oDesk for design & field research

I know a lot of designers in the New York area, so frequently people ask me for references. But lately it’s very hard to find freelancers or anyone between jobs. The industry is booming, but the traditional place-an-ad, receive-a-million-resumes (or not), and interview-a-dozen-people way of finding someone is fairly inefficient.

The globalization of the programming industry has resulted in oDesk, a website that allows employers to post a contract description which applicants from around the world then bid on. The site also facilitates payment transfers and tracking the work by taking screen shots of the programmers computer every 10 minutes.

It would be trickier to hire designers and field researchers this way, but I’m betting it will happen eventually.

Categorized as Products

The Scoot-n-Swiff



The Scoot-n-Swiff (patent pending)

This idea came to me while visiting my sister this weekend. A lot of kids were over for a party, and I saw how the toddlers loved these ride-on toys. I also noticed my sister needing to swiff a few times per day to de-crumb after the kids. Clearly today’s parents need a ride-on toy that accepts Swiffer attachments on the bottom so the kids naturally clean up after themselves.

On a related note, PlayPumps are a brilliant way to harness the raw energy of kids.

Categorized as Products

WorldChanging images of the future

My colleague Zap pointed me to some of WorldChanging’s links to images of the future…

Pantopicon’s FFWD>> competition presents a series of themes, and asks for images set in 2005 and 2025 as illustration. (reference)

The Onion’s 2056 issue.

Alex Steffen — in a post wonderfully similar to MIG’s ideas on tangible futuresitemizes tools for delineating the future.

The expansion of CAD designs with motion, time, and plot.

(Image is Edward Burtynsky’s Oxford Tire Pile No. 7)

Did you know there’s a vaccine for chickenpox?

I had no idea until a friend of mine, an adult, just caught chickenpox (she actually knew about the vaccine but her doctor told her she’d been ‘exposed’ and didn’t need it). Apparently the vaccine was approved in the U.S. in 1995. If you have never had chickenpox and haven’t been vaccinated, you can no longer say no one told you.

In 1995 I had my first New York City apartment and whatever I was doing, it wasn’t reading Prevention magazine. But this is the case with many people: it’s impossible to keep up with all the things we should know. And with all the hoopla over bottom-up information organization these days, my natural inclination is to go the other way and ask, how about a radically top-down, people-centric approach? What does that look like? Maybe something like this

Need To Know
Our educational system has failed to adapt to the changing information needs of the 21st century. The typical education lacks crucial information on such issues as managing our health, finances, and careers. Need To Know is a radically top-down approach to education. A massive research project is collecting data on millions of Americans to determine what most people do most of the time, and therefore what information they need to fruitfully live their lives. We will use this information to produce a one-hour television program composed of 360 ten-second video tutorials.

Ten seconds may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to say, A vaccine for chickenpox was released in 1995. If you were born before 1977 and have never had chickenpox, go to a doctor and get the vaccine.

Concept car dreams

Since I’ve been thinking about tangible futures and why companies should envision the future (including car companies) I thought a visit to the Auto Show here in New York was worthwhile. The biggest surprise for me was the Toyota exhibit. While I love their process, I’m usually bored with their high quality but plain cars. But their concept cars wow’d me.

I’ve been thinking about concept cars for a few years now and how they’re a good way for companies to practice foresight. Given my advocacy of Toyota’s production system and their current success, it’s very convenient to point to their concept cars as a contributor. I can’t say how much these concepts have contributed to cause, but I certainly found their differentiated concepts a compelling correlation.

Most every concept at the show this year followed this formula:

  1. Include a selection of next generation technologies
  2. Wrap them up in a pretty styled interior and exterior

As a group they were fun to look at but failed to inspire. We know certain technology is coming, we expect it. And the styling is the same thing we’ve been seeing for years. But what Toyota did was different. They asked, “What if the car was just as much about transportation as about entertainment? Then let’s design the car with an NBA theme and fill it with five video displays all hooked up to a video game console…

And they asked, “What if the car was just as much about transportation as about socializing? Then the car should be designed as a portable lounge that puts limos to shame…

To me this represented the difference between merely combining engineering with styling and doing experience design. Rather than merely being safer or faster or better looking, you could feel how these cars would lead to a qualitatively different automotive experience, enhancing your life in a new way. That is the power of tangible futures.

