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I first became aware of Itizen last summer when my brother, Andy, handed me what looked liked a funky book of postage stamps. He explained that Itizen, the brainchild of one of his former co-workers at Minneapolis-based Little & Co., and her business partner, is a new social network that proposes a bold idea: to build a bustling, dynamic community by bridging the digital world and the analog world. Itizen users put Itizen TRACKit Tags on items they might gift or share, like books, clothing, or antiques. Each tag has a unique 5-character code and a QR code that is used to access digital notes with a smartphone or on a desktop. Users can check-in to an object and add their own digital message that can include text, photo, video, and/or audio notes for others to access. Notes are saved to users’ accounts and travel with the object no matter where it goes. All users connected to the object receive updates on the object as others check-in to the object and leave additional notes.

Itizen founders Dori Graff and Mary Fallon, along with tech guru Andrew Norell, have built upon their professional experience in the Twin Cities design and interactive community to develop this fresh offering in the crowded social media marketplace. Thus far, the team has raised more than $100,000 in seed funding and is in the process of upgrading the functionality of Itizen, and seeking additional funding.

Dori Graff expanded on the Itizen story in this recent email exchange:

Merge: Tell me about the inspiration for Itizen? It seems to draw equally from emerging online social media trends as well as more analog activities, like scrapbooking and collecting.
DG: The inspiration for Itizen came when Mary and I recognized how we were increasingly sharing the things that we own with friends and family—children’s toys and gear were commonly shared, but also clothing, tools, and things for entertaining. This became a very social activity for us, and provided a touch point with the people in our community. As these things got passed around, their value became less about their intended utility and more about the people connected to them and our shared experiences. With Itizen, we are able to capture these connections and bring these experiences online.

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What a year it has been! With a historically rotten economy, the design industry has taken a serious beating, leaving us all looking around to see who is still standing. The main theme of Merge is the idea that, in order to survive and thrive, designers must begin to look beyond the “client service” business model and explore ways to market their creative ideas in a more direct way. 2009 has certainly underscored the relevance of this point of view.

In reflecting on the year, five stories have emerged as central to the design and entrepreneurship convergence, for a variety of reasons. Some are simply emblematic of the unique time we are in, while others may offer a glimpse into the future for designers and creative professionals. Here they are (in no particular order):

1. iPhone App Development and the iTunes App Store

According to the website GigaOm, roughly $2.4 billion were spent on iPhone Apps in 2009. That’s a staggering number for a tech category that basically did not even exist a couple years ago. The good news is that this has emerged as an area in which a wide range of designers, web developers and creative professionals have been able to bring their product ideas directly to the consumer—I’ve written frequently about this phenomenon on Merge and profiled a couple of App developers with roots in the design world.

While the media has focused on the relative handful of “kitchen table” developers who hit the jackpot with app releases in the early months of the “app bubble,” I think the real story here is the iPhone Developer Program—the back-end machine that Apple has built to facilitate the process of development, sales, and distribution of these products. Without fail, when I ask would-be entrepreneurs what holds them back from pursuing a business idea, the complications—and expenses—related to the supply chain are cited as primary reasons. With the iPhone Developer Program, which feeds into the iTunes App Store, this complication has been greatly simplified.

Ironically, I see synergy between the Apple case study and other design-friendly online marketplaces, like Etsy or Mohawk Paper’s Felt & Wire Shop. My hope is that the success of these programs will inspire similar marketplace opportunities in other categories, hence making it easier for more designers to bring their ideas directly to the consumer.

Here are links to some of the posts I’ve written on this topic in 2009:
Discussing iPhone Apps with Terry Anderson
HartungKemp Gets Wasted
iPhone App Development Primer from The Nerdery

2. Necessity Entrepreneurs
Not all entrepreneurs are the same. While the classic entrepreneur is struck with that brilliant “aha” idea, and methodically develops it into a thriving business, many people starting new businesses today are doing so because they lost their job and have slim prospects for finding a new one. With the creative and design industries being particularly hard hit in this recession, one of the lasting stories from 2009 will undoubtedly be the high number of creative professionals who have opted to pursue an entrepreneurial venture rather than competing for the few remaining job openings.

