You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2009.

I will be on vacation on the shores of Potato Lake—and not blogging—for the week of July 27-31. Before I leave, here are a few items that I’ve been meaning to follow up on in the last month:

Picture 52More on Hospital Gowns
It seems like every time I blog or speak about design and healthcare I get more responses and comments than on any other topic. My post about Cleveland Clinic a few weeks back (Redesigning the Patient Experience, June 24) generated a flurry of activity, including a call from my good friend Joan Barlow, Design Manager at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who alerted me that RWJF has been involved in a hospital gown design project as well. The project is featured in this recent article from the Wall Street Journal. RWJF, a philanthropic institution dedicated to health and healthcare—which also happens to have an impressively forward-thinking approach to design—funded the project through the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University.

Picture 55Taking a New Look at Health
Joan Barlow also tipped me off on this amazing visualization of health trends and statistical data created by, of all sources, General Electric. Using the Health Visualizer you can determine whether you or your loved ones might be at risk of disease. It is also an interactive tool that can be used to show the positive effects of a healthy lifestyle. It’s impressive from an information design and user experience perspective; the data, which in its raw form is dense and intimidating, is refreshingly accessible and engaging. It reminds me of the work Lisa and I have done in collaboration with design agency HartungKemp on the HealthSimple brand.

Picture 53Yes, Your Social Media Strategy Needs Design
I’ve been interested recently to see online social media getting more attention from the “traditional” business research and education communities. I blogged about this earlier this week (New Research on Online Social Media, July 22), and shortly after I published that post, Twitter fed me this article from the granddaddy of the business research and education family, Harvard Business School. The article was authored by David Armano of Dachis Corporation, an Austin based start-up delivering social business design services. Armano emphasizes the point I made in my post, that, given the rapid evolution of this category, a sound social media strategy is going to be an absolute must—and design thinking is a key to that process. My favorite line: “The current state of “social media” for many businesses looks more like an episode of MacGyver than Apple’s design process. Duct tape and bubble gum hold together fragile tactics such as Twitter accounts run by the summer college intern (nothing against college interns) or agency-generated Facebook fan pages that have few actual fans.” Click here to follow David Armano on Twitter.

Picture 51It’s not breaking news that we are in the midst of a tsunami of activity as the online social media trend reaches full fury. Of course, it’s impossible at this point to assess the effects, impact, and opportunity with any sort of clarity, but we are beginning to see some relatively thoughtful analysis and research in the area.

The Forrester Research blog Groundswell (which should be a regular stop on your blog rounds) has a post entitled “Advertising Will Change Forever” by lead Groundsweller Josh Bernoff, which affirms what we have been observing over the last couple years, “Of all the parts of digital marketing, social network marketing one is poised for the most explosive growth.” As the title suggests, the theme of the post is the death of traditional advertising and media, not necessarily the rise of social media. But Bernoff points to some pretty compelling data to back up his claim, including a projected 34% increase in spending on social media over the next five years.

Future Tense, the daily American Public Media-produced mini show on all things tech hosted by the refreshingly plain-spoken Jon Gordon, picked up on the social media theme today. Gordon interviews internet analyst Charlene Li of the Altimeter Group who has found a strong correlation between social media investment and financial performance. Li qualifies her findings by saying that the link thus far is somewhat indirect—we can’t yet say “have a strong social network presence and see profits”—but the connection is clear. The best scoring brands in her study were active in multiple social media outlets.

Once again, this reinforces the necessity that new ventures have a strong social media strategy. Listen to the Future Tense story here:

Picture 50Two summers ago I attended the AIGA/Harvard Business School program, Business Perspectives for Design Leaders (which has since relocated to Yale and, sadly, was canceled this year; all indications are that it will return in 2010). One of the great takeaways from this wildly enriching experience was the insight we were given into those “other” aspects of running a business. Beyond branding, marketing, and possibly product development, most of us in attendance had only the vaguest idea what it took to run a large business. We designers tend to have an inflated view of how important our contribution is to the overall success of a business, but at HBS we were exposed to areas like operations (ie: the efficiency of a factory), finances, and even corporate ethics in an illuminating—and sometimes humbling—way.

