The cult of ideas is more interesting than the cult of personality (or the cult of “like”).

A lively conversation in the studio about design credits on our site has led to reflection about what motivates us in this work called design thinking.

The advent of social networks has amplified the cult of personality to arena rock proportions. (I am aware this is not news.) Unfortunately for design – a serious business of ideas – it has also deflected emphasis away from the idea in favor of popularity and search results. This shift is having the same detrimental effect on design thinking that rote memorization is having on public education. We are forsaking the long-term impact of creative thinking for short-term results.

Back in the days when we used to submit work to design shows, we declined whenever possible to assign individual credit for creative roles on a project. The creative result of a project is always collective, even if the project was touched by only half the personnel in the studio. It is impossible to measure the impact of a passing comment, the tiniest refinement performed by a production artist, or even the craft of a press operator, coder or photo assistant.

If we as a studio are the progenitors and mid-wives of sublime experiences – we can never lose sight that we all serve the idea above everything else – including our own reputations. No one person can provide this safe passage into the world. In order for a fragile idea to survive the endless obstacles put up by every force of mediocrity, it remains that each individual who touches a project must feel responsibility for the whole rather than their assigned role.

Serving the idea first is our best hope for design thinking to have meaningful, lasting impact on the world we serve.

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The Design is in the Details

Our back stairway leads up to the balcony that overlooks the rest of studio and N Williams Avenue. As I get my morning coffee or sit in the kitchen I often check-in to see how the light and shadows are interacting with the walls and wood. There is a three inch wide white detail that runs up the left side of the stairs proper – separately built and attached. It’s funny how something so simple and often overlooked can capture my attention time after time. It is a great metaphor for working here. When they built the space, rather than asking why, the partners and longtime collaborator Randy Higgins asked why not? The stairs are just one of many examples that reinforce this point. Weather it be in a finished design, rigorous conversation during the process or part of the studio’s physical structure, the intention manifests itself in the details.

I took these photos over the past few months.

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…out of the bag

There is a moment in one’s design education when you first learn all of the steps from inception to production. I took Intro Graphic Design my freshman year of high school. The first thing that Chuck Taylor (that was really his name) did was rattle out the steps, “Thumbnails, roughs, revisions, pasteup, masking/stripping, shooting camera ready art, making a plate, printing and finishing.”  The short explanations that accompanied each stage made the process sound simple. I thought that once I had learned the steps, the design process would become easy…

As any designer knows that running a project according to a plan and keeping it on schedule is the rare exception – not the rule. One of my first projects at The Felt Hat was to design the shopping bag for the newly revamped Rejuvenation brand. The concept, design and revision process went so smoothly that it’s ease felt almost foreign. I almost felt guilty.

Above are process shots, comps and photos from the press check.

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What Goes Into It

Before I came to the Felt Hat, I think I took a lot for granted about how things get made. I would see something cool — a neat piece of architecture or a great exhibit at a museum — and just assume some magician had whisked it out of a top hat. Okay, well, maybe not really, but I did assume it was out of the realm of possibility for a mere mortal to create something so vast. And I may not have been entirely wrong, because one mere mortal couldn’t do any of that. It takes a team of mortals, a group of people committed to creating something awesome and working together to make it happen.

In the last year or so I’ve been slowly learning just how much goes into everything that gets made and how many smart people have to get together, talk to each other, and help each other to make something great come together. How very appropriate that I learned a lot of these lessons while working on the Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center at Stanford University, a project that is all about the social nature of engineering and the great things that can be created when people from different disciplines talk to each other.

The less obvious part of this lesson is that even when you have all those smart, dedicated people working together to make it great, there are still a lot of details to be considered. Things that are easily taken for granted (what are the corners of this vitrine going to look like?) suddenly become significant topics for consideration. Nothing good is likely to happen by accident, so every bolt, every line of text, every gap between panels has to be carefully considered and planned and communicated.