While many of these new ventures will be built on the tried and true client service model, my hope is that we will see more products and services brought directly to the consumer by people with backgrounds in design, hence bringing the design sensibility and methodology to the process of building a new business.

Here’s a link to a post I wrote earlier this year about this topic:
The New Breed of Necessity Entrepreneurs

3. Service Design (or whatever you call it)
“Suddenly there is a whole population of designers trying to use their skills to have an impact on the world around them.” This is how Bill Drenttel of Winterhouse Institute and Design/Change Observer introduced the Aspen Design Summit in November. I would only argue with the “suddenly” part—in fact, I think designers have a deep heritage of working to make the world around them a better place dating back to the Bauhaus, so perhaps after decades of immersing in a relatively one-dimensional way of working, we are rediscovering how to apply our skills for a greater good.

The distinct practice of Service Design is more established in Europe than in the U.S., a result, in part, of the support and funding given to the design professions by many European governments. In fact, the term itself is not very common here—we might call it “design thinking,” “social impact design,” or even “new design.” While a single definition of Service Design is difficult to pin down, a common principle is that inter-disciplinary teams of professionals are using the methodology of design to engage in complex social problems like healthcare, poverty, and hunger.

2009 was filled with promising examples of designers putting their skills to work on such issues, as well as commenting and writing about it. Bookshelves were filled with new volumes by design gurus like Tim Brown of IDEO and Nathan Shedroff of CCA. INDEX presented their prestigious design award to Kiva, an institution that, seemingly, has nothing to do with design, provoking us all to rethink the parameters of our practice. And the Aspen Design Summit itself brought designers, policy makers, educators, and institutional leaders together for a vigorous exercise in design with a social impact emphasis.

My hope is quite simply that this trend continues, and that these exercises begin to spawn some meaningful success stories.

Here are links to some of the posts I’ve written on this topic in 2009:
Hillary Cottam and Participle
INDEX Announces a Surprising Winner
Continuing the Conversation About Service Design

4. Alternative Funding for New Business Ventures
Access to a relatively small amount of seed money can completely change the complexion of a startup business plan. As little as a few thousand dollars can allow a designer/entrepreneur to produce a run of prototypes or conduct valuable user testing. But not everyone can reach into their pockets and find that kind of cash, and traditional sources of funding like small business loans are much more difficult to come by than they were in better economic times.

That’s why the emergence of alternative sources of startup funding is such an important story right now. I’ve written several times about this in 2009 and I continue to be intrigued by the possibilities it offers. Microfinancing (also known as peer-to-peer lending), a model similar to the one used by Kiva where individual donors connect with individual entrepreneurs in an online venue, offers one way that designers can get that initial boost for their startup idea.

My hope is that alternative funding sources like microfinancing will continue to mature into a viable and stable option in the year ahead—and that more designers will take advantage of it.

Here are links to a couple of the posts I’ve written on this topic in 2009:
Microfinancing: A Model that can Work for Designers?
Peer-to-Peer Lending and Other Funding News

5. The Online Social Media Wave
Creative professionals have, for the most part, been early adopters to the online social media wave, and many of us have found ways to use it to enhance our business. This is a trend that has evolved at an explosive pace over the last few years—as evidenced by the recent story that Facebook overtook Google as the most-visited website in the U.S. on Christmas Day this year—and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon. While many of us have tired of the Facebook routine, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and other online venues each provide distinct and unique ways to connect and interact.

One of the reasons I cite for designers not finding as much success as they should as entrepreneurs is that our professional networks are too narrow, and my view is that online social media provides a remarkable way to expand these networks and connect with the people who can help small businesses grow. My hope is that designers and creative professionals will continue to populate this online world (or to dive in right away if they haven’t already done so) and be involved in the continuing evolution of it.

Here’s a link to an earlier post on this topic:
Social Media 101

Picture 4After a weekend at AIGA Minnesota’s Design Camp (which I’ll blog about later this week), I’m now spending Monday at the Minnesota Interactive Media Association’s (MIMA) Summit. The event, in it’s seventh year, is sold out at 1,000 attendees…many of whom I’m sure were lured by keynote speaker and social media rock star Seth Godin. Of course, social media is topic number one. I’ll be live blogging throughout the day.

