The Three Thinking Modes

June 10th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The Three thinking Modes

In many tomes about creativity, you’ll hear talk about “divergent” and “convergent” thinking. Divergent just means “lots of ideas” and Convergent just means “choosing one or a few of many”. I call those modes “open” and “close”. You *can’t* open and close at the same time. You open, then you close. The third mode is “emergent”…when you need to “explore” the possibilities.

Open, explore and close is how you get through a creative process.

Signal Opening vs. Closing

When we talk about innovation, we assume we’re trying to solve a problem, trying to come up with a solution…to fix things. But that’s assuming we know all the best options and understand the problem well. Sometimes we need to make sure we know which is supposed to happen – Does innovation mean coming up with one thing that will *work*…or is innovation making sure we have many options?

Before you jump into  brainstorming, know which you’re looking for: a good open or a good close!

Leave time for exploration

Between an open and a close lies a good solid explore, where we allow the ideas from the open mode to ripen, deepen and mature. We cross-fertilize, combine and clarify our ideas. Please, don’t leave out the explore mode! Most groups do. We love to close. And we love to open. But Exploration takes time and effort…but if you want fresh thinking, make time for it.


1. 100 USES FOR…

We often use “100 uses for…” as a way to get creative juices going and sometimes to prime a team to tackle a challenge. When I was in design school, one of my professors had a “100 ways to serve pizza” assignment. Everyone was given a pack of 100 paper plates and had to draw a serious or silly way of serving pizza. That was a week-long assignment, and people really saw how hard it was to come up with a 100…you had to think outside the box! When working with groups, we’ll call the game “100 uses for…” but give them only 5 minutes! The prompt can be pizza, a log, or something more relevant. When doing a workshop with our friends at KeyMe, we used the prompt “100 uses for a key” to get people thinking about their challenge.


Fruit party is a fun game that can be used to teach a variety of innovation themes, from the importance of generation and combinatory innovation to the idea of there being “no bad ideas.”

Team members each choose a fruit, with no duplicates. I’ve played this game with 15-50 and it works well in both cases. I then have people arrange themselves by various criterion – color, size, cost then by flavor. I’ll then select three or four people, representing different fruits and ask what fruit mix they are. Sometimes the combination sounds good, sometimes it doesn’t! Each time I ask what useful purpose the combination can make.


Groups always want to talk first…I just don’t let them! The simplicity of this game is that you provide the generation template – full size paper, post-its, how many elements each concept needs to have, etc.

“100 uses for…” is a generate and share game. People don’t call out ideas, they write them down! And we give rules, like one post-it per idea and ideas with words AND pictures are better.  Deciding what you want the team to generate and then making a simple template for it is an easy way to get started.


I use this with teams all the time as way to clarify their thinking on an issue. A team was having a discussion about the new employee onboarding process and was getting bogged down trying to generate features, workflows and concepts. Giving them 5 minutes to generate and share what the onboarding process should “always be like” and then generating what it should “never be like” made a clear visual word and concept map that sparked features, workflows and concepts more easily.


When teams have generated ideas or concepts, mixing and matching is a great way to get them to go further. Fruit Party can teach the principles of this, but doing a round of Franken Ideation can help them dig deeper. Have each team member grab 2-3 post-its representing ideas or concepts from the wall, and to not think too much about which ones. What will combining these ideas give us?

Once, during a color-generating teaching exercise, a participant took “Green Sweater” and “Campfire Orange” to make “Singed Wool”. This process based mixing is creatively different from literally mixing these two colors…and far more creative! Doing this with more high level ideas is hard, but will get your team to unique ideas. Remember, even bad ideas can be good ideas if we look at them right!

Service Design Blueprints

April 8th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Reposting an article I wrote for TDG on Service Design tools….it seemed worthwhile to share a few more tools from our research on the web and from our other friends in the design world, since people have been asking about it.


We see Design Thinking, Service Design and Experience Design as overlapping so strongly with an underlying process and outlook on users so similar, that we don’t make a strong’s just a way of thinking about experiences, with varying inputs and outputs.

Some people think that’s overreach…for us at The Design Gym, Design is Design and the fundamental thought processes are tools that everyone can use to create real change, however they choose to. That process is helped along by the tools of Design Thinking.

So…What are the fundamentals of Service Design Thinking?

1. Map, then Design with Flows

One of the most powerful Ideas we’ve learned from Service Design Blueprinting is the concept of a “front” and a “back” of a business. The front is what the user sees and feels, the back is how you make the magic happen. The boundary of seen and unseen is the crucial interface and there’s a lot of design that happens there: the customer experience is defined in that boundary. But exposing deeper, unseen parts of the interaction to the user can change the experience drastically. If you’ve ever sat at a chef’s table in a restaurant, you know what we mean – you see deeper into the creation of the experience you’re having and it changes it for you.

