Monday, December 24, 2012

Toys toys toys

I'm developing a new project called Make Better Stuff, a series of toy-making workshops in which students design and build their own toys while learning social skills like teamwork, user interaction, and empathy. I've been thinking a lot about toys--about who designs them, who builds them (not elves), who plays with them, and how the design of a toy affects people in different ways.

Toys are designed by grown ups. Many of these designers work for firms who aim for high sales and low production costs. Then there are those who assemble toys, often foreign laborers who’ve moved away from their families to make money to send home, who might take a few night classes to try to move up in their careers. Then there are the recipients of these toys: kids who play with them. Different types of toys encourage different types of play.

A ball for example encourages a shared experience. It can be a competitive experience as in basketball, in which the goal of each player is to score for their own team and prevent the other team from scoring. Or it can be a collaborative experience, as in a game of catch, in which both parties want to toss the ball back and forth just because it feels good--that experience sounds and smells good too.

There are toys that encourage strict adhesion to the rules, such as a coloring book. And there are toys that encourage exploration and creativity, such as legos. (Even though they are marketed and sold in kits, they still end up in one big bin that kids make all kinds of fabulous creations with.)

But you know what there aren’t enough of? Toys designed by kids. So I look forward to exploring toy-design with kids. I’d like to know what they think about toys: the relationships that toys promote and how kids might create toys that make their own lives better. Sounds like fun, right?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Almost Perfect

As I embark on a new laser cutting project, I’m diving deep into patterns, tessellations, and polyhedrons. These are patterns of perfection, one unit exactly like the next. But the deeper I go into this research, the more I’m drawn to the theme of “almost perfect.” It’s popping up everywhere. In nature there is pattern and variation like in kernels on an ear of corn or in leaves on a branch. They’re all the same, but they are slightly different from one another. And in music there is the concept of “theme and variation.” The theme is the perfect and variation the imperfect. Alone they are flat little pieces but, paired, theme and variation create something rich, complex, and whole.

Christopher Alexander’s 1977 book, A Pattern Language, is filled with imperfect patterns that help us to design better buildings, towns, and cities. “Something Roughly in the Middle” is a pattern from that book. The pattern doesn’t discard symmetry but asks us to play with it a bit. When designing a courtyard, he says, place a sculpture or a fountain roughly in the middle. Resist the urge to place it dead center.

Like I said, this theme is everywhere. I even heard super-model Tyra Banks tell one of her contestants on America’s Next Top Model, ‘You want your photos to be perfect, but not quite perfect. Because that’s what makes a great photo, when something is slightly off.’

So thank you, universe, for pointing out the almost perfect. And let me ask you dear readers, what are your favorite examples of “almost perfect”?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Repost: Interview with Red Hat designer, Mo Duffy

Mo Duffy is a senior interaction designer at Red Hat, a billion dollar company that is the world's leading open source and Linux provider. I met Mo this past spring when we spoke on a panel at SxSW. I was struck by her insights into her profession and how those insights relate to all design professions. Not only does she get into the nitty gritty of the politics of the workplace and the realities of usability testing, but she is a passionate advocate for open source and the democratization of design.

To read the interview, follow this link to industrial design super site Core77.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Cheese, Entrepreneurship, and 3D Printing

I've gotten pretty good at making cheese over the past month which makes me (and my friends) happy. I've been making bread and more recently gnocchi and I'm experimenting with alternatives to wheat for that. But really, the most exciting thing for me at the moment is that I'll be at the Finger Lakes Social Entrepreneurship Institute this weekend where we will use the Board of Innovation's "Business Model Canvas" to develop ideas for new businesses. I aim to explore a business based on managing volunteers or on collaborative consumption (sharing stuff). And then next week I'm speaking at the Design for Manufacturing Summit in NYC on how I've used rapid prototyping in the classroom. So yes, it's cheese, entrepreneurship, and 3D printing for me this month and I couldn't be happier.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

What can you teach in an hour?

Yesterday my husband and I went to a cheese-making workshop at the first Fingerlakes Cheese Festival. Our teacher, Tom Pinello, did a fantastic job demystifying the cheese-making process. His delivery was calm and casual yet thorough. And he was open to questions throughout the workshop--we had many.

