You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2009.

collinsA few weeks ago I wrote about Kurt Anderson’s TIME magazine story entitled The End of Excess (post: 4/10/09) in which the writer and radio host found surprising hope and optimism in our current gloomy economic straits. Anderson suggests that the unpredictability and flux that will come in the months and years ahead will be a time of fruitful opportunity for creative thinkers and entrepreneurs. I just came across an INC. magazine interview with Jim Collins, author of Good To Great and founder of the research firm ChimpWorks, and I found synergy with Kurt Anderson’s article. Collins and expands on Anderson’s theme in some intriguing ways—I particularly appreciate his holistic view of entrepreneurship.

“I take a broad view of it. The traditional definition—founding an entity designed to make money— is too narrow for me. I see entrepreneurship as more of a life concept. We all make choices about how we live our lives. You can take a paint-by-numbers approach, or you can start with a blank canvas. When you paint by numbers, the end result is guaranteed. You know what it’s going to be, and it might be good, but it will never be a masterpiece. Starting with a blank canvas is the only way to get a masterpiece, but you could also blow up. So, are you going to pick the paint-by-numbers kit or the blank canvas? That’s a life question, not a business question.”

Collins also takes a refreshing view on the notion risk, one of the great barriers to entrepreneurship.

“As an entrepreneur, you know what the risks are. You see them. You understand them. You manage them. If you join someone else’s company, you may not know those risks, and not because they don’t exist. You just can’t see them, and so you can’t manage them. That’s a much more exposed position than the entrepreneur faces.”

Doug Hall, a columnist for BusinessWeek’s SmallBiz offshoot agrees with the theme that our current economic flux presents an opportunity for entrepreneurs in his April/May column. “Small, incremental changes are considered a waste of time,” writes Hall, “Now’s the time to be bold. And by that, I mean that it’s time to be a radical innovator of products, services, and business models”

BusinessWeek is an excellent (and relatively design-friendly) resource for business news, and I’ve found the INC. Magazine website to be bookmark-worthy too…although the INC. blogs don’t seem to be as content-rich as I would hope.

pixi_screenshot_frame_homeAs this recent NY Times article about iPhone app development illustrates, we are in the midst of an absolute gold rush of entrepreneurial activity around the release of these (sometimes) amazing bits of software. Stories abound of “kitchen table” developers cranking out the next great app in a matter of weeks and turning outrageous profits. But with more than 30,000 apps now on the market, this trend must be waning, right?

With such a deep history and strong connection between Apple and the communication design profession, this seemed like an obvious topic for Merge to explore.

Terry Anderson is a co-founder of Tiny Wonder Studios which released their first app, Pixi, in January. In Part 1 of my conversation with Terry, I discuss the overall trend of app the development and the process of creating Pixi.

photo1I’m sitting in on Marcia Lausen’s Design Colloquium class at University of Illinois Chicago today as students present their designs for a personal experience mapping project. The students have taken a variety of—mostly mundane—life experiences, from the micro, like “what I do in the morning before school” to the (relatively) macro, like “friends I’ve known over the last ten years” and developed graphic interpretations of them. I’m seeing some outstanding solutions using thoughtful information design and we’re having a vibrant discussion about what lies at the essence of a story—a process which is, of course, at the core of what we do as communication designers.

As you know, I’ve been struggling with how to integrate business planning—on the surface a rigid and mundane process—into the entrepreneurial experience for designers and creative thinkers. Today I’m seeing that experience mapping is part of the solution to this dilemma—I’ll be writing more about this soon.

Here is a selection of designs from the student work:

Detail from "Life in Audio" by Marta Wlodkowska

Detail from "Life in Audio" by Marta Wlodkowska

Detail from "A field of travel" by Eric Cervantes

Detail from "A field of travel" by Eric Cervantes

Detail from "My Morning Flow Chart" by Nicole Stormer

Detail from "My Morning Flow Chart" by Nicole Stormer

Detail from "Why my wrist is broken (again)" by Kuri Alamillo

Detail from "Why is my wrist broken (again)?" by Kuri Alamillo

Detail from "Circle of Design" by Sana Ahmed

Detail from "Circle of Design" by Sana Ahmed

I must admit that the term Designer as Author has always perplexed me. It gets thrown around quite a bit in our profession when describing entrepreneurial activities of designers (see the Designer as Author MFA program at SVA). Of course, there are many designers who are authors (the kind that write books, that is), but how does that term translate to new business ventures?

Thanks to Ellen Lupton, now I understand.

Lupton, the designer, educator, and author (of books, including Thinking With Type) recently gave an enlightening presentation at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, as part of the Walker/AIGA Minnesota Insights series, in which she traced the history of this term back to Rick Poynor’s 1991 article in BluePrint magazine entitled, The Designer as Author. She expanded my understanding of the term “author” to include not just the written word, but the development of content. The transformation of designers from their traditional role of crafting the form of a message, to impacting—and eventually creating—the message itself, is, after all, at the core of what this blog is all about.

