Learning Adventures

The last month has been a blur– living out of a suitcase, graduating with an MBA, and getting married in less than a month! It’s been a whirlwind, but there’s been a lot of fun, laughter, eating, and learning.

Creative Mornings: Oakland

During my last week in California, there was a Creative Mornings event at Impact HUB Oakland. Creative Mornings is an organization that puts together brief creative lecture/networking events during weekday mornings. Chapters generally have about one event a month, and I was lucky enough to catch Favianna Rodriguez, a Bay Area artist and activist.

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She covered a variety of issues, but these were some of the most memorable moments:

  • The power of art is that it can ultimately transform what you see.
  • Don’t only fight against what you don’t want, but fight for the work you want.
  • Language matters. The word homosexual vs. gay made a difference.
  • Define your own story. If you don’t, someone else will.
  • Art and culture are human rights.
  • Dichotomies are limited narratives. We need multi-dimensional narratives.

AIUX Workshop at Stanford d.school

I’ve been wanting to check out Stanford’s renowned d.school since learning about it a few years ago, and got a fantastic opportunity to do so the day before heading back home to Minnesota.

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I attended a morning workshop session around designing user experience for artificial intelligence. The format was more workshop than lecture and the group split into small teams to try out various strategic design/planning/foresight tools. The tools were the same as can be found here: Playbook for Strategic Foresight and Innovation

We used the context map, progression curve, and paper prototyping tools. The most interesting was the progression curve. My group examined the relationship of humans and AI, and included milestones going back to punch card systems and the first computer to fictional characters like Data in Star Trek TNG. Currently, we’re looking at systems like Google Now, which is a proactive AI rather than a reactive one. It was helpful to watch the progression over time and line it up with other curves, like the development of data gathering.

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Inspiration in a Digital Age + A Digression

While sources for creative inspiration on the web abound, recently I’ve been blown away by in-person, real-life inspiring experiences. In the mad crush of grad school, moving, and planning a wedding, I’d almost forgotten how incredible art exhibits, live music, leisurely meals, and time spent quietly in nature can be.

Most adult Americans spend about 8.5 hours daily in front of screens. An additional 8 hours are spent sleeping. The remaining 7.5 hours of the day are often taken up by meetings, meals, grooming, commuting, household maintenance, and maintaining relationships. There is no natural space for a non-digital inspirational experience.

Despite this seeming death sentence for non-digital experiences, restaurants, museums, and concerts are alive and well. What if we’ve reached saturation in terms of digital interaction? What if our usage time starts to dwindle? What if it doesn’t?

Ernest Cline poses one fascinating optional reality in his novel Ready Player One, set in a world where life is lived almost entirely online. We’re not far away from having the technology to enable that type of life. In Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, he asserts that “what you see is all there is.” Our beliefs, our inspiration, and our perception of the world is based on the information we have. We cannot know what we don’t know. If all we see are carefully selected, flattering, and sometimes photoshopped images and Pinterest-perfect meals, how long will it take before the altered overtakes the actual in “what we know?” If our primary mode of existence is digital, will it matter if perception skews toward the altered version of reality?

In designing experiences, digital and non-digital, we strive to evoke visceral, non-digital meaning. We ask ourselves “what does our brand smell like? what would it have for lunch?” Human centered design, a rising trend, holds fast to the humanity of the user, striving to understand the real over the rational. Inspiration from tactile experiences is embraced and encouraged. Brands like Aerie, Dove, and Debenhams are rejecting airbrushed imagery. Other services, like Meetup and Mosey, facilitate non-digital experiences. These trends indicate that digital reality hasn’t yet won.

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For now, I will continue to luxuriate in the smell and taste of delicious meals, the texture of interesting fabrics and old books, and all the sounds of live music. I will be inspired by heady discussions over wine with my friends, classmates, and my partner, living in analog.

The Design Journal: Getting it Started Again

I’m a notoriously bad journaler. I love having journals, and have a collection of empty ones. Often I start a diary or journal, only to stop a few days later, and tear out the pages and shred/recycle them when I read them a few years later in mortification.

Last year one of our first assignments as first-year DMBA students was to keep a design journal. Not only would we need to keep a design journal, we needed to turn it in on occasion. Terrifying, true, but also a great opportunity to build a good habit.

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First page of my first design journal. Note the cut-out pages from a prior journaling attempt.

