All posts by Grant

Creativity, innovation, and the space between cultures

iPhotoAnthropologists are drawn to places where culture is a little shaky.

Normally, culture supplies the meanings and rules with which we understand and navigate the world. And normally, it does this invisibly, effortlessly, in real time. We don’t sense culture operating in us. It just does. It’s like language, it’s just there.

But sometimes culture is a little shaky. It has found a world it can’t quite render or organize. And when that happens, wonderful things happen. We understand that we are no longer under “strict instructions.” We are no longer the captive of meanings made. We are now living in a world where meaning and rules are up for grabs.

This happens especially in what Van Gennep called “liminal spaces.” Vegas and New Orleans are liminal spaces for social purposes. Rules are loosened. We have a new sense of freedom. Boulder, Madison, Palo Alto and Detroit are liminal spaces from an economic point of view. We have a new sense of possibility and certain innovations are now possible. Often these liminal spaces sit quite literally between cultures. They come by their culturelessness honestly. There are competing meanings and no one of these sets of meanings has the upper hand.

iPhotoWhich brings me to Panama City. I spend Feb. 21 and 22 to hear in transit from Mexico City to Brazil. And I was stunned by what I saw. This is a body of architectural experiments that are prepared to go anywhere and do anything. See the two buildings pictured here. (This is not a perfect photograph. Please enlarge it and have a look.) This work is gogglingly strange. I’m not saying wonderful. But it is like nothing I have seen in more ordinary worlds, those Gullivers pinned down by cultural convention.

I hadn’t thought about it before but there is no place in the world quite as liminal as Panama City. After all, it sits between both hemispheres and oceans. It’s not quite this, nor exactly that. Talk about a cross roads.

And we would expect a cross roads to be the place where strange things happen. (It is of course that Robert Johnson went to find his genius.) I am living on the surface of Panamanian culture. Here for the weekend. Stuck in a hotel. But what a surface! These buildings are lunar when not martian. And again, I’m not saying they are good. I’m just saying they are innovative. Wonderful in the literal sense, not the approving one. God knows what other wonders lie beneath the surface. Scary, really. The anthropologist, properly terrified by this prospect, gets on a plane and moves on.

Mean meme mobs?

Joanna ColesI was watching someone’s pre-Oscar red carpet show last night from my hotel room in Panama City and came sharply to.

Joanna Coles (Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief) remarked in passing that the red carpet is now a fashion world unto itself and that, in general, style decisions there tend to run in the direction of the classic and conservative.

“Why is that?” she was asked.

“Celebrities don’t want to be turned into memes.”

Wow, I thought, if we have a group of people who command admiration, who rank high, who garner virtually limitless amounts of capital (cultural, social and economic) to themselves, it’s A-list actors.

And here we see them cowering before the mob, terrified of judgment and ridicule. The very rich and very famous have been reduced to awkward teenagers who live in fear of bullying.

Things have changed. Or, better, the more things change, the more they look like 18th century France.

Secrets of digital celebrity: how to get famous the easy way

When Guy Kawasaki was asked how to get internet famous, he had discouraging news. There is no easy answer, he seemed to say.  You have to follow thousands of people. You have to reply to all your email and Twitter traffic.  Yes, he said, I’m “internet famous” but it took me 25 years to get here.

But some people came up easily. The 1990s was the internet’s Cambrian era, so there was an immense amount of noise and commotion. Now that everyone was in the game, it was hard for anyone to rise. But a few did. And some of those few did not appear to be working hard at all.  They were not scrupulous about their twitter traffic and email.  They got digital celebrity the easy way.

So what’s the easy way?  Let’s take three case studies. There are several more. But these are three that impressed me most. 

As the TV show Mad Men as a center piece, Bud began to tweet in the voice of Bud Melman (pictured) as if from the mailroom of Sterling Cooper.  He gave us an insider’s view of the agency.  The Melman character went from a slender proposition to deep plausibility in the 5 seconds it took us to figure out what the proposition was.  Bud (both of them) had insinuated himself into the storyline. He made himself necessary reading for fans of the show. This was fan fic that actually commandeered the original. It was transmedia that was in some ways more interesting and imaginative than the show.  (AMC thought so. They came at Caddell with lawyers blazing.)  Most of all, Bud showed what digital technology could do.  What, in effect, it was for.  For the price of a Twitter account (then as now $0), he was famous.