The video below is a short preview of Ellen Lupton’s presentation. You can find the full lecture at the Walker’s fantastic website or on iTunes U. The Walker should be commended for bringing their content to the masses in such an open and accessible way—the iTunes U outlet has an amazing catalog including past design lectures by Ed Fella and Experimental Jetset.

mmmRia Sharon is a designer from St. Louis who is fearlessly forging into the new frontier of online social media with her online community for parenting: Ria has used Twitter and affiliate marketing to build into a growing enterprise. In Part 1 of our conversation, Ria and I discuss the ferocious pace at which her new business is evolving.

Here are links to some of the collaborative resources Ria mentions in our chat:

12 for 12k
Mom It Forward

notebookOK, it’s time to clean out the notebook. Here are a few random notes that have accumulated over the last month.

Designer as author
I first met David Gibson of TwoTwelve when we were both serving on the AIGA board of directors in the early 2000’s. David has an excellent new book called The Wayfinding Handbook. My copy just arrived and it looks to be a great read filled with practical info for communication designers working in this unique area of our field. David’s also featured on this podcast from

Social Media 101
Minnesota designers interested in learning more about this freaky thing called social media can attend Social Media 101: A Beginner Bootcamp at Aloft Hotel in Minneapolis on Friday, April 24. The event is a partnership between smartypants marketing consultant Jennifer Kane of Kane Consulting and my pals at Clockwork Active Media. Click here to register.

Geek Girls Guide
Speaking of Clockwork, Nancy Lyons and Meghan Wilker from that firm have created an excellent blog that is expanding into a thriving community—all with the mission to make web technology accessible and exciting for women. Check out the Geek Girls Guide and join their Facebook group.

Hamilton Wood Type Museum
Check out Steven Heller’s interview with designer, letterpresser, and wood type fiend Bill Moran of Blinc Publishing on AIGA Voice. The interview focuses on the tenth anniversary of the Hamiltion Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, which Bill has been instrumental in developing and supporting. I hope to feature Bill in a future Merge post (earth to Bill!!!), but this will be an adequate preview (he says with tongue in cheek).

Aspen Design Challenge
A partnership between AIGA and INDEX, the Aspen Design Challenge is an annual call to students worldwide, inviting them to address an international problem that is not only crucial in today’s world, but critical to our survival and the world that they will one day inherit. The finalists for the 2009 Challenge: “Designing Water’s Future” have been announced.

craigdrivesmallPaul Irmiter and I go way back to the days when designers would actually hire photographers to shoot pictures (what a concept!). Paul and I spent countless hours making images for Target, Musicland, and Andersen Windows, among others. I was always impressed with Paul’s ability to be nimble and adaptable with his photo business: one day we would be building a room set in the studio with a full crew of assistants and stylists, and the next, it would be the two of us on location with a handheld camera; always with the same excellent results. So I was fascinated—but not surprised—a couple months ago to see that Paul’s business had morphed yet again with his latest project: The Craig Show, a hysterical web based show featuring golf coach, musician, and budding performance artist, Craig Teiken.

Paul talked about the transition from still to motion photography in a recent email exchange: “I love photography and integrate it in into everything we do, but that’s a changing industry and often lacks the creative spark it used to have. So I came up with the idea for The Craig Show and I have never had more fun.”

Each episode is between 2-5 minutes long and usually revolves around Craig ranting about various aspects of golf and life. “I met Craig through some mutual friends, and after spending some time with him I felt he would be great on camera,” writes Paul, “he has an endless amount of information about golf, so we are never short on material. I tend to pull in some outside weirdness to keep things fresh and different. Jacob the main camera guy is mostly interested in what makes him and his friends laugh. Jacob’s responsible for my returning character of the Caddie…he just thinks it’s hilarious.”

So how do Paul and his partners plan to make this gem of an idea into a business? “We have the goal to build The Craig Show into a profitable business. We have some small advertisers and are looking to line up an overarching sponsor to help fund the production. We have not activated our Google Ad and Blip Ad accounts, but that’s an option too, if our numbers continue to increase.” TCS also serves as a marketing tool for Paul’s production company 612im. “It’s a great way to showcase our capabilities. The ultimate goal is for 612im to be a full time production company working on internet-only content. We also have some ideas for merchandise related to the show and we have a Flickr stream for some still shots related to the show”

One of the primary venues for TCS is a service called, an online hosting and distribution platform which features an expanding range of independently produced shows, video blogs and podcasts. Paul talked about the trend in TV viewing habits, “I am betting that in the next few years there will be little difference between broadcast TV and net TV.” He points to shows like Wine Library TV as an example of how this trend will play out with independently produced shows that target a very narrow niche audience.