First keynote speaker: Jackie Huba

Web is democratized, BUT, 1% of visitors to a site actually create content—they become very influential.

41% of people on Facebook between ages 26-44

Fastest growing age group on Facebook: Women 55+

Most trusted form of advertising:
1. Friends
2. Online opinions (anonymous)
3. Websites
4. Editorial content
5. Brand sponsorships

Strong correlation between word of mouth activity and company growth

Measuring customer loyalty ladder:
Ownership (customer feels like they are part of the company)
Satisfaction (just measuring “satisfaction” not adequate)

Story: Domino’s “booger” video

Blog readers actually alerted company of video and helped identify where the store was.

CEO posted apology video to YouTube

46% polled before video would by a Dominos pizza
15% after
24% after CEO video

Story: Motrin Moms
Key learning: LISTEN

Story: Bacon Salt
Early activity exclusively through social media
Obscurity to Oprah in 2 years

Story: Fiskars
Fisk•A•Teers—ambassadors for campaign=virtual salesforce
6,250 members in 50 states
1,000 certified volunteer demonstarators
Stores with Fisk•A•Teer activity have 3x the sales
13 new product ideas per month
85% of Fisk•A•Teers likely to recommend brand


1. Listen
2. Attract (don’t interrupt)
3. Participate (involve customers)

Breakout Session: Creating a Social Media Workshop
Laura Chavoen, Imagination

No rules in social media

Social media shift causing dramatic disruptions across business world

Most customers don’t know the difference between a blog, a forum, a wiki…and they shouldn’t have to.

Human nature doesn’t change—human behavior DOES

Markets consist of unique human beings, not demographic sectors—don’t overvalue data
Media is no longer just a source of information, but is now also a site of coordination

This all means there is a NEW OPPORTUNITY for marketers

Huffington Post has integrated content with social media—all within their domain

Road Map:
1. Objectives (why)
2. Audience (who)
3. Strategy (how)
4. Tactics (where)

Case Studies:

Pepsi Innovation Day:
Invited social media experts for inside tour of operations and the LISTENED to what they said afterward online

Very active on Twitter to pose questions about customer service

Navy for Moms
Robust community

Online community turned into place for customers to talk about kids and parenting
Graco had an ear into R&D opportunities

Little Debbie
Sent product to bloggers and saw huge spike in online activity

1.2 million people upload data to site
30,000 online running groups
Community encourages me to run…buy product

T-shirt designs voted on by users

Netflix Prize
$1 million prize for improving recommendation engine
Winning team—many had never met in person

Listening to customers is no longer an option: it’s a must!

Must build into your cycle the time to listen, learn and adjust

The only thing more popular than using social media is questioning it

Coke didn’t have a Facebook group, but they’re customers created one—Coke reached out to organizers and supports it

Reality: They are already talking about you
If you trust someone to work for you, trust them to use social media
Key: give them guidelines

Fear: we’ll lose control of our brand
Reality: you’ll learn what your brand is really about

Starbucks is number one brand on Facebook (3.6 million fans)
“we are gaining ROI from this effort”

Fear: our audience doesn’t use social media
Reality: Then you don’t have an audience (79% of US is online)

Fear: we don’t have time for social media
Reality: Remember how we felt about email?
Start small and let it grow and prove its value

Fear: if we make a mistake it will haunt us forever
Reality: It’s accountability (take responsibility)
It’s never too late to improve

Fear: How do we measure ROI?
Reality: Ramifications of ignoring

Social media has changed measurement:
Now we measure engagement, involvement, interactions, intimacy, influence

Quantifying Success:
Dell reaches $1 million in revenue from Twitter stream
Carnival invites community members to be first to ride on new ship—most successful launch ever

If you learn what’s important to your customers, you’ll learn what’s important to your business

Picture 21As I was researching last week’s post about Bruce Nussbaum of Business Week, I came across this slideshow on the Small Business section of the BW website featuring 20 Entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter.

