Mad Max, Innocence, and Following Your Passion

I stepped into a way back machine last night and it took me straight to being 11 years old again. I was 11 in 1982. My bicycle was my stallion, my father was still alive, I hadn’t discovered girls yet, and I was still reeling from the knowledge that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. I had a house full of Star Wars figures and space ships (that are currently cluttering my son’s room) and Dungeons & Dragons occupied many an hour of my day even if it was just sitting and gawking at the drawings of all the amazing creatures in the “Monster Manual”.

When I was 11 I lived in a suburb of Chicago called Glen Ellyn. It was an interesting place to grow up, if a bit quiet and vanilla. It has what has to be one of the coolest looking High Schools in the world, train tracks that run right through the middle of town, and a village center that, to this day, has the residents fighting to maintain the quaint, nostalgic feeling that fills my memories of how it was in the 70’s and 80’s. They’re slowly losing the battle to Starbucks and progress.

One of the centerpieces of my memories when it comes to Glen Ellyn is the small movie theater in the village center aptly called “The Glen”. Back then, I believe “The Glen” was a small two-theater venue. It typically ran second-run movies and had some of the most uncomfortable seats on the planet. The ticket booth to the theater was straight out of the 1920s. It was an Art Deco bubble that sat one person behind a rounded arch of glass with a hole in front of their face through which you had to yell your movie selection and a slot through which you slid your money.

Inside this ticket-taking bubble sat a woman. In my memory it was always a woman….the same woman. I don’t think I’d recognize this woman if I tripped over her in the street today, but she was the stoic guardian of “The Glen” movie theater back in 1982. My 11 year old brain thought that she looked like she was 748 years old. She was probably in her 40s or 50s. The best part about the ticket lady was that she didn’t give a rat’s ass how old you were or what movie you were going to see. Movie ratings? Ha! Those were mere glimpses of what one might call a guideline to who can, or can not, see a movie.

In the summer of 1982, “Blade Runner” was just released. It had flying cars and robots. I hadn’t seen it yet, but surely it was going to be the coolest movie of the summer. It starred Han-fricking-Solo for crying out loud! Of course it was going to be amazing!

It was at this point in the story that George Miller and fate stepped in to change and influence a couple of 11 year old boys. You see, as an 11 year old boy, the idea of checking to see what the title is of the movie you want to go see is relatively optional. Based on this premise, my friend Joey and I saw on the marquee of “The Glen” that  “Mad Max: The Road Warrior” was playing and we had to go see it NOW. Because, you know, it starred Han-Fricking-Solo and it had flying cars and robots and stuff!

We sauntered up to the ticket booth and, naturally, the wonderful woman in the booth took our money. We walked into the theater sat down vibrating with excitement that we were about to see Han-fricking-Solo and flying cars and robots and stuff! Boy were we wrong. What came onto that screen was not a dark and brooding world of Ridley Scott’s imagination, rather a slightly over-exposed desert nightmare of George Miller’s that was a world filled with characters who look like they fell out of a professional wrestling ring and onto a movie set.

Flash forward to present day. I went to see “Mad Max: Fury Road“. I sat and watched that movie and felt 11 again. The same excitement came flooding back similar to when I thought I was sneaking in to watch Blade Runner and tripped into The Road Warrior. While this post so far has been predominantly about the nostalgia of early 1980s pop culture and Chicago-suburbia, my excitement last night was far less about seeing Han-fricking-Solo on the screen and all about turning off my brain and letting my testosterone drive the bus for a couple of hours.

But there was an interesting connection between seeing “Mad Max: Fury Road” and many things that have happened in my life in the last few years. I literally giggled out loud scened after scene. I watched the movie and smiled like an 11 year old pretty much the whole time and walked out virtually bouncing with energy.

As I drove home it dawned on me why I was so giddy about a mindless adventure movie set on post-apocalyptic Earth. It had nothing to do with Mad Max, or being underage while watching an R-rated movie in suburban Chicago. It had to do with the fact that every scene of that movie was fun. You could tell that every visual, every cut, every explosion was George Miller having the time of his life. I mean, drums? Seriously? How awesome is that? (If that doesn’t make sense…go see the movie).

How does this apply to anything else in life? For me the operative word is “fun”. Wikipedia tells me that George Miller is 70 years old and was stomping around in the desert of Namibia to film the movie. He had no reason to make this film. He could have retired and not spilled a drop of ink on the production of “Fury Road” and rolled out of here fat and happy. But something tells me that he made this movie because he loves everything about what he created with the Mad Max franchise. His imagination is allowed to go ape shit while envisioning all the messed up vehicles and characters of these movies. Who in their right mind would cast Charlize Theron as an amputee with shaved head and a chip on her shoulder if they’re not wanting to do anything but turn around and walk up stream?

