I am a designer and design thinker. My passion is to understand the foundations of impulse and consciousness on which our creativity stands. My work is to tell stories about the life force within us that is expressed through design practice. My purpose is to create a better world by design.
This has come into focus through a three and a half decade career designing, leading design teams, consulting and teaching design. Being a story-teller I offer my story how I got here. It’s longer than a bio you might have expected when you clicked “Who Am I”. If you prefer the short version, you can find it in my LinkedIn profile.
A Better World by Design
I arrived in London during the chaos of the Queen’s silver jubilee celebrations, with a mountain pack on my back and an A1 portfolio tucked awkwardly under my arm. I came to attend design school – to learn how to design.
In 1977 South Africa was locked in bloody civil conflict over it’s oppressive Apartheid system that I wished to have nothing to do with. With my backpack and portfolio I carried a youthful conviction that design would be my vehicle for making things better. A month later, after hitch-hiking from college to college around the country I secured a place in a design foundations course in North London. A year later I began a degree program in industrial design.
Disillusion with trivial design briefs received as learning projects – superficial style refreshes on kitchen appliances, typewriters and cars with minimal basis in reality for important decisions we were making – led me to question the way I was being taught to design. I came across people advocating a new kind of design practice – a rigorous design method based on an understanding of how we design, incorporating insight into the people we design for. The lead proponents of this design movement – Bruce Archer, Chris Jones, Nigel Cross – fumbled to find a way to describe their thinking. Design methods, design research, design studies, were offered. I most liked the term that Bruce Archer coined – designerly thinking. It seemed to describe something that I sensed then, and know now, to be true – that designing isn’t simply knowing about materials, mechanisms, structures and human factors, and making things look good, but a creative discipline with a unique way of thinking, perceiving and forming at it’s core.
This was the beginning of a movement to understand design process as a branch of human activity; to bring rigor into design process and focus creative attention on creative challenges that stood to make a difference in peoples’ lives. It seemed like the right priorities, and I was hooked.
This conviction stayed with me through the bachelors degree program in industrial design at Manchester Polytechnic when punk-rock frustration with social inequity was sweeping through England, and a Masters from North Carolina State University. Under the mentorship of Henry Sanoff, the mutton chopped pioneer of participatory design methods and advocate for introducing social science research and research methods to inform environmental design decisions, I majored in design research, a field that hadn’t quite come into being as I studied it.
Good Intentions Redo
With Henry’s help I was hired by the Herman Miller Research Corporation in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1984. This “skunkworks” outpost of the office furniture leader, Herman Miller, invented the ubiquitous “Dilbert” office cubicle that was unleashed on the world in 1968. I joined this pioneering team at a time they were turning attention to the future of work in which we were expected to correct the mistakes of the past.
We watched closely as the first personal computers arrived and wondered what the world might look like in a post cubicle, digital, globalized economy driven by the creative-class. Our research anticipating light and portable personal computers that could be carried anywhere you wanted or even embedded in the furniture. Our conclusions informed Herman Miller’s furniture systems design for years to come. I became the resident expert in seating ergonomics and supported the company’s design efforts in a number of revolutionary ergonomic chairs, including a suite meant for hospitals and nursing homes.
How To Design the Future
By 1987 Herman Miller was questioning the way we designed and developed new product. I moved across the state to the corporate headquarters to help start a new design research group under the leadership of design thinking visionary, Rob Harvey. His vision was built into the R&D complex – the Herman Miller Design Yard – that sat in a pasture on the outskirts of the conservative West Michigan town of Holland. Our research and design management groups were cloistered behind secured doors at one end, product engineering in the middle with the prototype shops and product testing labs at the end of a line designed to bringing design driven innovation to life. Our mission was to produce the most forward looking, humanistically tuned and beautiful furniture the world had seen. We did.
But as much as the innovative chairs and poetic working environments we labored over, it was the innovation process we experimented with that resonated with my determination to harness design to make the world a better place. In time the hyper-innovative culture of Silicon Valley would come to label the process that was embodied by those of us working at the Yard as “design thinking”.
So, I leaped at an opportunity to take a 2 week working vacation in San Francisco in August 1989 researching and designing a better commode for long term care patients. In the studio of David Hodge Design, overlooking the spectacular Half Moon Bay I felt the exhilaration of seeing notions that swirled in my minds eye become forms embodied in foam, wood, metal and plastic. Ideas magically took shape in appearance models and prototypes that you could sit on.
I returned to Michigan to pack up my things and with hope and trepidation I drove 3000 miles across country to San Francisco. My dream was to create a consultancy based on social sciences fueled design rigor I learned in North Carolina, practiced at Herman Miller and taught at the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids. There were few corporations in the 1980s ready for this version of product development but I had sensed that the tech industry was waking up to the value of design – and I wanted to be part of it.
The Creative Equivalent of Breathing
With business partner, Roger Stoller, we built Praxis Design to provide design research, industrial design and product engineering under a single roof. We chose Praxis as a name, that I still use today, to express trust in creative process. The ancient Greek philosophers coined “praxis” to mean the recursion between theory and practice, thought and action, that is the creative equivalent of breathing. In the designers mind and hands, praxis is the relentless oscillation between intention and form, idea and embodiment, moving ever closer to alignment and perfection with each repetition. Praxis is how we give form to our intentions.