Most people want to be the kind of person that keeps a sketch notebook, design journal, writing journal, or diary. Keeping a written or sketch journal is purported to increase creativity, release stress, enable us to better understand our thoughts, and to explore ideas in a non-threatening way. Carrying a small journal with you enables spontaneity and encourages us to be thoughtful of our surroundings, finding inspiration unexpectedly. I found, however, that owning a blank notebook and calling it a “design journal” did not immediately confer these benefits. Journaling/sketching/keeping a diary must be cultivated, like any other habit.

At first, I stuck with word maps, process diagrams, keeping notes on readings and lectures, and occasionally forcing myself to make small sketch accompaniments. As this was an assignment, we needed to make entries at least once a week. Sometimes the entries were uninspired, and sometimes I was enthusiastic about it. Sometimes I could barely manage to make one entry a week, and sometimes it was easy and natural to make several. As time went on, I incorporated colors and visual diagrams. By the end of second semester, I graduated to a new journal.

It's not pretty, but I even started more sketch-heavy entries.

It’s not pretty, but I even started more sketch-heavy entries.

When my journal had a more defined focus– exploring ideas, not trying to be brilliant, it became very comfortable. It was helpful to think of the journal as a personal tool, not intended for public consumption and recognize that not every note made in a journal offers insight or inspiration, and that it’s okay. My journals became lighter and smaller so that I could carry them everywhere and inconspicuously get them out to make a note/observation. Unfortunately, I fell off the design journal bandwagon this summer, but am hopping right back on. Although new habits are hard to build, or even re-build, this one is worth it. Virginia Woolfe puts it well:

“I got out this diary and read, as one always does read one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough and random style of it, often so ungrammatical, and crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; and take no time over this; and forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash and vigour and sometimes hits an unexpected bull’s eye.”

Here's to new beginnings!

Here’s to new beginnings!

For more on the benefits of journals (the articles are endless, but these are my favorites):

Recap: Pentagram at AIGA SF

This morning, I had the opportunity to sit in on a design discussion/panel with Paula Scher and Natasha Jen, partners at Pentagram Design in New York. The program was put on by AIGA San Francisco as part of their 2013 Design Lecture Series.

While the discussion was primarily focused on graphic design, I found some key concepts that apply across the board. Two things struck me as especially insightful. First, Paula stressed the importance of finding something in each project that you believe in and can become passionate about. Secondly, finding constraints is key. A blank canvas does more to stifle creativity than a tiny broom closet.

These are not new ideas, but they ring true each time I hear them. Particularly during crunch time, I have a hard time holding on to my original passion and playfulness from the design phase in an effort to just get ‘er done. This is a good reminder to re-focus on my enthusiasm for each of my projects.

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My full notes on the discussion below:

  • Pentagram seeks partners that self generate. Partners need to be able to find their own work and manage their own teams and clients. They ask “what are these designers doing on their own?”
  • When asked about less glamorous “pay the bills” projects, Paula emphasized the importance of approaching each project with enthusiasm, and elevating the mundane. Raise expectations.
  • There is a common perception that pro-bono work is always good and that corporate work is bad. This concept needs to be re-examined and dissolved.
  • Paula finds breakthroughs come from misbehaving. Take something and turn it on its head.
  • Natasha finds that each day there are moments of inspiration and moments of stuck. While she doesn’t have a specific practice of doing something to find inspiration, she looks at a lot of design online daily.
  • Stuck happens. Paula recommended not being afraid of being stuck, but capitalize on and rely on what you’ve learned and your moments of inspiration.
  • Finding design perimeters and getting initial client buy-in are key. Find yourself pushing against a narrow confine. Tackling something too broad will drive you crazy.

On Reading: First Year DMBA

As you can imagine/have experienced/are experiencing currently, grad school requires a lot of reading. Almost through my first year, I feel ready to recommend some of the best reading we’ve done in the purple track of the DMBA.

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Here goes:

The top three on the list were pre-reading before the first semester started, and served to get my head in the game before starting my MBA. The second three were the Bibles of my first semester, and Business Model Generation and Designing for Growth have influenced each project I’ve worked on since meeting them. The last two books are both from my second semester marketing insights course. The Making Meaning book provided a whole new perspective on what needs to design for, and Design Research is full of tools for uncovering those needs.

Finally, cliche I know, but keeping a design journal has been wonderful. If you don’t already think of yourself as a person who draws or maps ideas on paper, having to keep a design journal as an assignment will open doors. I’m not a drawer and I do not sketch for fun. But, let me tell you, putting an idea on paper, literally, is the fastest way to try out a new idea and communicate it to people. Because it was a weekly assignment, I had to get used to it. I loved it when I did.

Anyone else have great grad school reads?