You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2009.

Here are some items that are Merge-worthy but I haven’t had a chance to develop into full posts (and I want to get them out there while they’re still relevant).

But first, a big shout out to the Twin Cities Creatives’ Group for the great lunch session on Thursday to discuss design and entrepreneurship. Thanks for the invitation and the rich discussion!

pinkAlissa Walker speaks with Daniel Pink
A smart, inquisitive journalist with a fresh voice, the ubiquitous Alissa Walker is one of my favorite writers on design. She seems to pop up all over the design landscape: her Designerati blog on is a reliable source of industry buzz, and her recent interview on with Daniel Pink probes the best-selling author’s breakthrough thinking on creativity in business. Pink, best known for A Whole New Mind, has new book on career management called The Adventures of Johnny Bunko—The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need. Bunko, while a bit thin on content, is an absolute triumph of form, especially in the usually flat business publishing category. He worked with illustrator Rob Ten Pas to create a riveting graphic novel. Very cool!

Chris Anderson on the new economy
I’ve described Wired’s Editor in Chief in a previous post as a consistently clear voice on the new online economy, and I found this recent essay in Wired to be particularly prescient. Anderson joins the growing chorus of those who see our current economic challenges as a time of opportunity for entrepreneurs. “To all the usual reasons why small companies have an advantage,” he writes,  “from nimbleness to risk-taking, add these new ones: The rise of cloud computing means that young firms no longer have to buy their own IT equipment, which helps them avoid having to raise money or take on debt.” Anderson goes on to discuss “involuntary entrepreneurship,” or the result of the tens of thousands of laid off workers pouring into the market.

Picture 18Starbucks campaign taps online media
This NYTimes article analyzes the new Starbucks ad campaign that takes a novel approach to viral marketing. The campaign challenges people to take pictures of the new posters—being launched in six U.S. cities—and be the first to post a photo on Twitter. Frankly this doesn’t seem to me like a breakthrough creative concept, but it is an indication of how major consumer brands are beginning to think about how to utilize social media to enhance their more conventional promotions.

orangeJust an observation…
If you’re writing (or designing) a book in the business publishing category and you want it to stand out on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, choose a color other than orange for the cover.

routeThus far on Merge, the discussion about entrepreneurship has focused on the process of building a company from the ground up to bring your innovative idea to market. Last week, a lunch conversation with my colleague Dan Wallace brought up an alternative approach that I have not yet written about: signing a product licensing deal with an established company that already has the pieces in place to launch your idea. In fact, if there is a “well-worn path” from graphic design to entrepreneurship, licensing is probably it; there are many examples of designers who’ve had success in the stationery, gift, and publishing markets, as well as font and image licensing.

The basic premise with licensing is that you sell the rights to your product or idea in exchange for royalties on the sales of the product once it goes to market. Royalty percentages can range from 5-15% based on a variety of factors, and often an advance payment can be involved.

While product licensing is a valid option that is well-suited for the designer who is not interested in the complex, demanding, and expensive process of creating a business (financing, production, distribution, marketing, etc.), it should not be mistaken as an easy alternative. The licensing arena is outrageously competitive and the process of selling your idea can be time-consuming and fraught with rejection and risk. In other words, do your homework before you go down this road!

Control will be a key issue for designers evaluating the possibility of licensing. We designers do not easily give up control and, once you sign a licensing deal, that’s exactly what you’ve done. Most of us would struggle to see our creation taken over by an entity that might not have our exquisite taste in typography and color (not to mention strategy and vision).

In established markets like consumer goods, toys, and publishing, working with a licensing agent is going to be an important consideration. These agents have deep connections in the industry and can quickly introduce you to possibilities that would otherwise take years to develop. A good agent will also offer advice and guidance based on their own industry experience. Of course, an agent will also take their share of the proceeds. Additionally, you will also want to consult an intellectual property attorney before going too deep into this process to make sure your ideas are protected.

