Archive for the ‘ Solution ’ Category

3 Themes To Drive Social Innovation

This article is edited from the CoLab Boston blog, the initiative I’m launching to connect creative professionals to community projects in the Boston area. Check it out! 

Last week I attended the final presentation of Harvard’s inaugural Community Innovation Lab class, where students were pitching projects to 3 local organizations, The Dudley Street  Neighborhood InitiativeUpham’s Corner Main Street Development and the Orchard Gardens Residence Association in Dorchester.

A few major themes stood out as the framework for any solution that might be implemented in these neighborhoods:

Make Data Accessible, Participatory and Relevant

One of the first “A-Ha” moments I had was when a group pitched the idea to project local survey results onto the side of the Orchard Gardens Residential buildings. To increase voter participation, they proposed to ask inhabitants a yes or no question in person every time they handed in their rent checks. The question of the month, and a dynamic graph of the responses, would be projected outdoors for all to see. The implications of this could be huge!

A lot of the solutions were built around the importance of participation and transparency in local decision-making. One example was the SMS-based voting system in which passerby would read questions spray-painted on the sidewalk and text in their votes. The results would then be advertised throughout local store fronts and gathering places.

Another great example is the “I am Upham’s Corner” idea, where community members could write their ideas for community development on stickers around the neighborhood, ultimately gathering data that could inform the community’s own identity. Which brings us to…

Give the Community Ownership of Its Identity

The “I am Upham’s Corner” sticker project was created to give Upham’s Corner a real ‘brand.’ They identified a ‘brand’ as “a set of promises that aims to deliver on an experience.” Now, defining branding isn’t easy, but this team did a great job of uncovering the real issue: an identity needs to come from the people.

The “Planning on the Street” project did a great job of building on the idea that you need to “bring the meeting to the people, not the people to the meeting.” They identified a huge opportunity to start a conversation around the Fairmont Indigo Planning Initiative in a way that gives locals a voice in the debate and a stake in the future of their Fairfmont Corridor.

One group’s proposed redesign of DSNI Youth Centers did a great job of promoting the concept of collaborative identity-building by designing spaces that were ultimately defined by the people who used them. They knew why this was so important:

Design for Interaction

A few of the groups pitched great projects about telling the community’s story, but they were all defined by one point: we need to create ways for the community to tell its story together. The playground redesign project revolved around creating places for people to meet, hang out, and engage with each other in positive ways. The Dudley Village Campus group proposed ways that people could record their stories together in physical meeting places. The Dorchester North Burying Ground initiative suggested community events and meeting places to support the historical site. The first group pitched a redesign of the Orchard Garden’s Residence Association lobby called “Walk of Stars”, creating a space where residents could meet, learn and record stories together.

One of the keys to effective urban planning is creating ways for people to “bump into each other.” Cities can be very alienating places, and designing safe spaces for community members to interact should be a driving factor in any solution.

If you want to learn more about our initiative, we hope to get involved with these projects as they move towards completion and CoLab Boston needs your help! Shoot me an email at!


An argument for destroying the 8-hour work day

Money in both the public and private sectors is pouring into inactivity. We are paying employees to occupy a desk 8 hours a day to complete 2 tasks that could have been completed in 2 hours and 15 minutes. These tasks may be very important, and may require a lot of energy, hard work and ingenuity, but they were completed from 10:30am-12:45pm, then the employee went to lunch, and now they’re sitting at their computer hitting the refresh button on Facebook. Or even better, they were started at 10:30am, dragged out until 4:30pm, and then finally thrown together poorly at 4:55pm.

In the creative industry – actually, in ANY industry – productivity is the result of a good mood, inspiration, and the energy needed to complete the task. But if there are 3 tasks to be completed for the day, why not let employees leave once they are completed? In our hyper-connected world, being on call 24/7 is hardly asking too much – you’re turned on 24/7 anyway. So if another task does come up once the employee has left for the day, feeling the need to slot it into the 9-5 availability period almost seems archaic.

