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Make a Dent in the Universe

Miles, one of the Design Gym founders and partners, sent this out last week…and I finally took some time to watch the whole thing.

It is worth the time. Miles noted three reasons why this is a great talk:

Wilson Miner outlines at least three of my core beliefs about design so eloquently in this talk.

  1. Successful design becomes invisible
  2. The tools we use shape us as much as we shape them
  3. (less concise, but) Basically one of the great character traits of designers (in the talk it’s artists) is that when they look at the world, they see a space that they can shape instead of one they’re subject to.



At the end of the talk (37 minutes in!) He says:


Design is the choices we make about the world we want to live in.


Design is making things that nudge the world in the right ways, and that make a dent in the universe. It is a very exciting time to be alive in this sense – it’s easier than ever before to make things and spread them – not just apps and websites, but ideas, plans, language.


Personally, that’s why I get up each day and work at the Design Gym – I try to spread the language of Design so that everyone sees a space in their own world that they can shape.


Below are my sketchnotes that I scribbled during the talk. They are for my understanding…but maybe they’ll help you pull out some interesting points from the talk when you watch it!


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If you haven’t seen the RSA video series, check it out…there is some great food for thought.

This video talks about the power of empathy…one of the most essential skills a designer or problem solver can use in digging into the nature of an issue. It goes pretty deep…and pretty wide!


Nine Lessons Learned From Solving Real World Problems

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A few weeks back we spent a full weekend with a client and their internal team, and nearly a dozen Design Gym community members, who’ve gone through our workshops many times. After the client had gone, we asked our community members, “What worked and what didn’t? What had they caught each other doing well?” These post-its are a capture from that session.

1. Draw out the tensions

Asking stupid questions, clustering on needs and making the tensions visual and clear is a powerful method of working. Using active listening is a great way to do this:

“I see that these two needs are contradictory. How can we resolve the tension here?” You don’t have to pose a solution…you just have to get people to notice the problem.

2. Revisions

Use empathy, research and interviews to draw out hidden needs and tensions…but then take the time to “turn the crank” and dig deeper on one or more of the needs. Don’t stop at your first findings!

3. Make a big visual agenda

It’s handy. It keeps the whole team honest and helps get everyone on the same page–literally. Buy a big roll of kraft paper and place the agenda someplace people will have to see it.

4. Take the temperature of the room

Are people hungry? Talkative? Did the room just go quiet? Get better a noticing what’s happening in a room and try to change the energy if you need to. How?

5. Ask, “Is everyone participating?”

if you’re the facilitator or not, you can poll the team. You can call people out “Tom, I noticed you didn’t throw an idea up…” or just as the question “Do we have everyone’s ideas here?” and make the group responsible.

6. Don’t Argue

Active listening, repeating someone’s position back to them, diagramming it visually and working with them to define it can make their horrible plan more obviously horrible…or reveal the hidden genius of it. People aren’t crazy. Dig in and find out why someone thinks what they do.

7. Pre-Info helps smooth things out

Giving people input into the agenda before a meeting, or distributing the right stimulus beforehand is really, really essential

8. Timeboxing

Make an agenda and stick to it. More time won’t help. Pull the ripcord and move on. assure your team that they can always go back…but that going forward is really important with the time you have together. To wit…

9. Make a prototype

Ask yourself and your team:

“how can we make this real?”

‘What’s the minimum viable product?”

“If we had to make this tomorrow on 1/2 the budget, what could we make?”

Remember, perfect is the enemy of the done…and trying several things out and finding out how they fail is a lot more informative than trying to make one idea perfect.



Narrative as a Design Element

Let it be recorded here that Cindy Chastain is awesome. Back in 2010, I saw her talk at my first UX conference in Savannah.



I had already started to dig into narrative as an essential part of selling design, in my practice as a design researcher. My exposure later on to such gems as the Writer’s Journey and Get Storied, only deepened my love for storytelling…and why I advocate for storytelling as one of the essential phases of design!

