Vision

Where we live

This will have to tide me over until Samsara premieres.

I wish I had 4-dimensional HDR eyes.

The Image of the Future

The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive. – Fred Polak, via Stuart Candy

Notes from Art and Copy

Some interesting quotes from the Art and Copy film:

A lot of times people think of risk in terms of challenging convention. And that’s one form of risk. I don’t think it’s the most important; I think it’s kind of an easy shot.  I think the real risk comes in being willing to try to be authentic. – Dan Wieden

I think we have higher aspirations for our clients, and are more passionate about what our clients can be, should be, should try to be than they are. We’re trying to tell them…”Hey, you can be more than just a pet food company. You can aspire to loving dogs rather than just feeding dogs”. – Lee Clow

When Americans buy into one of Hal [Riney]’s campaigns, I think many times what they’re buying is what they wish their lives would be. – Jeff Goodby

People don’t mind being sold to if they understand why it’s happening and they enjoy the process. – Jeff Goodby

There are a lot of people in this business, but damn few really good ones. and damn few people get the chance to do good work. – Hal Riney

The frightening and most difficult thing about being what somebody calls a creative person is that you have absolutely no idea where any of your thoughts come from, really, and especially that you don’t have any idea about where they’re going to come from tomorrow. – Hal Riney

I grew up surfing…I was in the army with guys who grew up in New York…they missed the opportunity when you’re young to just revel in your physicality…I’ll be glad until the day I die that I grew up on the beach in California” – Lee Clow

Creative people, rise up! They can’t do shit unless we make ads for them! We should be in charge! – Lee Clow

Advertising should be statements about what the hell you think your life should be about. – George Lois

The most interesting thing about this documentary was the way it shifted my idea of advertising from a way of manipulating emotions and beliefs (a la Century of the Self) to a way of helping both people and companies find something they can identify with and aspire to. Sure, most advertising doesn’t reach, or even try for, those heights–but it can.

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. – Anaïs Nin

Levels of design

“If you are designing a poster for world peace, intuition might be perfect. If you are seeking to actually work on world peace, it will obviously not be enough.” – GK VanPatter

A good counterpoint to the recent focus on individual vision and genius design.

My design heroes

A while back, on the advice of a mentor, I started intentionally following the work and careers of a few designers that I admired. It’s been fascinating to see how they approach projects, and to try their methods and principles in my own design work.

Although I currently work as a software designer, only a few of my design heroes are from that field. Since I am interested in how design can influence culture, I follow several artists, writers, and filmmakers. And since I still have a special place in my heart for physical product design, I keep track of interesting industrial designers as well. So far they’re mostly men, English-speaking and from the US; I need to expand that (suggestions welcome!).

Here’s my current list of design heroes (in no particular order):

Branko Lukic – Founder of NON-OBJECT, a design firm that specializes in, well, non-objects: conceptual product designs intended to make a point. He recently published a book (and iPad app) that features several imaginary products, each following a different philosophy of design. Basically, industrial design without the industry; since as book reviewer William Wiles writes, “industrial designers are in the vice of the cult of use”. Free from any branding, commercial constraints, or even “target users”, Branko’s designs are unique and evocative. I especially like his pebble-shaped MP3 player, where the form factor and presentation suggests a radically different relationship to “technology”. Branko also does consulting for companies and produces more viable designs; it’s interesting to see the relationship between his “artistic” work and his commercial solutions.

David Eagleman -A neuroscientist and writer who focuses on the uncertainty of knowledge and the importance of diverse imagination. In his incredible book [Sum: 40 tales from the afterlives[(http://www.eagleman.com/sum), he extends the scope of speculative fiction into the afterlife. As with all good speculation, the stories from these imaginary heavens and hells cause you to reflect on this life as well, influencing every reader in new ways. His “possibilianism” movement investigates the limits of science and the role of the unknown in spiritual and scientific practice. His work on time perception is also fascinating and has changed how I get to work every day.

Ian Sands – Director of the Envisioning Lab at Microsoft’s Office Labs group, which works on everything from Outlook plugins to touch interfaces to the famous 2019 productivity vision video. I especially admire that Ian has seemingly invented this role and grown this group within Microsoft, a giant tech company, and I hope that points to the value of this work for many companies in the future. Update: Looks like he recently left to start a new firm called Intentional Futures, consulting on some of these same topics. Should be fun to watch!

