Design, innovation & our future: why should we care?

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. – Henry Ford

We are by our nature curious! We see patterns, ask questions, and draw conclusions. Occasionally we ask more questions. If we don’t get answers that make sense, we wonder. Not always for ourselves, for others too. We see things through their eyes. Often, we don’t stop there. We go beyond wonder and take action. We take a few notes, make a sketch, and connect a few dots. I would argue, we are all designers provided we work at it; else we risk becoming a group of passive consumers. We must care about design because the world does not need faster horses.

Future ready
I never let my schooling get in the way of my education. – Mark Twain

We can no longer accurately predict the future. Social media strategist, blogger, data miner, drone pilot, who knew these would be jobs? 1 We are creating artificial intelligence (AI) that does the amazing, drives, writes, and grades. We replace TVs, phones, and computers, not fix. Cars run for ten+ years. The future looks good. Yet, if we eliminate more jobs then we create, what will we all do? This is why we need our curiosity, interesting questions, and our ability to care; it defines our “humanness” if you will. We need to focus our educational efforts on our uniquely human qualities, which cannot be duplicated; else what job is next.

Creativity & innovation
Repetition is the death of magic. –Bill Watterson

Self-driving cars, stores where you don’t line up,2 and AI that writes poetry3 all seem wildly creative and innovative. Yet, so many products are poorly designed or lack empathy. We wait in too many lines. And standardized tests still define our future. We are in an age of transition. We struggle with how to teach creativity and define innovation. The top ten grossing films in each year of the first decade of the millennium, seventy-four of the one hundred were sequels, adaptations of an earlier work, or based on comic book/video games.4 Going forward, we need to be comfortable with the dynamic nature of terms like original, inventive, fresh, surprising, risk, better, and useful. Algorithms/AI cannot yet solve complex problems, build social collateral, or be empathetic. Remember when we used to play in the sandbox? We build stuff, worked with others, and sought feedback from parents. Teamwork can be infectious, if we let it. The future needs creativity and innovation and people who question authority. Let’s get back in the sandbox and keep magic alive.

What can we do?
Every great design begins with an even better story. – Lorinda Mamo

Don’t wait! Curiosity, wonder, the design cycle, these are not top down movements. It is not going to come from admin, the school board, or even parents. We are all creative provided we give ourselves the permission. Celebrate good design when we see it. Call out bad design, but be prepared to ask questions, to step up, and offer insights and solutions based on research. Critics only and passive consumers need not apply. Stop just reading and discussing what defines creativity, innovation, and design and take responsibility for our future! Go create a story to own. There no shame in failing, so why not do it with a little style?

Note: this post is a result of an on going collaborative between myself and  John McBryde the Director of Origins Education. Without his guidance and friendship, it would look quite different.

Footnotes

1. 10 jobs that did not exist 10 years ago – Digital Marketing Institute
2. Amazon to open convenience store with no lines – the two way breaking news from NPR
3. Google’s AI has written some amazingly mournful poetry – Wired
4. Everything’s a remix part 1 – Kirby Ferguson

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Tofu, invention, moving on, and rebounding

I frequented this small place in Beijing, which served inventive dishes. Their egg white wrapped tofu and walnut prawns both supplied visual texture and firm mouth feel. They served other dishes too; yet, one day the two dish were gone. They explained it “we don’t make those anymore.” I sampled the menu, yet found nothing particularly as inventive. So, I stopped going.

Restaurants can do okay on average food for a while, if they compensate with a terrific staff. Toss in a great wine list and, yes people will come back. They may be between chefs? Maybe the chef’s is amidst a personal crisis. Or maybe its owner is off starting her/his new restaurant? The point, people notice when something is off or does not work right. They will go with the flow, eat there, or continue to pay/work, as long as something else offsets it, convenience, staff, or price.