If I could come into work when I wanted to come into work, but was paid for the timeliness and quality of the tasks I was held responsible for completing, I would do everything faster, better, and could easily do MORE. If I could sleep in when necessary, travel to gain inspiration when I felt it was needed, but was happy to do a 14-hour work day if I had a lot to accomplish, my life, and the life of my employer, would be improved.

Jason Fried, cofounder of 37signals, agrees. He insists that productivity comes in waves, and pushing through period of low-productivity is a waste of time for everyone. To solve the issue, he offers employees 30 days paid sabbatical (on top of vacation time) if they’ve put in 3-weeks work and feel that they need to recharge.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, only about 2% of U.S. employers offer a “results-only” work environment.  The Wall Street Journal, however, recently highlighted the growing trend in unlimited vacation time – many white-collar companies, like Netflix, have stopped tracking vacation time in order to focus on what really matters: the quality of their work.

What employees do with such endless possibilities varies – many end up working more and vacationing less, simply because they don’t feel like they can ask for time off. That fact goes to show that ultimately, office policies aren’t as important as the office mentalities that become policy in practice. America is the only country I’ve ever been in that works as hard as it does, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that taking time off shouldn’t be taboo – it should be encouraged.

Need further evidence? Check out this GOOD infographic on The Overworked American

Space Issues

Productivity is an issue I struggle with on a regular basis. I know I’m not alone in this issue, but I do think everyone deals with productivity in a different way. Some people I know just need the right amount of caffeine to get everything done in a minute – some need a fire under their butts, like a deadline or tangible reward. Some are very easily distracted, so eliminating those distractions puts them right on the path to completing a project or task.

I need my space.

It doesn’t just come down to the temperature of the room or the size of the desk I’m working on — the atmosphere, design and overall style of the workspace can be an enormous roadblock to my ability to pump out anything useful. And this is an issue, because I don’t have the freedom to repaint the walls of my cubicle or put plants, corkboards and lamps at the corner of the desk reserved for me at my internship.

The important distinction, especially in creative work, is that a lack of productivity is not a lack of ideas. My mind has been active this summer, and as I push through my over-worked lifestyle I’ve found that I’m not short of ideas or inspiration, just short on the discipline to actually execute them. I realize I need the inspiration to DO, not just inspiration to collect.

After identifying the roadblocks to my ability to generate content and actually get to work, I’ve narrowed down the search to my workspace, and the way I’ve been using it to my disadvantage. An effective workspace doesn’t just help employees generate ideas, it helps them execute them.

I’m not sure if there’s any hope for me at the office, but I’m in the process of perfecting my workspace at home. Here’s one good tip from Behance:

Save completed to-do lists Behance’s 99% Blog highlights the importance of surrounding yourself with progress and using THAT as inspiration. I’m such a list person – I write out all my to-do lists, check each item off as it’s completed, and write out every plan I’ve ever had. But I always toss them when they’re no longer relevant, and while throwing them away is always a good feeling, starting a fresh new to-do list is daunting. What if you looked up at the wall and saw before you evidence of the last 10 times you destroyed an epic to-do list? That is inspirational.

“They say they want to be a design-thinking nation.”

In 2010 I worked for a small (and rapidly growing) government contracting firm — a beltway bandit with big, monotonous proposals that generated 7 digit sums and covered about 3 encyclopedias-worth of information. I was their graphic designer, and while I toned it down and dressed up business casual every day, I somehow still stood out as the resident creative. I maintained a human element in my approach to things that people really liked – people enjoyed having me around, liked working with me, and were always surprised by how quickly and thoroughly I got things done.

I wasn’t nearly as well-educated or hard-working as most of the people in that office; a lot of them were brilliant Navy veterans and business-thinkers. I wasn’t more intelligent; I’m just a design-thinker. I got things done faster because they could be done faster, so I did them that way. Did no one else see the insanity in receiving 40-page Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that could have been written as 2-page project briefs? Apparently not, because we sent back proposals over twice as long.