She talks about some narrative elements, like slow disclosure, surprise and story arcs that can be used for objects, interfaces, presentations…they are the Atoms of narrative.

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Her analysis of story arcs is awesome. I tell people over and over again: Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. This *seems* simple, but most people leave out at least 1-2 parts! (if you love sesame street you might want to check out this classic video on storytelling)

A beginning is the slow disclosure…or a fast, hard drop into the dramatic tension. It’s choice! But so many presentations I see don’t really start…they just have a title and then start talking. That’s the difference between a narrative and a drama. Show don’t tell, my teachers always said!

You would also be amazed at how many presentations don’t end. Or, at least, don’t end at the right time, or with a bang. End in the right way, and people will know to applaud. Run out of time, people will be left confused or rushed. If you have 10 minutes, tell your story in 5, then stretch to 7. Leave yourself some breathing room, and time to land the story soft or hard, as you choose…but make sure you end it! Don’t trail off.

Narrative as a Design Element

But in digging deeper, Narrative and Story can help guide design and unify, not just the end-user experience, but the internal creative process. Chastain spoke to this back in 2009. Narrative offers…

a new way of thinking about holistic design, by envisioning experience themes at the start of project. An Experience Theme is basically an over-arching statement or phrase that encapsulates the value and focus of the experience we intend to deliver to users. It may sound like a strategy or “vision”, but at its core, an Experience Theme identifies what the product/service/system is all about from the point of view of users engaging with the product. Once agreed upon, the theme can not only be used as a conceptual frame for design solutions, but can serve as the foundation for the Product Concept and Experience Strategy, a clear set of goals for the product/service/system design. The slides explore how this idea was developed in the context of an interactive agency and how it was applied to several projects. It also shows how teams can generate experience themes.

On Slide 29, Chastain quotes another talk from 2009, about how essential narrative can be in unifying a fragmented experience:

As experiences now span multiple media, channels and formats, we need to look to narrative, interaction, emotional elements to sustain transitions across channels and formats

Joe Lamantia

Beyond Findability IA Summit 2009



At each phase of design, narrative can help us keep a clear image of the user problems in mind. That, and a powerful statement of the value of our design solution, can help teams build the right products internally…and sell them deeply into organizations to get them launched…and get people to use them. As my friend Rob used to say: “Narrative!”

Organizing Information: L.A.T.C.H.

People regularly ask me for better frameworks to help them organize their data, research and projects. I balk, because I want people to look at the information and try to do something that is natural, or inherent to the information. But that’s really hard…and a lie. I use basic heuristics all the time…and as it turns out, there’s really only five ways to organize things.

But first, a movie interlude from High Fidelity:


In this scene, we see that the basic ways we would guess to organize a record collection are Chronological (by album release) or Alphabetical (artist or album?) …I would also guess genre. Genres are tough, because there is so much overlap (blues, blues-rock and bluegrass…I’m sure there are artists that span those)….and what’s amazing is that Autobiographical organization seems like such an innovative (and hard!) way to organize information….but it’s still time. It’s just *personal* time, instead of absolute time. Which is awesome.


Enter Mr. Saul Wurman, who coined the term “LATCH” and “the five hat racks” in his book ‘Information Anxiety’ (1989). He claims that there exactly 5 ways to organize information and the acronym “LATCH” helps you remember them: Location, Alphabet, Time,Category, and by Hierarchy. But we see from High Fidelity we can see that even just time, which seems straightforward, can have nuances.


Also, as the second video points out, combining or overlaying multiple types of information organization can create amazing results. Working with teams to create organic or relatable categories is an important process…we each may have our own ways of looking at and “chunking” the data. Sharing and agreeing on the right categories can be an involved process. The same is true of Hierarchies. Size, cost and Complexity can be easy to agree on. But how to we organize objects from most important to least important? Importance, or value as separate from cost are fuzzy terms…parsing that out can have a big impact.

