Tag Archives: design

This is what we do to dreamers

memobottle+manLet’s say you are starting a startup and today you are standing in front of a venture capitalist.

With impatience in his voice, the VC says,

“Tell me again exactly what your enterprise is for. How are you going to create value?”

This is what we do to dreamers.

Because the answer to this question almost always comes to you in a mad conceptual scramble for the simplest, most obvious, most literal statement of what your enterprise is “for.”

You stand, you deliver:

“Our product will help people solve problem x for consumer y cheaper than competitor z.”


But not so fast. Because now you are wedded to it. Every time someone asks, you are obliged to repeat your simplest, least interesting statement of what your company is for.

It’s the opposite of poetry. Every time you repeat your “value proposition” it gets more obvious, practical, functional, literal, uninteresting and unbeautiful. Your dream is withering.

In the summer of 2015, Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, insisted, against all measures and most opinion, that U.S. productivity was actually up.

The trouble, he suggested, is that we can’t see these gains because we are using old measures. When the GDP measure was developed in the 1930s, Hal observed, it focused on things like steel and grain. The improvements that come from Silicon Valley are harder to see.

Radical Hal. No, call him Heretical Hal. This was the beginning of the end of capitalism as a blunt object, as a search for mere utility. This was an opportunity to free ourselves from those people who see the world as a solutions to problems, and the more pragmatic and practical the better.

But we can’t complete this heresy until we begin to make certain value visible. We need to show how our enterprise will create value of a social, cultural, human kind. We will have to show that Uber is not merely cheaper than a taxi cab, but a richer, more human way to discover a city. (I set aside the labor issues for another time.) We will have to show the Airbnb is not merely a cheaper hotel room, but that it is a richer, more human way to discover a city. As it stands, and as far as capitalism (and Uber and Airbnb themselves) are concerned, this remains “dark value.”

Sometimes dark value is revealed, but typically this revelation comes late in the process. Ideas happen, capital is made added, enterprise springs into the world, innovations are rolled out. And then someone says, “Er, what about marketing?”  Planners, strategists, creatives, designers, ethnographers are summoned to contemplate this poor, beaten creature.

With any luck the post mortem goes pre mortem. The innovation springs to life, it’s coat glossy with new meaning. But often even this creative genius can’t do anything for the “innovation.” It is beyond all hope. It is designed to solve a problem that no one cares about because it adds virtually nothing to the world. “Whiter whites” are a death mask.

But sometimes these creatives discover, invent, conceptualize dark value. And the consumer will say, “Oh, that’s what it is. You kept telling me what it’s for. No, that I like. I can live that.”

By this time of course it’s all up stream. The creatives are working with something that’s mostly formed and they are working with people who really in their heart of hearts think “all the creativity stuff is really just icing for the cake. It’s the sizzle that sells the steak.  It’s the stuff you have to say to persuade the consumer to buy a product that frankly should have sold itself on the strength of it’s functionality. I mean, really, what is the matter with these people.”

What if we started looking for and working with dark value from the very beginning?

And if this sounds like a good idea, please consider buying my new book Dark Value here. It’s a bargain at $2.99.


Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for engaging me this morning with a useful email. And thanks to many people on many media who have offered encouragement for the Dark Value project.

The image is from this website.

Dark Value, a new book published today

Ember Library Mediator

Here’s the abstract for my new book:

Innovators like Airbnb, Uber and Netflix are creating dark value. They are creating features and benefits they didn’t  intend and don’t always grasp. And because this value is hard to see, it’s hard to monetize. I believe dark value is a chronic problem in the innovation and sharing economies. To observe one implication of the dark value argument: Airbnb, Uber and Netflix are charging too little.

We will examine dark value created by AirBnb, Uber, Netflix, Evernote, Fitbit, and Facebook. We will show how to make dark value visible in three steps: 1. discover, 2. determine, and 3. declare. Ethnographers, designers, VCs, creatives, planners, PR professionals, marketers, story tellers, curators, programmers, content creators, and social media experts all have a part to play. For all of them, Dark value represents a new professional opportunity and a new revenue stream.

You can buy Dark Value on Amazon here.

Why buy it? If you are a culture creative in design, marketing, planning, ethnography, advertising, curation, this is a treasure map. It will also help you find new revenue streams, as you find dark value for others.  (It now occurs to me that “A Treasure Map” should have been my subtitle.)

What will it cost you? The price is $2.99. It will take you about 30 minutes to read. If you buy a copy, please send me an email and I will put you on a mailing list for updates. I’m thinking about a Keynote deck, and you would get this for free.