I see The Craig Show and as excellent examples of the opportunities opening up in this time of economic, technological, and cultural flux. Compared to just a few years ago, it is outrageously easy and affordable to produce online content and exciting to see creative professionals like Paul Irmiter pioneering this new frontier.

better1I was intrigued by a recent link on Swiss Miss for a site called The Better Project, which offers a social networking venue for solving societal problems. Users create a “project” by listing a problem—which could be massive in scale like “public transportation,” or modest like “Washington Square Park”—then fellow users offer solutions and vote on the best ideas. As ideas emerge as promising (or at least popular), users are given the opportunity to join with others to engage in working toward a solution.

TBP is a creation of web developer Arc90 and grew out of Kindling, a business-focused software tool for generating ideas and community in the workplace.

I see some conceptual synergy between TBP and microfinancing (which I wrote about a couple weeks ago in a post on March 28). TBP appears to be in its early stages of growth, but the idea that social networking is moving into the realm of social change is exciting. And it offers a potential model for nurturing—and even funding—design-related entrepreneurial ideas.

Speaking of “better:”
Check out the 2009 Open Architecture Challenge for designing a better classroom. Obviously there is an architectural emphasis to this competition, but visual communication is such a strong part of learning and the classroom experience, it seems like there is an opportunity here for communication designers to offer some impactful solutions. Designer/enterpreneur Hilary Cottam of Participle is listed as a juror.

quote2I hope to achieve a rhythm with Merge between the micro and the macro. Examples of micro topics will be tactical stuff like business plans and online advertising, while the macro will come through in an ongoing discussion of business and cultural trends and how they relate to design and entrepreneurship. Today, we go macro.

Kurt Anderson is one of those annoyingly multi-talented guys. An author (latest novel: Heyday), a former journalist, and the host of the design-friendly weekly public radio show Studio 360. His cover story in the April 6 issue of TIME Magazine (yes, the one that has ink on paper) is an exquisitely clear-headed snapshot of the current cultural/economic/creative moment entitled: The End of Excess: Why This Crisis is Good for America. And a snapshot that is relevant to entrepreneurs.

With all of the hyperbolic commentary about the current state of the state, Anderson pushes the pause button in this essay and puts a surprisingly hopeful spin on our seemingly grim circumstances. Looking back at our recovery from previous economic and cultural crises, he discovers that those hard times were followed by periods of great innovation and progress.
“Recall, please, the national mood in the mid-’70s: after the 1960s party, we found ourselves in a slough of despondency, with an oil crisis, a terrible recession, a kind of Weimarish embrace of decadence, national malaise — and at that very dispirited moment, Microsoft and Apple were founded. The next transformative, moneymaking technologies and businesses are no doubt coming soon to a garage near you.”

Or maybe a design studio near you? I would suggest that another area on the cusp of a great leap forward is communication. As designers of communication, we are the ones to lead this trend—and not by waiting for our clients to hire us to design their innovative communication products for them, but to innovate ourselves.  Kurt Anderson continues:

“This is the moment for business to think different and think big. The great dying off of quintessentially 20th century businesses presents vast opportunity for entrepreneurs. People will still need (greener) cars, still want to read quality journalism, still listen to recorded music and all the rest. And so as some of the huge, dominant, old-growth trees of our economic forest fall, the seedlings and saplings — that is, the people burning to produce and sell new kinds of transportation and media in new, economic ways — will have a clearer field in which to grow.”

Designers, let’s take the field.

Special thanks to my friend, mentor and new social media user, Eric Madsen for the tip on the TIME article (more on Eric another time).

As you know if you’ve read any of my previous posts, I’m a big proponent of the business planning process for entrepreneurial designers. Despite how painful it can be for creative thinkers to complete, the business plan is an absolutely vital tool when, inevitably, we need to pitch our ideas to the non-creative “majority.”  There is no shortage of resources, templates and guides for b-plans, the problem is that most of them are outrageously lame: overly complex, rigid, redundant, and (of course) horribly designed.

I’ll continue to revisit this topic periodically, but for now, I want to point you to Tim Berry, who writes, speaks and blogs extensively about business planning (I referred to him in an earlier post along with Guy Kawasaki). Berry is the founder of Palo Alto Software, which creates Business Plan Pro software (which I have never tried—let me know if you have experience with BPP) and author of many books, most recently The Plan-as-You-Go Business Plan.

This short video is an interview with Berry that gives a good overview of his thinking.

What I like about Tim Berry is that he is not rigid in his approach to business planning. He offers a basic structure but insists that the plan really needs to work for you, not vice versa, hence there are many forms it can take. His mantra that “business plans are always wrong” is a refreshing approach that highlights the organic nature of the planning process he endorses. This will resonate with designers because it allows us to be creative with the process and format of the plan—essentially, to treat the business plan as a design project (aha! more on this another time).

Here’s a link to Tim Berry’s blog (he blogs for many different outlets, but his own version seems to be the best).

More on business planning to come!

Follow Doug Powell on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: