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“Good-paying jobs don’t come from bailouts. They come from start-ups. And where do start-ups come from? They come from smart, creative, inspired risk-takers. How do we get more of those?”

I tend to write mostly about the “micro” of the entrepreneurial experience here on Merge, but Tom Friedman has that amazing ability to sum up the “macro” in such an engaging and concise way that he frequently entices me to take a few steps back and try to see the big picture. Such was the case with his column from Sunday, April 3 in which he calls for a loosening of immigration policies as a way to attract the “high-IQ risk-takers” who have fueled American innovation in the past. Friedman—who preaches eloquently that the U.S. should stop swimming against the current of globalization—points out that a unique combination of factors, including “our vibrant and meritocratic university system,” has historically drawn many of the best and brightest to the U.S. Now, he suggests, we are losing that “differentiated edge in attracting and enabling the world’s biggest mass of smart, creative risk-takers.” Read the rest of this entry »

It’s always difficult to predict which topics will generate the most interest on Merge. I would have never guessed, for instance, that after roughly nine months online, the most popular post by a long shot would be one that I wrote shortly after launching this blog, entitled Microfinancing. A model that can work for designers?. Even more interesting to me is to follow which posts generate the most reader commentary. My post last week about Tom Friedman’s New York Times column from December 13 (Tom Friedman’s 12/13 NYTimes Column: Why it Matters to Designers) takes that prize. Friedman’s story about how market demands—and opportunities—have impacted his friend’s marketing business clearly resonated with the Merge audience.

Knowing that most readers don’t revisit blog posts to follow the commentary, and because many of the reader comments from this post expanded the theme I was writing about, I want to take a moment to recap some of what I’ve heard in the week since the Friedman post.

Carl Tully made a thoughtful contribution from the architecture world: “Interesting from the perspective of a large scale architectural design practice. The urgency to reinvent the way we work, design, communicate is upon us. Will high quality high value design survive? Current design practices cannot support a sustainable business model based on the fees that are currently winning the work.”

Michael Ratcliff echoed the themes of my post, “My practice as a designer is profoundly changing, and not for the better. Because of the tools we have available, the speed and ease I can create things is remarkable. The downside is that clients are not wanting to pay for services rendered, or they will but at a significantly lower rate.” He goes on, “The genie is out of the bottle and we will never be able to go back to the old [way of working]. Rather than being all gloom and doom, embrace the changes and move forward, or get out of the way.”

Jim Finnegan added some historical perspective with a comment posted to the Merge Facebook group, “It seems to be an ever evolving theme in the graphic design industry. I saw it in typesetting, photography, and now in creative services and design. Fear not. The real future of the creative mind is what you have been discussing in Merge.”

Ironically, a short article entitled Good Enough is the New Great in the NY Times’ Sunday Magazine “Year in Ideas” issue from 12/13, caught my attention as further evidence of the ripple effect of free and low-cost online tools on the industries they serve. The article examines how the nosediving of our quality standards as media consumers has paralleled the availability of these new tools. “High-definition televisions have turned every living room into a home cinema, yet millions of us choose to watch small, blurry videos on our computers and our mobile devices. Cameras capture images in a dozen megapixels, yet Flickr is filled with snapshots taken with phone cameras that we can neither focus nor zoom.” The article refers to research conducted by Jonathan Berger, a music professor at Stanford, who polled his college-aged students over a six year period on whether they preferred music played from a high-quality CD, or lower-quality digital MP3 files commonly used on iPods. Each year more students said they preferred the lower quality audio. “To a new generation of iPod listeners, rock music is supposed to sound lo-fi. Good enough is now better than great.”

This story gives us a glimpse into what the next generation of consumers will respond to. One wonders if we are poised for a pendulum swing.

The healthcare industry is a vast wasteland nearly void of design—a condition I’ve discussed many times here on Merge. This sector is ripe for innovative design thinking and remains one of the great areas of opportunity for the next generation of designers.

Two recent articles highlight some of the great work currently being done by designers in healthcare. First is Allison Arrief’s post on the NY Times online Opinionator section entitled “A Breath of Fresh Air for Health Care” in which she profiles the strategic shift being undertaken by health industry giant Kaiser Permanente to focus, as Arrief writes, “not how well Kaiser will care for you when you’re sick, but rather how Kaiser helps deliver wellness and can enhance the quality of your life.”

Kaiser Permanente’s rethinking of the patient room

This is a significant paradigm shift that I am seeing many of the prominent health industry leaders making (the Blue Cross Blue Shield “Do” campaign developed by Crispin Porter is one example). Allison Arrief goes on to explain how Kaiser is living into this strategy in a way that is impacting their entire organization and every point at which the patient is touched, “from

designing greener, healthier buildings to increasing the amount of time nurses spend at bedside.” The article includes an inspiring look of the Kaiser National Facilities Services group’s redesign of patient rooms.