When something starts to slip, inventive dishes, an attention to detail, or great attitudes, people move on both physically and mentally. Physical movement rebounds are less challenging. Staff can coached to step up. New customers can be wooed with inventive recipes. Positive attitudes when facing challenges go a long way and build confidence. When people mentally move on, their mentality changes. Gone is the inventive spirit. Little gets celebrated. Challenges go unsolved or worse unaddressed. You hear, “we do it this way” all to often. When this mentality becomes part of your culture, rebounding is more challenging. So, why not just channel your energy to create a vibrant and dynamic culture that manages transitions well in order to sustain itself in the first place?

Image by dgray_xplane @ creative commons

Things, struggling, done, & mediocrity

We all struggle with getting things done. There is just so much to do. Deadlines, lets come back to those. Done, in today’s vernacular, means lots of reflection and collaboration. Then there’s timing, which differs from deadlines. Too soon, no one cares. Too late, well no one cares. And lets try to avoid the prevalent culture of mediocrity. We hand things in because the next deadline looms. If it works, well enough move on! And creativity is great just don’t get too creative.  Will Rogers quote – Inspiyr @ Creative Commons

Lets just focus on the getting it done part. If you don’t start, well that’s not good. If you do start, you probably don’t start by thinking lets create something mediocre with a lot of rules and bureaucracy. You do some research. You find a whole bunch of relevant articles and many more non-relevant way more interesting ones. Most likely, “it” turns out to be more complicated than anyone thought. So, you collaborate with more people. You hold a few more meetings. Turns out, no one really gets “it.” Possibly it’s too soon or it’s just not ready yet.  Henry Ford quote – QuotesEverlasting @ Creative Commons

Done involves choice! Choose well, things will get done. Not everything, but some things. Look for signs, read tealeaves, or even check walls for writing. Yes, retreating to the comfort of answering email is much easier. Done means continually evaluating your pitch and make choices to more forward.

agreewithmeUnfortunately, there’s more. You will need a hard-edged belief. You will need a drive, one that challenges mediocrity. One that continually asks, “Is value being added?” There will be difficult conversations.  And, you must possess a willingness to fail. When no one is with you, then you are probably right. Dudley Field Malone quote – madingflick @ Creative Commons

Go slow. Take you time and be resourceful.  You will need to do your homework and sell, market, and promote hard to get “it” done. Look for passion and borrow some if necessary. Deadlines loom, but useful and forward movement counts too. If it is right, it will work; else why are you on the team?

Change – Slow Boats – Willingness

Loose-leaf tea, Mandarin collars, century old eggs, congee, and tofu help me balance normality in my life. Yet, twenty years ago, I didn’t like them. I actively avoided them. And I certainly didn’t waste any time reflecting or writing about them. Life works to compliment our existence, but only when we are ready.


Images by A Girl With Tealynac, & Kake Pugh @ Creative Commons

Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, I saw not many of the articles above. Yes, there were Chinese restaurants, but tofu on the menu, I don’t recall. Leaves slipped from the teapot occasionally, but I would fish them out with my spoon. And Mandarin collars in the land of button downs, blue blazers, and prep ties, pleeease!

Proximity alone is not enough. I moved to Beijing two decades ago. Yet, with apologies to Dr. Seuss, I refused to eat century old eggs. If tea was served, I produced my own bag. When tofu was offered, I politely declined. I was confident in my new surroundings, just not crazy. Or so I thought.

Appreciation is key. Congee, alone is pretty boring. Cook it slow enough, add the right amount of water, set an egg in the right way, add some picked ginger, peanuts, scallions, add a dash of soy or chilli sauce, and voila, you’re in business. Yet, pleasures, likes, and vices all come from somewhere. It starts with a story here, a recommendation there, or an introduction from a friend of a friend. Rarely do we find them just waiting around for us. Appreciation plus willingness equals change, especially when the process is repeated over time.

Passion is crucial. It plays a starring role and is referenced continually. Someone shows us a way. We  talk, we learn, and we connect. To you, it’s a game of straining tea with your teeth and politely spitting. To others it’s the process. How leaves open, float and sink. What the flavor is like between pots. Or possibly it is not the tea at all, but rather the social dynamic of the undertaking. Passion with a dose of imagination brings creativity.

