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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.

Picture 12While the main stage presentations at AIGA Minnesota’s Design Camp last weekend didn’t really focus on the topic of change in the design world, much of the side chatter I was hearing involved the changing ways that designers are working—or being forced to work. With a student-to-professional ratio of roughly 1:1 at the conference (rare for a design event with a professional focus), there were plenty of attendees who were looking at their own future with shaky knees, wondering where the opportunity will be in this profession that seemed so wide open less than a couple years ago.

Of course, the design jobs will return (perhaps a bit slower than some would prefer), but what exactly will the job description be when they do? Designers—and especially communication designers—have found ourselves tagged on to the end of the business process despite our best efforts to infiltrate our clients at a deeper level. The fact remains that the vast majority of what we do still involves putting a pretty package around a product, service, system, or experience that was fundamentally complete before we designers arrived on the scene.

So, I was pleased this morning as I bagged up school lunches for my two teenagers (talk about a design project…) to hear the topic of design coming from the radio speakers. Tim Brown, CEO of global design firm IDEO and author of the new book Change By Design: Tim Brown’s Book on How Design Thinking Inspires Innovation, was being interviewed by NPR’s Renee Montagne. I was doubly pleased that the focus of the conversation was around the potential for design to impact our dysfunctional healthcare system, a topic about which I am passionate.

I’ve embedded this short interview below along with a recent TED video in which Tim Brown expands on his ideas for design and design thinking to make change.

“I think the design of participatory systems in which many more forms of value beyond simply cash are both created and measured is going to be the major theme not only for design but also for our economy as we go forward.”

This is a profound statement that, if true, will dramatically change the expectations placed upon those students I encountered at Design Camp as they invent the next generation of our profession. Tim Brown’s prophecy is daunting for those of us in the middle of our careers, but as always, with change comes opportunity. Personally, I’m in complete agreement with Brown on this issue and I welcome his loud, strong voice to the chorus of change.

NPR Morning Edition Interview with Tim Brown

Tim Brown TED Talk

Picture 15I’ve found BigThink.com to be a reliable resource for thoughtful, bite-sized videos on a variety of topics, from science to politics, from business to history—and design! The format is simple and elegant, and the conversation is smart and deep. Think of TED Talks in 3-minute segments, or The Charlie Rose Show without Charlie Rose. While the majority of the design-related postings have an architecture or fashion focus, occasionally there is some cross over into more a general design discussion or even a connection between design and business.

This clip is one of several they have from MoMA Design Curator, Paola Antonelli, who is no stranger to the communication design community having spoken at AIGA conferences in the past. Here she discusses the “economics” of design, by taking a more classical interpretation of the term economics (ie: the scale of one person to the rest of the world). It’s a compelling argument for the power of design and designers.

She also touches on one of my favorite connections—design and healthcare. If you have trouble playing this video, click here.

I’ve never attended the actual TED Conference, but I’ve become a big fan of the TED website and their outstanding collection of conference presenter videos. Two friends have recommended the video of Jacek Utko, the Polish designer who reenergized newspapers in countries throughout eastern and central Europe with his bold, dynamic graphic design.

On the surface, this story could be taken as another example of a classic “before/after,” where the “before” is so outrageously bad that the designer couldn’t help but make an impressive improvement by comparison. What sets this example apart is that Utko’s redesigns led to sharp increases in circulation for these newspapers, making this one of those rare case studies with a clear correlation between communication design and business success.

From an entrepreneurial perspective, the connection may also be obscured, but I see the Jacek Utko story as illuminating for entrepreneurial communication designers. In the newspaper industry, Utko has found a business category that is grossly void of fresh, engaging design. This is exactly the experience Lisa and I had with the healthcare industry during our daughter’s diabetes diagnosis, which led to our business HealthSimple. In both cases—and in those of many other business successes—the lack of good design became a business opportunity for designers.

Here a link to an interview with Jacek Utko on the TED blog.

A couple other TED videos I’ve really enjoyed:
Paula Scher, Designer and Pentagram partner
Elizabeth Gilbert, Author of Eat, Pray, Love

Thanks to Andy Thompson and Jeff Johnson for the Jacek Utko tip.

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