2. Mental Models of how to observe and create experiences

Service Design models give you a lens on the wold of user experience and when you look *through* that lens, you see the world differently. We sometimes use the A-E-I-O-U model: Activities, Experience, Interactions, Objects and Users to help people “see” all the elements of the experience at play. We call it a “low barrier research method” because you can often shadow a process with minimal intrusion.

Observation Template

In the PDF linked below from Izac, a touchpoint palette of People, Props, Place, Partners and Process is described. Is one right? Not at all! Your milage may vary, or you might find one model more appropriate to the culture of your research group. You can download a PDF of his here, and an awesome presentation  of his is below.

3. Experience Cycle Thinking

When designing products, the temptation is to focus on flows…mainly because we are often designing for conversion…that is, we want people to “do” something. Usually that means buying something. But service design thinking borrows from experience design a very important model of engagement that is fundamentally different. Rather than a funnel, we have an experience cycle. The image below is from Izac’s awesome PDF linked above. If you want a reusable template, you can download an experience map template here.

Download the Experience Mapping Template


When asking people to design services, it’s really powerful to get them to focus on the *whole* cycle as well as to dig into each phase of the experience. This is fractal and holistic thinking and can really transform your design approach. Below is a picture from a workshop where teams mapped positive, neutral and negative experiences across the experience arc…they then used this map to decide where to build a design intervention.



Going Past Empathy: The Four levels of Listening and How you can listen your way to innovation

February 10th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Repost from a an article I wrote for TDG

Listening can generate real change, produce unexpected outcomes…and foster real innovation. Creating real change is what we’re all here to do…we haven’t met a single person coming through the doors of The Design Gym who was willing to say “yes, the status quo is awesome.”

So since we all agree that creating change is what it’s all about, how do we do it?

Level 0: Cosmetic Listening

We might call the lowest level of listening Cosmetic Listening, with no offense to the cosmetics industry. This is what we’re doing when someone asks “Are you even listening?” and your brain can actually repeat back the last 3-7 words the person said. Some part of your brain is actually collecting words…but no meaning. It’s pretend listening, and it doesn’t get you far. How do you move from Cosmetic listening into deeper levels of listening? Actually paying attention is a good first step.


In this mode, you’re gathering facts, but selectively…you’re listening to double-check what you already know and not expecting any surprises.

Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, once said,

“I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions.”

If real communication is in both directions, downloading falls short by about 50%.
This type of listening is broken, because both sides are not very present. The talker is just talking. The listener is just listening, and both are in a habitual role. You also can’t use this information to foster innovation because of the famous quote no one said:

“If I asked my users what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”

Firstly, neither Henry Ford nor Steve Jobs said that. But it’s true, in a way. If you ask someone to list all of the issues that they have with travel, they can give you a download. You might find some pain points that you can quickly fix and get to some improvements…but you won’t change the game.

How to move past this mode:

If you find yourself being a talker on the side of downloading, make sure you ask the listener what they want and need to hear. As a listener, you can break downloading with a step back from details to the big picture.

LEVEL 2: Conversational

In a conversation, we’re expected to respond to what we’re hearing with encouragement, opinions or advice. In fact, we’re mostly listening *in order to respond*. In a conversational mode of listening we try to notice new things, pick out details and be generally attentive. In a good conversation, both parties speak a fair amount and listen a fair amount. No one is keeping track…until someone realizes that the other is taking advantage of the situation. Over time, we might be less likely to seek out conversations with those people who suck up all the attention in a conversation. Many people work pretty hard to be good conversationalists…so why should we try to move past this mode? If we’re seeking to really understand the other, we have to work to remove ourselves from the conversation. Don’t worry…in Level 4 you’ll get to reappear!

How to move past this mode:

Instead of a 50/50 split, try to talk 10% of the time! Use silence selectively and don’t try to fill the pauses in the conversation. Once you slow down the pace a little, you can focus on the skills of the next level, Empathizing, below!


We spend a lot of time in our workshops helping people work on this mode of listening. Empathic listening is listening for the place the other person is speaking from. It’s not about facts, but about experiencing/sensing an emotional connection. You go past the facts of “Downloading” listening and begin to understand the context of the facts. A list of pain points you get from your users doesn’t help you figure out which ones to address first..and why it is a problem in the first place.

How to Master this mode:

1. Pay attention

Give the speaker your undivided attention, and let distracting thoughts go. You may start to build counter arguments or piece things together…you should let that effort relax. Focus on being present.

