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There are a few follow-up items from the Aspen Design Summit that I can point you to.

I just contributed a post to the design blog Core77 that is a pretty good overview of my experience at the Summit. If you don’t already have Core77 bookmarked, you should, it’s a remarkably rich resource for designers and creative professionals.

Design Observer has posted an initial overview of the Summit, and they are gradually posting reports from the individual studio groups. Thus far, I have seen reports from both the Hale County Rural Poverty group, and the CDC Healthy Aging group (which I was a part of).

The first Merge Meetup in early November was a blast, so let’s try it again! Like last time, this Meetup will be a small-group discussion of design and entrepreneurship held over the lunch hour in the LynLake neighborhood of Minneapolis; no Powerpoint decks; no agenda; no action items. Just open discussion, idea sharing, and probably more questions than answers.

Merge Meetup: Volume 2
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Common Roots Cafe
2558 Lyndale Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55405
(612) 871-2360

The conversation will revolve around the themes of the blog: business planning, funding, networking, and education, with healthy doses of social media and service design. We’ll also discuss ideas for evolving the Meetup format and adding more structure (or less?) for future gatherings.

The first Meetup filled up right away and a number of people were on the waiting list. So if you attended that one, please let others get in on this one first. After a few days, if there is still room, feel free to sign up!

Click here to register.

Well, best laid plans…

I had intended to have a steady stream of Tweets and posts from Aspen this week, but a request was made upon the opening of the Summit that attendees not broadcast the proceedings while they are happening. I’ve chosen to respect this request.

Suffice it to say, this has been an inspiring event—filled with amazing ideas, conversations, connections, and more than a little drama. There will be a great deal of reporting in the days and weeks to come and I will add my voice to that chorus, but for now I will leave it at that.

More to come.

Picture 45As promised, I will be blogging continually through the Aspen Design Summit over the next few days, and I just arrived at with its amazing mid-century modern architecture. On the slightly harrowing flight from Denver, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Dr. Jay Parkinson, a physician from Brooklyn, NY who founded Hello Health. Hello Health is a social media platform that uses instant messaging and video chat technology to restore the traditional doctor-patient relationship updated for today’s lifestyle.

Jay describes Hello Health this way on his blog.”As a member of Hello Health, you log in, tell us what’s wrong in your own words, then schedule an appointment just as easily as making an appointment at the Apple Genius Bar — and then a doctor shows up at your house at your requested time. And it costs about $50 cheaper than your typical office-based physician.”

Uh, brilliant.

“We’re modeling ourselves on consumer brands that have changed established industries much like FedEx, Toyota, Whole Foods, Zipcar, Netflix, and Apple. But we’re using our technology and a hyperlocal, neighborhood doctor’s office to change healthcare — to rescue both patients and doctors.”

So far, Hello Health has received inquiries from about 3,000 doctors around the country interested in becoming a part of this new concept, and about 1,500 patients have enrolled. According to Jay, Hello Health has received a relatively modest amount of funding from a small group of angel investors.

Here’s a short video to learn more about hello Health.

Picture 43Later this week I’ll have the pleasure of participating in the Aspen Design Summit, an interdisciplinary workshop which aspires to utilize the power of design to help solve large social problems. The unique format of this conference will split the 70 attendees—with backgrounds ranging from design to healthcare to public policy—into five “studios,” each of which will be asked to develop innovative solutions around a specific social problem.

The Summit, sponsored by AIGA and Winterhouse Institute with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, is the offspring of the original International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA). IDCA was founded in 1951 by many of America’s rising stars on the graphic design scene, and sought to provide a forum for discussion on design. In 2005, AIGA took over the programming of the event and has transformed it into the current form.

The five “problems” being addressed at this year’s Summit are:
National Design Center for Rural Poverty Programs
UNICEF Education Programs
CDC Public Health Programs for Older Adults
Mayo Clinic Rural Health Program
Sustainable Food Innovation

Click here to read more about these initiatives.

I see the Summit as an innovative approach to service design, a topic that has been featured frequently here on Merge (including this September 1 post). I’ve written extensively about the business benefits that designers can find by exploring this new—and intensely collaborative—way of working, but I’m also hearing from many designers who talk about their personal drive to find a more meaningful way to use their skills.

I will be blogging and tweeting frequently from Aspen—most likely eschewing my typical format for a more immediate and off-the-cuff approach. If you’re not following my tweets, you can do so by clicking here.

Picture 42I found an article about a Minnesota-based maker of high-end athletic mouth guards in the Sunday edition of the Minneapolis StarTribune (ironically the article is only available in the print edition of the paper…what are they thinking? I’ll provide a link if/when they post it). While there is no strong design connection here, the story struck me as an excellent example of how a start-up company can use angel investors for that important initial funding surge. Bite Tech Inc. has developed “performance mouthware” technology that they claim reduces stress on the jaw and, in turn, improves the strength and endurance of athletes competing in sports ranging from football to golf. As the word has spread about this breakthrough product, pro athletes have been lining up to invest in the company. Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, and NHLers Brett Hull and Marion Gaborik are among an impressive list of pros who have invested anywhere from $25,000 to $1 million each.

