Category: People

A critical designer’s favorite muse

Posted by:
Lena Blackstock

This is my fifth post inspired by one of the essays in the book “Design Anthropology – Object Culture in the 21st Century” by Alison J. Clarke. This chapter “The anthropological object in design: from Victor Papanek to Superstudio” is written by Alison J. Clarke (the mastermind herself).

I, like many, many others, have always found the designs by the iconic Charles and Ray Eames to be inspiring (to say the least).

The older I got and the more involved in the design community I became, the more I understood and appreciated the beauty of form and function in sync. I developed a lasting fascination with innovative and functional household and kitchen products and a love for simplistic, modern furniture and architecture. I think this appreciation came about mostly through my habit of what I would call “obsessive observing and analyzing” of my surroundings (and with that, it’s objects) and by exploring what the great designers who came before have accomplished.

So very fittingly, this chapter by Alison J. Clarke “explores the historical relation of design to anthropology, its objects and methodologies” and she points out that the tools and objects we use in our lives are much more meaningful once understood in the context of the user and society. Clarke explains that “objects and tools represent a particular field of investigation; they lend themselves much better to being used as keys in the interpretation of complex relationships. Objects are the direct witness of the creative drive.”

It is well known that the Eames’ had a very anthropological approach to their design and Clarke refers to design historian Pat Kirmham, who knew that they were influenced by the mixing of objects of authentic origin and popular culture. “The Eames’ changed the way people thought about objects, largely by presenting them in new ways and by encouraging different ways of perceiving, grouping, and displaying them […] they used toys and everyday objects to illustrate design principles […] and they emphasized the need to understand the contexts in which material culture was produced and used.”

In another happy coincidence, I am currently reading “An Eames Primer” by Eames Demetrios, who is Charles and Ray’s grandson. In this book, he “offers an in-depth look at the couple’s prolific legacy – one that has placed them among the most important American designers of the twentieth century.”

My husband and I both share an immense respect and admiration for what Charles and Ray Eames accomplished and for the life they led. I love the Eames’ belief that “design is a process, rather than a single outcome – a process that’s never really over.” The Eames’, in my eyes, were real Design Ethnographers. They believed that you learn by doing and that through the process of one project a new project is often born (“each iteration offered another opportunity to hone the material tighter and tighter”). They understood that photography was an integral part of the design process as it was a way of discovering and exploring. And even when a task required new skills, the Eames office would “rather learn how to do it themselves than send it out.”

The author of this chapter suggests that “there has been a seismic shift in design culture of the last decades, whereby ‘users’ and methods of anthropological inquiry have emerged as the key means of deciphering the nuances of object/subject relations. But the anthropological object (…) has long been the critical designer’s favorite muse.

Eames Demetrios has a unique perspective on Charles and Ray’s work and life; he truly understands their slogan ‘innovate as a last resort’. Nowadays, many people throw around the word ‘innovation’ and call on companies to strive for innovation above all else. But I think today’s understanding of the term ‘innovation’ doesn’t take into account the things to be learned from the Eames’ approach. To them, “the danger of innovation was the chance of losing the wisdom that had gone into the development of the idea to that point.”

A critical designer therefore understands that our everyday objects can only be truly understood within the context of the user and he gains wisdom from the process of developing an idea or product.

A Vision of Loveliness

Posted by:
Isabella Medina

We’ve had some conversations in the office lately about vision.  Lots of aspects of vision – the forward-looking kind that gives us goals and motivation, but also the physical kind – the kind you enjoy when your eyes and all their related parts – nerves, brain cells, etcetera – are doing their job well.  (Pretty amazing stuff!)

I’m fairly sure that vision is my favorite sense of the physical ones we are blessed with.  Thinking about it reminded me of a story – a small experience I had long ago, but one that felt significant to me.  I thought I’d share it here:

It was a sunny day in Boston.  Lunchtime.  I was walking down the street in the shopping district near my office, past cute little shops, eateries, and utilitarian places like CVS and the local bank.  Then I reached the monolithic pair – Jordan Marsh on the left, Filene’s on the right.  So similar, yet so competitive.  Like the difference between all natural vanilla ice cream and vanilla bean ice cream.