2. Slow down and Be patient

Learn the power of the pause and don’t rush to fill the silence. Allow the other person an extra second to think. You’ll get more unexpected information from what comes after the silence than the follow up question you’re polishing in your head.

3. Defer judgment

Personal assumptions and filters can distort what we hear. Listen to learn, instead of judge.

How to move past this mode:

Empathy implies that you’re over there, and I’m here, listening to you. Empathy drives deeper into the heart of the matter, but empathy is just the start.  You can use Empathy to drive the desire to innovate and a reason to try…with stories of real people affected by real challenges, much more than dry facts. But in order to change how things are done, we need to be surprised. That’s the next mode of listening.

tweet-graphic-4Going Past Empathy: The Four levels of Listening and How you can listen your way to innovation

LEVEL 4: Emergent

In Empathic listening, we’re paying attention…but we’re often cautioned to leave ourselves out of it. With mantras of “The user is not like me” we listen intently to “get” their mental models.

Emergent listening can feel a little like a hybrid of conversational and empathic listening, in that you ask about certain things because they are interesting. Because you begin to care. Because you start to see pieces fitting together. Otto Scharmer of the Presencing Institute describes this sort of listening as

Connecting to the emerging future – to a future possibility that links to your emerging self; to who you really are.

In Emergent Listening, you enter a realm of possibility…and commitment to that possibility. That’s when we begin to form insights, not just about the present problem, but pathways to the future. We get excited about the possibilities!

Be an active listener

The active questions you bring will allow for your “listenee” to uncover unexpected emergent possibilities and outcomes. We often think we have to solve problems when we’re listening to people. We do an active listening exercise where one person shares a recent challenge and all the listener is allowed to say is:
I’m hearing you say “_____”…. Is that right? (where “____” is a reflective summary of what they heard)
In only two minutes, the listening pairs get pretty deep into the heart of their challenge rapidly. Rather than “fixing” the problem, the real issues get uncovered.

Where is your focus?

In listening levels 0-2 the focus is on yourself or the other self. I’m Listening, you’re talking. There are facts. Check. Check. Check.
Level 3 is focused purely on the other. You put yourself aside and let the other speak deeply. They feel “listened to”, while level 4 is focused on the whole.
Listening and innovation
All too often, we rush to solutioning. We see a problem and we want to get to a solid solution quickly. It’s hard to pump the brakes and ask

“are we solving the right problem?”
“What are possible unintended outcomes of a solution?”

Ideas and solutions need to be stretched out and listened to more deeply. We are always tempted to download the facts and get cracking on a solution. That kind of listening may solve the problem, but will never innovate on it.
Empathy is an essential first step to being a great innovator…the more deeply you listen, the deeper your insights for innovation. But Emergent listening gets us back in the picture, actively participating in a what those insights are, allowing us to be surprised by the possibilities.

5 ways to innovate using better questions

January 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Innovation is something that so many companies clamor for. And why shouldn’t they? In the fast-moving world of business you need an edge to help you stay ahead…and coming up with a new product or service that no one else has, or doing it in a fresh way, can help you stay ahead. But most people come at the question of innovation straight on. ..asking the question “How can we innovate X?” It’s a hard question to answer, like being gathered into a room and told to “Think outside the box!”

tweet-graphic-4If you want to Innovate, ask a question with more than one good answer


Here’s an example. A company we’re doing a series of workshops with asked us to help them work through what happens when they reject someone who’s applied for their service. Think Health Care, Banking…it’s not very nice when you get turned down for something important like a loan or health insurance. They had the data on this (people were indeed unhappy when they were rejected) and wanted to fix it.

So… “How can we do this in a new way?” The answer that they were working with was “Let’s revise the wordings of the turn down letters!” which is a very straight way to come at the problem – you fix it!
We asked them “What else do people apply and sometimes get rejected for, and what can we learn from that?” This is the reframing of the question from one that comes straight at the challenge into one that opens the challenge up, broadens it, makes it something we can come at more easily. The teams brainstormed other places in our lives that we apply for things: apartments, jobs, college, marriage…and then went out and asked people about their experiences with applying for these things. Then we asked how we could develop principles around transforming the application process from a single event into a relationship.

Read on for five ways you can reframe questions to spur innovation!

At The Design Gym, we love to do an activity where we invite someone up to the front of the room to tell a story about the airline industry. (Why? Because *everyone* has a good story about air travel!) We then ask people to identify the pain points and pleasure points in the story and the group uses those for inspiration for innovation. Once, someone told a story about getting an extra mini-bottle of booze from the flight attendant. They were stoked because it was an unexpected delight. The facilitator of the group asked “what else can the airline industry do to produce unexpected delight?” That question spurred some very creative answers!

