24 December 2009

Women in hats

There are few better opportunities to contemplate the convergence of form, function and fit that a winter day in Chicago’s fashion center. While the utility of the hat may seem obvious, the complicated thought process in choice can be easily under estimated.

Obscuring or enhancing one’s hair is always a consideration. Some, will fight the need for a hat… others embrace it. For men it may be an over worked form of camouflage. For the record I really can’t stand those flat brimmed fabric hats that aging rock&rollers seam to favor these days and hey guys… ball caps are for the weekend. Top hats are fun, stocking caps, representing the essence of minimalist utility can project youth, danger and sport.

Texture, shape and color seem to vary tin order to fit the ensemble… and rarely does it seem that function is driving those attributes for women. Sometimes I think the nuisance of the hat is a portion of its allure.

The point being, if you happen to be struggling in your quest to fully explore the ‘why’ of a product, consider the hat. Consider the whys of the hat. Consider the whimsy and the purpose.

08 October 2009

One piece at a time…

When I was a youngster, the first introduction to music I can remember was being in my Dad’s shop with the radio on. I recall a lot of Johnny Cash. One song I remember in particular was about a guy that worked in the Cadillac factory and decided he was going to get his car by taking a part home every week in his lunchbox. Over the years he built his car… and it was made of Cadillac parts, but it was certainly not the car of his dreams.

Similarly, you can build a product by starting with a feature list, but the results will show. Having a strategy that includes a core purpose and measurable objectives will keep your product focused and translate into useful attributes. Basing that strategy on user insight and market vision will significantly add to the cohesiveness of the product and its probability of success. There are few shortcuts in strategy that pay off.

22 September 2009

Is your career holding back your work?

Not a lot of subtlety there. Most of us work for money. Many, many folks get into business, whether corporate contributors or entrepreneurs… for the money. Some work with the intent of getting rich. What I often find in the design filed is a more altruistic… more pure mission. “To make a contribution”, “to make things better”, “to do great design” are things I hear a lot. My personal favorite is part design and part business… “to create value in the marketplace”.

often stressed that the mission of a business cannot be about profit. He posited that profit must be a given for the business to survive, and that the purpose, the mission, of the business should be great… it should be a higher calling. To me this is a bit like saying profit to a business, is like breathing to a human. As an analogy I think it works pretty well.

For the individual it is a little different, but not much. You can’t blame a person for having goals and being career minded. We all want to advance. Career advancement brings more power and that brings the potential to do even greater things. It also brings money and security, things we all want to provide for ourselves and for our families. But should you carrier be the thing that infuences you daily decisions the most? Probably not. By doing great work, on should assume that as a result, your career will advance. If you don’t believe this to be true, then you should probably find a new place to work. If you put your career ahead of doing great work… say making great products, then your employer should probably find different help. I know it might seem as though I have over simplified. But it does seem very simple to me.

28 August 2009

Innovation… what it is not

In most cases innovative thought and break through ideas first come from the folks that are intimate with customers and their needs. Thorough understanding of the situation and the technology are next. Immersive expertise is paramount. Smart people with insight are very very helpful. But smart people from outside the domain… rarely drop in and provide brilliance. Innovation is rarely instant… it comes from hard work.

27 August 2009

Thoughtful and purposeful

Design should be purposeful. What I mean by that is it that needs to be thought about from the audience perspective and in light of the projects goals. Cool is not necessarily better. What works for project 17, probably won’t work for project 27, even though the two may me similar in scope.

Take a look at this blog (the one you are reading) for instance. I have received council and critique that this blog is kind of plain and clearly not designed. It is in fact very precisely designed. It is plain for a reason. I have no aspiration of conversion. I have no goal of expanding my reach. If you read this blog regularly you likely seek substance over style. You likely appreciate the utility – the efficiency of delivery. If you’re mostly attracted to shiny objects then you likely won’t be back here anytime soon. I’m pretty ok with that. There are plenty of places that provide visual sizzle and this is not one of them.

Think about lifestyles and demographics. Would not everyone want to look cool, wear black and live in Manhattan? Of course we all know the answer. High design and cutting edge design is really fun and I for one love it. But it does not serve anyone to apply it when the audience will be unreceptive.