The most striking thing about this workshop was that it began with a room full of folks with little-to-no-knowledge of cheese-making and yet, 40 minutes later, we had made a ball of mozzarella cheese together.

This got me on a stream of thought about what I could teach other people to do in an hour. I could teach people how to run effective brainstorming sessions, how to analyze the sustainability of a product, how to use the elements of graphic design, or how to grill perfect pork chops.

Then I wondered what the people I know could teach other people to do in an hour. I have friends who could teach people how to use a sewing machine, how to conduct an interview, how to design a paper-based game, and how to grow garlic. I have friends who could teach people how to use commas, how to write poems, how to self-publish books, and how to edit video.

Then I started to think of creating a collection of one hour lessons. I'm aware of Freeskool and Ignite Talks and BarCamp and Khan Academy. I'm not sure if this project is different and I don't know if it has to be.

But here's the first step--what could you teach a small group of people to do in one hour?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Black, White, and Walnut

Just a short post from the road -

We visited the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth, MA yesterday. It was a small, unassuming home with Gorey-like scenes staged throughout: paper bats on the bathroom mirror, a fallen doll on the stairway, a miniature deathbed next to the telephone, and a big ole bear sitting on the sofa. White surfaces and antique walnut furniture provided the perfect "ground" for the black & white "figures" throughout.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Some Things Change

A lot of changes on the immediate horizon. A change in career, a change in location. I'm excited and I'm scared.

Luckily, however, my friends and family haven't changed. I can count on them for love and support and these past 24 hours I've felt extreme gratitude for their love.

I'll write with more detail after the first of the month when I'll be doing a bit of traveling, visiting my people, and some camping, crafting, and music making (my "new" accordion pictured above). To the future! May we all be happy and healthy. May we love and be loved.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

This earth day, forget about future generations

One credo of the environmental movement is “protect the earth for future generations.” This sentiment comes from the Iroquois who, in their wisdom, thought about the future consequences of decisions that they made in the present. This is a lovely idea, but we need to do more.

We need to think about the real time consequences of our decisions.

If we really want to love the earth, we need to love the people on it. All of them. And we need to do more than buy low impact dish soap or hemp clothing for our own families to help them out.

Almost half of the people in the world live on less than $2 a day. That’s $730 a year. I can’t even imagine what that is like.

And that unimaginable feeling is why we in the west focus on eco-friendly chairs and lamps and other such distractions that lead us to believe we love the earth. Because thinking about so many people living on $730 a year is overwhelming, and heartbreaking.

What to do about it? There’s a lot of debate around this issue. Some give charity, some critique charity. Some buy free trade, others critique it. Some invest in micro-loans to create jobs for the poor, others critique the work that micro-loans create. It’s hard to help a sister out in the 21st century.

All I can offer is this - search deep in your soul and find a way that you can help people that is meaningful to you and meaningful to the person you are helping. How do you know if it’s meaningful to them? Ask. In this age of communication technology, there has got to be a way to reach out even if through a telegraph. Talk to people. And love. That’s what we need here on earth. If we do more to care about the people living on earth now, then we enable more people to care for future generations.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Repost: Are leaders born or made?

They are made.

I’ve made it my mission to teach creativity to students from academic disciplines that aren’t traditionally described as creative disciplines. On the first day of each new quarter, I ask the new students, “Who in this room is creative?” Rarely do more than half of the students raise their hands. I tell them that those who didn’t raise their hands are wrong and that all of them, in fact, have the potential to be creative. I tell them that throughout the next ten weeks, I will prove this to them.

There have been many definitions of creativity throughout history, but the one I use is probably most aligned with a post-modern sensibility: “the ability to frame and view problems from multiple perspectives simultaneously.” It requires the ability to empathize with people who aren’t like ourselves and it requires agility in order to shift from one perspective to another. I teach creativity outside of the art and design college because I believe that creativity is a necessary leadership skill for the 21st century and it shouldn’t be the sole property of artists. And because this is my mission, I must believe that people can not only be taught to be creative, but be taught to lead.

There is no denying that some people display a seemingly “natural” ability for leadership. Some people seem to “breathe” qualities like confidence, assertiveness, and gregariousness, qualities we normally associate with leaders. However, it’s difficult to prove that by the time a person shows “natural” leadership potential as early as age two to four, that they have not already been nurtured to develop leadership qualities. Of course, some leaders are born in to positions of power, like George W., but that’s another issue entirely.

