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Planning for possibilities

Chiat day_Gehry_Los Angeles_2

Should we begin thinking about a “design problem” by defining the problem?

Problem-solving is an activity that drains people’s energy. This is not news. In the late 1960s, Ronald Lippitt at the University of Michigan found that when groups begin a major planning exercise by focusing on problems, they get depressed.

By contrast, Lippitt also found that when groups begin by developing a specific and persuasive definition of their future, they had more energy and motivation to work through problems along the way.

Problem solving tends to be about filling gaps and fixing deficiencies. Fixing large scale problems can feel overwhelming, maybe even impossible. The best planning process begins with vivid aspirational statements, rather than setting out to solve a problem.

We can compare Abraham Maslow, who was a leader in the positive psychology movement (along with Martin Seligman) to Aaron Antonovsky, who studied positive health (which he termed salutogenesis) rather than sickness, and Ronald Lippitt (originally with Kurt Lewin) who led a “preferred future” approach to planning (v. problem solving).

For all three of these pioneers, the idea of focusing on positive concepts rather than pathology is not merely about “positive thinking.” Pure positive thinking is vulnerable to ignoring blind spots while oversimplifying challenges, which can lead to bad decisions.

Instead, we can plan for greater possibilities using rigorous values-based criteria to guide our decisions. Planning for possibilities begins by identifying assets rather than deficiencies, and goes on to define a purpose, as well as values and aspirations. This planning approach leads to better decisions than the most creative problem solving model.

-Sharon VanderKaay

photo: Binocular’s Building, Frank Gehry’s design for Chiat/Day in Venice, California, 1985-91.

Ups and downs of design thinking

 

_ups+downs_Queen West_

Every designer I know is puzzled by the term design thinking. It doesn’t really describe how they think. For starters, rarely do design thinking business models mention the natural stops and starts, the emotional ups and downs, the messiness and the rejection that brings inner turmoil. Then there’s the belief that, for many designers, empathy is more than a step in a business process; instead it’s a way of being. Also, designers must cope with  the fact that innovators are too often perceived as a threat.

Another of the “multiple issues” as Wikipedia would say regarding this term is that there are plenty of card-carrying designers who have little interest in human-centric design and who tend toward linear thinking. Not all designers are capable of innovation, but plenty of engineers, scientists, writers and other non-designers engage in purposeful creative thinking.

And yet, other than over-simplifying a complex concept and ignoring emotional realities, design thinking has done much to fuel the conversation about how innovation happens. Everyone has the potential to think more creatively to achieve a values-driven purpose. But in order for DT to get beyond the perception of one more management fad, it is crucial to prepare people for the realities of coping with ups and downs.

As a long-practicing designer, it still cheers me up to remind myself that ups and downs are to be expected when doing pioneering, or even routine non-routine work.             You Are Here

* Detail from Sanko Trading Co. mural, Queen St. West and Claremont St. painted by Ken Galloway, Timothy Fukakusa, Mitsuo Kimura, Takashi Iwasaki, Darcy Obokata, and Shogo Okada in the winter of 2013-2014.

-Sharon VanderKaay

Forget herding cats—try catnip

cat cafe_herding_pastels

Creative people naturally resist being herded, or following the herd. So why try harder to do something that is unnatural? Why get stuck “herding cats”?

The fundamental management question today should be, “Am I working with nature, or against nature?” Attracting works better than imposing. Why not use catnip as the natural approach to moving those “cats” where you want them to go?

What is catnip for humans? One way to get things done is to work toward a shared purpose and values. Values and purpose are attractive. Forget the herding.

Ethical design thinking

For example, most “design thinking” process models (aimed at developing products and services using empathy to uncover latent needs) define a creative problem-solving activity. This sounds very 21st century, but where in the process do we account for ethical values? How do we even know if we have defined the right problem? And is problem-solving really a motivating activity?

Are we missing something here?

Most design thinking diagrams could easily herd us toward producing the next electric knife, margarita-maker machine or mediocre building. In other words, are we pursuing market growth for growth’s sake while designing future landfill?values based design thinking

What if we attracted people to our shared purpose and values as the foundation for design thinking? What if we were guided toward doing the right thing with all-natural catnip (ethics) rather than being herded toward imposed business goals?

-Sharon VanderKaay

Thinking about design thinking

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Can anyone expect to understand “design thinking” in a 2-day course? Well, yes, if you are talking about an event, rather than a habitual way of seeing the world and its possibilities. And what about the global consequences of design thinking events? Not all stuff we didn’t know we need is good for the planet. Where’s the concern for values in the value proposition that typically comes out of design thinking events?

Design seeing, thinking and doing

Designers draw on a whole lifetime of observation, imagination, exploration, navigation and concern for regeneration. This way of seeing allows them to leap forward with a “what if?” approach to self-limiting “if only__” beliefs.    stuck“If only___” says we’re stuck. We can’t move until, or unless, something that is out of our control happens. This can be an excuse for inaction. But sometimes people are overwhelmed by complexity. Design seeing allows fresh answers to emerge.seeing possibilities 3Narrow-seeing industrial era thinking worked when the consequences of decisions were hidden. Pollution, bad management-labor relations, smoking, building ugly junk—the fallout from such practices is self-evident today. Design seeing exposes consequences as well as possibilities.

-Sharon VanderKaay

Let’s retire the gear metaphor

gears v humanIt’s easy to see why so many slide presentations feature images of interlocking gears to evoke maximum team efficiency. Gears convey a seductive sense of control; they appear reassuringly neat and predictable. These mechanical parts are perfect for representing machine age detachment; the opposite of “design thinking.”