All three dimensions of design; form, function and fit, must be considered. That one seems lacking from your perspective, does not mean it wasn’t considered.

06 August 2009

Search engine optimization…

I have this theory that as soon as the search engines (yes, mostly google) have indexed the web enough, they will no longer need the convenience of portals. They will then reduce the transparency how crawlers work and make it much more difficult to optimize a site for them. It only makes sense… the search engine becomes you own personal and customizable portal… but I digress.

Every day I get little reminders of the importance of search engine optimization (SEO). Bu today I got a startling example of what happens when you do absolutely nothing about it. I was searching for a small cabinetmaker in Maryland. It’s a very small shop – and that is partially why I was looking for them. They were actually listed third in the results. Not bad, until you looked at number two. In the number two spot was a listing that took me to a discussion forum. Within that forum, a very nice person had compiled a list of 20 or so cabinetmakers with a similar specialty. Suddenly, I have a full list of this guy’s competition. Surely this is not good for him in any way right?

So, some 10 years since my small design firm in Kansas (maybe our location caused us to try harder) began working to help clients optimize their sites so that they could be better found on the web… there are still people with web sites that have no clue. So much opportunity lost.

05 August 2009

What is “smart”?

The word is everywhere. In interviews, in meetings, and in process I hear the reference. What does it mean when someone says “she is really smart”?

Smart can be a lot of things. Smart can mean that a person knows a lot. Lot’s of knowledge frankly, is not always helpful. Applying the appropriate part of that knowledge to the problem at hand is quite useful. This part of smart is also a split category. Some smart people have read a lot. Some have done a lot. Knowledge without application is less than optimal. Experience without a core understanding of theory or reasoning can be problematic as well.

Smart can also mean that the person learns or figures stuff out… is a problem solver. That is also very useful in many, many situations. The third type of smart is really more an issue of judgment. These people are often notable because they seem to know what to do in certain situations. They may utilize “smarts” from either of the first two categories… or not.

Of note… is something that is perceived as smart, but may not be. A quick confident answer is often seen as smart. Be very careful with this one… it is primarily behavioral, and as such a learned skill. This one can get you into big trouble.

30 July 2009


If your motives are pure and simple, visa a vi, do my job better, make better products, make customers happy… then why is there so much conflict in the workplace. Why are there so many roadblocks to getting my job done and doing it better?

The origin of the term ‘bureaucracy’ was to identify systems and technologies placed into large organizations to increase efficiency. By the way, it was the Romans that figured out well-managed groups really need to be capped at about 100-125 individuals.

One of the basic premise’ behind working efficient and effectively is to break small problems or projects into smaller ones. Evolving this to ongoing work streams, we assign specialists. Specialist often feel that to operate at their best, they must have a singular focus and look at their part of the problem with a microscope or telescope. The problem with each of these visual tools is that they decrease depth perception and are limited by perspective.

Each of us within the organization need to get out of the weeds, away from out tactical poise and look at the big picture. If the trains run on time, but they don’t take folks to their intended destination, we have failed collectively. Increased efficiency always impacts effectiveness, and vice versa.

So get out of your chair… stand on your desks and have a look over those cubical walls. Get out of your office and wander to a different floor. Talk to people who do jobs other than what you do. Gain some perspective. There is a bigger picture.

20 June 2009

Where are you going?

The great thing about having a path... is than when you wander, you have a place to come back to.

11 June 2009

Resistance is not futile… it is optimal.

Ever ridden down a steep hill at such a fast rate that you could not pedal? Your feet just can’t keep up. It’s an uncomfortable feeling… almost out of control. Riding the flats or uphill… with some resistance gives us the choice to go faster or to slow down.

An experienced salesperson lives for an objection. It is only at that point that they get to do their job. If you ever want to frustrate a salesperson, just smile and nod as they run out of things to say.

When I was a young designer I used to bristle at constraints. Constraints were definitely the things that held me back from doing great design. What I later discovered was that those very constraints that I loved to complain about, were the foundation of my work. They were the problems I solved, the edge that gave me grip, the launching point of discovery. I began to seek those challenges that afforded both opportunity and accomplishment. Learning to embrace constraints was possibly the single greatest lesson I ever learned in design. 