I am only scratching the surface of this complex topic here, and I will be writing more about it in the future—and hoping to profile some designers who have traveled this road (please send your ideas).  Until then, I’ve found to be a good resource for basic information about the licensing process. The Sloan Brothers have a very helpful string of posts on this site, some of which I’ve listed here:

10 Tips for Landing a Product Licensing Deal
Key Advice for Licensing an Invention
5 Common and practical steps for pursuing your invention

Picture 17Good luck to Minnesota Cup applicants!

I was thrilled with the number of friends, colleagues, and Merge readers who submitted applications to the Minnesota Cup Breakthrough Ideas competition last week. According to their Twitter feed, the Cup has had a record turnout. I’ll be watching the process closely, hopeful that designers and creative thinkers are well represented as the field narrows over the next few months.

Picture 16Recently I was asked whether the focus of Merge is strictly on capitalistic entrepreneurship, or whether I view social entrepreneurship through the same lens. A look back at my posts on the work of Participle, The Better Project, Firebelly Design and others provide the answer to this question: I see very little distinction between these two categories. Both require designers to dramatically alter the way they do business, both require not just a brilliant idea but also careful planning, and both require money—whether the desired outcome is financial gain or purely social change.

On the “social change” side of things, Project M has popped up a few times in my Merge posts, and I have been meaning to contact M founder John Bielenberg to write a proper piece on this groundbreaking concept (Steven Heller interviewed John recently for AIGA Voice). I’ve had a fascination with Project M—the purpose of which is to inspire designers, film makers and artists to use their talent and creativity for the greater good of the world—since I first heard about it when John and I were on the AIGA board together five years ago. At that time Project M was just launching and I still remember the palpable sense of “holy shit, I can’t believe I’m really doing this…” in John’s voice as he talked about his vision. That quality of danger and even recklessness is integral to Project M and is borne out in the results of recent sessions: last year’s Iceland Design Blitz, and Buy A Meter from 2007.

Now I see that Project M will be partnering with Winterhouse this summer on a two-week program bringing twelve individuals together to create a design project of lasting value for a rural community (Project M has always had this intriguing element of reality television to it). Winterhouse is, of course, the design practice of Bill Drenttel and Jessica Helfand (who also serve as editors of a fairly well-known design blog, among various other endeavors). The Winterhouse Institute, established by the couple to focus on non-profit, self-initiated projects that support design education and social and political initiatives, recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop social impact programming across the design industry.

(Yes, you read that right…$1.5 million. More on that to come)

Despite having missions that seem to point in generally the same direction, I see a tension between the edgy, rebellious Project M and the stately, academic Winterhouse. I’m hopeful that this tension will make for exciting results this August. Regardless of the outcome, though, it’s undeniable that the partnership of Project M and Winterhouse brings together some of the truly progressive entrepreneurial thinkers in the design world.

Applications are due June 15 for the Project M/Winterhouse program, which will be held August 15-30 in Falls Village, Connecticut (do you think they’ll need an audition tape too, like Amazing Race?).

Here’s a clip of the Project M Iceland Design Blitz from 2008 in which participants express the double meaning of the Icelandic word ”ÓRÓI which has the double meaning of disturbance and wind chime or mobile:

Picture 15I’ve found to be a reliable resource for thoughtful, bite-sized videos on a variety of topics, from science to politics, from business to history—and design! The format is simple and elegant, and the conversation is smart and deep. Think of TED Talks in 3-minute segments, or The Charlie Rose Show without Charlie Rose. While the majority of the design-related postings have an architecture or fashion focus, occasionally there is some cross over into more a general design discussion or even a connection between design and business.

This clip is one of several they have from MoMA Design Curator, Paola Antonelli, who is no stranger to the communication design community having spoken at AIGA conferences in the past. Here she discusses the “economics” of design, by taking a more classical interpretation of the term economics (ie: the scale of one person to the rest of the world). It’s a compelling argument for the power of design and designers.

She also touches on one of my favorite connections—design and healthcare. If you have trouble playing this video, click here.