I was on the Jordan’s side, walking at my usual brisk pace.  But of course I managed a look at their huge window displays as I went past.  In just a few paces there it was – a window arrayed in exceptional beauty.  Mannequin’s wearing the latest, loveliest, gorgeous fashions; other elements of the display providing context in harmonious and beautiful color schemes.  It was delicious.  Lovely.  Though the scene was utterly still I felt drawn in, as though grasped by the colorful tendrils around the faux trees, as though invited in by the sirens’ graceful arms.  I wanted those things!  The beauty of it all left me with a warm and happy feeling.  Well, that mixed with a sense of temptation… yes, I liked those things, but did I really need to spend my money to own them?  A small mental battle ensued.

In just a few steps I turned my gaze forward to my path again.  Coming towards me was an older man with a cane.  The kind that blind people use.  His gaze was directed straight ahead and slightly down as he moved the cane in a rhythmic pattern – left tap, right tap, left tap, right tap – helping him navigate his way.  He was walking past the very same window that had me entranced.  But he didn’t see any of it.  He didn’t know the sirens were calling silently to him.  He didn’t see that the colors and patterns were delicious.  He did not have to face the temptations that were running through my mind.  He just kept walking.

It left me wondering… how does that man experience the various aspects of his world?  What temptations enter his consciousness, and how do they grasp him?  Clearly the kinds of things that were starting to feel important to me did not even enter his mind.

Those few seconds of experience and awareness created a quick reality check for me.  Yes, visual beauty is beautiful, and worthy of appreciation.  But it’s not everything.  Certainly owning it is not everything.  The memory of beauty can be enjoyed long after experiencing it.  For me, it is most often my eyes that afford me that privileged experience.

Pet Peeve, or a Fact of Life?

Posted by:
Kaitlyn Wells

Images via Hovering Art Directors

So I’m sure you’ve all seen this before. The dreaded hovering art director. Our fabulous Lena Blackstock sent this around the office about a month ago, and I started thinking about it again.

I have a thing about people behind me. I don’t like to sit with my back facing the room, and when I do, you can find me turning around every 5 minutes. So what happens when I have hovering “art directors?” I cringe, I fidget, I turn to my side, and I can’t look straight at the screen. It doesn’t help that I like to look at the people talking to me (which I don’t think is actually a bad thing). I can handle one, maybe two, but any more than two is like having an audience. Plain and simple, I get creeped out.

So what do I do now?

Stokefire‘s Chief Creative Tate Linden, has named me the Art Director here at Stokefire. Will I become the dreaded “hovering art director?” There is a fine line between directing and telling. Will I be that one person that every designer dreads, the person that says “click there,” “do this,” “do that.” I can tell you one thing, I’d rather direct, but I suppose only time will tell.



The Rebirth of Effective Progressivism: It’s not what you say, and it’s also not what you do.

Posted by:
Tate Linden

Tomorrow morning (9 AM at Netroots Nation 11) I’m serving on a panel of national experts and authors of books on political messaging and polling with Drew Westen and Celinda Lake. As the lone panelist without a Wikipedia page (probably should do something about that, no?) I’m honored to be included in the group.

I was invited to speak after addressing members of Congress and their staffs on the role of branding and identity in politics, and participating in a heated round-table session (along with Drew) with the Congressmen about how to address the issues raised during the day’s many discussions.

My role on the Netroots messaging panel is to discuss three critical issues working against the advancement of Progressive ideals:
1) Progressives (as individuals and as a group) have an outmoded understanding of alignment.
2) Progressives do not discern between actual intent and perceived intent.
3) Progressives ineffectually use logic to counter Conservative faith-based arguments.

These three issues combine to make it extremely difficult for any Progressive to build and maintain the credibility and power to effect change.

The solution is to build a new model of alignment that ensures words and actions are aligned with core ideals – and to make the alignment strong enough to withstand the reinterpretation efforts of the opposition. By building Progressive initiatives on a foundation of positive intent and perhaps linking this intent to strongly positive and deeply held American beliefs (consider the great and popular historical achievements of Progressivism such as the abolishment of slavery, the establishment of civil rights and women’s suffrage, victories in two world wars) the movement can once again begin building a greater America.

You can read more detail in the attached summary (Download the PDF Version here!). If you’re attending the session you’ll get a hard-copy when you arrive. I welcome your thoughts and comments during the panel session – or feel free to approach me any time (though I’m only in attendance at Netroots Nation 11 on Thursday) to share your feedback or ask about scheduling deeper discussion or problem solving for you. You can follow the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #NN11.

Comments, questions, and opinions from across the political spectrum are also welcome on the Blog – or through the email listed on the PDF.


