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 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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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.

Electric Vehicle Charging Stations

ElectricVehicleI had my first up close and personal confrontation with an electric vehicle charging station this past weekend. Having lived in Vancouver and having Ballard Power Systems be the darling little tech company that could change the world….and hasn’t…yet….leaves me with a wee bit less optimism than I would have otherwise had when it comes to alternative fuel systems for vehicles. It has little to do with the fact that I don’t believe electric vehicles can elicit a change in driving and fuel possibilities. It has more to do with the fact that I have a much better understanding of the limitations of distribution of new fuel systems.

There are some serious flaws in the use case from top to bottom of the electric vehicle (EV) that I don’t think most people think about when talking about how amazing electric vehicles are. The first is purely the convenience of use for the end user. At the end of the day, a vehicle is an object of convenience. Until batteries are able to be topped up in 5 minutes or less like a traditional gasoline engine is capable of, it will always be a novelty. Five minutes might be a bit too low of a tipping point, but it absolutely has to be less than 10 minutes. We’ve all been trained for the past 50 years or so that if that if I’m running late for a meeting and that fuel light comes on, I can swing into a gas station and be on my way again in 5 minutes. Even faster if I don’t fill the tank all the way.


The next issue to overcome is infrastructure. This is where the EV has an advantage over hydrogen fuel cells. We already have a solid distribution grid that is able to fuel up our soon to be herd of electric vehicles. But can it handle the load? Imagine it dinner time rolls around and 25 electric vehicles pull into driveways up and down your block. Every driver jumps out and the first thing they are going to do, after they shake the kids off their legs, is plug in their vehicle. That is 25 high amperage charging stations pumping from the grid all at once….on your block alone. Imagine this is happening on every block in your neighbourhood, in every neighbourhood in the city, in every city in north america. Trust me, I am no electrical engineer, but I have enough understanding to see the flaw in the plan here.

The charging station I saw was at Thompson Community Centre in Richmond, BC. It was just sitting there in the corner of the parking lot. It felt a bit random. I’m guessing that there must be someone in the neighbourhood that owns an electric vehicle and it made some sense to have it there. But the humor I found in the situation was that the two parking spots that could be serviced by the charging station were occupied by two not-so-economic vehicles:


What I found the most intriguing about the set-up was the company behind the charging station. They have an interesting business model. The company is called Charge Point and they are building a charging station platform. They’re less focused on the hardware of the charging station, and more focused on the monitoring and data that is extracted from the charging station as it is being used. Their website graphically shows all the locations of the EV charging stations they’re hooked up to, and how many times they’ve been used. I have to admit to being a wee bit underwhelmed at the usage. At quick glance, the highest number of charges one of their stations has had was 962 at the time of writing. Considering the amount of vehicles on the road, that is a VERY small percentage for usage.

Alternative fuel is fantastic in principle. I want to see us all driving around in vehicles that don’t cough ozone depleting emissions into the air with every kilometer. But we are much further from alternative fuel Utopia than I think most people realize. We’re currently rushing towards a world that is going to have a gazillion electric vehicles sitting as status symbols in garages with nowhere to go because it simply isn’t as convenient to drive as my gas guzzler.

I’m not writing this to say that EVs are a bad idea or that we should stop developing them. What I hope is for people to realize that there is far more work to be done to make these vehicles a wide spread reality than just better battery systems or more vehicles. I want to see more companies like Charge Point solving the infrastructure from a human centric perspective beyond doing it in an “If we build it, they will come” manner . Building another vehicle to plug into the full system is the easy part. How we solve the real problems of distribution, that’s the hard part. As a designer, I also believe that’s the fun part.



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Design Thinking: How it Applies to Business

Design Thinking… is cropping up everywhere. I have accounting firms asking me about it. The Standford 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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Chain Sketch Video

I put in another quick entry to the Core77 Discussion Forum’s chain sketching thread (found here). I drew an “Alligator eating ice creaM

core77 chain drawing












I also did up a quick video of me drawing it:

Design and Policy Management

I’ve been considering the thoughts around the curation of the design industry for a couple years now. It started about 2 years ago when I got involved in the International Council for the Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID). I’ve been using the word “curator” because it seems that the design industry requires someone that can manage the discussion of the industry. It currently seems that the curator of the design industry is IDEO. They seem to have have the most voice and attract the most public attention when it comes to the discussion(s) surrounding the design industry.

The realization I am coming to is that the term I should be using is “Policy”. Who manages policy for the design industry…specifically the Industrial Design industry? I would think that organizations like IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) or ACID (Association of Canadian Industrial Designers). I know that ACID does some policy management, but it is not particularly transparent. The same goes for IDSA. I don’t see any indication of policy management. Even more to the point, I don’t see the driving of design policy.