The ‘wicked grin’ test (as a new creative measure)

How do you know when something in our culture is really good?

I think it’s when it makes us grin a wicked grin.

This is one of those: Dave Chappelle does imitation of Prince and Prince uses the imitation for his album cover. Dave becomes Prince. Prince becomes Dave becoming Prince.

For post-modernists, this is ‘signs circulating.’ Fair enough but not very interesting. It doesn’t explain why we grin wickedly.

It’s the relocation that does it. Daveness taking on Princeness. Princeness taking on Daveness as Princeness. These are meanings in motion. We grin wickedly because we can’t believe that Dave dared attempt Princeness. It’s not temerity that gets us. Dave is free to make fun of a genius like Prince. That’s the privilege of his genius.

No, what makes us grin is astonishment. How did Dave do it? How is that possible? Daveness and Princeness share a claim (and a proof) of genius, but they come from very different parts of our culture.  They are in a sense incommensurate.

And they just made themselves (for a moment, in a way) commensurate. This makes our minds happy…and our faces grin. I think it is at some level it makes our brains happy. Meanings attached to one thing now, astonishingly, belong to another. We can feel gears turning in our heads.

Dave and Prince have brought meanings together that are normally kept apart. And we thank them for this semiotic miracle by grinning our admiration, astonishment, gratitude. Who knew our culture could do that.

We make a lot of culture with acts of unexpected, unprecedented combination.  (I have tried to map this process for contemporary culture in a book called Culturematic.)

Indeed, wicked grinning should be the new objective not just of comedy and album cover design, but of branding, design and advertising. We used to slavishly obey the rules of official combination (aka genre). Now we bore people with this predictability. If the user, viewer, consumer, audience can see where we’re going, they won’t come with us. (Susan Sarandon did an interview yesterday on Charlie Rose in which she said precisely this.)

Compare a culturematic to old fashioned marketing. The ad man and woman came up with a blindingly obvious message, stuffed it into one of the mass media (3 network TV, magazines, newspaper, radio) and fired it at the target over and over again until our ears bled. Everyone just wanted the “persuasion” to stop. This was cold war torture. And the worse part of this torture was how completely unsurprising it all was.

Every thing changes when we assume that our “consumers” are clever and interesting, and, chances are, making culture on their own. This means first that they can see the grammars we are using. Second, it means that they are looking for culture to make their own, for critical purposes and creative ones.  Culture creative, assume you are talking to someone has smart as you are. Assume you are talking to someone who can do what you do. And go with the idea that we have no hope of success unless we are making content that makes people grin wickedly.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green have invited us to embrace a new slogan: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea is that a message will die unless people take an act hand in distributing it by social media. I am proposed that before we apply the Jenkins-Ford-Green test, we apply “wicked grin test.” Forget the focus groups and the audience testing. Just show your work to someone and look at the expression on their face.

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.

Design needs more heroes.

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!

Bosco 3.0: ethnography and design to the rescue

I’ve been thinking some more about Bosco, the kid who knows all about meth labs and not a lot else.

It’s a problem that demands anthropology, ethnography, design thinking, strategy, marketing, several of the intellectual practices we now have on tap.  (See the preliminary posts here and here.)

One approach: transfer the knowledge possessed by kids of privilege.  So that Bosco does not suffer that pernicious disadvantage of constrained horizons or what we might call a “cosmopolitan gap.”

There’s an inclination to say, “Perfect!  It’s a simple transfer.  We find out what Tommy (child of privilege) knows and send this knowledge to Bosco.”

EmberBut of course it’s not this simple.  Knowledge is not data organized according to a single scheme.  It is not something that exists independent of communities and practices of knowledge.

So it’s NOT the case that Bosco’s knowledge of the world looks like this on a grid of knowledge.  (B = the things on the grid of knowledge that Bosco grasps.)


Tommy’s richer knowledge of the world does NOT look like this:.  (Where T would stand for the [many more] things Tommy understands.)


So it’s NOT the case that all we need to do is to communicate Tommy’s knowledge to Bosco.

Instead, knowledge is variously assembled and framed so that what is knowledge in one system may not show as knowledge in another system.  Or knowledge in one system may show in another, but it takes on a new place or significance.  This is an elaborate way of saying we don’t just need to know what Tommy knows but what Bosco knows.  And then we have to build a translation table.  Not a Rosetta stone, but something more complicated and calculating.  Less a translation table, more a translation machine.

Notice that we are not taking the postmodernist bait and sliding into that sophomoric relativism that says Tommy and Bosco live in  worlds so different that communication or transfer is impossible.  This is good fun to debate in a university seminar.  But when it used to frustrate our rescue mission, specious nonsense turns dangerous too.

