On June 4th, I got a call from HR telling me I was one of 33 people in our building whose position had been eliminated.
Almost 6 months later, I haven't found a new job yet (yikes!), but what I did find is something that might be even more valuable.
I found out what I want to be when I grow up.
For those who know me professionally, you know this is a really big deal. It's actually what I've been circling around for about 20 years, but I didn't know it was a real thing or what it was called until a few weeks ago. #truestory
The field is “Design Thinking”. The typical job title is “Design Strategist”.
I’ve tried on a lot of hats. Graphic designer, writer, teacher, trainer, coach, brainstorm facilitator, product designer, communication consultant, print production manager, instructional designer, wayfinding designer, visual thinker, clarity specialist. Each felt like part of a giant puzzle, but with no picture on the cover of the box of what it was supposed to look like when it was done. It was incredibly frustrating to me and the caring people around me who saw my potential and wanted to help but didn't know how (and I couldn't tell them).
Through a perfect storm of no job, a call out of the blue from someone who's kept my name in a file for 15 years, a great new friend I met at a really bad presentation, a career counselor, key observations from two respected former co-workers, a design strategist job posting I stumbled on (with its accompanying role description), some intense (and borderline obsessive) research and reflection, and long conversations with my incredibly patient and insightful wife, I received the precious gift of clarity. My misfit pieces finally knew where and how they fit into the world.
So, what is Design Thinking, and what does a Design Strategist do? It’s a fairly new field. Most of the search results are actually attempts to explain what it is. Here's the best descriptions I’ve found.
“‘Design Thinking’ denotes the problem-solving approach which equips design and non-design students and professionals with ‘a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field’ (Miller, 2015). Designers’ skills and ways of thinking and reasoning have been enlarged and adapted for solving problems beyond design, and are now applied to address complex social, economic, health-related, and political problems.”
“Design Thinking helps us in the process of questioning: questioning the problem, questioning the assumptions, and questioning the implications. Design Thinking is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing.”
“The Design Strategist is most active in the ‘fuzzy front-end’ of innovation projects. When things aren’t quite clear and people aren’t sure which way to head. They navigate these uncharted waters where no one really knows yet what the real problems and the right questions are.”
“A design strategist is most of all a translator. Design strategists can translate from business to design, and from design to business. In order to do that, they need diverse backgrounds, as they need to understand different perspectives and mindsets. They facilitate a guided transition from the problem space to the solution space by gathering and developing insights and converting them into useful requirements for development into innovative human-centered products, services, and business models.”
There are now degree programs at Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and ID (Chicago). Companies like Google, Apple, Samsung, IBM, GE, and P&G have successfully adopted it.
I'm now seeking opportunities at companies like those, Lego, and 3M, as well as consulting firms and corporate innovation groups with unusual names like New Futures Lab. I will go wherever the next opportunity leads.
I've been building potential energy around this for 20 years. Someone who is looking for a Design Strategist will see my diverse background, my passion and continuous self-directed learning around this work, and know what it means. They will take a leap of faith, hire me, and that potential energy will be released on their wicked problems.
I'm a Creative Generalist | Clarity Specialist | Design Strategist. I help people reframe, visualize, and think through tricky problems to uncover overlooked options, and then help them prototype testable solutions they can develop and bring to the world to make life better.
This is my path forward. I might never have been forced to do the hard work to figure this out if I hadn’t lost my job. It's now a VERY exciting time for me. If you have any suggestions that could get my name in front of someone who needs my skills, I'd be truly grateful.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Over the last week, I've been developing my visual concepting style. It started with a request to draw some diagrams for a presentation and upcoming book. The email came from someone who had kept me in their files for 15 years(!) after seeing my GTD Advanced Workflow diagram.
We started working together on his project, and during a conference call a week ago I did some live sketching on my shared screen. The quick scribbles worked well to help clarify our thinking, but I realized my concept sketching skills were rusty. They wouldn't cut it for any formal presentation.
I dug into my library, revisited Mike Rohde's Sketchnotes, and took a free short video course from Visual Strategy Facilitator Holger Nils Pohl - thanks guys!
I practiced a bit, and a week later I'm much happier with my sketching. Lots more work ahead, but I'm over the hump. I've figured out a process, a couple simple tools that work (Google Keep and Autodesk Sketchbook), and I'm building a daily sketching habit. It feels good to regularly draw again.
Below is a progression over the last week. I can only show a small part of the original conference call sketch because it's still unpublished proprietary information. The rest include a live sketch I captured during an online Dungeons & Dragons session with my son, a congratulations for a productivity expert's new grandson, and a Halloween birthday gift for my brother David.
The New Year brings reflection and forward thinking, and having a January 14th birthday really doubles that. It's a special two weeks for me. In the months before it approaches, I use it to push to get some "stuck stuff" done. Then, once I'm actually in the two-week window, I use it again to start (or re-start) things I want to do in the year ahead. Looking back, then looking forward.
Here's a great little tool for looking back for self-reflection and perspective. It's just a grid on a large-ish sheet of paper, where each row is a decade and each square is one year. Using small words and doodles, you capture the major touchpoints in your life. Not for publication, just for learning about yourself.
The initial spark was a page I cut from a design magazine in 2003 featuring a designer's "biography matrix". I was instantly drawn to the idea of a visual summary of your life, all on one page. If you've browsed any of my site, you'll see a theme - I love designing things that fit on one page.
I tried it on a long flight about a year ago, and I was amazed how immediately interesting it was to do. This little activity revealed so many odd little things that turned out to be key memories for me. There were all these nexus points that affected everything after them. It was fascinating.
Over the past year I've given sheets to a few family and friends to try, and they had similar positive experiences. If you are looking to learn more about yourself, I recommend you give this a try!