  1. Create Design Principles

  2. In this case, we took a single positive experience and asked how we could make it into a guiding principle of the entire system. What would it look like if everyone in the customer journey at an airline was looking to create unexpected delight? You’re probably thinking of several ways right now!
    Sometimes we get teams to generate design principles through making an Always/Never list… asking what the system should “Always do” and “Never do”. Those principles can help teams think big first, then drill down into how to make them live in the system every day.

  3. Map the user journey

  4. Another story involved a man’s recollection of travelling as a kid, getting separated from his family and getting seated next to a stranger. He fell asleep, leaning against the stranger, and woke up to find he had drooled all over the stranger’s sleeve. The horror!
    The other people in the group decided that there were a few main ways to solve this challenge…and it was all about time. If we worked back, we could prevent the problem at various times, in various ways. Looking at the journey of the kid, we could ask:
    “Why did he get separated from his family?” …Which is pretty early down the road to fixing the problem. He wouldn’t feel as bad sleeping and drooling on his own mother, right?
    “Why can’t we seat him with other droolers?” …Which fixes the problem one step further down the journey. He’s been separated, but we can contain the mistake. This might be hard to implement (and may even be illegal) but we don’t want to eliminate any options this early on in the process.
    “Why can’t we give everyone a drool-catching mask?”… Which fixes the problem *way* down the line…we’ve missed a few other chances, but we can still save the day!
    Problems are not singular…they are a continuums. If we map out the user journey, we can find many places to innovate.
    Tweet: Problems are not singular…they are a continuums. If we map out the user journey, we can find many places to innovate.

  5. Drool is Cool

  6. After all these ideas came up, were written on post-its and mapped out, someone wrote down “Drool is Cool” and placed it at the center of the board. This blew all of our minds. The whole time, we had been trying to *fix* the problem…how can we contain or avoid the drool in the right ways, places and times? But this person was asking how can we make it *awesome* that drooling happened? It’s maybe impossible, for sure it’s hard…but man, oh, man…that really changes the way we look at the problem. That’s what we did with the company’s rejection question…how can rejection be a positive thing, not a negative experience?

  7. Great Artist Steal

  8. Innovation is hard if you are trying to solve a problem no one else has ever tried to solve. Luckily, that’s rarely the case. Many problems have been solved in some way, shape or form…maybe not in your own industry, but someone, somewhere, has thought about the same or similar issues that you’re struggling with. That’s why people like Maria Popova from Brain Pickings talks about Combinatorial Creativity and Tina Seelig from Stamford talks about innovation as quit-making rather than puzzle solving. So look at your neighbors, down the road and across the street and see how they might be solving similar issues.
    On the train down to that workshop on rejection, we got into a conversation with our neighbor, who was a research scientist in molecular biology. We asked him how scientists handle rejection. He told us about the peer review process, and how you submit papers to be published, and how you get constructive feedback from a number of people. In science, rejection comes with a “No, And…” that helps you move forward and get better. Asking how our client could learn from the peer review process opened a lot of avenues for innovation.

  9. What would Google do…and why?

Stealing from your neighbors is a great way to bring unexpected solutions to bear on your own challenges. It’s subtly different from asking “what would google do with our current challenge?” and is a great way to reframe your challenges quickly.
Here’s how it works: We ask groups to write down 4-8 companies they admire on a piece of paper divided in quarters (or eighths) and then, once they’ve written them all down, we ask them to write why. Lots of people will write down “Apple”…but the Why is always different. One participant said “they deliver on a promise of quality.” Another participant mentioned J.Crew, because they were always timely and relevant in their marketing communications (this was a workshop on marketing challenges).
Choosing a few of these Who-and-Why combinations as focus points for a brainstorm can provide some fresh energy and perspective on how to innovate and evolve your company’s approach to its challenges.
Don’t come straight at the question…reframe it, in order to find fresh solutions. If you ask question with more than one good answer…and you’ll be surprised by what you can find.

tweet-graphic-4If you want to Innovate, ask a question with more than one good answer

The Best ideas should win, not just the loudest

December 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

repost from a TDG post I wrote

Hearing Every voice in the room

In our last newsletter, we talked about how solving the world’s biggest problems take ensembles, not soloists.
That’s true because we almost always are working on a team, where no one person gets to be the final “decider”. You can argue that this situation is bad, and that we should vote you dictator (at least for a day), but that rarely solves the real problem. In meetings, in groups, *all* the voices in the room have to be heard and real consensus matters.