So I was pleased to read Enric Gili Fort’s blog post on the Context Response blog entitled, And the award goes to… the supply chain guy. Enric, a design strategist based in Silicon Valley, uses Apple, one of our favorite case studies for the value of design, as Exhibit A for a strong supply chain. He makes the case that Apple’s COO Tim Cook has been as instrumental to their recent success as the much-heralded design team.

For me, this post connects to the primary question I am asking on Merge, “Why are there so few examples of successful ventures launched by designers and creative professionals?” There are many answers to this complex query, but one of them is certainly our ignorance about these “other” critical aspects of running a business. Through Enric’s post we see how important it can be for designers to collaborate with smart people in other areas of business in building complex businesses.

Picture 49How many times have you been frustrated by the limited options for typography on the web? For those of us who are supposed to be experts at building the visual parts of brands and communication programs, the fact that there are only twelve typefaces available for use in html text (NONE of which we would ever intentionally choose for a brand) has been maddening. Well, that’s all about to change with the launch of Kernest a web typography tool developed by designer and web user experience expert, Garrick VanBuren. I was present for a very well attended presentation earlier this week at Minneapolis Apple dealer, The Foundation, where Garrick unveiled his new tool to an eager audience of designers and developers.

Kernest gives designers and developers access to over 400 typefaces (a number that will grow exponentially very soon as licensing agreements are secured). It also gives type designers and foundries a new venue for their products. Type designer Chank Diesel was at the Foundation event to help with Garrick’s pitch and he’s understandably enthusiastic about the potential this holds, “Discriminating designers are sick of seeing the same ten fonts on almost every website. Today’s web developers want the ability to create HTML-formatted text using any font of their choosing. There are lots of fonts to choose from, y’know. And readers are a lot smarter than you’d think; they can still read a passage even if it’s not in one of the fonts that everybody else uses.” (quote taken from Chank’s blog)

Even though the technical issues with web typography are being resolved, there are many hurdles in the font licensing and trademark areas which are still pretty foggy. Foundries have been notoriously (and understandably) cautious about allowing access to their catalogues. But one has to believe that—once they see the potential of these new development tools—the big foundries will be eager to find a solution that will give designers and developers access to their fonts.

From an entrepreneurial perspective, this is an ideal example of a designer identifying an unmet need and developing a unique solution. Typography for the web is an emerging category that will undoubtedly become crowded very quickly; TypeKit and FontDeck are two start ups that have announced, but have not yet released, similar tools. Garrick has a strong proposition with Kernest, and his bootstraps operation has allowed him to move swiftly and beat the bigger players to market.

Garrick VanBuren will be at the TypeCon 2009 conference in Atlanta this weekend (July 14-19).

logo_npr_125It’s always informative to me to see how the mainstream media presents business stories, and in this piece from NPR’s All Things Considered, reporter Wendy Kaufman paints an accurate picture of the current entrepreneurial landscape. She focuses on two themes that have been discussed many times on Merge: first, an economic downturn is an excellent time to launch a new venture; and second, don’t expect to have easy access to venture capital.

Biomedical research, and sustainable technologies are highlighted as areas that are getting much attention despite the recession. While I don’t expect the biomedical area to see a lot of activity from the creative professionals, I see sustainability as a category that is wide open for invention and interpretation.

Kaufman does sound a note of caution about the temptation for “big idea” entrepreneurs to take advantage of federal stimulus funds William Dunkelberg, chief economist of the National Federation of Independent Business, “They [the bureaucrats] don’t have a great record of being creative or innovative or ingenious or running businesses very well.”

But the overall tone of the piece is positive, with Jerry Engel of the Lester Center at UC Berkeley stating, “Now is a great time to start a venture.”