But more important than whether or not we can prove if leaders are born, I worry about the message that is implied by the notion that leaders are born, especially to folks who don’t yet consider themselves leaders. I fear that that stance sends a message that “you’re either born with leadership skills or you are not - it can’t be learned,” thus perpetuating the myth by discouraging less natural leaders from even trying to lead. I believe almost any person who wants to be a leader can learn how to with enough practice.

Many artists ironically interpret the praise “you are so talented” as an insult, because they feel that, relative to effort and hard work, talent has little to do with the quality of their art. Artists become great at what they do as a result of working hard at their craft, and often with no guarantee of a monetary reward. I extend this “hard work with no guarantee” mindset of artists to leaders who work hard with no guarantee of success. Great leaders, like great artists, have grand visions about seemingly “impossible” things. Then they roll up their sleeves and work hard to try to make their dreams come true.

But unlike an artist who is afforded the option of working alone, a leader cannot lead without followers. And for this reason, being a great leader is perhaps more difficult than being a great artist because it requires cooperation from other people. And since creativity is a skill that helps people lead, it frustrates me when my business students, especially management students, tell me that they aren’t creative.

I’m very interested in something I call “The Unlikely Leader” and will probably pursue this theme throughout the quarter, as opportunities allow. As I argue above, we often associate qualities like confidence, assertiveness, and gregariousness with the qualities necessary to be a great leader. But I’ve found throughout my teaching that it is often the more quiet and shy students that have the greatest capacity to think and reflect and thus they have much richer ideas than their more outgoing classmates. But since their outgoing classmates have more aggressive communication skills than they do, it is they, the outgoing students, whose ideas are more often implemented. This privileging of the ideas of a certain personality type is a problem. And I would guess that it’s not only a problem in college classrooms, but also in the world at large. Often, bullies rule.

One approach to solving this problem is to teach quiet students to be more aggressive. In an controversial blog post from media scholar Clay Shirky, entitled “A Rant About Women,” Shirky proposes that his female students, whom he says tend to be shy, could be more successful if only they would be more arrogant. Certainly an assumed arrogance is one approach. It’s not uncommon to hear a successful leader say that they are at heart introverted but have trained themselves to be outgoing and, at least in appearance, confident when the situation calls for it. This is certainly one method for teaching people to be leaders.

But I’m skeptical of this approach. I fear that it may diminish some of the reflective qualities that unlikely leaders have to offer. So I’m in search of another approach to teaching leadership to more quiet, thoughtful, and reflective people. If we can find the right tools to teach leadership to a broader range of personality types, to not only prop up leaders who exhibit seemingly natural abilities for one type of leadership, then we may be able to “make” more leaders who are thoughtful, reflective, and capable of deep, integrative thinking and problem-solving. Looking at the world around us and the problems we face, I think this latter type of leader is the one we really need to learn how to nurture. 

This essay was originally written for Mary-Beth Cooper's course: "Power, Influence, and Negotiation"

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Simple steps for encouraging participation

NOTE: If you are able to read and listen to music at the same time -- I cannot -- then I suggest playing this video while you read. The music is quite good.

We gave our SxSW panel on women in open source today. It was fun. I’ve really enjoyed talking with Red Hat designer, Mo Duffy,  these past few days and Andrea Hickerson is always a pleasure to work with.

Our panel was about encouraging women to participate in open source and open collaboration projects. By ‘open collaboration’ I mean any project that isn’t directly regulated by the market or government but instead relies on a group of self-organized volunteers. Yochai Benkler writes about this at a very high level, but I’m looking for something a little simpler. Also I’m not as interested in how the work is arranged, which is what Benkler articulates well, but how the entry experience for a newbie is designed.

During the discussion, I think we all agreed that when a host of an open source or open collaboration project extends an invitation for newbies to join, that invitation isn’t enough to encourage a diverse group of people to participate. We articulated that problem well, I think,  and the audience nodded their heads in agreement. But solutions are hard to come by. Several audience members scratched their heads and asked, “Why is this still an issue?” To which I humbly replied, “I don’t know. That’s what I’m here to find out.” (I know panelists aren’t supposed to say that, but I’m on a “show your vulnerability” kick these days. But that’s another story).