Off the bat, I can see two ways that cultural creatives can help.

architecture of knowledge

This is what ethnography is for, after all.  We can sit down, and capture the categories of Bosco’s knowledge, how these go together, what assumptions they rely on.  We can build a rough model of the inside of Bosco’s head.  And with this we can begin to figure out when, whether and how to begin the transfer of knowledge from Tommy to Bosco.  We noted in previous post that this transfer will have real implications for Bosco’s relationships with friends and family, but that’s not the problem we are solving here.  Our task is to discover what Bosco knows and the way he thinks and to use this to prepare the way for a transfer of knowledge.

visualization of knowledge

This is the really interesting part.  And now I am at the edge of my competence.  The idea here is to represent Bosco’s existing knowledge and to help Bosco see how new knowledge attaches.  Because as we know knowledge is adhesive.  This is why it’s easier to get knowledge if you have knowledge.  And of course knowledge is also hierarchical.  It’s hard to learn some things if you don’t already know other more general things.

This is a job for the designer, to create a visualization of what Bosco knows and to use that to introduce him to new knowledge and show how he can “attach” it to existing knowledge.  Where necessary we will build some intermediating pieces of knowledge, so that Bosco can learn something for which his existing system of knowledge does not yet have points for adhesion.  (Or we hold back knowledge until other knowledge is in place.)

Effectively, the cultural creatives will occupy a lab that might as well be called “the inside of Bosco’s head.”  We will know what he knows, what he is ready to learn, and what he has to learn to learn something new.  We will constantly be working on a grand visualization that helps Bosco assimilate new and useful Tommy knowledge.

These are thoughts only.  Your comments, please!

Bosco and the memory of William Drenttel


A couple of days ago, I wrote about Bosco, the 8 year-old who knows all about meth labs and not a lot else.

I got precisely one response, a woman who said this was kind of problem she likes to solve.  And that was it.

I thought, “maybe if I develop the idea a little.”  My first idea was a kind of twinning project.  You know, the kind that cities have. ( New York is a sister city to Cairo.)

We would identify 6 kids across the US who would then become Bosco’s twins.  And we find away to capture what they are learning as they are learning it and we find some way to communicate this knowledge to Bosco.

Our objective is to make him cosmopolitan in the ways that they are cosmopolitan.  (And by “cosmopolitan,” I mean merely, “knowledgeable about the world outside one’s own.”)  My assumption: that there are many disadvantages to growing up in the home in which Bosco finds himself but one of the most debilitating  is a lack of knowledge/understanding/awareness.  (Call it “cultural capital.“) This lack of knowledge is, we could argue, more damaging than illiteracy or innumeracy.

Problem 1.  There is a “barrier to entry” problem here.  As meth cookers, there’s a good chance that Bosco’s parents have limited horizons (prima facie case, no?) and that they would not welcome the intrusion of a system that is designed to broaden the horizons of their son.

I don’t how to solve this problem.  I have a feeling that an anthropologist and an economist working together, with the levers of meaning and value, could come up with a solution, but more on this later.

Problem 2.  There is no question that this twinning process, if it worked, would transform Bosco and there’s not much doubt that it would estrange Bosco from his family.  This would make Bosco the captive of a hostile environment.  From the parental point of view, we have created a “little Lord Fountleroy,” someone who thinks himself (or is thought to think himself) better than his family.

I don’t know how to solve this problem either.  It’s worth pointing out that every immigrant and upwardly mobile family find themselves with kids who  are more cosmopolitan than their parents.  And these parents find a way to deal with it.

Mind you, these people have sought the condition they endure.  Our “meth” mom and dad accomplish that magical contradiction that allows them to refuse the idea that they are not cosmopolitan even as they resent those who are.

How do we reach them?  What do we say?  Could we construct a forgivable space, a status allowance, for Bosco in the home,  one that allows his parents to say, “Oh, don’t listen to him.  He’s our little Martian.  Always talking about the craziest stuff!”  (Yes, but of course, we could hope for something more than this but I think it’s wise ((and not particularly hostile)) to assume the worst.  We are not looking for perfection.  We just want an allowance.)

The trick is making it “our little Martian.”  We need to construct a status for Bosco in the home that gives him room to take on and give off cosmopolitan knowledge.  And this will depend on constructing a status that allows his parents to forgive, and perhaps even take credit for, their oddball son.

At this point, I need to address a tide of unhappiness that I know is rising in anthropological readers (and some others).  People will complain that I am “essentializing” Bosco’s parents and Bosco himself, that I am imputing characteristics in an act of class stereotyping and status diminishment, that this is an exercise of power.