Graphic designers and design-related creatives haven’t always been viewed as powerful thinkers and innovators with skills applicable to almost every business, but today it’s becoming the universal understanding. Every time I’m back home in the Washington DC area surrounded by the government suits, I want to shake someone and yell “DON’T YOU SEE WHAT YOU’RE MISSING?”

Well I feel a strange sense of personal pride in observing that, in fact, they do. This Metropolis Mag article on IDEO’s growing numbers of government clients illustrates that slowly but surely, big business and government is changing their snide looks to total envy. Their projects with the Social Security Administration and the General Services Administration created a huge buzz in the DC circle because word got out that employees who participated in the IDEO workshops had a ton of fun. Finally government is understanding that maintaining the human element doesn’t make things too casual — it makes people work harder and produce better work.  

My mother works in the State Department, and there too it’s clear that what the government needs isn’t necessarily complicated policy solutions: they are just desperate for more young, energetic, tech-savvy creatives, and they’re doing all they can to attract them to government jobs.

Beyond my excitement that creative-izing my home city of Washington, DC might be in the process of realization, it’s incredibly important to the country as a whole that a major change is brewing in Washington. The solution to the government roadblock on progress will be adopting design-thinking, and governments around the world are realizing that for themselves. In the high echelons of the Singapore government, “they say they want to be a design-thinking nation.”

Peter Hall, author of the article, ends with an insightful note on design for all:

Design in the twenty-first century, after all, is not really about brilliant solo designers imposing solutions on lucky recipients. It is more about designers introducing methods that can be adopted and adapted by their host organizations. This is a big, ambitious redefinition of the term, far removed from the widely held view that design is ultimately about the styling of consumer products to boost the sales curve and, eventually, the landfill. To that extent, IDEO’s government work seems a worthy and important project for the profession as a whole.

Transparency in Everything

Seth Godin posted an interesting blog post back in April called Why You Might Choose to Be in Favor of Transparency. After coming from the National Conference for Media Reform, transparency was an issue at the forefront of my mind.

As a member of the media, and from the perspective of the grassroots organizations that were arguing for transparency in the way business is run, the way politics occur, and they way mainstream media is funded etc, it’s obvious that for the little people, transparency is vital. Information is empowering, and when the public knows what’s going on, they can add their voice to the discussion, make informed decisions, and demand change.

But I’ve always had a hard time finding an answer to this question: why would big business, the private sector or the government WANT to be transparent? Ethical issues and idealism aside, how does someone who believes in total transparency and accountability convince everyone else to, especially when it might not be convenient for them?

Well, Godin answered that for me with a simple truth: book reviews make book sales go up. Especially in the information age, when information seems to be infinitely available, a product supported by little to no consumer-generated information is not going to make it. I know personally that if I’m buying something online or choosing one product from another, I instantly count out the items with no reviews.

I love his idea of the chicken farmer taking transparency to the extreme to use it to his advantage. The chicken farmer who is trying to legally block anyone from taking pictures or videos of his farm is missing an important detail– besides the fact that hiding your business like that broadcasts that you have something to hide, you’re simply shooting yourself in the foot by not giving customers what they want. Imagine the chicken farmer that put a live online video stream in every chicken coop, like Godin suggests. That farmer would not only make the news, but he’d garner so much support and create so much buzz, he’d be laughing at the first chicken farmer all the way to the bank.

As a business practice, transparency is now inevitable. It’s a key mentality for entrepreneurs in any industry. Consumers want information, and the company that provides the most information will win.

Square Footage

It’s old news that customers are buying and browsing online instead of in brick-and-mortar stores. Even window shopping is done online– while bored in class, in a waiting room, at work, at home– which means the notion of a ‘shopping experience’ is pretty much extinct. I’d be willing to bet that soon, the classic image of a glamorous woman walking down the sidewalk with eight shopping bags on each arm will be as vintage as a photo of a pin-up girl.

