Tag Archives: design


“They didn’t believe in teaching, they believed in learning.”

–Lisa Demetrios on her grandparents, Charles and Ray Eames


Stories– yes! I’ve had excellent results in the past few years using a graphic novel approach to communicate project outcomes–showing a client, “here’s what the world would be like if you implemented these ideas.” Follow this link for a good post by Nick Babich on storyboarding and UX, with a nice synopsis of elements for successful storytelling.


Design Thinking, Fractals, and the Eightfold Path

Design Thinking trajectory_square

About four years ago, I worked on a project for a client whose key stakeholders included some folks who were very strongly entrenched in the skeptic’s camp when it came to Design Thinking. These were people who had enough curiosity about design as an approach to creating innovation to have come to IDEO with a project, but who were definitely in an “I’ll believe it when I see it” mode. (Skepticism and a questioning nature, by the way, are a key piece of why these people are good at what they do–and are entirely appropriate qualities of character, given the domain they work in.)

Anyway, we did the project, and it was–no exaggeration–a home run with bases loaded. We were having celebratory drinks after the final night of a big participatory workshop event, and I ended up at a table with the two strongest skeptics. We toasted the success of what we had done together, and then one of them said to me:

“So, this ‘design thinking’ worked–no argument
there. Now tell us why it worked.”

Two whiskeys into the evening’s celebration, and not having expected the question, I think I did a pretty good job talking about how design thinking is a process where we externalize and concisely express (often visually and with low-resolution prototyping) our implicit thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc.; how doing this enables us to build something new together; how doing design research to inform and inspire our work, and purposefully bringing together a cross section of stakeholders in the process of generating and building make sure that what we create together reflects fundamental truths about the context we’re designing for and the people in it, etc.

But in the four years since the story I’ve just shared took place, I’ve landed on a couple of things that I think are uniquely true and powerful about Design Thinking (aka Human-Centered Design, aka HCD). As a designer and design researcher, I enjoy being observant about not just what we do and how we do it, but why it seems to be so effective, and I wanted to share these thoughts with you.

First, fractals. Design Thinking not only acknowledges but embraces the fractal nature of the universe.
A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. It is also known as expanding symmetry or evolving symmetry. If the replication is exactly the same at every scale, it is called a self-similar pattern. An example of this is the Menger Sponge. Fractals can also be nearly the same at different levels. This latter pattern is illustrated in the magnifications of the Mandelbrot set. Fractals also include the idea of a detailed pattern that repeats itself.

You can go all the way back to Charles and Ray Eames “Powers of Ten” to see that this is true–design has always embraced phenomena of scale and the integral nature of how the universe is constructed, and good design has always functioned in accordance with these fundamental principles.

Second, Zen. Design is all about exploring combinations and connections, and Zen Buddhism not only acknowledges but embraces the juxtaposition and often equally true nature of opposites.

I have a long history with Zen Buddhism. I think it’s fair to say Zen practice and philosophy have saved my life more than once. When Zen was first introduced to me, what immediately resonated was the fact that Zen, unlike any other thought system I’d been exposed to previously, not only acknowledged but embraced the contradictory nature of the world and human experience.

You’ll notice I keep using the phrase “not only acknowledges but embraces.”

I think this quality of embracing is key. Design thinking is joyous and energetic. It is based on an embracing of the truths of the world as it is and the possibility that the world can be made better. And in this way, and because we build our design work on an understanding of reality gained through the direct contact of design research, and because our process is inclusive and collaborative, I believe Design Thinking is actually a living instantiation of the fundamental Buddhist tenets expressed in the Eightfold Path:

Right View        Right Thought        Right Speech        Right Action     
Right Livelihood     Right Effort     Right Mindfulness     Right Concentration


There’s so much more to say, but I wanted to begin the conversation. Please, leave a comment–I would love to hear what you think about this…

Giant Steps

I’m working in New York this week, and was lucky enough to catch Jeff Han and Bill Buxton in conversation at the Cooper Hewitt. I know–right? What a pairing!