Looking versus seeing

This video about Inge Druckrey is touted by Fast Company as a 40-minute crash course in design thinking…For me it’s about the essence of being patient. We talk about the importance of a powerful research phase (we call it Examine) and how it’s essential to try to differentiate it from a synthesis or analysis phase (that we call Understand). In the very first moments of the video, Druckery says:

You really learn to look… and it pays off, that suddenly you begin to see wonderful things in your daily life you never noticed.

For me, that “seeing” as different from “looking” is the difference between talking to users and understanding a problem space. You can’t just start seeing…you have to start with looking.

It’s worth your time, to be sure. In case you need more convincing, here’s a gem mentioned by the FastCo article:

A particularly thoughtful sequence, one that brings to life Druckrey’s dictum about seeing wonderful things you never noticed, has her narrating a student’s attempt at developing a typeface. Severny lets the student’s capital letter R take up the whole screen, fading from one version to the next as Druckrey narrates the refinements taking place before our eyes. For those who don’t think much about type on a daily basis, it’s a two-minute crash course in “really learning to look” at letters, a glimpse into the interdependent system of angles, connections, and stroke weights that make some typefaces just feel right.

Taxonomy: Open, Closed, Fluid

Taxonomy is one method of abstracting content to help us organize it. I use it all the time to help me categorize and prioritize content – research findings, ideas generated from a brainstorm, anything.

I came across this great article on UX Taxonomies in my reading list backlog and wanted to share it with you all. Taxonomies can help designers organize content, but can also help users find content, involving them in your brand, site or experience more deeply. Below are some great tips from the article!

To get started, think about a card sort.

When it comes to developing the list of terms you will use, a card sort can be a good starting point. Through this usability method, you can learn how users would organize your content and what labels they would assign to each category—information commonly used to inform sitemap development but just as useful when building out a taxonomy.

When you have a taxonomy developing, finding links and connections between your categories can help you serve up additional content:

Relating and reusing content across multiple platforms and site installations. For example, part of your content strategy is to build a stronger connection between your website and your blog, which just happen to be driven by different content management systems. Taxonomy can help. Assuming you’re using the same taxonomy terms in both systems, you can still dynamically relate content using a tool like RSS, pulling relevant blog posts into web pages that are categorized with the same terms.

Taxonomies can be internal or user facing. Both require some consideration:

Keep in mind that implementing or revising a taxonomy can require change management. Choosing well-researched and tested vocabularies can support an intuitive user experience, but may also require some guidance—instructional content on the administrative interface, for example—for content authors and managers. They may be used to using the organization’s internal terms, not the terms site visitors are using when looking for information, to define content.

User-driven taxonomies can help your community feel more engaged and drive deeper involvement:

You may decide that users, not your organization, are going to define how your content is classified and labeled. Take a look at Goodreads, a social network for readers. You start with the simplest of taxonomies: three default bookshelves called “read,” “currently-reading” and “to-read.” From there, you can create and name other bookshelves, or categories, from the basic “science fiction” to the clever “it-was-earth-all-along,” and place books on more than one shelf.

This approach empowers Goodreads to support discovery in many ways. For example, on each book’s page, you can see a “Genres” callout showing how readers most often classified the book.

Card sorting is a great way to start from a user perspective or even for an internal effort. It’s amazing how helpful having a clear, abstracted and networked taxonometric organization for your information can be.

Cosby Sweaters and Constraints

I just reread a long and fascinating article about Bill Cosby’s sweaters…and it made me realize just how many choices and constraints can go into every design decision.cosby

First, there was the personal constraints:

They quickly realized that Cosby, and by extension Dr. Huxtable, couldn’t really be at ease wearing a suit around the house. “Bill basically likes to be comfortable, and in his real life, he’s in his sweats or his PJs,” says Lemire.