With “Bud,” Bud found had found a way to hack old media with new media. The message was clear.  Old media might continue to control a big piece of contemporary culture and it would always have more money, more institutional heft, and perhaps more eyeballs, but with tiny investments some people could help themselves to some of the proceeds. It felt like something out of Prohibition, when small bandits managed to liberate one truck from the 100 trucks big bandits were sending from Canada to NYC.  

Talk about ROI.  Bud won fame for the price of a good idea and a really cheap delivery device.  

Jonah Peretti won fame a different way.  He asked Nike to customize his shoes with the word “sweatshop.” Nike refused.  An exchange of emails ensued in which Nike insisted that “sweatshop” was slang and therefore forbidden.  Peretti replied it was standard English. And then he published the emails. And won himself a piece of immortality.  This is one of the characteristics of this fame, that it uses resources that don’t look like resources at all. An exchange of emails as the path to stardom. This was new.  And cheap.  And forget answering all your email.  Just publish the interesting ones.  

This begins with an act of brilliance. Peretti saw that he could use Nike’s customization for his own purposes, against Nike, and as a way to draw attention to a big issue and indeed a guilty secret that lay at the heart of the Nike proposition. It’s an opportunity right there in front of everyone. Most of us are incapable of anything more imaginative that “Grant’s sneakers” or “Left” and “Right.”  Peretti saw a way to hack the customization that Nike felt made them just so very you know current, “with it,” and “on the ball.” The conceit exposed them. Peretti made them pay.

Kevin Slavin won his stardom with a gaming idea. I never saw any of the games that came out of his company Area/Code. It was enough to hear him talk about his proposition at a PSFK conference. He talked about kids running through the streets of NYC pursued by monsters that were imaginary in one sense but entirely real in another. He called these “invisible characters moving through real-world spaces.”  

There is something so clever about these cases you instantaneously go, “Oh.”  Your heart and your head is glad.  Previous generations found fame in other ways, writing books, starting companies, distinguishing themselves in some arena or other.  (Think of Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog.) But all of these were effortful compared to what is happening here. What brought them Caddell, Peretti and Slavin fame was virtually all concept, not much more than a really brilliant idea stretched over a balsa wood frame. It was, and is, path to stardom because this was all it took to demonstrate that you were someone who grasped “it” (the intangible kinds of value and engagement now possible in the digital space) while the rest of us were struggling to get our blogging software to work.

Anthropologist like this sort of thing for the same reason that linguistic like puns.  We can see the cultural (linguistic) mechanics at work. But I think it’s clear that virtually everyone saw these events, these hacks, as clever as anything and they rewarded the creators with admiration that rose to the level of stardom. And remember how hard this was in the 1990s.  Now that everyone was more active and visible, it was hard to see anyone. We want to avoid a post hoc “oh, but that was obvious.”  There was nothing obvious about climbing out of the blizzard of invention going on in that cultural moment. Or this one.

Some will say, “Oh, but this really isn’t celebrity of anything like the kind we care about.  I mean these guys are not film star famous.” True enough.  I would argue this is a higher grade of celebrity.  If you want to be film star famous, you have to trade away your privacy. You will be followed around by the paparazzi.  People will make their living inventing falsehoods about you. This celebrity is costless.  Highly profitable but almost entirely costless. 

We can think of these as “ingenuity bombs” in the manner of a seed bomb.  You take a really great idea.  Coat it in just enough materials to get it started.  And then hurl it into the world.  And stand clear.  Actually, stand close.  You are about to be covered in glory.  

For more on this idea see my book Culturematic.

post script: apologies for the precious version of this post. I am working from Mexico City and my internet resources are constrained.

Design: cycles and heroes

WJOC PhotoBill O’Connor was kind enough to send me an early comment on my recent blog post on Design and the corporation.  He has given me permission to reproduce a portion of these remarks here.  Thank you, Bill.

His remarks:

I wondered, is design in some recurrent cycle of boom and bust affected by the patronage of the essential economic engines – manufacturing, finance, IT et al?  Design by it’s essence seems to be a creature of, well, design, and like so many activities that thrive at the pleasure of the culture design seems to be frequently in need of reinventing itself, more frequently, it seems to me, than other creative, problem-solving enterprises.

When design du jour becomes unfashionable and creativity yields to manifest rationality design looses its business patron, its economic platform gets shaky and design businesses close or contract or morph into some other expression.

Maybe we’re in one of those periods now and design stars, whose lumens are dimming, are navigating to the safe haven of the corporate port. Fickle corporate patrons in their search for the next new advantage that they’re unable to conjure themselves discover and then devour these weird and wild odd-thinkers.