This project, already a complex and substantial undertaking, was further complicated by the timeline: originally planned as a two year project, for various reasons the schedule was compressed to five months. Suddenly all of those bolt, text, and gap decisions had to be made a lot more quickly but with no less accuracy or attention. Thankfully, with a good team you can make it happen anyway, and we had passionate and invaluable partners both at Stanford and at Gallagher Designs.

For most of this project I’ve been behind the scenes, working up in Portland while others were on the ground in California, but in June I finally got to go walk through the Huang Engineering Center myself. It’s exciting to look at the final result and think, “I was part of that.” But it’s almost more exciting to look at the final result and think about all the people who played a part, all of the obstacles we overcame, and all of the little details that somehow came together to be more than just the sum of their parts.

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Commencement Part 8: Closing

I am not sure sharing my lessons with you here this evening will help you push more hours into the happy column than you might otherwise had we never met. If my experiences can assist, they are yours for the keeping.

I will leave you now with a few more questions I would have liked to answered for myself twenty-five years ago:

How would you like to spend your 83,520 hours?

How will you feel about the effort 60,000 hours in?

Can you act with enough intention to feel they were hours well lived?

Will you be a different person at 40,000 hours than you were at the end of the first 8?

Will you be who you hoped?

Or better still, someone you never realized you could be?

Whatever your answers, my wish is that you find many happy hours toiling among your labors of love, always in the company of that seductive mistress Creativity.

Thank you for the honor of including me in your celebration.

The M&Co clock shown above has hung in our studio since the day we opened – a gift from my old friend Kar Wai Wu. 

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Commencement Part 7: Failure is an option. In fact, it is a requirement.

I stand here tonight a genuinely happy human, doing work that provides nourishment and satisfaction for me, my family, my friends and clients. I live as often as possible in Magic Time, in Flow, in the beautiful mess of the Creative Process. It wasn’t always this way.

There were thousands of hours wasted chasing false idols of money and prestige. Self-delusion distracted me from pursuing the very thing for which I toiled through college.

In order to be fully present in the creative process, steeped in visitor’s mind, open to leaving behind all false models of good or bad, beautiful or bland, correct or incorrect. I must be willing to fail utterly, and be confronted with my shortcomings, my fears, my lack of ability. All of the things I don’t know.

When overcome by fear, I put in place every conceivable distraction to keep me from facing myself. It is a fight.

This is one of the conundrums of the creative process. Joy (or Flow if you will) is only achieved through suffering. Love is only achieved by facing down fear. Or more – embracing fear as my ally in this fight against bland work.

All roads leading to success – every last one of them – run smack-dab through the worst neighborhoods of that wreck of a town named Failure. There are no short-cuts. The traffic is bad, your GPS breaks down. The streets were designed by mad weavers.

I often still struggle with that road trip. I get lost every single time, but I make sure I have stalwart travel companions. With them and faith in the car, I can endure the ride until we arrive at paradise.

All this may be mistaken as self-serving indulgence. Esthete arrogance. Please understand. Humility is central to my ability to access creativity. Empathy is a crucial ingredient in art.

But, in order to be happy I have learned the hard way to turn the compassion I feel for others toward myself as well. Not doing so cheats my relationship with Creativity.

We have this gift of creativity and are responsible to share it unselfishly. By practising with utmost respect, we come to know Creativity not as a fickle bitch, but a trusted lover who will never abandon us as long as we remain true to the integrity of the relationship.

Humanity expects and requires I practice with this intention or my offering is squandered.

The final installment of this address will be updated Thursday, July 21.

Painting above created by Nicole Misiti


 

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Commencement Part 6: The creative process is intrinsically optimistic.

When practised dutifully, it is always always always about imagining a solution to a problem yet to be solved. This is astounding. It is always about that very thing.

It stands to reason then if the creative process is intrinsically optimistic, it is thereby an ideal agent for positive change. Think about this for just a moment. Every time we walk into the room to work – whether the studio or a client meeting – we are there because no one else in the room feels they can transform the experience without our assistance. This is an honor demanding the respect of our best effort.

This, again, underscores the need to work for people, companies and causes we sincerely wish to see succeed.

