Sunday, April 25, 2010

Design Continuum Venice -- Too Good to be True?

It's been well over a year since I first encountered the good folks at Boston-based Design Continuum.  As I've noted in an earlier post, two long-time Continuum people, Gaurav Rohatgi and Dan Buchner, delivered a great design thinking workshop to our Creative Design for Affordability class at Cornell last spring.

And though that workshop helped cement much of my blossoming understanding about the actual practice of design thinking (getting dirty brainstorming and building small prototypes of an innovative cell phone packaging system was a lot of fun), the conversation with Gaurav and Dan afterward was also memorable.  We discussed how to apply design thinking principles to business models, cultures, and even models of leadership.  I also learned about Continuum's involvement with the Center for Creative Leadership, and how the company encourages such partnerships as a means to expand not just their market share, but also their mind share.

I was pretty blown away by just about everything I heard about Continuum and began to fantasize about working for them sometime down the road.  And when Dan and Gaurav mentioned that they had just opened an office in Venice Beach, CA, my immediate reaction?  Too good to be true... 


Fast forward to last week, when my wife and I were on vacation in L.A., visiting friends and family, and also attending the Coachella Music and Arts Festival (incredible -- more in my next post on Coachella and creativity).  My curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to pop in on Continuum Venice to investigate. 

I called and made an appointment with Theresa Chiueh, the managing principal of the L.A. "studio." Theresa is a graduate of MIT's undergrad engineering program and MIT Sloan's MBA program and a nine-year Continuum veteran. With only one day's advanced notice, Theresa agreed to spend some time showing me around.

And so it was that my wife, my sister-in-law, and I set off from Redondo Beach toward Venice, riding cruiser bikes along the paved path that stretches from Redondo in the South Bay all the way north to the star-studded beaches of Malibu.  I only hoped my hosts wouldn't be put off by my appearance in shorts and a hooded sweatshirt.

           (Here's a photo I took on the way from my bike.  That's my wife, Shannon, and sister-in-law, Erin, in the background.)

(My gracious host, Theresa Chiueh, who definitely didn't seem put off by my attire.)

Once I arrived to the studio on the fashionable street known as Abbot Kinney, Theresa showed me around the place, including some of the exhibits that dot the place.

(Perhaps Continuum's most famous contribution to design:  The Swiffer)

Theresa showed me the other parts of the studio, which included the workshop, where Continuum Venice builds their product prototypes and models.

(This is why Continuum Venice is called a "studio" and not an office.)

She also showed me the library, where they keep reference materials, and also some artifacts from important projects of the past.

(Pictured here, you can see several of  Continuum's other famous contributions:  the early-stage of "One Laptop Per Child," the Reebok Pump, and others.)

And finally, Theresa introduced me to the majority of the Venice team, which is made up of only 10 people. 

(With such a small team, people work closely -- literally and figuratively.  Good thing they seem a friendly lot!)

Theresa told me how Continuum used to have a West Coast office in San Francisco but found the design consulting market there to be saturated.  After about an 8 or 9-year hiatus, they opened the Venice studio and are finding their primary challenge in establishing a market in L.A.  The design consultancy industry is new to the City of Angels, where companies are more accustomed to doing their innovation and creative in-house. 

Continuum, therefore, has the task of educating an already creative population about a relatively new value proposition.  That's why the Venice studio sometimes plays host to events like a recent panel discussion on the topic of consumption in modern society, and it's why Theresa says she's keen to develop a design community that encompasses and includes the universities and design schools in the area -- so that Continuum can shape the design conversation in a market so far untapped by their peers/competitors.

This all seemed very cool.  So, I broached the question with Theresa.  What, I asked, would you be looking for in an MBA hire?

Her answer:  "We look for someone who gets design, who is an expansive but practical thinker, is interested in people, and is passionate about why things happen." 

Does this sound like you?  If so, can you picture yourself in sunny California, working in a small design studio with interesting, friendly people, three blocks from the beach?  Nah, that would be too good to be true.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Where the innovation (and job growth) lies...

I just picked up a valuable tidbit from Bruce Nussbaum's blog, NussbaumOnDesign.  In it, he quoted economist and former BusinessWeek writer Michael Mandel, who asserts that the coming economic recovery will be fueled by "the communications sector, broadly defined."  Of course, as someone who has been known to dabble in communications, this came as a welcome surprise.

Here's what Mandel wrote on his blog:

"Broadly speaking, the communications sector, broadly defined, seems to be recovering before the rest of the economy. This may be telling us something about the shape of the coming recovery."

(image courtesy:

Internet Publishing and Search is clearly the sector where innovators and designers have been, and will continue to, create and grow new business models and bring the power of design thinking to the masses.  And with the continuing adoption of Web-based applications and mobile devices, the sector seems to be as close to recession-proof as anything out there.

More Mandel:
"I’m going to put myself out on a limb here. I think that this coming recovery will be driven by a communications boom, including a media boom. This includes everything from Google, to Apple, to Facebook, to mobile payment, to health-related applications, to my new company Visible Economy LLC (I am putting my money where my mouth is!)

That suggests we may have a two-track economy for a while. Communications and related areas may have good times, adding jobs and growing. But the rest of economy may bounce along the bottom for a while, especially if local and state governments have to start tightening their belts several notches.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Web Usability Aside -- Important stuff on the left, please

I do some work on my company's corporate Intranet, and usability is paramount, especially if you're looking to drive engagement and productivity across a population of users.

Of course, we all know that the most important elements of any page should go "above the fold," i.e. where people don't have to scroll down to see it, but perhaps we're best served by placing the revenue-driving, engagement-promoting, productivity-increasing elements on the upper left.

Just a note from usability guru, Jakob Nielsen, on his usability blog:

"Web users spend 69% of their time viewing the left half of the page and 30% viewing the right half. A conventional layout is thus more likely to make sites profitable."

Nielsen takes time to discuss how this finding breaks down in "right-to-left-reading sites" like in Arabic or Hebrew, but I can't help but wonder whether culture, gender, or age plays some role in how folks dally on sites.