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…… 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.


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:


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!

Ralph Lauren, the 80s called, they want their ad back

Here’s a recent ad for Ralph Lauren’s fragrance Polo.

It’s a cultural antique. This is what advertising used to look like when designed to flatter male egos and sell goods that were designed to flatter male egos in a cultural moment designed to flatter male egos. These days, its “Really? Get over yourself.”

Ralph Lauren has not been superbly in touch with the cultural moment. (Not since the 1980s when he helped define the cultural movement.) But this is really egregiously out of touch. I guess he doesn’t have a Chief Culture Officer.

What looks and feels more contemporary?  Have a look at this Fitbit ad.

The difference?

It’s not about one person.  It’s about lots and lots of people.

It’s not about young males. It’s about a variety of people.  Because some years ago, advertising and branding learned it had to let in everyone, not just the Young and Beautiful…and Male.  Who gets the credit here?  Sylvia Lagnado and Dove? Who else?

And it’s not about someone with that terrible look of self congratulation, that overweening red speedboat of an ego.

It’s not about speedboats but the diversity of ways people have found to entertain and exert themselves. This is plenitude in action.

Yes, this ad is an exercise in diversity because the Fitbit is designed to capture data generate by any activity. But notice the tone, the reckless, frenetic charm of this spot. It’s not about anyone’s ego. There are no beautiful people here. No celebrities. It’s a “Here Comes Everybody” exercise, to use Shirky’s phrase. There are a variety of deep cultural reasons why diversity is so important when crafting cultural meanings.

We are on the verge of a season that shows a relentless stream of James Bond movies, and with each season, Bond looks a little stranger, a man so besotted with himself that it’s hard to imagine rooting for him.  How do we identify with a monster of vanity? Those days have passed. This is where you are, Mr. Lauren, on the wrong side of history.

Secrets of Key and Peele

iu-3I started watching an episode of Key and Peele (Comedy Central, Wednesday, 10:30) recently.

Before long I got mesmerized by a movement between two things:

1. how good the performance is, how agile is their mastery of contemporary culture, how detailed and exacting is the performance. There’s apparently no place these two can’t go. And, in the old metaphor, they go not as tourists but as anthropologists.


2. the point of the skit.  It was funny. But not so funny that it rewarded the length to which K&P played it out.  Like every other viewer, I could see where the skit was going and now I was obliged to sit through the mechanical production of the joke.

The smaller problem is clear. Everyone gets the joke sooner than we used to.  A great river of content has run through us and we get good at consuming it.  So good that we can reverse engineer most anything and see where it is going.  But jokes especially in skit comedy come wrapped in a certain format. For practical reasons, and perhaps for cultural ones, they have to run for a certain duration.  In the old days, this was fine.  We were working hard to get the joke.  These days it feels like a trial.

The larger solution is, I think, is that tension between 1 and 2 with which we opened and that mesmerizing movement between them.  We need this movement and it works, possibly, because it takes us between two intellectual operations, mapping the joke and watching the performance.

Now it doesn’t matter how labored the joke is.  The “other half” of the skit, the cultural performance and passage, sustains us.  As does the movement between joke and performance which is just so interesting.

To say how and why the movement works so well you would have to be a cognitive psychologist or someone with ready access to a MRI. It’s something to do with the effects of a serial continuity.  Two things the run against one another but in parallel. Novelty interrupting continuity and vice versa.  Or something.

It’s a mystery. But an essential mystery, one that helps us see how culture works these days.

Mike Nichols, father of American improv

iu-2Mike Nichols died yesterday.  As my contribution to the memorial, here is the essay wrote about him in a book called Transformations. It describes his role in the creation of American improv.

Mike Nichols

(from McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transfomations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.)

Mike Nichols is an American director of plays and movies, the latter including The Graduate (1967), Silkwood (1983), and The Birdcage (1996). He is married to Diane Sawyer, a journalist. He was feted at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, where his “lifetime achievement” in film was celebrated by 3000 people, including Richard Avedon, Itzhak Perlman and Barbara Walters. If popular culture in America has an aristocracy, Mike Nichols belongs to its titular class.   Three thousand people came to celebrate, but most were there in homage.

Nichols came to America as Igor Peschkowsky. He arrived from Berlin in 1939. He was 7, his brother was 3. They made the journey by sea alone. His father preceded him to New York City, his mother would follow 18 months later. In New York City, Mr. Peschkowsky turned the boys over to the uneven kindness of an English family. Nichols was now bereft of his native country, his native language, the company of his mother and father, and his family’s standing in Europe. “I was a zero. […] In every way that mattered, I was powerless.”1

Nichols endured the pains of adjustment, though he had fallen farther than most. His advantage, an eye for detail and ear for nuance, was itself a torment.

“The refugee ear is a sort of seismograph for how one is doing. […] A thousand tiny victories and defeats in an ordinary conversation.”