Genevieve Bell – An anthropologist by training, she’s focused on how people use technology around the world. She also wrote a pioneering book on the effects of ubiquitous computing.

Stuart Candy – Stuart studied at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, one of the few dedicated futures centers in the world. His blog is probably the best archive of “design fiction” work and ideas on the web, and his own work from Hawaii has really pushed the practice forward in terms of product and process. He now works with Arup in their Foresight team, so we no longer get to see all his work publicly. Fortunately a mutual friend introduced us a while back, and I’m looking forward to following Stuart’s work in the “futures”.

Jim Jannard – A designer by training and CEO/founder of both Oakley and RED cameras, Jannard is an inspiring example of how a designer can lead a company. And then buy some islands in Fiji.

Jane McGonigal – Jane designs games to save the world. Her large-scale, real-world games have addressed issues such as global extinction threats and personal health goals. Her goal is for a game designer to win the Nobel Peace Prize by 2023.

Jonathon Keats – A conceptual artist who creates large scale, constructed thought experiments. Past experiments have included copyrighting his mind, trying to bioengineer God, helping trees paint, and a mobile ringtone based on John Cage’s (silent) composition 4’33”. I like Keats because conceptual art is in practice often quite similar to provocative conceptual design, and studying good conceptual art can push my design work further. Keats starts with an abstract new idea (e.g. “what if trees were artists”?) and then figures out the best way to try it out in the world (“tie paintbrushes to their branches!”). Interestingly, he has at least three separate careers, as an artist, a language critic, and a novelist, referring to the latter two as thought experiments as well.

Neal Stephenson – I count Neal as a design hero because he is my favorite living speculative fiction author. His past work has moved from futuristic “science fiction” to “historical fiction” to near-fantasy genres, but in each book he spins out a world that works at least a little differently than ours. His most recent book, Anathem, started from an idea for the 10,000 Year Clock, and he decided to write a novel about a society where scientists lived in monasteries, sequestered from the outside world. He also works as a science advisor to a couple interesting companies, Intellectual Ventures and Blue Origin.

Neill Blomkamp – Stuart Candy pointed me to Neill, a filmmaker who combines a cinéma vérité style with incredible digital effects to create new believable worlds. His first feature film, District 9, uses a number of innovative techniques and is an incredible example of concept design and philosophical fiction.

Robert Egger – Design director at Specialized Bicycles. I’ve admired Robert’s work for literally decades–ever since I started cycling over 20 years ago. While he manages the day-to-day design work for Specialized products, his most exciting works are the concept bikes he builds on the side. They clearly influence the design direction that Specialized takes and are inspirational and exciting on their own. A racing friend helped connect me with Robert once for a meeting; it was amazing to see inside the shop and learn about his process.

Will Wright – Will designed SimCity, The Sims, and Spore, among many other innovative games. I especially enjoy his talks, which are always unpredictable and fascinating. Once at a Stanford talk I attended, he opened a Powerpoint deck with hundreds of slides, then scrolled through them calling out topics that he could cover. Based on votes, he then improvised a talk that connected the most requested topics along with random new ideas. Much of his work is similarly focused on emergent themes; using evolving software and games to explore possible new worlds.

Anab Jain – Anab does a wide variety of work, from futurist thinking to interaction design. Her Power of 8 project is a great example of collaborative future-casting. One of my favorite projects is her Yellow Chair, which offered free wifi to anyone as well as a chair to sit in. The way she prototypes in the real world is inspiring and fun.

Jason Rohrer – Jason uses often-simple computer games to explore philosophical ideas. His Passage, a 5-minute low-resolution game, was perhaps the most moving experience I’ve ever had with software. His lifestyle and process are unique, but it’s clear that they support his amazing work.

Jonathan Harris – LIke Rohrer, Harris focuses on using technology to create emotional experiences. One of his creations, We Feel Fine, takes what was emotional (human experiences) but was put in a less compelling format (online blog entries), and seeks to highlight the emotion again. His manifesto on the digital world is also moving and inspiring. Not a lot of updates since 2009 but I’m still curious about what he’s up to.

Brendan Walker – The “world’s only Thrill Engineer”, Brendan started out as an aircraft engineer before studying industrial design and starting his artistic and consulting work. He has designed commercial theme park rides as well as temporary experience installations. When we lived in London I visited (though couldn’t participate in) one of these installations, a simulation of an airplane crash and evacuation in the amazing Shunt Lounge underneath the London Bridge. Brendan now runs Aerial, which “specialises in the creation of tailored emotional experience.” Here’s a fascinating interview about his process from 2008.

