Monday, March 29, 2010

Creative Spaces -- "I Wish I Worked There"

I got hold of Kursty Groves, author of the new book, "I Wish I Worked There:  A Look Inside the Most Creative Spaces in Business", through ?WhatIf!'s Lisa Buckley, who I interviewed a couple months ago for this very blog. 

In the book, Kursty looks inside 20 well-known companies, including the LEGO Group, Oakley, Bloomberg, and Urban Outfitters, among many others, and gives us some insights into how these folks use space in ways that promote creativity and collaboration, increase satisfaction, and decrease employee turnover.

Before I share our discussion, have a quick look at this teaser for the book:

Kursty spent about six years with ?WhatIf! and has just stepped away from her full-time gig there to write IWIWT, and she'll continue to focus in on the area she calls “space innovation”, or how physical and cultural environments affect people and creativity. 

Find out more about the book here, and find out more about Kursty here.  She's also recently started a business called spacehopper to help people and companies find the most creativity-inducing spaces for off-site meetings and workshops. 

Kursty and I had a great discussion by phone, in which she filled me in on how she conceived the book.  She also threw in some tips on how to change my workspace -- and my company -- to make it more conducive to creativity.

ThinkingDesign: How did you choose which companies to focus on?

Kursty Groves: When I first started the project, I thought I’d do 100 companies, but I quickly realized that that was way too ambitious, because one of the main things I wanted to do was really get behind the scenes and visit all of the companies.

We wanted them to be well-known so they would capture peoples’ imagination. You could imagine that people would like to see behind the scenes at places like Nike or Oakley – places where you know the product or service.

We started with the big and the well-known, and then we whittled it down to 20 to get a range of industries. We deliberately decided not to choose creative agencies or advertising, because you kind of expect those companies to have great creative environments.

TD: What were some of the most out-of-the-ordinary, wacky, or extreme things that you saw?

KG: Extreme? Without a doubt, the most extreme would be Oakley. I absolutely love Oakley because they are so provocative. Not everybody “gets” Oakley, but if you do, you really get it.

The way the Oakley brand personality comes across, for example, is the outer part of the building has three-foot deep windowsills, which are clearly not needed, but it adds to the scale and drama of the place. And it has huge buttresses and spikes on the outside. It basically gives people the impression that it’s a huge fortress, and they call it the “design bunker,” because they’re so protective of their ideas and the next innovation that is coming out. And that comes across in this extremely provocative physical space.

‘Photograph copyright Edward Denison’

What’s wonderful is that the armor enables a much more free-flowing culture on the inside. You have everyone from the CEO to the receptionist wearing what they want all year round, and it’s highly collaborative.

TD: Oakley is obviously on the extreme side. Can you give us the Cliffs Notes for creative spaces?

KG: Sure. There are four main types of creative space that support different types of creativity. For one, there are “Stimulating Spaces” that tell stories or enable people to access different information.

There are “Reflective Spaces,” where people can go to focus or relax, as an individual or as a team.

There are “Collaborative Spaces” – not just your plain old meeting room. These could be spaces where people casually connect with one another. Lots of companies use free food to lure people into a space where they can casually connect with their colleagues.

And finally, there are “Playful Spaces,” which aren’t just about game rooms or having foosball in the middle of the office, though those are devices that lots of companies use. Play can be a way to get people to connect on a deeper level, and it allows them to relax. But there’s another element to play – experimentation. That could be in the form of a room where people can be messy and not have to worry about tidying up at the end of the day.

There are also some basics that come with building creative spaces. Light can play a huge factor. But interestingly, it’s not just about having lots and lots of natural light, but about understanding the interplay between light and the task at hand. For instance, Electronic Arts does a fantastic job with light. There are lots of people who have almost completely blocked in their areas to make them like a cave, and it’s really, really dark. And that’s so they can focus in on their computer screens. So natural light is not what they need.

But they also have huge, open communal spaces that are flooded with natural light, which allows people to balance that focus with the ability to open up and collaborate and communicate with other people.

TD: The book is called “I Wish I Worked Here”. Where do you wish you worked?

KG: It’s a great question but very difficult for me to answer, because every company featured approaches their space in ways that I appreciate. They’ve each got their own way of dealing with creative space, and they’re all interesting in their own way.

TD: Aaah. So you’re obviously sidestepping the question. What about for individuals? If I’m working for an average mid-sized company in cubicle-land, how can I change the culture to make it more creative?