Bill Buxton and Jeff Han

Some pieces of the conversation I wanted to share…

“I believe that, in design, you really have to understand what’s been done before…to understand not just the point you’re at, but the vector you’re on.”
– Jeff Han

“Our job is not just to make a digital analogue of a physical device. It’s to see what can really be done.”
– Jeff Han

“You can easily impedance mismatch to the customer. You have to scaffold not only up to the customer, but up to the industry.”
– Jeff Han

“I wouldn’t hire anybody that I wouldn’t work for myself.”
– Jeff Han

“The only way you can manage is if people feel that you’re not a manager but a collaborator.”
– Jeff Han

“We’re not technologists. The thing that binds (Jeff and I) is that the technology we know the most about is people.”
– Bill Buxton

“When people talk about mobility–it’s not the mobility of the device–it’s the mobility of the human.”
– Bill Buxton

“Don’t develop technologies; develop solutions.”
– Bill Buxton

“Your expertise has to be on the human side of things.”
– Bill Buxton

“Now that we can do anything, what should we do?”
– Bill Buxton

Collective Consciousness

Some weeks, you really feel like you’re in the flow of something collective, and this week was one of them.  A lot of us played the lottery. And David Bowie passed away.
Colby, my waiter at the Ace, certainly hoped I had the winning ticket as I checked my numbers over breakfast. That would have been a good day for both of us.
Dan and Colby
But…it was not to be.
Not this time
Still, between the 2-cent lottery pool I joined at work with 136 of my colleagues and the many conversations I had during the week with both friends and strangers about “…how we would handle it..,” I had a lot of fun, and re-affirmed that I’m pretty happy with my life the way it is, anyway.
Moving from the material plane to the spiritual, David Bowie’s death has been an interesting collective experience.
Remembering Bowie
I love Bowie’s music and his ethos as a creative artist. I didn’t follow him super-closely while he was alive; yet, his death, for me, leaves existence on this planet feeling a little different. It’s a different place without him here–I feel that.
The whole week has been punctuated with Bowie moments–from hugging my colleague Katie who really felt sad about it, to hearing a cool remix of Let’s Dance in a coffee shop, to the moment last night, at the end of a long and beautiful week of doing work I love (designing for social impact), where the band on the rooftop of the Ace played Life On Mars, and everyone went quiet for just a few seconds.
Life on Mars

And then, the earth resumed its spin, and we’re back again, in the flow of time.

Ecosystem anchor

Tree of life, La Ceiba, Playa Chiquita, Costa Rica.

Tree of life


Just In


Seen and Overheard

A boy around twelve, biking by this Porsche Speedster, comments: “That’s so old it looks futuristic.”


Six Tips For Doing Great Design Research Interviews

Interacting deeply and honestly with people who may be quite different from you is a nuanced art.

Understanding how the world looks to people who may be quite different from you and your teams is central to the practice of design research. This is true whether you’re doing B2C, B2B, or organizational change work. Interacting deeply and honestly with people in order to gain this understanding is a part of our craft that can seem deceptively simple, but to do it well is a nuanced art.

Here are some tips for conducting great interviews…

1. Create comfort
Read the situation and person. Be adaptive.

Nuance your demeanor and communication style to create an interpersonal dynamic where that encourages each particular individual to express themselves.

2. Make space
Switch from talking mode to listening mode. Minimize your airtime.

The space you create is one of your most powerful tools. Explain concisely what your focus is and the type of interaction you want to have so that participants are oriented, and start right away making room for them to express themselves.

Notice that I say “make space,” not “leave space.” When done well, you are actually creating a unique interpersonal space that encourages people to share deeply.

3. Ask real questions
Understand what you really want to find out. Be genuinely curious.

Frame your questions openly and simply. Let a question sit after you ask it–don’t answer it yourself. Leaving space and waiting for someone to process your question and give a real answer validates their thought proces and lets them know you are really there to try and understand them.