The net result of all this babble is that creativity is fuelled by your passion. I look back on the best work I’ve done and it has always been during times when I’ve cast off my inner voice that tells me to march a certain way. I’ve come to realize that humans are meant to create. We’re built for innovation. There is no such thing as someone making a difference in their world without something driving them. Those who have danced to a different beat tend to be the ones that have figured it out. Even for a brief moment in time.

It is amazing at how hard the world works to get you to line up in a row. To do things a certain way and to not think differently. I’ve always been at my happiest when I’ve stopped listening to the voice in my head telling me to stand in line. Thank you, George Miller, for reminding me of this.

What is your passion? What is your Mad Max? I’m still searching for mine. But I think I’m close.

Vancouver Design Sucks

I’ve heard it many times before. I’ve been told that Design doesn’t happen north of the 49th parallel. Working as an industrial designer in Vancouver for 20 years has felt like pushing a rope up hill quite often. There are so many good things happening in small pockets around Vancouver when it comes to design, yet Vancouver Design still sucks.

Let’s be clear about one thing. I believe there is no better place on this planet to be inspired to create something new. With the mountains, the ocean, and forest an arms length away there are myriad ways to distract the mind or sweat out the demons to let in the fresh ideas flow. Yet Vancouver Design still sucks.

In Vancouver we can throw a rock and hit The United States. We’re a short car ride away from Seattle which has TEAGUE and the recently purchased Carbon Design Group. We’re a short plane ride away from Silicon Valley where Design doesn’t just not suck, it is taking over.

Companies (0utside of Vancouver) are investing, big time, in Design. Valley start-ups and tech giants alike are investing heavily in design. In the Valley:

designers are now hired at a rate of one to four compared to engineers at tech startups. According to KPCB’s talent partner Jackie Xu, this ratio used to be closer to 1:15 or even 1:30

The Valley hires designers, Nike puts a designer in charge, large companies create Chief Design Officer positions and find success….Vancouver gives its start-ups a design student with little to no experience at far less than market rate and boasts about it as a win for design in Vancouver. There are many examples of how in Vancouver we’re teaching our companies that providing design students to start-ups is the value of design.

I for one am tired of wearing the badge of Vancouver Design Sucks. It needs to change and it needs to change now. It is time for Vancouver to start investing in design.

 

Innovation in a Society of No

There was an article in the Vancouver Sun a couple weeks back that is one of the best newspaper articles I’ve come across in a long, long time . It was about an old cabin in the woods north of Vancouver in an area called Hollyburn. The basic idea is that 50-odd years ago North Vancouver was essentially the Wild West. For something silly like $15 you were able to purchase a permit for a small chunk of land in order to build a cabin. So, a group of teenage boys did exactly that. They purchased a permit and built a cabin that became their oasis. A place where beer flowed, parents didn’t nag, and laughs were cheap. It is something that will never be experienced by kids today. In the world of helicopter parenting, and the fact that a parcel of land in the woods would likely sell for something near $1 million the odds are essentially zero for such a an amazing life experience like the one that group of teenaged boys had so long ago.

“Young people today don’t have the opportunity to do this anymore. Either the experience isn’t available to them or their parents and authority figures say ‘No, you can’t do that.’ We’ve very much become a society of ‘no’”  – Tony Flower

While I read the article, of course I couldn’t help project my own parenting style onto my criticism. Wondering if there is ever a chance I would embrace, or even allow such a freedom to be had by a group of young teens. But I also couldn’t help recognize that this same “Society of No” doesn’t just apply to children. It seems to be all around us. The design world is full of it. Industry claims it is eager to find the next innovation, but unless that innovation looks familiar or it can be proven with obvious logic sitting there at the drawing board, many ideas get shot down before they even get off the ground.

My experience is that engineers are the most notorious for having a hair trigger for the word “no”. There’s always a reason to say “no”. Whether it is a standard they claim prevents it, or even better, that it just “isn’t how we do things”. There seems to be something engrained in a technically proficient mind to say “no” to a new idea first, and ask questions later.

My broad brush accusations against engineers aside, innovation comes from being open to a new idea. Straight line, logical thinking is not what drives a new product or paradigm into existence. Quarterly numbers and unreasonable deadlines don’t drive it either. The further I get into product development, the more I realize that most companies that want innovation have zero interest in investing in it. Because it takes time. A lot of time.