Tweet: “When we listen to all the voices in the room, the best ideas win, not just the loudest”

How to beat groupthink

“But a camel is just a horse designed by committee!” we hear you grumble. You don’t want that! (unless you’re crossing the desert, but that’s another story)
Solomon Asch did an experiment in the 1950s that showed you could use conformity and groupthink to make people go from 97% accurate when working independently to 25% accurate when manipulated by their group. That’s a pretty powerful effect. How do we avoid groupthink making us all dumb?

Radical collaboration: The Studio Project

At The Design Gym, we believe that people and companies can (and should!) reach outside their boundaries to solve their biggest challenges better than they can alone. The Studio Project creates pop-up innovation labs  where people like you and amazing companies come together to solve deep challenges.
We *have* to collaborate to accomplish great things, but we can’t afford to go with an average, or business as usual solution.
Read on for 3 ways to beat Groupthink in your next collaboration.

The Three anti-Groupthink tools

1. Writing before talking

We teach at The Design Gym that “If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” This is important because it keeps ideas visual and allows us to move ideas like objects and create new information from that process.


Tweet: “If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen”


Kick off meetings with everyone writing down their ideas *before* the group shares out. Share the challenge, the purpose of the meeting, and allow everyone to capture 3-10 post-its with their own views on the real problem statement and their own view of the solutions. Share those out and work from them

2. What does good look like?

We’ve heard teams judge ideas against simplicity, cost, ease for the company, ease for the user…and so many more…without talking about *why* first. We all have our own model of what good looks like. We often ask groups to sort ideas against impact and enthusiasm, because we believe the best ideas should be great for the company and their customers and energizing for the company’s staff. Your team has to align on why an idea is good. Explicate that separately from the ideas themselves and you’ll find that alignment can be much easier. Idea generation can be easier that way, too.



Tweet: “The best ideas balance impact and enthusiasm”


3. Appoint a facilitator

It’s easy to forget this one. A facilitator isn’t a decider or a dictator. They help keep a team honest on time, goals and process.
You can take a class on facilitation with us (see when the next one is happening on our calendar here) or just start trying to use these best practices one at a time. Take turns being facilitators…you’ll each learn something from each person’s strengths and challenges.

Even more important, it’s essential to realize that the best ideas are the ones that work. And “work” means works for the company, for the team and your customers. Fighting for an idealized “best” idea at the cost of your team’s peace of mind just isn’t worth it. When we listen to all the voices in the room, the best ideas win, not just the loudest.


Tweet: “When we listen to all the voices in the room, the best ideas win, not just the loudest”


Solving The World’s Biggest Problems Takes Ensembles, Not Soloists

November 30th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

repost from an article I wrote for TDG

Band together

Being a soloist is fun…you get to flex your skills and shine. But music isn’t made by soloists alone…and it’s not enough to be great at your instrument. To make it with a band and make a big, rich sound, you have to listen to others, and know when to mesh and harmonize and when to give others the freedom to shine. A great band beats a great soloist, pushing past the capabilities of one person.

Innovation is a team sport

The same holds true for innovation. We read about the greats: Jobs, Gates, Edison…but no one makes it on their own very far. Each and every great was backed by a band…and sometimes a band of equals. So how do we form “Innovation Bands”? What’s the glue for creative collaboration?

The Studio Project

At The Design Gym, we believe that people and companies have to reach outside their boundaries to solve their biggest challenges. The Studio Project creates pop-up innovation labs where people and companies can work together to solve sticky challenges. Collaboration is a mindset, embodies core values and takes certain skills. Read on for 5 values and 5 skills to make your next collaboration soar.

The Five Core Collaboration Skills

1. Yes, AND

If you know about “Not invented Here Syndrome”, The attitude of “Yes, And” can help avoid it. Sometimes collaborations are hard because we want to be right…but helping magnify, develop and deepen the ideas of others is  a core skill of successful collaborations. Instead of finding the holes, flaws and shortcomings of ideas, take a second to try out “Yes, And” and see if the idea has some legs after all.

2. Open vs. Close

Are we trying to start or finish? What’s our goal for the team, right now? If someone is trying to launch and someone else is trying to build a new launching pad, we’re not collaborating. It’s SO essential to close: to finish a project on time and on budget….but only after we’re all aligned on the project goals. A good OPEN helps make sure all the ideas are on the table and everyone is heard, and allows us to start aligning on how we want to CLOSE.

3. Keep it Visual

It’s easy to forget this one. If we just talk and never capture our conversation on the wall, it’s hard to know what happened at the end of a meeting. Assign someone to be the chief scribe…but make it everyone’s responsibility to write ideas down! As we say, a drawing is worth Thousands of words. So get better at that!