Avoiding straitlaced, white-collar attire also made Dr. Huxtable a more dynamic character. “I wanted to get away from the white coat all the time,” says Cosby, “or the blue blazer look, with the khaki pants and the penny loafers.” In contrast, Dr. Huxtable’s sweaters infused the show with a contagious, creative energy.


Then there were technical constraints:

The available camera technology meant that certain patterns and textures had to be carefully avoided. “The show was shot with multi-cameras,” says Lemire, “and back then they had a lot of problems with strobing, so it was very difficult to use certain patterns.” The stockinette stitch, a standard on most sweaters, alternates rows of knitted and purled stitches, which results in a subtle ribbing or stripe effect. The cameras used for “The Cosby Show” made even solid-colored stockinette sweaters vibrate or strobe when onscreen.

And then, more technical constraints:

…the show often relied on close-up shots of Cosby to capture such moments of improvised humor. However, tight shots like these caused problems when matching the scenes from two different takes, as a slight difference in costume positioning would become a glaring mistake.

“Usually you don’t do close-ups on TV, and that’s why we started using sweaters,” says Lemire. “As our bodies move around, the clothes are going to shift between the first and second take. If you have a jacket on, and the shirt collar’s in one spot, it’s going to slide off a little on one side or the other, or it might do something else that didn’t match. Sandrich was a real stickler for things matching, so we just did the sweater thing. I actually sewed his shirts to the sweaters so that nothing moved.”


Really, it made me think of my favorite Eames video. Then again, many things do:



What’s important and awesome about this video is that Eames is awesome. And Funny. Many of his answers are simply “No” or “I wouldn’t” (insert laughing!)

Listen in, about three minutes, when he is asked about constraints.

Q: “Does the creation of Design admit constraint?”

A: “Design depends largely on constraints.”

Q: “What constraints?”

A: “The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.”

Q: “Does Design obey laws?”

A: “Aren’t constraints enough?”

Constraints are what I would call Step Zero of Doing Design. Eames said that the mark of a designer is their willingness to accept constraints, and to design with them. The producers of the Cosby Show had a lot of constraints to deal with…but instead of working against them, they worked with them, and created a memorable impression on us all!

Open Source Innovation

While at SXSW this past week, I had the opportunity to get barraged with lots of ideas, new and old. One that keeps coming back to me in the days since I’ve been home is Open Source. What we do at The Design Gym is as open as we can make it. We bring our community of innovators to bear on the problems of real companies. Asking companies to be that open with their challenges is a big ask—we normally think that the strengths of businesses and governments comes from proprietary knowledge (patents and confidential information). But openness has it’s advantages. The classic example is NOAA – the weather data from NOAA fuels, free of charge, the 2 billion dollar weather industry.

While I missed her at SXSW, I found an older talk by Ruth Suehle where she addresses the values of Open Source. This led me to the awesome interview of Opensouce.com’s CEO Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and a general badass. You can watch him on the Daily Show talk about his book and be awesome.

His interview and Ruth’s talk covered a few principles. You’ll find that they apply not just to innovation but to life in general.

1. Community

When you make something more open, you can invite people in…and you get more ideas…not just your own. That’s why I love thinking on walls. Open source communities and projects  like Wikipedia and linux have created tremendous resources for the entire world to share. One person could not have created these resources all on their own. It’s only by inviting people to join in, and make it their own that we can inspire such productivity.

2. Sharing

It seems like every time I turn around, I hear about another company trying to make an internal knowledge sharing platform, to leverage past work and create internal efficiencies. Tools like Wikis and Yammer can help make it easier to ask around your community and share knowledge openly. Suehle uses the Open High School of Utah as an example of what happens when you make it easy for teachers to share lesson plans and insights quickly and easily. Teachers can modify, adapt and use each other’s ideas freely, fueling improvisation and innovation.

3. Meritocracy

The best ideas should win. Plain and simple!  It’s not about politics, it’s about the truth. Shelton had a great (if somewhat circular) thought on this: “You tell people the truth. You’re candid… That’s what’s great about open source, because that’s what we’re all about.”