My gift like yours, is the ability to employ the creative process in the pursuit of solving ambiguous, complex problems. Yet, unlike a ledger sheet of ciphers that need to balance, solving the problem is not enough. In the realm of creativity, a problem is not truly put to rest until it emanates authentic and uncompromising beauty.

For reasons I cannot explain, the universe has bestowed upon us – all you and I – to work and live in the murk of the creative process. Speaking for myself, I am responsible to give it back to the world. Not doing so is the only unforgivable sin.

Next installment posted Monday, July 18:
Failure is an option. In fact, it is a requirement.


 

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Commencement Part 5: Recognition Doesn’t Make Me Happy.

It is hypocritical to say I don’t enjoy being acknowledged for a job well-done. But I have learned praise is like a donut. Overindulgence makes me fat.

Beyond some practical business benefits, recognition has never felt like a proper reward. This was a surprise. When I began – actually up through hour 10,000 or so – I honestly thought being published and praised by my peers would be thrilling. An emotional high. But every time a project would win an award or become published in a journal of stellar work I would open the book, look and feel nothing. This is no exaggeration. I realized all to slowly the awards were nothing more than a distraction from what I really loved – doing the work – and furthermore misrepresented the reason for working in the first place.

Recognition is fleeting. One day I am being quoted and re-tweeted by the most lyrical voices in the Twittersphere. The next day I am just another schmuck with a deadline looming like the blade of a guillotine, believing for all the world my worth dependant on the approval of others.

Finally, I don’t need that kind of approval to be happy. I can see on my own that my work has made a difference, so I am satisfied.Whenever I do, I am filled with the sweet juice of gratitude.

Next installment posted Monday, July 11:
The Creative Process is Intrinsically Optimistic


 

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Commencement Part 4: I Never Do a Project for the Money

In fact, I have learned that – at least for our studio – chasing the money is ultimately very bad for business.

To date, this year we have walked away from two projects that together would have meant at least $350,000 dollars in revenue. Both of them easy choices to make.

We had no passion for either. (This is not a value judgement; we just weren’t the right firm for the job.)

Pursuing either commission, would have resulted in a good deal of cash flow for the studio, but I would have needed to spend hundreds of hours this year working hard in the midst of a project for which I had no passion. And to be fair – neither client had any passion for my priorities. Add to that hundreds more hours of staff time.

If given the choice between sitting through countless meetings in a hermetically sealed room under a cloud of white noise and acoustic tile, discussing tactics for delivering a product that adds little or no value to the world – or by contrast – driving a railroad spike through my face – I will run to the spike every time.

Worse yet, the studio will have spent an entire year creating work we will not want anyone to see, or even know we produced. We will have squandered our talent instead of working on projects that enriched our lives and others – and lost money by ignoring clients who want us to make the kind of contributions our gifts afford.

It is an old adage, but absolutely true: Chase the work, not the money. It has never, in all our years, paid to do otherwise.

Next installment posted Thursday, June 23:
Recognition Does Not Make Me Happy

 

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Commencement Part 3: I never work with a client with whom I wouldn’t enjoy a meal.

Breaking bread with another person is a sacred ritual. Many of my relationships have burgeoned or solidified over lovingly prepared food; during the kind of slow, meandering conversations that can only occur over a long meal.

This experience has afforded a very simple rule that protects me from thousands of hours of work I do not enjoy.

If the mere thought of having a meal with someone is taxing, can I expect to be happy working with them? It is hard enough in ideal conditions to overcome the countless – and I do mean countless – inherent obstacles to producing work that is meaningful and creates moments of clarity – or better still – sublime beauty. If I do not want to eat with someone, chances are we do not share enough philosophical common ground to spend months together struggling with difficult problems. It has been a very good litmus test. The flip side of the lesson: try to eat with all those who introduce joy into my work.

The ritual good meal at a table set with intention has pushed many of my logged hours in to the happy column.
Clients become collaborators. Collaborators become friends. Friends share mutual respect, finding joy in their mutual work.

Next installment posted Wednesday, June 22:
I Never Do a Job for the Money

 

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