KG: Great question, because obviously not everyone can go in and completely overhaul their entire office space, even if you wish you could. All of these principles are applicable to medium-sized companies, and also if you work at home. For instance, if you think about trying to make your working space a bit more stimulating, you can think about changing it on a regular basis, maybe depending on what you’re working on. Or, layer in lots of things that you’re really enthusiastic about, because that will put you into a very happy and creative state. The more at home you feel at work, the more you’ll be yourself. The more yourself you are, the better you’ll think.

If your boss is saying they’re not sure it’ll work, put my book under their nose and show them. There are metrics that evidence the importance of environment to help increase morale and decrease turnover.

A really good point on that is Virgin UK, who acquired about 90 different call centers in an acquisition they made. Call centers are notorious for having very high staff turnover. But, at Virgin, they did two things: one, they focused on making the communal spaces really exciting, homey places to be. And they also allowed people to work on their own individual spaces, gave them a small budget and a bit of time make some changes. An independent survey then found that the environment made over 80% of the workers want to stay. That’s absolutely huge for a call center, and evidence that space matters!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Want to blend design with business strategy? Think like a frog

John Goyert is a principal strategist at frog design in New York, one of the top design consultancies around, with over 40 years in the business of creating new products, services, and experiences for clients.

Goyert’s background, like many in the industry, is diverse. He grew up mostly in Latin America – Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay – then went on to study a blend of Physics, Theatre, French and Spanish at Middlebury College in Vermont (full disclosure: Middlebury also happens to be my alma mater).

After working in a variety of Internet strategy and advertising roles, John attended the Lauder Institute at Penn, earning a masters degree in international studies and a Wharton MBA.

I recently caught up with John by phone to learn how he’s fusing business strategy and design at one of the top design firms around. Here are some edited excerpts from our discussion.

ThinkingDesign: How did you start to make the connection between business and creativity?

John Goyert: Before business school, I worked for Modem Media in San Francisco, which was one of the first digital advertising firms – some even claim they invented the banner ad. That was the most creative and innovative role I’d had to date.

Over time, I got frustrated because it was a very specific kind of creativity. What seemed to work in that atmosphere was spin. It was a sales-y kind of charismatic approach to selling ideas, which I didn’t feel like I wanted to compete with. I wanted to be grounded in something factual.

ThinkingDesign: Then you ended up doing the Lauder Program at Wharton. How’d you choose that program?

John Goyert: I grew up in South America – in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay. So it was in my blood – being international. I was only looking at MBA programs that had dual programs with international studies. I also looked at schools like Thunderbird and the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

In the end, I had to choose between affordability and reputation; at Thunderbird, I would’ve learned what I needed to know. It was kind of rare for me, but I decided to go with the big brand name. And I wanted to have the opportunity to be thrown in with lots of business sharks.

I thought, “I’m going to go to this finance-oriented business school, and I’m going to completely reshape my career around strategy.” It’s directional for companies in the same way marketing can be, but it’s grounded in facts, and analysis and numbers are what drive your decisions. That was the kind of environment I wanted, so that was what I studied, and that’s what I did after Wharton.

ThinkingDesign: You’re at frog now. So that means you went from advertising to operations and somehow ended up in design? How’d you manage that one?

John Goyert: I worked for a small operations consulting firm for private equity investors, so it was very heavy on analytics. It was a lot of looking at cost saving activities and best practices that could be implemented to get companies up to speed with where they should be performing. It was about identifying performance metrics for them and getting them to focus their efforts on those metrics.

I was there for under two years, because it got really boring.

ThinkingDesign: I was about to ask – did you miss the creative element of advertising?

John Goyert: Absolutely. But I have to say it was not boring for the first year because everything was new to me. But as soon as I had a similar client challenge a second time around, I wanted to answer it in a different way, and I was hired to repeat the same way. And that wasn’t working for me.

Working always on best practices can be very limiting for companies. But a lot of companies have to get those things in place before they can really move forward and grow, so I’m not knocking it. But for me, I’d rather focus on companies that have their best practices in place and are stuck because they have optimized their system to death and are not sure what to do next. They want to grow in new areas. They want to try different things. They want to differentiate in ways people can’t copy. That’s the kind of stuff I want to work with.

So I started looking around for companies that I could do this full-time – the more innovative approach – and I found frog. I had always known frog as product design company with 40 years of history doing this stuff. But it was a lot more recently – the last five to ten years – that they had begun deliberately hiring business strategists and thinkers to answer different kinds of questions.

ThinkingDesign: So what stood out to you about frog?

John Goyert: frog’s approach is grounded fundamentally in design research – in facts. It’s not necessarily quantitative facts. And it’s not incremental innovation like you’d find in management consulting. But it’s grounded in observed and repeatable behaviors and tastes and needs.