4. Needs over Solutions

Solutions are easy to get wrong….The aisles of Walmart and Best Buy  are littered with products that fall short. But needs are based on people and are never wrong, because they’re real. Focus on the needs you’re meeting, refine and distil them down. You might still launch a solution that fails to meet the need you defined…but if you define the need incorrectly, there’s little hope for success!

5. Testing over Talking

There comes a point (and it’s always earlier than people think) when it’s time to try out your ideas rather than  talk about them. There are many, many ways to make ideas more real…acting them out, making a video or a mocked Press Release. Check out our Experiment Category in the blog for some perspectives on how to prototype and when.


The Five Core Collaboration Values

One essential fact of collaboration is that we don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, stealing the answers isn’t stealing at all…it’s more like sharing. So the five core values of collaboration below, in the spirit of collaboration, are taken from the MDG Health Alliance. In the last seven years, a global collective was set up by Ray Chambers, the U.N. Special Envoy to the Secretary General for Health Finance and Malaria  which   focused on malaria. This group reduced the number of deaths per year from 900,000 to 400,000—and the goal of zero deaths is now within sight. The collaboration also birthed the MDG Health Alliance, which has helped form collaborations around programs focused on preventing mother-child transmission of AIDS, improving child and maternal health, and other initiatives.

The office defined a core set of values to unify and guide its activities. These values, as stated by the members of the MDG Health Alliance, include:

Use trust as a basis for change. 

Honesty and integrity drive our relationships, always.

Empower partners.

Collaboration is the most important way to achieve the scale and impact we seek. We minimize our “need to be right” and remain adaptable and flexible.

Focus on game-changing opportunities.

We only pursue levers for bold, catalytic change. We work toward measurable results with a sense of urgency.

Uphold purity of our purpose.

We remain independent and keep everyone’s right to a healthy life at the center of our work. We have empathy and compassion for those we serve.

Inspire and actively support one another

We treat each other with care, form strong bonds and find joy in the day to day.


These are big ideals…and there is some overlap between the MDG values and our collaboration skills…but big ideals are needed to solve big problems. Your next project might not be solving malaria, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to think big and shoot for the stars!


Many thanks to Jeff Walker, whose article inspired this one

Visual Thinking

November 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Sometimes people say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But drawing is worth Thousands of words.


Because there is simply no better (or faster) way to communicate what you mean to your team. Often in meetings there’s a lot of handwaving and conversation…and at the end what is remembered? Being active about capturing your ideas visually can make it possible at the end of the day to look around the room and see where you’ve gotten to.

If you ask a group of 6 year olds to raise their hands if they’re an artist, you’ll see a room full of raised hands. Ask a room full of adults and you’ll see very few.

All it takes to communicate your ideas is to be able to draw like a six-year-old!

At The Design Gym we’re passionate about giving people to tools to create change, so here’s five ways you can use drawing to transform your day.


1. One idea per Sticky Note

When you capture all your ideas in a list on one sticky, all you can do is stick your ideas on the wall! When you and your team *all* write ideas on stickies, you can move them around, put like with like, draw connections. When you capture ideas on stickies, they become objects to be manipulated. The organization on the board becomes new information.

2. Write in Capital letters

man, oh man…We tell people this all the time. If you just take an extra second or two to write in capital letters OTHER PEOPLE can read your ideas. On email (and blogs) capitals can look like shouting (sorry for shouting there…) but on drawings and stickies, caps just means legibility.

[big_button_green url=””] Download (and use) The Visual Workpack [/big_button_green]

or Order The Physical Cards Here!

3. Uses words AND pictures together

Without the words, this is just a sketch of some people. It’s actually *hard* to draw people that are badass. But once you write “we are badass” under those people…we know what’s what. Words are not a cheat…they turn drawings into comics!


4. Idea Boards

We’re a big fan of templates at The Design Gym for lots of reasons. When we ask people to generate ideas, we often generate a template first. That way, when we scan a wall full of ideas, we can compare apples to apples. Decide ahead of time what 3-4 components you want each idea to cover, mock up the section headers in powerpoint and print out a bunch…or ask people to make their own on the fly. Either way, you’ll help people think through their concepts better and be able to facilitate a better discussion.


5. Thinking, Sharing, Showing

This one is courtesy of our pal @ayraydel…there isn’t one type of drawing…there are at least three types. There’s Thinking drawings and sketches, where you’re working things out for yourself, developing ideas. Then there’s Sharing drawings…where maybe you combine and incorporate a few ideas…and expect that someone else will mark up and collaborate with you on your drawing. It’s when you expose your ideas and let go a bit. Showing Sketches are all about making something a bit bigger and better to be able to share with more people. These sorts of drawings can take a bit more time, but are worth the effort! Below is a final drawing board from the last session of the Studio project.  It took some time and effort, but it really communicates!