Risk, failure, and resilience feature prominently too. Not all century old eggs taste the same. You can’t buy a Mandarin Collar jacket off the rack. Well, not at Brooks Brothers. If you want something to work, it’s going to take energy. Visit a tailor, order a mystery dish, live on the edge and try some loose-leaf tea. Will you get it right the first time, probably not? For me, it’s always that third fitting at the tailor when you hit it big.  Yes, we possess a finite amount of energy, but what else are you going to do, with it?

I get it. Teas is for drinking, not grazing. Rice is great when fried, not as soup. And tofu’s lack of texture creeps people out. Remember it is not about you. It is about seeing greatness in small things. These small things restore normality in an ever-changing world, even if only for a short time. Change happens with or without you. So, why not enjoy the ride?

Creativity reloaded – life, ex-pats, & outsourcing

I enjoy my life here in Hong Kong as an ex-pat. I work, I drive, I speak Mandarin, I cook, and I wash my own car. The Internet flows free and fast. Parks, beach, and hiking trails are minutes away, the food is fantastic, and it’s safe. What’s my guilty pleasure?  Outsourcing! I outsource all cleaning and sous chef duties Monday through Friday.

Every week, I meet fantastic people and families, ex-pats & locals alike, who all engage in outsourcing in one form or another. Some still cook, others outsource cooking completely along with the shopping. Some have drivers, yet no one works on their own car. Sure, we all wash a few clothes on the weekend, but rarely do we iron. We live in apartments with management fees. So drilling holes in walls is frowned upon. Painting is negotiated ahead of time. Replacing washers on leaky faucets or basic plumbing. “Please there are people to do that kind of work for us.” Moving house from country to country and packing your own boxes. “Shirley you jest!”

I am familiar with Reaganomics and trickle down theory. I am good as this, so I do only this. I leave the other things to those who are good at them or have no other choice. No doubt at work you are the creative force affecting change or keeping the organisation together. I get it, you may not be great with a needle, knife, iron, plunger, or wire cutter, so you outsource. Yet, what does this do to your creativity outside the office? Does creativity transfer across the discipline of life if you don’t get it out and show it off? I learned a lot helping my Dad with the car and being a sous chef for my Mom as took care of my newborn sister.

Why bother about creativity at home when products keep getting more complex? Average tinkers stand no chance against certified technicians. Manufacturers often replace instead of repair. Occasionally, they tell you what went wrong. Worse, they threaten to void the warranty if you crack open the case. And even if you wanted to fix something, would you have the tools? Circuit boards are all integrated. Engine compartments are designed keep us out. True story, few BMW owners know how to jumpstart their car because everything is tightly laid out and the battery is in the back. Of course, we have no garages, basements or workshops to store tools or just tinker around.

As life gets easier, you don’t need that much creativity. Google maps, I love ’em, but where’s the fun? We don’t get lost. We don’t stop and ask random strangers for directions? We just go from point A to point B. And that’s a shame. We prefer to watch reality TV instead of being in our own reality. Let someone else take the risk and succeed or royally screw up. It’s safer and more entertaining. From bread makers to rice cookers, we add ingredients and get near perfect results each time. Sure, maybe you can live without great bread crust, but what of experimentation, innovation, and getting it wrong? . 

No, I am not advocating to end domestic outsourcing. We all work hard and will probably continue so, especially with Samsung building bigger smart phones. Yet, do get into the creative game. Yes, it’s more work. And yes, you will need to push a few comfort zones. Chances are, it won’t matter. Plus, you’ll get a a great story to tell.

And yes, I know Mandarin is the easiest of all the Chinese dialects. 

The kitchen, outpost of creativity!