Matt Jones/Jack Schultze/Matt Webb – These guys would each be formidable on their own, but their work together at Berg London is especially fascinating. Their video sketch “The Journey” was one of the most beautiful and elegant concept videos I’ve seen. I suppose they do commercial work to make money, but their artistic work seems like their true passion–and they combine the two well.

Brandon Schauer – His cupcake model of product strategy was one of the most influential ideas for my design work in the last year. Brandon is excellent at practicing and teaching design strategy.

Johnny Chung Lee – Of Wiimote whiteboard and $14 Steadicam fame. Really insightful and creative guy in both hardware and software; he sees through the technology to what it means for people’s experience. I couldn’t be happier that he’s now working at Google.

Mark Coleran – The guy behind many of those gorgeous computer interfaces in movies–the ones which look incredible at first but would probably be a real pain to use all day. Still, his design work pushes the boundaries of UI design and of people’s design expectations for products. Coleran has also worked on a couple real software projects, but his work there is much more tame. It’s been interesting to see the Android Honeycomb design team go in a direction clearly influenced by these future visions, and it will be very interesting to see how it works in practice.

Jan Chipchase – The most hardcore design ethnographer I’ve seen. Worked at Nokia for many years, focused on emerging markets. His process involves helping teams of engineers, designers, and researchers go into the field, and then guiding their observations into product insights. His passion for people and their unique behaviors and traits is inspiring, and the little bits he shares with the public on his blog are magical and world-expanding for me.

Graham Jenkin – I worked for Graham at Google for several years. He’s a great manager but also a very strong designer, and he continually improves his design skills by stretching to take on new projects. Graham is a great example of design leadership in a big company–he builds strong, trusted relationships while also pushing design boundaries. He encouraged me tremendously in my design growth–including the recommendation to identify and track my design heroes. Plus he has a great accent.

Jeff Veen – In the young field of web design, Jeff is the elder statesman. From designing Wired.com and HotBot to founding Adaptive Path and MeasureMap, which led him to Google and his work there, and now on to founding more new companies like Typekit, Jeff has pioneered what a designer can do in the web world. He’s also a 6’6″ cyclist, so he’s quite a believable role model for me.

Marketing and pre-experience design

I’ve been interested for a while in how marketing materials can reveal–and influence–the core experience of a product. Russell Davies explores this well, calling it “pre-experience design”

So I found it very interesting what images are shown by reviewers for the iPad, the Xoom, and the Blackberry Playbook.

The iPad shows big beautiful pictures of people’s faces. The Playbook shows lots of windows in a multi-tasking layout. And the Xoom shows…an analog clock.

Ok, so I’ve always been prejudiced against that clock. But it clearly sets expectations about what the experience of this device will be like–you will touch widgets on a flat screen.

Also, check out the official homepages for each product–including the URL strings—and see how they influence your expectations of the experience:

Right from the start, we get the chance to set expectations for our experiences. How might we do that better?

Design is about cultural invention

Some people (they are wrong) say design is about solving problems.

Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention.

Jack Schulze.

Notes from Design Driven Innovation

Kindle notes from Design Driven Innovation, by Roberto Verganti.

Major impressions

  • While lots of inputs are helpful early in the process, it is ultimately up to individuals to craft pointed visions.
  • Focus on the new “meanings” your proposal could bring to people; basically, how will it change their lives in an emotional way?
  • One good way to do this is bring in external designers and inspirations; “bridges” to areas that currently have different meanings from your market.
  • All design exists in an ecosystem of inspiration, resources, and other designers; engaging with that ecosystem is important.
  • Executives need to value design and know how to recruit design leaders. Especially they should appreciate that “the cost of not conceiving a better alternative is often much higher than making the wrong choice among existing alternatives.”
  • They also need to have a direction: “No interesting designer in the world will collaborate with a company that does not know where to go,” says Eugenio Perazza
  • Imitating other firms is not only a poor strategy for success; it also poisons the well, as innovative designers don’t want to work with imitators.

What is design-driven innovation?