Zexel Corporation of Japan was an early client. They had a Silicon Valley team developing the first navigator for cars based on emerging GPS technology. We were asked to design a dashboard display for a Lincoln Towncar. On it the driver would view a road-map. After using Zexel’s crude prototypes and observing their engineers struggle to follow the map, we concluded that they needed much more than they had asked for – they needed an interface that can be used while driving. We settled on turn-by-turn navigation with voice instruction. And we added a speaker to the screen so turn instructions could be listened to while the driver focused eyes and attention on the road.
The turn-by-turn interaction we designed into the 1994 Zexel Navmate went on to be the Hertz Neverlost, the first commercially available car navigator, and turn-by-turn became the standard for every navigator on the market today. It has enabling billions of people (including myself) to get simply and safely from point “a” to point “b”. This experience epitomizes the gratification I have gained working with innovative products – seeing technologies that I have given early form to take on lives of their own.
Designing the Fabric of Human Culture
It is through this lens that I have come to see the work designers do, my own included, as fragments in a fabric that recedes to the distant past and unfolds to the future – a piece of the endless cloth that we call human culture. The weaving of this cloth has been going on as long as we have been making tools and adapting our environment to make it better – safer, more abundant, more comfortable, more enjoyable. We don’t always get it right and, with good intention, we try again, building on the successes and mistakes of the past. We will continue to adapt, invent, create as long as our imaginations are alive and as long as we are free to follow our impulse to create.
So I shut Praxis down to exert my passion for design creating something I could see through from beginning to end; from conception to production and beyond.
First up, I needed to find something to do with the studio I had designed and built for Praxis in Emeryville, California. It had large open studios with light towers penetrating the bow truss roof to fill upper and lower floors with light – not ideal for rental during the real estate recession that followed the dot.com bubble collapse.
So I dug into the research I had done 20 years before at Herman Miller. We had speculated back then that people would increasingly work wherever they could access the amenities they needed to get their job done. In 2004 I was seeing this unfold all around me as people sat shoulder to shoulder with laptops in coffee shops – a crowd but not a community. I recognized the pattern we had identified and It occurred to me that this was an opportunity to create something better. What if these workers, untethered from an “office” had a place that was designed for this new way of working – with all the amenities they needed to get things done, light filled and energizing and surrounded by colleagues they could brainstorm with, get help from or get the gratification of lending a hand to.
So with a seed investment from Herman Miller I redesigned the space to accommodate these denizens of the creative economy in an inviting, light filled, ergonomically supportive social space with the amenities they needed. And all the coffee they wanted. I designed a club service and business model and called the prototype I built in Emeryville Gate 3 WorkClub. When it was ready, 400 guests came to celebrate the genesis of a new way of working.
The Innovators Trap
Before long I realized that it is an entirely different thing to drive a radically innovative service concept to success than it is to conceive of it in the first place. After 2 years I shut it down.
I was early, but not alone in thinking about communal work environments. By 2006 a new industry was emerging by the name “co-working” and today there are thousands of co-work clubs all round the world. This nascent industry is growing at a rate I could not have anticipated even in my most ambitious moments.
Soon I brushed myself off from disappointment and plunged back into a series of explorations. Piclinq was a social photo application designed for a future in which photos would become a primary medium of socialization. Our investment prospects got crushed by the 2008 meltdown of the global economy. I designed an internet radio – but my funding partner got cold feet as we prepared for a Kickstarter launch.
The project I have stuck with is in an industry that I believe will come to define the next aeon of human culture – renewable, low carbon impact energy. Electricity from sunshine. In 2012 roof-top solar power was on the brink of breaking out into the mainstream – the perfect time to apply design. Troy Tyler is a Texan with Texas sized ambition and determination, the perfect partner to bring design values to an industry mired in technology that doesn’t yet fit the needs of it’s prospective customers. We founded Smash Solar to take on the challenge of making solar as easy to buy as a new dish-washer and as architecturally integrated as any quality window or door one might put in a home. We’re still at it (in 2016) – giving form to solar power. (Click HERE for an update on the latest exciting developments).
From Design Thinking to Design Consciousness
Around the same time I started Smash my friend Leon Segal asked if I’d join him in founding a consultancy called Innovationship. We would be dedicated to teaching design thinking using methods he had learned and developed while at the global innovation firm, IDEO. Design thinking is rapidly being adopted around the world as a foundation for innovation and as a leadership development framework. We engaged with companies like Fujitsu, Wells Fargo Bank, Pepsico and the consulting giant, Deloitte. It occurred to me that something in the design thinking framework was lacking. Design thinking was taking off around the globe and was the most complete expression of everything I had been advocating since being a student in England. But still, it irked me.
I took time to think. I went on an odyssey into the origins of humankind to discover when, and why we began designing. As I considered our ancestors sitting on the plains of Africa over a million years ago, evolving to become us, it came into focus. What is missing in design thinking is illumination of the form giving part of design – the deeply human impulse to shape our intentions; to embody inventive ideas with our full humanity – physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual. Design thinking leaves off where formally trained designers typically begin. Design consciousness encompasses it all – thinking, feeling, expressing and being. What is needed, I concluded, is awareness of the full spectrum of impulses and instincts that drive the human creative enterprise forward.
Design is a story that needs to be told – starting with the first time one of our ancestors cracked a river rock to create a sharper edge to cut with and extending into the future when we will be intentionally shaping the global energy system, the internet of everything and, coming soon, the human genome itself.
I am honored and excited to be part of this long, perilous and imperiled journey that has given form to the human spirit – it’s radiant beauty and it’s dark shadows. I am dedicated to exploring the origins and manifestations of design consciousness so that we might allow the light to shine on every creative act, no matter how small, or how great.