101I’m blogging today from the Social Media 101 workshop at the neo-hip aLoft Hotel in Minneapolis (a Starwood concept that I don’t completely get, but it’s a cool space), being presented by Kane Consulting in partnership with the Geek Girls. The social media wildfire (I don’t even think we can call it a trend anymore) has become absolutely fascinating to me. I think we are in the midst of a transformation of the way we communicate, work, learn, sell, buy, ___. This transformation is made even more profound by the fact that it happens to coincide with the deepest economic crisis in generations, record unemployment rates, and a political sea change. I see this new world of communication as a massive frontier of opportunity for communication designers who are interested in shaking up the way they work (or those who just want to stay relevant).

I’m excited for this event for a variety of reasons and I’ll be blogging and tweeting my thoughts and observations throughout the day. These will likely be pretty cryptic notes—a different way of writing than you will usually find on Merge—but I will try to circle back over time and expand on some of the key ideas later.

Observation number 1:
The girls are dressed much nicer than the boys.

The Cluetrain Manifesto

Your brand story
needs to be in order before you start going outward in social media.

Read the privacy policy for your social media sites. “It’s like you’re keeping your stuff in a friend’s car…they could just drive off someday.”

Why build your own social network?
Instead you must find a way to be  relevant in the existing networks.

The conversation is happening whether you are participating or not—yikes!!!

Fact and fiction travel at the same speed on social networks. At the end of the day, though, fact will win out—the community will check the facts and correct the fiction.

Urban legend database: Snopes

A good social media strategy creates a brand conversation that drives traffic and action. But it’s not about directly selling—it’s about connecting.

Social media is NOT FREE. It requires dedicated resources, strategy, research—or it will fail.

You will not have the same control over your brand in the social network space (logo placement, graphic standards, etc.), but you must control the voice of your brand in that venue. You must be authentic to your brand.

1 out of 5 emails and social media messages will be read on a mobile device. 80% of mobile social networkers are under 34 (you do the math). is a new subscription site for testing mobile sites as they appear on devices.

1% of websites are mobile-friendly.

Naked Conversations by Robert Skoble and Shel Israel

Common Craft — cool, simple videos to explain the world of social media

“Twitter from the outside looks completely stupid”

Twitter: an open and free invitation to a global networking event happening 24/7.

Jen Kane quote about Twitter profile photo: “Ladies, this is not the place for your boobie shot!”

More Jen Kane on how frequently to Tweet: “I Tweet as much as I pee.”

Organizations that are only pushing messages on Twitter (and not listening/participating) are missing the point…and the opportunity.

The magic of Twitter is what happens between two people—even though it’s happening in front of thousands.

Fastest growing demographic of Facebook users: 55-65 (marketers pay attention).

“Community manager” is an important position in order to really maximize Facebook groups, applications, pages.

What’s next for Facebook? Facebook Connect where other sites are able to use FB log-in profiles for their own site.

“What if someone says something bad about my brand on social media sites?” First: they will, so get over it. Second, take a deep breath…many times your online advocates (followers, fans, etc.) will come to your defense on your behalf, and that is way more valuable/authentic than you trying to defend yourself.

Huge round of applause to Jennifer Kane, the Geek Girls, Jennifer Bombach, and Lisa Foote for the outstanding, content-packed event today. I’m satiated! And I would strongly recommend this event for anyone (or any organization) feeling like a deer in the headlights of social media.

$I’m not sure why this is the case, but designers have a hard time discussing finances. Sadly, this is probably a big reason why there are not more designers launching really bold entrepreneurial businesses. If the scope of your entrepreneurial idea is modest, like publishing a book, or producing a line of gift items, your need for outside investment in order to bring the concept to market will probably be correspondingly low. But what if you’ve got an awesome idea that will take a million dollars or more to launch? Most of us wouldn’t even know where to begin to look for that kind of money.

As you may know, the traditional types of venture funding fall into three general categories: angel investors, venture capital, and bank loans, each of which has a long list of pros and cons. In previous posts, I’ve discussed the trend of microfinancing (March 28, 2009) that has added an exciting energy to this mix—but microfinancing is in its infancy and really hasn’t matured yet into a viable alternative for most entrepreneurs. Likewise, business plan competitions are worth keeping tabs on, but the amount of money available is usually relatively small and the timing is rigid.