Give an interviewee space, even if they struggle at times to express themselves. Don’t put your words or perspectives in their mouth, even if you think you can help them say something or if you know something they don’t. Let them find their own ways to articulate their thoughts–you’re there to get their perspective, not to reiterate your own point of view.

4. Listen
Real listening is at the heart of interviewing. When someone knows they are truly being listened to, the interview becomes a collaborative process of discovery.

Deep, concentrated listening–combined with open-ended, targeted follow-up questions–triggers personal reflection and storytelling. Stories often reveal much more than “answers.”

Be deliberate about what you share and interject throughout the interaction. Sometimes it makes sense to share your own experiences and ideas, sometimes it doesn’t. Be clear with yourself about why you are doing it.

5. Lead AND follow
Great interviews are like jazz improvisation—creative exploration within structure. Balance letting the interaction guide you with guiding the interaction.

The dialogue will take you to places you didn’t anticipate; this is how discovery happens. However, it’s still your job to make the interaction purposeful and targeted.

Don’t fall into “just having a chat.” Use your interview guide like a lighthouse beacon, to know where you are in relation to the conversation you planned to have.

6. Be creative
Not everyone expresses themselves best verbally. And not every line of inquiry is best addressed through talk alone.

Use props, sketching, diagramming, role plays, simulations, etc, if it helps a person express themselves, or helps you better set up the inquiry. Context is a great tool; be observant and utilize situational details to have deeper, more concrete interactions.

Coda– Well-practiced design research is highly valuable to the design process, and on a personal level, the opportunities it provides to really experience other people without judgement or distraction can be incredibly rewarding and impactful.

Happy interviewing!


If the people and cars look like this, how can you go wrong?

In the movie In Time (not-out-of-the-ballpark-great but definitely worth a night in), production designer Alex McDowell renders the future in retro tones–60s and 70s cars, mid-century apartment decor, a generally thin-lapelled fashion language.

I guessed that the look of the film was born at least partially from a small budget. If you’re going to create a world distinct from the present but don’t have the funds and/or time to design a bunch of never-before-seen stuff, going the other direction–back to the past–and then doing a bit of modification (like the solid rims on the film’s chopped Lincoln Continental limousines) and adding a soundtrack that connotes “future” is a pretty good strategy.

It turns out that, yes, the film had a small budget and short production timeline, but also that McDowell has an amazing production design resume: Fight Club, The Crow, and the cited-by-every-client-who-wants-to-innovate-something-that-includes-a-screen Minority Report. McDowell also coined the term “immersive design,” and is an advocate for creative collaboration between the entertainment and scientific communities.

Which brings us to Worldbuilding. Although more traditionally used as a concept for narrative and game design, I am really excited about this area right now as it applies to design work in general. I’ve been working on a lot of projects that combine elements of product, space, and experience design, and conceptualizing these endeavors as the creation of a world makes complete sense.

Something like the iPhone succeeds because it delineates a “world” that has cohesive physical characteristics, patterns of interaction that mostly hew to a logic that can be intuited through ordinary engagement, and a larger ecosystem that supports the norms of this world. In products and services, as with fantasy and science fiction, cohesive worlds satisfy our pattern recognition jones, and create pleasure.

5D, a “global community of multi-disciplinary creators,” describe the Worldbuilding design arc as follows:

  • Inception – imagining and developing the world
  • Prototyping – testing the story space and visualizing the world
  • Manufacturing – building the world, real or virtual, for studio and capture
  • Finishing – honing final resolution and the experience of the world

This is a process that will sound familiar to most designers. Design and the creation of narrative are tightly interwoven, and McDowell’s advice in a 2006 MIT News article still rings true for designers in all disciplines:

It’s time for us to restrain ourselves and use the tools to do sophisticated storytelling as opposed to “just look what we can do if we just press this button.”