One answer I thought of during the panel comes from what I'm learning in my grad strategy course. In strategy, we learn that it’s common for an organization to articulate a grand vision yet not clarify an execution plan to achieve that vision. “Why is that so common?” you may ask. Again, I don’t know but I suspect it’s because executing a vision is freaking hard to do.

So in trying to figure out how to add some walk to our talk, how to offer some actionable steps toward getting closer to the vision of  more women participating in open collaboration, I called on my first love, music. In music, we engage in something called “Call and response.”  The caller can be thought of, in this instance, as the host of a collaborative project. And the responders are potential participants.

Here are the steps for engaging people in a “call and response” collaboration.
1. Offer them an invitation to collaborate (good start, but not enough)
2. Show them how to participate (sing a simple line of a song)
3. Practice the line with them (until they feel comfortable)
4. Take a leap of faith together and sing the song

Now, I know the skeptics out there have been burned by engaging in a process like this. More than once I’ve heard a host of a project say, “I spent 10 hours training that person and they just abandoned the project.” This is a valid concern. That’s why it’s so important to find an easy task for the newbie to learn that won’t take too much of your time. Now, the other skeptics are saying, “Well, if I spend that much time with a newbie, won’t I just be training them to depend on me to lead them? That’s not what open source is about.” This too is a valid concern.

To come back to music, a newbie starts off with an instructor, but eventually learns how to play on her own. She may even outgrow her instructor and will have to find a new one that is more challenging. Finally, she goes on to perform solo and in ensembles and may even become an instructor herself. This is how you scale participation in open collaborative projects. Extend an invitation to a newbie; model for them how to participate; practice with the newbie until she feels comfortable; then, most importantly, take a leap of faith together and sing that song. And when you get really good at this process, you may end up as good as Miles.

video via Chris Azzara

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Synthesizing Design-thinking and Sustainability

I’ve long been interested in the similarities and differences of two venn diagrams used in analyzing products, services, and systems. One diagram is used to visualize innovation values and the other is used to visualize sustainability values.

The Innovation Diagram
The first--the innovation venn diagram--holds that when we develop new products, services, or systems, there is a sweet spot at the overlap of the three perspectives of Design, Business, and Technology (1). The Design perspective is defined as a customer perspective or a human-centered perspective; the Business perspective is defined by the ability of the market to support a new product, service or system; and the Technology perspective is defined by the feasibility of technical function, that is, can we build a new product, service, or system that won’t break when we use it?

The Sustainability Diagram
The other venn diagram, visualizing sustainability values--is comprised of what is referred to as the “triple bottom line.” This trio isn’t always expressed as a venn*, but humor me for a minute. The three circles in this diagram consist of the following criteria: People, Planet, and Profit.

Synthesizing “Design” (from the Innovation Diagram) and “People” (from Sustainability Diagram)
It’s easy to synthesize the Design circle from the Innovation diagram and the People circle from the Sustainability diagram: the Design circle is made of customers and the people circle includes customers but also includes anyone affected by a new product, service, or system.

Synthesizing “Business” (from the Innovation Diagram) and “Profit,” (from the Sustainability Diagram)
It’s easy to synthesize the Business circle from the Innovation diagram and the Profit circle from the Sustainability diagram: the Business circle is made of a particular type of profit, one that maximizes shareholder wealth, and in a for-profit firm wealth is most often defined as monetary wealth, so making a lot of money is the goal. However, in a non-profit organization, the definition of wealth is broader. Certainly a  non-profit needs to make more money than what it costs to operate the organization, but its shareholders are taxpayers who, in theory, define wealth-generation as delivering value to society.

Synthesizing “Technology” (from the Innovation Diagram) and “Planet” (from the Sustainability Diagram)
The Technology circle on the Innovation diagram and the Planet circle in the Sustainability diagram are trickier to resolve. They seem too different to synthesize. But William McDounnough (2) offers a useful scheme. When he talks about products, services, and systems, he distinguishes between industrial systems and biological ones. He claims that as long as we can keep those systems separate, then we should be okay. So in my synthesized diagram, I’m resolving the Technology circle and the Planet circle with the term “Systems,” both man-made (technological) and natural.