Principles for tangible futures

Tangible Futures, Part 3: Principles

These are principles I’m using to develop tangible futures now…

Tangible Futures are

  • Inspirational, touching us both intellectually and emotionally.
  • Pragmatic, optimistic in a realistic way.
  • Innovative, they are a vision of something that is a mystery now because, by definition, we haven’t invented it yet.
  • Strategic, describing something happening years in the future.
  • Custom, applied to a particular organization.
  • Storytelling, encapsulating the people, places, things, and relationships of a situation in the accessible format of a story.

Tangible Futures are not

  • Predictions
  • Strategic plans

Futures studies and the importance of ‘images’

Tangible Futures, Part 2: The historical context

The Wilson Quarterly’s Winter 2006 issue focuses on future studies and includes this historical review, Has Futurism Failed? In it the authors cite several practitioners hailing the importance of our images of the future. To me this could include our science fiction, our movies, and our political rhetoric, as well as our vision for business. Here’s an excerpt:

…widely shared images of the future can sometimes open up large new realms of behavior possibilities, creating chain reactions of self-organizing change. This insight actually emerged in some of the early work in future studies. The economist Kenneth Boulding put the matter clearly: “The human condition can almost be summed up in the observation that, whereas all experiences are of the past, all decisions are about the future. The image of the future, therefore, is the key to all choice-oriented behavior. The character and quality of the images of the future which prevail in a society are therefore the most important clue to its overall dynamics.”

Tangible Futures example: Futurama

Sometime during the second half of the 20th century, American companies forgot how to dream. The social and political upheaval of the 1960’s and 1970’s may have squelched the raw optimism of previous decades, but this only made the need for inspiring visions even more important in the face of new, complex business environments.

In 1940 General Motors offeredFuturama” as their vision of the future. It went beyond automotive design, delineating plans for a new kind of city to accommodate increased auto usage, as with the elevated walkways below. In hindsight it’s easy to criticize this particular vision, but I’m sure it inspired employees and customers with an optimistic, realistic vision which the company could work towards.

Norman Bel Geddes, “Magic Motorways” from GM’s Futurama: Pedestrians and motorcars will continue on their way without interference.

Tangible Futures example: Earth from space

Stewart Brand knew the power of this photograph before it was publicly released. In 1966, “…he sold buttons which read, ‘Why Haven’t We Seen A Photograph of the Whole Earth Yet?’ Legend has it that this accelerated NASA’s making good color photos of Earth from distant space during the Apollo program and that the ecology movement took shape in 1968-9 partially as a result of those photos.

Of course, the photo represented the present state of earth. And technically — like any photograph — it represents the past. But by showing us a whole new perspective, it conjured new ideas about how we share one planet rather than inhabit separate nations. It’s a powerful, tangible representation that implies potential for the future.

Tangible Futures example: Da Vinci’s flying machine

Leonardo Da Vinci possessed one of the greatest abilities to imagine the future potential for humans and work out these ideas as an engineer or designer would. It’s telling that we remember his drawings more readily than his words.

Here is his pen and ink drawing of A Flying Machine from 1490…

Tangible Futures example: Hugh Ferriss’s delineations

Imagine it is the year 1900 and you own a large corporation needing offices in a major city. You want to construct a building that makes a grand statement of your financial strength and contributes to the civic infrastructure. Currently the highest buildings are about 20 stories, but you are told new construction techniques are capable of building much higher. What would such a structure look and feel like? How much usable office space would there be? Would people want to work that high in the air?

Working within the constraints of new building codes and executives’ demands for bigger, more productive office space, Hugh Ferriss issued dramatic depictions of buildings that informed architects and inspired corporations. In his time, these illustrations were radically dramatic, opening the eyes of architects and corporations to the possibilities. Using the raw knowledge of architecture, he created a tangible vision and the visual language to understand the potential of skyscrapers. His style evolved to not only inform but also to elicit emotional reactions.

For a future you can conceive but not quite visualize, how might a film, a simulation, or a prototype business situation change your strategy?

