Tag Archives: design

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.

A new name for this blog

grant mccracken II

My blog subtitle used to be “This blog sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.”  This was both too grand and untrue.  Fine for politicians but not websites.

So now it’s “How to make culture.”  For the moment.  Also thinking of “New Rules for Making Culture.”  Is that better?  I can’t tell.  Please let me know.

Yesterday, I was blogging about the new rules of TV.  And in the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking about advertising, education, late night TV, game shows, culture accelerators.  Less recently, I’ve been talking about marketing, comedy, language, branding, culturematics, story telling, hip hop, publishing, and design thinking.

All of this is culture made by someone.  And all of it is culture made in new ways, often, and according to new rules, increasingly.  Surely an anthropologist can make himself useful on something like this.  Anyhow, I’m going to try.

I have four convictions.  Open to discussion and disproof.

1) that our culture is changing.  Popular culture is becoming more like culture plain and simple.  Our culture is getting better.

I have believed in this contention for many years.  Certainly, since the 90s when I still lived in Toronto.  (It was my dear friend Hargurchet Bhabra who, over drinks and a long conversation, put his finger on it.  “It’s not popular culture anymore.  Forget the adjective.  It’s just culture.”)

This was not a popular position to take especially when so many academics and intellectuals insisted that popular culture was a debased and manipulative culture, and therefore not culture at all.  Celebrity culture, Reality TV, there were lots of ways to refurbish and renew the “popular culture is bad culture” argument.  And the voices were many.  (One of these days I am going to post a manuscript I banged out when living in Montreal.  I called it So Logo and took issue with all the intellectuals who were then pouring scorn of popular culture one way or another.)

My confidence in the “popular culture is now culture” notion grew substantially this fall when I did research for Netflix on the “binge viewing” phenomenon.  To sit down with a range of people and listen to them talk about what they were watching and how they were watching, this said very plainly that TV, once ridiculed as a “wasteland,” was maturing into story telling that was deeper, richer and more nuanced.  The wasteland was flowering.  The intellectuals were wrong.

2) This will change many of the rules by which we make culture.  So what are the new rules?

I mean to investigate these changes and see if I can come up with a new set of rules.  See yesterday’s post on how we have to rethink complexity and casting in TV if we hope to make narratives that have any hope of speaking to audiences and contributing to culture.  Think of me as a medieval theologian struggling to codify new varieties of religious experience.

3) The number of people who can now participate in the making of culture has expanded extraordinarily.  

This argument is I think much discussed and well understood.  We even know the etiology, chiefly the democratization (or simple diffusion) of the new skills and new technology.  What happens to culture and the rules and conventions of making culture when so many other people are included, active, inspired and productive?  We are beginning to see.  Watch for codification here too.   (As always, I will take my lead for Leora Kornfeld who is doing such great work in the field of music.)

4)  We must build an economy that ensures that work is rewarded with value.

I have had quite enough of gurus telling us how great it is that the internet represents a gift economy, a place where people give and take freely.  Two things here.  1) The argument comes from people who are very well provided for thanks to academic or managerial appointments.  2) This argument is applied to people who are often obliged to hold one or more “day jobs” to “give freely on the internet.”  Guru, please.   Let’s put aside the ideological needle work, and apply ourselves to inventing an economy that honors value through the distribution of value.

I have made this sound like a solitary quest but of course there are many thousands of people working on the problem.  Every creative professional is trying to figure out what he or she can do that clients think they want.  I am beginning to think I can identify the ones who are rising to the occasion.  They have a certain light in their eyes when you talk to them and I believe this springs from two dueling motives I know from my own professional experience, terror and excitement.


To Russell Duncan for taking the photograph.

Midori House: a culture accelerator


Intelligence gathering, pattern seeking, culture watching, early warning wanting, this is the name of the game for everyone in the creative space.

But it is one thing to gather this knowledge, and another to put it to use.

One interesting case study here is Midori House, which I visited last year.  (I am rolling it out now because I am on the road and serving up topics I have written about but not yet posted on.)

“Being Tyler Brule is a full time job,” says the intern, with a touch of irritation.  Tyler Brule (pictured) is the head of Monocle and Winkreative, this kid’s boss, and a man not to be crossed.  I wonder if the intern understands what this indiscretion could cost him.   Or perhaps, young and impossibly handsome, he just doesn’t care.