The discussion rages on about how markets will adapt their entire business model to online sales. Newspapers (online newspapers because, you know, print stands are looking pretty vintage nowadays too) run stories about small business suffering under the weight of online-shopping giants. We see signs saying “business closing– everything must go!” and drive by empty store fronts. If you drive by the wrong strip mall, it looks almost post-apocalyptic.

But that’s the thing — what happens to the all the square footage that housed shelves of merchandise that are now sold online? Before we lamented the fact that brick-and-mortar was being replaced by computer screens , people lamented the fact that nature was being swallowed up by brick-and-mortar. And now that everything from banks to clothing stores to colleges, even, are going online, we are failing to see the overwhelming up-side: if done right, the digital revolution could mean way more space to breath.

Fredrick Law Olmstead called Public Parks the “lungs of the city.” This great GOOD article talks about some of the best public spaces in the country—it points out just how important natural public spaces are, especially in dense, urban areas. When Olmstead and Calvert Vaux created Central Park in 1873, they made it clear that such spaces were essential to American life.

Empty spaces don’t have to necessarily become occupied by parks and nature—there are other creative ways to make use of vacancy. In England, a man named Dan Thompson decided to embrace the DIY atmosphere of the 21st century and created The Empty Shop Project. Basically he initiates collaborations between landlords of vacant stores and artisans, artists and members of the community so that empty spaces can be turned into markets, galleries, and pop-ups shops. How cool is that?

When I walk through the streets of Boston, I rarely see community spaces on my regular routes. I live across the street from the Boston Commons and that makes an enormous difference in my lifestyle and my general mood—I couldn’t live without it. Stores can still thrive online—internet retail is a way to make money, not lose it. So why not embrace the breathing space and take back square footage, as a community?

Craig Oldham’s 12×12

Craig Oldham’s 12 n 12

Craig Oldham is a UK designer who, I’m pretty sure, is currently working for Music. On some blog this summer I found a newspaper he had made independently, for no reason, that was full of advice for young graphic designers. It was cheap, so I ordered it.

Here it is, by the way:

I loved that he mailed it to me from his house and I loved that I had to email him personally to ask for the newspaper, but as much as I loved it all (and as cool as it looked) I never actually got around to reading it (cause I suck) so tonight I finally read it! I found that with each of the 12 pieces of advice, I had an answer or further justification. 12 is a lot of lessons to cover in one post, so I’ll throw the first one out there for now:


Oldham divided designers into two “Bunches.” Bunch A, he says, are Logical –they use clarity, function, they rationalize the communicative elements. They dig Swiss Typographics and would consider getting “Form Follows Function” tattooed on their arm. Bunch B is Emotional –they use any form of communication available to connect the audience to the design. They wise-crack. They design first, then communicate. They’re the big idea bunch. Oldham then suggests two important activities:

Establish which bunch you value as creative.

Establish which bunch you enjoy doing the most.

Then, he says, choose which one you start with, and which one you end up with. Well, shit. I know exactly what I am. I am Bunch A to the bone. When I receive a project I immediately absorb the functional qualities of the communication, then hone in on how to communicate that information through design. Never vice versa. The thing is –I kind of hate that about myself.

Establish which bunch you enjoy doing the most. Bunch A, without a doubt. I hate receiving projects that I instantly know would be better approached from an artistic and big-visual-idea standpoint. I love layout and information design because it explicitly demands that you make the communicative element a priority.

Establish which bunch you value as creative. Sadly (and probably a little melodramatically, which Oldham also inadvertently taught me), I value Bunch B’s creative talents much more. I feel that I have a handicap when approaching design projects, and I’ve often attested that to my lack of formal art education. But let’s be real, that’s bullshit. It’s just much more comfortable for me approach a project in a clear, uniform way. I look at design as a way to organize information –in my mind, form does follow function. It always should, and always will.

But I’m embracing Bunch A, and it feels good!