07 June 2009

a city of design

I could not be more excited about my relocation. The city that became home to the bauhaus... a city that so embraces industrial design and architecture. Just walking around the city... whether it be the burbs, the midtown areas or downtown... you know that people thought about this stuff... and made it work. 


So much design... so much design education. It already feels like home. 

product perfect... perfect products

As a teenager working in the sign shop down the street, I was surrounded by bikes and bikers. Not the pedaling sort, but the motored kind. Outsiders might recon that this meant some ruff influence with unruliness not fully endorsed by the parents. But the influences that stuck were from the music and art. Rock and roll is obvious… but the other was pin striping. In their spare time these guys were decorating bike fenders, gas tanks and were often paid for striping trucker’s rigs.

When body ink began gaining traction a dozen or so years ago, it was not a huge surprise to see many of those visual elements from striping find their way to shoulders, arms, lower backs and other more discrete locations. The immergence of graffiti as a legitimate art form was a bit of a surprise but its influence on body art was not.

So none of this is really news, and you might be asking what is the point?

More and more these forms and imagery have been showing up in mainstream items, from t-shirts, dress shirts, jeans and even household fabrics. It is a far less committed way of wearing body art. What is striking about the third or fourth iteration of these visual elements is the embrace of what a product manager might deem a defect. None of these canvas, the human body, a brick wall, or a truck body panel constitute anything close to a perfect canvas. The uncontrollable elements of shape, dimension, texture and material effect, in a substantial way, the outcome of the final product. These ‘defects’ or artifacts have come to be embraced. The imperfections are a huge part of what makes this cool to those willing to fork over a few bucks… and display it. It’s worth noting even when generating technology products, that the consumer has influence here… and that perfection is not always perfect. Those imperfections may in fact become desired attributes.

26 May 2009

Social media and transitions

I have argued that social media, in and of its own, is a bit of a novelty. Its real benefits are realized when it is purposed… as it ties to specific areas of interest and activities. This may be where MySpace lost its way. As a conduit for bands and fans of bands, it had a specific purpose and place in the world. Beyond that it has drifted in comparison to the drive and growth seen on other social sites.

Working through a change in location and new employment has put me in the situation of living in two places at ones while not really being at home in either. Social media, specifically Facebook, online discussion groups and even LinkedIn have provided some unexpected continuity beyond emails, phone calls, texts and face-to-face during this time. I am a bit surprised at the stability, comfort, and utility these sites have provided. Frankly, I am also surprised at my needs – or appreciation of these outcomes. These sites have allowed me to efficiently and effectively communicate status, updates and questions to friends and colleagues – and for them to respond. While it seems rather obvious in hindsight, it’s not the sort of thing I would have effectively predicted through my own projections.

18 May 2009

the quiet mind

Nothing original from me today… but I did run across a remarkable paragraph in a book I am reading called, ‘Effortless Mastery’. The author, Kenny Werner writes the following:

“The folly of human history is the search for this state (of mind) in things outside us. This explains wars, all the conquests of money, power, sex and other sensory experiences. The ultimate security one seeks can only be found within.”

06 March 2009

We all need more Van Morrison moments…

These are tough times… I really don’t need to tell anyone that. Every day I talk to a friend, coworker or associate that is worried for their job, their company or just the state of the economy in general. We all do what we can to brace for the shocking turn of events or the inevitable, but in the end, the time stressing may not be time well spent.

I was heading home from work the yesterday day and it was unseasonably warm… I had the windows down and the radio up. The sun was shining. Three things hit me simultaneously and they turned my day around. I passed a construction site and the smell of fresh earth being overturned was unavoidable. A great song from my high school days came on the radio. And lastly, as I sat at the light waiting to make my left turn home, the sun peaked out and the warmth on my shoulder felt great after what seems like an eternal winter. These three relatively simple things converged to take me back to a time of optimism, carefree fun, and an excitement and anticipation for what the future holds. I could visualize in my head several similar convergences from my youth. Man, was that great.

