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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:

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

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:

booksThere seems to be an endless stream of news stories and blog posts about how eBooks like the Amazon Kindle will revolutionize reading and writing (here’s one from the Wall Street Journal). In keeping with one of the themes of this blog—upheaval and uncertainty breed opportunity and innovation—it’s not surprising that I’ve been coming across examples of some really cool new thinking in the publishing industry. My post a few weeks back about MagCloud, the magazine micro-printer is one example, and Fast Company has a couple other interesting stories in their May issue.

harperstudioheader1HarperStudio is a new spin-off of publisher Harper Collins that audaciously will offer authors a 50/50 cut of the profits on sales of their book. They will accomplish this by shaking up the publishing business model—instead of pushing out as many books as possible, HS will only publish two books a year, choosing instead to offer a multimedia platform of exposure for their stable of authors, including blogs, DVDs and eBooks with the intent of building readership in a new way.

39In another intriguing story, Scholastic sold 2.5 million copies (and the movie rights) to The 39 Clues, a children’s story that strings through 10 books, an online game, and trading cards.

The key to these surprising successes seems to be that publishers are beginning to think of the book as part of a broad, multi-faceted experience for their readers. I see this approach syncing up with tactics being applied by the social media marketers profiled on Merge—like Ria Sharon, who is creating “live” online events like her recent Pajama Party to augment and fuel the conventional online experience of (check back soon for Part 2 of my conversation with Ria).

Publishing is clearly an industry that is desperately trying to redefine itself, and with our strong historical connection to the print world, this seems like a natural area for communication designers to play a valuable role.

In a related note…
stanza1I noticed a posting on the NY Times Gadgetwise blog about Amazon acquiring Stanza, the iPhone eBook app. This dovetails with my recent conversation with Terry Anderson about iPhone app development in which Terry commented that we will begin to see the big players in technology, media, and gaming (with their big marketing budgets) entering the iPhone app market soon. I would indeed call Amazon a big player. It will be interesting to see Amazon’s strategy for this acquisition—are they interested in catching a ride on the iPhone wave, or squashing it like a bug?

Follow up to an earlier post
Last month I wrote about Hilary Cottham and her groundbreaking London firm, Participle (post 3/20/09), and yesterday I found this post on the Frog Design blog DesignMind that highlights one of the signature Participle projects. Ironically, it’s a project that has a lot of synergy with the original Type1Tools products that Lisa and I created (the predecessor to HealthSimple).

better1I was intrigued by a recent link on Swiss Miss for a site called The Better Project, which offers a social networking venue for solving societal problems. Users create a “project” by listing a problem—which could be massive in scale like “public transportation,” or modest like “Washington Square Park”—then fellow users offer solutions and vote on the best ideas. As ideas emerge as promising (or at least popular), users are given the opportunity to join with others to engage in working toward a solution.

TBP is a creation of web developer Arc90 and grew out of Kindling, a business-focused software tool for generating ideas and community in the workplace.

I see some conceptual synergy between TBP and microfinancing (which I wrote about a couple weeks ago in a post on March 28). TBP appears to be in its early stages of growth, but the idea that social networking is moving into the realm of social change is exciting. And it offers a potential model for nurturing—and even funding—design-related entrepreneurial ideas.

Speaking of “better:”
Check out the 2009 Open Architecture Challenge for designing a better classroom. Obviously there is an architectural emphasis to this competition, but visual communication is such a strong part of learning and the classroom experience, it seems like there is an opportunity here for communication designers to offer some impactful solutions. Designer/enterpreneur Hilary Cottam of Participle is listed as a juror.


Thanks to Susan Bernstein for turning me on to the great work of Hilary Cottam and her London firm, Participle. Hilary Cottam seems to have a really clear vision of how design thinking and methodology can be used—by designers and others—to solve a variety of social problems. Here’s a link to an excellent FastCompany profile.

What I love about this story is that, in addition to having a remarkably fresh notion of how a design business can operate, Hilary also believes that designers must work in collaboration with other smart people to solve complex problems. In her setting, those other smart people include anthropologists, economists, entrepreneurs, psychologists, social scientists, among others. In the experience Lisa and I had growing HealthSimple, we relied heavily on a similar network of experts. It was the strength of this network and our willingness to collaborate that allowed us to navigate some really challenging situations.

Here’s a link to Hilary Cottam’s website. Merge will be all about seeking out people like Hilary who are challenging the conventions of design business.

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