The intern is giving me a tour of Midori House.  It stands in a London courtyard, about 90 feet long, 40 feet wide, and five stories high.  It’s about the size of a  ferryboat or small cruise ship.

I am here to be interviewed on the Monocle radio station.  This surprises me because I thought Monocle was a magazine.

And Monocle is a magazine, quite a famous one, in fact.  But it is also a design studio, advertising agency, strategy consultancy, and, yes, a radio station.   Typically, we see these 5 functions spread over 5 separate companies.  Bringing them altogether into so small a space would, in the old days, have brought a charge of indecision or promiscuity.

These days it’s a smart thing to do.

All of the Monocle bits and pieces run on the same thing: a knowledge of, and a feeling, for the state of our world.  Indeed, I found myself wondering if there was a pipe in the basement through which intelligence comes pouring into Midori House.

Let’s say someone in the design house is working on a project for Burberry, the clothing brand.  They go to the basement and pour off a pint size container called “the latest thing in luxury clothing.”  Someone working for the ad agency is looking for information on the way housewives think about breakfast.  The pipe provides here too.  The book review man for Monocle, is always on the look out for new books but for that great cloud of ideas and sentiments that make our culture now.

It sounds a little complicated, but there is a big idea here.  In fact, Monocle has found a way to maximize its return on investment.  What flows in from that pipe is used 5 times, as design, advertising, strategy, print on the page and words in the air.   Everything it learns, it turns to advantage.  If the print client doesn’t want something, the strategy client will.  And sometimes, a single understanding of the world pays off in all 5 of the Monocle faces.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a robust ROI.

And this is no simple “pass through” model. Monocle accelerates what it learns.   Inevitably, the people designing for Burberry end up talking to the ad people.  The ad people reply with their latest learnings.  And everyone listens to Dan, the book reviewer, because he knows what’s happening in the world of arts, letters and ideas.

And together the Monocle team members multiply their knowledge until Midori House rises on a tide of intelligence that may not exist anywhere else in London.  And this is a city famous for its sensitivity to the new.  London is filled with watchers of culture and makers of culture, people trying to divine and deliver the new.  Accelerators of the Midori House kind, there could be something to this.

Faint signals, emerging trends?

imagesAn anthropologist looks for puzzles. This is, after all, the way the future often makes a first appearance.

Two puzzles have crossed my path this week:

1) Why is Gill Sans winning out over Helvetica?  (If it is, and, come on, it is.)   Long the visual language of public institutions in the UK (the subway, especially), it looked until recently (to me at least) a little out of touch.  But now it seems to be to have all the punchy clarity of the sans-serif regime without giving away the ability to evoke something bigger than the message at hand.

There is a follow up question: will Gary Hustwit ever make a documentary about it of the kind he made for Helvetica?  I would so love to see this documentary.  The Helvetica doc is a thing of wonder.  “Gill Sans” as a follow-up doc would have lots more historical depth and charm.  No modernist hoodlum this.

2) Why is that in at least two instances in popular culture, the role of the guardian angel is occupied by a psychopath.  I refer to Dexter and the BBC show Luther, and in the case of Luther specifically to the character Alice Morgan. Strictly speaking, the last person who should serve in this capacity is a psychopath, but somehow in our culture right now, the notion is not implausible.

Anyone want to write fewer-than-a-thousand words on either topic (or for the very daring both at once) should send it to me and if it’s really good, you will win a Minerva.


Thanks to Wikipedia for the Gill Sans Demo.

Greg Parsons on the new world of work

Here’s the video for an interview I did with Greg Parsons in Chicago on June 11.  The event behind us was NEOCON, the design event that happens each year in Chicago.  It was an impromptu interview so not only are my questions “not prepared,” they are unprepared. I shot the interview on my iPhone which I thought did really well given the noise and the commotion. I have to declare a conflict of interest.  I consulted for Herman Miller on this project.  Which, I have to say, does nothing to augment my admiration for the undertaking. If only I could always work for clients this gifted.

And here’s the transcript:

Interviewer: …do? [laughs]

Greg Parsons: Oh no, no. I won’t be able to take it again. [laughs]

Interviewer: No, look! We can just keep doing it until we get a take you like.