I will be the first to admit that just because I don’t “see it” doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. I do know, however, that most government policy makers I speak with (still) don’t seem to understand the value of Industrial Design, and therefore are not gaining benefits of tax credits (e.g. SR&ED in Canada) that other R&D fields get.

This thought process comes from the blog where Fred Wilson speaks about his Venture Capital company and their focus on managing policy for their portfolio of investments.

So, if you’re involved with any of these professional industries I’m referring to, I’d love to hear how you’re driving policy.

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Are Metrics the Foundations for Success?

Quantifying progress. It’s a thought process that I’ve always been on board with, but I’ve always struggled with when it comes to the discipline required to log the data that tracks success over time. I meet the deadlines, or other targets, but at the end of the day, I don’t really have any way of gauging how efficient…or more important, how effective I was over the course of time.

If you don’t have a plan, you’re guaranteed to lose. If you have a plan, it is guaranteed to change.

For my brain, the idea of goal setting is nebulous because things change as the quote above so deftly states. So many things at any given time feel as though they are important. Planning is a great thing, don’t get me wrong. It is one of the things that my company puts a lot of stock in. It’s part of our mandate. The thing about planning is that it sets the road map and you can hit every milestone along the way and even have the project deemed successful at the end because you launched your project. Metrics like release dates, or product cost targets, or whatever are (typically) easy to hit. But success is different from effectiveness. You could easily be successful in your project  because you hit a deadline when in reality the project was a failure because your effectiveness on, I don’t know, manpower was way off.

If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know how to get there. If you don’t track how you got there, you won’t know where you’ve been.

My brain works in a way that rebels against looking to the past. Looking over the shoulder feels like stalling progress. I’ve always known this is something that in the long run probably hurts my effectiveness. As I get older, I am finding I need to hone these skills more. It was pointed out, yet again, by Bill Gates’ annual letter written for the Gates Foundation. Gates states that he read a book called “The Most Powerful Idea in the World” by William Rosen. The book, Gates says, posits that the success of the Industrial Revolution came as a direct result of measurement. The invention of tools like the micrometer allowed for engineers to measure how effective incremental changes were in the development of steam engines. When you’re someone like Gates who is investing hundreds of millions of dollars towards charitable causes, you have to believe he’s not going to let that money go willy nilly. Metrics must play to how he’s going to provide that money to someone.

All food for thought as I consider the future.



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Design and the Cloud

Part of me thinks I might be a bit late to this party. But there’s a couple of new cloud offerings from major players that I can’t stay quiet on it anymore. The obvious connection with this whole Internet of Things discussion is that the platforms that open in the cloud, the more opportunities there are for hardware to interact with said platforms

Let’s start with the well known. Between Google Apps, Basecamp, Dropbox, and several other of The Cloud’s low-hanging fruit the idea of working locally and storing virtually is common enough that it can be called main stream. When grandmothers start throwing around a brand’s name like I’ve heard Dropbox’s name use, you know it is no longer just in the domain of geeks.

I’ve been using solutions like Basecamp for several years now. The premise makes sense. I am still hoping for solutions that are well designed (sorry, Basecamp, you’re not)…but the aesthetics aside, they’re doing many things right. Like most, I still hiccup on the whole what-about-when-I’m-not-connected anxiety. Because, let’s face it, we’re not at the place where data is always accessible…or affordable. Data roaming charges for me when I go down into the States are ridiculous.

What I saw recently that really made sense was Adobe’s latest suite of software that’s available in the cloud. They call it the Creative Cloud. For a monthly subscription I can access ALL of their software. For the equivalent of roughly $300 per year I can produce content for all facets of my creative needs. Web, Graphic, Video, Photo Editing, and even Acrobat functionality all in one place. That’s just a smattering of what’s available, frankly. I was agog at the list of software that is now available to anyone, anywhere. The part I love about it, is that I am not bound by connectivity. I still download and install the software to my machine. I get all of my licensing, and a big chunk of data storage all virtual. I can have designers working on the other side of the planet and all the data is stored with revisions in place.

I read this morning that Autodesk is taking a very similar approach to their 3D CAD solutions. Being that Autodesk has a full suite of software that starts with Sketchbook Pro and runs through 3D CAD solutions, I can see a full productivity process being adopted under one license. If they could wrap in PCB layout into that mix…that could be killer.

I’m curious what other solutions are out there for the design and technology industries? I feel late to this party…but maybe I’m just in time.


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Google Provides Colossal Win for Design

If you don’t believe design is an important part of your business, here’s exhibit 1 why you should be running for the Mayor of Wrongville for holding on to those beliefs. Design, no matter how you design it, is about the creation of a culture within your company. So many companies run around bragging about being engineering/tech/market(ing) driven and wonder why they either don’t succeed or why they reach critical mass very quickly. There was no other company that epitomized this engineering (or in their case data) driven thought process than Google.

Watch the video and hopefully you will see the power of design and, even more to the point, the power of storytelling that video can bring for you and your company.