Understanding the future in a tangible way

Tangible Futures, Part 1: Background

I’m starting a series of posts to talk about something we’re calling Tangible Futures, which are tangible expressions of visions for the future. That might sound quite ordinary or quite esoteric depending on your point of view, but having worked on it for several months I’m finding it to be a useful practice for the business community in a number of ways.

In this post I’ll try to tie together some important ideas that people have been brave enough to express:

Companies Need a Vision of the Future. John Hagel:

…Ask these same CEOs and their management teams two simple questions:

  1. What will your relevant markets look like five to ten years from now?
  2. What will your company need to do in order to thrive in these markets five to ten years from now?

Almost always, the answer will come back that there’s just too much uncertainty to have a clear point of view on this. But, here’s the rub: If the senior management team of a company doesn’t have a clear point of view on where the company is headed, why should investors put a lot of faith in the long-term performance of the company?

Business ideas must go beyond communication and help people change. David Maister:

The real question is: what are the methodologies that really help people change their lives when they understand messages like [Peter] Drucker’s and Tom [Peters]’s? What should they/we be doing differently with our books, our speeches, our videos? Is there a more effective way to actually help people change and make a difference on the world?

Strategic Change Is Useless Without Cultural Change. Tom Peters:

If Drucker and Bennis and Collins and Peters and Co… are/were so damn smart-wise, why is corporate performance so shabby in general?… Strategy don’t matter for diddly if the corporate culture is disfunctional or mis-aligned.

To combine these ideas, we could say that companies need a vision of the future that helps them achieve cultural change. This vision could help executives see future opportunities in a new way. The vision could help executives communicate these opportunities downward (or the reverse could happen, employees communicating opportunities upward).

But this doesn’t often happen now. Some of the problem has to do with the way strategies and forecasts are constructed, which I’ll address in an upcoming post. Some of the problem is simply a fault of the media employed: text and images can communicate ideas, but (at least in a business setting) fail to impart the richness of future situations. And they don’t spark strong emotional reactions that inspire people to care and act differently. We have richer, more interactive media at our disposal: film, theater, environments, computer simulation, and so on. It’s time to start employing them in the service of business strategy.

In the next few posts I’ll show some examples, look at how we can integrate this practice with futures studies, and talk a little about how we can start making tangible futures.

Dancing elephants: Lockheed

I love seeing big companies move in agile ways (because it’s so unusual), even if it only arises from panic of losing their old revenue streams. Here’s an example from Lockheed, whose old culture (despite their Skunk Works-style innovation) included bitter internal fights over whether to pursue unmanned aircraft…

…It also designed and delivered the seven-pound Desert Hawk within 127 days of receiving an Air Force request. The total cost for the first six drones and laptop-computer control system was less than $400,000, Mr. Cappuccio says. To date, Lockheed says it has supplied 126 Desert Hawks, which are used for surveillance to protect U.S. bases in Iraq.

When you also produce the most expensive fighter jet in the world, that’s certainly overcoming your innovator’s dilemma.

Incidentally, here’s an article about another group at Lockheed using agile practices.

On pre-sliced, preserved apple slices…

Twelve Easy Pieces

Not since the canneries of the early 20th century have food processors sought merely to preserve perishables. Processing foods now means redesigning them, making them easier to eat for a population that is steadily less willing to go to any trouble at all. Given the childhood obesity epidemic and the longstanding economic troubles of America’s apple growers, boosting the apple’s performance so that it could, as an industry observer explained, “stand up to ordinary use,” was a doubly urgent project. By making a healthful, fresh fruit that looks and acts more like a bag of chips, a handful of companies like Crunch Pak may have finally figured out a way to compete with the hassle-free junk foods that blazed into this era of hyperconvenience. Some marketers say that the reformation of our venerable apple — and the sense that this improvement was necessary — suggest that we may soon buy most of our produce this way. Presliced plums, celery, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, mangoes and star fruits are all in production.

Categorized as Products

If an 8-year old can do it…

Here’s a great story from David Hornik of how his 8-year old son started an Internet business.

All the things we’ve struggled to make will be tools our kids use to build wonderful new things.

Categorized as Products