I think the easiest way to lifelong happiness is cultivating curiosity and gratitude. I was lucky to have been born with curiosity, and over many years I learned gratitude.
Curiosity is outwardly-focused, and leads to being interested in other people, different opinions, new experiences, investigating problems, and enjoyment of the things around you. Gratitude leads you to be thankful, humble, considerate, empathetic of other people's situations, and happy with all the things you have and all the little joys in your life. Contribution leads you to notice opportunities to help, to add to the world, to be a producer instead of just a consumer, and ultimately to share what you have, what you've made, and what you know.
The opposite is chasing fame and wealth.
Chasing fame is inwardly-focused, with the quest being all about you, your appearance, your recognition, your ranking, and your perceived power over others. Chasing wealth is about more, acquiring, surplus, showiness, selfishness, and power over others. Both are also dependent on outward circumstances, and can be notoriously fickle and short-lived. They also promote the false premise of an end goal, a place where you are finally Rich and Famous. But as a path to happiness, it's a lie, because once you choose that path, you are never rich enough or famous enough.
Choose curiosity and gratitude, and you can be happy right in this moment. Add contribution, and you can be happy for the rest of your life.
Snow has come to northern Michigan, and I'm reminded of how much I love seeing snow on branches. After all these years, I think I finally figured out why.
In 1996 I designed a radiant tool interface for Photoshop. I was tired of mousing over to the toolbar on the left, selecting a new tool, and then mousing back over to my image to do some work. Over and over and over. My idea was to press a key and click, and instantly a set of tools would pop up right around my cursor, wherever it was on the screen. I made a fake screen to illustrate the concept. For all of you Mac users, you can see how long ago this was just by looking at the clunky type used for the menus.
For the tool buttons, I used a white outline plus a black outline outside that. It's a technique I use when I need something to stand out against a background but when the background could be anything. The white line stands out against dark areas, and the black line stands out against light areas. Easy and effective.
I realized today that's what's happening with those beautiful snowy branches. Each branch is white on the top and black on the bottom. Instead of all the trees blending together, every branch now stands out against every other branch.
The amount of detail the snow reveals is staggering, and my eyes love it. I'll offer up a picture I took a couple years ago. The more I look at snowy branches, the more I want to look. Beautiful!
My daughter invited me to go skiing yesterday with a couple of her friends from college. My office was closed for the day, and Caberfae was less than an hour away, so YES!
Her friends hadn't skied before, so we spent a couple hours getting them comfortable on the slopes. I had an important teaching insight as they improved from "oh, no way I can do this", to "I want to go again!"
Sliding on your feet is something most people try to avoid in normal life and many (most?) sports. While, it's generally a good idea and strategy for safety, learning to ski is about getting comfortable sliding on your feet.
When I'm coaching hockey to new players, teaching them how to hockey stop usually comes up. The way I teach it is to skate backwards while I pull the player by their stick. With both feet facing forward, I have them try to turn one skate slightly sideways with just the slightest pressure so they can feel the blade sliding on the ice without digging in. They look like they are partially pigeon-toed. I keep pulling them until they are able to slide one and then the other skate sideways on the ice without digging in.
Then we move to the next step. I have them skate towards the boards, glide, and then turn one foot slightly sideways. Using the same sliding feeling they learned when I was pulling them, they gently scrape one blade sideways on the ice, adjusting the pressure so they slow under control and come to a stop right at the boards. It works like a charm. A couple more times, and they now trust that they can slide to a stop under control. It changes everything for a new skater.
For these new skiers, learning to stop worked the same magic. My daughter and I would have them head down the smallest hill, toes together, and try to get comfortable with sliding under control. The trips back up the rope tow were chances to practice turning one ski sideways and adjusting the pressure. Like me pulling a new skater, the rope tow pulled the new skiers and let them practice without stopping. Less than 10 runs later, they had the confidence they could control their speed well enough and stop whenever they wanted. We headed to the big hill.
We were all rewarded with a spectacular view from the top, and the trip to the bottom was as slow as they wanted to go. Once they knew how to slide, and how to adjust pressure to dig in and stop, they really had a good time. They were skiing! The snow fell gently around us, and it was a great time.
If a new skater or skier can learn that stopping is about keeping their balance while sliding the ski or skate sideways, they will quickly gain confidence and skill and have a lot of fun.
Our house has a 44 foot hallway down the center that follows the roof ridge beam. I thought it would be cool to make a scale model of the solar system that ran the length. Kinda get a little perspective on our little corner of the universe.
I found this cool site that lets you enter any size for the sun, and it tells you the relative size and distance for each planet. I entered 1/2 inch for the sun, and this is what I got:
Saturn just barely fit in the 44 feet, and the rest of the planets seemed much too far to worry about.
Stopping with Saturn seems like a decent model. I don't think the rest of the planets would be critical to getting the sense of the vast scale.
I found some pins at a craft store. Big-headed ones for Jupiter and Saturn, and really small-headed ones for the other planets. I used a Nerf Bullet Ball for the Sun. The next step is hauling out the step ladder and sticking them in the ceiling at the right distances. I can already tell it's going to be cool. Just thinking about that tiny Earth being 4-1/2 feet from that little yellow sun is blowing my mind a little.
I just bought a book called Show Your Work. The basic idea is that your creative work needs to be out in the world, and not just when it's completely done. That's where the magic happens. That seems perfect for where I am right now. It's the main reason I built this site.
Following the recommendations in the book, I'm going to try building a habit of a daily post. They'll be in one of five general categories:
I appreciate the tech people who have made this platform possible; the family, friends and mentors who have inspired me to build and share; and You, for being curious and someone I can share with.