Greg: Huh? [jokingly] No.

Interviewer: We’ll just keep throwing them away. I love what you just said about getting things together, getting people together, telling them the purpose and then turning them loose.

Greg: The way we manage has been…You line people up, you tell them what to do, you get a piece, you know their outcome. You make sure and you monitor, and you see how it’s all tied together. The future is actually much more complex and free in that you actually take people…You align them around passion and purpose, but then you set them free. You don’t pin them down, and they bounce off against each other. They build relationships and together they find the next direction.

As long as you have a clear picture of what you’re trying to achieve, and a clear set of purpose and principles, that will do just fine. You teach them how to make decisions together, so it’s not pinned down. Everything have a process map. It’s actually let people be free, and it’s counterintuitive for people to do that.

Interviewer: Yeah. It feels like we should send in a group of people called pattern recognizers.

Greg: No, I agree.

Interviewer: Who go in and say, “This is an idea.” They just lift it off, as you would transparency. You just lift that off and people keep thinking, keep lifting ideas off.

Greg: That’s exactly how we’ve designed this. We had a big idea around the living office. It’s very general. It’s very abstract. We started to say, we think there’s eight parts of this. And then we said, no, there are nine and we actually have landed on 12 parts and it’s everything from a shared vision to a place design paradigm to a set of products and a set of services. There are 12 things and we’ve put one person who’s passionate and qualified in charge of each of the 12, haven’t told them what to do in their area, but we all get together and do the nodes of our offer. Those nodes keep developing and evolving, which causes the one next to them to develop and evolve, to form new relationships and new matrixes and new networks.

It’s incredibly organic and it’s incredibly uncertain and it’s incredibly invigorating and surprising. Sometimes you go off the rails and you pull people back, but it works, and we got to where we are twice as fast as I think we would have. As a matter of fact, I don’t think we would be here today if we tried to set a process and tell everyone what they needed to do and have a process, the Microsoft project map for everything. We wouldn’t even have the map done by now.

We just had a shared view, got people who were passionate, told them their area of the percolate and we just bounce of each other and build connections as we go.
Interviewer: In a sense the concept of the living office came from a living office.

Greg: It came from the principles of life and we said “What are the principles of life?” It’s the elements of surprise and uncertainty, and it’s freedom, these loose systems of things, interacting, each evolving on their own, but together forming an ecosystem. We said “Let’s apply that to places, let’s apply that to tools and technology, and let’s apply that to actually how you manage people.” Herman Miller has always managed this way, but we didn’t know what it was, so our founder talks about covenant relationships, not contracts. We’re all about innovation and imagining and delivering things that didn’t exist.

It’s very hard to do that in a contract relationship where you define what you need by when because you don’t even know what you’re doing, and so Herman Miller has always said covenant relationships, where you agree on the purpose, the goal, the objective, the loose vision.

You agree who’s responsible for which areas and then you set people free and you keep kneading and bouncing off each other to get out [inaudible 03:48] . Very different, very frightening to most companies.

Completely the opposite to what we’re taught is a good process for management, but it’s the mode of living, it’s how people live, and it’s how life happens and so we believe it’s probably how organizations should work…

Interviewer: You have a design degree, and an MBA, both?

Greg: I have a fine art degree, a degree in history, and an MBA.

Interviewer: Right. Your most recent degree was an MBA?

Greg: Yes. I was the wacko artist at the University of Chicago where everybody else was an investment banker.

Interviewer: [laughs] Could you see then what you’re witnessing now, that the world of work, that capitalism would be flexible and fluid in this way?

Greg: No. Basically, when I went to business school, I was learning design at Herman Miller, and how we do it, which is a lot of what I’m telling you about, when we apply onto products, and then I went to business school and said “What if we applied this to business instead of products?”, and it works. To me, this is how Herman Miller is innovative, but we just don’t know it as a practice, and so we’re getting better and better at knowing it as our practice.

Interviewer: In a manner of speaking, Herman Miller, with this new living office is exporting its corporate culture to other corporate cultures.