2014-08-13 20.08.50


Drawing isn’t just something to use on yourself and your team…using it in your research with stakeholders and users can be transformative, too. This is from a great article on LinkedIn from Tim Brown

Here’s an example of how drawing helped us refine a business strategy for a client: Many years ago, when online banking was still in its infancy, a start-up called Juniper Financial asked IDEO if we thought banks still needed buildings, vaults, and tellers. The team wanted to understand how people thought about money. But that’s harder than it sounds. You can observe customers paying bills or withdrawing cash, but it’s tough to scan their brains while they’re at it.

Instead, the team asked people to draw their money. One woman penned little Monopoly-style houses that represented her family, 401(k), and rental properties. The team dubbed her “The Pathfinder” since she was focused on long-term security.

Another woman drew a pile of money and a pile of things. “I get money and I buy stuff,” she told the team. She became “The Onlooker” who focused on day-to-day finances instead of long-term goals.

6. Just Draw more

This is a bonus…and an easy one. The more you draw the easier it gets. So buy a notebook and get cracking…and check out our Visual Thinking Workpack!

What’s your trajectory?

July 22nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink


Spend a worthwhile few moments reading the source article for these thoughts here. He’s taken the time to scrape the rotten tomatoes ratings for a number of directors and plotted them over time.

  • Obviously, no one wants to have a trajectory like M. Night Shyamalan, looking backwards from today. Maybe back in the day, after seeing Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, it would be easy to get excited about what was next…but that hope seems to have faded fast.

What’s interesting is looking at greats like Coppola and Scorsese…what is going on here?

The writer suggests:

notice the alternating series of successful and not-so successful movies to the right of the charts.  Looks like after they made their masterpieces, they have struggled a bit to find good material.

Which is an interesting hypothesis…another thought is that after a blockbuster, they tried more risky projects, and overshot. Or did they get cocky? In comparing Kubrick to Friedkin, he offers:

how can the same guy that made The French Connection and The Exorcist spend the rest of his career making such inconsistent movies?  Not just unsuccessful movies, but horrible movies.  It’s as if he has no filter for taking on bad projects – he just takes whatever comes his way.  Sometimes he gets lucky – and sometimes he is stuck with garbage. Compare this to how surgically focused Kubrick was in choosing his material.

These graphs really have me thinking about focus, editing, choice and consistency. Not that consistency is a virtue in an of itself. I think Scorsese varies…but is always excellent. I certainly don’t want to be someone with one good idea and a slow decline!

A commenter offered his own “Filmmaker Credibility Graph” which doesn’t use data, but opinion, but is nevertheless interesting.


What’s good to take away here is the “hot start” seems to create an expectation gap…the sophomore slump, if you will. The real task of growth is, perhaps, how to handle success, more that how to recover from failure.

The article above has sparked some strong voices from my circle to friends. Worthwhile thoughts listed below.


Good is hard, and CONSISTENT goodness is very hard.  But do we punish intermittent failure?  Should we?

Is Kubrick a better director than Coppola because he didn’t make bad movies?  Or is Coppola known for his hits, and not misses?

– Jason M.

Rob offered this, with no comment:

This is from Roger Avery, Screenwriter and Tarrantino co conspirator:

John Milius once told me a story that went something like this (and I’m doing my best to paraphrase here): Stanley Kubrick called him up one day, wanting some advice on buying “the best handgun ever produced.” Obviously, Milius is the guy you call when you want to buy a gun. His one requirement was that the weapon must have “never been fired.” Milius thought about it, and told him that it would be a Colt .45 Special produced in 1942. He then warned Kubrick that to find this particular handgun in mint condition would be nearly impossible. “Money is no object!” Kubrick told him. Months passed and eventually Kubrick received a call from Milius: “Stanley,” he told him, “I found the gun. Not only has it never been fired, but it’s in the original box!” Kubrick was delighted, money changed hands, and the gun was shipped to England, where Kubrick lived. A few months later, Milius calls Kubrick to ask “How did you like the gun?” To which Kubrick responded, “Oh! I love it! I re-bored the barrel and realigned the bead, swapped out the Mahogany handle for Mother of Pearl, changed out the hammer, and swapped out the pins.” Milius was aghast, “You’ve — you’ve — you’ve destroyed it!” To which Kubrick responded “NO! I MADE IT BETTER!”

Peter suggested:

Good is hard. So many things have to come together for a good movie. Even an amazing director can’t always align plot with script with actors with lighting with sound with etc etc etc.

A good baseball player gets a hit only 30% of the time.

And Carl stood firm:



An amazing director makes things come together – that’s the whole point.