The second article is by Helen Walters, the Business Week editor of Innovation and Design, who contributes a first-hand telling of her experience in the Mayo Clinic Rural Healthcare working group at the Aspen Design Summit last month entitled “Inside the Design Thinking Process.” Walters engages here in a thoughtful critique of the lofty goals and occasionally wandering methodology of the Summit. The Mayo working group had a brief “to design a new health-care system for Austin, Minn., a town of some 24,000 residents whose main claim to fame is being the home of Hormel Foods, the maker of Spam.” Walters rightfully questions how realistic it is to expect that 14 well-intentioned professionals in a Colorado resort are going to have the depth of insight to propose meaningful solutions to a problem with unique and deep parameters.

Walters goes on to tell how Maggie Breslin, senior designer and researcher at the Center for Innovation at Mayo Clinic, talked her off this hopeless edge by explaining “I don’t necessarily think what will move forward is the specific idea laid out for Austin in Aspen, but whether it ends up as a Web site with video is less important to me than the idea that people need a way to engage in multiple places within their community. You have to get to the detail to understand the larger principle—and then throw out the detail and keep that larger principle.” I agree with Maggie Breslin—and I’ve discussed this in my previous posts about the Aspen Summit—that the most significant outcome of this exercise may not be the specific ideas generated by the working groups, but the many interpretations of design thinking methodology we employed to get there.

The Center for Innovation at Mayo Clinic is an important side bar of this story. Like Kaiser Permanente, Mayo is an institution that is ahead of the curve on embedding design and design thinking in their strategic process. I had the pleasure of working with Nick LaRusso, Executive Director of the Center in my working group at Aspen, and I look forward to writing very soon about the great work they are doing.

For designers wondering where the next frontier will be for our skills, look no further than healthcare. Kaiser and Mayo are barely scratching the surface of the colossal mountain of work to be done.

It wasn’t just the frigid December weather that sent a chill down my spine as I read Tom Friedman’s column entitled “The Do-It-Yourself Economy” in the New York Times yesterday. The author of the visionary book The World is Flat wrote Sunday about what he calls the “Great Inflection,” which he describes as “the mass diffusion of low-cost, high-powered innovation technologies — from hand-held computers to Web sites that offer any imaginable service — plus cheap connectivity.”

Friedman used a real-life example he invokes frequently—his childhood friend, Ken Greer, a marketing guy from Minneapolis—to elaborate on this theme: Greer told the story of a video project he recently completed for which the budget was “about 20 percent of what we normally would charge.” Greer explained how he was able to use a collection of free or extremely low-cost online services—from the project management tool,, and, which offers high-quality, royalty-free images for a few bucks each, to, which appears to be a crowdsourcing site for voiceovers—that enabled him to deliver the project on time and on budget.

So, what’s the problem with this story? It sounds like this guy is pretty savvy and was able to find a way to complete a paying project during really challenging times. Bravo, Ken!


Absolutely. I have no qualms with Ken Greer rolling up his sleeves and getting the job done. These are outrageously tough times for creative professionals and, in order simply to survive, we must be willing to consider ways of working that only a few years ago would have seemed objectionable…or even offensive.

My problem with this story is that Tom Friedman is amazingly gifted at predicting our economic future—he did so repeatedly in The World is Flat—and if the scenario he depicts in Sunday’s column is, in fact, the future for creative professionals, we need to change the way we work. The point I have made repeatedly here on Merge, is that the way we are being asked to work is changing radically (our world is flattening, to borrow a metaphor), and creative businesses that have been built solely on client services (with hefty fees and mark-ups for outside services like printing or photography) are going to have to adapt before they become obsolete. The thesis of Merge is that designers and creative professionals should be finding ways to build their business that do not rely only on cranking out work for clients whose budgets—and, in turn, the value placed on high-quality creative work—are melting like the polar ice caps.

Does this mean the client service business model will die? Of course not, scrappy innovators like Ken Greer will make sure that “work for hire” will always be a core way for designers and creative pros to make a buck. But, if I can take a turn at predicting the future, what this does mean is that the design businesses we will hold up as models of success a decade from now will be built on an innovative entrepreneurial foundation that will blend traditional client service work with new product development, and direct-to-market strategies.

There are pioneering designers exploring this new territory now—many of which I’ve highlighted on Merge—and many related disciplines, like industrial design, in which the entrepreneurial path is well-worn. Hopefully these examples will help to illuminate the way for the rest of us to follow.