Posted by:
Isabella Medina

I work for @Thingnamer.  He’s very skilled at what he does.  (For the moment let’s ignore those recent intra-team squabbles about names evoking images of portly men’s middles.)  Our Thingnamer does not take the naming task lightly.  There are many factors taken into account.  And the potential impact of the right (or wrong) choice can be huge.  Thankfully the balance here sways forcefully to the hugely-right impacts.

But what about thingnaming as a pursuit?  A friend recently pointed out (thank you, Lauren), that “thingnaming” was the first task actually assigned to humankind.  Amazing, right?  I checked.

That story goes back to the opening pages of the Old Testament.  We have Adam (aka “the man”) alone, in that perfect garden – surrounded by beauty of every sort imaginable, but a little lonesome.  God brings to the man “every beast of the field and every bird of the sky” which he had just created.  Then comes the assignment:  “He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”  I find that pretty amazing.  What responsibility.  What authority.  What fun!

That story led me to wondering… how did Adam’s task compare to Thingnamer’s?  A few things come to mind.  For starters, Adam was working from the blankest of slates.  Even if we ignore the fact that he had no one to argue with him (yet), how much difference would it have made if he named a camel a ralwit or a pib or a mandelwesterbing instead?  (I know Adam was not naming things in English – the point is the same.)

Our Thingnamer has to devise a name within the context of all the gazillion things that have been named between then and now.  That seems much more complicated.  Everything that’s been named before contributes to assumptions, impressions, and ideas that one will have about the newly-named thing.  All the accumulated cultural influences, language developments and popular trends influence the reception and reaction to a newly-named thing.  Wow – it seems that problem would become increasingly complicated as time goes on.  (This reminds me of a favorite Peanuts comic strip, when Peppermint Patty turns to her friend Charlie Brown and declares “History should be studied in the morning… before anything else can happen.”)  Yes!  I suspect thingnaming may continue to grow challenging as the years go by, but remarkably, I doubt that we will ever be in danger of running out of names.

Since Adam started from such a blank slate, I don’t think we can ascribe any particular meaning to the names he chose.  He may have chosen certain names because he liked how they sounded, or others because they made sense as related to those of other similar creatures.  We may never know.

But modern-day thingnaming could take the task in a number of different directions:

There is the “name does not matter” camp.  As Will Shakespeare wrote “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  We-just-LIKE-that-name goes in this group.

There are the parents who name their children after other family members – an effort to honor them, or to carry forward their legacy and heritage.

Other parents-to-be scour naming books to find one with a worthy meaning – an attempt to call forth that noble trait in their child.  An act of faith, as it were.

And then there are our Thingnamer’s names. He (and his cohorts) work very hard to speak The Truth by the names they choose.  To pack as much meaning and description, right-impression and appeal, into the names they devise.  A name thusly designed by Thingnamer is the first chance for a business – or a someone – to speak their identity to the world at large.  A very substantial communication.

Given all that, I’d say that for Adam – he who lived in the truly perfect world – his first assignment was pretty easy.

What is graphic design?

Posted by:
Kaitlyn Wells

I spent a few hours the other night trying to figure out what my next blog would be about. I read other blogs, I pulled about six different books off my shelf, I took my dog for a walk, I even asked my dog what I should write about (yes I talk to my dog – she’s a great listener).

Finally, I came across a competition, which happened a couple of years ago, that involved finishing the sentence “design is…”. Some came up with very creative, humorous answers, and others were more technical, but all of them were unique definitions and unique designs. You can check out the submissions here: Veerle’s Blog & Flickr.

So, What is graphic design?

There are many different ways to answer this one, and I’ll share a few with you in a moment. My answer: Graphic design is the visual communication of a message, created by the use of imagery, typography, colors and most importantly – strategy. Here’s what a few others had to say:

“Graphic design is a popular art and a practical art, an applied art and an ancient art. Simply put, it is the art of visualizing ideas.” – Jessica Helfand, AIGA

“Graphic design is a creative process – most often involving a client and a designer and usually completed in conjunction with producers of form (i.e., printers, programmers, signmakers, etc.) – undertaken in order to convey a specific message (or messages) to a targeted audience.” – Wikipedia

“Since prehistoric times, people have searched for ways to give visual form to ideas and concepts, to store knowledge in graphic form, and to bring order and clarity to information. Over the course of history, these needs have been filled by various people including scribes, printers, and artists. It was not until 1922, when the outstanding book designer William Addison Dwiggins coined the term ‘graphic design’ to describe his activities as an individual who brought structural order and visual form to printed communications, that an emerging profession received an appropriate name.” – Philip Meggs, History of Graphic Design

Graphic design is the most universal of all the arts. It is all around us, explaining, decorating, identifying; imposing meaning on the world… Without graphic design’s process and ingredients – structure and organization, word and image, differentiation – we would have to receive all our information by the spoken word. We would enter another Dark Ages, a thousand years of ignorance, prejudice, superstition and very short lifespans. – Quentin Newark, What is Graphic Design?