The predictable MO seems so let’s acquire it, keep it from our competitors, bring it in-house and mange it better – better for our purposes and our bottom line……..like capturing the butterfly, putting it in a controlled, safe space in the study and observing it and taking care of it.  We know where that goes.

The design business seems to suffer from perilous dilution by pretenders, poseurs, immitators and wannabes. The word itself seems over-extended and over applied to the point of dilution. Design is a transitive verb.

Cultural anchors and the illusion that was Brian Williams

Unknown-2So much is changing. The digital, artisanal, and cultural revolutions, all of these transform us from the inside out.  But we have our facades and as the world gets more chaotic, we treasure them more and more. They may merely give the illusion of continuity and stability, but at this point we’ll take it.  We really like our illusions.

Which brings me to Michael Wolff’s characteristically penetrating piece on Brian Williams.   Wolff says there is something terribly old fashioned about the idea of the network anchor and a news broadcast that still matters as the primary source of news.  Wolff sees through the illusion. The mystery, he says, is that Williams managed to live the lie for so long.

This is Wolff doing what he does so well, using his formidable smarts and knowledge of media to keep an eye on the new realities that the rest of us tend to visit episodically.  We will feel the truth of one of these realities…until we move on to contemplate some other reality.  What we don’t do is let many realities all in at once.  And, really, who can blame us.  Taking stock of all our changing realities is actually pretty terrifying. I try it from time to time and spend the remainder of the day with my head between my knees, taking deep breaths. It doesn’t help at all.

Let me, if I may, say something parenthetically.  (Perhaps the most neglected intellectual practices these days is precisely this ability to entertain many realities at once.  Everyone has their competence and they may talk about being T shaped {good at one thing with a certain breadth above].  But in fact most of us build the I out of I. And it’s not hard to see why this intellectual practice should be in short supply.  We have largely abandoned or corrupted the liberal arts that were our best hope of mastering it.)

Wolff works his magic, but he comes to what I think might be the wrong conclusion.  He suggests that Williams’ scandal prevents us from seeing that Williams was, and I do not mean to be unflattering, a kind of Zombie. The role, the dignity and gravitas, all of these were effectively for show, because anchors don’t anchor anymore.   We are inclined to think Williams just lost his job. It is more useful to see that he never had one. The job has disappeared.

I think this might be the wrong conclusion, though it is an excellent one to entertain and I promise to make it one of my possible truths.  The right conclusion?  That as the world lets in more commotion, we will prize our figureheads.  By this calculation, news celebrities matter more even when they matter less.   In point of fact, they don’t “anchor” but they do smooth.  And we like our reality smoothed.

I think the real trouble here is Williams himself.  He got grander and grander.  I wrote something for PFSK that took issue with the way he dared presume to scold new media for not being real media.  “No,” I thought, “this really is too dumb.”  And then there was that promo he did for someone or something in which he went grandly on and on about the importance of “good human hands.”  In my household, you only need to hint at this phrase to get a big laugh.

Williams would not be the first celebrity to come to believe in his own majesty. It is almost impossible to be at the center of a celebrity culture and not have this go straight to your head. After all, he is constantly surrounded by people eager to bask in his reflected glory (even if they have to invent it first).

My point here is that we do still want to have “anchors” and again that they will matter more precisely they matter less.  The problem is that we need to head into the cultural laboratory and figure out who will fill this role.  Not Williams.  That much is clear.  We don’t want grand, sententious, self aggrandizing. That was then.

Happily for our laboratory, the world is its own laboratory.  There are lots of experiments running.  There are several people from whom we might cobble together to a perfect “anchor.”  A perfect anchor should be some combination of the qualities of Jon Stewart. Anthony Bourdain, Gayle King and …  Reader, help out.  Reader, sing out.

As I thought about the problem, I found myself thinking, “What about Michael Wolff?”

Design and the corporation: a reply from Darrel Rhea

Darrel-Rhea-Lockwood-ResourceI sent my recent “design” post to Darrel Rhea to ask for comment.

And he sent me this beautifully observed, informed and thoughtful reply.

Thank you, Darrel.

“Yes, corporations are indeed hiring up designers like crazy. And buying companies too. The sheer numbers are impressive.  Ask Roz, Rita-Sue, Tom, or the other Tom.  The head hunters are flat out busy.  But the buying spree of firms has been going on for 20 years. Frog and IDEO sold years ago.  The substantial firms are selling because of the age of the principals and basic economics.  But there are tons of small firms founded by hot young designers who are replacing the larger name brands. There isn’t a shortage of independent design firms, there is a shortage of larger firms owned by 50-60 year olds who are tired of the fee-for-services treadmill and looking for an exit.