Picture 2The New York Times had an article Wednesday about a new documentary film called Ten9Eight which is about a group of teens competing  in a business plan contest run by the nonprofit group Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). Filmmaker Mary Mazzio followed twenty-nine aspiring entrepreneurs, ages 13 to 19, all of whom have had to overcome huge obstacles, as they vie for the competitions $10,000 grand prize.

The film brings up the always puzzling question of how and when to teach young people about business and entrepreneurship. NFTE has an admirable mission to provide entrepreneurship education programs to young people from low-income communities. The film opens November 13 in select cities and will likely pop up on cable TV in the future. Check out the trailer here:

Elsewhere on the NY Time Small Business site
As I was perusing the Times’ site for the above post, I came across Bruce Buschel’s refreshingly light-hearted essay about writing business plans. Buschel, a restauranteur in Bridgehampton, NY, says “I believe in plans. I do. They focus the mind and sharpen the concept. I just don’t believe in believing in their predictions. Man plans, God clicks to Comedy Central.”

Picture 27A couple weeks ago I had an enlightening conversation with designer and strategist Sylvia Harris. Sylvia and I were comparing notes and sharing our experiences in the area of design for the health care industry—her work in wayfinding for hospitals and medical centers has led her into a consulting practice that focuses on user experience issues in health care (click here for a list of articles Sylvia Harris has written on these topics).

As we discovered the common professional ground we have traveled, our conversation began to focus on the emerging category of “service design.” Actually, this is a term that is more commonly used in Europe—here we might call it “design thinking”—but I actually think service design is a more accurate moniker. While both Sylvia and I share a background in communication design (or graphic design), we are both working in areas in which “graphic” design is only a fraction of what we actually do anymore. We’re working on complex projects that involve not the professional network that designers have traditionally worked with—photographers, writers, printers—but rather experts from a vast array of professional disciplines—psychologists, ethnographers, physicians, even policy makers. Likewise, the outcome of these projects is very different from what we might have delivered earlier in our careers—not a logo, brochure, or signage system, but rather a new nomenclature for a medical device, a new financial system, or health care procedure. Of course, this is a transformation that is happening throughout design as the value of what we do and how we do it is more recognized and accepted.

The memory of my conversation with Sylvia was refreshed yesterday when I read Alice Rawsthorn’s essay in the NY Times entitled “Winning Ways of Making a Better World,” which focused on the recently announced winners of the INDEX: Award 2009, the biennial design prize funded by the Danish government to celebrate examples of “design to improve life” (note: our Type1Tools product designs were included in the 2007 INDEX award kiva_logoexhibition). Ms. Rawsthorn pointed out one surprising recipient among the five impressive winners: Kiva, the micro-financing institution which has lent more than $86 million to entrepreneurs in the developing world in the last four years (which I blogged about recently).

As Alice Rawsthorn writes, “By any definition, it is a fantastic project, which undoubtedly helps ‘to improve life’ by raising money for people who desperately need it. But what does it have to do with design?”

I’m equally as surprised by this announcement as Ms. Rawsthorn, but I must say I’m thrilled to see INDEX, a leading force in the design world, making such a strong statement about what constitutes “design.” The definition of design has been morphing incrementally for generations, and I think we are on the cusp of a major transformation of what designers do and for whom we do it. This new way of designing is being exposed through the pioneering work of the London firm Participle, John Bielenberg’s Project M, Design for Democracy and designers like Sylvia Harris.

Ultimately, this change will mean huge opportunity for designers who are ready to seize it.

Check out this video about Kiva from the INDEX site:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “INDEX:DESIGN TO IMPROVE LIFE“, posted with vodpod

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.

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.

logo-large-betaI couldn’t ignore this story in the NY Times yesterday about a new magazine printing service that Hewlett Packard has launched charging a mere 20 cents per page for full-color magazine printing—with no minimum order. The service, called MagCloud, appears to be targeting narrow, niche markets that would not otherwise be able to afford to produce a printed publication. Customers simply upload a PDF to the MagCloud server and HP fulfills individual orders to the end reader directly as they come in.

I find myself at once excited by the possibilities this could offer for small-scale self publishing and content development, and bristling at the thought of the designer-less garbage that will likely be churned out by MagCloud. I liken this to the reaction many of us had with the advent of desktop publishing back in the early 1990’s, “oh sure, now even the secretary will think she’s a graphic designer.”

Of course, I also have a twinge of sympathy for our cousins in the printing industry (remember them?) whose heads must be spinning every time the game changes in their industry.

In the end I come down on the side of opportunity: smart designers will always find a way to take advantage of a great new service like this by using it in an innovative way…rather than just griping about it.

If you’ve tried MagCloud, please chime in. I’d love to get an assessment of the print quality (cringe).

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