I’ve been coming across some interesting resources that can help educate designers about the possibilities for capital funding. Fast Company has been running an occasional series by writer Karen Post which follows, first hand, the development of a social networking start-up called Oddpodz (ironically the social network is entrepreneurship-focused). In this article, titled “Finding Funding for your Infant Brand,” Post focuses on funding and describes the process of securing the second round of funding for the concept. She does a great job of laying out the struggles, challenges, and lessons learned.

Not surprisingly, the once-veiled world of venture capital is becoming more transparent, and The Funded is an excellent example of this trend. Here you will be introduced to a complete line up of VC firms in a range of categories—and you can see the ratings and comments of entrepreneurs who have worked with them. This is a great way to glean information about the VC process.

As the business world evolves, a new breed of venture capitalists is beginning emerge exemplified by Y Combinator, which specializes in early stage start ups in the tech area. What’s intriguing to me about Y Combinator is that they not only dole out money, but they also conduct workshops and seminars that nurture and educate young entrepreneurs.

The recent BusinessWeek article “So You Want to Get Funded?” surveys recent venture capital activity and presents some interseting findings. Among them is that 14.3% of VC funding went to a category called “consumer internet.” I’m not sure how they define that category, but it appears to be an area that designers are active in.

I’ve found the blog Groundswell published by Forrester Research to be a thoughtful resource for trend info, research, and commentary around online social media. I recently came across this post, “How to create a social application for life sciences without getting fired,” which explores the tendencies for people living with chronic medical conditions to participate in online social media.

The chart below taken from this post maps a variety of medical conditions on a scale of “participation in online social media” vs. “benefit from online social media.” The map places conditions like depression and obesity in the upper right “Misery Loves Company” quadrant because those people tend to be actively engaged in social media and could benefit from the shared connections it offers. Conversely someone with osteoporosis is probably older and less engaged in new media, and wouldn’t find much benefit even if they were.

At the root of this study is the assumption that people living with chronic health conditions are hungry for information and help from outside the mainstream healthcare industry. I believe this is true because healthcare, in general, does a horrendous job of delivering basic care information to patients in way they understand and relate to. Abysmally low compliance and persistency rates bare this out: the pharmaceutical industry loses $30 billion a year in revenue because patients don’t follow their care plans.

This is a classic design problem on a massive scale. And one that communication designers are uniquely suited to solve. What’s needed here is not a new device or drug, it’s clear, simple visual information delivered with empathy and care—that’s what we do!

When Lisa and I formed Type1Tools and HealthSimple, it was a direct result of our experience with the lousy way in which we received critical care information for our daughter after her diagnosis with Type1 diabetes.

The takeaway here is that if you are a communication designer looking for an area to explore entrepreneurially, healthcare should be at the top of your list. This Groundswell study gives you some clues that online social media might be part of the solution for you.


Two blogs about design and entrepreneurship coming from the same neighborhood? Must be the water.
menuI had a great conversation yesterday with fellow Minneapolitan Jeff Johnson, proprietor of Spunk Design Machine and creator of the video blog Design Smoke which also discusses design and entrepreneurship. Jeff is an old pal, a dynamite designer, and a kindered soul on this topic—he’s been evangelizing about entrepreneurship as long as I can remember. Check out Design Smoke if you haven’t already…and look for the video of our conversation sometime soon(ish).

startRegular readers of Merge will know that I wrestle mightily with this question. I fully acknowledge how much of a buzz kill the planning process can be to the energy and momentum of a start-up concept. This sentiment is well stated in the comment I received after my last “…business plan?” post, by Josh from Cubicle Ninjas:

“I think business plans are a stalling mechanism. Instead of finding one more client, or making one customer extra happy, they’re an excuse to delay what should be done today.”