The “Enlightened Innovation” diagram: Culture, Value, & Systems
So this is my “Enlightened Innovation” diagram. I claim that the sweet spot is where Culture, Value, and Systems meet. Culture (3) is defined by all people affected by a new product, service, or system. Value is defined by economic viability, but also by other definitions of wealth, such as health or happiness. And Systems is defined by the functionality of technological and natural systems. Of course, all of this looks good on paper. If you’re in the trenches, you know how difficult it is to resolve these perspectives, to find the sweet spot. But no one said it would be easy.


* In a triple bottom line diagram, some argue that the people and profit circle lie within the planet circle. 
(1) Tim Brown and Scott Berkun are great resources for this innovation diagram. 
(2) William McDounnough’s Cradle to Cradle is a great resource on navigating industrial and biological systems
(3) AIGA put forth a quadruple bottom line that includes “culture” in addition to society, planet, and profit

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TEDx Talk: Make Better Stuff

Back in November I had the privilege of speaking at TEDx Rochester about the convergence of two of my favorite topics: social business and rapid prototyping. Here's the video with transcript below. Enjoy!

Hi, I’m a designer, and I want to talk to you about making better stuff. When designers make stuff, we don’t just make one thing; we make thousands of copies of it. Often these things are manufactured abroad, using poor labor practices under substandard environmental regulations.

Then the stuff gets shipped to big box stores all around the world where we buy it cheap. To top it off, this stuff that we make and then buy isn’t even making us happy. Research shows that once we reach middle class status, the stuff we buy doesn’t add much to our happiness (Gilbert). There has got to be a better way.

As a designer and a want-to-be anthropologist, I believe that objects & products--that STUFF--mediates human relationships in both negative and positive ways. So when I say MAKE BETTER STUFF I mean stuff that strengthens our relationships with people in our communities and stuff that creates local jobs.

It’s NOT easy to do. But it IS getting easier. So I want to point out to you two encouraging trends. One is about meaning. The other is about means.

Businesses increasingly want to offer meaningful products for two reasons:

1. more customers want them

2. creating them is rewarding for employees

Tom’s Shoes, Method Soap, and Patagonia are large firms that make meaningful stuff. But I want to illustrate this phenomenon of meaning closer to home using one of my favorite examples: the local food sector.

The number of farmers markets in this country has doubled in the past five years. Not because the food is cheap or convenient, but because more customers now want relationships, both personal and economic, with the people making their food and their stuff. And the farmers and makers? They aren’t getting into these businesses to become millionaires. They do it because they want to do work that is meaningful. Now, the business model of the farmers market is not fully evolved, but it’s a good start to building an economy around better stuff that builds meaningful relationships.

Which brings me to my second point: THE MEANS.

I cite the local food sector as a venue for better stuff, but meaningful markets can be hi-tech too. Engineers here are probably familiar with rapid prototyping tools like “3D printers” and “laser cutters.” Having these tools is like a having a mini-manufacturing plant on your own desktop or garage. Engineers have used them for years to make and test prototypes of their designs.

What’s new about this technology is that it’s becoming remarkably accessible. Just as music production software is readily available now, anyone with an internet connection and a camera phone can now upload a drawing of a product to a manufacturer in the location of their choosing that will manufacture that product on demand.

And then of course the internet is an effective tool for marketing, selling, and distributing product. Ponoko is one of several platforms where we can already do this. When I want to buy a gift for my friend in California, I no longer have to go to the big box store and buy her something that was made halfway across the world. Instead, I can get online, design something of my own or pick something out, and that thing can be “printed” by a small manufacturer in her neighborhood and delivered a short distance to her home. The product is meaningful because it’s made just for her, by a small manufacturer and business owner who lives in her community who has the means to make and deliver product.

Now that’s a simple example but the last industrial revolution started in a simple way too, with textiles. So I’m here to ask of you, when this technology becomes ubiquitous, let’s not mess it up. Let’s not repeat the 20th century mistake of manufacturing ourselves out of jobs. Instead, let’s make stuff that creates jobs and strengthens the relationships between makers and customers in our own towns and cities.

We live in a time when there’s an increasing demand for meaningful products. And we live in a time when more and more of us have the technological means to create and distribute these products. So please, MAKE BETTER STUFF.  

MAKE BETTER STUFF by Xanthe Matychak is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

NOTE: I used a photo by Ed Burtynsky in the slide presentation for this talk.