Herbert Simon [said] that “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” – 334

The process of design-driven innovation is a research project-that is, it is exploratory, it aims at creating an entire breakthrough product family or new business, and it occurs before product development (see figure 8-1). It is not the fast creative and brainstorming sessions that are typical of concept generation but rather a deep investigation that, like technological research, escapes attempts to imprison innovation in simple, sequential ten-step rules. – 1837

It also plants in people’s minds what Swedish neuroscientist David Ingvar has called “memories of the future.” The work of Ingvar and American scientist William Calvin has shown that thinking about potential future developments opens your mind so that you are ready to see the signs relevant to those developments if and when they occur. – 2044

Three capabilities underpin design-driven innovation: relational assets with key interpreters, internal assets (your own knowledge and seductive power), and the interpretation process. – 2097

Design as “meaning”:

He clarified that “when [ordinary people] … are presented with very personal items, they relate these in the following terms: who gave it to them; how it was acquired; of whom it reminds them; in which circumstances it figured prominently; how much care, service, repair, or even affection it consumed; how well it fits with other possessions; how enjoyable its presence is; how it feels; and how close it is to the user’s definition of him/herself.” – 372

The way we give meaning to things depends strongly on our values, beliefs, norms, and traditions. In other words, they reflect our cultural model. – 640

It is the only thing that Target could not imitate. And when it comes to meaning, people are very sensitive to authenticity. – 1041

When people buy purely functional features, they pay less attention to distinguishing the original innovator from imitators: they look instead for the best utility-price ratio. But when people also seek emotional and symbolic value, possessing the authentic original product makes a formidable difference. In design-driven innovation, people do look for the innovator. Competitors can easily imitate a product’s function and even its form, but they will never be able to imitate its real meaning, because that meaning is inextricably attached to the innovator’s brand. – 2069

Examples of meaningful designs:

The owner uses a remote-control device to alter the colored ambient light according to his mood and the situation. The indigo blue atmosphere, called “dream,” slowly dims as the owner gets into bed. Other configurations of the light encourage relaxation, interactivity, creativity, and love. – 365

The Wii transformed what a console meant: from an immersion in a virtual world approachable only by niche experts into an active workout, in the real world, for everyone. – 728

And TV commercials for the Wii reinforced the overturning of meaning. Instead of showing virtual images, the ads turned the camera 180 degrees toward the people who were playing-typically representing many ages-as they moved and enjoyed themselves. – 732

The Wii does not merely add a new functionality (being sensitive to movements of the controller) to a traditional game console, but creates a radically different meaning that is conveyed by all aspects of the product, including the brand, the product name, and the commercials. – 740

“Doing your physical therapy is pretty boring,” attested a therapist. “If you can make it into an enjoyable activity where you’re moving physically and going through motions that are helping you recover, and as a part of that you’re playing games that are fun, it’s just a great, creative use of the technology.”7 – 776

Alessi’s diagram to measure the innovativeness of a proposal – 1435

The context for design-driven innovation:

Executives who have invested in radical innovation of meaning acknowledge that rather than start with user needs, the process goes in the opposite direction: the company proposes a breakthrough vision. – 586

When investing in radical innovation of meaning, companies such as Artemide and Alessi take a step back and investigate the evolution of society, economy, culture, art, science, and technology. – 662

When we want to develop design-driven innovations, therefore, an interesting question is, What other companies in other industries are targeting the same people in the same life context? Which kinds of other products or services are these people using, or could they use? All these interpreters have some knowledge of the meanings and languages we are investigating. And they would probably be eager to share it and to understand our interpretations, as they confront the same problems and have the same interests. – 1399

Developing a scenario with noncompeting firms also makes it more likely that a coherent way of living will occur in the market, because the actors will create products and services that fit together both functionally and symbolically. – 1404

We found, first, that innovators tend to rely on external designers more than their competitors do. – 1492

If you only have an internal design staff, even an enormously talented one, you are inherently limited by their existing world view and experiences. – 1494

Successful manufacturers have an average portfolio of 11.9 external design firms, compared with 4.4 for imitators, with companies such as B&B and Kartell having about 30 each. That average does not include Artemide and Alessi, which cooperate with more than 50 and 200 external design firms, respectively, each with a different voice in and opinion on the design discourse. – 1500

According to Sottsass, “I’m always offended when they say that I play when I do Memphis work; actually I’m very serious, I’m never more serious than when I do Memphis work. It’s when I design machines for Olivetti that I play.” 19 – 1594