Greg: Exactly. We’re learning it better ourselves. Most people, we do our thing and we don’t even know what we do and that’s how Herman Miller has an organization. It’s just who we are, it’s our culture, and we don’t really see what we’re doing, and so we’re trying to step back a bit and see what we’re doing so that we do it better and we actually find that we are a network organization. We are a living organization. There are these principles that we’re talking about that are actually coming from us, so why shouldn’t we share them with the world, because they’ve worked incredibly well for us in terms of innovation.
It’s not necessarily right for all work, so if you’re making 500,000 of the same thing, it’s probably not the way to manage. But if you want to reinvent that next thing you’re going to make 500,000 of, it is the right way to manage.

Interviewer: Yes, and to the extent that whatever they’re doing at the moment, they’re also in the game of reinventing who they are and what they will do in the next moment.

Greg: That’s the other thing we are seeing. Every large company started as a small company with a big idea. Most Fortune 500 or 1,000 companies have many of these big ideas that they expand globally, expand and extend into niche markets. They drive down costs as low as possible, but then they have to reinvent the idea, because the Earth is only so big and most of these companies are global. They found the most efficient means to manufacture so costs are approaching zero or as low as possible. Now what’s left is reinventing the big idea, and many of them try and apply the same principles that they have to optimize to how they invent, and it doesn’t work. You have to apply what we’re talking about, which is this mode of living management which is freeing people, giving them shared purpose, giving them shared direction, connecting right capabilities and passions, and then letting them evolve their part of the organization or the living organism.
That’s how life works.

Interviewer: Are there any early adopters out there who will be the first ones into the Living Office and will be a laboratory for you?

Greg: Yes, there are. I probably can’t share them, but, frankly, there are a number of companies we’re talking to that received pieces of this. Actually, we saw it in them before we saw it in ourselves. “Hey,” we said, “they’re doing this. We do that, too,” and we were realizing we do many pieces of it, but a lot of those pieces do live elsewhere. One fundamental thing that most of them seem to share is our perspective on purpose. When I went to business school, we were asked in a lecture hall of 40, “What’s the purpose of a business?” 39 hands went up to say “to make money.” I was the only one who said “to solve a problem really well.” I was told that I was crazy and I left thinking I was crazy.
What I learned was Herman Miller was founded on that idea, that if you actually solve a real problem for people, you’ll get rewarded much more highly financially than you would if you were trying to achieve a financial goal. The way we look at it is, if you want to make more money, don’t focus on money, focus on your purpose and your passion and the money will come.

What you get is very counterintuitive, but companies like Johnson and Johnson and Herman Miller and IBM were all founded on this principle. About 10 percent of businesses seem to pursue it, and those are the ones that have lasted for many decades and have outperformed the stock market.

Interviewer: Darn, I just…Hey, there he is, Jim.

Greg: You saved me from this.

(Transcribed by Castingwords.com)  

Time travel from a London hotel room

Thanks to Andrew Hazlett, I paid a visit to Shorpy.com today, to do a little “armchair time travel,” as Andrew calls it.

Before long I was staring dumbing at this photo.

Of course, my first reaction is wonder at the sheer beauty of this automobile.  

It’s only when I page through the comments that I come across this detail. According to someone called Anonymous Tipster, this auto is a “nicely optioned 1940 Packard.”

It’s only several comments later that Tipster reveals the more telling detail:

“Those speedlines on the Packard look like someone’s attempt at customization.”

At first sight, I accepted the Packard whole.  Now I can see as additional those little horizontal lines that appear to issue from the front and back wheels.  

The Packard ceases to be “something from a mysterious past” and “a car the likes of which we will never see again.”  Now it’s someone’s possession, the bearer of their conceit, their play, their ambition.  

Who was this person who felt that his/her Packard just wasn’t fast enough?  Who felt it had to be made to look faster, actually moving even when standing still?

And where is this design convention from?  Those little lines, I mean.  I bet people from some cultures would be unable to read these as speedlines.  I bet these come from a graphic design and probably a cartoon tradition, which tradition probably comes from the furiously inventive popular culture of the first half of the 20th century.  In effect, our owner was making his or her car look faster by making it look like a cartoon.  (Who says this was a rational, technocratic culture?)

My armchair travel brings me first to the car, then to the invisible owner of the car, and then to the culture that helped provide the owner’s customization.  Quite a lot of movement for a man stuck in a London hotel room.  Thank you to Andrew and Shorpy for this opportunity to get out and about.  

To see the photo in context, go to shorpy.com by clicking here.