Here are my own observations on our evolving practice with an emphasis on your area of cultural insights:

Ten plus years ago, the focus was on tidy efficient design departments. The value of design was being recognized, but only to a certain level. The value was focused on the aesthetics and functionality of products, or it was focused on the efficiency and ease of the user experience.  Design was thought of as a set of practices most relevant as a part of product development, or as part of brand communications.  Executives could just think of it as a resource that could be hired out when needed, with just enough internal competence to hire and manage the consultants.  Culture (deep cultural insight) might be interesting and was acknowledged as useful to the design practitioner, “But just do what you need to do and don’t talk about it. Like engineering, we trust that there is physics and math involved, but we don’t want to hear about it — that’s your job.  Culture is dark matter, and we don’t want to screw up with it, but we don’t want to have it be an internal competence we leverage.”

We then went through a period where many experiments were done to try bringing design into the company to “infect” the business more broadly.  Management wasn’t creative enough. They didn’t have a vision for innovation.  They needed some disruptive juju. Designers were put in “innovation centers” or “labs.”  McKinsey would hire up a hundred designers, T-Mobile would hire a hundred designers, lots of big companies were getting on the band wagon.  One by one, these experiments would fail.  They were on the periphery of the organization, they were edgy and provocative, they were expensive, and they weren’t managed in a way to create value for the organization.  These experiments would last on average 18 months at best before they blew up and everyone was laid off.  Organizations knew how to use designers for improving functionality and aesthetics, they didn’t know how to use them for thinking, for strategy, etc.  And to the extent these design groups had a deep competence in culture, it just made things worse.  Culture was a set of abstractions that designers valued, but not something practical that typical line managers could access and leverage. And Design Researchers were experiencing turf battles with more established Market Research Departments.

Now we are seeing a phase where big companies are trying to figure out how to leverage design for impact on creative leadership.  Management is seeing it as an important competence (and hence we are seeing CDOs being hired at tradition companies). Hundreds of designers are being hired.  And consultancies are being picked off for acqui-hires.  Design isn’t just working on aesthetics or functionality, they are making contributions to strategy, they are generating new value propositions.  Having design be more prominent is allowing these organizations to leverage the insights they have been gathering on customers and consumers.  They are becoming institutionally empathetic.  They are moving beyond tactical market research and beginning to ask better questions.  And, if you have 1000 designers in your company (Msft has 1400!), Culture is now important.  It is mainstream.  While it is still dark matter to senior execs, cultural understanding is a required competence for a contemporary designer (even if they aren’t trained and don’t have the most robust tools, they have the right values, and they will recognize good and useful insight when they see it).

Frabricant says Design Research is harder to do from the inside, I say bullshit. Give me access to a business with a category leadership role, a strategic need to grow and dominate, and a big corporate development budget, and you’ll see that these big companies developing unique, proprietary POVs on culture and consumers because they have to.  The truth is that the consultancies have always had a had time selling more rigorous Design Research, and they have been happy to rely on their intuition.  Deeper and more rigorous work happens on the inside where there are the resources for it and there is a way to leverage it over time and over multiple products.

Grant, I think your characterizations of designers is out of date.  More and more of the people coming up through design have social skills, and have been trained in integrative thinking and business.  They actually blend better. Previously, classic industrial designers would be asked into the board rooms, and they’s show up in torn Levis, Chucks and a tee shirt, long hair, swearing…  being authentically weird to the horror of my clients and righteous about it.  Now it’s likely to be a designer with an MBA speaking the language of both business and design.  They are impressing the hell out of the execs.  Programs like IIT, CMU, Weatherhead or CCAC are producing designers who are creative but not always weird.  They don’t wear the funny shoes as often.  And they aren’t domesticated and wearing Dockers either.  There is a small but growing group of designers that have a passion for designing business. And on the whole, these types do better on the inside than as external consultants.

Now, plenty of designers ARE domesticated as multinational corporations grind down their best people who eventually leave, or figure out how to survive by being complacent zombies.  But the companies are changing themselves.  Corporate culture is changing.  Corporate culture is getting better.  They are recognizing Design and inviting Design to the table.  They want and need creative help.  They need innovation. They need cool.  They need different.  At the same time, Design is getting better, it is getting more mature, more sophisticated and practical. (Frankly, it sucked before. Designers were often idiots. We wanted respect but we rarely deserved it.)