Innovation can be sped along, relative to traditional development cycles, simply by eliminating “no” from the development cycle. Especially the early design phase. If you can build a company that embraces “dumb ideas” you’re far more likely to find the innovation you seek. A “brain dead idea” should never go to production. However, in a development cycle where Innovation is truly the goal, there needs to be a phase at the beginning that allows for dumb ideas to flow like beer in a 1950’s cabin built by teenagers. Those dumb ideas need to be explored and even built. Because the reality of it is, hidden inside every dumb idea is a seed for something better. There’s an idea that sparks something different, and new.

Imagine if Mr. Flowers and his friends were told “no” back in the day like they would have today. Imagine what your company can accomplish simply by embracing a mentality of exploration. I encourage every company seeking innovation to say yes to the idea of building a proverbial cabin in the woods. Allow for some dumb ideas and encourage them to become the seed for something better.

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Fear

I’ve come to the conclusion that fear is the most powerful emotion. I’m probably late to this party, but it hit me recently just how powerful of an emotion it is. The love/hate relationship I carry with fear. From the perspective of a driving force in our world, fear is absolutely the alpha dog of emotions. Stronger than love and anger. Fear precedes virtually everything. If you’re wanting to say hi to the cute person across the room, it is fear that prevents you. You want to write that book? I’d bet it is fear of failure that keeps it an idea stuck in your noggin.

My wife and I have very different views on fear. She avoids it at all costs. I seem to embrace it. For example, the kids and I are notorious for hiding around the house and scaring the pants off each other. This typically ends in some sort of bodily release, usually a high pitched scream, and a load of giggles once the victim recovers their breath. While the kids and I are at this game regularly, it is well known not to include Mommy.

I was cleaning my drawers from one particularly well timed scare effort affected upon me by my eldest child when I got to thinking about what it is about fear that I love (and hate) so much. Why do scary shows like “The Walking Dead” and movies like “The Thing” resonate so well with me and, well, a good chunk of the world? I think it is because being afraid of something, yet surviving the trauma of said fear goes straight to the core of survival instinct. I am sure there has to be some psychological research out there that shows what neuro-chemicals are released upon a bowel moving scare event.

I see fear all the time in Design. You see one person, or one company overcome the fear of creating something new and previously considered a dumb idea, and you suddenly have a torrent of copy cats creating Me Too products. Companies are afraid to invest in innovation because of fear of failure. You hear it all the time coming from the mouths of engineers. The first reaction to anything new tends to be “no”. “It can’t be done”. “I’ve never seen that done like that before”. There’s always a laundry list of reasons why you can’t do something and the root of them all those reasons, upon personal reflection, seems to be fear.

It has been roughly 6 weeks since my last post. I kinda blasted my goal of one post per week out of the water with this latest arm wrestle with fear. I’ve left the company I help start and have started two new endeavors. I’ve been wrestling with the fear of this leap back into the realm of starting something new. I’ve been completely invigorated by it. I’m jazzed so much that it has nearly paralyzed me from doing some of the things that has kept me sane in the past little while. Fear is a weird mixologist. It has its hands on the controls of my life right now, and it is making some weird decisions.

While I’m excited by the future my new companies hold for me, it is making me put off exercise. I’ve put those 5 Lbs back on that I worked hard to get off a while back and now I’m afraid to start again because it’s going to hurt. I’ve stopped blogging because of fear that I don’t know what to write about. This emotional head-trash backs up into a spiral of emotions that can be overcome. But the source of them all….fear.

Fear is a great tool if you can leverage it to your advantage. As long as you don’t use fear as a tool for evil, you can do some amazing things with fear. I’m hoping that this recent stare down with fear is going to help me understand my relationship with it better.

How has fear ruled your world?

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Hardware as a Lean Start-Up

Eric Ries has people both tripping over themselves to get on the bandwagon and rolling their eyes in snobbery at all the lemmings jumping on the bandwagon (or is that the Pivotwagon?). The truth of the matter is that the concept has struck a chord in a world where it is possible to develop a business in a weekend. Software development is, by no means, easy. Like design, engineering, or playing the guitar, software development is a skill that one has to learn. So, I’m not looking at it from that perspective, but the concept of The Lean Startup was born out of the idea that software is very easy to iterate upon. You can quite literally tweak code for +/-15  minutes and see results.

Hardware? Not so much. Especially high tech.