Picture 46I think there is much to be learned from studying how other people simplify and present complex information, so the article in the NY times biz section on Sunday about Howcast, the online “how to” video resource, was enlightening. Howcast is one of a growing number of sites that are trying to capitalize on the YouTube-inspired frenzy for online video, by creating short, instructional videos on a ridiculously wide range of topics—from the useful (how to use Twitter) to the frivolous (how to survive a bear attack…on second thought, maybe the Twitter video is frivolous, and the bear attack is useful). The requisite rating, sharing, and commenting features apply.

The Times article makes some interesting points about the opportunities and challenges of entering the social media business category. Howcast CEO, Jason Liebman is quoted, “Being a media company today means you can’t exist inside a walled garden, just driving traffic to your own site. You have to produce the content, distribute it all over the Web, develop the technology — all of which is hard to do. But you need to do everything in order to be successful today.”

In other words, it’s relatively easy to enter the category, but it’s enormously challenging to stick, succeed, and make a profit.

Of course, I was drawn to the “How to start a business” section which includes an impressive number of videos, but not too much that is fresh or informative. Here’s one on writing a business plan that is not terribly original, but it delivers some pretty dense material in a concise, effective way.

It’s not exactly breaking news to state that sustainability is THE business challenge (and opportunity) of our time. Developing businesses around an eco-friendly mission and integrating sustainable practices into existing businesses will become common practices over the next decade. In fact, businesses that fall behind this trend will undoubtedly lose out as consumers become more savvy about their purchasing practices.

Of course, designers and creative thinkers are well positioned to be leaders in this trend, given that it contains the ingredients of a classic design problem: opportunities and limitations. But acting on this potential is easier said than done, and lately I’ve been collecting resources that illuminate openly the challenges that businesses face in following through on their sustainability mission.

Picture 45This NY Times essay by Vindu Goel entitled That Long, Long Road from Idea to Success, tells the story of GreenPrint, a software product that helps reduce waste in the office printing process. Goel quotes Scott D. Anthony, president of consulting firm Innosight: “The gulf between invention and innovation is often a huge one that many entrepreneurs can’t cross.” The GreenPrint proposition is built entirely on a sustainability

In this video from Fast Company, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard discusses his decision to eliminate the packaging used for Patagonia’s long underwear and the surprisingly profitable outcome. In a second video, (linked here), Chouinard makes the case that, for certain commodity products, a company’s sustainability commitment will soon become a key point of differentiation.

Picture 43I just had lunch with my friend Mark Thomas, with whom I’ve been having an ongoing conversation about design, academia, backyard playground sets, and other important things. Mark is a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Minnesota, studying the biology of addiction—a field which, I’ve come to learn, is largely void of design as most of us understand it. Today we were discussing design education and Mark asked what exactly a student will study in a design program. I explained the various components of a foundational design program: 2D, 3D, color theory, typography, design systems, etc. (a list of words that apparently don’t find their way into Mark’s impressive vocabulary very often), and then I mentioned the significantly less tangible concept of empathy. The ability to identify with the audience or user of your design which is a critical skill for a designer, but is so hard to define, and even harder to teach and integrate into a curricula.

Picture 44So, it was one of those freaky cases of synchronicity when I discovered later in the afternoon that was running that Ralph Caplan’s essay entitled, “The Empathetic Fallacy” as its lead item. Caplan is the great-uncle of design criticism, and I have fond memories of his lectures and articles over the years (for me, stretching back to the AIGA conference in San Antonio in 1989). “Empathy in design focuses on the user as a person, not just a consumer. And because it can be very difficult to imagine someone else’s needs, we try getting the necessary information directly,” Caplan explains.

I spend a lot of time (and pixels) on Merge explaining how many things designers DON’T know about entrepreneurship. But I also believe that one of the reasons great designers are also potentially great entrepreneurs is that we possess this mysterious ability to understand the needs of people who may be very different from ourselves. Moreso, we know how to connect with these people and deliver a message in a meaningful way. While there are a slew of mitigating factors involved, this happens to be an essential quality of being an entrepreneur as well: understanding a need and creating a solution.

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