But gear metaphors also communicate an anti-innovation world view. Knowledge (in contrast to information) gains value when humans develop what they know through reflection and interaction. The reality of this process is far from neat, predictable and mechanical.

Developing the wealth of knowledge that leads to innovation requires relationships built on trust. Gears do not evoke trust or thoughtful reflection. So let’s not misrepresent living, human activities such as collaboration with graphics that glorify interchangeable metal parts.

These slides expand on my contrast between mechanical and natural systems:

 

 

 

“Thinking partner” model

black box_smRoss Dawson coined the term “black-box consulting” to describe low value consultant-client transactions in his book, Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships.

When I first read Dawson’s contrast between isolation and co-creation consulting models over a decade ago, his views struck me as the way of the future for anyone who is in the business of offering advice—including doctors, designers, real estate agents and tech consultants.

Now I am even more convinced of how important it is for clients and consultants to wrestle with questions and options together.

Black-box consulting happens when neither client nor consultant emerges from the assignment any wiser. Essentially, the client receives an outcome without meaningful participation in the process. Dawson says that this opaque model turns the service into a commodity because there is no shared knowledge-creating experience which leads to better decisions. Moreover, the black-box yields no learning, no ah-ha moments, no growth and no transformation.

Which also means that black-box engagements prevent any chance to think through fresh possibilities together. Black-box relationships are about minimal interaction, avoidance of risk and low personal commitment–the opposite of what’s required for innovation.

So clients and consultants do themselves a disservice when they rely on third-party selection processes and impersonal working relationships, which limit their ability to create value together.

We need thinking partners to wrestle through complex challenges. Dawson’s book presents a framework for clearly seeing why transactional advice-dispensing models lead to competition driven by price rather than value, as well as doing things the same old way.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Well connected

Goldring_AC_expectations contrast

These two university athletic facilities demonstrate vastly difference attitudes toward connecting with the street and campus. The University of Toronto Athletic Centre (left) is an unwelcoming fortress with no indication that healthy activities might take place within. By contrast, the recently opened Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, designed by Patkau Architects and MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects (right), is visually connected with the street and conveys a message of energy, health and accessibility.

Buildings that don’t connect with the street come in all shapes and sizes, but they tend to have the same dismal effect.

disconnected buildings copy

Design insight from the Panda Cam

Much of my work is focused on motivating people to ask themselves: how does this place make me feel and why?

The purpose of my question is to raise awareness for the impact of physical space on our state of mind. Most people tolerate places that are bad for their psyche without considering how it affects their mood, their physical health, and ultimately their neurological health. Conversely, they rarely consider the design elements that make them feel better.

_bad street_nobodys happy place

Judith Heerwagen has studied the evolution of zoo design over recent decades in relation to environmental design for humans. Tight cages in zoos have generally been replaced (though sadly, not for the dolphins) by more spacious natural habitats. As in nature, better habitat designs offer more options for playing, resting and retreating from public view. She explains the incentive for this change, “A key factor was concern over the animals’ psychological and social well-being. Zoos could keep animals alive, but they couldn’t make them flourish.”

Neurotic behavior due to unnatural design is more obvious in zoos than in human habitats. Animals pace back and forth, pick fights and exhibit obsessive behaviors when they must cope with deprivation design. Diagnosis of human depravation design is more complicated.

My recent quest has been to find simple “test” questions that anyone can use to analyze any human habitat. A flash of insight came to me while watching the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo Panda Cam, which generously gives the public a window into the world of giant panda mother Mei Xiang and her cub, Bei Bei.

The National Zoo’s giant panda habitat appears to be well designed in every way. But one morning when Bei Bei was suddenly placed in a big sterile box, the contrast with his naturalistic rock bowl (aka his “happy place”) sparked my reaction, “this big box is not his happy place.”

AHA! Now there’s a test question that cuts through all the fancy design terminology about qualities of streets, buildings, public spaces, and other locations where humans spend time. Which of these locations can be described as someone’s happy place?

Every place cannot be a happy place. Some places need to provoke or protect us. A universal, constant state of happiness with no contrasting emotions would be boring. But we all need to ask whether we are spending enough time in “our happy place” from a design perspective.

At nearly five months old, Bei Bei makes his public debut this month. You can see him in person and observe his design preferences…because Bei Bei votes with his feet (see photos below).

My video, “Diagnose Your Habitat” suggests five vital signs that contribute to healthy cities and workplaces, in case you want to see lots of examples of happy and unhappy places.

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photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo

-Sharon VanderKaay

A walk with the white squirrel

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Elusive. Celebrated. Mythical?

The many rewards of pedestrian life include unexpected encounters – such as with the legendary white squirrel of Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park. Not only does the white squirrel have a street and coffee shops named after it, but the critter has taken on symbolic qualities. Some folks believe they bring good luck.

In any case, the white squirrel attracts celebrity-seeking paparazzi and adoring fans whose stories add to local history.

A much publicized accidental electrocution in 2014 further elevated this mammal’s mystique when questions arose as to whether we’d ever see a white squirrel again. But last week one came out to pose for my photo essay on animals that animate our streets. Then, like the White Rabbit and Garbo, it vanished out of sight.

Here’s a one-minute video about my white squirrel-themed walk:

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And here are some images from my upcoming series about animated streets:

animals on the street

The pedestrian experience: Is your street antiseptic or animated?

antiseptic street_1

-Sharon VanderKaay

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