I think there’s a lot of truth to Josh’s comment. Planning, if undertaken at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and with the wrong purpose can do more harm than good. With that said, I believe that if you strive to build a business with an ambitious vision—one that builds from idea to business to company to movement (as Jim Collins maps out in the INC. Magazine interview I profiled last month)—then you will need to have conversations with people outside your existing network. In order to have those conversations, you need to document your idea, and that document is your plan—in whatever form it takes.

I’ve been rereading Guy Kawasaki’s outstanding The Art of the Start (a must-read for creative entrepreneurs) in which the author takes a refreshing approach to the early stages of business development. “The hardest thing about getting started is getting started,” he states, “no one ever achieved success by planning for gold.”

Instead of laying out a rigid mandate for early business planning, Guy Kawasaki suggests some key questions that you must answer about your business model, most importantly:
Who has your money in their pockets?
How are you going to get it into your pockets?

Ironically, the answers to these questions are integral to any business plan, so I think Kawasaki is—in a rather sneaky way—getting us to begin business planning without getting psyched out about it.

Perhaps the most resonant line regarding planning from The Art of the Start is “good enough is good enough.” Kawasaki insists that there will be “plenty of time for refinement later.” For me, the tension between activating and planning is the pivotal and fascinating issue for creative entrepreneurs…to be continued.


Picture 3In a follow up to the Firebelly podcast from last week…
I caught an interesting sidebar in the Minneapolis StarTribune this morning about BrandLab, a spin off of Minneapolis agency Olson with a mission to increase the abysmally low levels of kids from diverse cultural/social/economic backgrounds entering the design and ad biz. BrandLab is a non-profit that partners with Minneapolis high schools to bring industry pros into the classroom to connect with this vital student population. I’ll follow up with more on BrandLab in the future—it seems like a Merge kinda concept.

I’ve found the blog Boing Boing to be a lively, if a bit scattered, source for fresh takes on a variety of topics, from politics and pop culture to business and entrepreneurship—all with a vibe and voice that will resonate with creative thinkers. This video profiles a handful of entrepreneurs with roots in the creative world. It stops short of getting into the hardcore business stuff, which would have been interesting, but it’s well-produced and contains some inspirational stories about the journey from traditional creative biz to entrepreneurial venture.

Picture 1

In other design blog news, the groundbreaking SpeakUp has ceased publication, and the outpouring of commentary on the closing post is a tribute to the profound contribution SpeakUp—and it’s founders and editors Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio—made to the ongoing conversation on design. But before we could even come out of the mourning process, Armin and Bryony are back in the blogosphere with an intriguing new project called FPO: For Print Only, a blog dedicated to both the visual stimulus and the detailing of the development and production of printed matter. FPO asks: If print is dead, why are we still here? Check it out.

Over the last couple decades design education programs have been bombarded with wave upon wave of industry changes that they, in turn, must respond to and integrate into their curriculum. In the late eighties, for instance, it was the advent of the computer as a design tool, then a decade later the internet emerged as a prominent new medium. Now there are a whole new set of skills that are expected of designers entering the field, including interactivity, motion graphics, and design thinking. For me, design thinking really reflects the evolution of communication design from the craft-driven discipline of the 20th century to the strategic-oriented consultation that most of us provide to our clients today (whether they ask for it or not). Ultimately, design thinking is at the core of the entrepreneurial activity that I focus on with Merge.

So how do design educators address this important emerging area without simply “tacking it on” to an already crammed curriculum?


BusinessWeek Podcast featuring Nathan Shedroff

One of the programs solving this complex puzzle is California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Nathan Shedroff is the president of CCA, which launched the MBA in Design Strategy Program in 2007, and in this BusinessWeek podcast he discusses the new role designers are expected to play.

itm10years_logo2Sappi Ideas That Matter deadline approaches
Thanks to Joe Isaak for reminding me that applications are due for the Ideas That Matter program. Now in its tenth year, this program awards grants of $5,000-50,000 to help designers develop ideas that benefit the world around us. Recent recipients have included Marcia Lausen of StudioLab, University of Illinois Chicago and Design for Democracy, and John Bielenberg of Project M. The deadline for submissions is July 17, 2009.

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