So, what is the hardware version of Lean Startup when iteration times are typically measured in days, if not weeks, and the costs involved won’t start much less than $250K to get to a pre-production functional prototype.

My startup (kijanitechnology.com) is about as close to a Lean Startup as you can get in meatspace, I think. We’re developing solar thermal technology for the developing world. The technology is immensely flexible and we can iterate on the prototypes using off-the-shelf parts that I can grab by running up to my local automotive or hardware store. If you’re talking about hardware that requires circuit boards and custom designed enclosures you’re simply adding to the length of iteration and time to market….at least in North America. In China there are whole markets dedicated to supplying all the bits and bobs that can help you iterate very quickly. Solar thermal is also ridiculously flexible in its application. We’re starting with refrigeration, and that market alone has tremendous variations in opportunity that is keeping us on our toes.

Prototype of a solar thermal collector that is made from easily found parts.
Prototype of a solar thermal collector that is made from easily found parts.

I’ve been thinking about this whole hardware as a lean startup thing for a long, long time. I am a strong believer that the current state of business incubation doesn’t even remotely apply to hardware. It is great for the bits and bytes world, but once you cross into something tangible, the rules are completely different. I’d love to talk with you if this is a topic of interest as I have a lot of ideas as to how we can make a successful hardware incubator.

 

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Vancouver Maker Faire

I took the kids to the Vancouver Maker Faire this past weekend. It was pretty much what I expected. My summary of the event would be “overpriced, under good, but worth going to”.

Maker Faire

There are so many things I want to love about Maker culture but I can’t get past the fact that the majority of the stuff there is kitschy at best. Now, what The Faire has in spades is fun. It also has clever. The fun and clever mashed together is what makes The Faire worth going to. I also have to take into consideration that other cities have a much richer Maker community based on reviews I’ve read.

The core of the problem that I find with most things like Maker Faire and other tech cultures is that the focus is always on the tech. The why behind the tech is typically non-existent. I am a firm believer that the why behind a product is far more important than the tech. Good tech alone, if it doesn’t tap into why people will love it is…well…kitschy.

So, I walked away from the Maker Faire knowing that my job as a design and innovation consultant is not in jeopardy from the Maker world in the near future. But what does the future hold for the Maker Culture? There is no doubt that technologies like 3D printing will change our world. The irony in all the hubbub surrounding 3D printing is that it is the perfect case study for my comments about meaning. The 3D printing world has been a bustling industry for close to 20 years. The technology has finally reached a point, similar to Desktop Publishing in the 90s, where it is now accessible by the masses. Anyone, literally, can have a 3D printer on their desk.

But why?

As a designer, I know exactly why I need one. I know exactly what value it brings. 3D printing is going to be a geek tech until someone figures out why Mom and Dad need a 3D printer. The other thing that comes to mind as I wander down this thought hole, is that maybe the tech has already found its “why”. It is to enable more garage geeks to invent some cool gadget. There is going to be a lot of crap to sort through, but accessibility to tech like 3D printing in conjunction with things like Arduino can create some great ideas. Making those ideas businesses, that’s a whole other can of worms. I didn’t see that problem being solved by the Maker Faire. But then again, I don’t think it should.

 

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My WordPress is Broken…

I haven’t posted for quite a while. It is a combination of two things….my days are chock-o-block and the WordPress theme I use is broken.

So, I’ve reverted back to the basic theme which sucks to look at right now, but it allows me to post. Which, I believe, is more important.

I’m Underrated

underratedLast week I was declared underrated….again. I was declared underrated and I loved it….again. I’ve gone through my life considered underrated and I have always revelled in the designation. The reason I revel in it is because for whatever reason people don’t think I’m capable of doing what I am capable of and yet I still do it. This time, the title came from my friends I play floor hockey with. The title was given to me at our end-of-season awards ceremony. The awards are given out in good fun and my award was no different. But the it reminded me that I have always considered myself more capable than what people seem to think of me. It’s done me well so far.

A long, long time ago I walked on to the Purdue Track and Field Team. I am pretty confident that none of my teammates at the time thought that I was going to make the team. My underrated moment came at a time trial late in the fall not long before the winter indoor season began. The look on the faces of my teammates after that time trial is indelibly inked into the back of my brain. The underrated walk-on dude just beat out two or three full scholarship athletes to make the travelling team.

