. They made bright vertical lines of light against the dark background. I created a set of horizontal lines to complement, using embroidery thread. Keeping the tension in the thread was the hard part, since I couldn’t pull too hard on the grass stalks or they would snap.

Then I hung from a tree pieces from an installation I did years ago called The Myriad Things. Now the very cool thing I discovered, which I had never seen when this work hung in a gallery, was how it moved in the wind. Each strand has three collaged paper or glass vesica piscis shapes strung together with fine monofilament. Instead of flapping around like a wind chime, the shapes acted like paddles, and they spun in place. It created a beautiful floating, flickering effect, especially, when seen across the clearing. (Please excuse the crappy iphone video.)

img_0408Other pieces I made included burying gold foil under the duff so it glinted through, making the earth look golden. That one was hard to photograph. I also wrapped a sapling trunk in bands of gold foil, and placed plaster hands among the buttercups.


img_0416The other more visible piece I did was a large “cellophane fin”, made by wrapping colored cellophane across the delta-shaped spaces made by low, nearly horizontal maple limbs. The cellophane was left over from some 4-color printing process, with alternating magenta, cyan, yellow and black frames. The effect was like stained glass, but delicate and fragile, and in a tree.

I got to make a sculpture garden! It was the most satisfying thing I have done in a long time. I need to get out and play more often.*

* Bucket list:
1. Experience the Calabi-Yau in all ten dimensions
2. Play outside regualrly

Website launch: Cherie Haney, Metals Artist

cherie_haneyBlue Mouse Monkey recently launched a new website for Ann Arbor metals artist Cherie Haney. Cherie was chafing under the constraints of a Carbonmade website and approached Blue Mouse Monkey for a completely custom solution. The new site is built on Cherie’s aesthetic of organic shapes in layered planes, using the colors of steel, rust, and mineralization. The store is scalable, and the content management system allows Cherie to update her trade show schedule and other information. Cherie is represented by over fifty galleries across the US, and this website will help promote her work even further.

The science and art of democratizing data

Data-visualization virtuosos Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg create a hybrid “artform” (for lack of a more inclusive term) out of data sets. Straddling the realms of science, design, art, and exploration, these graphics reveal interesting patterns in data.

“Data visualization has historically been accessible only to the elite in academia, business, and government. But in recent years web-based visualizations–ranging from political art projects to news stories–have reached audiences of millions. Unfortunately, while lay users can view many sophisticated visualizations, they have few ways to create them.

To “democratize” visualization, and experiment with new collaborative techniques, we built Many Eyes, a web site where people may upload their own data, create interactive visualizations, and carry on conversations. The goal is to foster a social style of data analysis in which visualizations serve not only as a discovery tool for individuals but also as a means to spur discussion and collaboration.”

Carbon footprint of a Big Mac, by Tim Fiddaman

Carbon footprint of a Big Mac, by Tim Fiddaman

Visualizing data that isn’t normally visualized, or is presented in a new way, tells us different stories about the world. From a kid counting all the socks in his household, to trends in editing wikipedia, to a “social network” of the characters in the bible, Many Eyes shows us new patterns that hadn’t been noticed before.

Wattenberg and Viegas now work with Google on a project called the Big Picture Visualization Group in Cambridge, MA, with the goal of making visualizations available to regular  people via Google.

Austin Granger website launched

austin_granger2Austin Granger is a photographer and writer who has produced three books, and wanted us to create online versions of each of them. The challenge was to reproduce the books in web form in a way that preserved as much of the flavor of “book”, with its concomitant hierarchies of information, while maintaining good digital user interface and information design. The resulting triple-website presents nearly 400 photographs, along with Austin’s 9-chapter essay on Point Reyes. Check out the three books: Elegy from the Edge of a Continent: Photographing Point Reyes, Lights and Keepsakes, and Astoria.

PlayWrite, Inc. website launched

playwrite-portland-youth-theater1We were privileged to work with Portland non-profit PlayWrite, Inc. to recreate their website from scratch. PlayWrite works with youth ‘at the edge’ to create original plays, powerful vehicles through which their voices are heard. The young participants collaborate with theatre professionals throughout the process of crafting a play, from character development to directing professional actors. In the process, the participants learn to trust, manage, and heal their own emotional experiences; to work collaboratively; and to contribute positively to their communities.

PlayWrite’s old website didn’t communicate the good work they do, and it contained almost no evidence of the artistic output of the participants. It was also hard for staff to update. Blue Mouse Monkey’s overhaul of the website includes a new look and feel, expanded and organized content, and a complete archive of all plays and songs, with image and video support. The easy to use CMS (content management system) enables staff to keep the site as a alive as the work they do.