Allow me to do an anthropology of the anthropologists (and engage in another act of classification).  Anthropologists are almost silent when it comes to the big problems of our day and that is because the field is largely preoccupied by acts of self criticism.   Hand to brow, with a show of their sensitivity, they ask, “Can we generalize?  What are the politics of generalizing?  What are the ethics of generalizing?” These are real questions.  But Anthropology is now effectively an amateur theatre company dedicated to a production of moral posturing and ethical declamation.

I am not saying these cautions do not matter.  They do.  But when they are the only thing you do, when they are the thing you do instead of helping a kid like Bosco, when they are the thing you do that prevents you from helping a kid like Bosco, I say this.  Bite me.  Get over yourself.  Snap out of it.  Start again.  Your trepidations matter less than Bosco’s future.  While you posture, pain and suffering flourish like the green bay tree.

Whew!  Sorry.  Anthropologists have to stop being too good for the world.   It’s the only way they can return to usefulness.

One way to address Problem 2 is to catalogue all the instances of families in which children are marked as different, where parents are called upon to explain and, we hope, make allowances.  Families with autistic kids, for instance, sometimes resort to calling them “little professors.”  There are other precedents.  What are they?  Are any of them usable here?  How would we adapt these?

Let’s say we solve Problems 1 and 2.  Let’s say we find a way to create a twinning system and relay information from Bosco’s twins to Bosco himself.  How would we do this?

This is where I thought of William Drenttel.  I gave a paper at Yale a couple of years ago and afterward he and I had a roaring, gliding conversation.  It was clear he was trying to recruit me for one of his grand schemes and to my discredit I failed to rise to the occasion.  (I was working on schemes of my own, which I now see were minor and ordinary by comparison.)

When I thought about how to get information, knowledge and understanding to Bosco, I thought of Bill.  He is one of those designers who strike me as the anti-anthropologist: citizens of several worlds, effortlessly mobile in passage between them.  Bill, I thought, would know how to think about this problem.  This is a design thinking problem because we are, in effect, being asked to design thinking.  

If we could find some way to represent the knowledge being accumulated by Bosco’s twins, this might help.   Let’s say Twin 1, the one in Philadelphia, is sitting with his family watching TV.  There’s a news story about LA and the family conversation that follows somehow puts LA on Twin 1’s “mattering map.”  (I have this term from Rebecca Goldstein).

The trick now is to make LA matter on Bosco’s mattering map.  The fact that we are talking about geographical knowledge helps a lot.  A map is itself a useful, perhaps the original, visualization.  But our job is to show how “LA” matters not just for its relative location (Bosco lives somewhere in the midwest) but also as the home to Hollywood,  dinosaur-rich tar pits, several sporting franchises, and a particular place in the American imaginary.  (We will have to fit that last one with new language.)  Our question: What does Bosco already know and how do we use this to help him grasp facts and fancies about LA.

Bill, I thought, will know how to take this problem on.  And today I discovered that William Drenttel passed away in December of last year.  (See this remarkable obituary by Julie Lasky.)  I think an honest, hard-earned  moment of self repudiation is called for here.  Why wasn’t I in touch with him?  Why didn’t I know about his illness or his passing?  Is there some good reason why I live like a small forest animal, posting out of a tree stump and otherwise out of touch with the world?  What is my excuse exactly?  And who am I kidding?  (Forgive a maudlin outburst.)

My thought originally was to make designers and anthropologists the intermediaries of the movement of knowledge between Bosco and his twins.  But in a more perfect world, and now with social media at our disposal, it might be possible to make Bosco and his twins a tiny community (Marshall Sahlins’s “mutuality of being“) that pools its knowledge and helps one another master it.  Can eight year-olds do this kind of thing?  I don’t know.  Maybe with some training.

Happy coincidence but this morning I saw a tweet by Sara Winge on the attempt by UNICEF to use Minecraft to show what a reconstructed Haiti might look like.


Could a band of eight year-olds build a model of their knowledge?  In Minecraft or some other medium?  Jerry Michalski has put some of his knowledge online.   Some 160,000 “thoughts” all  in categories and ready to hand.   Bosco and his friends might do the same with the right education and encouragement.

There is lots of work to do here.  Who’s interested?  If we get something up and running, I propose we call it the Drenttel project.  No, there are so many Drenttel projects running in the world, that would be wrong and clueless.  Let’s call it A Drenttel Project.


Thanks to Kevin Smith, William Drenttel and Architect’s Newspaper here for the image of Bill above.