In short, that’s what graphic design is. But what is design?

Design is everything. Design is everywhere. The web page you’re looking at right now, that’s design, and the one you’ll click to next, that’s design too. Twitter, Facebook, the book next to your bed, that bag of chips you had with lunch yesterday (admit it), every single product and product packaging you have ever laid your eyes on, that’s design. The clothes you’re wearing, the chair you’re sitting in and even the building you’re inside, all of it has been designed by someone. Everywhere you look, everything you touch, design has had an impact. Massimo Vignelli says it well:

“design is a profession that takes care of everything around us (…) Everything that is around us, this table, this chair, this lamp, this pen has been designed. All of these things, everything has been designed by somebody (…) So what is design all about? It is to decrease the amount of vulgarity in the world. It is to make the world a better place to be. But everything is relative. There is a certain amount of latitude between what is good, what is elegant, and what is refined that can take many, many manifestations. It doesn’t have to be one style. We’re not talking about style, we’re talking about quality. Style is tangible, quality is intangible. I am talking about giving to everything that surrounds us a level of quality.” – Massimo Vignelli, Vignelli Associates via The Design Observer.

To me, design is communication. It’s visual thinking, It’s strategy. It’s beauty. Design is change. It’s challenge and growth. Design is what you make of it. It’s art. It’s artful. It’s getting to the point. Design is representation. It’s clarity. It’s telling a story. It’s emotion. Design is our future. Design is my voice.

I leave you with two things today. My own poster on “Design is..” and the question: What is design to you?

Can Design Ethnographers bridge the gap?

Posted by:
Lena Blackstock

This is my second post inspired by one of the essays in the book “Design Anthropology – Object Culture in the 21st Century” by Alison J. Clarke. This chapter, “Prototyping the Social: Temporality and Speculative Futures at the Intersection of Design and Culture” is written by Jamer Hunt, Director of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Rice University.

“Understanding the user has become a mantra to corporate strategists”, and according to Hunt, this “primarily stems from a relatively recent shift in design and business methods toward ‘user-centered’ design, a practice that foregrounds the needs and wants of the end-user as central to the development or new products and services.”

User Research, User Experience Design, Brand Anthropology, Design Ethnography, Design Thinking, User-centered Design, Consumer Insight…there are many of these terms buzzing around the interwebs nowadays! Like I mentioned in my previous post, there are companies out there who have been hiring anthropologists and social researchers to help gain insight into user needs for many years now.

The approach itself is not new; the attention it is getting is.

In this essay, Hunt sets out to examine the role of the temporal within both ethnographic and design practices. “In a simple sense, an ethnographic project attempts to illuminate the present by interrogating its (recent) past. Its methods are observational, descriptive, analytical, and interpretive. (…) Design on the other hand, is a practice of material and immaterial making, but its mode of being-in-the-world is generative, speculative, and transformational.”

What he is saying is that, in its current structure, ethnography is focused on the present: “it is rarely projective; it does not speculate on what might happen next. Its focus is the present, built upon a series of past ‘present’ moments” while design investigates the future, “design both designs and keeps on designing. (…) When design does not fully comprehend the present, as is most often the case, it misdirects its outcome towards self-annihilating ends.” He quotes Tony Fry, a philosopher of design and sustainability: “ The ‘state of the world’ and the state of design need to be brought together.”

By focusing on the temporal role within ethnographic and design practices this essay looks at the implications these anthropological methods carry for design, not vice versa.  Hunt believes “it is no longer sufficient for only a few in the academy to encounter the incisive work of anthropologists and for the vicissitudes of commercial interests to drive the work of designers. We can no longer be content with anthropology’s ‘hands-off’ sensibilities and design’s ‘more is more’ mentality.” “Design, in the first instance, has to be understood anthropologically.”

This, I believe, will be the role of the Design Ethnographer – to bridge this gap.