And the second thing about frog is that frogs want to change the world. I feel like I’m in this cultural place that fits for me. And sometimes I think that makes it difficult for us to embrace all the client opportunities that we’re faced with. There are cases where we’ve turned down work, and there are cases where some of us frown at the projects we have. And I’m proud to be in a place like that – I think that makes the work more legitimate.

The other thing is that frog still feels like a small company. Fit is a stronger component at a small company, because there’s a bonding thing that happens.

(Frog's Mission Statement)

ThinkingDesign: What role do you personally play for clients?

John Goyert: I represent the business lens of design and innovation challenges, which means different things at different times.

At the up-front phase – the discover phase – I’m responsible for figuring out what the status quo is in the business world. frog is talking to the end users and figuring out what they want in an ideal world. And I have to figure out how the industry works and if there’s even an industry around the needs that we’re targeting at all. If there is, how does it work, who are the companies involved, how do they play with each other, how do they create value and how do they share value?

After we’ve figured out multiple possible opportunities or concepts to solve these problems, then that’s when we get into the design phase. My job is to design around the business hurdles and obstacles to bring it to market – to make it work.

That could mean a creative team developing a new solution from scratch. But without a business person in the room, you’re at risk for proposing a solution that is completely out of left field, over-costed, or is completely redundant with what’s already there. So I like to look at it as designing with existing things in the marketplace as my toolkit.

I think that’s part of the story that frog is telling the marketplace in general: that when you’re confining your design efforts to a specific product, there are very few design elements that you can really change that will dramatically improve the experience and value of the product. So when you can look beyond the product and look at where it fits in terms of how it’s sold, how people learn about it, what other products it works with, then you can make big changes for companies.

ThinkingDesign: That’s an interesting role you’ve carved out for yourself. Do you consider yourself more creative or more analytical?

John Goyert: Some people would say that I over-analyze everything. I would say I’m highly analytical but I like to surround myself with creativity.

I think that people in my position have failed when they have applied structures that weren’t creative. Part of what strategists are doing is applying frameworks and helping people prioritize different elements. And you can do that exercise right out of business school, but many of the frameworks are so tried and true that when you apply them you can destroy innovation in some cases.

I think the best way to do it in a place like frog is to re-create new frameworks for every single program, based on new research findings. It’s still highly analytical, but it’s creative in coming up with frameworks that are uniquely suited to the business challenge, to the brand, and to the customers.

ThinkingDesign: If you were going to go back to business school hoping to land where you are now, what would you have done differently?

John Goyert: I think about that a lot. If I had been seeking this kind of opportunity when I was at Wharton, I would have spent more time in entrepreneurial classes, perhaps taken more classes outside in the engineering school or design school if I could. There is a lot of interesting change management and organizational thinking out there, with more of a sociological element that is close to design thinking. I would have thought more about that.

I was thinking a lot about quant, and I was aggressively going toward operations. I would do less of that now. I like operations and am glad I have those tools, but it’s not as much of what I’m using day to day. I would go toward more design thinking.

ThinkingDesign: How has the growth of design thinking as a management practice affected frog as a company?

John Goyert: I have a friend from business school that went to work at IBM in consulting. I used to think that I couldn’t be doing anything more opposite than what he’s doing in consulting.

Six months ago, I was surprised to learn that he’s on a big usability project where he is doing design research. I’m sure it’s very different from what frog and other companies that have been doing for decades, but it’s just indicative that the most traditional and analytical consultancies are finding ways to think about design thinking and to embrace some design tools.

It’s a little dangerous for us, and it’s a little dangerous for them if they misuse the tools. But it’s great overall that people are getting used to thinking this way.

ThinkingDesign: So how can frog continue to differentiate itself?

John Goyert: Five years ago, we had to tell people what design thinking meant. Now, you tell people and they say, “We get it, but how are you different?”

We have to be more transparent about what we’re doing that’s different. We have to be clear about sending cross-functional teams to do this work that include technologists, business people and trained sociologists and anthropologists. The IBM’s of the world are sending businesspeople – three or four of them. That’s a very different value proposition from frog’s, because you’re going to get different results and you’re going to use different techniques, even if you’re calling it the same thing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

We are All Designers

I've been blown away by the clarity of thought with which a piece by Laura Seargeant Richardson, a designer for frog design in Austin, TX, was presented on the website of GOOD Magazine.

Richardson presents a two-part series, each of which detailing "Ten Steps to Becoming the Designer You Want To Be".  Normally, I'd expect a piece like this to be fluff, or at least removed from how I look at the world (and my work).  But it's clear and cogent and precious.

Some highlights (bold are my emphases):
3. Choose a topic that fascinates you and learn it inside out
This is how you become an expert. Your topic might be as broad as sustainability, or as narrow as a specific method like body storming...