The kitchen stands as one of the home’s last physical creative spaces. Whether you are following a recipe, working from memory, or just winging it, you create something! Yes, your experience will vary, e.g., ingredients available, improvisation skills,  social media distractions, and time available. Let none of these reasons stop you. No one ever starves to death because they lacked an ingredient, used the wrong pan, or couldn’t find the recipe. You may not always eat well, but you will eat. And try to remember, fun and enjoyment improves taste.

I think of the kitchen as my Zen garden. I roll up my sleeves and use my hands for something other than typing. The chopping, the dicing, the mincing, it brings a bit of balance to my day. I am in control and a sense of order materializes. Ingredients, unlike email, do not just suddenly appear. Kitchen technology advances slowly, e.g., mixer to electric mixer. If you don’t have an ingredient, you improvise. If you can’t improvise, you

The Internet has no smell. In the kitchen, you knead the bread, punching and turning. You see it rise. The smell fills the home, thereby adding to conversation, e.g., “when’s the bread going to be done Dad?” You hear it tear as you break the bread apart. As you eat, you notice the texture, the mouth feel, and the taste. Your olfactory organs experience a rhythm for a brief moment and life is good. Don’t try this with computer chips.

Think of the kitchen as the original social media. We cook to eat, live, and grow. Yet, how much more interesting is it to cook for an audience? Feedback is immediate and often abundant. You learn about the lives of family and friends. Stories get told. Faces will be made. You discover people’s tastes, their comfort foods, and definitely their limits. You add spice where you can and a bit of zest always helps. You might even succeed in making the unappealing, appealing. Think brussels sprouts and a 10 year old boy, I recommend bacon!

We learn by doing, not watching, not talking about it, and rarely just by reading. Put down the computer and head to the kitchen. If you can’t put down the computer take it with you.  If you can challenge yourself to be able to create something that makes people, including yourself, happy, you will possess friends all your life.

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” 
― Julia Child

Filters, Fire Walls, Productivity, & Tea

blockage2Recently I found myself in Beijing reflecting on the question of “filtered” Internet. In my case, no, Youtube, Google Drive, New York Times, Diigo, Twitter or access blogs. Even my trusted VPN proved deferential to the great firewall.

Now, I love China. I spent 17 years of my life there. We both grew up together. I learned how to manage change, when to press forward, when to step off, and when drink tea. It’s an art form that we all need to practice, the stepping off, not the tea drinking. Beijing is part of me and I definitely am a better person because of it.

So I asked myself, what if your regular workflow no longer flowed? What if suddenly your regular tools did not work effectively? Would your life or your work be less meaningful?

Upon extensive reflection and numerous cups of tea, I decided, no, your life would potentially be even more meaningful. You would find a new workflow. You would find new tools. Yes, it would take time. You might be less efficient, possibly be a little less informed, and you definitely would be a lot less entertained! Yet, these could be good things.

You would learn a lot about yourself. Life moves pretty fast and with a changing learning curve, you need to be able to size up a situation quickly. You need to know your boundaries, both hard and soft. With limited resources, you would be better at judging your capacity. In an Internet of limitless possibilities, it is easy to get overwhelmed and a little lost.

It would be frightening. Your trusted tools/friends might leave you at any time. You would need to be open to taking risks. You would be responsible for something that works in a new way or possibly does not work at times. You would definitely shore up the troubleshooting and problem solving part of your resume. You might even find yourself asking, “Do you really believe in a process or a particular product? Is this really worth my time?” Nothing like a little challenge or change to illuminate the obvious.

Creativity and innovation would flourish. Outcomes would still need to be reached and decisions made. Responsibility does not end when someone filters your Internet. It would force you to think and use your imagination to accomplish tasks. When you continually meet challenges, you become accustom to alternative ways, other points of view, and any help you can get at all. Often the Internet gets in our way and slows us down.

cupofteaIf you find yourself in an Internet filtering or constantly changing situation, focus and self-discipline are your allies, not to mention a strong cup of tea. Concentrate on the how and the why and less upon what is no longer available or what you lost. If you can navigate change and balance creativity, innovation, and imagination, you will ensure life long learning. Knowledge is a process, not something you can Google!