He mentions experimental examples of design work such as “BrandX” and the “Skinthetic Redux” by Peter Alan and Carla Ross Allen – “work that leads to a questioning of cultural orthodoxies rather than to problem solving and new product development”. Hunt points out that these kinds of projects were able to “bring together the analytical incisiveness of an ethnographer’s eye with the materializing vision of a designer.”

To clarify, while Hunt believes these projects to be compelling, he does not believe that they, in and of themselves, will effect large-scale social change – “they are more speculative than interventionists.” He points us to Marcus and Paul Rainbow, two of the anthropologists responsible for the critical turn in anthropology in the 1980s, who address this in a discussion, claiming that “ethnographic research must reorient to the present but struggles to reinvent itself.”

In Rainbow’s terms, these “projects are untimely, in that they ‘make visible what is emerging’ by both slowing down the present and speeding us up to the present’s future.” And this may be exactly why this merging of design and anthropological methods is catching on – our world is moving VERY fast – evolving technologies, new design opportunities and SO much information – how can we make sure we create user-friendly designs when we have one foot in the present but are preoccupied with the future; when social scientists continue with their hands-off approach and designers insist on their ‘more is more’ mentality?

If ethnography can help us understand the present and design can help drive us into the future (and this is what Jamer Hunt suggests), I think exploring Design Ethnography to help us create better products, designs and solutions, will lead us in the right direction.


Hard work and honesty

Posted by:
Damir Brajdic

What happened to hard work and honesty?

I remember a time when there was honesty in advertising. Seriously!

I cut my teeth in the ad scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s. We had just gotten out of the “image-is-everything” phase of advertising –  this was a time when many clients would plow buckets of cash into the pockets of commercial directors who shot expensive beer lifestyle images and cut them to Phil Collins soundtracks.

Eventually our industry grew up and we started creating ads built on consumer insights – messages that hit a chord with the consumers’ needs. Some agencies did a better job than others, like: BBH, Wieden Kennedy, Goodby Silverstein, Lowe, TBWA\, Leo Burnett, and others (the heyday of CP+B came a bit later).  And more often than not, these insights created art.

These agencies woke up everyday, and worked hard at making and selling the best work they could. They weren’t plotting against each other, even though their livelihood and people’s jobs were based on besting the competition.
They spent their time on making a better product. No one benefited from slander and dirty tricks – it was about the work.

So what happened?

Late last week, I clicked my mouse, Adweek popped open,  and there on the screen was one of the ad industry’s sister companies, Burson-Marsteller.  They, along with Facebook, have launched a dishonest smear campaign* against what I consider one of the better if not best companies in the world, Google.

Google, for those of you who don’t know, has a corporate philosophy of “Do no evil.” I can’t imagine co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin sitting there with the Google team and thinking how do we f*** with Mark Zuckerberg? They are busy with “how can we improve the lives of our consumers?”  Hey, let’s give them a phone that is as good if not better than iPhones (and I am a Steve Jobs fan)…Droid was born.

But those of you who have seen “The Social Network” can believe that Mark Zuckerberg and company are sitting around feeling insecure, still not making any real money for Facebook (unlike Larry and Sergey), plotting and attacking the competition. But they aren’t creating product or innovating, they are planting questionable stories in the media with PR firm Burson-Marsteller, about Google’s social circle.

Facebook executives need to forget about Google, and take their base of 600 million users and maybe one of the world’s best products and develop a strategy of innovation and revenue. Simple hard work.

I can accept that Google and Facebook are in a corporate war, much like Apple and Microsoft, but I cannot accept our industry playing such a dishonest game. I had worked with Burson-Marsteller in Europe when I was a CD at Y&R, and they were a well-respected PR firm. They were an honest and hard working group of very smart people. Oh yeah, back then they were still privately held. It was before WPP bought the Y&R Network, which Burson-Marsteller was a part of.   But I guess over the years, and after several shareholder meetings, they took the philosophy from Gordon Gecko, Michael Douglas’ character in the original Wall Street: “Greed is Good”.  Gecko went to jail, maybe that’s what needs to happen in our industry – people need to go to jail for bad work.

Our industry is tainted enough with a sea of late night infomercials that the consumer thinks defines our business: the 1-800- lawyers, the fat pills, the exercise programs, the so-called “pajama university” programs and the erase-your-debt-forever promises.