Your particular flavors may vary… your music, your sensations, your memories… but we all need more opportunities to appreciate the moment, restore our optimism… and if for only a few seconds, shed the weight of our responsibilities. Here’s hoping you have your own version of a Van Morrison moment soon.

16 January 2009

Why design?

On occasion I have looked around and had the strange sense that people are asking themselves, “why is he so passionate about design?” Or, I am sure in some cases, “why is he so indignant?”

Design is a special place to me. Design is that space in innovation and product development where things find their purpose and their success. Great technology does not matter if it doesn’t have purpose, if it does not add value, and if it is not used. Design, is the difference between the 10 – 15% of products that succeed, and all the rest.

Form, function and fit are the key to design. How does it work and how does it look are obvious to most. We all understand the frustration of products that just don’t work well. We also understand the ugly product out there in the world. Some products are so great, so impactful as to overcome bad design and find success in spite of themselves.

But fit… fit is the unsung hero of product design. Fit is when a product does what it needs to do in the context of use. It is how ordinary products get set aside in preference to great products. Pardon the tired example, but it is why nearly everyone has an ipod and not one of the dozen or so mp3 players that preceded them.

But still… why so passionate, is it really that big a deal? In a word yes. I was raised with a notion of contribution. It might sound simplistic or even idealistic, but I would rather give than take. I want to go beyond ‘leave no trace’, I want to ‘leave things better off’. A flat economy is not a good thing. Creating value is an important component to a growing economy. Creating value is not the same as just making money. Making money is easy. Creating value is where a person or people make an intangible difference to success. I am talking about the kind of success that puts purpose, and therefore value, in the hands of those who need it [insert life saving healthcare product success story here]. Yes there are dramatic instances, but when someone adds just a little bit of value to an otherwise ordinary product, they are doing something very special.

This is the hallowed ground of economics and commerce. This is why I am passionate about design. And yes, this is why I am indignant when you treat design with disregard and reduce it to rote process as a cost management tactic.

05 January 2009

self importance, self promotion and self preservation

When I was a young man building my design firm I was the focus. I started small… very small, it was just me. As the company grew I added people around me that could help. As we grew in both size and sophistication it was with great pride that I found myself able to add employees that were better at specific skill sets than I.

Most of our clients were entrepreneurs at first, but we quickly joined the ranks of those sought after design firms and executed lots of high profile ‘A list’ work in the corporate sector. One common trait I found among both types of clients was the need to work with ‘the boss’ of a small or medium size firm. It’s a nice ego boost when you are young, and managing that component of the client relationship is really important.

As the company grew, I grew. I grew as both an entrepreneur and businessman. When I started the company I never really thought much about an exit strategy. I never realized how important challenges and career tracks are to retaining talent.

It became very clear that one of the most important goals I needed to attend to was making myself dispensable. I know it sounds a little crazy, but it is critical. When you found the company, when you make the big decisions and you sign the checks… it is very difficult to step away and not be the center. What is hard is shedding some of that spotlight and empowering employees to make the decisions you have helped train them to make. I don’t mean the letting go part. What is difficult is effectively communicating that competency to clients and to the folks taking over the responsibilities.

The benefits are obvious to me. I hired pros that were really, really good at what they did. I hired quality people with solid judgment. I hired individuals that were driven to do great work. They grew, I grew, and our clients grew. And, as a bonus, I got to take a vacation once in a while.

Those of you who have spent time in the corporate world know that this is not a solid or smart strategy for management, the career track, or you professionally.

An important influence of mine, Kenneth McKenzie (he pretty much invented the field of Organizational Behavior), once told me that if I wanted to get things done, then keep my head down and don’t make a big deal about claiming credit for your work. That fits my nature, but I could not even have comprehended the wisdom of those words at the time. Conversely, one of the most effective ways to get ahead in the corporate world is to be standing near when the cameras are flashing during the victory lap. Some folks just have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

There is probably a sweet spot between communicating your importance, getting things done, and preserving self in a large organization. There is probably a lot less pressure if you just want a job. When trying to manage a career and do great work, it is more complicated. These are things we should probably all be thinking more about, but they don’t really teach you in business school.