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Move upstream: interview your clients

London move upstream_cheese grater

Most clients don’t really know how to evaluate design firms. Also, due to the large sums of money they are spending on projects, they’re scared of being blamed for making a bad choice.

Imagine how you might apply empathy to this tense situation. Rather than react to every onerous RFP, why not meet with potential clients well in advance of the selection process? Why not ask if they want your help in writing the RFP? Your inside knowledge can help them avoid pitfalls.

Interview your clients

Instead of talking about your work for most of that intro meeting (Me! Me! Me!…oh right, you), what if you used this time to understand where they’re coming from (You! You! Me!).

Yes, we should bring our portfolio and be ready to tell a story that demonstrates our depth of knowledge. Yes we should focus on a relevant example that paints a picture of what it’s like to work with us. But we can enrich relationships and gain an edge by interviewing our clients. Maybe we can help shape the content of the RFP and be the proverbial firm with the inside track. I have been in this advisory/winning position several times, so I know it can be done.

Empathy-driven questions for a client might include:

1.  What are your biggest challenges?

2.  What do you look for when choosing a design consultant?

3.  What problems do you seek to avoid?

4.  Do you have any dissatisfactions with your current RFP process?

5.  How important is the fee in your selection?

-Sharon VanderKaay

Places people want to be

Kerrytown

Kerrytown in Ann Arbor is a place people want to be. What can planners and developers learn from this example?

Architects tend to talk vaguely about design quality and excellence. This can lead to disappointment when bland places get built that nobody cares about.

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Places people don’t want to be have economic and mental health costs.

We need to be more specific when discussing all the the intended functions of a space. “Function” includes technical specifications and program requirements, but also a purpose. The ultimate purpose of most building projects is to attract people: shoppers, diners, employees and others who will deliver ROI (return on investment) to the owners.

Boring, generic places risk becoming financial failures.

Developers and even the most cold-blooded business investor can avoid unnecessary risk by asking one simple question when making design decisions: “Are we building a place where people want to be?”

The answer to this basic question requires awareness of the kinds of places people don’t want to be, as well as analyzing places they barely tolerate out of necessity.

Why do people love Kerrytown?  Five factors are evident there:

  1. Human scale (not overwhelming, or making people feel insignificant)
  2. Distinctive character (unique identity that people can relate to emotionally)
  3. Flexible seating and overflowing activities (an organic sense of abundance)
  4. Nature and the human touch (such as art, texture and living things)
  5. Elements of surprise, whimsy, quirkiness that indicate people care (vs.”mean”)

These five elements add up to a wise business decision. When architects say, “business investors don’t appreciate good design” they are really saying “decision makers don’t recognize elements that contribute to places people want to be.” It’s not enough for designers to talk about excellence and quality.

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In front of Union Station in Toronto is a place people want to be.

Risk or Reward copy

Med Sci U of T
Is this a place people want to be?

-Sharon VanderKaay

Green Garage grows new “jobs for life”

_a Detroit_2Green Garage_Detroit_Green Garage_comp 2In the middle of Detroit there’s a place that makes you think about the true nature of work today. Specifically, how should society address job creation and greater opportunities for all?

The Green Garage offers some practical and sustainable responses to the economic and political turmoil we face in our perilous transition beyond industrial era “jobs for life.”

Twentieth century so-called “lifetime” jobs were often monotonous, confining and exhausting. People were left with scarce energy and creativity for working beyond retirement age. Whether displaced as a result of trade agreements or advanced robotics, layoffs and plant closures threatened workers throughout their careers. Employment insurance was supposed to take care of gaps, but this whole approach to work was economically and personally unsustainable.

In contrast to the current rise of revitalizing “green jobs,” Diego Rivera depicted robotic, lifeless “grey jobs” in this fresco panel:

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Detail from Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932-33 

When Green Garage founders Peggy and Tom Brennan talk about “a more sustainable way to work” they think in terms of a full spectrum of eco-friendly and economically-healthy contributors. Every aspect of their physical working space serves to advance triple-bottom-line green practices. In addition, a wealth of sustainable approaches to lifelong employability are emerging from this former Model T showroom.

Employment today depends heavily on three factors: first, our reputation as active contributors; second, our capacity to make healthy human connections; and third, our appetite for continuous learning. The Green Garage provides a physical and mental environment that grows these three ingredients of sustainable work in the 21st century.

The Brennans see the advantages of a natural approach to working through ideas for each fledgling business, rather than the more common, accelerated mechanical, capital risk-heavy start-up model.

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Jane Jacobs’ writing on grassroots change was a major influence when launching this venture.

Green Garage participants are brought together by shared values. For example, Detroit Food Academy works with local educators, chefs, and business owners to inspire Detroiters ages 13-24 to develop entrepreneurial ventures rooted in food. These ventures include guiding artisan food projects from early stages of development to market. “Students learn by transforming their ideas into reality. Through this process, they grow as holistic leaders who are healthy, connected…” which they explain has the power to improve the local food system. These experiences “open doors, create connections, and spark confidence” which ultimately leads to more resilient workers.

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Detroit Food Academy co-founder Noam Kimelman talks with international visitors eager to learn about DFA’s approach to engaging youth in job creation and discovery.

Detroit Food Academy also stands in marked contrast to the economic monoculture which thrived spectacularly in Detroit for only a few decades. Relying on a single industry led to dependent and vulnerable workforce. Instead, DFA’s green job enterprises are diverse and committed to long term well-being.

As I described in a previous post, we can learn a lot about the new nature of work from such leading examples.

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Edible greens and flowers grown on the Green Garage roof are consumed by patrons of such local businesses as Motor City Brewing Works.

Detroit_Green Garage_1-Sharon VanderKaay

Planning for possibilities

Chiat day_Gehry_Los Angeles_2

Designers like to talk about “solving design problems” but is that their most valuable activity? And is it really best to “define the problem” as a first step?

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.

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 efficient human activity. 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 transaction vs. co-creation consulting models over a decade ago, his views struck me as the way of the future for anyone in the business of offering advice—including doctors, designers, real estate agents, lawyers and tech consultants.

Today I am even more convinced of how important it is for clients and consultants to think through opportunities 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.

The service becomes a commodity when there is no shared knowledge-creating experience that leads to better decisions. Black-box consulting yields no learning, no ah-ha moments, no growth and no transformation.

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.

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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?

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-Sharon VanderKaay

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