Monday, May 24, 2010

The Building Blocks of Creativity at LEGO

 If there was a hall of fame of household names, LEGO would have its own wing. But success is about more than just being well-known. LEGO also has some of the most dedicated customers around. That helps Cecilia Weckstrom, who heads up the Consumer Insight & Experience Innovation area, run some pretty cutting-edge efforts to customize products and involve LEGO fans in the process of developing new businesses.

I connected with Cecilia through Kursty Groves, who I interviewed for this blog and who wrote the book “I Wish I Worked There”. Cecilia and I talked about how LEGO uses culture, space, and ravenous customers to stay a household name. Here’s an edited excerpt from the conversation:

ThinkingDesign: Do you use space differently for toy designers and for corporate types?

CW: At headquarters (in Billund, Denmark), we have lots of old factory buildings that have been converted to office spaces. Being a Scandinavian company, open floor plan thinking is a big feature. I guess the common thing is that there is a lot of openness – lots of bricks and toys everywhere. It’s a very family-friendly company, so people bring their kids to work and they’re all running around and playing in corners.

You might see people in suits now and again, but it’s only because we have to meet external people and have to look remotely respectable. It’s less corporate than you might find in many places, and it’s because kids create that kind of informality.

ThinkingDesign: How do you involve your customers in the design process?

CW: If you’re totally at the front end, you’re trying to scope out the opportunity areas – looking at trends, competitors, and the like. For example, the whole social and community aspect is becoming such a large part of being into LEGO. People aren’t just interested in LEGO for building and being creative themselves anymore. People are sharing what they’ve created online. YouTube is filled with LEGO videos that people have made, and then there are lots of fan sites where people post photos of the things that they’ve built.

(Here's a funny example of LEGO on YouTube)

It’s a whole movement and almost like a language, where people build something and are so excited to share it with people who are into the same stuff. And that’s why we work a lot with our community – to do things together with them but also ways to make the types of experiences or business opportunities to be more conducive to that side of socializing and connecting to others. It gives a lot of personal meaning and is more emotionally engaging that way.

ThinkingDesign: Cool. So, once you’ve found a trend like that, how do you then start to turn it into a business?

CW: Eric Von Hippel at MIT has developed what he calls a “lead user method,” and we use that when working on products by identifying users in the community who are sort of experts in a topic and work with them all the way throughout.

We also just launched a concept store where we have master builder bars and sections where people can learn tips and tricks on how to make crazy stuff. We developed all those things through co-creation – kids, parents, teachers, and the like have sat down with us and done brainstorming to come up with ideas on what the experience could be like, prototyping it and illustrating it and trying to get to the bottom of what could be a relevant value proposition for something that we aren’t doing today.

That’s the fun part – learning what it is our customers want, and seeing how excited they get when you involve them in the creative process. It’s inspiring to do things in collaboration, rather than isolation, with the people who you intend to have as your customers.

ThinkingDesign: How else do you co-create with your customers?

CW: We have an internal incubator team that deploys a sort of venture capital model when we develop entirely new business opportunities. We try to start small and prototype and pilot the project to gauge demand and play with the business model – but we do it live in the marketplace. That’s a technique we can use for entirely new businesses.

We’re also doing something called LEGO Cuusoo. It’s a Japanese platform (it means “I wish” in Japanese), where people can sort of wish for what they’d want out of a LEGO product and vote on other people’s ideas. When something gets 1000 wishes or votes, we will manufacture it for them.

In the act of voting for something, users create a profile. That gives us a lot of insight into who these people are. Are they kids or adults, and what are their profiles? It’s a low-risk way to get really deep insights, and we’re piloting the site in English now. It’s a way of fishing for ideas and gauging demand for them.

ThinkingDesign: How does the company philosophy influence the way LEGO operates?

CW: It’s a family-owned company. The Kristiansen family – now in its third generation of LEGO leadership – is very passionate about the cause of LEGO, which is essentially equipping people around the world with the ability to give form to their ideas and improve and grow their own creativity through a platform that is open-ended and isn’t complete until you put it together.

We’re incredibly successful, but it comes as a by-product of staying true to creativity, innovation, and fun. Because we’re family owned, we can allow ourselves a long-term view, instead of the desperate short-term focus. We see turning a profit as the oxygen. We all need to breathe to stay alive, but we’re not here on this planet to breathe. Similarly, profit allows us to be here but it’s not why we’re here.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ghana Think Tank -- Turning Aid and Innovation on their Heads

Perhaps you’ve heard of “trickle-up innovation.” My friend and former colleague, Reena Jana, has written extensively on the topic. According to Reena, it's the process where companies create "entry-level goods for emerging markets and then quickly and cheaply repackage them for sale in rich nations, where customers are increasingly hungry for bargains."

Okay, well you’ve also obviously heard of international aid, where well-intentioned people from the U.S. and other well-to-do countries undertake projects designed to help poor people in developing countries.

