Design or Die!

Toward the beginning of John Moore’s (Brand Autopsy) visual encapsulation of Marty Neumeier’s The Designful Company comes this seemingly simplistic quote:

“Anyone who tries to improve a situation is a designer.”

The idea that design is everywhere is both a cliché and a truism. Also on its way to the cliché compost bin is the idea that organizations need to focus on design and innovation or die. Of course design and innovation are neither cliché nor notions to be thought of only when you are positive the market can bear it. On the contrary, there’s no better time than right now to focus on, in Neumeier’s words “improving a situation.” Design matters for a host of reasons, not least of which concerns the bottom line. Mostly design matters because it is at the heart of what it means to improve, to make things better than before.

So I’m inviting you to embrace your inner designer, that part of your work and yourself which adds personal value, value to those you work with, and the whole dang world! Design is way more, not less important in the current business climate. So for me, and I hope for you, that quote from Neumeier above is a breath of fresh air, an oxygen tank and a set of flippers for everybody feeling like it’s time to do more than just tread water.

As a writer, a collector and distiller of thoughts and ideas, it is just recently that I have begun to think of myself as a designer. Even when design in obvious form was part of my work (graphic design is in my bag of tricks for instance,) an identity as “designer” hasn’t loomed large in my consciousness. But I am becoming aware of the fact that design transcends the cubbies in which we try to place our work, our lives. None of us are just one thing. Just a writer. Just a manager. Just a parent. Just anything. We are a multiplicity of relationships, obligations, odd jobs, and vocations. Impatience and dissatisfaction with whatever might currently be broken, underutilized, or just plain boring – if you’re eager to fix these things, you’re a designer. Thinking like a designer can help solve some of these nagging issues. So grab your gear and let’s dive deep into just a few reasons why—if you don’t already—you should start thinking of yourself as a designer. Over the course of the next 2 or 3 posts, I will explore four areas: How design shapes meaning, how design changes the world, how design creates beauty, and how design is key to bringing dollars into any enterprise.

1. Design Shapes Meaning

I first became consciously aware of the raw power of design when my wife and I were given a Gustav Stickley rocker as a wedding present. Stickley was an early practitioner and evangelist for what became known as the Arts and Crafts movement at the dawn of the 20th century. Sweet, fancy Moses this guy designed some amazing furniture that has stood the test of time. Hollywood set designers love Stickley furniture. Somehow it makes a statement without getting in the way. Many a dining room scene happens around the distinctive rectilinear oak chairs designed or inspired by Gustav Stickley.


But Stickley’s style wasn’t primarily about looking fabulous. Fabulous was a byproduct of meaning shaped out of design. Stickley is remembered mostly for furniture design, but those furniture designs were meant to be set in a larger framework, something more than an aesthetic, more like a way of life. Stickley wanted to create houses that builders would be proud to build, to which individual craftspersons would be proud contributers, and in which homeowners would be inspired in the very act of dwelling. In an age of dehumanizing, churn-em-out manufacturing industrialization, Stickley was developing environments which took seriously the heart and soul of everyone involved in the process. Mass production was not the enemy, but care could be taken as to how a mass of things might be produced in order to positively impact the lives of workers, sellers, and purchasers.

But back to Neumeier’s point, we’re not all Gustav Stickleys. Yet ordinary examples of design shaping meaning are all around us: Refocusing a presentation that might otherwise have come off as crushingly boring; Taking time with the wording of an important e-mail message; Finding a meeting space with some actual natural light; Anything AT ALL to dress up (yet keep factually accurate) that quarterly P & L statement. These design choices happen every day. And more to the point, they add up. People like Stickley are now considered extraordinary, but he started the way each of us can start: with the little, everyday ordinary design decisions and a commitment to paying attention. These mundane decisions can grow exponentially to extraordinary contributions that add depth of meaning and purpose to our lives and the lives of those around us. Design matters that much.

So pay attention today. What design choices are you making? These choices are not superfluous. They literally will shape the way you feel about your work. Design is nothing less than the power to improve a situation.


Carry the Spear

A pastor colleague of mine told a story yesterday. He grew up in South Africa, and spent many years in the struggle against apartheid. He recalled a large funeral service for two young adults killed in the struggle. At one point, the pastor took a spear and dropped it to the floor, saying “These two can no longer carry the spear. Who will now carry the spear?” One after another, people walked up front, picked up the spear, then passed it to the next person in line. It became a powerful, spontaneous ritual, a symbol of what little chance apartheid had of sustaining itself.

My friend ended the story by saying, “These people had something to live for, and something to die for.  My sense is that few people in the U.S. have this clear and distilled sense of purpose.” That really struck me as terribly true.

Coming of age in the late ‘80s, I remember being mesmerized reading Brett Easton Ellis’ first novel, Less Than Zero. If you’re not familiar, it’s the story of a college guy from a wealthy Hollywood hills family, and how nothing really mattered much in his life. He and his friends had access to everything, but life seemed to add up to (in the words of an old Elvis Costello song) “less than zero.”  It was a chilling portrait of what my generation could wind up looking like, if we didn’t have something to live for and something to die for.

This is a serious question about meaning and purpose in life, and yet I don’t like to get so serious as to veer off the sunny side of the street. I can’t live my life as a nihilist, and yet live or die passion doesn’t come easily or often for me. Breaking a wooden seat while watching an Eagles game doesn’t quite rise to the “pick up the spear” passion I’m wondering about today.

I think for many of us, economic reality is breaking the spell of numbing, robotic consumerism, but we’re still discovering what’s on the other side. If all we connect to is “stuff” then when stuff runs out, we’ve got to find what really matters. For me, I’m taking family relationships less for granted. I’m becoming more passionate about my work as a writer especially. But my friend’s story has made me realize that I am doubtlessly more daunted by larger issues than I should be. I’m not a “cause” person, even though I have strong feelings about things like climate change, child sex trafficking (see previous post), the death penalty, ongoing racial inequity and tension, and men wearing pastels (kidding 😀 ). Maybe it’s time for me to pick up the spear on some of this stuff.

How about you? What will cause you to pick up the spear these days?

Love 146

Just a quick post today: The folks at Love146 have really impressed me.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s the story of how they began:

Can’t believe child sex trafficking even happens. How do people go so horribly wrong as to do that to a kid? Love146 is trying to put a stop to the madness.

Sometimes you have to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.