We do not need more greed and lazy smear campaigns – we need honest people who like to go to work and do an honest day of work.

*For the details please click on the links to Wired magazine and the Daily Beast, who broke the story.
The Daily Beast – Read the story at this LINK!
Wired magazine – Read the story at this LINK!

More eyes see more, and one would hope differently

Posted by:
Lena Blackstock

Art by Charles Wilkin

Design Ethnography in the context of Brand Strategy

In my previous blog post, I introduced the concept of Design Ethnography in the context of Brand Strategy here at Stokefire.

I am currently reading a book called “Design Anthropology – Object culture in the 21st Century” by Alison J. Clarke, who is professor and head of Design History and Theory, University of Applied Arts Vienna and research director of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation.  As I started reading, I saw so many connections between the stories described and my personal observations and experiences that I wanted to share. First of all, there are companies out there who have used anthropological-style observation tools to better understand a market or consumer group for many years now. Some of the companies that were early adopters of Design Ethnography methods include Xerox PARC, Intel and IDEO, with their “design-thinking approach.” IDEO is one that I am paying extra close attention to and without fail, every time I do research relating to Design Ethnography, the name IDEO just keeps on popping up on my screen (or in this case, on the page).

Jane Fulton Suri talks about Design and Innovation

Chapter One of said-book introduces Jane Fulton Suri with this quote: “From Designers we ask for a designed world that has meaning beyond the resolution of purely functional needs, one that also has poetry, communicates subtly something that makes sense, not just by fitting in with the culture and environment in which it lives, but by adding a new dimension to it.” …Wow, right?  I was so intrigued by this statement alone that only a couple seconds and one google search later, I discovered this: Jane Fulton Suri is non other than the Chief Creative Officer at IDEO. In this essay, she talks about the “(…) importance of ensuring that design teams make space for designers to explore, to see, and otherwise sense the world in their own way, without the limitations of adhering strictly to some formal process or plan of ‘research’.”

I picked up this first bit of information she had put down and realized how relevant it was to my surroundings and observations. One of the benefits of working in a small design and advertising firm, which itself is still undergoing transformation, is that there is generally a lot more leeway in the approach to the design process. Fulton Suri describes Design and Innovation as “creative endeavors that defy entirely rational and linear processes.” According to her,  “Human intelligence, skill, and leaps of imagination are required to grapple with multiple variables and uncertainties to make future sense. And, as designers, we care about this future sense in more than a pragmatic way; we care also about its poetry.”

She goes on to describe four stories of designers who “were inspired by their personal observation of the world and saw beauty, poetry, or meaning in something that others hadn’t seen. (…) In each case their insights emerged from activity and thinking that was not part of highly formalized research plan.” Design firms everywhere, as they house creative people, are full of different (often strange but mostly interesting) people who inevitably see the world in their own way.  Fulton Suri knows: “Teams of designers, rather than individuals, allow more eyes to see more, and one would hope, differently.”


An approach to observation which involves respecting and reflecting upon a personal and intuitive point of view is the way to go! I know that within our small creative team, we try to make sure there is space for exploration and if we get stuck on something, it inevitably leads to a trip to one of the nearby coffee joints. Anyone who is in the creative field I’m sure, has had those experiences of finding the answer through a completely random experience or observation. And even more importantly, I know that our captains here at Stokefire value these experiences as they know that sometimes the greatest tagline can be born out of a conversation completely unrelated to the issue or that an important insight into a project can develop on a walk or a ride on the metro.

Annette Diefenthaler and how chance observations can lead to great design

The example that intrigued me the most was the one that told the story of how an unplanned observation by Annette Diefenthaler helped distill a set of design principles, in this case for a new bank space and service concept. The examples tells the story of how Annette’s cultural observations and her intuition to use them, led to a radical new concept for the layout of the branch and a service model to better support staff and customer interactions.

In this project, the client, a global financial institution, had set out to redesign bank branches to support a desirable experience for their customers in Central and Eastern Europe. They knew the challenge was that in those parts of the world, many citizens either saw no value in using banks or had a history of unpleasant interactions with them. The obvious solution for the research team would have been to observe the interactions between the bank staff and customers, and while those types of research did reveal some important information about problems, which arose from staff behaviors and spatial cues causing unwelcoming feelings for customers, Fulton Suri points out that one specific chance observation made by Annette Diefenthaler was much more powerful and that the solution in this case did not come from following a rational and predictable plan.