I’ve found Twitter to be an invaluable new tool for connecting with people who have the same business interests as I do. In fact, many of my Merge topic ideas come from Tweets I receive. But Twitter can also be a massive waste of time if you don’t maintain your “follows” carefully. Of course, there are countless search engines that can aid in this process, but lists like this one are a great starting point. Business Week has added a short description and sample Tweet from each of their recommendations to help you determine if they are going to be worth your valuable time. If you’ve got an interest in entrepreneurship and you’ve been meaning to get into Twitter, this list is a great starting point. If you’ve already got a robust Twitter network, there might be some additions here that will add to the experience. Some of the recommendations are a bit obvious, like @richardbranson who is more fluff than insight. But others, like @chrisgillebeau or @fredwilson (two of my personal faves), and @BusinessDotGov (from the Federal Government site) offer some serious content tips on a daily basis.

One Tweet I just received:
Check out this Fast Company diagram of the “5 Second MBA” which was just Tweeted to me. Clever, and not too far from the truth!

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 31When you read about “what’s next” in the online media space, there is much discussion about convergence. How will the many innovative social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn—come together and begin to speak to each other, rather than existing in separate silos as they mostly do now? Likewise, how will the fractured media environment—network TV, online video, gaming, etc.—converge into a single primary stream? And ultimately, how will it all blend into an easily accessible platform?

Thankfully, there are smart people like Avner Ronen pondering these questions. Ronen is the CEO of Boxee, an online portal and aggregator of media, which seems to be at least slightly ahead of the pack in the race to develop a common platform that will facilitate the “holy grail” of cross-functionality.

Boxee recently received $2 million in VC funding from Fred Wilson’s Union Square Ventures (see my earlier post on Wilson), which is an impressive accomplishment in itself given the outrageously tight economy and correspondingly tight funding environment. Avner Ronen speaks candidly in the video below from about the challenges of securing funding in today’s market, and specifically about the early stage of funding. Ronen describes how “angel” investors may previously have been a realistic resource for that $50,000-200,000 needed to build a concept through the prototype or beta development stages. Now, however, it is important for entrepreneurs to be able to “bootstrap it” through that process without external financing, and show some signs of growth and momentum before funders will be willing to take a risk.

While many designers considering entrepreneurial ventures are playing on a different field than Avner Ronen and Fred Wilson, I think it’s extremely useful for us to be aware of how this process happens on the broader scale as we build our business vision.

I had one of those NPR moments the other day when I got into my car midway through an All Things Considered story about something called bloblive. I was instantly riveted to the radio listening to short cuts of people describing their start-up business ideas in front of a (very) live audience. Bloblive is an event that has taken root in Philadelphia and Santa Monica, CA, and it’s best described as “open mic night for entrepreneurs.” A web-only version has also been created called ideablob.

Each presenter at bloblive gets 90 seconds to tell their story, which is followed by a short session of Q&A and suggestions from the crowd. Presenters vie for a small prize ($100 in the ATC story), but the real benefit is the feedback and the experience of presenting your idea.

Here’s a clip from bloblive:

For me, this brought to mind the recent success of Ignite Minneapolis, a “speed presentation” event where presenters get 5 minutes to talk about ANYTHING. Presentations from the first Ignite event in April ranged from the practical (building your own home theater on the cheap), to the absurd (are we on the brink of a robot revolution?). Organizers were wondering if they would get more than a hundred people to show up and they had over 400—a tribute to the firestorm of social media pre-buzz that the event generated. This relationship between online and live connections is very intriguing and, I think, will be a surprising outcome of the social media trend.

Here’s a clip from Ignite Minneapolis #1:

I’ve been following the blog of Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist working in the the tech category. Wilson is an active blogger, commentator, tweeter (@fredwilson) and speaker on the topic of social media, which—as I’ve written many times on Merge—is going to be an important asset, at the very least, for creative entrepreneurs in the near future.

But how do we channel this medium that clearly has massive potential, but is currently evolving and growing at a blindingly rapid pace? In this short video, Fred Wilson comments on what’s next for social media.

Here’s a longer presentation by Wilson at the Google HQ last month in which he expands on his thinking.

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).

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.

Follow Doug Powell on Twitter

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