Between that moment twenty four-odd years ago and last week’s declaration of underratedness by my friends I’ve had many other moments of being considered underrated. I don’t know where it comes from. Part of me thinks I should explore that more. Maybe if I change my behavior in some manner I will stop being considered underrated and will begin being considered a leader. But I don’t believe in the idea that one can write their own story. I am pretty satisfied with seeing the look of surprise on people’s faces when I end up proving them wrong.

Now, let’s not ignore the fact that there have been plenty of moments along the way that have proven the doubters correct. I’ve had my share of screw-ups and let downs. When I look back at those moments, there are very few of them that I haven’t recovered from. I’ve corrected the problem or bounced back and learned from the screw up.

Hurdler Studios

Which leaves me where I am now. As of last week, I am no longer a partner in a company I helped found. It was completely my choice. I made the decision because I started believing I was not capable of doing what I thought I was capable within the constraints of my current career path. I needed to regain that swagger I’ve always had that I believe, to the core, that I am capable of doing things I never imagined I was capable of – let alone surprising everyone else around me. The only way for me to do that again is to start taking risks. To put myself out there without a safety net and just run my ass onto the team just like I did twenty four years ago.

What I am doing with my new company (aptly named Hurdler Studios) is helping people get past the barriers that are preventing them from getting their new product idea to market. I feel that after twenty plus years of doing that with my own life, it is time to start realizing the value of what I’ve been doing and start helping others figure out how to surprise the world around them.

Bring The Woo!

The Woo is the moment during a sporting event when the fingertip grab is made or the big open ice hit is laid on someone and the crowd goes “Wooooooo”. It is a moment every athlete strives for. Those moments are very easy to come by in the day to day. They’re usually more subtle and far more difficult to define because The Woo moment is a very subjective one and will change from person to person. The one thing that I’m realizing for me is that The Woo isn’t brought by playing it safe.

The Woo, in the context of business, is the product that creates a moment of magic for the user. There are examples all over the place. I remember the first time I put on a pair of headphones and listened to a Walkman. That was a Woo moment. So much so, that I can remember where I was and what I was listening to. The opening of Queen’s “The Game” poured out of those odd foam covered discs that I pressed against my ears. Sounds hopped from one ear to the other and Freddy Mercury sounded like he was singing right there on the street with me. I could still hear the birds and cars in the background. It was magic.

Too much time in corporate world is spent playing the equivalent of a prevent defence. Some might argue that The Woo is brought because you saved the win. But in reality, nobody brings The Woo trying to save the win. Nolan Richardson, ex-Coach of the Arkansas Basketball Team, summed up Woo with the analogy of “Forty Minutes of Hell”. He coached his teams to bring The Woo every single game, for a full forty minutes.

I’m seeking The Woo. I’m trying to remember the last time I brought The Woo and I’m struggling…which is a bad sign.

When was the last time you either experienced The Woo, or brought it yourself?

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Design Thinking: How it Applies to Business

Design Thinking…..it is cropping up everywhere. I have accounting firms asking me about it. The Standford d.school and IDEO have harnessed the term into something of a cliche. I had an experience recently as to what it is that has always rubbed me the wrong way about the hubbub over Design Thinking. If you’re not familiar with Design Thinking, trust me when I say that there’s a hubbub. It is a topic that creates a division within design circles. What has always made me bristle about it is the fact that every time anyone uses the term, it is an advertisement for another design firm (IDEO). I know that IDEO doesn’t claim it to be only theirs to use. But they also don’t make any bones about the fact that the term/methodology started with them.

I’ve always been a believer in the basic thought process behind Design Thinking (DT). The fundamental premise behind DT is that the user is the focus of the design process not the technology. Human centric design is what designers have been circling around for a long time. The truly successful designers are the ones that have figured out how to find the clients that are ready to let go of the sales driven methodology of features and benefits which seems to drive very quickly to a focus on the product and/or technology. Addressing how the product is created based on asking what the users want from the product as opposed to basing the development on research that dives into how the device fits into a user’s life.

On the surface, the difference is quite subtle. You can, and many do, argue that there is no difference. Both are looking at the end user’s needs. Where the difference lies is that Design Thinking is based on observational research of how people interact with a product or service and use that research to inform how improvements can be made that, ideally, will surprise the user. This approach eschews the belief that it is the technology that creates the desired “surprise”. It is about the experience of the product and how it fits into a person’s life that brings meaning to the product. Not how many items it has on a features and benefits list or because it uses some “cool” technology.

What makes this methodology powerful is that it is now possible to design more than just a product. You can now design services and processes on top of the products that may fit within those services and process. As soon as you wrap your head around this subtle difference, you will start to see where the value lies in the having design on your side.

 

 

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