In a completely novel way, Christopher Robbins, John Ewing, and Matey Odonkor (Carmen Montoya also joined the project in 2009), all graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), have somehow simultaneously combined these two concepts and turned them on their heads.  Their project is called the Ghana Think Tank, and it’s been nominated for the Cartier Award for creating a kind of reversal out of the international aid process, where they say the people being "helped" are rarely involved in the process. 

Here's how it works.  The Ghana Think Tank takes problems sourced from communities like Providence, Rhode Island in the U.S. and Liverpool in England, and seeks solutions from the think tank participants in Ghana (of course), El Salvador, Cuba, Serbia, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Iran.

At this link, you'll find a good video that provides an overview of the process.

                                         (Members of the Ghana Think Tank -- El Salvador)

The truly novel part?  They actually force the folks who submitted their problems to enact the solutions.  Says Robbins of the concept, “Originally, it came out of a nasty place.  It was a way of making stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings into physical experiences."

Now, Robbins sees the project as less nasty and more of an earnest way to help enable cross-cultural understanding and develop completely unexpected solutions to problems.  Perhaps that’s because some of the solutions the think tanks have uncovered have worked remarkably well. For instance, a dog in the U.S. had been barking incessantly, but when the Ghanian think tank recommended changing the dog’s name to “Love” to quell its barking, guess what happened?  That's just one example.  Check out more here.

"Even though some of the outcomes may seem silly, it is because we take it seriously that we force ourselves to implement solutions regardless of how we feel about them," says Robbins.

(A member of the Ghana Think Tank -- Ghana)

The project continues to morph, as Robbins is now seeking to transform the organization into a formal non-profit organization, and is also considering how he might apply its way of sourcing solutions to business and other problems.

Robbins has a penchant for using creative means to make a point. Over the next four months or so, he is working to restart the Works Projects Administration (FDR’s New Deal public works program designed to pull the U.S.A. out of the Depression), or WPA, in communities in Jamaica, Queens and in the rural hamlet of Wassaic, New York. Though the WPA doesn’t formally exist, he’s encouraging community members to dress like the WPA and work like them, too.  Robbins couldn’t figure out why they hadn’t enacted a similar initiative during the current recession, so he’s trying to do it himself. If you care to learn more – or lend your support – check out this video or go to Kickstarter.

WPA is also a finalist for a $50,000 Public Art Award from the Cambridge Arts Council to open an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Many thanks to Kursty Groves, who I interviewed not too long ago about her book, “I Wish I Worked There,” for connecting me with Christopher.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Design for Surfing Fun -- and Conservation -- in India

Just saw this at the Patagonia blog and thought it was too amazing not to pass along.  As a surfer and a fan of design, this is something I hope will spread to many more locations (maybe it already has and I just don't know about it).

India's First Multi-Purpose Reef Goes Off from ASR Limited on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Coachella and Creativity

Coachella, the much-publicized 3-day music festival in the desert near Palm Springs, was everything I hoped it would be and more. I hoped it would be a chance to see a number of current bands that I like all in one place, to hang out with friends, and to enjoy the incredible desert venue (the entire event takes place in a huge polo grounds) that I’d heard so much about. I’d also held out hope that the weather wouldn’t make it too hot to enjoy the above elements.

The “more” was the unexpected part – the creativity I saw not just in the festival organizers but the culture it encouraged in its participants. That’s what made it such a special time for me.

Its full and official name – the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival – does a much better job describing the scene, since everywhere you look, creativity and art are on display.

Take this contraption, for instance, which inspired numerous passers-by to ask the guy who built it where he had bought such a novel-looking tent/lounge.  I did the same, and he told me he had built it out of PVC pipe and unwanted fabrics he'd bought on the cheap -- very cool-looking creation!  He said he's considering making more and starting a business selling them...

At the “Coachella Art Studios,” there is a wide variety of free creative outlets for any attendee to enjoy. You can do a stranger portrait, where you sit across from a total stranger and draw them as they do the same to you.

You can paint a paper mushroom, or design and make a mask for yourself or your friend.

At this booth, professional hair and makeup people spent upwards of 20 minutes per person to outfit the group of wannabe punks to look like the real thing.

And that was just the arts and crafts area. The more official “Arts” part of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival lived inside the polo stadium grounds, where exhibits like this huge model of an origami crane, “Ascension” were flanked by “Golden Shack-Easy Time,” an alter made out of trash and repurposed materials.

One of the funniest artistic creations were the “landsharks,” which spent their festival chasing attendees around but never coming close enough to hit one (unfortunately, they moved too fast to get a solid photo of them). We couldn’t tell if they were remote-controlled or powered by some sort of sensor. But let me tell you – an encounter with one of them in the latter part of the evening was a site to behold, as much for peoples’ bewildered reactions to them as for the sharks themselves – a nod to the role of the participant in a work of interactive art…

Notice that I spent this whole post discussing art and creativity at the festival, not the music, which happened to be incredible – the sound, the performances, the crowds that would often lounge on the grass 40 feet from the stage even during big-name acts like Vampire Weekend and MGMT. And the fact that top temperatures remained a relatively mild 90 degrees made the incredibly well-designed and well-executed festival seem even more than that.