4. Rapid prototyping

Open Source means you can take works from around you and pull them together however you can. You don’t wait for perfect…As Bre Pettis said, Perfection is the enemy of Done.

Shelton had a nice thought on that, too: “In the military you work within an acquisition and procurement system that’s bureaucratic and slow,” said Shelton. “The average time from conceptual idea to the time it’s in the hands of the troops is about seven years.” While the military was once great at innovating, they now try to take advantage of existing innovation. It’s faster and sometimes cheaper go out and select commercial, off-the-shelf capabilities that deal with the current threat and modify them as needed.

5. Transparency

Admit your mistakes. When people pitch an idea, it’s important to talk about what works and what doesn’t. Focusing only on the positive is unbalanced.

Shortly after becoming Commander of the joint Chiefs, Shelton dug into rumors about a lack readiness in various branches of the military. The numbers were embarrassing, and the chiefs advised him to not make the request to the president, to protect his legacy. Shelton stood firm. “I’d rather be known as an individual who tried and failed rather than one who met the low standards I set for myself,”

I think the flip side of transparency is comfort with failure—and knowing that failing early, cheaply and often is the best way to learn.


As you can tell, I’m excited about Open Innovation. I think it’s more productive and more transformative than closed Innovation. How can you open the doors on your next project and let the world in?


November 2012 Workout with the NY State Dept. of Health AIDS Institute

The Design Gym projects are often pretty diverse – in industry, in scale, in the knowledge needed to find interesting solutions.  We’ve worked on building physical pods that house materials for pop-up stores. We’ve developed strategies for creating greater responsibility around consumerism. This Weekend Workout provided a new dynamic and intensity that had not been experienced thus far. It instilled equal parts excitement, enthusiasm, and somber reality.

“Individuals adherent to an ART regimen (drug cocktail) can expect to live fifty years after a diagnosis of HIV whereas those not taking meds have been seen to only live six to nine months after diagnosis.”  – The Center for Disease Control

Sunday morning we were joined by Megan Haseltine of the NY State Department of Health AIDS Institute. The design brief she presented to the class was around improving medication adherence for HIV sufferers. Armed with merely a 30 minute presentation, some rapid interviews, and summarized secondary research, teams quickly began developing pointed and pertinent questions to start driving towards initial insights.

With the remainder of the day, students were tasked with using the 5-phase design process they learned only a day prior and crank on full tilt to deliver powerful solutions for their presentations that evening. Students used user-personas to identify gaps in their limited data sets and conduct follow-up interviews.  Journey maps assisted the students in understanding medication rituals and the complexity of coordinating pill intake around meals.

In the midst of madness, we like to ensure people get the nourishment to keep their bodies moving and brains ticking. Thanks to a fantastic spread of food from the Jump Kitchen, we made sure to take a break and swap stories over homemade cranberry sauce, a roasted sweet potato and kale salad and baked tofu that you need to eat to believe. We believe strongly that the quality of the ideas is in direct correlation to the quality of the food, so we shoot high.


After lunch, students pull out every last drop of energy they’ve got to crank out ideas. And lots of them.  From simple yet non-existent ideas like an analog toolkit helping sufferers avoid common pitfalls, to more complex systems of self-tracking via gamified mobile apps, student concepts cast a broad net and left our client judges wildly impressed.

There is no doubt, healthcare topics and especially ones around life threatening diseases is no easy topic. It’s big, ambiguous, and draining. The end of the day brought congratulations, relief, and some well deserved beers, but it also brought a new sense of awareness to a very real topic. These problems are the ones that need some powerful minds and a strong process more than any, and the client’s praise affirmed every last bit of it.

Here’s a quote from one of our students summarizing the weekend:

”Extremely challenging, mentally and physically exhausting but in a very worthwhile and rewarding way.  Something you should try if you want to push yourself and your thinking”