It’s the artist vs. the business vs. having a good producer (who tells the director they are being an idiot)

The art side of things abandons projects where the plot, actors, lighting sound, etc. don’t match up. That’s part of Kubrick’s success. If a film couldn’t match the vision – he’d walk away from it.

Though – Francis Ford – who is generally amazing – totally made a terrible film in "One from the heart" because he got so caught up in the artifice of it – it’s an amazing musical – about kind of vapid people.

Good is hard. So hard it’s nearly impossible.


There’s some other Kubrick quote about not being able to fake a rock – the need for the right rocks in a shot – and the fake ones being obviously fake and therefore wrong for being the background of a shot. Control!

Putting out a failure instead of walking away from it is a choice. Struggle! Also being delusional about the superiority of your own art.

It’s not that one is better than other the other (only highs, some highs/some lows) it’s just that you can choose to only do one type of work.

It’s not a choice people most people have the luxury or discipline to make

Timeboxing and Artifact Making

April 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Right smack in the middle of this video is some solid working-style advice. When I’m truly stuck, I use it. Chunking my day up into blocks, taking out my cellphone and timing those blocks and *not cheating* really helps. The pomodoro technique is one way to do it (there are tons of smartphone apps to help!) But when I’m designing workshops for others to go through I timebox even more assiduously. I’ll break a 2 hour workshop into 5 minute chunks in an excel document I use to track and sum up the time blocks so I know it all adds up. And with each chunk, I ask myself what each person and team will be making, seeing or sharing at each inflection point. That’s one reason why we make so many worksheets here at Design Gym central…getting people to write down their insights on paper can help create clarity and consensus where it seemed impossible a few minutes before. When teams have done their initial research phase and have taken the time to organize and visualize what it all means, we ask people to take a step back and fill out an “insights mad lib”

We thought _______ But we saw _______ Now we realize _____

I’ve used a few variations on that over time, depending on my mood and the goals of the exercise. Often I’ll ask teams to add a visual diagram of their insight. The point is, teams feel all over the place, like they need more time to agree on what they really learned. But when I ask them to sit down and work alone for 5 minutes on their own insights, when they share them out to each other, there is always amazing overlap. Taking the time to timebox and create an artifact will always move the conversation forward and help us see where we are. More time to think and talk seems like a great idea, but taking time to make things is essential.

The Problem with Sexy: Businesses versus StartUps

March 12th, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

Reading this article in the New York times today, I can’t help but think that they are mostly right and a lot wrong. But maybe that’s because my circle of people is on the vanguard of the backlash?

If you haven’t read the NY Times today, it’s about Software vs. hardware, Enterprise vs. Consumerism.

As an enterprise start-up, Meraki has been impeded by its distance from the web scene. It simply does not have the same recognition as a consumer company whose products users (and potential recruits) interact with every day. “You say, ‘I work at Pinterest,’ and people know what that is — they use Pinterest,” Biswas said. “You tell them you work at Meraki, and they’re a little more reserved. They’re like, ‘What’s that?’

We know about Pinterest, Facebook, Google…we don’t always know how they make money, but we know they are big, and getting bigger…and it’s easy to attract talent when you can spend 19 Billion on an acquisition of a company like Snapchat!

Meraki, one of the companies featured in the article, make routers. What’s sexy about that? Not much…except that the internet runs on them. That lack of sex appeal makes it hard to attract top talent.

The brain drain from workaday to sexy is continuous. Back in the 1910s, my great-grandfather was a penny stock broker….he never made as much money as The Wolf of Wall Street…and his brother, the Rabbi and his other brother, the teacher, got more respect in the community that he did, even though he helped put them all through school.

In 100 years, the situation has flipped. Money and scale matters more than sustainability and humanity. The best and brightest would rather work in tech, at a startup or in high finance. I’m here in StartUp Chile and I see that so many startups are chasing the same things – and it’s not always clear why we need more ticket, travel and car rental deals, more professional exchange platforms. But many of the startups are trying to do something extraordinary – build new medical devices, raise money for health care costs.

Yesterday I saw Bureo Skateboards present to a large group, and I was impressed by their drive and vision. They are putting in tremendous work – six months and $40,000 (or more) from StartUP Chile to produce a prototype that they hope to crowdfund, and create a virtuous circle, removing some waste from the waste stream and making a product people love.

Will Bureo become a business? Right now, it’s a vision, an idea, momentum. It’s not a sustainable business, supporting it’s creators now and for the near future. Startups are ideas and are sexy. Businesses require sustained effort and, consequently, are *less* exciting!

How can we make the shift back to sustainability, where work and consistency are more valued than flash and scale?

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