Angel investing is a common strategy for “phase one” or “first round” funding of the start-up process. Often, an angel investor is an affluent individual who provides capital—usually in exchange for convertible debt or ownership equity. According to Wikipedia, a small but increasing number of angel investors organize themselves into angel groups or angel networks to share research and pool their investment capital. Angels typically invest their own funds, unlike venture capitalists, who manage the pooled money of others in a professionally-managed fund. This strategy is similar to a “friends and family” approach which is a common way to gather seed money.

In a time when banks are being stingier than ever about small business loans, an angel strategy may make sense for designer/entrepreneurs who have a business concept that requires more money than they have easy access to. Our industry is filled with successful firm owners—many of whom are looking for new ways to build their business and generate revenue—hence, the design profession may be filled with potential angels.

So, where do you find these angels? Click here for an article from that provides more information on this category and links to more resources.

Picture 41Here’s an assortment of items from my inbox.

When is the Right Time to Start a Business? Now.

“When is it a good time to start a company? When you have a good idea!” Rob Hayes writes in this article for, echoing much of the thinking I’m seeing around this question. Hayes, a veteran venture capitalist, observes that before the recession he was seeing a high rate of “FNACs” or Feature Not A Company business concepts, but he notes that the recession has had a positive effect by thinning the number of these pretenders. “While the venture capital spigot is not as open as it was last year, the investment dollars out there are flowing disproportionately to the obviously great companies.”

Thirty Conversations on Design
Little & Company is celebrating their thirtieth anniversary in business this year. The Minneapolis-based firm has steadily established itself as a force on the national design scene. In recognition of the anniversary, L&Co has produced Thirty Conversations on Design, a video compilation of short conversations with global design leaders. Massimo Vignelli, Erik Spiekermann, and Paula Scher are all featured.

Bruce Nussbaum Speaks with Tim Brown and Roger Martin in NYC
BusinessWeek contributor Bruce Nussbaum will serve as moderator for what looks like it will be a fascinating conversation on design and design thinking with two giants in the field—both of whom have new books out (I wrote about Brown’s book in this October 9th post). The event is November 11 at 4:00 at the Thomson Reuters Building on Times Square in New York. It’s sponsored by the Rotman School of Business in Toronto (where Roger Martin serves as dean). To register, click here.

Picture 40As the impact of online social media grows, I’m increasingly intrigued by the possibilities that live programming can offer as a more intimate and personal companion to Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere. I’ve noticed this not only with my own recent speaking experiences (which have been thoroughly energizing), but also by attending live events like Kane Camp, TEDxTC, and the MIMA Summit—each of which has been driven by a strong social media presence. So I was eagerly anticipating the first Merge Meetup, which happened earlier this week. Meetup, a fixture of the social networking world, is a shockingly user-friendly online tool for connecting people of like interests and helping them schedule live events.

Like most things related to Merge, the first Meetup was an experiment, I had no idea what to expect (and I must admit to fears that the session would be a colossal dud). And thankfully, like most things Merge, I was thrilled with the interest and the outcome. I was joined by 16 people—mostly with a design, or creative background—at Common Roots Cafe in Minneapolis, for a vigorous discussion of the state of design, design business, and design thinking. The format was loose and most of the session was spent with each of us providing revealing and illuminating introductions and background stories.

Despite the lack of a singular focus, some common themes emerged from the session, the first of which was restlessness. With the majority of the group in our 40’s and 50’s (apologies to the few in attendance who don’t fall in that demographic), we’ve been working in the creative industry for 20-30 years. There was a palpable sense that the client service model that is the norm in our industry has become unfulfilling, personally, professionally, and creatively. As we went around the room, this sentiment was echoed repeatedly. “I still love the creative process,” said Deb Miner, a designer who has launched a line of children’s products called I Get Around, “but I hate being in competition with other designers.” Scott Geiger, who worked for many years designing for the healthcare industry, described a scenario that seemed to resonate with everyone, “We would present some really great creative concepts and the client would be thrilled, then three days later they would call back and say that the project had been killed by someone higher up the ladder.”

Another prominent theme was the desire to give back to the world through our work as designers. Many in the group expressed a sense that just earning a fee for our work was not enough anymore and that there is an untapped potential in the design community to solve some of societies complex problems. This theme connects strongly with the topic of Service Design which I have been discussing regularly on Merge.

Finally, I found a common thread around the desire to find ways to collaborate more with other designers, and with professionals in other disciplines. Michael Foley, of Alphabet Moss, a firm with dual specialties of graphic design and garden design, commented that the garden design process is much more collaborative, “I’m constantly working with people who have different skill sets and backgrounds. I wish I had more of that on the graphic design side.” Again, the new models we’re seeing in some of the successful Service Design firms (mostly in Europe, so far) live into this potential by embedding designers within multi-disciplinary teams of ethnographers, physicians, anthropologists and others.

We had some amazing ideas for how the Meetup concept could evolve into a more focused format and I will be exploring these in more depth. Thanks again to those who joined me, and stay tuned for an announcement soon about the next Merge Meetup which I hope to schedule for early December.

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