To make matters worse, a medical intervention in childhood had left him hairless so that he was obliged to wear a hat, or a wig, everywhere. Buck Henry, a childhood friend, remembers him “as far outside as an outsider can get.”2

Nichols was obliged to engage in immigrant improv, that essential shield with which newcomers protect themselves from the endless embarrassments of a new world. Any native knucklehead could needle and vex at whim. ‘Saratoga,’ says the knucklehead with that “but of course you must know this” air. Judging from the speaker, the conversation, and the tone of the challenge, Saratoga is a literary journal, a cherished brand of American root beer, or the train that travels between Los Angeles and San Francisco. (It is probably not an Aboriginal place name. That would be too easy.)

The family established itself. His father was a doctor. In time, prosperity and standing were modestly restored. Then more tragedy. His father died, his mother suffered chronic emotional difficulty, and the family descended into poverty and sometimes squalor. Nichols fashioned his own system of education (chiefly, popular theatre and classical literature) and found his way to the University of Chicago where he arrived, at 17, to a happy discovery. “Oh my God, look, there are others like me. There are other weirdoes.”

Nichols took to the theatre. The University of Chicago was loaded with talent: Paul Sills, Ed Asner, Severn Darden, Barbara Harris. He directed his first play and performed in several more. In one of them, his disguise was pierced. He was Jean the valet in a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. His role called for a working-class man, one of the few adaptations this Russian-German Jewish aristocratic American weirdo could not manage. He was found out by a woman in the audience, an “evil, hostile girl” staring at him from the front row. “[S]he knew it was shit.”3

What happened next is one of the “origin myths” of American culture. One day, Nichols saw his inquisitor waiting for a train in a railway station in Chicago. He approached her and asked, in a German accent, “May I sit down?” Elaine May replied, in accent, “if you wish.” The rest is, as they say, history. Nichols and May made a spy scenario out of thin air. Without benefit of introduction or social ceremony, and in spite of disastrous first impressions, they were now friends. It felt to them both, Nichols said later, that “we were safe from everyone else when we were with each other.”4

Certainly, it has the compactness, the telescopic redundancy, of an origin myth. The origin of American improv is an act of improv, first of the moment, then of the stage, then of popular culture. What Nichols and May did in the train station, they repeated at the University of Chicago, and then on the Dupont Show of the Month to an astonished America. The captive of Miss Julie and fixed theatre was released into the sheer creativity that was in any case his immigrant experience. And with improv, America finds its way into opportunities for new dynamism. The path to assimilation proves to be the steep upward ascent to wealth, glory and fame. Two people give themselves over to this single act of spontaneity and everything changes: the interaction, their relationship, their careers, and an important part of the career of contemporary culture.

In the middle moment, the world is charmed. Nichols and May are perfect, blinding. Touched by this creature, Nichols discovers new talent and the possibility of fame staggeringly beyond the acceptance he courted, a boy in a wig, a couple of years before. Elaine May is adored, pursued, protean in her creativity, charismatic on stage and off, larger than every occasion and every other companion, impatient with mortals, and terrible in her anger when this is provoked. (Pursued by two men making kissing sounds, May says, “tired of one another?” and when one of them responds, “Fuck you!” she turns on him and asks, “With what?” (Ovid would surely have wanted this for his compendium of transformations.)

And then, in the manner of some myths, it ended. Improv became formula. May wanted to keep inventing but, as Nichols tells us (in an act of greatness) he could not keep up with her and he began to lose his courage for risk-taking on stage. The improv, the act, and the relationship, die in succession. The actors are estranged. Nichols returns to the theatre, not to act, but, the ultimate retreat from improv, to direct. He has a period of madness in which he seeks to destroy the art that reflects his wealth and taste. He resurrects himself to make one or two good films but keeps his distance from sheer, untrammeled creativity, falling back on fixed and commercial theatre. Elaine May suffers a more spectacular destruction. She falls under the influence of a man manifestly her lesser, and directs him in a disastrously unsuccessful film: Ishtar (1987). This is shit: over-scripted, under-directed, wooden, Beatty-ish, and just not funny. The first creatures to enter Chicago improv had fallen back to earth.5

1 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, p. 198.

2 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, pp. 202.

3 Sweet, Jeffrey. 1978. Something Wonderful Right Away: an oral history of the Second City and the Compass players. New York: Avon Books, p. 73.

4 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, p. 204. There is some confusion in the record about precisely what was said in the train station. In the Sweet interview, Nichols says that he used a German accent. Lahr says nothing of this but suggests that May replied with a Russian accent. This may have been the two sides of the improv, but it seems to me more likely that Nichols spoke, and May replied, in a German accent. This was after all their first date.

5 My account of the beginning of improv indulges itself in a mythic language and a fuller account can be found in the opening essay “History” in Sweet, Jeffrey. 1978. Something Wonderful Right Away: an oral history of the Second City and the Compass players. New York: Avon Books, p. xv-xxxiii

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