The good news is that with more sophisticated approaches to design and innovation becoming common, Culture (at the level you practice it, Grant) is more relevant. With greater capabilities in design, the organizations are hungry to have a solid foundation for thinking about their customers and consumers.  They are more willing to move beyond basic validation research and are now asking about meaning.  They are thinking about relationships.  They want to understand how to make love last.  That makes me optimistic.”

Design and the corporation, first wild, now tame?

RobertFabricant-620x415Have you seen the piece Robert Fabricant wrote for Wired as a year-end review?  I think you’ll find it both chilling and cheering.

Fabricant says “leading design firms are contracting or exiting the business.” Where did all this talent flow? Fabricant says it went to Fortune 500 companies.

Cheering?

Well, yes. This is good news for those of us who believe that the corporation is systematically challenged when it comes to capturing and thinking about culture. No, not corporate culture. I mean the body of ideas and practices with which each of us (and all of us) construct and negotiate the world. (AKA “trends” but of course so much more than merely trends.)

THIS culture is an essential knowledge for the corporation. It is the source of “black swans” and “blue oceans,” the dangers and opportunities, that confront the corporation. Mastering culture will help the corporation flourish even in a world of terrible, otherwise inscrutable dynamism. But no. The corporation prefers to treat culture as a dark matter. It knows culture is out there, but it can’t retrofit its models to account for it. The result is tragic.

So it’s good news that designers are now joining the corporation. Though we can just imagine the moments of first contact as the C-suiters look out of their princely offices over the parking lot to observe…anomalous data.  Colors, shapes and models that break the otherwise uniform sea of sensible sedans. Minis, Fiats, BWM i3, Teslas, cars that say the owner pays attention to the world around her, prizes the exquisite visual choice and the witty design decision, likes that shock of recognition when a shape in the world gives voice to an idea in our heads, who actually lives for a material culture that makes culture material.

This is not the C-suiters reaction. No, their reaction is “wait, what?” This is their idea of pattern recognition, noticing when things look, like, weird. Welcome to the designers. They are, like, weird.

I remember my first contact with designers. I was a freshly minted PhD and I went to a conference on built form staged by Setha Low. I was doing the anthropological thing, which is, when in the presence of people different from yourself, trying to guess the grammar, the culture, from which their view of the world springs. And the best I could do in the early days was to notice that designers managed a paradox that seemed beyond the rest of us (or at least me). They had their feet on the ground, even as they kept their heads in the clouds. Weird, yes. Wild, too.

Designers managed to be more or less fully domesticated, capable of adult behavior and professional careers, even as they harbored an enfant sauvage within, a creature who put creativity above conventional niceties, who was in fact not so domesticated after all. To use the cliché, designers somehow managed to think inside the box and live outside of it.  This impressed me deeply.

Which brings us to:

Chilling?

Is there something chilling about the fact the design is now taking up residence in the corporation? I think there might be. For all these years, designers kept a careful distance. They were in but not of the world of business. But now, if Fabricant is correct, they are at risk of falling into the gravitation field of the corporation, into what for some may be an incinerating embrace.

What if we are looking at the domestication of design, the end of its ability to think in restless, anarchic ways, the very extinction of the discipline as the fount of creativity in our midst. Those of you who have the ethnographic data, please do comment.  Do you see any of the early signs? Designers getting complacent? People going home at 5:00? The end of that thrilling charrette-mentality where it’s all hands on deck and we’ll sleep when we have to, eat when we must. The real sign may be this: when the designer’s car in the parking lot begin to go out, now good grey sedans, no longer colorful, provocative, counter-expectational “vehicles” for passengers of any kind. Then we will know the thing is done, the field is dead.

I suggest designers think of this as a hostage negotiation. They must insist on a trade. We the designers will bring you this precious knowledge, the ability to use design thinking and cultural knowledge, if and only if we may remain an edgy, disturbational, counter-intuitive presence in your midst.

More probably, the outcome will look like this. The corporation will hold designers in its thrall for a couple of years. Then two things will happen. Noticing how miserable they are, some designers will leave. The corporation will see they have so wounded the golden goose that culture and creativity is no longer forthcoming. It will then turn into a willful child, throwing away its “broken toy” and moving on to some new enthusiasm. Released from their Babylonian captivity, designers will return eventually to form.  And the world will be, like, weird again. And wild.

post script

I set this post to Darrel Rhea for comments and he came back with a beautifully observed response.  I will post this tomorrow.  Please come back!