A study by Michael Farrell explains why radical innovations often occur within collaborative circles. By analyzing major shifts in literature, painting, and science, he shows how breakthrough thinking benefits from the interaction, mutual trust, and sense of mission typical of circles. They provide an encouraging, familiar, segregated environment where pioneering minds can explore new avenues. Within this environment, members are more likely to survive skepticism and criticism by the dominant culture. They realize they are not alone, and they sustain each other in early experiments through the frustration of failure. – 1779

In particular, the design-driven lab embraces four activities: The first concerns strategy. The lab is the most attentive observer and champion of opportunities for design-driven innovation…The second role of the design-driven lab is to enable the development and renewal of relational assets…The third role of the design-driven lab is to nurture the interpretation process-that is, to enable design-driven research projects…Finally, the design-driven lab helps your company address the design discourse. – 2189-2205

The design-driven lab is, rather, an enabler-a methodological repository whose role is to value all these companywide assets and direct, harness, focus, build, and transform them into real value. – 2211

The role of executives:

Setting the direction, attracting and selecting key interpreters, and choosing the vision are the three key roles of top executives who want to promote design-driven innovation. – 2285

Executives do not need to be inventors, just as art dealers do not need to be artists. Both build their competitive advantage on their ability to identify, attract, and select key interpreters. The successful art dealer is one who is capable of finding the talents of the future and developing privileged relationships with them while competitors are still looking at acknowledged, mainstream artists. – 2298

On the one hand, they keep an eye on the institutionalized design discourse. – 2319

Sometimes I have the feeling that some executives are afraid of what they offer. If we asked them whether they would put their nametags on their products and services, they would probably decline, saying, “Our product reflects the merit of our design team.” Or, “We start from what users want. Our product is molded on their needs.” This implicitly also means that if the product fails, or if users are not completely delighted, it’s the responsibility of the design team or the users themselves. But Steve Jobs is saying, “We do not think most users will miss the optical drive.” And given that he is saying that, he is putting his nametag on the product. – 2343

Many of these executives are entrepreneurs. They have invested their own money. They are therefore extremely interested in financial payback. And they have shown that management practices can be more financially effective when they are not culturally neutral. – 2365

“We portray the manager as facing a set of alternatives from which a choice must be made. This decision attitude assumes it is easy to come up with alternatives to consider, but difficult to choose among them. The design attitude towards problem solving, in contrast, assumes that it is difficult to design a good alternative, but once you have developed a truly good one, the decision about which alternative to select is trivial. The design attitude appreciates that the cost of not conceiving a better alternative is often much higher than making the wrong choice among existing alternatives. – 2480

How to do the process:

First, Ernesto Gismondi says, the company looks at people, not users. When a company gets very close to a user, it sees him changing a lightbulb and loses the cognitive and sociocultural context-the fact that he has children, a job, and, most of all, aspirations and dreams. – 666

More precisely, the process of design-driven innovation is rooted in three actions (see figure 6-3): Listening to the design discourse…Interpreting…Addressing the design discourse: – 1434

This process is significantly different from the user-centered processes you are used to. First, the process speaks of deep research rather than fast brainstorming, of developing and sharing knowledge rather than pursuing extemporaneous creativity. This process resembles engineering research (although targeting meanings rather than technologies) more than the work of a creative agency. – 1442

The process of design-driven innovation – 1949

You should first identify the life context that is the focus of your innovation strategy. Next you should identify the categories of interpreters who are concerned with that life context. Then you should ask your firm’s organizational units that already have significant contacts with people in those categories to help identify potential interpreters. – 2135

The role of the individual designer (or “interpreter”):

First, a company should define the life context that its innovation project is addressing. For Barilla, that life context is a home kitchen. Second, a company should ask, Who are the interpreters who conduct research on how people could give meaning to things in that same life context, and who are likely to influence the emergence of new meanings? – 1513

The difference between innovators and imitators seems to stem from which interpreters firms choose. – 1526

Promoting a vision in which every designer is alike (see the dashed line in figure 7-3) implies transforming design into a commodity: the same qualities appear wherever you look.? – 1542

Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior VP for design, acted as a broker of languages: before joining Apple, he had been an independent design consultant in London. His firm, Tangerine, was involved in designing household products (for example, Tangerine was a consultant for Ideal Standard, then a player in the bathroom and plumbing industry). Ive held the perfect network position to give Apple access to a world of household meanings and languages unknown to any other computer company. – 1624

An important criterion in identifying key interpreters, then, is to look for people who can act as bridges-that is, those who do not belong to your industry but who target your same life context. The more you create bridges to worlds that are relevant for your users but that are unusual for your competitors, the more you have a chance to end up with breakthrough proposals. – 1633