This chance observation came when one night, after a late interview, Diefenthaler stopped at a low-end shopping center, partially out of curiosity, and partially out of a gut feeling that simple insights gained through simple observation could be helpful. The way this shopping center was set up stood out to her: the mall featured plain, simple and separate stalls, of which each sold one specific item (one sold only black pants while another sold only light-colored skirts etc). She admits that “at first sight you might dismiss that as depressing or boring. I realized that there was something very honest and straightforward in this way of selling goods. Customer experience? Not here. You want black shoes? You get black shoes. No fuss about it.” This realization that while many of the ‘new world’ shopping centers offer a shopping ‘experience,’ this ‘old world’ society still preferred things to be straightforward and they wanted an honest offering, not an experience.
Fulton Suri explains: “Annette’s spontaneous curiosity yielded a dramatic observation that helped clarify an important design theme for the project. This wasn’t random inspiration. Given the right catalyst, a designer’s mind will process rich observations, stories, and insights from the field and crystallize these into design direction. What’s important is to make sure we leave room in project plans, daily schedules, and in designers’ heads for this kind of intuitive curiosity to play it’s magic.”

Observation is essential to design: It’s what you see and make of it

Here at Stokefire, as any other small firm, we go through transition stages (in staff, project plans and daily schedules) but I think that we as the core team are aware of the power of chance observations and how our individual personalities and characteristics take in and process these observations. At Stokefire, this applies not only to creative but to every part of the company, whether it’s the way we approach branding strategy for a client or developing a new Performance Review System. Fulton Suri sums up that in all the examples she talks about, “each case involved a similar pattern: a focused curiosity coupled with exposure to relevant contexts; attention to elements that invite intrigue; visual documentation and revisiting these records later; percolation and talking about what was significant with team members and clients; storytelling and exploration of design choices and details.”

The lesson learned is that we need to take time to observe, we need to have the ability and instinct to process these observations (in our own individual ways) and then apply them to the design and innovation process.  I will leave you all with these closing words from Jane Fulton Suri: “Observation of the world is natural and essential to design. But ultimately, its less what you look at that matters, its what you see and what you and the project make of it. “


Fun fact: The artist of the image in this post, Charles Wilkin, also observes that in design culture personal expression somehow has lost its place in the creative process.  He speaks to some of the same points Fulton Suri does in this Interview by Carole Guevin, founding partner of FYE creative continnum.  He talks about “relying on instinct rather than expectations as a means to find solutions. (…) We trust our instincts when buying goods, meeting people and assessing our environment. Seems logical to me and applicable to design. (…) Automatic has never been about following trends or being in annuals, but about finding a new and innovative ways to solve common problems. Sometimes design is not just black and white but more of an experience, something I believe all designers strive for regardless of style or method.” Read the whole Interview here:

Why am I creative…

Posted by:
Damir Brajdic

I was at the Cannes Ad Film Festival several years back and Hermann Vaske, an active participant with the Cannes organization, contributing writer to Archive Magazine, and founder of the Hermann Vaske Emotional Network, was a featured speaker. Hermann was discussing his book and TV project, “Why Are You Creative?”

This project is a collection of sketches, published in a book, and a series of interviews with the likes of Bono, Milos Foreman, Samuel Jackson, Mila Jovovich, former President George H. W. Bush…etc., and each response is very different from the next. It is a wonderful series, one worth reading/watching and owning.

So I asked myself, “Why am I creative?” I realized my answer kept changing and continues to change even as I write this blog. Maybe that is why I am creative – I keep looking for change. I find not committing to who I am is what makes me creative, because that creative part of me does not want to de defined. I think I am still a work in progress and that is not a bad way to be, especially if one’s livelihood is creativity.

Let me share with you a few creative thoughts from some of the featured creative icons in Hermann’s project. This goes back a few years and maybe like me, these creative individuals have changed their point of view since the original interview. Regardless, it still defines a bit of their creative soul.

Why Are You Creative?

“Because I love to tell stories.” – Miloš Forman, film director

“Because I am hungry.” – Milla Jovovich, model, actor

“…Because you are always patricianly insane.” – John Waters, film director

“…keeps me from going out and killing people, I guess.” –Samuel L. Jackson, actor

“…we have no choice” –Salman Rushdie

“I am creative because that’s the only way I know how to live” – Moby, musician

Hermann, if you read this blog, thank you for all of your creative work and insights, and for those of you who don’t know Hermann, check him out here:

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