4. Write, blog, and speak on that topic
You’re an expert once you feel comfortable calling yourself an expert...

9. Choose variety over anything else
I turned down an offer that paid more to come work at frog. I’ve never regretted that decision. If anything, frog has made me crave variety in such a way that I doubt I’ll ever be able to commit to just one industry. I’ve done everything from cell phone interaction design to social networking strategy, and from the future of electric vehicles to emotional medical identification. I would recommend to anyone that when you stop learning, it’s time to move on.

At the end of her second post:

"P.S. One final, but important note: We are all designers. Without taking anything away from the design industry, we need more people in all industries to recognize the impact that comes from their “designs”—whether it’s a doctor’s diagnosis or a teacher’s curriculum or a government employee—every human is a designer. As a discipline, we are trained to creatively solve challenges, to consider the future implications, to consider those other than ourselves. Our world is by design and we need more designers than ever before to handle the evolving world. I ask one thing of you in closing—teach one child design thinking or empower an adult by telling them they are a designer. We can all make a difference."

**note: I'll be posting an interview I did with John Goyert, another frog, in the next few days, so stay tuned.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

ReGenesis -- Design Lessons from Holders of 50 Patents

Earlier this week, I attended the first of a two-day workshop in my hometown of Montclair, New Jersey.  Called "Innovations in Product Development," the title itself initially piqued my interest, since the talks were to be led by the co-founders of ReGenesis, a local New Jersey company that owns more than 50 patents, mostly in Consumer Packaged Goods -- cleaning, personal care, and drug delivery.

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Even after 30-odd years of doing this work, the passion and excitement displayed by founders Betty Jagoda-Murphy and Jim Smith was pretty remarkable.

Though the ins and outs of Mop and Glo's chemistry or the Jet-Dry delivery system aren't necessarily riveting to me, I took away some interesting lessons from the session.

The biggest:  that user-centered design has been around for a long time, and there are a million ways to approach it. For its part, Regenesis has always gone to three cities around the country and interviewed 30 people in each about their product concept before going through the development stage. After they feel they have something with legs, they start the process all over again, this time with the product in hand. Their 30 interviewees try the new product out for a few weeks, then report back on their experience.

Most of the time, the product or concept has some kind of flaw. Some of the time, it's fixable. The following comment by co-founder Betty Jagoda-Murphy sums it up well: "You want to know what's NOT good about it." 

That perspective says a lot.  Design is fundamentally an iterative process.  By getting out there and prototyping and testing ideas with potential customers, you give yourself a much better chance at success.  I think that's why these two have had such a long, successful career.

Here are some of the many household products that Jagoda-Murphy and Smith have created over the years since 1979 when they got together.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Design and Engineering (BMW)

Please take this with a grain of salt.  Even though this advertisement has little to do with BMW, it's an astonishingly beautiful example of the fine lines that can exist between art, design, and engineering. 

Take a look:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Learning to See" like a designer

I'm continually pleased as I watch the development of the Cornell class, Creative Design for Affordability, from afar.  I wanted to share some information and photos from the first assignment for the class:  "Learning to See".  

In a nutshell, the recent assignment was designed to encourage students to look at objects around them in a different way.  The end goal:  to provide 26 photos of "found" (i.e. not adjusted or moved in any way) items, each representing a letter of the alphabet.

The students recently displayed their work in a common area.  I just love how these assignments -- and the ones we completed last year -- each subtly change the culture of the business school.

Aside from the obvious culture change around the business school, I'm just amazed by the new language of creativity students are learning.  Here is an excerpt from the assignment (bolded letters are from the assignment):

“Learning to See”

Creative Problem-solving is a process that begins with vision and ends with reason. Creative vision searches beyond the obvious, beyond the surface of common existence to discover hidden potential - in people, materials, objects and strategy. Only after potentials are clearly revealed, can reason effectively examine and discern appropriate courses of action.

When we were children, a twisted branch became a dragon, a set of keys became a musical toy, a chair became a fort. The world and all the things in it held infinite potential. As adults we have lost out ability to think flexibly and explore. This exercise is about retraining ourselves to see things as they might be- as we did as children - rather than to categorize them prematurely as we have been taught. An adult might see only clouds, but a child sees dreams coming alive. Only with eyes that can see the potential in ordinary things and experiences, can a person be truly innovative.

In order to improve your creative abilities, you need to practice “seeing possibilities.” This project was “designed” to force a reflective process and evolve awareness over time.

It's hard to imagine that the process of completing such an assignment wouldn't have a noticeable impact on individual awareness.  I'm excited to see how that evolved awareness informs the projects developed in class.