Indeed, a company that wants to start to create design-driven innovations, but has not yet built an extensive dialogue with the design discourse, may find this second type of interpreter, who helps build the firm’s network, much more useful than brokers who provide solutions directly. – 1645

By continuing to talk and write about the product’s role and meaning, the members of the design discourse disseminated knowledge of it to a wider audience. In the end they acted as amplifiers of a message they had helped to construct (see figure 8-2). – 1883

How to work with design interpreters:

However, most companies use regional centers only as antennas to detect local trends rather than to mediate local talent. The result is that large corporations often have no knowledge of the rich web of local relationships developed by their units, and they seldom leverage the full potential of global design. – 1704

Yet if you ask Mendini why he cooperated with Alessi, his answer has a completely different tone: “It is hard for me to distinguish if I’m working for Alessi or if Alessi is working for me.” – 1713

“No interesting designer in the world will collaborate with a company that does not know where to go,” says Eugenio Perazza, – 2107

How to introduce meaningful designs:

Prototypes make authorship manifest so that the interpreters in the design discourse can help the innovator build and defend its reputation. From that moment on, other companies in the industry will seldom use a similar vision, unless they acquire a reputation as imitators-not only among customers but also among interpreters. And imitators are not considered attractive by elite circles. – 2073

What makes this imitative strategy ineffective is that market feedback is-at an initial stage-very ambiguous, with several languages coexisting. As we have seen, the design discourse consists not of linear discussions but of open debates, as participants consider different visions simultaneously. Imitators-less skilled at design-driven research-can hardly interpret the meaning of these debates. In the beginning, it is unclear which product will be the winner, as new meanings introduced by an innovator often convert users slowly and take off gradually. Imitators perceive semiotic chaos and eventually chase everyone and imitate everything, launching products with different meanings and languages, further jeopardizing their brand. – 2079

Followup:

www.designdriveninnovation.com – 264

Regarding media, see Jay Greene, “Where Designers Rule: Electronics Maker Bang & Olufsen Doesn’t Ask Shoppers What They Want; Its Faith Is in Its Design Gurus” Business Week, November 5, 2007; Jeffrey E Durgee, “Freedom for Superstar Designers? Lessons from Art History,” Design Management Review 17, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 29-34. An example of the superstar stereotype is Van den Poop, a fictional superstar designer invented by IKEA to challenge high-end furniture manufacturers. Van den Puup, who appeared in IKEA advertisements in the United Kingdom, is the quintessential personification of the capricious and elitist design guru. A flamboyant figure, physically halfway between Philippe Starck and Marcel Wanders, he dictates the latest rules of luxury lifestyle and throws fits when he sees that IKEA can manufacture similar things at a low price. See his fictional Web site at [http://www. elitedesigners.org/](http://www. elitedesigners.org/). – 2645

“Memphis Remembered,” Design boom, [http://www.designboom.com/eng/ funclub/memphisremember.html](http://www.designboom.com/eng/ funclub/memphisremember.html). – 2671

Hargadon and Robert I. Sutton, “Building an Innovation Factory,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 2000): 157-166; – 2683

“Don’t think of an elephant” and design

George Lakoff‘s Don’t Think of an Elephant is a political book, but the concept is applicable to many more situations. Lakoff argues that by accepting someone else’s way of talking about an issue–their words and their metaphors–you constrain your responses to what fits in their model of the world. Once you hear the world “elephant”, you can’t help but think of one, and it influences what you do next.

From the intro:

When I teach the study of framing at Berkeley, in Cognitive Science 101, the first thing I do is I give my students an exercise. The exercise is: Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. I’ve never found a student who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge.

I most often observe this in the design process. The tendency of most design teams in business is to accept the language and framing of the market leader, or of your most prominent challenger. By using their framing, you set yourself up to at best create a second-rate version of their product. And worse, by taking your cues from their finished work, you’re really mimicking their thinking from months or years ago. As one of my design mentors often says, “You can’t get new ideas by reading Techcrunch.”

If you really want to design something new, I think it’s important to consciously strip out language and models from your work and communication that have been framed by existing products and companies. Invent your own language, frame the situation yourself. Then you’ve got a chance of doing something new.

It’s natural to want to check out the competition. But as a designer you need to be aware that every time you do, it constrains your thinking.